Title: Something Grim This Way Comes
Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, Maxwell Atoms, and various publishing houses, animation studios and the like. No money is being made (how I wish it were otherwise) and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Summary: Mandy is determined, come hell or high water, to steal the Philosopher's Stone. Of course, declaring her intention to do so is one thing. Actually doing it, especially with Eris and Junior trying to help, is something completely different. And, just to complicate matters further, the infamous Lord Moldybutt enters the scene...
"Money is the root of all evil. I need money." - Mandy's stance on economics.
Chapter Three - Something Grim Is Getting Stoned
Stealing the Philosopher's Stone proved a somewhat more complicated task that they had initially foreseen. This was due to the fact that Fluffy, regardless of however readily he bowed to Mandy's domineering attitude, was not the only challenge that stood between them and their goal. As Hagrid had said, there were other measures in place and neither Harry nor Mandy were willing to act until they had some idea of what they faced.
Grim, Ron and Hermione were more-or-less willing to leave things be, though Mandy was slowly working on convincing them that the Stone was in imminent danger of being stolen. Naturally, in order to secure their help, she neglected to mention that she, herself, was the one with her eyes set upon the prize.
In a bid to gain more allies in this venture Eris and Junior had quickly been brought in on the secret of what Fluffy was guarding, though Eris proved to already be aware of the Stone's presence in Hogwarts.
Indeed, the goddess's only interest in the entire affair was sparked upon her discovery that a giant three-headed dog was part of the Stone's defences. Eris immediately took a worrisome shine to Fluffy and was not averse to spending a great deal of her spare time visiting the beast. For Crabbe and Goyle the experience was all too traumatizing and, during the following weeks, the pair would frequently be spotted with expressions that were even more glazed over than usual.
In the end Mandy came to the conclusion that Eris's non-involvement was more than likely a good thing. Her reasoning behind this was due to a brief conversation she had with Harry.
"Are you sure bringing her into this plan of yours is a good idea?" Harry had asked
"Eris lives for chaos," Mandy had replied. She gave a careless shrug. "But even then, how much chaos could she possibly cause with the Stone?"
"Stock market. Economic collapse."
"Hm. You may have a point."
And that, as they say, was that.
Junior, for his part, found the idea of a closely guarded treasure to be very appealing. His life down in the fiery bowels of the Earth was singularly dull for the most part and so he met any sort of adventure with keen enthusiasm. He quickly offered the use of his shape shifting skills in an attempt to discover what lay beneath the trapdoor, but by now homework was becoming an issue as the professors burdened down their students before the start of the Christmas holidays.
Before the small conspiracy of students knew it, the first half of the school year had drawn to an end and the holidays were upon them. Mandy's options for assistance dropped considerably at this point, as Eris, Junior and Hermione returned home to spend Christmas with their families. Suffice to say, everyone was greatly relieved that Eris was leaving, if only for a while, as it would be a welcome break from the near constant chaos she was causing on a daily basis. The staff and other Slytherin's in particular were looking especially frayed.
The days leading up to Christmas were spent lounging about and quietly speculating over what other possible defences and traps were guarding the Stone. This soon became rather boring, as there was a distinct lack of anything else to do. The only break in this unexpected tedium came from Ron strangely enough; as the restless redhead took it upon himself to teach Harry how to play wizard chess. Harry, however, wasn't a very good player and Ron soon found himself facing a far more challenging (not to mention unnerving) opponent in the form of Grim, who was a master of the game.
Soon enough it was Christmas morning, and Harry woke to the startling sight of an already awake Ron Weasley.
"Happy Christmas," greeted Ron enthusiastically, rising from his bed.
"You too, Ron," Harry acknowledged with a grin, before also scrambling out of bed and pulling on his dressing-gown. He then greeted the only other person staying in the first-year dormitory with them. "Merry Christmas, Grim."
"Bah humbug," was Grim's immediate retort.
"What's his problem?" asked Ron, inspecting his pile of presents.
"Dunno," shrugged Harry. He turned to Grim and asked, "What's the matter?"
"'S too early to be awake," Grim lamented sourly. "I've had a late night, long hours and nobody was happy to see me."
"You're the Grim Reaper," explained Mandy. "Nobody's ever happy to see you."
Harry and Ron turned to see Mandy standing in the doorway to the boys' dorm, dressed in pink satin pyjamas and an equally pink fleece dressing gown. Her hair was somewhat ruffled, not in its usual impeccable neatness, but otherwise she appeared fully awake and ready to face the day.
"Mandy! Merry Christmas," greeted Harry happily.
"Yeah, whatever," Mandy replied, already turning to leave. "Come on, we've got presents to open."
The boys quickly gathered the piles of presents at the foot of their beds, Harry somewhat surprised by the number of gifts in his collection, and then descended to the common room. Mandy was waiting by the largest fireplace, her own bounty of presents arrayed in a neat row beside her.
Ron immediately dove into the process of opening his gifts, something that involved a great deal of animalistic shredding and tearing of wrapping paper. Harry and Mandy were more sedate and took the time to arrange themselves in more comfortable positions before beginning. Starting with those presents from their new school friends, the pair found boxes of Chocolate Frogs from Hermione and Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans from Ron.
"I'm still not sure about eating something that moves," commented Mandy, inspecting a frog.
"At least these don't scream when you bite them," replied Harry.
Harry's next gift proved to be a hand-carved wooden flute, courtesy of Hagrid. Harry tried to play a short tune on it, but proved to have all the musical talent of a tone-deaf owl. A look from Mandy convinced him to put it away and never to try playing it again.
Mandy, for her part, opened several presents from her parents. These were mostly gift-vouchers to various prominent stores in Muggle London. Mr and Mrs Maxwell both felt it to be safer allowing Mandy to choose what she wanted herself, rather than risk getting her something she disapproved of. They had also sent Harry several vouchers to those same stores, though of noticeably lesser value.
Junior had sent them all presents as well, as they were probably the only true friends he had in the school. Most of the other Hufflepuffs were properly terrified of the young godling, despite all his efforts to befriend them. Truth be told it was actually those same efforts that scared them off in the first place. Harry received a small bottle of polish for his broom, through the Ghost-Rider did not really need any maintenance. Mandy's gift was a bright pink barrette, which she actually seemed to appreciate receiving.
Neither of them were naïve enough to even consider opening the brightly wrapped gifts that had Eris' name on the cards. Their suspicions were confirmed when Ron opened his gift and promptly found himself with a mule's head and ears, straight from the pages of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Next in line was a pair of oddly shaped presents that seemed rather lumpy compared to the others. Opening them, Harry and Mandy found themselves to be the recipients of Weasley jumpers, hand-knitted by Ron's mother.
"Every year - HEE HAW - she makes us a jumper," explained Ron, unable to stop himself from braying as he held up the sweater he had also finished unwrapping. His expression, or as much as a mule was capable of, turned into one of distaste as he regarded his present. "And mine's always ma- HEE HAW -roon."
"Nice needlework," noted Mandy, examining her sweater with a critical eye. Unlike Ron's, her present was bright and vivid pink in colour, with an equally bright yellow sunflower worked into the front.
"She certainly got you the right colour," said Harry, loosening his dressing-gown and pulling his own emerald green sweater over his head and into place over his pyjamas.
"And you as well. Matches your eyes," agreed Mandy.
Having finished unwrapping the presents from their friends, Harry and Mandy exchanged those presents they had gotten for each other. Being ensconced in the castle it was difficult to find anything more than simple sweets, but both children had managed to convince Grim to do their Christmas shopping for them.
Mandy seemed truly appreciative of the wand holster and care kit that Harry had gotten her. It was an extravagant present compared to those of past Christmases, as the Dursleys were still not at all willing to give him any form of allowance, forcing him to improvise. Mandy never said anything about it, but Harry always felt somewhat inadequate as a result. This Christmas, however, he had dipped a little into his school fund and made a point of making up for his previously less than adequate presents.
Harry in turn opened his present from Mandy to find a book, the title of which he read out loud as, "How to Take Over the World in Ten Easy Steps, by Hector Con Carne."
"Thought you might find it useful," Mandy explained.
"Are you sure you want the competition?" Harry teased.
"Who said you'd be working against me?" replied Mandy.
"I need somebody that knows what they're doing."
"I'll make a point of studying it thoroughly," grinned Harry.
Harry was absolutely serious about this, as he knew very well Mandy's attitude when it came to giving presents. In all the years he had known her, he had never seen her give anyone a present of any kind. Not to Grim. Not even to her parents. For some reason, he was the only person to ever receive a gift from her - every birthday and Christmas without fail. They may not have been large, or expensive, but Harry felt he understood the significance behind the gesture.
They then moved onto the last present from Mandy's pile. It was a smallish box, wrapped in plain brown paper and tied up with simple twine. It was obviously not an ordinary present. Untying the string and stripping away the paper, Mandy opened the package and revealed the Philosopher's Stone. Or at least a very good facsimile of it. It was a quartz paste replica, built to exact specifications based on the sketches of the real Stone obtained from Grim's book on the subject. The order had been placed by Mandy's parents, who had then forwarded the finished article along to their daughter. While not something that would fool Flamel, Dumbledore or any truly skilled magic user, it would suffice for what they had planned.
"So," Harry glanced over to make sure that Ron was not listening (especially with those ears) and quietly asked, "Any ideas yet for stealing the Stone and making the switch?"
"Of course," answered Mandy.
"Any practical ideas?" he reiterated.
"Not really," she reluctantly admitted. "We need to find out what else there is protecting it."
"You really don't think Fluffy's enough?" asked Harry.
"It's a dumb dog," concluded Mandy.
"A dumb, giant, three-headed dog with a taste for human flesh."
Mandy shrugged and said, "Hagrid said that Snape's also helping to guard it."
"You think the other professors are involved?" asked Harry as he picked up the last of his presents; a shapeless package not unlike the one his Weasley sweater had come in.
"Must be," confirmed Mandy.
"That's a lot of protection," said Harry as he searched for a card. Finding none, he asked, "D'you think we can get through it all?"
"Yeah, but not without help."
Once again Harry glanced at Ron, though this time for a different reason. He shook his head. "Ron and Hermione may be our friends, but I don't think we'd be able to convince them to help us."
"If they won't help us steal the Stone," said Mandy, "then we convince them to help us protect it."
"Frame Voldemort for the theft?" asked Harry, immediately divining her plan. He began to pull the wrapping off the gift, curious as to who else would bother sending him clothing.
"Yeah," confirmed Mandy.
A large cloak, made of a strange shimmering material, was revealed as the wrapping paper fell away. Both Harry and Mandy stared at it in confusion, not quite sure what to make of it. Ron, however, was quick to recognise what Harry was holding.
"I've he- HEE HAW -ard of those," he said, slightly awed and donkey ears twitching. "If that's what I think it is - HEE HAW - they're really rare and really valuable."
"What is it?" asked Harry.
"It's an Invisibility Cloak, of course," answered Grim, who was finally descending from the dormitories.
Harry wrapped the garment around his shoulders and watched in excited disbelief as the rest of his body vanished from sight. Once the cloak had settled in place there was not even a hint of distortion to betray its presence.
"Now that's a neat trick," Mandy noted, giving Harry a meaningful look. "Could come in handy."
"Grim? Is this..." Harry trailed off, wondering that the Reaper would give him such a thing.
"Don't be daft, mon," Grim chided. "You already get into enough trouble wit-out one."
"Then who – HEE HAW - is it from?" asked Ron.
"Here," said Mandy, spotting what Harry had missed. "There's a note."
Reaching for the slip of paper that his friend held out to him, Harry pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose and began to read the willowy handwriting out loud.
Your father left this in my possession before he died.
I imagine your friend, Grim, will know what it is.
Use it well.
A Very Merry Christmas to you.
"Use it well, huh?" repeated Mandy suggestively, eyeing the cloak with interest.
"I'm pretty sure that's not what the author had in mind," said Harry dryly.
"Of course you can borrow it," Harry relented with a sigh.
Harry decided to go exploring that night, to give his new invisibility cloak a test drive as it were. After a close run-in with both Filch and Professor Snape, he sought refuge in an abandoned classroom. There he stumbled upon a strange mirror, as high as the ceiling and bordered with an intricate golden frame. An inscription was carved along the topmost curve, in a bold and flowing script, but the words were foreign to him and Harry doubted that he would be able to even pronounce them correctly.
Slightly less than twenty-four hours later, he was leading Mandy, Grim and Ron into that same room. His discovery the previous night had left him filled with such good spirits and enthusiasm that he simply had to share the experience. His friends, being forced to brave the bitter cold outside the Gryffindor common room, were not quite so eager.
"See?" he asked triumphantly.
His three friends stood around Harry and stared curiously into the mirror for several long moments.
"I can't see anything - PPPPPHHT," admitted Ron. His Christmas 'present' from Eris was still in fully effect, much to his displeasure. Fred and George, of course, found the situation utterly hilarious and had sworn to sacrifice a rubber chicken to the crazed blonde goddess in acknowledgement of her devious prank. Their adoration had grown to the point where both boys were considering offering up their firstborn children, especially when the second phase of the 'gift' had manifested itself. Ron had woken up on Boxing Day to find that he no longer had an ass for a head, but rather a literal arse. To his horror, and everyone else's disgust, he now had the misfortunate of breaking wind instead of braying whenever he spoke. The twins were merciless in their teasing. Nothing any of the professors tried had any affect on the poor boy's head.
"Me neither," acknowledged Mandy.
"Me too," agreed Grim.
"Look! Look at them all... there are loads of them..."
"Harry," interrupted Mandy. "The only thing that mirror's showing is you."
"Look at it properly then," Harry insisted, moving from his spot and dragging Mandy over by her elbow. "Here, stand where I'm standing."
"Okay," said Mandy dubiously.
After making sure that she was standing in exactly the right spot, Mandy turned her attention to the mirror. Her eyebrows immediately rose straight up to her hairline and her eyes widened enough that the irises were completely surrounded by white.
Seeing her reaction, Harry quickly asked, "Well?"
"I think this mirror of yours shows whatever you want the most," said Mandy thoughtfully, her eyes darting back and forth as she tried to encompass all she was seeing.
"Really?" asked Ron. "PRPRPRFT! Let me have a look."
"But... my family..." Harry trailed off as Ron replaced Mandy at the mirror. The redhead's mouth promptly gaped wide open as he stared, transfixed, at whatever image was revealed to him.
"Cor, that's wicked."
"What is it?"
"I'm Headboy - PPPPPHHT - I'm wearing the badge like Bill used to - BBBRRAP - and I'm holding the House Cup and the Quidditch Cup - PRPRPRFT - I'm Quidditch captain, too!" enthused Ron, a delighted grin splitting his face. His companions studiously avoided looking at him while this happened.
"So Mandy's right," murmured Harry, dropping his head dejectedly. "It only shows what we want it to show."
Feelings of bitterness and disappointment welling up within him, Harry stumbled away from the mirror. While having never been a particularly physical person, at that moment he really wanted to hit something. It was a pity, he decided, that Draco Malfoy had gone home for the holidays.
The gentle touch of a pink mitten-covered hand on his shoulder pulled Harry out of his dark thoughts. He turned to find Mandy standing next to him, a hint of concern in her eyes despite the neutral expression on her face. She did not say anything. She didn't need to.
"I'm okay," he said, taking a deep breath. "Thanks."
"You sure?" asked Mandy.
"Yeah?" returned Harry. Trying to shake off his sudden depression, he asked, "What do you see in the mirror, Mandy?"
Mandy moved back to the mirror to take a second look. Ron was still standing in front of its polished surface, staring in rapt fascination at the splendid image presented to him. Not bothering to say anything, Mandy moved him out of the way by the simple method of giving him a good shove.
"Out of my way, stooge."
"You could've - PPPPPHHT - just asked," grumbled Ron.
"Well?" asked Harry.
"It's the future," observed Mandy, staring searchingly into the mirror, "and I hold dominion over the entire planet. The commoners call me Mandy the Merciless, and I'm feared by all."
"Well," said Harry after a short but incredulous pause, "so long as you haven't turned into a hideous, disgusting, worm-like creature to do it."
"I'm scary enough as I am," Mandy assured him.
"You're my most loyal and trusted retainer, loved by all," she added.
"Wicked," grinned Harry, his earlier dark mood almost entirely forgotten.
"What about me?" asked Grim warily.
"Don't worry, Grim, you're there too," admitted Mandy.
"After all, someone has to mop the floors."
"Insufferable girl," grumbled Grim.
"What d'you see, Grim?" asked Harry, curious to know what his other best friend might see.
Mandy graciously bowed out as Grim moved to replace her in front of the mirror. She huddled next to Harry, the bitterly cold weather prompting her to stand closer than she normally would. Pulling her dressing-gown tight she leaned against him, just barely touching, and muttered soft imprecations about being forced to live in a building whose internal heating was akin to that of a refrigerator.
"An endless graveyard, wit nuttin' but headstones from horizon to horizon," revealed Grim after a few moments of examining the mirror's contents. He paused and then pointed, "Yours and Mandy's are right dere, in de front."
"That's... morbid," concluded Mandy.
"Just being optimistic."
Before long, school started again. Hermione and Junior's return to Hogwarts was lost in the arrival of Eris, who seemed intent on making up for lost time. To everyone's relief, Ron was granted the boon of having the head he had been born with returned to him. Even so, jokes about how he could talk out of his arse would haunt him for the rest of his days. Mandy's plans to steal Flamel's Philosopher's Stone ground to a halt in the face of a seemingly endless wave of homework and assignments. It seemed that almost every single professor thought this was the way to start off the New Year. Suffice to say, Hermione was delighted, though she was the only one.
After only a few short weeks, it was time for the Gryffindor vs. Hufflepuff Quidditch match to be played. Rumours abounded that Snape would be acting as the referee, much to the alarm of the Gryffindors, but this was quickly debunked. Apparently, Snape had decided to spend the entire match sitting immediately behind Mandy and Grim - in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the match against Slytherin. How he planned to accomplish this without curling into a ball and sucking on his thumb was unknown. Balancing this action from the other end, Hoss Delgado stood watch over the Slytherin section of the stands, his chainsaw held at the ready. Draco Malfoy was especially pale as a result.
Comparatively speaking, it was a quiet and wholly unremarkable match.
"This game was so boring, compared to the last one," lamented Eris as the students filed out of the stands and made their way back to the castle. "Why didn't somebody blow something up and make it a little more lively?"
Nobody dared to imagine what that would entail, as the Goddess of Chaos had an entirely different definition of 'lively' than the rest of the school's population.
Time proceeded to pass at a brisk clip, with very little progress being made towards Mandy's plans for acquiring the Stone. Judicious probing of the various teachers, sometimes too subtle to actually acquire any information, hinted that it was the school heads of house that had help lay down the protections for the Stone. On top of that was the realization that the professors had begun making patrols of the forbidden corridor and any paths leading to it. Clearly, some sort of distraction would be needed to gain further entry.
It was in the early days of spring, a few short days after the last snows had melted away, that Harry talked his various friends into stopping by Hagrid's hut for tea. So, after classes were done for the day, the usual Gryffindor suspects, this time accompanied by a very enthusiastic Junior, made their way across the school grounds. Nobody even considered inviting Eris, who was at the moment directing a billowing snowstorm in the school dungeons. It went without saying that her fellow Slytherins were looking terribly harried as they stumbled through the day in thick winter cloaks and other cold-weather gear. The animated snowmen that pounced on any unsuspecting victim were probably the worst aspect of it all, though there were whispered mutterings of a rogue yeti skulking about.
"You realise we need to pass these exams to get into the second year? They've very important!" insisted Hermione, who was the only person present that bothered arguing against their little excursion.
"Put a sock in it, will you?" demanded Mandy. "You need to relax a little."
"Yes, all dis stress isn't good for you," agreed Grim.
"I should have started studying a month ago," Hermione fretted. "I don't know what's gotten into me."
Harry rolled his eyes at the girl's needless worrying and gave the door before him a sound thumping. After a short wait, the door creaked open a fraction and a weary looking Hagrid stuck his head out. He looked almost as frazzled as Hermione did.
"'Ello," said Hagrid, blinking in surprise. "What brings yeh round 'ere?"
"Oh, nothing really," said Harry, trying to act innocent as he and the others filed into Hagrid's hut. "Can't we visit a friend?"
"What's guarding the Philosopher's Stone apart from the dog?" demanded Mandy, having no time for subtlety.
"'Ere now! Tha's none of yer business!" Hagrid protested. He paused and then gruffly admitted, "Besides, I don't rightly know meself."
"How couldn't you?" asked Hermione, clearly surprised by the admission. "You helped set up the protections, didn't you?"
"Nah, each o' th' heads o' house-"
"The heads of the houses? All the houses?" interrupted Ron.
"But Snape's the head of Slytherin!"
Hagrid heaved an exasperated sigh, more like a bellow of wind really, and grumbled, "Yer not still on abou' that, are yeh? Look, Snape helped protect the Stone, he's not about ter steal it."
Harry, playing the part Mandy had assigned earlier, muttered, "I wouldn't be so sure of that," mostly for the benefit of his other friends, who they were still looking to recruit into 'protecting' the Stone.
"Um, Hagrid," Junior spoke up, drawing everyone's attention to him. He pointed at the nearby fireplace and asked, "Why do you have a giant egg in the fire?"
Hagrid's reply was a rather unintelligent, "Er..."
"Blimey! Where did you get it, Hagrid?" asked Ron, immediately crossing the hut. He crouched by the fire and took a closer look at the gleaming black egg that hung suspended over the flickering coals. "It must've cost you a fortune."
"Won it," Hagrid admitted, seeing that there was no point in lying. "Las' month. I was-"
"Won what, exactly," interrupted Mandy impatiently.
"Mandy, dat's a dragon's egg," explained Grim, now standing next to Ron and also examining the egg.
Harry and Hermione immediately turned incredulous eyes to Hagrid and chorused, "Dragon?"
Hagrid sighed wistfully and confessed, "Always wanted a dragon."
"Hagrid, you live in a wooden house," protested Hermione.
"Look - look!" called Junior, once again drawing their attention to the fireplace. The normally quiet and awkward Hufflepuff was pointing excitedly at the egg in question. "It's hatching!"
"Out th' way - out th' way!"
Hagrid was immediately in motion and gently pushed Ron, Junior and Grim aside. Using a pair of massively over-sized oven mittens, he lifted the egg from the fire and set it gently down on his dining table.
"E's nearly out," he whispered, leaning over expectantly.
The egg was already laced with dozens of hairline cracks, which rapidly grew thicker and more numerous. Several large pieces of shell fell away and the dragon began to push its way out, emerging in a manner not unlike a baby crocodile - something Harry had once seen on National Geographic, while spending a bored summer's day at Mandy's house the year before.
"Cor, I recognise it," breathed Ron, nearly as excited about the entire matter as Hagrid. "That's a Norwegian Ridgeback, that is."
"Are Norwegian Ridgebacks good to eat?" asked Junior curiously.
Ron paused and looked at nervously at Junior. "Ah..."
Hermione, however, instantly admonished, "Junior!"
"Bless him, look, he knows his mummy!" cried Hagrid as the little beast snapped sharply at his sausage-like fingers.
Mandy watched the affair coolly, her exposure to Grim having long since diminished her wonder at such events. Seeing a baby dragon hatching was almost mundane compared to some of their adventures. Then, quite suddenly, her head fell to one side and her dark blue eyes narrowed a fraction. Her observation of the scene before her intensified.
"I recognise that look," said Harry softly, arching an eyebrow. "What is it?"
"I think we've just found our distraction," said Mandy.
Harry looked at her, confused for a moment before he made the connection. He turned his head to stare at the newly hatched dragon, which had just set fire to a tuft of Hagrid's beard. He turned back to his friend.
"You must be joking."
"You know I don't have a sense of humour."
"Sure you do," asserted Grim, who had no idea exactly what they were discussing, save what little he had just heard. "It's lost somewhere in dat miles-wide sarcastic streak of yours, is all."
"Are you certain about this?" asked Harry, regarding the baby dragon dubiously.
"Yes," Mandy nodded.
"I dunno," said Harry, "We might need help."
"Don't worry," replied Mandy. "I know exactly what we need and who can arrange it for us."
"I tink I'm missing someting here," observed Grim, only now coming to this realization.
Mandy's plans for the baby dragon, which Hagrid inexplicably named Lil' Porkchop, came to fruition a week after its hatching. By this point their number had been decreased by one, as Ron was ensconced in the school hospital wing after having Lil' Porkchop "nibble" on his hand. The injured limb had swollen up to immense proportions, actually rivalling Hagrid's own hand in size. Thus it was down to Hermione, Junior and Grim to act as the stooges in Mandy's manipulations. No-one wanted to tempt fate and ask Eris for assistance.
The first part of the plan had been convincing Hagrid that keeping Lil' Porkchop as a pet was simply unrealistic. The big man reluctantly admitted to knowing this, though was at a loss as to how the hatchling could be relocated. It was here that Ron, or rather his family, came into play. Mandy rarely forgot anything and was quick to remember Ron's older brother Charlie, who was currently studying dragons in Romania. Some quick correspondence via Hedwig soon brought the other Weasley into the scheme. Plans were drawn up to have Charlie and his friends pick up Lil' Porkchop from the top of the Astronomy Tower that Saturday night.
Thus it was that the group of five went down to Hagrid's hut late on Saturday afternoon. Their objective was to take Lil' Porkchop, by now packed away in a sturdy wooden crate, to his rendezvous with Charlie. This was a very important part of Mandy's plan, as they would be sneaking Lil' Porkchop's crate into the Great Hall during dinner - ostensibly as a prelude to smuggling the dragon up to the astronomy tower. Hermione had, of course, pointed out the many, many flaws in this part of the plan, but Mandy could be very convincing with her words. A combination of Silencing Charms and Harry's invisibility cloak would ensure that Lil' Porkchop's presence would remain undetected.
Hagrid met them at the door to his hut, Lil' Porkchop ready and waiting in his crate. The large man, however, was understandably inconsolable over the imminent loss of his self-proclaimed baby.
"Honestly, Hagrid, it's for the best," said Harry, reaching high up to pat his shoulder.
"If you love him, set him free," added Hermione, though the truism rang rather hollow.
"He's got lots o' rats an' some brandy fer the journey," said Hagrid, sniffing back his tears. "An' I've packed his teddy bear in case he gets lonely."
There was a loud ripping noise at this moment and bits of stuffing promptly puffed out of the crate's air holes.
"Mister Bonkers!" wailed Junior suddenly, flashing back to his own teddy bear, which had met a similar fate at the hands of Mandy.
"What is it with you people and teddy bears?" asked Mandy.
"'Ere now, Mandy!" protested Grim.
"Don't tell me you also have one, Grim," said Mandy incredulously.
"Er... well... you see..."
"Hnn," Mandy closed her eyes in frustration. "Come on; let's get on with this - before it gets too late."
"Right," agreed Harry. He crossed to stand on one side of the crate. He looked to Junior, who had quickly recovered from his earlier trauma, and asked, "Junior, can you get the other side?"
"Of course, cousin," said Junior willingly.
Junior moved into position opposite Harry, but made no attempt to help the other boy lift it up. Instead, a pair of thick black tentacles emerged from his shoulder blades, which he used to hoist the crate into the air with a casual easy. This left Harry without having to actually do any carrying of his own.
"Uh, that's nice," he said.
"Here's your Invisibility Cloak, Harry," said Hermione, coming over to join them.
Harry took the cloak from Hermione and draped it over the crate, hiding it from view. It was admittedly quite strange to see Junior standing there with his tentacles out and not doing anything, but everyone agreed that most of the school's inhabitants would write it off as one of the strange boy's many quirks - that and they were probably afraid of being electrocuted by those same tentacles, should they say anything about it.
"Bye-bye, Lil' Porkchop!" sobbed Hagrid, waving a handkerchief in farewell. "Mummy will never forget you!"
"Remind me again why you're friends with that lummox," muttered Mandy quietly as she and Harry lead the way back to the school.
"Mandy," Harry chided. "Hagrid's a good man, just..."
"He's crying because we're taking away his pet dragon," Mandy maintained staunchly. "What sort of person does that?"
"And you challenged the Grim Reaper to a game of limbo in exchange for your dog's soul," countered Harry. He made a point of leaving out the fact that Mandy had included his own soul in the deal. "What sort of pretty little girl does that?"
"I hardly see any similarity in the situation," Mandy asserted.
"If it was Grim taking Lil' Porkchop away, I'd bet Hagrid would fight to get it back," said Harry.
"I rather doubt Hagrid's any good at limbo," noted Mandy dryly. "Or chess for that matter."
The small group; Harry and Mandy in the front, Junior in the middle and with Grim and Hermione holding up the rear, were now almost to the doors leading into the school. "Nearly there, Junior," encouraged Hermione as they approached. "We can rest in the Entrance Hall if you're getting tired."
"Don't worry, Hermione," Junior assured her. "The crate's not that heavy. I could do this all day."
Passing through the massive front doors and into the Entrance Hall, they found that their timing was nearly perfect. Dinner had only just begun and the students were haphazardly trickling into the Great Hall. There was some delay as they had to slip by the Weasley twins and Lee Jordan, who for some reason had engaged in a bizarre game of tennis with Peeves. The match was so engrossing for its participants that the poltergeist completely failed to notice Grim, thereby preventing him from yet again screaming in terror and fleeing in a panic. Grim seemed rather disappointed at being ignored like that.
The Great Hall was less than half-full, making it easy for them to smuggle their hidden cargo to the far end of the Gryffindor table. A few eyes were directed at Junior, the only non-Gryffindor of the group, but those quickly moved away upon noticing his exposed tentacles. Grim and Hermione, the tallest of the group, stood between them and the professors' table; shielding Junior from view as he deposited Lil' Porkchop at the foot of the table. Harry quickly made sure that the crate was still fully hidden beneath the invisibility cloak.
"So far, so good," he muttered as they finally took their seats. It was somewhat unusual for Junior to be sitting with them, rather than at the Hufflepuff table, but there was enough intermingling between the houses that it drew only a passing notice from the other students.
"I still say this is a bad idea that's going to go horribly wrong," whispered Hermione.
The trap, such as it was, had been set. All that remained was for them to spring it upon the unsuspecting population of Hogwarts and then use the distraction to make their foray for the Stone. After waiting for everyone to serve up their meals, Mandy lifted her gaze to meet Harry's. Her nod was imperceptible to anyone that was not looking for it.
Knowing better than to give any acknowledgement of Mandy's order, Harry stretched across the table for a pitcher of pumpkin juice. He made a point of using his right arm for this, as his left was surreptitiously drawing his wand from his trouser pocket. It was important that he use his off-hand for the next bit, as nobody was likely to suspect him of anything if his wand hand was in full view.
Slowly pouring the pumpkin juice into his glass, Harry took care to aim his wand at the concealed crate and dragon. Setting the pitcher down, he took up his glass and lifted it to his mouth. As the rim touched his lips, Mandy commanded Grim to pass her a platter of pork chops - a rather fitting request, when considering the name of the dragon. Harry used this opportunity to softly but quickly whisper the string of spells needed to set events in motion.
Spellwork finished, he took a small sip of juice and then turned to Mandy. "What time is it?" he asked. Mandy checked her wristwatch and told him. He then looked to their unwitting accomplices. "Mandy and I'll finish up as quickly as possible, so we can leave in ten minutes. That way nobody will be suspicious of us moving in a group. We'll meet up later at the base of the tower."
As this was something they had already agreed upon, Hermione and Junior simply nodded in concurrence and continued eating. Harry glanced at Mandy and finally gave a miniscule nod of his own. Only the two of them knew that Lil' Porkchop, courtesy of Harry's spells, would be escaping his crate a short two minutes after they had left. A timer-delayed dungbomb, going off at the very same instant, would ensure that the dragon would not be in a good mood. This, they hoped, would provide a sufficient disturbance to mask their stealing away to the third floor corridor.
"Are you sure this'll be enough?" asked Harry quietly after he and Mandy had said their farewells. They left the Great Hall, Grim trailing faithfully behind them, and passed quickly through the Entrance Hall. "How big of a distraction could a baby dragon be?"
"More than a troll," said Mandy.
"We were outside the girls' loo at the time," Harry pointed out. "We never actually saw how everyone else reacted to the thing."
"Neville fainted," said Mandy, repeating what Lavender and Parvati had told them.
"That's only because Hoss pulled out his chainsaw again."
"Which I guarantee only helped to increase the panic." Mandy assured him, picking up the pace as they reached the main stairwell. "Add a fire breathing dragon, the Weasley twins and Eris into the mix..."
"We'll be lucky if the castle survives," Harry concluded.
"As long as I get the Stone, that's something I can live with."
They had only made it up the first staircase before a faint and panicked scream reached up to them. It sounded as if it were Hermione, doubtless as she and Junior were the ones closest to Lil' Porkchop at the time of his escape. Harry was somewhat concern for his friends' safety, but refrained from saying anything as he knew that Mandy would doubtless consider any injuries under the heading of 'acceptable losses'. As they ascended to the second floor, they could hear that the plan was working exactly as they had expected. From the sound of things, it seemed that chaos was reigning supreme in the Great Hall. Eris would no doubt be in rapture.
"Pick up the pace, boys," commanded Mandy. "We probably won't have more than fifteen minutes."
"Er… aren't we going to go back?" asked Grim, clearly confused. "See what's going on?"
"We have somewhere we need to be, Grim," explained Harry, without going into any detail.
Grim's weak protestation died on his proverbial lips as they arrived on the third floor… where Argus Filch was waiting for them. The school's caretaker was standing at the entrance to the forbidden corridor, Mrs. Norris prowling round his feet, and clearly expecting their arrival.
"Well, well, well," Filch whispered gleefully, "we are in trouble."
Mandy took one look at the man, especially his smug expression, and cursed under her breath. Harry, standing quietly beside her, blinked in surprise. Mandy rarely swore, and never quite as vehemently as the single word she had just let loose. As Filch led them back down the stairs, she sidled close to Harry and whispered in a harsh tone of voice, "We've been ratted out."
"Junior would never do that," he whispered back. "And I doubt Hermione would either."
"Weasley?" asked Mandy.
Harry shook his head. "No, he's still in the hospital wing - and besides; he doesn't know any details."
Mandy grimaced as she acknowledged the point with a curt nod. Her dark blue eyes then narrowed to fine slits. "Then we must've been found out by someone on the outside."
"But what did they rat out?" asked Harry quietly. "That we were smuggling Lil' Porkchop into the school? Or that we were making a play for the Stone?"
"I don't really care right now," growled Mandy, clenching her hands into tight fists. "Whoever's responsible is going to pay."
Harry winced and was barely able to resist covering his privates. He had heard Mandy use such a tone on several occasions. Every single time, the poor sod that stirred up her ire was left curled up in a ball of misery, pain and utter humiliation. Turning his attention away from his fuming companion, Harry looked up and wondered where in the school it was that Filch was leading them. The answer came soon enough as Filch prodded them into a room occupied by Professor McGonagall and the person to blame for their being caught.
"Potter!" exclaimed Draco Malfoy upon seeing Filch bring Harry, Mandy and Grim into what was clearly Professor McGonagall's office. His lips turned into a haughty smirk. "You see, Professor? I told you Potter was up to something!"
"Caught this lot running about unsupervised, Professor," reported Filch, pushing passed Harry and Mandy. "On the third floor, no less."
Professor McGonagall stood perfectly still for several moments, doing nothing but regard the pair of students standing before her. Harry noticed that her eyes cut to Grim only the once. After that, she ignored the skeleton entirely.
"If I weren't seeing it with my own eyes..." McGonagall shook her head, in a mixture of disbelief, disappointment and irritation. She stared from Harry to Mandy and back, her lips compressing into a thin line. "Bringing a dragon into the school - and letting it run amok! Explain yourselves."
"We were planning to take Lil' Porkchop up to the astronomy tower later tonight, after dinner," said Mandy plainly. Clearly she intended on using Lil' Porkchop to distract from the fact that they had been found on the third floor.
"Lil' Porkchop?" blurted Filch incredulously.
"Hagrid," said Harry by way of explanation.
"I should've known," Filch grumbled in resignation. "Still, that doesn't mean you're not in trouble."
"And why would you, Miss Maxwell, Mister Potter," asked McGonagall, continuing to overlook Grim's presence, "be taking a dragon, of all things, up to the astronomy tower?"
"To hand him off to Charlie Weasley, ma'am," said Harry earnestly.
"I see," said the Professor, her voice completely flat.
"Hagrid... well, y'know..."
"I do indeed, Mister Potter," agreed McGonagall, sounding more than slightly resigned to Hagrid's foibles. "Rest assured, I shall be speaking to Hagrid about this."
"Can we go back to the common room then?" asked Mandy.
"Yes, you may," McGonagall nodded, moving to her desk and slipping gently into the rather uncomfortable looking chair behind it. "We will discuss the details of you three's punishment tomorrow."
It took several seconds for her words to register but when they did, Draco leapt forward and planted both hands on her desk. "What?" he cried in disbelief. "Three? Three? But... but..."
"Yes, Mister Malfoy, that included you."
"Malfoy," said Mandy ominously, approaching the fuming boy.
"You!" he rounded on her, his face flushing bright pink with anger. "This is your fault! You - you - urkle!"
Mandy ended Malfoy's growing tirade in much the manner Harry, and everyone else present, expected of her. Professor McGonagall appeared too frazzled to care and seemed more concerned with sending them back to the Gryffindor tower than dispensing any further punishment. Stepping round Malfoy's groaning form; Harry held the office door open for Mandy. He was somewhat relieved, feeling they were getting off rather lightly all things considered. He would have to find out just how much trouble Lil' Porkchop (and no doubt Eris as well) had stirred up in the Great Hall. He had a feeling it had something to do with the deputy headmistress's relatively forgiving attitude.
"Time to move onto Plan B, eh?" he asked as they walked.
"Hmm," was Mandy's only comment.
"Plan B?" asked Grim, by now utterly confused. "Den what was Plan A?"
As it turned out, Lil' Porkchop and Eris had gone on a rampage that left the Great Hall uninhabitable for nearly two whole days. It took the combined efforts of every professor in the school to sort out the mess. This was a somewhat puzzling event, as almost no structural damage had been suffered during the "dragon incident".
Even more surprising was that nobody had been grievously injured, though Madam Pomfrey had been forced to restore the hair of over a dozen students, as well as reattach two fingers on Hoss Delgado's human hand. Apparently the man had tried to wrestle Lil' Porkchop into submission. A further twenty students and Professor Snape had been transformed by Eris's golden apples of discord into a veritable zoo of bizarre and unknown creatures. Snape had been stuck in the form of a beast that bore a frightening resemblance to Barney the Dinosaur, though only the Muggleborn students noticed.
Hermione and Junior, despite their close proximity to Lil' Porkchop upon his escape, had somehow made it out of the disturbance none the worse for wear. As Mandy had planned neither of them suspected that the entire incident had been a set up.
It was something of a relief for Harry that their little scheme didn't lose any points once it was exposed by Malfoy. He attributed this to the fact that Mandy had covered their actions by claiming it was all in aid of helping Hagrid. Apparently that was enough to convince Professor McGonagall that several weeks worth of detentions would serve as sufficient reprimand.
Some part of Harry's mind considered the possibility that their lack punishment was more than likely the fact that Mandy actually scared the professors to the point where they didn't dare risk anything more substantial.
After a seemingly endless progression of evenings filled with floor swabbing, cauldron scrubbing and trophy polishing, notes were delivered to Harry, Mandy and Malfoy at the breakfast table.
Your final detention will take place at eleven o'clock tonight.
Meet Mr Filch in the Entrance Hall.
Prof. M. McGonagall.
Resigned to another night of what seemed very much like hard menial labour, Harry and Mandy made it through the day's classes, bid their friends goodnight, and went down to meet both Malfoy and Filch. Grim, mostly at Mandy's prompting, had accompanied them for all their detentions and thus trailed behind them yet again. Arriving at the Entrance Hall they saw that Malfoy was already there and waiting impatiently for them. He glared sullenly at them as they appeared, but did not bother to say anything. A few minutes later Filch arrived, for once without his ever present cat, and held up a large and antique oil lantern.
"Follow me," he said, motioning out the school's massive front doors. "You've detention with Hagrid tonight - in the Forbidden Forest. I bet you'll think twice about breaking a school rule again, won't you eh?"
Malfoy froze in place, his already pale face growing a sickly white. Filch seemed to take a perverse pleasure in reciting what he expected to happen to them, but was slightly disappointed by Harry and Mandy's lack of reaction. He did, however, find a kindred soul in Grim; who was equally hopeful that something dreadful would happen to the children whilst in the Forest.
Before long, Hagrid emerged from the darkness. He was carrying his massive crossbow at the ready and bore a rare look of serious business. Following at his heels was Fang, whose slobbering jaws held the handle to another flickering oil lantern. Filch wasted no time in handing his charges over to the large man, sneering nastily at them as he left, but not without giving Grim a respectful nod.
"Right then," said Hagrid, looking over the three students and one skeleton arrayed before him. "Now, listen carefully, 'cause it's dangerous what we're gonna do tonight an' I don' want no one takin' risks. Follow me over here a moment."
The group made there way into the forest, trailing behind Hagrid as he led them down a narrow trail through the sparse underbrush. After a few short minutes they drew to a halt as Hagrid crouched low and motioned for them to crowd round.
"Look there," he said, pointing to the patch of earth at his feet, "see that stuff shinin' on the ground? Silvery stuff? That's unicorn blood."
"Someting's actually hurt a unicorn?" asked Grim, sounding appalled by the idea.
"Aye, this is the second time in a week," Hagrid informed them solemnly. "I found one dead last Wednesday."
"So what do you want us to do about it?" asked Mandy. "I'm not a veterinarian."
"Well, we're gonna try an' find the poor thing," explained Hagrid. "We might have ter put it out of its misery."
"I'm good for dat," Grim idly commented.
Both Hagrid and Malfoy looked horrified by that admission. Harry and Mandy simply rolled their eyes, well aware of Grim's occasional enthusiasm towards his job. After some rather loud protests by Malfoy, most of which were threats involving his father, the group finally set off further into the forest.
"This is entirely your fault," complained Draco, glaring furiously at Mandy.
"You're the one that ratted us out," she reminded him.
"You set loose a dragon in the Great Hall!"
"It was only a baby," said Harry.
Up ahead of them, Hagrid burst into tears and wailed, "Lil' Porkchop!"
Grim, at the big man's side, looked askance at him and said, "Sweet mama. Control yourself man!"
Turning away from this display, Mandy glowered at Malfoy. "It's your fault I have to put up with this," she told him, dark blue eyes narrowed in acute displeasure. "If you're not careful, it won't be just unicorn blood on the ground."
"A-are you trying to - to scare me?" Draco stuttered nervously while clamping both hands over his crotch.
"She's not trying - she's succeeding," noted Harry.
"Perfect," said Mandy. "That means he understands what I'm going to do to him."
By now Hagrid had recovered from his emotional episode and they resumed their trek deeper into the forest. Draco studiously avoided Mandy, mostly by staying to the rear of the party. Harry hung back for a brief moment to commiserate.
"Don't worry so much, Malfoy," he said. "It's not as if she's going to start terrorizing you."
"She's already terrorizing me," grumbled Draco.
"Well, yeah, but at least she likes you more than she likes Dudley," said Harry. He shook his head as he remembered times past. "You should see what she does to him some times."
"Who's Dudley?" asked Malfoy, reluctantly curious.
"He's my other cousin," Harry explained. "If you're lucky, you'll never meet him."
"Is he as bad as that freak Nergal Junior?"
"GET BEHIND THAT TREE!" Hagrid unexpectedly bellowed, sweeping one massive arm out to shove the three children behind a nearby tree-stump.
"What was dat?" asked Grim, pulling out his scythe and holding it at the ready.
"Dunno," admitted Hagrid, slowly lowering his crossbow. He glanced at the children, who were clustered together by the stump. "You three wait here, while me an' Grim take a look. If we find the unicorn, we'll send up green sparks and you can come join us. If anything happens, anything bad, use yer wands an' send up red sparks, an' we'll come back an' find yeh, right?
"Actually, if we had any sense, we'd turn and run back to the castle," suggested Mandy.
"Because," Mandy explained, "Jack be nimble and Jack be quick... or Jack be dead."
"Hmm, yeh have a point," Hagrid agreed.
"Fang stays with us!" demanded Draco quickly, looking to the large dog.
"All right, but I warn yeh, he's a coward," said Hagrid.
Hagrid and Grim moved off and quickly disappeared into the darkness of the forest, leaving the three children and Fang to await their return. Draco quickly appropriated the spare lantern from Fang's jaws and made a point of standing almost on top of the boar hound.
Mandy leaned back against the tree-stump and muttered, "My, what a fun way to spend the evening."
"At least we're not scrubbing floors or polishing trophies," said Harry, reminding her of Filch's favourite means of detention.
"I'm starting to think this really isn't worth the trouble," Mandy complained.
"How can you two talk at a time like this?" asked Draco, his eyes darting about nervously.
"Why not?" asked Harry in return. "It's not like anything's going to hear us."
At this moment there was a loud crack, followed by a fleshy thump, this time coming from the opposite direction from where Grim and Hagrid were investigating. The three students exchanged glances, suddenly aware that they were more-or-less alone in the dark.
"What was that?" asked Draco, an octave higher than normal.
"It came from over there," said Mandy, pointing.
"Let's have a look then," suggested Harry.
"No!" Draco immediately protested. Ignoring him entirely, Harry and Mandy moved off to investigate. Draco reluctantly followed after them, unwilling to stay behind. "Potter! Maxwell!"
The trio of students, with Fang trailing after them, rounded a bend in the trail and found themselves confronted by a dark shape hovering over a fallen unicorn. A large pool of silvery blood was spreading across the forest floor. The shape leaned in and seemed to latch onto the fallen animal's neck. Soft sucking noises could be heard.
"I think we've found what's been killing the unicorns," whispered Harry.
Malfoy took in the sight and prepared to scream in terror, but Mandy quickly clapped a hand over his mouth. "Be quiet, you fool," she hissed. "It hasn't seen us yet, but it will if you start screaming."
"Red sparks?" asked Harry, never taking his eye off the shape.
"No," Mandy shook her head. "That'll only draw its attention to us."
"What do we do? What d'we do?" asked Draco frantically, but quietly.
"Split up and hope it goes after you," suggested Mandy sarcastically.
"Okay," Draco nodded furiously in agreement. The words then caught up with his consciousness and he paused as Mandy's true meaning sunk in. He turned to her and loudly protested, "Hey!"
The exclamation caught the ears of the cloaked figure and it looked up, spotting them immediately.
"You idiot," growled Mandy.
Malfoy tried to run away in terror, but promptly caught his foot on an upturned root. The following pratfall was moderately amusing and cumulated in Malfoy bashing his head against a stone outcropping - leaving the boy completely insensate. Fang fled into the darkness, yelping piteously as he went, leaving Harry and Mandy to face unicorn slayer alone. Harry reacted quickly and raised his wand into the air, letting loose a stream of dazzlingly bright red sparks.
"Time to leave, Mandy," he said, grabbing her by the hand in preparation to bolt.
"Leave?" whispered the dark figure, its voice carrying surprisingly well in the night air. It glided forward, as if moving on the air currents. "Leave? But we haven't yet been introduced... Harry Potter."
Harry's intention to flee was abruptly derailed by this and he stood firm, though cautious. Regarding the approaching figure, wand at the ready, he asked, "How do you know who I am?"
"I know many things, boy," the shadowy figure said.
It reached up with both hands and pulled back its hood. Harry and Mandy both blanched at the sight and took some steps back. Before them stood a man, whose face would normally be somewhat nondescript, but was now horribly burned and disfigured. The entire right side of his head was a mass of ugly scar tissue and that eye was a sightless, milky white.
This in itself would have hardly bothered the pair, used as they were to Grim, but for the fact that the man had a second face rising out of the back of his head. It was only visible to them because of the way he twisted and his head turned to the side, revealing the equally badly burned features of someone else. Someone that Harry instinctively recognised.
"Yesss..." the dark lord confirmed, his burning red eyes narrowing as he regarded Harry. He used his host's arms to gesture with. "Do you see what I have become? Mere shadow and vapour... I have form only when I share another's body..."
"You're possessing the previous Defence professor," observed Mandy.
"It was perfect," confirmed Voldemort, turning his red gaze to Mandy. "I was placed exactly where I needed to be... until that overly muscled maniac attacked us with that strange magic."
Neither Harry nor Mandy commented on the fact that Hoss Delgado was actually a Muggle. Clearly Voldemort had mistaken Hoss' proton stream cannon as something magical, rather than technological. Apparently Clarke's Law held true.
"You've been hiding here in the forest all along," realized Harry.
"And I'll bet you're the one that sent the troll into the school on Halloween," added Mandy.
"As a distraction, yes," Voldemort admitted, continuing to slowly draw nearer. He seemed to glide over the ground, rather than walk. "Unfortunately Snape went straight to the third floor to head me off - and not only did the troll fail to beat you to death, that three-headed dog didn't even manage to bite the traitor's leg off properly."
"So what's with the unicorns then, Moldybutt?"
To everyone's surprise, both lenses of Harry's glasses unexpectedly cracked.
"What the...?" asked Harry, taking his glasses off and inspecting the damage.
"What did you call me, girl...?" demanded Voldemort, his attention returning to the one who had just insulted him.
Mandy obligingly repeated herself and said, "Moldybutt."
There was a loud snapping sound and all assembled watched with some consternation as one of the branches overhead inexplicably broke loose and crashed down to the forest floor, not far from where they were standing. Harry considered this for a second and then turned to Mandy.
"I think you're doing that," he said.
"Don't be ridiculous," scoffed Mandy.
"How dare you!" snarled Voldemort, resuming his approach. "The Unicorn blood has strengthened me, these past weeks... I am strong enough to kill you for such an insult."
"You consider that insulting?" asked Mandy, arching an eyebrow incredulously. "Being called Moldybutt?"
This time it was an entire tree that suffered the strange effect - its trunk tearing out of the ground in a spray of loose earth as it toppled over with a thunderous crash. As a bonus, the falling trunk nearly crushed Voldemort, who was only just able to duck out of the way in time.
Harry glanced at Mandy again and reaffirmed, "Yep, definitely you."
Voldemort leaped up and perched atop the fallen tree trunk, grabbing hold of an upright branch for support. He looked for all the world like a sinister, giant crow preparing to swoop down on them.
"Enough of this!" he spat angrily. "Quirrell - kill them!"
"Yeth, mathtah!" exclaimed the former professor, his words slurred by the scars surrounding his mouth. With his free hand Quirrell drew his wand from within the folds of his robe and took aim at the two children. "Avada Kedaaaaaarrgh!"
Whatever Quirrell's attack was meant to be, it was literally cut off by the timely arrival of Grim. The Reaper appeared on the scene with an accompanying flash of steel, his scythe sweeping down from above and loping off Quirrell's wand hand. Both Quirrell and Voldemort shrank back in pain and terror, clutching the gushing stump to their shared chest.
"My hand! Mathtah, my hand!" screeched Quirrell, more concerned with his injury than with the being that had inflicted it.
"So, Tom Riddle, we meet again, at last. I've been looking forward to dis for ten long years," said Grim by way of greeting. He paused and then looked over his shoulder at a relieved Harry and Mandy. "And de last couple of dem have been very long."
"Silence fool!" bellowed Voldemort. He seized temporary control of Quirrell's body and turned to glare at his attacker. "I'll see you dead for this!"
Grim smirked and nodded, "How right you are."
Getting his first proper look at Grim, Voldemort was understandably taken aback, instantly forgetting both his pain and anger. He staggered unsteadily, the rapidly increasing blood loss starting to affect him. "What?"
"De bell doth toll, Tom Riddle," announced Grim.
"No... no... NO!" cried Voldemort as he finally recognised his assailant.
Grim leaned forward in anticipation, cold fires burning in his normally empty sockets. "Are you prepared to meet your doom?"
"Run! Run, you fool, run!" Voldemort frantically commanded of Quirrell.
"Your soul... is mine!" declared Grim, lifting the scythe high over his head.
Unfortunately, before Grim could swing his scythe and finally finish the job, Hagrid arrived on the scene and fired his crossbow... which missed Quirrell entirely and slammed into Grim. The Reaper's body was flung through the air and pinned to a nearby tree by way of a bolt through his ribcage.
"Grim!" exclaimed Harry, understandably distraught by this.
Voldemort meanwhile made use of this distraction to flee before Grim could free himself, though Mandy did manage to clip him with several minor hexes as he disappeared into the night.
"Damned fool! Watch where you be shooting dat ting!" sputtered Grim, clutching at the bolt holding him in place.
"Oh, sorry 'bout tha'," apologised Hagrid, shouldering his crossbow.
"It's all right, Hagrid," sighed Harry, looking into the forest after Voldemort. "No harm done."
"Did yah get a look at 'im?" asked Hagrid, while trying to pull Grim free. "Did yah see who's been doin' this?"
"It was Voldemort," said Mandy plainly.
Hagrid twitched violently at this, unintentionally jerking Grim loose and sending him to the floor.
"You-Know-Who? Here?" asked Hagrid, paling rapidly.
"Grim was about to reap his soul when you… arrived," Mandy confirmed.
"Oh…" Hagrid trailed off, seeming to realize the consequences of his untimely intervention. "Um, sorry."
"Come on, let's wake up the dweeb and get back to the castle," said Mandy.
"Right," Hagrid nodded. "Dumbledore needs to hear 'bout this. Great man, Dumbledore – he'll know what to do."
The group move to where Malfoy was lying, still out cold, and Hagrid knelt down to shake him awake.
"Ugh... did anyone get the name of that giant?" Draco said groggily, slowly coming to.
"He's called 'stupidity'," Mandy told him dryly. "I think you'll be getting trampled by him a lot in the future."
"Oh... thanks," said Draco. He paused. "Hey, wait a minute..." Draco scowled up at Mandy and sneered, "Why, you little bi-"
Mandy promptly cut Draco off by the simple expedient of stomping her heel down on his crotch and grinding firmly. This action had been repeated, in one form or another, at least once a week since the start of the school year. Thus, it was hardly unexpected by the other males present, though Hagrid paled at the sight and clapped both hands over his own groin.
"Urkle," whimpered Draco.
"Mandy!" protested Hagrid, though only half-heartedly.
"I liked him better when he was knocked out," said Mandy as she glanced at Harry, who was still looking to where Voldemort disappeared.
"Mm-hmm," agreed Grim.
Dumbledore sat sedately behind his desk as the door to his office swung open. The first to enter was Harry, ushered in by Hagrid. Mandy and Grim were next, followed by the school's extra-large Keeper of Keys and Grounds.
Mandy looked incredulously at the headmaster, who was fully dressed in a set of resplendent mauve and cerulean robes. He looked as spry and awake as if it were midday, rather than one in the morning. "Don't you ever sleep?"
"As little as possible," Dumbledore replied with a secret smile.
"Professor Dumbledore, sir, we've summat to tell you," declared Hagrid as they approached.
"So I believe," agreed Dumbledore. He watched the two students and Grim, who were now looking around his office. A pity that Fawkes was not present as it would have been interesting to see how the phoenix would have reacted to the trio. For that matter, it would have been just as interesting to see how they (especially Grim and particularly Mandy) would have reacted to such light-oriented creature. "But where is Mister Malfoy? I had understood that he was also in detention with you tonight."
"Oh, he's in the hospital wing, sir," said Hagrid. "He, er… well…"
"He wouldn't shut up," supplied Mandy, turning her full attention to the headmaster.
"Ah," said Dumbledore, hiding his wince. There was little doubt in his mind as to exactly why the Malfoy heir was in need of Madam Pomfrey's services. Mandy had a habit of brutalizing the poor boy on a regular basis. Focusing on Hagrid, he asked, "What brings you here so late at night, Hagrid? Did you find what has been hiding in the forest and killing the unicorns?"
"Oh, tha' we did, sir," Hagrid nodded solemnly.
"It was Voldemort," announced Harry curtly.
Dumbledore felt his eyebrows arch up at the tone of the young wizard's voice. He gave Harry a more detailed inspection than his first one, taking note of his broken glasses and the unusual tenseness about his shoulders. There was no ignoring the clenched fists either.
"Aye, sir," confirmed Hagrid, recovering from his flinch at the mention of the dark lord's name. "He was still possessing Professor Quirrell, sir."
"Of course, I should have realized," Dumbledore murmured.
"Realized what?" asked Mandy.
"The unicorn blood, my girl, the unicorn blood," explained Dumbledore. "I should have realized that it was Voldemort who was responsible for killing the unicorns. He wanted the blood, you see, and the magical properties that it can provide."
"He said it had made him stronger," said Harry.
"In a manner of speaking," Dumbledore confirmed. "You see, children, unicorn blood is a powerful healing agent - not unlike phoenix tears. The difference is that a phoenix willing sheds its tears; an act of compassion that gives its magic great strength. But to acquire a unicorn's blood, one must either wound or kill the unicorn in question. It is a vile and abhorrent act, a crime so great that it will leave you cursed for all eternity."
"Sounds about right," Grim concurred, nodding in agreement.
"But why would he do something that stupid?" asked Mandy. "What's the point in living forever if you're going to be cursed for it?"
"You will find, Miss Maxwell, that fear is a powerful driving force," explained Dumbledore, rising from his seat and coming out from behind his desk. "It can compel even the most ordinary of people into committing acts of unimaginable wickedness and stupidity."
"So is Voldemort alive again?" asked Harry.
"No, at this point he is still little more than a shade, an undead parasite sustaining himself on Professor Quirrell's life-force," said Dumbledore as he walked to where Harry was standing. He tapped his finger against the boy's broken glasses, causing the fractured lenses to repair themselves into pristine condition.
"I always hated de living undead," commented Grim. "Wandering around, all dead but alive. Makes a mockery of me job."
"Not for long, once I get my hands on him," Harry grumbled.
Dumbledore raised an eyebrow at this. His observations of Harry thus far had not indicated that the boy could be so emotional. For the most part, he went through his daily business with the laidback moderation of someone who never got upset or angry or excited or anything else for that matter. He had chalked it up to both Mandy and Grim's influence. Probably more Mandy's than Grim. Now, however, he began to wonder if perhaps he should re-evaluate that opinion.
"Perhaps," he allowed, returning to his chair. "I shall see about adding some additional wards along the forest edge. Possibly the centaurs would be of some assistance as well. In the meanwhile, I think it would be best if you were to return to your dormitories and have some well deserved sleep. Breakfast is only a few hours away, after all, and classes after that."
"Aye, sir," acknowledged Hagrid. He placed a massive hand on Harry's shoulder and considered doing the same to Mandy, but thought better of it, before escorting the children out of the office. "I'll take them right back to Gryffindor tower before turning in m'self."
"Rest well, children."
True to his word, Hagrid duly delivered the two children and their skeleton to Gryffindor tower. Grim retired immediately to the first-year boys' dormitory, while Harry and Mandy settled down on a couch in front of the common room fireplace. Neither said anything, both too wrapped up in their thoughts. Harry glared into the few remaining flames and flickering embers, his expression black with barely suppressed emotion. Mandy, not given to emotional displays of any sort, did nothing to comfort him, at least not with words or actions. She remained by his side, lending her support with her silent presence.
"He killed my parents," Harry finally said, after nearly an hour of brooding.
"I know," replied Mandy.
"He's going to regret coming back from the dead, once I get through with him," Harry stated mildly. He spoke in the same tone of voice most people would use to discuss the weather. It was this that gave the words a chilled edge that left even Mandy feeling a miniscule shiver run down her spine.
"Just don't do anything stupid," cautioned Mandy. "It's impossible to enjoy a victory if you died achieving it."
Harry pulled his glasses off and rubbed tiredly at his eyes. He swivelled about and collapsed in a heap, plopping his head into Mandy's lap. "Don't worry, I'm not that suicidal," he assured her. He stared up at her and muttered, "But damned if I'll let anything stop me."
Mandy looked down at Harry, exceptionally surprised by his actions. The pair had grown very familiar with each other over the years, to the point that they would share her bed, in a purely innocent manner, whenever he slept over at her house. There was always some measure of polite space between them, however. This was the first time that he or anyone had touched her in such a casual fashion. It was not something she had expected, especially from the normally reserved Harry.
Had anyone else been present, they would have backed away in fear of the slight frown that furrowed her brow. It was a look that most would have interpreted as a sign of Harry's imminent death. Or emasculation at the very least. Reaching up, she laid one hand on his chest and the other on the crown of his head.
"We'll see what happens," she finally said.
"You realize, this means that Snape's more than likely innocent," observed Harry as she began to play with his hair. "He was probably trying to stop Voldemort from getting the Stone when he was injured."
"You know that. I know that," replied Mandy. "No need to tell anyone else."
"Still going to frame him for the theft then?"
"We need a decent scapegoat."
"And the fact that nobody outside of Slytherin likes him..."
"...will make it that much easier."
The news that Voldemort was hiding out in the Forbidden Forest was met with varying reactions from Harry and Mandy's friends.
Ron almost went into hysterics at the thought that the dark lord was nearby. After calming down, he then decided that the entire situation was great; a potential adventure his brothers could not hope to copy. He even expressed some disappointment that he had not shared their encounter with the aptly named Lord Moldybutt. Harry was proven correct, as well, as whenever Mandy spoke that moniker something would break. In this case a desk, Hermione's book bag and one of the wall-mounted torch sconces.
Hermione, in contrast, was far more subdued. Well, once she calmed down and stopped admonishing them for actually confronting the dark lord instead of leaving to summon a professor. After that she began to fret with such impressive determination that it hard to tell what worried her more; Voldemort or the upcoming exams.
Grim sulked at having, once again, missed a chance to reap Riddle's soul. He also spent a good bit of time grumbling about Elvis.
Junior was most distressed at his favourite cousin's apparent close call. He stuck very close to Harry for the next couple of days. Nobody was entirely sure if he was acting as some sort of tentacled bodyguard or was simply hoping to get involved in the next attempt on Harry's life. The Hufflepuffs were pathetically grateful for this brief respite. This stopped after a sobbing Ernie Macmillan actually dared to hug Mandy in thanks. After seeing what she did to him the other 'Puffs were almost glad to have Junior in their house instead.
Eris, not surprisingly, was delighted by this turn of events. Especially after she discovered the so-called Moldybutt Effect. She made a habit of working the dark lord's newest moniker into almost every sentence she spoke. Potions was now a truly hazardous class and the Slytherin vs. Hufflepuff Quidditch match ended with both teams having to spend a week in the hosptial wing. Eris declared it the most exciting game of the season yet.
"I'm telling you, Moldybutt is going to go after the Stone," declared Mandy. She ignored how one of the nearby paintings abruptly fell off its mount on the wall.
"But we can't just rush into this, Mandy," insisted Hermione. "We need evidence."
"Yeah! The smoking glove!" agreed Ron.
Mandy palmed her face with one hand and quietly muttered unhappy thoughts as to Ron's ancestry.
It was on the last day of their end of year exams that Mandy came up with a plan to spur her posse of unwitting accomplices into action. It was simple plan, a rational plan, a practical plan, a plan that involved bribery, cunning, deception and a certain degree of violence. All-in-all, it was the kind of plan that only Mandy could have thought up. Following breakfast, the group was lead off to one of the castle's many unused classrooms, deliberately following a route she knew would lead them towards the encounter she desired.
Reaching the relevant classroom she opened the door and entered with the command, "Follow me."
"Now what," a drawling voice unexpectedly interrupted before they could do as instructed, "is a group of delinquent Gryffindors and their pet skeleton doing indoors on such a fine spring day? One might almost think you were up to something."
The group of students turned to find themselves faced with the foreboding features of Professor Snape. The potions master had managed to sneak up on them unannounced and now loomed over them with a hint of vindictive pleasure. Indeed, Snape was honestly delighted by the situation - a first for the year. This was an opportunity to be grasped in both hands and cherished for however long it lasted.
Harry Potter... without the ever-present Mandy Maxwell.
"Yes, very suspicious," he murmured, relishing the chance to deduct points and assign detentions without fear.
This was when Mandy leaned her head out of the doorway and back into the corridor.
Snape's pallor immediately grew even paler. "Maxwell," he gasped in surprise.
Mandy turned her head to regard him fully as she exited the classroom to stand in the hallway proper.
"I didn't see you there," Snape said, swallowing deeply but making an admirable show of masking his sudden nervousness. Almost every encounter he had with the blonde girl outside of class ended in his utter humiliation. Though she had never physically harmed him, he unconsciously clamped both hands over his groin. Most of the wizards in the school had developed that reaction.
"Good afternoon, Professor," she blandly greeted him.
"Yes! Good afternoon!" the professor squeaked fearfully, beads of sweat forming across his forehead.
Mandy matched his gaze and frowned minutely.
Snape's response was not unexpected.
"Well, it's official... Dumbledore has left the building."
This pronouncement of Mandy's was met with grim determination by her friends. Well, they were not really her friends so much as they were pawns to be used and discarded and it was only Ron and Hermione that were grimly determined. Harry was fully aware of her plans and was merely acting his part in them. His willingness to go along with whatever she said was probably the main reason why she liked him as much as she did. Then there was Grim, who did not actually care one way or the other.
"Are you sure?" asked Hermione anxiously.
"Yes," confirmed Mandy.
"He's been called to the Ministry of Magic, in London, on important business," elaborated Harry.
"But that means the Stone's unprotected!" exclaimed Ron.
Mandy, who barely tolerated Ron's presence, due to his usefulness in her plans, gave him a hooded stare. "Yes," she said, "it's unprotected. And Professor McGonagall won't believe us about it being in danger of getting stolen by Snape."
Ron's eyes were wide with excitement. "So we'll have to protect it ourselves!"
"But how?" asked Hermione, just as wide-eyed as Ron, but for different reasons. "We're only students."
"Students that are friends with a goddess of chaos and the son of an eldritch abomination," declared Mandy.
"And don't forget Grim," added Harry.
"Please do," quipped the animated skeleton, engrossed in a crossword.
"We really should go to a teacher," insisted Hermione.
"Tried that already, remember?" Mandy reminded her. "Now, come on," she commanded. "We need to get back to the tower and pick up Harry's cloak. It'd be better if nobody saw us."
"Yes, dat way I won't have to deal wit any witnesses," agreed Grim.
"What about Junior and Eris?" asked Hermione as they began to hurry back to the Gryffindor commons. "Shouldn't we let them know?"
"Junior's busy hosting another 'tea party'," explained Harry.
Hermione winced. Junior's tea parties were fast approaching legendary status. And not in good way. It was only luck so far that no-one outside of Hufflepuff had been forced into attending one yet. As it was, the rest of the school pitied the 'Puffs almost as much as they pitied the Slytherins. Almost, as Junior was not nearly as bad as Eris.
And speaking of...
"What about Eris?" she reluctantly asked. The entire group stopped walking and stared at her. "Right, stupid question."
They resumed their trek to the tower.
Sneaking into the forbidden corridor proved surprisingly easy, despite it being the middle of the day. In fact, they didn't even need the Invisibility Cloak - a good thing, as fitting four children and one skeleton under it would have been next to impossible.
Fluffy was understandably surprised, but pleased to see them.
"I still don't understand how you can control that monster," grumbled Ron as they entered the room.
"It knows who its mistress is, that's all," answered Mandy. She turned her attention back to the dog. "Get off the trapdoor. Now."
Fluffy whimpered in protest, but reluctantly obeyed.
"Well, this is it," commented Harry, moving to the revealed door and pulling it open.
"It's, um, rather dark," noted Hermione, peering down the exposed hole in the floor.
"I can't see the bottom," said Ron.
"You just need to get a little closer," said Mandy, stepping up behind him.
"What do yoo-hooooooooaaaaaaaawwwww!"
Mandy's shove to the back was completely unexpected and Ron had next to no chance to catch himself before toppling through the opening.
"Mandy!" exclaimed Hermione, though she did not seem particularly surprised.
Mandy ignored her in favour of listening carefully. A soft thump and muttered curses reached her ears.
"It's safe to jump," she concluded. She turned to Hermione, who instantly held up her hands.
"I can jump without a push, thank you," she hurriedly stated, before turning back to the trapdoor to do just that.
A moment later a soft thump indicated her safe landing, though the sound was almost lost amidst the noise Ron was making.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Harry asked of Mandy as he prepared to jump.
"Since when has dat ever stopped you two?" asked Grim, peering into the darkness of the open trapdoor. He let out a startled cry as Mandy jabbed him with her elbow, sending him toppling in after Ron and Hermione.
"Well?" asked Harry after Grim's scream had faded out.
"Who would you rather have the Stone?" countered Mandy. "Me or Voldemort?"
"Voldemort would probably do less damage than you will," muttered Harry before making his jump.
Mandy arched an eyebrow and admitted, "True."
"Help! Harry! Mandy! Help!"
"I - can't - breathe!"
"Now dis be a fine kettle of fish."
Harry took a moment to look around before he was almost crushed when Mandy landed on top of him. Luckily the plant that had cushioned their falls had enough give to allow him to sink under her, instead of being squished.
"It's Devil's Snare! We're trapped in Devil's Snare!" exclaimed Hermione in a panic.
"And how is this a problem?" asked Mandy calmly.
Her question received something of an answer when one of the many vines currently encircling them wrapped itself around Grim's arm and casually pulled it loose.
"Ack! 'Ere now!" protested the Reaper.
"That could be a problem," admitted Mandy.
"Mmph!" mumbled Ron, whose mouth was currently gagged by a couple of thick vines. His wide eyes were able to convey his growing panic.
"What are we going to do? What are we going to do?"
"Oh no, you don't! Leave me legs alone!"
"What are we going to do?"
Hermione's frantic question was answered by Harry. Still trapped under Mandy he was not able to supply much in the way of a verbal response, but he did manage to raise his wand arm and conjure up a small ball of blue fire.
"Fire! Yes, that's it!" exclaimed Hermione. "Devil's Snare doesn't like light or heat!"
"Well, what are you waiting for!" demanded Mandy.
Within short order the Devil's Snare had retreated and allowed them to drop down into the room below it. As luck would have it, Mandy once again landed on top of Harry. It took a few minutes to the group to get back on their feet, most of this being spent waiting foe Grim to reattach his arm.
"Pull yourself together, Grim. We don't have time to dawdle," commanded Mandy as she led the group into the next chamber.
Grim looked after her retreating back and succinctly summed up his feelings on the matter.
The next room in the oncoming gauntlet of traps and protections was almost innocuous by comparison. Other than a very high ceiling and a trio of aging Cleansweeps, it seemed empty. It was several seconds before they noticed that there was more to it than that.
"What's that noise?" asked Ron as they entered.
"Look!" exclaimed Hermione, pointing up. "It's a flock of birds."
"Dose don't look like any birds I've ever seen," commented Grim.
"They're keys," revealed Harry after a moment of observation. "Keys with wings."
"So, what are we supposed to do?" asked Ron.
"Obviously the key to the door must be up there," deduced Hermione, indicating the swarming mass of winged keys. "We'll have to use the brooms to catch the right key."
"But that's going to take forever!" protested Ron.
"We don't have the time to go flying," announced Mandy. She reached out and grabbed Grim's scythe away from him. "Besides, I have a key that'll open any lock."
Mandy had already proven her facility with the scythe, as the Slytherin Quidditch stands would attest. She took casual aim at the locked door barring their way forward and opened with a short burst of eldritch energy.
The door was promptly reduced to splinters of wood, most no larger than the average toothpick. For that matter, a goodly portion of the surrounding wall was also completely destroyed, shattered into so much gravel.
"Normally I'd object to dis sort of misuse of me powers," muttered Grim as he brushed a layer of dust from his robes, "but since you're more dan likely to be killed along de way... I'm game."
The next chamber was dark, almost completely black. Hermione had just raised her wand to conjure up a ball of light, to illuminate their way, when streams of light suddenly flooded into the room. The group paused and took in the sight that was revealed in front of them.
"A chessboard?" asked Harry, looking at the life-sized pieces that were arranged in familiar ranks on the tiled floor.
"We're going to have to play our way across the room," surmised Ron, sounding rather pleased by the idea.
"What a waste of time," grumbled Mandy.
"Let me handle dis," said Grim, stepping forward and examining the waiting board.
"I hope you're better at chess than you are at limbo," said Mandy.
"De only reason I lost dat limbo match," accused Grim, poking a finger at her, "is because you cheated and had yer stupid dog bite on me bony butt!"
Grim tapped a finger against his chin and muttered, "If we're black, dat means we'll be playing second."
As if in response to Grim's statement, a white pawn moved forward two squares.
"Our move," observed Ron.
"You dere - pawn to D5!" commanded Grim, pointing at the piece he wanted to move. They waited a bit, but nothing happened. "Pawn to D5!" repeated Grim, this time more sternly. The wait this time was slightly longer before Grim pondered, "Now why isn't it moving?"
"Uh, Grim?" said Ron, suddenly nervous. "I think we're supposed to play as well - as pieces."
The nearest piece, one of the black knights, nodded its head in confirmation.
"Hmm. Dat complicates tings."
"We could just blast our way through," suggested Mandy, eyeing Grim impatiently.
"I don't think that will work, Mandy," said Hermione, shaking her head. She pointed at the pristine chessboard and pieces. "I mean, it doesn't look like Snape or You-Know-Who did that."
"But they don't have Death's scythe," Mandy countered.
"Perhaps we should play through," Harry whispered to Mandy.
"Don't want to rely too much on the scythe, do you?"
"Fine," Mandy finally accepted. She turned to Grim and commanded, "Okay, bonehead, show us what you've got."
"Preferably without any of us getting killed in the process," added Harry.
"Rats," grumbled Grim. He considered the chessboard for a moment before barking out orders. "Fine. Ron and Hermione; replace de knights. Harry and Mandy; de bishops. I'll be de king."
"Harry will be the king," corrected Mandy. "And I'll be the queen."
"You can be a bishop."
"Now get on with it, bonehead, I'm in a hurry."
McGonagall's game of chess barely delayed their advance. The match was handily won by Grim in a blitzkrieg of only seven moves (including the white side), something that impressed Ron into a state of near speechless awe. Passing between the defeated white pieces, the group opened the door to the next challenge and immediately froze in place. On the other side of the door was a room. A room filled every which way with spinning steel blades. Lots and lots of spinning steel blades.
Looking through the mass of whirling steel, an old-style brass clutch lever to deactivate the trap could just barely been seen on the opposite side of the room.
"What madman came up with this?" asked Hermione in horror.
"Isn't it obvious?" asked Harry, somewhat surprised the young genius hadn't worked it out for herself.
"Oh no," groaned Grim.
"Hoss," said Mandy.
"Who else?" Grim lamented.
"But, how the bloody hell are we supposed to get passed all these things?" asked Ron incredulously.
"If Snape could do it, then so can we!" declared Harry firmly, though his conviction was mostly for show. Inwardly, he too was wondering exactly how Mandy intended to get them through this latest obstacle.
Hermione shook her head in disbelief and began to protest, "But-
It was now that Mandy calmly walked up behind Grim and gave him a hard shove - right into the swirling maelstrom of razor-edged saws and blades. The skeleton barely had time to scream before his robe was shredding into black confetti and his bones scattered to all corners of the room.
"GRIM! NO!" screamed Hermione in terror.
"Sweet Merlin!" gasped Ron.
As Grim's bones were tossed about by the various blades, like debris in a blender, the four students stood back and watched with morbid fascination. Hermione looked appropriately horrified by what was happening, Ron was turning green around the edges and looked ready to throw up, while Harry and Mandy were completely implacable.
"Shouldn't have done that," Harry softly chided.
"It's not like it'll kill him," retorted Mandy, equally softly.
"No," Harry agreed, "but you know he won't stop complaining about it for the next week."
"If he does, I'll cut off his coffee privileges."
Everyone knew that Grim was a complete and unrepentant caffeine addict. He was barely able to move in the morning until after he had finished his first cup of coffee. Apparently the task of Grim Reaping comprised of a lot of late hours. The threat to limit his coffee intake was one that could easily convince the skeleton to do just about anything.
It took several minutes, mostly due to the random nature in which the saws tossed the Reaper's bones about, but finally one of Grim's arms reached the other side of the room. The disembodied arm, which was really only a hand with two fingers missing, scrabbled about for a few seconds before finding the level. Climbing up its length, it took hold and pulled with surprising strength. A loud grinding sound reverberated from behind the walls and, much to everyone's relief; the blades began to spin to a halt before slowly retracting into various hidden panels that finally sealed closed.
"See?" Mandy asked of Ron and Hermione. "Nothing to it."
"He'll be all right. Really," said Harry, trying to reassure Ron and Hermione about Grim's wellbeing. That the skeleton was still little more than a disconnected pile of bones was making it a somewhat difficult task. He glanced at Mandy as they approached the door. "What do you reckon's next?"
"Snape's the only one left," said Mandy.
"I'm sure the headmaster would have done something as well," corrected Hermione.
"That's probably the last one and where the Stone's being kept," agreed Mandy.
They reach the door leading to what they hoped was the Stone's final protection; the challenge set by Hogwarts' potions master. The thick wooden door swung open with a horribly loud creak and revealed a room that was utterly devoid of ornamentation, save for a single table set in the middle. The four students paused and looked through the doorway, wondering why nothing had unexpectedly sprung out at them.
"Eh? Bottles?" asked Ron.
"Potions," corrected Mandy, making the obvious connection to Snape's vocation.
"But what do we have to do with them? Drink one?" asked Hermione.
"Only one way to find out," said Harry.
The group cautiously stepped into the room, Harry taking the lead. The instant the last of them stepped over the door's threshold a rippling wave of burning purple flames erupted behind them. The fire stretched up from the floor to the ceiling, completely blocking the doorway and any passage through it. At the same time a similar wall of fire, this time with black flames, shot up in front of them.
"It's a trap!" exclaimed Mandy.
"Yah tink?" asked Grim's skull sarcastically. This, as well as his right hand and accompanying left foot and shin, were the only parts of his skeleton to make it through before the room was sealed off.
"Well, we knew there'd be a catch," Harry reminded them all.
Hermione, in the meanwhile, was examining the table and the seven glass bottles laid out on it. She immediately noticed a roll of parchment and opened it, quickly reading the contents. Holding the scroll up for the others to see, she happily declared, "It's a riddle."
"A riddle? What for?" asked Ron, glancing nervously back and forth between the two walls of fire.
"Probably instructions of how to get through the fire," deduced Mandy.
"Mandy's right," Hermione confirmed. "It's brilliant. This isn't magic - it's logic - a puzzle. A lot of the greatest wizards haven't got an ounce of logic; they'd be stuck in here forever."
"I don't intend to wait that long," Mandy informed her, looking distinctly displeased at the prospect.
"Oh, don't worry," Hermione reassured her. "This won't take a minute."
"Yeah, this sounds like a perfect trap for Hermione to work on," agreed Ron.
Mandy rolled her eyes and took proper hold of Grim's scythe, which she had been holding propped over her shoulder.
"Got it!" exclaimed Hermione. "The smallest bottle will get us through the black fire - towards the Stone."
Harry stepped over to the table and picked up the bottle in question. He gave it a rather dubious look and then directed his gaze to his friends. "There's barely enough for one person, let alone all four of us."
"You'll have to go through alone, mate," said Ron determinedly. "If anyone can stop You-Know-Who, it's you."
"I don't know about that," demurred Harry.
"Of course you can, Harry - you're a great wizard," insisted Hermione, giving the boy a quick but fierce hug.
A flash of light, accompanied by a gust of frigidly cold air, drew the trio's attention away from the potions and to the far side of the room. There Mandy was standing by the edge of the doorway blocked by the black flames, which had all seemingly been put out quite thoroughly by the judicious application of the scythe's powers. The way through to the next chamber was clear for all of them.
"Sometimes, it's easier to just use the scythe," she said sardonically.
The three students at the potions table exchanged sheepish looks. Hermione seemed somewhat irked that Mandy had found a way through Snape's task without needing to solve the puzzle.
"So, can we move along now?" prompted Mandy, once again shouldering the scythe.
The last chamber was a surprisingly large and circular room, rimmed by impressive looking stone columns. Set in the centre of this, illuminated by the torchlight, was a very familiar enchanted mirror.
"This is the only way in or out," said Mandy as they stood in the doorway. "The Stone must be hidden somewhere in this room,"
"The mirror," prompted Harry.
"It's the same one you found during Christmas break," agreed Mandy.
"Yeah," said Harry as they made their way to the object in question. "It must somehow be the last piece of protection."
Mandy stepped in front of the mirror and regarded it with a calm expression. After a few moments she turned away and shrugged. "Nothing new here," she said. "It's showing the same thing it did the last time we saw it."
Harry moved beside her and took a look for himself. He too saw the same illusion that he had previously seen in the mirror's face; his family and friends gathered around him. "I don't understand," he muttered. "D'you think the Stone's inside the mirror?"
"Or perhaps this is some kind of diversion," suggested Mandy. "To distract us from where the Stone really is."
"De Stone could be anywhere in de room," moaned Grim, bouncing his skull round and round in an effort to view the entire room.
"But... where's Snape?" asked Ron, sounding a peculiar mixture of surprised and disappointed as he looked about the room. He seemed to think that the missing professor was hiding somewhere in the shadows, or behind one of the many columns encircling the area.
"Forget him, it's You-Know-Who that we need to be worried about," said Hermione, standing close to the redhead.
"You have a point," Ron promptly agreed. He then started an even more anxious examination of the room's more shadowy areas. "Where could he be hiding?"
"Behind you," a voice unexpectedly announced.
Ron and Hermione weren't even able to turn around before a flash of red swept over them, knocking them unconscious and to the floor, where thick ropes sprang up and wrapped around them. Harry and Mandy managed to turn and face their attacker, neither being all that surprised to see the dark cloaked figure of Quirrell, his scarred face glaring smugly at them. Quirrell twisted his head sideways, almost to the point of looking over his shoulder and allowing the back of his head a clear view of the two remaining children.
Voldemort bared his teeth in a thin and dangerous smile. Quirrell threw back the cloak his was wearing, revealing his robed body as he stepped over the two bodies at his feet. He made a show of lifting his right arm and flexing that hand into a fist. This was the limb that Grim had cut off during their earlier encounter in the Forbidden Forest, yet it seemed that Voldemort had somehow been able to give Quirrell a new hand to replace his lost one. It was a disturbing sight, a hand seemingly comprised of nothing but exposed bone and sinew, fashioned from a dark and badly tarnished copper.
"Well, well," hissed Voldemort. "What an unexpected boon. I had planned to take advantage of this opportunity; Dumbledore being away from the school, but I had not anticipated that my way would be paved by the very people seeking to stop me."
Harry and Mandy shared a look.
"This is a monkey-wrench in the works," concluded Mandy.
"Filthy little mudblood," Voldemort sneered. "The arrogance of your kind is without limits. Did you really think that I was so unsubtle? That I would demean myself by participating in one of Dumbledore's little games? That I was incapable of getting someone else to do the dirty work for me?"
"Shut your yap, Tom Riddle! I have come for you!"
Voldemort's rant ground to a halt as Quirrell was jumped by Grim, who seemed intent on finishing what he had started in the forest. Sadly, however, the Reaper was down to only his skull, one hand (that was missing two fingers) and his lower left leg. Not much to assault a dark lord with, but that did nothing to deter him. His hand wrapped itself in a death grip around Quirrell's ankle, while his leg proceeded to kick the man in the shin. Not to be left out, Grim bounced his skull into the air and latched onto Quirrell's nose.
"Gaowtch! By dose!" screamed Quirrell, batting frantically at Grim's skull with both hands.
"Damnable oaf!" roared Voldemort, possibly addressing both Grim and Quirrell.
While their foe was otherwise engaged, Harry leaned close to Mandy and whispered, "Change of plan?"
Mandy gave a small nod and reluctantly agreed, "We can't take him by ourselves."
Quirrell was soon able to pry Grim off his nose and tossed the skull away. With a sweep of his arm, he cast a Banishing Charm on Grim's leg and sent the limb careening into a stone column. The leg fell limply to the floor and remained motionless. Bending down Quirrell twisted and tugged furiously before finally pulling Grim's hand away from his ankle. This, like the leg before it, was hurled across the room. Finally the man turned back to Grim's skull, which was bouncing its way back to him, doubtless planning another assault. Quirrell drew his leg back and let loose a powerful kick.
"Yaahh-hoo-hoo-hoo-hooey!" hollered Grim as he disappeared into the shadows.
"So, once again Death flies before me," declared Voldemort pompously, as Quirrell stood panting from exertion. "This will indeed be a night long remembered in the annuals of history."
Harry caught Mandy's gaze and then directed his eyes to the scythe she held. Again she gave just the barest of nods, along with a barely audible whisper of, "Give me an opening."
Recovered from his scuffle with Grim, Quirrell turned to the mirror and began to examine it closely. Harry carefully sneaked closer, hoping to find an opportunity to distract the man long enough for Mandy to deal with him. As he approached, he could hear him muttering to himself and Voldemort, "I thee the Thtone… I'm pwethenting it to you, mathtah… but whewe ith it?"
"Quirrell!" Voldemort demanded, "Use the boy… have him look in the mirror."
"Yeth, mathtah," Quirrell obeyed instantly. He turned and spotted Harry. "Come here, Pohtah,"
Quirrell waved his magical hand and Harry was pulled across the room, almost bumping into Ron and Hermione. Quirrell grabbed him by the arm and dragged him in front of the mirror. Looking into the mirror, Harry was surprised to see that the image reflected at him had changed from what it had been only minutes earlier. Now, instead of himself surrounded by his friends and family, he stood alone. His surprise grew even greater as his reflection revealed itself to be holding a bright red stone in one hand. With a sly wink and a smirk, the reflection put the Stone in his trouser pocket. Harry struggled not to react as he felt a sudden weight against his leg.
"Well?" demanded Quirrell impatiently. "What do you thee?"
"An endless graveyard, with nothing but headstones from horizon to horizon," Harry lied, repeating what Grim had claimed to see when they had first found the mirror during the Christmas holidays. He then pointed to one side of the mirror and added, "Yours and Voldemort's are over there, in the front."
"If you're going to lie, Potter," scoffed Voldemort, "try to at least use a convincing one."
"You don't know me that well, do you?" asked Harry in return. He lifted a knee up high and then slammed his heel down on Quirrell's foot with all of his strength, causing the scarred man to howl in pain and release him.
"Ah! Mathtah, my foot!"
"Useless idiot! Control yourself! He has the Stone! Get him!"
Harry took this moment to run back to Mandy and quickly handed the Stone to her, while at the same time pretending to shove her away - as if he were trying to get her out of the room. Mandy quietly palmed the Stone as she joined in the charade.
"Go back; find Dumbledore or one of the other professors!" Harry told her, continuing to push her towards the exit.
"Running away, Potter?" called Voldemort. "No, we can't have that, can we?"
Quirrell snapped the fingers of his magical hand, causing the black flames by the doorway to burst back to life. The pair stopped their flight, skidding to a halt just before the wall of fire. Harry promptly pushed Mandy behind him, so that he was standing between her and their enemy.
"Yes, you may be able to cut through the flames with Death's scythe," observed Voldemort as Quirrell stepped closer, "but only if I give you the time to do so."
"Go, Mandy, I'll hold him off," urged Harry. As he spoke, he felt Mandy pressing something into his hand. From the shape and feel of it, he recognised it as the fake geode they had planned to leave in place of the real Philosopher's Stone.
"Don't be a fool, Harry," Voldemort silkily proposed. "Better save your own life and join me… or die as your parents did - begging for their lives!"
Furious over Voldemort's words, Harry angrily jabbed his wand at Quirrell, sending a stream of bright fire-engine red paint into the man's face. Quirrell staggered back screaming and wiping at his face with both hands. Blinded by the paint, he did not see Ron and Hermione behind him and promptly tripped over them, falling to the floor in a heap.
"Gah! My eyeth! Mathtah, help me!"
"Shut up, you imbecile!" snapped Voldemort. The dark lord's eyes were free of paint, allowing him to see what was going on. He quickly forced control over Quirrell's body, causing dark blue and black veins to grow wildly beneath the man's pale grey flesh. He turned to glare coldly at Harry. "You are brave, boy, but that courage will not save you."
Harry kept his wand aimed at Voldemort as the dark lord struggled to push Quirrell's body to its feet. He made sure that Voldemort could see the fake stone he was holding in his left hand.
"We'll see about that."
Voldemort's eye lit upon the geode and his reached out for it. "The Stone! Give it to me!"
Harry stood firm and defiantly challenged, "If you want it, come and get it!"
"I tire of this game, you insolent brat!" Voldemort snarled. Sickly green magical energy began to swirl around Quirrell's discoloured copper hand. "Give me the Stone while you still have the option of dying quickly!"
"It's not if I die quickly that matters, it's whether nor not I take you with me," Harry told him with unwavering conviction. "And if you get to check into Hell alongside me, then I'll be dying a happy man."
"SEIZE HIM! KILL HIM!" Voldemort bellowed at Quirrell, who was beginning to resume control.
"You want the Stone?" asked Harry. He drew his left arm back in preparation. "Then go fetch it!"
Harry hurled the geode into the air, up and over Voldemort's head and towards the far side of the room.
As Voldemort watched the fake stone flying through the air, on a collision course with the far wall, his attention was totally removed from Harry and Mandy. Harry promptly dropped his wand and charged across the space separating them, slamming into Quirrell's side in a shoulder tackle backed with all his weight behind it. The impact sent Quirrell and Voldemort staggering back and into the enchanted mirror at the centre of the room.
"Here!" yelled Mandy as she tossed the scythe to Harry, who snatched it out of the air with both hands. He spun around and in a single movement swung the weapon as though it were a cricket bat.
"NOOOO!" screeched Quirrell, seeing the scythe's blade coming at him.
Grim's scythe tore into Quirrell's chest, slicing through flesh and bone without slowing. The long blade pierced straight through its victim, actually stabbing out his back and into the face of the mirror, which was suddenly strewn with a spider's web of cracks.
"AAAARGH!" both Voldemort and Quirrell let loose a dual shriek of agony.
Harry saw a black and wispy shadow begin to separate from Quirrell's body, which he immediately realized to be Voldemort's spirit. He began to pull the scythe free, intending to take a swipe at the now liberated shade, but the mirror suddenly exploded in a storm of raw magic and razor-sharp glass fragments. The force of the explosion ripped Quirrell to shreds, spraying blood and flesh over Harry while knocking him through the air, almost back to where Mandy was watching. He hit the floor hard and quickly succumbed to unconsciousness.
"Damn!" cursed Mandy, crouching low and shielding her face from the flying glass. Looking up, she saw the ghostly form of Voldemort fleeing the room, the black flames having extinguished themselves with Quirrell's death. "Damn!"
Realizing that it was all over, she kneeled down next to Harry to see how badly he had been hurt. At a glance she could tell that he was alive, but suffering a number of lacerations, some of them quite deep. He was also slightly singed about the edges.
"Mandy? Harry? Are you two okay?"
"We're fine, Grim," she answered.
Grim bounced his head around Ron and Hermione's prone bodies so that he could see her and Harry. "Ah," he muttered upon confirming their health. "I knew it was too good to be true."
"Miss Maxwell? Harry?" called an elderly voice.
Dumbledore rushed into the room, wand at the ready and magic swirling around him. He took in the scene with a glance; the stunned and rope-bound Ron and Hermione, Grim's skull, the destroyed mirror, and Mandy kneeling over the motionless and blood covered form of Harry Potter. Mandy looked up and stared at him, clearly disgruntled by his late arrival.
"Wonderful. Now you get back."
The world was incredibly blurry when Harry woke up. Of course, without his glasses this was normal. Lifting his head up to blearily look around, Harry found himself confronted by a bright purple and orange shape, with the odd blob of silver, filling his vision.
"Ah, good morning, Harry, my boy."
"Hwah?" asked Harry intelligently, vaguely recognising the voice even if he could not make out the person's face. He felt the familiar frame of his glasses being pressed into his hands and he promptly settled them into place. He blinked the sleep from his eyes and realized that the blurry figure was in fact Hogwarts' headmaster, Professor Dumbledore and his outlandishly coloured robes and beard. "Headmaster?"
"Indeed," said Dumbledore with a smile. "I must confess to being somewhat surprised. Madam Pomfrey did not expect you to wake up until later this afternoon."
Harry looked around and found himself to be lying in one of the beds that occupied the hospital wing. He swallowed, suddenly aware of how dry his mouth was, and asked, "How long was I out of it?"
"Two days. This morning is the start of the third," said Dumbledore. "Your friends will no doubt be greatly relieved that you have regained consciousness."
Propping himself up, Harry discovered a small mountain of sweets and other gifts piled up next to his bed. He looked at this with some degree of confusion, not entirely certain what was going on.
"Tokens from your friends and admirers," explained Dumbledore, seeing his expression.
"For what?" asked Harry, now even more surprised.
"For safeguarding the peace and prosperity of the wizarding world," said Dumbledore. "You and your friends' adventure in the dungeons has made the rounds of the Hogwarts rumour mill. The whole school knows of your efforts to keep the Stone out of unscrupulous hands."
Harry wondered briefly if Dumbledore would consider Mandy's hands scrupulous or not. His thoughts then turned to Voldemort and their confrontation in the mirror room.
"Did I get him?" he asked hopefully.
"Quirinus Quirrell, I'm sad to say, is dead," Dumbledore informed him solemnly. "So, yes, you did indeed 'get him'."
"Not Quirrell - Voldemort!" Harry corrected sharply.
"Ah," Dumbledore nodded in understanding. He then dashed Harry's hopes by shaking his head. "Unfortunately he managed to escape us. Once it was obvious that you had defeated him, he fled; leaving Quirrell to die. So long as he was in that insubstantial form, little more than a wraith, there exists no means known to any wizard that could succeed in destroying him."
"Grim's scythe can kill anything."
"Perhaps," Dumbledore allowed, "but can it kill something that is not truly alive? That remains to be seen."
"What about the Stone?" asked Harry.
"Miss Maxwell has told me what happened," said Dumbledore. "Sadly, it had shattered against the far wall, where you threw it."
Harry took this to mean that their deception had been successful and that the remains of the fake had been taken for the real Philosopher's Stone, which was now safely in Mandy's possession. Well, perhaps 'safely' was not the best way to describe it.
"Oh bugger," he swore, playing up his part of trying to rescue the Stone rather than steal it. He bowed his head, worrying slightly that his acting was a trifle over the top. He mumbled an apologetic, "I'm sorry, sir."
"No need to apologise, dear boy," Dumbledore assured him. "Even had the Stone survived unscathed; I would have destroyed it."
"I suppose that's for the best," mused Harry, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "Limitless wealth and practical immortality. A dangerous combination."
"You are wise beyond your years, Harry. Wise beyond your years." Dumbledore angled his head and regarded Harry from over the rims of his half-moon spectacles. "I find it very curious, indeed, that you should hide your intelligence. None of the staff, not even Professor Snape, who is by nature a very suspicious man, suspected that you and your friends knew about the Stone and Voldemort's interest in it."
Harry gave the old wizard a wry smirk. "Consider the nature of my friends, sir," Harry reminded him.
"Yes," said Dumbledore, sounding distinctly disgruntled. He quickly recovered, however, and said, "At first it was Grim that cause me the most apprehension. I soon realized that Miss Maxwell's presence was of far greater concern."
"She means well."
"As Professor Snape said; she's a raving, power-hungry sociopath."
"As you said; Mandy does not rave," countered Harry.
"Perhaps not, but I note that you do not deny the rest," observed the headmaster.
"We all have our hobbies," Harry shrugged.
"I will not lie and say that her presence here does not worry me greatly," Dumbledore admitted.
"Maybe, but she's hasn't really hurt anyone," said Harry, trying to allay the headmaster's worries.
"Doubtless young Draco Malfoy would disagree," said Dumbledore dryly, though a hint of a twinkle reappeared in his eyes.
"Mandy's day simply isn't complete until she's had a chance to beat somebody up," said Harry by way of explanation. He shrugged helplessly. "Usually it's Dudley, but Malfoy seems to fill a similar role here at Hogwarts. Dean as well, I suppose, though he seems to actually enjoy it."
Dumbledore leaned back in his chair and stroked his beard thoughtfully, his gaze losing focus as he reminisced. "Many years ago, before I became headmaster, I made a dreadful and costly mistake by ignoring the actions of one of my students," he said. He then gave Harry a piercing look, one that actually left him feeling slightly threatened. "I have no desire to see your young lady friend replace Lord Voldemort as the wizarding world's bogeyman."
Harry ignored the warning and instead latched onto the earlier statement. "You taught Tom Riddle?"
"You know his real name?" asked Dumbledore, clearly surprised.
"Grim tends to rant about him every so often; how he keeps escaping," said Harry with another shrug. "Him and Elvis."
"Yes, most vexing, isn't it," Dumbledore agreed.
"We'll get him," said Harry with absolute confidence. He narrowed his eyes, thinking about how close he had come this time. "Sooner or later."
Dumbledore, sensing the ominous intent behind Harry's words, could do nothing but nod in silent agreement.
Several other people stopped by to visit Harry, but the only ones that stayed for more than a few minutes were his close friends. Mandy and Grim were the first to arrive, just as Dumbledore was leaving. Grim was obviously worried over Harry's condition, though would doubtless deny that fact if anyone asked. Mandy's expression was more difficult to read, as always, but Harry could tell that she was relieved to see that he was awake.
"You all right?" she asked, pulling up a chair next to his bed.
"A little tired," Harry admitted, "but yeah, I'm okay."
"Sorry for not reaping Riddle when I had de chance," apologised Grim gruffly. He was not pleased that the Dark Lord had managed to give him the slip yet again. He viewed Voldemort's escape as a personal affront to his reaping skills, despite the fact that he had been reduced to little more than an ambulatory skull at the time.
"Next time then," said Harry.
They spoke quietly for several minutes, mostly confirming that Harry was now well on the road to recovery, when Ron and Hermione came barging in. The pair had barely reached Harry's bed when Junior entered. The odd boy looked about nervously before he caught sight of Harry and scuttled over.
"Oh, Harry!" exclaimed Hermione, looking ready to fling herself at him. "We were sure you were going to - Dumbledore was so worried-"
"The whole school's talking about it," said Ron as Hermione became incoherent. "What happened?"
"Mandy and I've already told you," complained Grim. "Twice."
"Well, I don't know what happened," insisted Junior, quietly defending Ron. His friendships with the other Hufflepuff boys always had an air of tension about them. Ron and Hermione were about the only two people in Hogwarts, aside from Harry and Mandy, that didn't always look as if they were expecting him to suddenly turn psychotic.
Harry was happy to relate their adventure to his cousin, his friends adding their own two knuts now and then. He had just finished telling how Grim had masterfully worked to get them past McGonagall's chess set, when Eris came waltzing into the Hospital Wing; both Crabbe and Goyle trailing faithfully behind her. The poor lugs were burdened by massive boutiques of sweet-smelling flowers.
"Harry, darling!" she proclaimed. "How are you, dearie?"
"I'm fine, Eris," answered Harry.
"Wonderful!" gasped the goddess, leaning down to grace Harry's cheeks with exaggerated kisses. "You wouldn't believe the chaos you and your little friends-" she glanced at Mandy, who was gnashing her teeth, "-have stirred up throughout the school with this stunt."
"You must be enjoying yourself den," observed Grim.
"I've been getting so jiggy with the chaos," Eris admitted, "that it leaves me breathless."
"Pity it doesn't leave you speechless," growled Mandy.
"D'you know what happened, or can I carry on from where I was?" asked Harry for Eris.
Eris waved Harry's concerns aside and plopped down on the bed next to his, reclining in all her glory as a deity. Crabbe and Goyle, having set the flowers they had been carrying down, took up stations by her side. Crabbe pulled out a large bunch of grapes which he began to feed to her one at a time. Goyle somehow acquired a massive palm leaf and started waving it up and down like a fan.
"I'm a goddess, Harry luv," Eris reminded them all. "Of course I know what happened - so please, continue as if I'd been here for the entire story."
Wondering, not for the first time, what Eris had done to Malfoy's former bodyguards, Harry resumed his tale. Junior was a good audience, as were Ron and Hermione once Harry progressed to the part after Quirrell had rendered them unconscious. Reactions to Voldemort's involvement were mixed, but everyone agreed that the evil wizard had been lucky to escape Harry's use of Grim's scythe to run him through.
"Aunt Petunia's going to be furious when she hears about this," said Junior once all was said and done.
"Probably," agreed Harry tiredly. He had long ago given up trying to please his relatives. It said a lot about his family that the only members of it that he actually got along with were Junior and his father, Nergal.
"I'm sure that Dad'll be happy for you though," Junior commiserated.
"Nergal is rather fond of Harry," agreed Grim.
"And who is this... Nergal?" demanded a gruff voice from the doors. "Another foul and evil creature, no doubt; ready and willing to do anything to further his own ends."
"That's a pretty good description of him," confirmed Mandy, twisting in her seat to watch as Hoss Delgado entered the hospital wing.
The scruffy spectral-exterminator-cum-professor ambled over to join the group clustered around Harry's bed. "How're you doing there, lil' pardner?"
"Pretty good," said Harry.
"Excellent, we'll have you up and kicking evil butt before you can say 'Sasquatch'," Hoss rasped happily, absentmindedly slapping Ron on the back. He seemed rather puzzled when Ron was literally knocked off his feet.
"I'll be ready in time for your lessons next year," said Harry.
"'Fraid not, lil' pardner," Hoss shook his head. "I'm here to say goodbye, y'see. You lot'll be having a different Defence teacher next year. Hopefully that old codger'll hire someone decent for the job and not another example of wretched scum and villainy."
"You're leaving?" asked Junior as the others exchanged glances.
"Hallelujah," muttered Grim.
"But why?" demanded Ron. Defence was his favourite class, despite the airborne chainsaws and other paraphernalia that was want to fly about during lessons. In fact most of the students enjoyed Hoss's quirky brand of teaching. Even Crabbe and Goyle seemed to find it more interesting than their other classes. Besides which, Hoss was a fellow redhead and thus Ron felt a certain degree of kinship with the odd man.
"I've heard rumours about vampire koala bears down in Australia," revealed Hoss, his eye gleaming with excitement at the prospect of it. "Dangerous little critters - stupid, but clever."
"Stupid..." repeated Mandy.
"...but clever?" finished Hermione. "That doesn't make any sense."
"Nuttin' new dere," chirped Grim.
"You watch out for this Lord Moldybutt character, y'hear?" said Hoss, ruffling Harry's hair into a state of even worse disarray than it usually was. Nobody took much notice of the vase on the nightstand that inexplicably shattered. He gave the others a lopsided grin, save for Grim whom he glared distrustfully at. "I'll be keeping an eye on you," he threatened, making a show of pointing to his eye patch, and then strode purposefully out of the Hospital Wing.
"There goes our best teacher," summed up Ron.
"The best looking one, as well," Hermione sighed, earning incredulous looks from Grim and Ron. "Well, he is," she said defensively, but with a faint blush. "That scruffy image just makes him so... so... mysterious."
"De man's a whole park short of a picnic," insisted Grim.
The remainder of the school year was exceptionally dull by comparison. Final exams came and went, though it was only Hermione that actually seemed to really care about it. The last Quidditch match of the year, Gryffindor against Ravenclaw, was played the day after Harry had been released from the infirmary. Sadly, even his presence did little to prevent the Ravenclaws from steamrolling over the rest of the Gryffindor team. In the end, while he did catch the Snitch, they still lost the game by twenty points. As the Ravenclaw Seeker had been shoulder-to-shoulder with Harry at the time, nobody could fault him for ending the match and sparing them the embarrassment of losing by a much greater margin.
"Curse you, Fate! Why do you torment me so?"
Well, almost nobody. Oliver Wood was, understandably, completely distraught.
Before too long, school was over and it was time for the Hogwarts students to depart for their summer holidays.
The final points tally ended with Ravenclaw winning the House Cup by a mere two points, just edging out Slytherin. The house of Snakes had not done as well as previous years, mostly due to Eris's disrupting influence. While none of the professors were brave enough to deduct points from her, they made up for it by not awarding points to anyone else in the house. Something similar happened to both Gryffindor and Hufflepuff, thanks to Mandy and Nergal Junior's presences respectively. The result was that the one house without one of the "odd" students ended up winning.
There was, however, a very pregnant and worried pause after Dumbledore had announced the results at the Leaving Feast. All eyes, from all houses, nervously turned to those responsible for this outcome. The sigh of relief when no retribution appeared was almost palpable.
Once the word was given, the Slytherins practically sprinted out of the castle and down towards the train station and the Hogwarts Express. They were in such a hurry to finally escape Eris that they did not even bother using the Thestral-drawn carriages, instead making the journey on foot, while dragging their trunks behind them. It was reported that Draco Malfoy was crying tears of joy upon reaching Hogsmeade.
In retrospect, the Slytherins had the right idea, as Eris was determined to end the school year off with a bang. Literally. Nobody knew exactly all of what she did; it was too chaotic to keep track of everything. The only thing that everyone agreed on was that Professor Snape had finally had enough and had collapsed into Professor Dumbledore's arms, sobbing brokenly like a man whose nerves had been shattered beyond repair. In the end, it was a bedraggled Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw that finally reached the waiting train.
"How many more hours till we reach London?" asked Mandy, for once looking a little ruffled.
"Too many," Harry replied, still trying to get the chicken feathers out of his hair.
"At least she isn't in dis compartment," commented Grim, using a bone-needle and thread to patch up his tattered black robes.
"I never thought I'd say this, but I actually feel kind of sorry for Crabbe and Goyle," mused Ron.
"If dey be Eris' toadies den dere's not anyting we can do about it."
"I know, but, Merlin, I'm glad I not in their shoes. Poor buggers."
Surprisingly enough the bulk of the journey down to London was a quiet one; though the occasional explosion and bout of maniacal laughter from elsewhere on the train did disturb the peace somewhat. It was after several hours of this, shortly before the snack cart lady was due to make her rounds, that their compartment was visited by Ron's older brothers. Fred and George had enjoyed, as you might imagine, a very entertaining year at Hogwarts, though they were slightly put out at having been so completely outperformed by Eris.
"Harry!" exclaimed Fred as they entered.
"And Mandy!" added George, pushing in beside his twin.
"And our favourite ickle brother..."
"What are you two lunatics doing here?" asked Ron grumpily, even as the rest of the compartment ignored the twins' exuberant arrival.
"Actually..." began George.
"...we wanted a quick word with Harry," continued Fred.
"If you don't mind that is."
Before the boy in question could answer, however, the pair found themselves pinned down by Mandy's formidable gaze. Nobody commented on how they both promptly clapped their hands over their groins. By this point such an act was merely common sense when encountering the blonde girl. She stared at them ominously and warned, "Just be quick about it."
"Right!" squeaked Fred. He cleared his throat and tried again, this time sounding much calmer. "Right."
"What we're here for-"
"-in point of fact-"
"-is this thing to do with the Philosopher's Stone," explained George.
"What about it?" asked Harry blankly, not really seeing what that had to do with anything.
"Well, there are a lot of rumours about what really happened," said George.
"All sorts of crazy stuff," elaborated Fred.
"It's actually becoming a tad confusing-"
"-which is saying a lot considering Eris's presence-"
"-so we'd like to set the record straight," concluded George.
"You mean," asked Harry slowly, just to be sure, "you want to know what really happened?"
"Yes! That's it exactly," Fred beamed, pleased to know that they had managed to get their point across. His enthusiasm dimmed slightly as he noticed that Mandy was frowning towards them. Not that she wasn't always frowning - but her intolerance for interruption seemed to be growing more pronounced the longer they spoke.
"How'd you do it, Harry?" asked George earnestly.
"Yeah, we'd really like to know," insisted Fred, trying to ignore Mandy's stare.
"We're rather hoping to win the pool."
"There's a pool?" asked Mandy in surprise, her glower disappearing in her surprise.
"Nearly sixty Galleons worth," nodded Fred in confirmation and some relief.
"So, will you tell us?"
Harry stared at the two for a long moment, mulling over their request. He did not find it too strange that people were betting on what had really happened; there were so many rumours going round that getting an answer from the source was the only way to set everything straight. He glanced at Mandy to see what she thought about it. She responded with an unconcerned shrug. He turned back to the twins and gave them the answer they were looking for.
Of course, there was no guarantee that it was a truthful answer. He was friends with Eris, after all.
The twins stared blankly for a second before chorusing, "Sea turtles?"
"Right useful little buggers they are," Harry nodded sagely.
"You can escape practically anyting wit a sea turtle," agreed Grim.
"Sea turtles?" repeated Fred, looking to George.
George shrugged and reiterated, "Sea turtles."
The pair departed shortly after that, Fred grumbling over a list of the various bets and George bemoaning the fact that Eris was the one to claim the pot. After all, who could have expected the goddess of chaos's completely off-the-wall bet to actually be the correct one?
After the twins had gone there was a long silence that was finally broken when Hermione cleared her throat and asked, "So... sea turtles?"
"A wizard never reveals his tricks, Hermione," grinned Harry.
"Yes, but... sea turtles?"
"At least he didn't blame it on the spoon," muttered Mandy.
"What?" asked Hermione.
"Never mind," Harry hurriedly cut that line of enquiry off before it could progress too far.
The compartment had barely settled down from the twins' departure when they received their second batch of visitors.
"Hello, everyone," greeted Junior.
"Hello," chorused the various Hufflepuffs accompanying him.
"Hey, Junior," acknowledged Harry. "What brings you by?"
Junior grimaced unhappily. "Eris's little going away present ruined my scones and curdled the tea."
Nobody mentioned the expressions of relief on the Hufflepuff's faces. Nobody mentioned how Hannah Abbott was trying to sneak away either.
"What a pity," commented Mandy.
"Yeah," sighed Junior. He then perked up a bit. "But then I remembered how peckish I was on the train ride at the start of school."
No-one was entirely sure of the relevance of this comment and so exchanged confused looks.
"Oh my, what's that?" exclaimed Junior, pointing out the compartment window.
For just a second all eyes turned to look for whatever had caught their visitor's attention. The odd slurping sound and muffled eep drew their gazes back.
Junior remained unmoved from where he had been standing. His arms were folded behind his back, his tentacles were nowhere in evidence and he was affecting the most innocent expression he could muster.
The only thing out of the ordinary was the way his cheeks were puffed out, as if his mouth had been stuffed full with... something.
Another minor detail was that Scabbers was gone.
"Hmm, that's funny..." mused Junior, licking his lips. "Tastes like chicken."
"Scabbers!" shrieked Ron, finally springing into action.
"Junior," moaned Harry in exasperation.
"Give him back! Give back Scabbers!" yelled Ron as he grabbed Junior by his shirt and began shaking him, back and forth.
"But I'm so hungry," protested Junior weakly.
"I don't care how hungry you are! I don't care! Give me back my rat! I want my rat!"
"Calm down, Ron," advised Harry, getting up and grabbing the other boy by the shoulder.
"Calm down? Calm down?" Ron shouted. "He ate Scabbers!"
"Why are you complaining?" asked Grim. "You're always complaining about de rat anyway."
"It's the principle of the thing," explained Hermione calmly, though she was looking a little green.
"I want my rat!"
"Junior, give back the rat."
Harry fixed his cousin with a firm look. "We've discussed this, Junior. You just can't eat people's pets or familiars."
"Cough it up. Now."
Junior's protests died upon Mandy's quiet command. The annoyed look on her face was also quite convincing.
"Oh, all right," Junior sighed dejectly.
It took a minute or so and involved a great deal of hacking, coughing and several disturbing sounds that defy description, but eventually Scabbers was returned to his owner. Ron's concern for his pet was briefly overwhelmed by disgust as the slimy ball of fur impacted his front and fell to the floor with a wet splat.
"Scabbers! Bloody hell!"
"Sorry," apologised Junior sheepishly.
"Well... don't do it again!" Ron eventually managed to sally as he bent down to pick up the traumatised animal with a hanky.
Junior did not stay long after that, but departed with his fellow Hufflepuffs, apologising all the way. The look of certain doom on their faces, mixed with a longing to remain just a moment longer, was the last anyone saw of them.
The Express was not far from the outskirts of London when their last visitor of the train ride made himself known.
"And look who we have here," drawled Draco as he pulled open the compartment door and stepped inside with a pronounced swagger. Apparently the lack of Eris's presence in the immediate vicinity had somewhat restored his confidence.
Ron, who had been busily petting Scabbers in an attempt to calm and reassure the rat, froze in place. He immediately set Scabbers aside and began to watch closely what was about to happen. His eager anticipation was almost palpable.
"He never learns," muttered Hermione, also sitting back to watch.
"What do you want this time, Malfoy?" asked Harry.
"Oh, I don't want anything, Potter," Draco replied haughtily.
"Then why are you bothering us?"
A razor edged smile crossed Draco's face as he leaned in towards them. "I'm here to give you and the m-mudblood a warning," he announced, stumbling over the words when it came to mentioning Mandy.
The compartment, already quiet, grew absolutely silent as all eyes turned to the blonde girl their visitor had just insulted.
"What warning?" asked Harry, apparently keeping his cool, though his hand had strayed to where his wand was stored.
"Just this; watch your backs this summer," threatened Draco. "That maniac Discordia won't be there to stop me. I've been writing to my father and he'll make sure the two of you get what you deserve... And your pet skeleton too!"
"'Ere now, don't be getting me involved in dis," muttered Grim.
"You really are too stupid to live," commented Mandy as she stood up.
Malfoy clapped both hands over his groin and seemed to finally realise the inadvisability of his actions.
"Don't you dare!" he warned, though his voice broke with fear on the last word. "Dumbledore and the rest of the teachers might let you get away with it, but my father..."
Draco trailed off as he noticed that Mandy was not assaulting him. Instead she had taken the time to open the compartment window. After confirming that it was firmly in place, only then did she turn to regard the blonde wizard.
"What are you doing?" asked Draco, his curiosity overriding his caution.
Mandy's gaze dropped down for a second before rising to meet his. "You moved your hands," she noted matter-of-factly.
Draco blinked in confusion before his eyes grew wide with panic. As Mandy said, he had unintentionally allowed his hands to drop away from their protective spot over his crotch. He tried to throw them back into place, but it was too late. With two quick steps Mandy had crossed the compartment and slammed her knee into her target.
"Meep," squeaked Draco as he folded over.
Ordinarily he would have collapsed to the floor, crying and gasping for breath, but Mandy did not give him the chance. Instead she grabbed him by the back of his robes, pulled hard as she spun on a heel and almost casually tossed Draco out the compartment window.
"Oh my god! Oh my god!" screamed Hermione, clutching both hands to her face in horror.
"Bloody hell!" exclaimed Ron, backing away from window even as Mandy slid it closed.
"What?" she asked, noticing their expressions.
"YOU KILLED DRACO!" shrieked Hermione in complete panic.
Harry snorted. "He's not dead."
Hermione whirled to face him and pointed accusingly at Mandy. "She threw him out the window!"
"And your point is?" asked Mandy, arching an eyebrow.
"You threw him out the window! Of a speeding train!"
"Do you want to be next?"
Hermione's eyes widened and her mouth snapped shut with a click.
"I don't see what all the fuss is about - he's not dead," repeated Harry calmly.
"How can you be sure?" asked Hermione, now suspicious of how readily he accepted Mandy's actions.
"Contractual immortality," Harry explained matter-of-factly. He shrugged as if it were obvious. "If he died for good then we'd have a hard time getting him ready for the next chapter."
Hermione stared at him in complete bewilderment, blinking repeatedly. "What?"
Grim, who had not paused in his task of polishing his scythe, finally spoke up. "Don't worry your bushy little head over it, girl," he advised.
"If you absolutely must have an explanation, den blame it on de spoon," the skeleton continued.
"Spoon? What spoon?" repeated Hermione, now completely confused.
"Ignore him; there is no spoon," asserted Mandy, reclaiming her seat next to Harry.
"Will your parents be picking us up?" he asked, shifting the conversation to something a little less worrisome. At least for the other occupants of the compartment.
Mandy gave him a flat look and sarcastically asked, "Who else are you expecting? The Dursleys?"
Harry shrugged, "Grim hasn't complained about Hell freezing over."
It was not much longer before the Express had reached London and was drawing into the hidden platform at King's Cross. Gathering their trunks the group stepped out of the carriage and began their farewells. Handshakes and hugs were exchanged all round, well, mostly. Nobody was crazy enough to dare think of hugging Mandy and not even Hermione (who usually thought the best of people) would consider embracing the Grim Reaper. Everyone did make a point of shaking hands with Junior, though. This was because he still had every single Hufflepuff in their year wrapped up tight in his tentacles and nobody wanted to risk joining them. One look at the somewhat charred Hannah would convince anyone of that.
"Full on friendship!" exclaimed the young godling as he strode down the platform in search of his parents.
With their goodbyes said, promises made to write or to call; the children were treated to the sight of Grim once again having his head blown off by Molly Weasley.
"Dash and damnation, woman! Stop dat!"
Ignoring the brewing confrontation and the faint cry of "Chaos!" that came from several carriages down, Harry and Mandy busied themselves with loading their trunks onto the nearby trolleys. They waited a short bit for Grim to pull himself back together after the Weasleys finally departed, before exiting to the Muggle section of the station.
"So, are we going back?" asked Harry as they passed through the barrier. He was referring to Hogwarts. They had agreed at the start of term that their first year at the school would be nothing but a trial run; to see if the magical world had anything to offer them.
By way of reply, Mandy reached into a pocket and withdrew a familiar red crystal.
"Oh yeah," she said with a satisfied grin, holding the Philosopher's Stone up to catch the late afternoon sunlight. "We're going back."
Author's Note: Before anyone asks; yes, I do indeed already have plans for another chapter (sometime in the very distant future), detailing the Grim Adventures of Harry and Mandy's second year at Hogwarts. Dobby, Lucius, Lockhart, giant spiders (one of which will be named Jeff), basilisks and diaries will all have their shot at spreading the chaos in new and hopefully unexpected ways.
Also, there will be Pain.
Appropriately the title will be; Something Grim Is In The Basement.
A Little Extra
It was good to be back home.
Standing on the front step of Mandy's house, Harry had to admit that very little had changed whilst he, Mandy and Grim had been at Hogwarts for their first year of magical study. Well, there was a rather larger than normal smoking crater just outside the town, several actually, but the residents of Little Whinging were used to things like that by now.
On the other hand...
"I don't remember anyone in the neighbourhood owning a super-sized blue robot with a car for a head," he commented. "D'you?"
"I'm more concerned about de giant cheese-whiz monster dat's stompin' up 'n down Magnolia Crescent," admitted Grim, leaning comfortable against his scythe and watching as the aforementioned robot marched over to challenge the rampaging dairy product.
"This is boring," stated Mandy. "Let's go inside and watch some TV."
"Can we order a pizza?" asked Harry eagerly.