Three days later, Harry was ready to pull his hair out in frustration.
In a show of uncommon sobriety, the Fat Lady was still as vigilant as when she began taking her job of watchdog seriously. But despite how much he appreciated the fickle bint finally taking her job seriously, it really couldn't have happened at a more inopportune time. Hagrid's cabin remained unexplored, the end of the semester was fast approaching, and the Heir of Slytherin was no closer to being uncovered than before. And Harry didn't even want to think of what would happen to Hogwarts once the general public learned the truth surrounding the petrified victims, if the culprit were still at large.
Harry didn't have much hope of any of the petrified victims remembering just what the hell Slytherin's monster had been either. Fifty years ago, there had been an inconvenient case of selective amnesia in all of them, and he'd bet the same would happen this time. The only one he could imagine might remember would be Nearly-Headless Nick, and that's because, being dead -or at least a very good imitation of the dead- probably put him under special circumstances. In fact, Harry often wondered how they would give the Mandrake potion to a ghost of all things.
Regardless his vexation with his own lack of progress on that front, things had begun slowly improving. Luna had taken to sitting with him at all meals, suddenly occupying one of the many noticeable empty spots around him whenever he sat down in the Great Hall. None of the other students really gave them much trouble for that, seeing as how they were all too busy with revision for the end of term exams.
Surprisingly, exams were still scheduled as usual. This left the fifth and seventh year students on the verge of breakdowns, especially considering how their O.W.L's and N.E.W.T's were only two weeks away. Matters of the Heir and the Chamber suddenly found themselves pushed to the back of their minds as students began the almost ritualistic panicky cramming before exam periods.
That was perfectly fine with Harry, who was sick of everyone treating him like a leper. He could finally ask his housemates to pass the salt without worrying about them throwing it in his face or such tosh. Admittedly, there was always a chance they would temporarily break free from their manic revision to realize who he was, but most of the times they'd just look at him like he was some sort of ephemeral spirit.
This of course, didn't stop Harry from grinning whenever he saw a particularly frantic student break out into tears. Part of him felt guilty, but he felt that some measure of vindictive amusement had been earned. Ironically, after the whole year he'd had, study period was turning out to be incredibly cathartic. Even so, whenever he was by himself in Gryffindor tower he began felt the weight of exams press in around him. Without Hermione, the material was much harder to comprehend than before, which wasn't to say that Harry was having trouble; he was just attempting to maintain the same pace of he'd been at when working together with his friends. Not to mention the stacks of homework the professors kept passing out, with no end to it all in sight.
Perhaps they were hoping to distract the Heir of Slytherin from hurting any more students by inundating them all with homework, Harry mused. It was certainly working if that was the intention; matters of the Chamber were slowly fading into the background with each passing day.
The only exception was Professor Lockhart, who had taken to raving on and on about his new book he intended to publish. He continued regaling his classes with details and reenactments of his books, but the difference now was that the man would occasionally stop at random times and suddenly start writing in his pocketbook.
His class was the only one without any large assignments though, giving the man's previously dying popularity among the student population a very much-unneeded boost. Surprisingly though, the egotistical poofter did not seem to notice this very much.
However, even with the steadily improving treatment from the other students, and the day of Ron and Hermione's cure not too far off, Harry could not shake the feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach that kept increasing by the day. End of term meant that students would be sent back home, and Harry would be sent back to the Dursleys, with no certainty that Hogwarts would reopen in the fall.
So, instead of waiting for the Fat Lady to fall to temptation once more, he decided it was time to learn some magic.
"Between twitchy nosehairs, and a set of gills, which would you prefer?" Luna asked without deviating from the issue of The Quibbler in front of her.
"Gills." Harry said absently, he himself not looking up from his own reading.
Beside him, he heard the Ravenclaw girl write something down on a piece of parchment that she had put aside for some reason. He didn't know what she was doing, or even what she was thinking of for that matter, but he tried not to think about it too hard. Trying to understand the meaning behind many of the girl's actions often left his mind thinking in Escher puzzles.
She had been adamant that he answered the questions when he sat down for lunch with her. That had been fifteen minutes ago. Since then, it had been query after query, none of it seemingly related.
Finally she said something else. "How odd."
Harry looked up from his book, making a mental note of where he left off. "What's odd?" he asked, truly curious despite his misgivings. For Luna to say that, it had to be something outlandish indeed.
"This quiz I had you take," Luna said, a concerned look on her face. "The results don't make any sense."
Harry managed to cover his snort by faking cough. There were more things than a quiz that didn't make any sense within the confines of the Quibbler, but he wasn't going to tell her that. The one time he had suggested that the Quibbler might be more fictitious than strictly necessary Luna's polite disagreement had toed the edge of frigidness carefully.
So instead of voicing his opinion on the veracity of her preferred form of literature, he instead said, "Do you want me to take it again?"
Luna shook her head thoughtfully. "It's not necessary. The questions can only be asked once a day, after all. The shifts in the clouds don't let them happen twice."
Looking up at the ceiling and noticing the clear cloudless sky, Harry said nothing to that. After all, there had to clouds somewhere in the world, right?
"What are you working on?" Luna asked suddenly, startling him. "You've been looking at the same few spells since you've arrived." It had sounded almost offhanded when she said it like that.
Harry shrugged. "Just revising a few spells for exams," he lied.
It wasn't that he didn't trust Luna with knowing what he was studying, but, well, she was Luna. For all his misgivings about her, the Gryffindor had a suspicion that the girl was sharper than she let on. And if she learned just what spells he had been learning, Harry imagined she might just guess exactly what he was learning them for.
And the last thing he wanted was to have someone know and try to discourage him from doing it. Or worse, join him.
"I don't understand why everyone is so worried about the end-of-term," Luna commented as she helped herself to some bacon. "We all had a year to prepare for them."
This coming from someone who purportedly had difficulty in class without the use of recordings stored in her earrings was rather perplexing.
"Not everybody studies everyday," Harry pointed out.
Luna actually seemed surprised for real. "Really?"
He gave her a strange look. "Yes, really."
"That's not very responsible though," Luna remarked, "But I imagine that the Plimplies just love all that knowledge that dribbles out of their heads. Should I start doing that too?"
"I don't think that that's why everybody slacks off," he said, wondering how he could explain sheer laziness and procrastination to the girl. "It's just that everyone else thinks they can do it later, and would rather do other stuff. Haven't you ever thought like that?"
The Ravenclaw girl smiled. "How odd. I can't say I have, there's not really much else to do in Ravenclaw Tower."
Harry squirmed in his seat a bit. He imagined that it wasn't the Tower itself that was lacking, but its occupants instead. Even if Ravenclaws had a reputation for being bookish, they too liked a good game of Exploding Snaps or pick-up Quidditch, so it wasn't like there was a lack of interest in the House.
"Right. Um. Okay." Harry fumbled for the right words. "Then I guess you're all set for your exams then."
"Hmm, not quite," she corrected, "I'm afraid all the professors keep giving me zeroes on my assignments. I don't imagine the exams are going to be any different."
"Well, aren't you hopeful."
"I agree, I'm not expecting anything fortuitous."
He really should have known better than to use sarcasm with Luna. Chuckling, Harry began putting his book away in his bag. Lunch was already over and it was time for afternoon classes to start. And joy of joys, his next class was History of Magic, followed by Herbology with the Hufflepuffs.
She raised an eyebrow at him. "You're a very odd person, Harry, I hope you know that."
He mulled over that for a bit, not sure if it was a compliment or not. Before he could ask, Luna had already picked up her things and left to join the orderly queue of first year Ravenclaws at the Great Hall's entrance.
It was never easy to tell with Luna, but he didn't think he'd offended her. If so, she'd have told him point-blank, if only because she liked sharing her thoughts. So for her to say he was odd was high praise indeed.
As he joined the Gryffindors in their excursion towards their next class, he thought back to the book he'd been reading. The spells in it just seemed entirely out of his league at first, but fortunately Harry had been able to find a few things that would be useful. Now the matter was just to practice them. Sadly, he couldn't really go around asking for help from any of the older students, partly because they were too busy with their own work, and partly because he didn't trust them to not be suspicious.
They arrived at the classroom in time to see Binns floating up through the floor. Everyone silently shuffled into their seats, the scraping wooden chairs only highlighting the quiet in the room. Already, Harry had to stifle a yawn. The classroom was located on the west side of the castle, putting it squarely in place to receive the lazy afternoon sun's rays. Combined with Binns' dull drawl, it was a miracle anyone managed to take notes.
Normally, Harry wouldn't even bother taking out his quill and parchment, usually opting to sit down and wait for the period to end. However, today he took out the book he'd been reading at lunch. This time, he also brought out his wand and began moving it according to the illustrations in the book.
A few people in the class gave him curious looks, but none of them said a thing about it. Which was perfectly fine with Harry. He was sitting at the back of the class so as to escape Binns' notice, and they all probably thought he was revising anyways. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Parvati take out a book for another class.
With a flick and a jab towards his desk, he spoke the spell as loudly as he dared without alerting the others. There were no flashes of light, for which Harry was grateful. Visible, loud, bright magic was not something he would be able to get away with in class, especially History of Magic.
Harry gave it a second before he knocked on the top of the desk. At the sound of his knuckles brushing on the wood, Harry sighed, and reread the last few passages from The Standard Book of Spells Grade 5. Percy had been kind enough to lend the book to him, seeing as how most of it was covered in the next level up, and because Harry had voiced an interest in earning extra credit on his exams. The prefect had been glad to see Harry working on his education and keeping out of trouble, and even said this to the boy when he handed the book over.
After that, Harry could understand the Weasley' twins' need to heckle Percy more than the rest of their siblings. The male prefect could be true prick if he wanted to.
The rest of the class passed much in the same way of Harry practicing, failing, and then trying again. It was actually rather exhausting work since his concentration kept wandering off due to the environment around him. Students had long given up writing by the end of class, and even Parvati who had managed to last longer in her drive to review lessons couldn't resist the soporific atmosphere.
But by the end of the lesson, Harry could confidently say that he was getting the hang of the Silencing Charm.
Harry supposed that he shouldn't have been surprised when eventually one of the other students confronted him about being the Heir of Slytherin again. Despite his highest hopes, the students of Hogwarts would not forget who the object of their ire was that easily. And Harry was rudely reminded of this when Susan Bones 'accidentally' dropped a pot of shrivelfigs on his foot.
Leaping back, Harry made sure not to drop his own pot as well. Shrivelfigs were completely harmless for the most part, but a good ten pounds of pot and contents on one's foot wasn't.
"Sorry," Susan said, "my hands slipped."
In Harry's opinion, she would have sounded a whole lot more sincere if she hadn't been glaring at him the entire time. He just shrugged and said that it was okay. That just seemed to make it worse, judging by the reddening of her face.
On her way back to get another pot, Susan brushed quite forcefully against his shoulder, causing him to stumble and nearly drop his pot again.
Harry grit his teeth but said nothing. He had long since given up on reasoning with the Hufflepuffs. That did not mean he wasn't affected by what they did, but Sisyphus would have better luck than with them.
"Sorry about her," someone said from behind him. Harry looked to see it was Ernie MacMillan. "She's just been really stressed lately."
The Gryffindor boy scowled. "We all are. That doesn't mean anything."
"I know, I know," Ernie said, not looking the least bit chastised. "It's just, Susan's been really out of it since Justin got…you know."
"Your point being?" Harry grouched. Not even bothering to give the other boy a chance to answer, Harry went back to tending to his plant.
Ernie came up and began working beside him. "My point being that she's not really thinking straight."
Harry took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "Look, are you just here to justify Susan's behavior? Because if so, thank you. I get it. She doesn't like me and she's stressed. That describes most of the school right now and-"
"Would you just listen to me, Potter?" The Hufflepuff snapped. "I'm here to apologize if you don't really get it."
There was a moment of quiet.
"Susan's not thinking right, at the moment. She knows something bad is going to happen if the Heir isn't caught soon," Ernie elaborated. "She's just worried about it. And….I'm sorry." The last part was said quickly.
"I'm sorry for thinking you were the Heir." Ernie muttered. Harry snuck a glance away from his work, and saw the shamefaced look on the other boy's face. "It was rude of me, and I shouldn't have treated you the way I did. Sorry."
"You should have trusted me," Harry said stonily, unsure whether to believe the sincerity of it or not.
To his surprise though, instead of agreeing with him, Ernie instead said, "No, I shouldn't have."
"You have to understand Harry, we don't know anything about you." Ernie began, awkwardly fumbling over his words as he tried explaining. "All we know is the you're the Boy-Who-Lived, that you're in Gryffindor, and that you're good at Quidditch. That's it."
Part of Harry vehemently protested the idea, but he let Ernie continue. "You disappear from the world for 10 years, and we have nothing but books and hearsay to go on. But then one day you show up at Hogwarts, no longer smoke and mirrors, but quiet and honestly kind of short. And then you start doing crazy and stupid things, things no one is supposed to do."
"Like what?" Harry said challengingly.
"Like bringing an illegal dragon to the top of the Astronomy Tower so that it could be smuggled somewhere." Ernie pointed out. "Or protecting the Philosopher's Stone from Professor Quirrel last year –which by the way, I still don't believe."
"But it's true!"
"To you, maybe." The Hufflepuff countered calmly, "But the records say that Professor Quirrel resigned because he was afraid the vampire that was after him would soon come and start hurting the students."
Harry's head spun at the news. He'd never bothered to look up the official documents detailing the man after his death, but he'd always just assumed that they would tell the whole story.
"Which brings me to my original point," the other boy continued. "All this stuff, all the talk about dragons and flying cars and whatnot, they're all just stories. We have no concrete proof that you did any of that. And it's not like you go out of your way to make yourself approachable either. Don't give me that look," he said upon seeing Harry's reaction to that, "When was the last time you spent time with anyone not in Gryffindor outside of class, not including that Ravenclaw girl?"
"It's not exactly like people have been jumping up lately to spend time with me, in case you haven't noticed."
Ernie rolled his eyes, and Harry resisted the urge to punch the pompousness right out of him. "Before this whole mess, then? Look the point is, all we really know is that you're involved in a lot of things that you really shouldn't be, and that doesn't lend credence to your claims of being innocent."
The two of them took a break to bring their pots back to their respective wshing stations. They had taken longer than was usual to cut off the offshoot roots from their shrivelfigs, but they weren't strapped for time or anything. Plus, this gave Harry some time to meditate on what the other boy had been saying. After a few minutes of running the figs under the water, Harry returned to the same table as before.
Ernie didn't say anything, but Harry got the impression he was now waiting for a response.
"Okay?" came the other boy's confused reply.
"Okay," Harry affirmed, "I accept you're apology. Just tell me, why did you change your mind?"
The other boy looked away from Harry's face. "Because yesterday I saw you and Lovegood eating together at lunch, and I realized that if I were the Heir of Slytherin on a mission to 'purify' the school, shutting it down is the last thing I would plan on. Not to mention, you love this place."
Harry wasn't paying attention to that last sentence, having nearly cut himself with the knife he'd been using. "Shut down Hogwarts?" Harry whispered his loudest voice. "Why the hell would they close the school?"
The other boy gave him a pitying look now. "Because there's no way the Department of Magical Law Enforcement would let this school stay open if there's a killer here. They've already given the staff until the end of the semester to find the culprit, and well, look at how that's turning out."
"What? Since when? And how do you know this?" Harry asked, thoughts whirling as he processed all this new information being thrown at him. Didn't McGonagall say that they had to wait 'til Dumbledore came back or something?
Ernie shook his head, again pityingly. It didn't look like he was going to say anything, leaving Harry about to sock the boy, but he opened his mouth in time. "Since Professor Dumbledore left, I think. Before that, the DMLE was okay with letting the professors handle things, but once Dumbledore was sacked, I guess they didn't want to take any chances. And well, Susan's aunt, Amelia Bones, is the one in charge of the department, and they've been owling each other about this for a while now. Susan's aunt has been in contact with the school since the first attack."
Suddenly Susan's earlier attitude was making a lot more sense. She had probably known about all this far beforehand.
Before he could ask any more questions, Professor Sprout announced that it was time for them to start wrapping things up so that she could escort them to dinner.
Looking at Ernie straight in the eye, Harry tried to convey as much gratitude as he could. "Thanks, Ernie. Really, for everything."
The Hufflepuff boy grinned, albeit a little bit nervously. "It's alright Harry. Just make sure you take some pictures next time something happens alright?"
Harry snorted but grinned anyways as he turned to join the Gryffindors. Inwardly, he promised to do something better than just take a picture. Now, armed with the knowledge of what was at stake, Harry began to mentally prepare for what would almost assuredly be something that would have first-year Hermione in conniptions.
Dinner was a sordid affair that day, in Harry's opinion. Looking around the Great Hall, Harry began to wonder just how many of the students there knew of the possibility of Hogwarts closing, how many didn't, and how many chose to be willfully ignorant of the machinations beyond the school. It was difficult to discern, among the bloodshot eyes and the frantic muttering to themselves, who were the ones in the know.
Not to mention, Luna seemed to be following his lead in looking around the Hall, except sometimes she would stop and talk about people as if she were commentating a Quidditch match. This lead to a distraction that really couldn't be ignored seeing as how the girl was right next to him. Her soft voice could be astoundingly attention-grabbing at times.
He ended up telling her of what Ernie told him not even an hour prior. He left out the parts pertaining to himself specifically, but whether or not Luna found it odd that one of the previously contempt Hufflepuffs decided to suddenly inform Harry of all this, she didn't say.
"That is very unfortunate," Luna said, shockingly at peace with the information. "I imagine the Figglenorfs will have to accompany some of the students home for next year's lodging."
"I think you're missing the point here," Harry stopped her before she started on another on of her creature spiels, "If Hogwarts closes down, what will happen to everyone else?"
"What will happen to you, you mean." Luna corrected, smiling serenely at his suddenly uncomfortable face. "It's alright, I know that's what you meant."
Harry imagined this must be what swallowing a lemon felt like.
"Well," the blonde girl said, "it's not like they can just ask every student if they're the Heir of Slytherin, even if it should be really obvious, because the Wizengamot would never allow that."
The Gryffindor boy ignored the part about the obviousness of Slytherin. She clearly didn't have a clue who the perpetrator was either. If he remembered Hermione's lecture correctly, the Wizengamot was one of the ruling bodies of the ministry and was in charge of several vital aspects of it.
"Why do you say that?" Harry asked, wondering as to the motives. He couldn't recall too much about what the Wizengamot did exactly.
"Because it would set a precedent," Luna explained, "Not to mention I imagine there'd be too much temptation to satisfy old grudges through the students. And the Wrawrmlesses would revolt if that ever happened."
If nothing else, at least Luna's animals gave him practice in verbalizing impossible sounds.
Still, the girl had a point. Disturbed as she was, she had very real point, because if there was something Harry had learned in his very short life, people could be vindictive and vicious when given the power and opportunity to see their goals through.
Sighing, Harry looked down at his food, and started picking at it. His appetite hadn't been the best the last few days, and this recent revelation was not helping matters.
"You don't seem to broken up about all of this," he observed, taking out The Standard Book of Spells once more.
"I don't see how turning to jigsaw piec-"
"It was an expression," he said quickly, upon realizing his mistake with the strangely literal girl. "I just meant to say that you do not seem to be very worried about Hogwarts closing down."
The blonde girl shrugged. "True, I'm not worried. I expect that this will all be sorted out by the end of the semester anyway, and from then we'll see how it goes. I imagine Beauxbatons might be a good option if Hogwarts closes."
Harry frowned at the casual name drop in the conversation. "Beauxbatons?"
"It's a school somewhere in southern France," Luna elaborated as she put some more mashed potatoes on her plate. "They have an abnormal amount of Nargles in the winter, so that would be a good chance to observe their impact on a student population."
"People don't go to schools to learn about Nargles, Luna," Harry said half-heartedly. "Besides, aren't there any other schools nearby? France is a bit far."
"Not really," Luna shrugged. "Hogwarts has been so successful and welcome to students of all backgrounds that any dissenting schools have been hushed up by the Dingtro Plot."
The way she said it gave off the impression of it being the most normal thing in the world, but Harry wasn't put off by her view of the world too much. He managed to get the basic impression of what she meant.
"So you won't care if it really shuts down at all?" Harry asked, pressing the girl for an answer he could make sense of. "You'll just pack your trunk and go somewhere else?"
There seemed to be some hesitation, before Luna shrugged and looked up at the sky, a funny little smile on her face. "There isn't much here for me at Hogwarts, Harry. Nothing here that can't be found elsewhere."
Harry wanted to tell her that that was bollocks but found that the words kept dying in his mouth. There was just too much acceptance in her expression.
She looked down in front of him. Harry followed her gaze to notice she was staring at his book.
Slamming it shut just like at lunch, Harry glared at her, trying to convey his sudden displeasure with the girl. Something about her earlier comment rattled him, needled at that little piece of him that had accepted Hogwarts wholeheartedly as his home, as the one place in the world where he belonged. He felt insulted, on behalf of the school, and on behalf of Luna, who was clearly too crazy to understand what Hogwarts meant beyond being just a school.
The rest of dinner passed by in silence.
He was ready.
Time since dinner passed in a relatively uneventful affair. After being escorted to their Common Room, all the Gryffindors had split up and gone their separate ways to study, relax, or simply goof off with each other. The crimson covered room was filled with students of all ages, with the lower years playing Exploding Snap or singing along with the Wizarding Wireless music. Most of the upper years, instead, had shuffled off to the tables by the windows, stacks of books and papers piled high; they would be frantically writing things down on parchment, only to sometimes knock over their ink bottle and spend a few minutes cleaning it up with their wand.
Harry, however, had chosen to retire to the dorms. There he procured Neville's toad, Trevor, from his cage for some more practice with his Silencing Charm. Past a certain point of repeatedly silencing and unsilencing the amphibian, Harry had taken to trying the Slumbering Spell on the toad. Surprisingly, that spell had come to him a lot easier than the other one, so after only an hour and a half, Harry was now able to consistently put the toad to sleep whenever he wanted. Eventually, he had taken to skimming the rest of the book for anything of interest. Substantive Charm, Odor Masking Spell, the instructions on transfigurations of dog-sized creatures…nothing truly stood out among the rest.
Neville, Seamus, and Dean would occasionally pop by the room to pick something up and put something away, but every time Harry thought he even heard someone come up the stairs, he would go back to 'studying' on his four-poster bed with books and papers strewn about on top of his sheets. He wasn't feeling up to explaining why he was practicing magic on Neville's toad in the first place.
At one point, the three boys did indeed come back to retire for the night, forcing Harry to give up his secret practice and let Trevor go. He was glad nobody was looking at him when Neville had cried out that his pet had escaped again. Harry then spent the rest of the night, trying and failing to read his textbooks as he waited for the three other boys to go to sleep.
By the time that all four of them were well in bed, Harry included, and resting it was already twelve past eleven. Giving it a few minutes to make sure they were asleep, Harry waited for the telltale heavy breathing/snoring from his housemates. Soon as they were all snoozing, he eased himself out of bed, got a change of clothes and his dad's Invisibility Cloak from his trunk.
After liberally applying the Silencing charm to every article of clothing that he had, plus the cloak, Harry donned the cloak and went down the stairs to the Common Room. To his dismay, not that he wasn't expecting any different, there were still quite a few upper years around. Some had fallen asleep and others were still scribbling away on parchment about who knows what.
Idly, Harry wondered which of those two would be him in a few years.
Thankful that he had decided to apply the spells in his room instead of down there, he began walking towards the common room exit. About halfway through, the portrait had swung open, letting Percy Weasley in. Still beneath the cloak, Harry kept quiet as he observed the elder Weasley walk around the common room, looking at everyone's tired expression and scrambled schoolwork with a neutral expression.
The prefect didn't say anything; he merely observed everything, a piercing strength in his gaze. His eyes passed over Harry like he wasn't even there, but even so there was a hardness in them that told him to avoid getting on the teen's bad side in the near future. Ron's petrification had certainly done things to the older Gryffindor.
Eventually, Percy let loose a tired sighed. Then, he took off his prefect badge -something that Harry had only seen him do with great reluctance before. Following that, the sixth year redhead sat down on the sofa in front of the fireplace, and stared into the flames.
Making sure that no one was looking in his direction, Harry walked to the common room's exit, and took out his wand. He didn't know if this would work or not, but even if it didn't he had already decided he would chance it.
The Slumbering Spell that he had worked on earlier was a curious bit of magic that he had found while browsing textbooks for information. Technically, it didn't truly put the target to sleep, but more like a state of decreased perception. They would see the world as from the perspective of themselves falling asleep. From that, they would follow the natural impulse to go to sleep then.
The only problem was that this was a spell made to handle usually creatures of lower intelligence than a person. Harry would put it akin to magically-enhanced hypnosis (which Hermione would say was undoubtedly wrong), but the drawback was that a human being's higher functioning would not allow them to be tricked so easily like that. Violent sentient plants, volatile animals, and even the occasional uppity infant were usually the target of this spell.
Now, whether or not the portrait could be affected, Harry would see.
"Quiescus," Harry whispered, pointing at the back of the portrait with his wand. A dark blue mist trickled from his wand to the portrait. The mist seemed to enter the back of the painting like water seeping through a crack in the floor. There was no outward response indicating that it had worked at first, but then he heard the beginning of a strange rhythmic wheezing. It took him only a second to realize it was the Fat Lady's light snoring.
He glanced back to make sure that the other students had noticed his little bit of sabotage. Everyone was still preoccupied with his or her own world of troubles. Turning back, Harry gently pushed the portrait open, and slid out, taking care not to alert any other vigilant pieces of art that he was leaving.
He'd never had to work this hard to leave past curfew, but then again, the school had never been so close to shutting down in his time there either, and back then the portraits never really gave a damn what students got up to in the wee hours of the morn. It was actually something of a wonder that the staff hadn't found out who was the Heir of Slytherin already. With all these security measures in place, it was amazing that anyone could even sneeze without something knowing.
Closing the portrait, and mumbling a quick "Finite Incantatem," to cancel the Slumbering Spell, Harry took a step back and waited for the Fat Lady to right herself out. She didn't waste much time, and soon returned to vigilant attention, mumbling something incoherently about a horrid catwoman.
Seeing as she was going to be fine, Harry started making his way down the castle. He took care not to make anymore noise than necessary, even if he had silenced everything up to his hair. There were a few ghosts patrolling the hallways, floating through and from doors and floors alike. Some portraits were sleeping, while others remained at vigil alert, probably awaiting their own shift. Even the suits of armor were doing something; many of them could be found at intersections or corners, still as statues, staring down entire hallways. It honestly gave Harry a few chills upon seeing them like that. The sight of them never really seemed truly frightening when they were positioned alongside the walls.
He continued his journey in peace though. Upon reaching the ground floor, Harry took a look at his watch, noting the time. At ten to midnight, he estimated he had about four to five hours before he should be in his bed. It was when he was passing by the hourglasses containing the House points that he noticed something clearly out of a fairy tale.
Luna Lovegood leaning against the Great Hall's doors, happily humming to herself as she used her wand to conduct an invisible and silent orchestra.
He stared for what felt like the longest time before he got control of himself and walked a little bit closer. What was she doing out of bed, he wondered. There was no way she could have gotten by all the patrols and security measures without alerting anyone. So what was she doing here?
Before he could even think to answer his own question, what happened next made him forget all about that.
"Rip…. I will tear you piece by piece…. I am so very hungry…Let me eat you...Come….die for me…"
That…had been close. Closer than ever before even.
Before Harry even knew what he was doing, he grabbed Luna and pulled her under the cloak. The act only elicited a small yelp from the blonde girl, but it was enough to send his heart racing even further.
"Harry Potter? Hello, what are you-"
"Silencio!" Harry said, pointing his wand at her face. "Luna, I'll explain later, but trust me and just stay still, alright?"
The Ravenclaw girl looked more surprised than usual, but nodded. Whether she was taken aback by his abrupt appearance, or his tone of voice, Harry did not know, nor did he care. What mattered now was whether or not she could tone down on all her Luna-ness for the sake of both their lives.
There came a rumbling sound from somewhere not too far off. Both of the Hogwarts students froze, neither of them suddenly breathing too loudly for fear of attracting its attention. Whatever it was.
"Find you….I will eat you…Join me…Die…I will kill!"
Harry swore to himself silently, not believing his own luck. He had by now recognized the sound as Parseltongue, but he was damned if he was going to try and reason with the owner of that voice. He put his hand in front of Luna, and started pushing her back with him, away from the Great Hall's entrance, as quietly as they dared. If anything, being out in the open like that was only asking for trouble.
Another rumbling sound came, this time, definitely in the entrance chamber of the castle. It was coming from the direction of the dungeons. It sounded like large pieces of stone sliding on each other, much like one of the secret passageways. What followed was what seemed like something dragging itself across the floor.
'But for us to hear it from here,' Harry thought, his eyes fixed in the direction of the dungeons, 'That thing ought to be huge. Enormous even.'
The thought did not settle well with him.
Harry pushed them further back into the shadows, breaking eye contact with the doors to the dungeons, just in time for the large door to open outwards. It did not bang, it did not smash, but simply swung open as if moved by human hands. This, somehow, made the thing that appeared all the more terrifying.
The two students did not get a good first look at the creature, busy scurrying ever further out of sight as they were. But they saw the beast's body slither out of the dungeon door, its body obscured by shadow, rising up high like a serpent poised to strike. They could not see the head of the monster, only the body, but that was more than enough for Harry to realize that his friends were very very lucky to be alive.
The giant snake (for that was the only thing it could be), moved out of the dungeon doors, and began, circling the entrance chamber of Hogwarts. It passed by every single nook and cranny of the hall, moving to and fro in what Harry would chance to say was an almost giddy fashion.
"Eat you I will….Kill you too….Perhaps….Not in that order…."
Harry and Luna had moved behind one of the pillars around the Hall.
Suddenly, he felt Luna grab his arm in a vicegrip and shake it. Turning to her Harry saw a bloodless face and an all-too-familiar fear reflected back in her expression.
"It's a basilisk," she said hoarsely. Harry eyes widened. Since when had she…?
Raising his wand to her face one more time, he started, "Silen-"
"It can smell us," Luna said quickly, suddenly looking even more terrified at being Silenced. "It doesn't matter if it can't hear us or see us, it can find us by our scents!"
"You are talking…talking too loud...food should die…where are you…"
Harry turned around then to look at the creature one more time. Then, as if fulfilling Luna's abysmal prophecy, the creature began to sniff. It sounded much like a garden sprinkler, in Harry's opinion, but much larger, and far deadlier. The snake's movements began to get sharper, and by the sound of it, it was getting nearer. The speech kept deteriorating more and more into normal hissing, nonsense syllables filling Harry's ears.
The Gryffindor boy turned to Luna, his mind racing with ideas and all of them unfeasible. Running, hiding, fighting, nothing seemed to work in his head. He thought back to everything he knew, searching desperately in his memory for something that would help him, when suddenly a single word stood out in his mind; a single spell that he had dismissed as useless earlier that day.
"Perdasenten!" The Odor Masking Spell. Harry incanted it, believing and hoping with every fiber of his being that it would work. Not waiting to see if it had though, Harry quickly Silenced Luna's feet and grabbed her hand.
"Run!" He whispered.
Not looking back to see her expression, Harry began pulling her along, trying to cross to the far side of the chamber without alerting the monster to their movements. The beast was now inspecting the entrance doors, dangerously close to where the two of them had been hiding before. They passed by the rest of the giant snake's body was coiled up, and Harry felt an irrational and practically insane temptation reach out and touch the thing, to see if this nightmare was for real or not. He resisted of course, because only reality could be this terrifying.
They made it to the other side without any problems, their running not having drawn even a blip of notice from the monster. Now they had their backs pressed against the door that Harry heard led to the kitchens. He wondered that if the beast found them, would anyone from there show up to stop it?
Part of its head could now be seen from their position. Harry went to take a small step to the side and get a better look, to see what Hogwarts' boogeyman looked like, but Luna, stopped him. Looking at her, she shook her head vigorously, and instead mimed something by putting her hands over her eyes.
It could be said that Harry thought best when his life was in danger, because he understood the warning easily. Stepping back, Harry just observed the creature's body, paying extra attention to any sign of it turning to look their way. He was prepared to close his eyes if necessary, though the idea sounded as ridiculous as one of Luna's flights of fancy.
"Where…..I will kill you….Come and die….Tear you…Rip…" Came the –baslisks?- voice. Slow and methodical, it taunted Harry, as if knowing he could understand it. "You are here…do not hide…die for me…where…where are you…"
Harry felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise up, as he saw the beast move to investigate their previous hiding spot. The malice in its voice was almost palpable.
"Where are you….where are you….where are you…..WHERE ARE YOU…."
The snake retracted from the corner, spitting and hissing up an evil storm. Harry saw the back of its head bob back and forth in the air, searching for them. "Come to me! Die! I will kill you! You are mine!"
He heard the Titan sniff the air, as if unsure of what it kept smelling. "You do not run!...Rip and tear and crush and kill!…Death! Death to you!…."
It was only thanks to some visceral instinct in his body and his Seeker fast reflexes that Harry managed to close his eyes. At the same time, he ended up putting his hand over Luna's who had been watching the same scene with just as much rapture as he. As soon as he did, Harry heard the ancient beasts body twist, and suddenly he knew that the creature was facing their direction now.
Silence fell. For a moment, Harry wondered if it had already left, until a sharp hiss with no many resounded throughout the room. "Next time," the baslisk said, "You will not run…. I have you... I know you now."
A familiar sound reached Harry's ear, but still he did not open his eyes. It was that same rumbling from before, that had foreshadowed the beast's arrival. He could hear the gigantic serpent move once more, scales rubbing against the floor as it slithered away. The two of them remained where they were, waiting for forever to and an eternity for the beast to leave. Finally, after too long, the door to the dungeons closed with a heavy 'thunk' that was somehow muted in light of everything that had just happened.
Both of them remained still. Eventually Harry became aware of his own heart beat, loud and painful in his chest. As soon as he did, he leaned back against the wall, and slid down, with the Invisibility Cloak sliding off and all feeling lost in his legs. Beside him, still partially concealed by the cloak, Luna fell on her bottom.
Neither of them said a thing. The cool air of the castle now seemed freezing on his hot skin, and part of Harry longed to head back up to his room and take a nice long shower. That part though, was subsumed by the part that was playing catch-up with what just happened.
Slytherin's monster. The demon from the Chamber of Secrets. Anathema to muggleborns everywhere. When Harry had imagined a monster, he had been picturing something a bit large, with claws or extra limbs, maybe around Hagrid's size. Obviously snake-like to fit the House motif, but certainly not something like that.
A stray thought grabbed his attention.
"How'd you know?" Harry asked, his voice dry but firm, "How'd you know it is a basilisk?"
Luna stared at him. She looked odd as she was, half-covered by the cloak, leaving only her head and everything from the right shoulder down visible. "I remembered that the people -the ones who were attacked- were petrified."
Her voice was calm and steady, but there was still that note recent fear in it. "When I saw the basilisk, I knew it was the monster. Slytherin's monster, I mean. And…I had to tell you. There's only one kind of snake that big that could do that." He could actually make sense of that. The girl had an absurd knack towards remembering her fantastical animals. He supposed that she would do the same for normal ones too.
It took him a second to realize that he had categorized a freaking' centuries old sixty something foot deadly snake as 'normal'. Oh, Uncle Vernon would have an aneurysm if he could see him now.
"How'd you break the Silencing Charm?" Harry asked tiredly, not even caring that she had. Suddenly everything seemed so small in comparison to the fact that they had survived. He was just asking to occupy his mind. It needed something to focus on.
The Ravenclaw girl shook her head. "You never cast it properly to begin with Harry. You were probably just too distracted to do that. The Wrackspurts had gotten to you by that point."
Harry stared, momentarily trying to figure out if this was some secret message that he was supposed to decipher. It didn't take long for him to give up and accept the sentence for what it was.
Still, if that had been the case then Harry figured he had just used up all the luck in his life right then. To have just the right spell go wrong, and then the one he'd never practiced go well…if he were gambling man, he would nail every lotto he could find.
"I…what….what were you doing here?" Harry managed to ask, his mental state akin to a hurricane. "Actually how did you get here?"
"I had detention," Luna said simply, more of her natural airiness returning to her voice. "Professor Lockhart gave me detention today."
"What for?" Harry mumbled, wondering how on earth anyone managed to annoy the man enough to actually make him give a detention. All you had to do was call his name and the man would start rambling on about some supposed award he'd won or catastrophe he prevented. It probably took real talent to tick him off.
Talent that Luna apparently had. "I pointed out to Professor Lockhart that his story about the Wagga Wagga Werewolf didn't make any sense. Everyone knows that werewolves from that part of the world have…"
Harry just let the words wash over him. He was half-paying attention and half-looking around the entrance hall. He noticed that the suits of armor that usually stood on both sides of the main doors were missing, and that the few portraits decorating the place were sleeping.
That last fact did not really surprise him. Despite how tense the situation had been, Harry couldn't say the events were noisy enough to wake portraits from the legendary slumber. The most clamorous moment had been when the basilisk had started yelling, and even then, it probably just sounded like normal hissing to others.
Ah, Luna had stopped talking. He should probably be paying attention now.
"Why were you down here then?" Harry asked, truly curious now that his interest had been piqued. Lockhart's office was on the floor above, and the whole situation was too coincidental in his opinion. "Why were you singing, of all things?"
"Singing keeps me centered," she said simply. "When Mr. Filch came to pick me up he brought me here, instead. When I told him I sleep in Ravenclaw, he told me to find my own way back. He seemed to be acting a little odd and…" She paused for a moment, before she leaned forward and conspiratorially whispered, "I think he was Imperiused."
"What?" Harry said, sitting up straight at the word. He remembered some of the rumors surrounding him being the Heir had it involved somewhere. "Could you explain that last part?"
"Imperiused. It means being under the Imperius Curse." Well, he imagined that being in a state categorized by some magic-like name meant that he had been put under said spell.
By now klaxons were ringing in his head. Something was screaming at him that this was important. "And the Imperius Curse is…?" Harry said expectantly.
"Total control." Luna deadpanned, "Absolute and total power over someone. Minister Fudge uses it sometimes to keep his goblin chefs in line. It's…not a nice spell."
Yes, because a piece of magic labeled as a curse was definitely going to produce puppies and chocolate frogs.
Ignoring those thoughts, Harry thought on the matter, ignoring the implications of there being an actual mind-control spell in the magical world. Try as he might, the only thing Harry could think of was one word: setup. Where surveillance was at its weakest, and with Luna alone, she should just have been another name to mark off on Slytherin's list.
Something still didn't seem right though… "Luna, what's your blood status?" Harry asked suddenly, already knowing the answer before she even gave it. Hers was the sort of insanity that would warrant several visits to a psychiatrist in her childhood had she been a muggleborn. Plus, there was the matter of knowing Ginny prior to Hogwarts.
"I'm a mixed-blood," Luna said, head tilting to the side as she got up and looked down at him, "why, if I may ask?"
But Harry ignored that question. He now distinctly recalled the older boy, McLaggen, once bragging to other Gryffindors about his skill on a broom when he was younger. Not a muggleborn then either, he mentally noted.
And then there was the most egregious example: Ron Weasley. The boy was definitely pureblood. Maybe not rich or prestigious, but certainly pureblood. And Slytherin's monster was supposed to purge the school of muggleborns, not blood traitors! The stories only ever talked about muggleborns!
Harry swore right then. Right beside him, Luna blushed.
"Oh, I'm an idiot! The attacks are centered around me," Harry realized, looking at Luna as if seeing her for the first time in forever. "Their aimed to mess with me."
The Ravenclaw girl seemed to think about it, before she agreed. "Yes, I suppose they all seem to be, don't they?"
He shook his head, and stood up. Grabbing the cloak from Luna, Harry threw it over the two of them and began walking. Luna followed without being invited to, seeming to understand his intention. "No, those others were just flukes," he said, shaking his head as they went up the stairs. "I was just passing by when I ran into Justin and Nearly-Headless Nick. Same thing with Mrs. Norris." 'Bloody cat,' Harry thought uncharitably.
Nonetheless, thoughts of the feline couldn't ruin his good mood. It looked like he wouldn't have to go to Hagrid's Hut after all. It was possible that he was wrong, but Harry didn't think so. The Board of Governors apparently had it out for him after all
"I mean the last few attacks. Ron and Hermione. McLaggen. Now you." Harry said, his voice dropping to a whisper as they started walking the corridors of Hogwarts. Their clothes and shoes were still silenced, so they could walk at a faster pace than if they weren't, but now there were two people under the cloak, and Harry had to limit his speed so that one of them wasn't left showing bits of feet with nothing attached to them. "Ron and Hermione are my best friends. It would make sense for them to be targeted. And Cormac was a prat. I almost had a row with him in front of all of Gryffindor."
They turned around a corner, each of them staring at the suit of armor that was facing the direction they had come from.
"And me, Harry? Where do I fit in?"
The inevitable question. He almost didn't answer her, because even she could not be that oblivious, but there was nothing to gain by being rude with the girl.
"You've been spending time around me lately." Harry said. He somehow filled it with enough schoolboy awkwardness and enough nonchalance to devalue all they'd done so far in that single sentence. "I'm guessing that's why you were targeted tonight."
"It makes sense." Luna agreed easily, "So, where are we headed to?"
"You're headed back to your dorm," the Gryffindor boy commanded. 'And I'm finding Professor McGonagall'. "It is way too dangerous outside of it right now. You were already targeted once tonight. I'm not going to-"
"Do you know where the Ravenclaw Common Room is?"
"Err, no, but that's why I was going to ask you about that. You need to get to safety as soon as possible, and that's the best you'll get."
"Harry, what makes you think I will tell you where it is then?" Luna countered, and quite cheerfully too. A portrait on the wall on their right scowled and started looking in their direction. There was a tense moment or two of the expectation of being found out, but soon it passed. Those moments gave Harry enough time to formulate his counterargument to Luna's.
"There is no way in hell that I'm letting you come with me, Luna."
Never let it be said that Harry wasn't straight to the point.
"You have no idea where I live, there is a rather large basilisk roaming the school at night, and I can feel an itch on the back of my neck. Daddy said that when that happens I'm supposed to stay as close as possible to the nearest person I know or else the Cult of Fyfa would shave my hair."
Harry swore to do something nasty to Mr. Lovegood one day after this. Possibly involving laxatives and bug zappers.
Looking around, Harry noticed Moaning Myrtle's restroom was nearby. Grabbing the girl by the arm, he dragged her to the deserted area.
"You can't come with me, it's dangerous to be outside right now." He started.
"All the more reason for me to join then. There is a basilisk around the school."
"A basilisk that was targeting you earlier if I recall."
"It's okay," she failed to assure him, "I trust you. That's what friends do right?"
The word set him off.
"Luna…I'm not your friend, alright? Look," and here he took a deep breath, because even if it hurt the girls feelings, she had to hear the truth, if only to get her back to safety, "I like that you took the time out of your day to sit next to me, really, I do. It's nice to have someone sit next to me at meal times and stuff, and I'm honestly and totally sorry about whatever crap you go through with your own housemates that made sitting with me the preferable option, but I can't just pretend to be friends with you if that's what you want.
"I think your animals are more fantasy than reality, your choice of accessories leave me wondering if you have any idea where socks go, I think the Quibbler is the laughingstock of the news media and that you're foolish and gullible to believe it, you are completely off your rocker for believing in all these stupid things that aren't real, and for letting everyone keep pushing you around, and you for just letting it all happen! So no, I don't think I'm your friend."
There was a moment of silence as Harry tried to calm himself. He hadn't yelled at all, but those last few sentences left him feeling a little raw under the skin.
"I'm sorry, Luna. I know you don't-"
"I know." Luna interrupted him. She looked exactly as before, the picture perfect expression of peaceful serenity. "I know, Harry. But none of that really stops me from being your friend does it?"
A sledgehammer would have been a less painful blow.
"So, let's get going shall we?" With that said, Luna left the confines of the cloak and went to wait at the door.
Behind him, Harry heard a very sniffly, but distinctly feminine voice say, "Humph, and I thought you were nice." It was followed by the sound of toilet water splashing.
Harry rejoined Luna and covered her with the cloak once more. He was unable or unwilling to say anything in the wake of her revelation. Dumbly, he told her that they were going to find McGonagall to let her know everything they had found out about the monster…and about the Heir.
Because even in his haze, Harry recognized that the Heir of Slytherin acting in the interest of closing the school, or getting Harry in trouble, was not the symptom of one deigned to fulfill Salazar's dream. But it certainly was in the indicative of working in favor of a certain Board of Governors, vague as their goal may be.
All these thoughts and more though, halted when they came upon the still, and unmistakably dead body of Argus Filch at the bottom of the staircase to the first floor.
End Chapter 4
Author Notes: Not a bad place to end this monster of a chapter, in my opinion.
Those who remember the old story already recognize the differences. Last time, I had Harry go out to Hagrid's hut, find a completely useless journal, and then get kidnapped by spiders. This time? Screw that. Let's shove them in a room with a basilisk instead.
Things are heating up now. Harry learning spells, the basilisk looking for dinner. The works.
I do hate the trope of having the protagonist learn their little powers after little to no effort on their part, but Harry is just damn tough to work with after picking up from the point in canon that I did. So, I gave him a bit of competence with some fifth year spells. Not nearly enough to work all the time, as clearly demonstrated here, but eh, it's better than before.
Ernie is a tool most of the time. He is portrayed as pompous and bossy in canon, and as an extension of that, I decided to have him call Harry out on a few things, because canon Harry has no idea how to handle some situations. Hmm, Hagrid said follow the spiders? Okay, let's leave the castle and go out to the Forbidden Forest so we can learn more about the Heir of Slytherin. Nevermind that a teacher probably could have helped with that, they could also possibly have put the information to use somehow.
Also, don't you just love how the attacks are nothing but petrified, even though the basilisk only has to look at you to kill you? Luck aside, there really isn't any reason to leave petrified victims lying around, still otherwise intact. Then again, Voldemort always has been a showboat. But I like to believe there is a method behind his madness. Otherwise we've just got your boring standard megalomaniacal villain who has a lot of big spammable guns.
And Harry, being an ass. Have to love that. Or not. Your pick really. Much as I enjoy Luna, there is something very wrong about the girl.