In a large underground chamber made of stone, dimly lit and damp, a dark-skinned man sat reading a thick book on his lap, a small ball of emerald flames above his head providing light to read by.
Slime slowly oozed down the walls of the chamber; the damp air was suffocating; somewhere in the deep darkness water dripped from the ceiling to a puddle on the floor.
Coiling serpents were carved into the tall stone pillars that supported a ceiling shrouded in darkness; more serpents were carved into the man's highbacked wooden chair. They undulated on his clothes, their silver threads glinting in the blackness of his robes. A heavy gold locket inscribed with the letter 's' hung around his neck.
A lock of jet black hair fell onto his forehead but he seemed not to notice. He gave no indication that he was aware of anything but the book he was reading, until a pair of feet came splashing in from the dark, upon which the man gently shut the book.
A filthy, hunchbacked man emerged from the shadows, clad in tattered grey robes and a lopsided grimace that could have passed for a smile. What little hair he had on his head was greasy and stuck to his scalp, and a bulbous nose dominated a face that was pasty and scarred.
"It is ready, my lord," he whispered excitedly, his voice echoing around the chamber.
"Are you sure?" asked the other man in a low voice, still not looking up.
"Quite sure, yes. I've done it before, and you wouldn't employ someone incapable of such a delicate task, would you, my Lord Slytherin?"
The man called Slytherin finally looked up, but only to give the other man a look of cold disdain. "I hope, then, that I have not made a mistake in employing you, Brutus."
"Oh no, my lord!" Brutus shook his head violently, his voice trembling. "Never, my lord! I am your most loyal -"
"That will do," interrupted Slytherin smoothly, rising from his chair and setting the book carefully on the seat. He towered above Brutus, who lowered his head submissively. "Save your snivelling protestations of false loyalty for someone who has less brains than I," said Slytherin. "You work for me only because you fear my power; there is no sense of loyalty involved."
Brutus stared at his gnarled, dirty hands, his upper lip curling.
"All right, enough of this," snapped Slytherin. "If you say it's ready, I want to see it."
Brutus shot him a surreptitious glance full of eager malice before bounding off into the darkness.
Extracting a long thin wand with a peculiarly sharp end from inside his robes, Slytherin conjured several little fireballs to float above his head as he followed Brutus through a dark tunnel running off the chamber, and zapped a tiny jet of flames at Brutus's bottom.
The latter yelled and fell into a deep puddle at the side of the tunnel, puffing as though he'd run a mile. As Slytherin approached chuckling, Brutus glared at him malevolently, but the former passed by him without sparing a glance.
As they neared the end of the tunnel, an odd tapping noise was heard above their footsteps and Brutus's whimpers. It was coming from an arched doorway just ahead of them to the right.
Slytherin paused in the doorway, smiling slightly, a strange gleam in his eyes. In three long strides he crossed the circular room to a small, round table in the center upon which lay a fretful toad; each of his four legs were tied to pegs driven into the table so that the toad could not escape, though it was twisting and croaking with all its might, its eyes bulging alarmingly.
The tapping was coming from the green-tinged chicken egg lying beneath the toad.
"It's hatching," breathed Slytherin, circling the table in a predatory manner, not taking his eyes off the toad and egg.
Brutus merely stared at the spectacle before him with barely concealed disgust.
"Is this the best you could do?" sneered Slytherin, indicating the toad's tied legs.
"I am but a Squib, after all, my lord," growled Brutus resentfully.
Slytherin untied the toad's legs with his wand, tossing the pegs into the emerald fire in the grate behind him, and lazily waved his wand at the toad in his hand. "Petrificus totalus!"
The toad froze, mid-struggle, his eyes bulging even further out of his head. Slytherin placed it back on top of the egg from which the tapping was coming almost continuously now.
A particularly loud tap broke a hole in the eggshell and a minuscule pair of white fangs poked out.
As Slytherin began hissing to the beast within the eggshell, Brutus dropped to the floor, trembling, his filthy hands clamped tightly over his eyes.
"Come, my beauty," hissed Slytherin in Parseltongue, the language of snakes. "Come, my sweet. I am your master; you must do as I command. Do not open your eyes until I tell you to. Keep them closed, my dearest, keep them shut."
Slytherin inhaled abruptly as the fangs were followed by a tiny, vividly green head. The typical yellow eyes of the basilisk were not visible; the serpent had obeyed Slytherin.
The newborn basilisk wriggled out of the eggshell and snapped its fangs hungrily.
"Turn around, my lovely," said Slytherin, "and feast on your first meal in this world. You may open your eyes to kill your prey, but do not turn around unless it is on my command."
The basilisk slithered to the unmoving toad and opened its own deadly eyes. The basilisk hissed in triumph. The only indication that the toad was no longer alive was that its eyes had deflated back into its head. The basilisk tore into the toad's flesh, spraying blood onto the table; after five minutes it was as though the toad had never existed; even the stray droplets of blood were gone.
"Yes, my beauty," hissed Slytherin, running a long, thin finger over the basilisk's body, "you are magnificent, you are powerful, and together we will rid the wizarding world of all the trash admitted into it." His mouth spread into a terrifying grin. "One Mudblood at a time."
His eyes fell on Brutus's cowering body and the grin disappeared. "So, Brutus," he said nonchalantly, "you bred me a basilisk. I thank you and aim to prove my gratitude to you. What manner of reward would you like?"
Brutus slowly uncovered his eyes and looked up at Slytherin's impassive face. Brutus stared at him for a moment, opened his mouth and closed it again, shaking his head, his hands clenching into fists.
"I want nothing, my lord, but to keep serving you," he forced through gritted teeth.
Slytherin smirked. "I see you've learned," he said. "You're not as dim-witted as you seem to be, Brutus." Turning to look at the basilisk, he continued, "But I am grateful. This basilisk will prove invaluable in the coming war."
At this, Brutus raised his eyes to Slytherin curiously. "War?"
Slytherin nodded shortly. "Oh yes, Brutus, war." His eyes sparkled with unearthly excitement as he stared at the wall opposite him. "It has been coming to us for centuries. We have tolerated filth and impurity for too long. The pure blood of wizards grows weak with every dirty Mudblood we accept into our families, and we are left with tainted blood running through our veins and those of our children and grandchildren. No amount of purity can wash away the filth that resides in contaminated veins.
"I will take it upon myself to first rid this school of Mudbloods, and then -" He paused, directing his gaze at the tiny basilisk now coiled around his wrist.
"And then?" prompted Brutus, still avidly staring at his master.
"Then I will take on the world," replied Slytherin simply, "starting with Britain, with Nagini at my side." The terrifying grin returned and Brutus shrunk back. "What, afraid I'll order her to Petrify you, too?" interrogated Slytherin, laughing at Brutus's horror and revulsion.
Still laughing manically, Slytherin threw out the arm around which the basilisk Nagini was wound and, as the snake hit the stone floor, he shouted, "Go!"
The basilisk undulated out of the room and into the dark tunnel beyond, where Slytherin's laughter echoed long after his mouth was shut.
Somewhere down the sixth-floor corridor that sixteen-year-old Ginny Weasley was sprinting along, a grandfather clock chimed sedately several times. Ginny cursed under her breath as she realised she was more than fifteen minutes late for Advanced Potions with the formidable Professor Severus Snape.
She dreaded to think what his reaction would be when she would finally appear in the Potions dungeon – with a worse than substandard piece of homework she'd started and barely finished the night before.
She was so intent on speeding through the corridor towards the nearing staircase that she didn't notice an oily puddle on the floor and went skidding down the hallway before knocking down a fair-haired boy who had been getting to his feet.
"Oof!" The air was knocked out of both Ginny and the boy as they fell to the floor.
"I'm so sorry, I -" Ginny began, but catching sight of the boy's white-blond hair and pale, pointed face said, "Oh, it's you. Never mind, then."
Draco Malfoy sighed heavily. "Of all the people I could've had on top of me, it had to be a Weasley."
"You ought to be grateful it wasn't my brother Ron," retorted Ginny, clambering off Draco and getting to her feet.
"Judging by the fact that he has to be restrained from jumping on me," grinned Draco, also getting to his feet and dusting off his robes, "I'd say he rather likes the idea of being on top of me."
"The only reason Ron is kept from punching your puny little brain to a pulp is so that he's not sent to Azkaban to join your abominable father," snapped Ginny.
Draco's liquid grey eyes turned to hard pewter. "At least my father doesn't spend all his time cosying up with Muggles and degrading his name and blood."
"My father has never done a single thing to degrade his name or blood," hissed Ginny, her eyes spitting sparks. "My father isn't a Death Eater, nor is he rotting away in prison."
It took Draco one long stride to place himself a few inches from Ginny. He glared down at her defiant, heart-shaped face with miserable fury.
"My father is not rotting," he said, his voice quavering slightly. He gritted his teeth tightly, cursing his emotion, and continued, "He'll escape. He won't be in there forever."
"Nobody is," whispered Ginny, taken aback by the sudden burgeoning shoot of compassion within her for the angry boy in front of her.
Draco started, his grey eyes wide and alarmed as they looked past Ginny's face at a bleak future only his mind's eye could conjure. He stepped away from her then, back-pedalling until he hit the corridor wall; his eyes searched for his book-bag.
"Malfoy, I -" Ginny began.
But Draco picked up his bag, muttered, "I'm late for Charms," and strode off.
Ginny bit her lip and frowned. Compassion for Draco Malfoy was a new thing where she was concerned, but he had looked startlingly forlorn a moment before. Maybe he'd actually grown a heart in the past couple of years ...
"Hey, Malfoy!" she yelled at his retreating form. "Malfoy, wait!" Abandoning the books spilling out of her bag she ran to catch up with him.
"Malfoy, hang on -" she panted, grabbing hold of his sleeve.
Dropping his bag, Draco whipped around, wand in hand. "Let go of me, Weasley," he growled, "or I swear I'll curse you into kingdom come." Draco punctuated the threat with a violent shake of the the arm Ginny had a hold on.
Ginny, standing awkwardly and unexpecting the sudden movement, lost her balance and fell sideways into the glass doors of an ornate black and gold cabinet. Ginny screwed her eyes shut tightly just before the glass smashed, dimly realising that she was still holding onto Draco's arm.
The cabinet tipped sideways and crashed to the floor, the fragile wood splintering. The last thought that entered Ginny's mind before she and Draco were sucked into the cabinet was that she'd get a lifetime of detentions from Professor Snape; then they vanished in a whirl of whistling wind and blinding colour, their own screams ringing in their ears.
For the second time that day Draco Malfoy landed flat on his back with Ginny Weasley lying on her stomach across his legs.
"You stupid Weasley!" he exploded, struggling to get up. "You could have got us both injured or killed or – or – get off me, damn you!"
"Oh, shut up, you ninny!" snarled Ginny, clambering off Draco and standing up. "Unfortunately for the universe, you're still alive."
"You – hey, where's the cabinet?"
They both looked around but there was no sign of any broken glass or splinters of wood or anything that might have indicated that an enormous cabinet had just stood where they were now.
"It's – it's gone!" said Ginny.
Draco rolled his eyes. "Stellar observation, Weasley, I hadn't really notice that."
"Would you stop being so snarky and use whatever remnants of a brain you have to help me figure out what the hell just happened?"
"I was the one who noticed that the cabinet was gone in the first place," remarked Draco scornfully.
"Oooh, just stop it," exclaimed Ginny furiously, "and let me think, if you're so unwilling!"
"Good luck finding something to think with," muttered Draco, wandering off to the arched window.
Draco's silence did not offer Ginny any bright ideas as to the puzzle presented to them; instead her brain began buzzing and a feeling of panic welled up in her chest as she glanced at her watch to find that she was almost a whole hour late for Advanced Potions. Snape would definitely kill her.
Ginny frowned at Draco; his voice was decidedly panicked, but if he had been late for Charms, surely he couldn't be afraid of Professor Flitwick as everyone but Slytherins were afraid of Snape?
"Weasley, come here."
Ginny's scowl deepened. "If you think you can order me around -"
"Just shut up and come here. Please."
It was more the distress in his voice than anything that made Ginny close her mouth and step over to the window.
Draco turned to her, his face paler than usual. "Look out there." He indicated the window with a trembling hand.
Ginny looked but her mind couldn't focus on anything. "What am I supposed to be seeing?"
"That oaf's – that giant's –"
"You mean Hagrid?" prompted Ginny coldly.
"His – his hut -" Draco swallowed. "It's not there."
"What d'you mean, it's not -" Ginny looked out the window again and all the colour drained from her face as she realised that Draco was right – the Forbidden Forest was there, stretching on into the distance, but Hagrid's tiny hut was nowhere near it, unlike it was supposed to be.
"Weasley? We're still at Hogwarts, right?"
"I – I'm not sure ..."
They stood staring at each other dumbly for a moment, sick with apprehension, before Draco took charge.
"The – the cabinet was there, right?" he said, pointing to the wall opposite them.
Ginny surveyed the site and it looked no different than the one where the cabinet had stood; she nodded. "Right."
"But it's not here anymore, neither is Hagrid's cabin ..." Draco clasped his hands behind his back and began pacing. A minute later, he came to a halt in the middle of the corridor. He had a serious, intent look on his face that Ginny had never seen before. "That cabinet, what did it look like?"
Ginny tore her eyes away from Draco's steely gaze to look at the cabinet's former place and furrowed her brow, trying to bring the image of it into the forefront of her mind. "Black ... and gold ... with glass panels in the doors ..."
An ugly grimace twisted Draco's pale-lipped mouth. "I thought so." He paced again.
"Why did you ask me, then?"
Draco stopped pacing and stared at Ginny with a cruelly amused look on his face that made her flinch. "It was a Vanishing Cabinet, Weasley. Doubtless those moronic twin brothers of yours told you of Montague's little escapade with it during Umbridge's reign over Hogwarts?"
"Ye-es," drew out Ginny, "but I don't see how it -"
"A Vanishing Cabinet," repeated Draco. "It was malfunctioning when Montague was shoved in it by your brothers. The Cabinet you use is supposed to transfer you to any other Cabinet it is connected to, but Montague just ended up stuck in limbo – mid-transportation, if you will."
"Weren't we supposed to end up in another Cabinet, then?" inquired Ginny nervously.
"Yes," answered Draco abruptly. "Which makes me think that the Cabinet we fell into was tuned as a time-travel device."
Ginny couldn't help it – she laughed. "Come off it, Malfoy. Aren't Vanishing Cabinets just supposed to make you vanish?"
"And how does a genius like you explain Hagrid's missing hut, then?" Malfoy scanned the floor around them. "And the absence of our bags ..."
"But why would that Cabinet have been tuned as a time-travel device? Besides, aren't Time-Turners the only mechanisms which allow time-travel?"
Malfoy scowled at her. "You ask too many questions, Weasley, none of which you aim to answer yourself." He paused, apparently thinking. "You know, I really hate to say it, but something tells me that this wasn't quite an accident."
"Please tell me you're not insinuating that somebody deliberately meddled with the Cabinet. I've been the victim of enough evil plotting to last me a lifetime."
Draco stared at Ginny impassively until the latter dropped her gaze to the floor. "Just so you know," said Draco slowly, "my father didn't inform me of any plans to meddle with Vanishing Cabinets or time."
Ginny offered him a faint smile, which made Draco feel oddly uncomfortable.
"Any ideas as to when in the past we could be?" he asked irritably.
"Before Hagrid's time, I suppose," offered Ginny uncertainly. "Or we could be in the future, past Hagrid's time." She sighed heavily. "Either way Snape's giving me detention when we get back for missing Potions."
"That's the least of your problems. It would be more correct to say if you get back." Draco inhaled deeply; anxious grey eyes met wary brown ones. "The other Cabinet isn't here. It may not even exist."
Ginny's mouth dropped open as she realised the implications of their situation. The sound of approaching footsteps, however, prevented her making a more eloquent demonstration of her feelings.
Draco grabbed her around the waist and dragged her into a shadowed stone alcove.
"What are you doing?" hissed Ginny, struggling against his grip.
"We have travelled through time with a possible threat to our lives," Draco whispered. "You have no idea who could be walking the halls of Hogwarts whenever we are now."
They shrunk down into the shadows as the footsteps drew closer and the tell-tale swishing of robes could be heard. The footsteps slowed and suddenly came to a stop.
Ginny felt a thin hand steal over her nose and mouth and nearly yelled out before she realised it was Draco's, who had thrown the hood of his Hogwarts robes over his bright hair and motioned Ginny to do the same.
As he crouched with his back to the corridor, he pressed her front to his chest and it struck Ginny how easily this action could have been interpreted as a loving embrace had they both not been so terrified. She could feel Draco's blood pulsing rapidly through the veins in his throat; her forehead lay against it.
The footsteps slowly continued. Ginny closed her eyes and held her breath as they passed the alcove where she and Draco were hidden, praying they would not be noticed.
To her immense relief, the footsteps did not stop but gathered speed and were soon out of their range of hearing. Ginny sagged against Draco, who instantly loosed his hold on her and stepped away.
"You see what I mean?" he asked, not looking at her. "We have to keep out of sight until we can establish who's in possession of Hogwarts and what time period we're in. It's safer this way."
He peeked out of the alcove and instantly drew back. A woman had been climbing the staircase at the end of the corridor and he thought she may have seen him.
True enough, a clear feminine voice cried out, "Wait!"
Draco exchanged a despairing glance with Ginny. But before they could bolt out of the alcove the woman burst into it.
The woman was tall and pallid; a deep blue gown that matched her eyes hung off her slender frame and a sand-coloured sash was tied around her hips. A long auburn plait hung over her shoulder, braided with a bronze ribbon, and a simple circlet divided her broad, smooth forehead.
Ginny gasped. This woman had been depicted in her History of Magic book more than once; she looked no different now than she had in the book; even the dress was the same.
It was Rowena Ravenclaw.