A/N: Once again, it's been a while and here I am, back from the dead. This time, I've gone back from the beginning and done a re-edit. Most of the changes I've made are minor and not worth re-reading. However, New Friends and Christmas have some important changes. TL;DR for New Friends: Harry, Hermione, and Neville talk more about what the sorting hat told them. They determine that there are a total of six people that were somehow different and they all had to choose their house. You should really reread Christmas, though, or a large part of this chapter won't make sense.
Chapter 15: Crime and Punishment
After returning to Hogwarts, The Potters continued to drift further away from the normal first-year studies and focused more on their independent studies, much to the disappointment of Ron and Neville, who had gotten used to having Hermione as a taskmaster and Harry as someone to keep her in line and explain things to them in terms they could understand. Each afternoon, the Potters churned out their homework in a matter of minutes before moving on to their personal studies, leaving the rest behind to flounder on their own.
"All you have to do is read the book and rephrase what's there," Hermione said to Ron as he complained about not knowing what he was supposed to do. "It's practically written for you already."
"Easier said than done," Ron complained. "Things just seem to work for you two. Everyone else thinks it's hard, too."
"Well, maybe that's your problem," Harry interrupted, knowing that the two would begin to loudly argue in front of the entire common room if he let them continue.
"It's my fault that you two are good at everything you try?"
"No, I mean your problem is that you think it's hard, so it becomes hard. Magic is mostly about intent."
Harry, Hermione, and Neville shared a look, and came to a decision. "Why don't we go somewhere else, and we'll help you out a bit," Hermione suggested.
The Potters led Ron out of the Gryffindor common room and Neville followed behind them.
"Where are we going?" Ron asked, reverting to his previous paranoia when the Potters were involved.
"Somewhere we can practice magic without other people around," Harry answered as he led them into an empty classroom.
Harry and Hermione looked at him seriously and Ron began to seriously consider running. "What we're going to show you is a secret, so you have to promise us that what you see in here is something that you will never tell a soul about," Hermione warned.
"It's okay, you can trust us," Harry said, noticing his friend's slight panic. Neville nodded in agreement.
Ron took a deep breath and nodded. "Okay, I promise."
Hermione smiled and began to show Ron how wandless magic worked.
"Wicked!" he said with a grin. "I thought only people like Dumbledore could do that!"
"Harry and I think that anyone can do it, but the more they've gotten used to using a wand, the harder it gets to learn," Hermione explained.
As excited as he was, Ron was unable to cast the light spell that Harry started the other three off with, though Harry could tell he was coming close.
"I think that the few months that you've been using a wand may have inhibited your potential," Hermione theorized. "I wouldn't worry about it too much; just keep practicing like you have been."
Ron sighed, and Neville stepped in. "Hey, don't worry about it. I barely got it my first time, and we had only been using wands for one day. It's still pretty hard for me, and I've been practicing for months."
"I guess…" Ron sighed, before nodding to himself and trying again.
The snow began to melt early in the year, and Harry was reminded of his promises to Willow. He had been writing regularly since their return to Hogwarts, but nothing of significance had happened except for his late-night run-in with the Professors, so his letters were mostly just checking in and bouncing off a few ideas he and Hermione had. She was a tree, however, and her replies were usually limited to one sentence, as if they were having a conversation face-to-face. Harry and Hermione were a bit frustrated, but took it in stride and he continued to write home. He also kept his mission to plant the acorn in the back of his mind, and intended to find a way into the forest as soon as it was nice out enough for it to grow.
Meanwhile, he found that it was very difficult to create portals within Hogwarts' walls, and he did not feel safe stepping through the shaky hole, lest it collapse while he was halfway through.
"Hogwarts is designed to stop all forms of magical transportation. I do not know what you are doing, but I have been trying my best to stop it. I would not recommend going through the portal."
Harry and Hermione were in the Hogwarts core access chamber, talking to the living stone girl Hermione had named Beatrice. "But then how are we supposed to leave?"
"The Hogwarts express, at the end of the year. First years are not allowed to go to Hogsmeade."
Harry sighed. "This is important, though. I seriously need to go home…"
"You can get permission from the headmaster to floo home in case of an emergency," Beatrice said.
"I don't have a floo," Harry explained. "And I'd rather the headmaster didn't know."
"You can get permission from the headmaster to use a ministry-authorized portkey to return home in case of an emergency."
"Definitely not." Harry began to pace. "There's nothing you can do?"
Beatrice looked at him with a blank face. "What part of 'no free will' do you not understand? I must follow the founders' laws, the rules of the school, and the headmaster's commands, in that order. Unless, of course, the heirs of the founders are reunited. The board of governors is actually not even a recognized power. They only decide who is headmaster, and the headmaster voluntarily follows their judgment."
There was an awkward silence at that. "Sorry. I just…forgot you weren't a person for a bit." Harry hung his head.
"I know. It's no reason to feel bad, as long as you understand. In fact, I'm glad you think of me that way."
After a few seconds of awkward silence, Hermione decided it was her turn. "Maybe we'll talk to Professor Dumbledore then."
Harry shot her a look. "Yeah…we'll think about it. See you later," he said with a wave as they left the room. He gave her a speculative look before sending her a thought. "You don't seriously want to talk to Dumbledore about this, do you?"
"What's the harm?" she asked.
Harry held back a sigh. Hermione had a loving and supportive family, who would never intentionally harm her. Sometimes it was too much of a good thing. "He could find out about Willow. He could decide that she's a bad influence. He could decide that I'm not safe there," he thought with a bitter laugh. "He could find out a way to get me back to the Dursleys. He could find out all kinds of things. I don't think he's a bad person, but I don't think I trust him. Why was he following me that night?"
"Because he found a student out of bed in the middle of the night after perusing the restricted section of the library?" she asked hesitantly, as if knowing that wasn't the answer.
"So he'd punish me by discussing magical theory and telling me to experiment with powerful artifacts?"
"Well, you know how much of an oddball he is…"
"I also know how powerful he is," Harry responded. "In every sense. I'm going to find another way to get home. It's us; there's nothing we can't do if we try."
After brainstorming amongst themselves, it was Ron (whom Harry realized he had somewhat dismissed as having no imagination when it came to magic) that finally came up with an idea that seemed workable.
"Why don't you just go off the grounds and leave from there?" he suggested. "Fred and George do that all the time."
Harry looked up. "I'd have to leave to be able to leave. That's the problem."
Ron smiled, recognizing that he finally knew something the others didn't. "Oh, there's all kinds of secret passages and things that lead all over the place. Some of them go outside, like to Hogsmeade."
Harry's interest intensified. "So do you know where any of them are?"
"Well…no, but I'm sure Fred and George'll show us," he said with a hint of doubt.
Harry looked around the common room until he saw them, sitting near the fireplace talking with Lee Jordan and the Quidditch chasers. "OI! Twin things!" They looked up and walked over at Harry's slightly frantic wave.
"Things are people too, you know," one of them said with false indignation.
"Why must you wound us so, Harry?"
"We thought you, of all people—"
"Yeah, whatever." Harry interrupted them and leaned forward conspiratorially. "Is it true you know a secret passage out of the school?"
The twins glanced at each other. "We might know of such things," the first said.
"But such rumors shouldn't be floating around lightly," the second continued.
The entire group rolled their eyes. "You'll have to forgive us for not being surprised in the slightest at a 'rumor' like that," Harry said. "Especially considering the source."
"Fair enough," they said in unison as they quickly glanced at Ron. "What's in it for us? A secret's only valuable when nobody knows about it, after all."
"Something besides souping up our brooms."
"Jumping off the astronomy tower would be a faster way to go, thanks."
"Wanna bet? Harry asked with a grin, before going into thought for a moment. "Give me a way out of Hogwarts and I'll show you a way that'll take you even farther. You don't learn how to apparate until upper years, right? I'll teach you a spell that's even better."
The twins didn't even bother glancing at each other for confirmation. Their grins said it all.
Fred and George led Harry to a corridor on the fourth floor which held a large mirror, and the three of them briefly stood in front of it.
"A magic mirror, eh? Is this one of those things that wizards really like, 'cause lately they just seem to be popping up everywhere."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Harry, but this one is exactly what you need." Fred stepped forward, wand in hand. "Reflecto."
George stepped forward as the glass disappeared, and Harry slowly nodded in understanding. "I see. So this is the way out, I take it?"
George nodded as they walked into a dark stone corridor which was much less welcoming than the rest of the castle and they lit up their wands with a quick lumos. "One of many. The castle is full of secrets, and we know most of them."
The twins grinned as they walked through the winding corridor. "Only Filch and Dumbledore know the castle as well as we do, and that's only because they've both been here forever. We know more of the passages out of the castle than Filch does," Fred said proudly.
"But he knows the inside like the back of his hand. Seems like he can walk through walls sometimes, that one."
As Harry listened, he tried to keep a mental map of where they were in the castle. "Hey, shouldn't we have crossed into one of the other corridors by now?"
The twins chuckled. "We took this passage because it's definitely the most…"
"Interesting..." they finished together.
As they walked, for the first time a window gave a view of what was outside of the dark corridor they walked through. Harry glanced outside, before running to the window when he realized what he was seeing, and where he was seeing it from. "Wait…We must be on the sixth floor at least! But we haven't gone up at all!"
"It gets better. Come on." One of the Weasleys pulled him along.
"Well, that was weird," Harry stated casually, and walked along, his hands in the pockets of his robes.
The twins looked at each other. "Aren't you going to say it's impossible?"
"That it doesn't make sense?"
"That physics doesn't work that way?"
Harry shrugged. "I can see right there that it's possible. Magic rarely makes sense; that's why it's magic. Physics and magic rarely have a connection."
The twins were stumped. They knew Harry was a powerful wizard even as a first year, and very hard to impress. When they took Lee Jordan through this passage, he couldn't wrap his mind around it for weeks and had to stop thinking about it or he would go insane. So he said. Harry, apparently, was harder to impress than they thought. "How about at least being impressed by the amount of magic it would take to accomplish such a feat!?"
"Nah. If you're building a castle, you probably have a ton of people and it might have taken decades. So that's not really that impressive. Though it was kind of cool how I didn't notice we went up. But I can think of half a dozen ways to do that easily off the top of my head." Harry shook his head. "Now I'd really be impressed if this passage made the trip shorter instead of taking us to the third floor, then up three stories, then who knows where…"
The twins shook their heads. "That's called boring, Harry. And it's wrong," one of them said gravely. Harry laughed at that. The passage took them down seven stories, then underground, and they ended up coming out of a cave on a hill overlooking Hogsmeade. "Here we are, Harry."
"Perfect. Now here's my spell." Harry got out his chalk and found a smooth bit of rock that was big enough to write on. "It's pretty advanced, but you can do it if you put enough effort in. First, you need to visualize exactly where you want to go. You don't need to have been there before, but you need a clear mental picture. Use something to draw a doorway; I prefer chalk. Then use your wand to draw down the middle. The incantation is aperio portus."
The twins watched as Harry opened a portal to Magnolia Park, disguised with a placebo effect to act as a normal spell. "The incantation means open harbor? You sure it's not aperio porta? Open gateway?"
Harry's Latin wasn't exactly the best, but he couldn't break the illusion now. "I just cast it, didn't I? There's a long and complicated history behind this spell. Now, your turn. We have to do it here, because it doesn't work in Hogwarts. Yet."
The twins stared at him. "Okay… But you'll have to show us whatever you did to your wand to stop it from being tracked."
Harry stared back. "Tracked?"
The twins sighed. "You know how you can't use magic outside of school?" Harry nodded slowly. "That means you can't use magic outside of school. They'll know, and now you're going to get a warning, and we have to get back. Fast."
The party of three was halfway through the way-too-long shortcut when the twins stopped and started examining something on the floor.
"I thought we were in a huge hurry?" Harry asked, still not quite believing that there was any cause for alarm.
George looked up at him as Fred opened what appeared to be a door embedded in the floor. "We are. This door leads to the third floor corridor several minutes earlier than the other third floor corridor."
Harry arched an eyebrow. "A secret passage in a secret passage? Okay, now I'm impressed." He looked into the door in the floor. It led to a room that seemed to be sideways. Gravity seemed to be subjective in that area of Hogwarts, or this door functioned similarly to one of his portals. Harry leaned forward until he fell into the room.
"Not fazed by anything, this one," Harry heard from behind him as he looked around.
"Oh, we're in the forbidden part of the third floor," Harry noticed.
The twins nodded. "Better run away or you'll get in trouble," George advised somberly.
"In Percival's absence, as the next oldest and most responsible Weasley, it is my humble duty to—"
Harry snorted. "Right. I figured I'd end up here sooner or later, but I've been busy with research."
"Anyway, we are in a room with two doors. One leads to safety, and one leads to adventure and supposed doom," Harry stated. He went to the left door and tried the knob. It was locked. He put on his straightest face. "Let's go through this one. It probably leads to safety."
Fred watched as Harry took out his wand and cast a very lazy alohomora. "You're probably correct, young Harry." He pulled the door open, and they stepped through.
"I know what that is."
"If it's what I think it is, even Muggles know about them."
"I'm not sure…"
"It doesn't really…"
"I know, but…"
"…yeah." The fact that all three of them understood the conversation in twin (or triplet, as it were) speak showed that their thoughts were all perfectly synchronized.
"It's looking at me."
"Maybe Hagrid trained it." This statement was followed by a strong and swift burst of fire in their direction, which broke their trance and finally engaged their fight-or-flight instincts.
They did not fight.
They ran out of the room and slammed the door behind them, just in time to seal a second, stronger burst of fire behind them. The three of them leaned up against the wall and caught the breath they did not realize they had lost. "So that was a dragon," Harry stated.
"Yes. Yes it was."
"It can breathe fire," one of the twins said redundantly.
"Yes," a voice from the shadows spoke in a near-whisper, and the pale form of Severus Snape glided into view. "And it is one of several reasons that this corridor is off-limits to students. But you three, of course, are above the rules, aren't you?"
The boys remained silent.
"Come with me," Snape commanded softly, and the three of them wished they were still with the dragon as the potions master led them to the headmaster's office.
Albus Dumbledore looked over his desk at the three students in front of him. Two he was used to seeing, and was not particularly concerned about, since the only rule they had broken was a minor one. The third, however, was a bit confusing. Harry Potter had snuck off campus, performed magic, snuck back in, and been caught in the forbidden corridor. The last was understandable as the mere act of forbidding anything to a child was practically a written invitation, hence his lenience with the Weasley twins, but he was not sure why Harry would leave the grounds. The only reason he would have to do so is if he were attempting to perform magic that would alert the wards. But surely if he had access to dark magic that would be detected by the wards, he would have learned how to remove how to remove the trace from his wand? The most basic of "dark" magic?
"Harry," he began, "you are, I am sure, aware of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery?"
"Sorcery?" Harry's eyes widened at that. "What makes sorcery different than regular magic?"
That was not the response Dumbledore expected. "It's just what the law is called, Harry. It says that you cannot use magic until you come of age unless in certain cases, such as in self-defense. Or in school, of course. Tonight I received an owl from the ministry saying that you have received a warning for using magic outside of school. While normally this is a minor problem, since it is your first warning, the question remains as to why you received it in the first place, as you should have been on the school grounds, where any magic can be performed without consequence." Dumbledore carefully chose not to tell him that that was not necessarily true of all magic.
"Well," Harry looked at his feet and hesitated, "not quite all magic."
Dumbledore's chest turned to ice and Snape's piercing gaze intensified. McGonagall did not hold the same suspicions, however, and encouraged him to continue. "And exactly what spell requires you to be outside these walls, Mr. Potter?"
"Transportation magic," he answered simply. "Hogwarts' wards are designed to stop any types of magical transportation, even ones that it doesn't recognize completely. While she's unable to stop me from casting my particular spells entirely, it's enough to disrupt it to the point where I don't feel safe using it."
"I see," Dumbledore said, relieved slightly. "You seem to know quite a bit about the inner workings of the castle's ward scheme."
Harry managed to pick up the unspoken "much more than you should" in Dumbledore's voice. "Just a guess from what I've managed to piece together through a couple experiments."
"I see. And what is this spell you were trying to use?" The headmaster asked out of scholarly curiosity as much as due to his disciplinary role.
Harry surreptitiously glanced at the Weasley twins, who had been doing nothing but sipping tea the entire time. They seemed much more at home in the headmaster's office than he. "My own variation on the old aperio portus charm." It was clear that the three very competent professors had no clue what he was talking about. "But if you want to talk about magical theory, we should finish our business first."
"Very well, but I wish to hear about what variations you have made to such a classic charm," Dumbledore said, as if Harry was attempting to reinventing the wheel. "Misters Weasley, you will each lose twenty points from Gryffindor and serve a detention, time to be determined at a later date. Mr. Potter, you will lose fifty points from Gryffindor and also serve a detention. The underage magic warning will be on your record, and I highly recommend you do not repeat this situation again. Weasleys, you may go."
The twins left, and when the door was closed behind them, Professor McGonagall was the first to break the silence. "Aperio portus, Mr. Potter?"
"Okay, so I'm not good at Latin. Not my fault I was raised by Muggles. It was close enough."
"And what does this charm do, exactly?" Dumbledore asked.
"It creates a portal between two locations; sort of a hole in reality." Harry explained the spell, and McGonagall recognized it as the one she saw the previous year.
"And what, pray tell, was so important that you needed to leave the school to do?" she asked, the other two professors too stunned at the revelation of a new form of magical transportation to speak.
Harry shifted awkwardly in a motion that all three adults recognized as someone poorly covering the truth and trying to avoid trouble. "Well, like I said, the spell can't be used inside Hogwarts. Look." With that, he began to draw on the office walls with chalk.
"No, Minerva," the headmaster interrupted with a calming hand. "Let him show us."
Harry finished the portal shape and drew down with the chalk, opening the portal, which wavered uneasily, as though it were about to collapse at any moment. The view to the other side rippled like a hot summer day. "It's not normal, though. Usually it just looks like a hole. See how it's practically falling apart? That's because the castle is desperately trying to collapse it."
"And what gives you that idea, Harry?" Dumbledore asked.
"Apparation and portkeys do not function within Hogwarts, headmaster," Harry recited, his tone very evocative of Hermione. "It says so in Hogwarts, a History. After that, it's reasonable to assume that other spells are blocked as well."
"A well-constructed lie," Dumbledore thought, "and nearly impossible to argue against."
"That's no explanation as to why you were trying to leave the school, Potter." Snape spoke for the first time. "Or why you were caught in an area that you are well-aware is forbidden."
Harry weighed his options. He could admit the truth, which wasn't too bad, but he didn't want anyone to know Willow's vulnerability, especially Snape, and he and Hermione still hadn't come to a conclusion about Dumbledore. He certainly seemed like a good person. Maybe the Potters were just a bit paranoid.
On the other hand, he could easily come up with some excuse that they might buy, but if he got caught lying, he would not get off lightly, and McGonagall was very by-the-books. She was one of the few adults who had their trust, and who trusted them in return. If Harry lost her trust, Hermione would not be happy.
"Well, I was trying to go home," Harry admitted, trying to not make a face as if he was undergoing a dental procedure. He turned to Professor McGonagall. "When I went back for Christmas, I found out that Willow is a bit sick and I need to go home once in a while to check up on her."
"Willow?" Dumbledore's expression begged clarification.
"His guardian that I mentioned earlier," McGonagall answered for Harry, who looked at her with a resigned expression.
"I see. Severus, would you excuse us?" Snape glared at Harry before leaving the room. Dumbledore cleared his throat. "I understand Willow is a dryad?"
"And it is essential that you return there to heal her in some way?"
"As I found out in December, I need to return every month or two to give her power again," he explained. "It's a Muggle neighborhood, after all."
"I see. So her magic comes from you?" Dumbledore asked.
Harry did not like the direction the conversation was going. "No, it comes from the ambient magic of the environment. But since Hermione and I were the only magical things for miles around, that's essentially right. She sort of recycles what's left over of our spells."
"Interesting," Dumbledore said with the voice of a scholar. However that did not last long. "Though that does not excuse your actions. You should have talked to Professor McGonagall or me, and we could have made an arrangement that does not involve you sneaking off and performing illegal experimental magic. See me on Saturday, and I will give you a single-use portkey that will take you where you need to go, and you will be able to do what you need to do. I sincerely hope that in the future, if you have a similar problem, you will not hesitate to talk to one of us about it, and hopefully we will be able to help you. Do you realize that the consequences of tonight's actions will follow you for years to come?"
For once, Harry looked contrite. "Yes, sir."
"Good. Then I suggest you head back to Gryffindor Tower and go to bed. It's almost curfew." Harry stood and walked out the door.
"Do you think he's telling the truth?" McGonagall asked.
Dumbledore nodded. "In my many years, I've seen both easily believable lies and very ridiculous truths. And fine examples of both tonight."
The rest of Gryffindor, including Hermione was very put out by the loss of almost a hundred points in one evening, but most of them, especially the third years and above, were somewhat mollified by the fact that they knew the twins were constantly losing points and were constantly ready to make them up in tangible ways, such as sneaking things out of Hogsmeade at a moment's notice. Hermione, most of the first years, and the Gryffindors who didn't know Harry well calmed down a bit when Neville pointed out that Harry made a regular five points a week from Flitwick alone by acting as his assistant (and Hermione did the same). Along with his points earned from being a spectacular seeker (Harry won his second game, where he also nearly fell from his broom, but he swore that time it wasn't his fault), it more than made up for his loss, and everyone quickly forgave them.
That weekend, Dumbledore made Harry a portkey, which was unnecessary, as now that he knew about the passage out of the castle he could have left and wandlessly made a portal at any time, but Harry didn't see the need to let him in on that information. Or the location of Willow's tree, so Harry had Dumbledore make the portkey land in the Granger's backyard. Harry visited Willow and updated his makeshift family about what was new while he recharged the tree with his magic.
Harry and the twins were notified that their detentions were to be served at the end of May, when McGonagall handed the three of them notes.
"Our detentions are in the middle of the night?" Harry asked in confusion.
"With Filch," Fred moaned.
George sighed. "I guess this means he finally is allowed to hang us by our ankles from the ceiling all night."
"Been threatening that for years…"
Hermione stopped their rant as she watched Harry's face sink. "I'm sure Professor Dumbledore wouldn't allow that. He hasn't before, and I don't see any reason why that should change."
"Why the middle of the night, though?" Harry asked.
Hermione considered the question. "Maybe you have to collect mooncalf dung?"
"Great." Harry put his head into his hands. "Sounds delightful."
"Well, it's a punishment, after all."
Classes dragged on through the day as Harry wondered what could possibly happen in a detention at eleven o'clock with Filch that he would actually be allowed to do. Throughout the day, Hermione tried to calm him down to no avail.
Eventually, the time came, and the three Gryffindors headed to the entrance hall to find out what the night had in store for them. The last thing they expected to find was Draco Malfoy.
"What are you doing here?" Harry asked, more out of surprise than anything.
"I wish I knew, Potter. Whatever we're about to do, it's beneath a Malfoy."
Filch chose that moment to show up, signaling his arrival with an evil laugh. "It's beneath all of you." He slowly looked them all in the eye as he fiddled with a lantern. "Maybe after tonight you'll all write your rich daddies and tell them you want my thumbscrews allowed again. If you're still around in the morning, that is."
"Maybe I'll write father and tell him I don't need a useless Squib telling me what to—"
"Quiet, boy." Filch said with an unsettling grin. "You're going into the forest. If you can't keep your mouth shut, they'll hear you."
"They?" Malfoy asked quietly as a cackling Filch handed them off to Hagrid.
"Right' then." Hagrid, who was holding a crossbow and speaking in low undertones, led them to the edge of the forest. "We got injured unicorns in there, an' it's my job to figure out what's bin takin 'em down. We'll split up an' take a look-see."
"What? I refuse to set foot in there! There's werewolves and vampires in there! I could get hurt!"
"Ye didn't seem to care much 'bout who gets hurt when ye hexed that Hufflepuff girl few days back, Malfoy," Hagrid replied. "'Sides, there's only weres on the full moon, and no vampire's dumb enough to stick 'round Hogwarts while Dumbledore's here. Now c'mon, unless you wanna be out here all night. Dunno 'bout you, but I sure don't."
"Fine! But I get the dog!" Malfoy grabbed Fang's leash, and he followed with a slight whine.
"If ye say so. Mind you, he's a great coward." Hagrid headed towards the forest. "I guess Harry with Draco, and Weasleys with me, then. Send up green sparks if ye find a unicorn, and red if somethin' bad happens."
Harry gave a sigh, headed in Malfoy's direction, and they began their trek into the forest.
It wasn't as bad as Harry expected. The forest was filled with life, as he thought it would be, but there were no evil vampires and werewolves, like Malfoy clearly expected, and Harry half did, based on the forbidden nature of the forest. The forest was alive, but it was benign and content to go about its regular life as the intruders passed through. They passed through the occasional spider web and creeping vine wrapping around their ankles. Malfoy was in a paranoid mood and nearly screamed several times, but Harry could read the intention of the environment and knew that it was just business as usual and things were merely following their instincts. He brushed the webs out of his face and kicked his way out of the vines.
Eventually, however, Harry noticed a strong magical substance trailing on the ground and the lower plants. The aura it gave off was extremely bright; one of the strongest he had ever seen outside of Hogwarts that wasn't human except for Willow.
"What's this?" Harry asked, half-rhetorically.
Malfoy looked where Harry was. "That's Unicorn blood," he answered as he pulled Fang closer.
"Are you sure?" Harry asked, surprised that Malfoy had a competent response.
"I'm not the top in my year in potions because I read the stupid textbook, Potter. Father has top-of-the-line tutors in every subject for me," he said proudly.
Harry chose not to point out that his lessons hadn't helped him in any of his other classes, but he did file away the fact that Malfoy learned magic before Hogwarts and that was apparently perfectly fine. "Whatever. Let's follow the trail."
The trail of unicorn blood led to a clearing in which dying unicorn lay on its side, bleeding.
"Send up a green spark. I'll see if I can heal it," Harry said as he rushed to its side.
"As if you know healing spells, Potter," Malfoy said as he shot a spark into the air. Harry belatedly remembered that his one-man audience was not aware of his abilities, and Harry felt that Draco Malfoy really should not find out about his power.
"I'll do what I can. 治って," Harry spoke while making up some wand movements and casting his tried and true healing spell with his left hand on the unicorn's wound, which seemed to be some kind of bite mark. Perhaps there was a bit of truth to the vampire story after all.
"What was that?"
"I'm not top of my year in Charms 'cause I read the textbook," Harry said with a lopsided grin. The healing spell apparently worked, as Harry sensed a feeling of gratitude while the unicorn's flesh stitched itself up. Suddenly, every living thing in the area gave off a feeling of tension, causing Harry to do the same.
"Did you hear something just now?" Malfoy whispered.
Harry slowly stood up and looked around. The clearing had gone deathly still except for some movement out of the corner of his eye. A cloaked and hooded figure lurked at the edge of the clearing, appearing to have no more substance than the shadows it drifted through. While the figure was clearly magical, Harry saw it as pitch black, just as he did Quirrell's turban, and it gave him the same feeling of revulsion, yet the feeling was unbearably worse. For the first time since leaving the Dursleys, Harry felt fear.
Apparently, Malfoy did too, because he screamed and ran away while Harry stood there, frozen. "Dementors!" Harry dimly heard in the background as Malfoy fled.
The figure stepped forward and Harry had a burst of pain in his forehead unlike anything he had ever experienced; it was as if someone had driven a burning spike into his scar and was wrenching it from side to side. Once the initial shock wore off, he focused his eyes and looked ahead at the figure in the cloak, who had taken a few more steps and was almost within reach of Harry.
Somehow managing to ignore the pain, Harry had realized that he might be in a life-threatening situation, and that all those hours spent playing with explosive spells, hoping to one day be Gandalf, effortlessly holding back entire armies with spellfire, were childish fantasies. Not that he needed it, but he didn't even have his wand drawn, and was completely off-guard.
Forcing himself back into his senses, Harry threw a fireball at the figure, only for it to be waved away with a quick wave of its wand at the last second. The small explosion generated did little more than clear the area of dead leaves and force Harry back a few feet. He regained his balance and held his ground.
"Stay back!" Harry shot a few rapid bursts of force in the figure's direction, but his aim was off—most missed, and some hit the edges of its cloak and went straight through, but two of the small balls of energy hit it and it let out a hiss of pain, but did not relent. It raised its wand as if to attack and Harry belatedly realized he had no way to defend himself and began to put all his effort into visualizing an invisible shield in front of him, when the figure hesitated before slinking away into the darkness. The pain in Harry's scar dulled and he realized he was shaking, and that someone was behind him. He spun around, ready to curse whoever it was.
"Calm yourself, Harry Potter," a centaur said. "There has been enough blood spilled in this forest tonight already."
Harry lowered his hand and quickly checked behind him. The clearing was empty, save for the unicorn, which was alive but breathing shallowly. Harry turned back to the centaur. "Who are you?"
"My name is Firenze." He looked deep into Harry's eyes, as if judging the core of his being, and he was very glad he had some form of occlumency in place. Firenze noticed the unicorn blood on Harry's hands, looked at the still-living unicorn, and his head snapped up to the sky. "You have done a great thing, healing her. The stars themselves have shifted around us. Pluto is bright again, as it has been for a few years. Mars as well, though they have transposed since I last looked."
None of this meant anything to Harry, having never met a centaur before. "We've never studied Pluto before… I got the impression wizards haven't found it yet," Harry commented. A discussion about the shortcomings of society was a sure way to distract him from any situation, no matter how traumatic.
Firenze was surprised. "Indeed they have not. Most humans tend to ignore what we say as the ramblings of dumb beasts. We, however, have eyes meant to see the fabric of the universe itself. Which is why you are somewhat troubling to us."
Harry tried not to be offended. "I'm not like most humans."
"If you were, it would be a relief." Firenze looked at the stars, and almost seemed to sigh in relief. "I am referring to The Six in particular."
Harry felt shivers creep across his entire body; a different type of fear than when he faced the cloaked figure, but more potent, because it had no face; there was no body to throw spells at. "What did you say?"
Firenze took a few steps forward and knelt in front of the unicorn. "It is a sin to slay a unicorn; to steal its blood is to defile nature. Yet their blood contains incredible power; power that can heal, protect, even bring the dead back to life."
Harry was shocked. "That's impossible." He watched as Firenze stood up and walked back to Harry, who had hardly moved since the cloaked figure left.
Firenze shook his head. "No, merely very difficult, and rarely worth it. For a life gained, or even healed, through these methods and most others, can hardly be called a life at all. The thing you saw earlier is the result of that."
"It was a ghost?" Harry asked.
"It was—and still is—someone who is in between life and death and will do anything to avoid his fate. Was there anything unusual about him that you noticed?"
Harry gave a stifled laugh. "Everything about him was unusual."
Firenze broke the typical centaurs' stoic face and humored him with a slight smile. "I am referring to something a bit more personal…"
Harry thought. "Well, my scar—" Harry froze, and again, a feeling of deep-rooted fear sunk into him. "Are you saying that was Voldemort?"
Firenze nodded firmly. "At this moment, an item is hidden in Hogwarts which could restore him back to life permanently. If it falls into his hands, it will—"
Without warning, Firenze shoved a hand into Harry's chest, causing him to fly back, and he felt a sharp pain across the bridge of his nose as an arrow flew past where his head resided a mere instant before. Firenze moved to stand in front of Harry who was now on the ground, as two more centaurs came into the clearing, one carrying a bow and an angry expression.
"What are you telling the boy, Firenze? The circle made its decision quite clear," the one with the bow said, ignoring Harry completely.
Firenze, who had been quite calm throughout his conversation with Harry, showed signs of anger for the first time. "And that decision had absolutely nothing to do with putting an arrow through his head!"
The third calmly spoke for the first time, interrupting what would soon become a violent argument. "Bane, Firenze, you are both out of line. You both know the circle's decision, and you have both gone against it." He looked past Firenze and saw Harry sitting in the dirt with a small trail of blood running down his nose. "What are you doing in the forest, boy?"
"Detention, sir. Looking for what's been hurting the unicorns." He wasn't sure if he should mention that he accomplished his mission.
Bane looked at him with doubt and scorn. "All by yourself? Where's Hagrid?"
"We split into groups, and the other boy ran away when the…thing showed up." Harry tried to look to Firenze for guidance, but he was busy staring down the other centaurs.
"The wraith was here?" the third one, who seemed to be in charge, asked.
Firenze nodded. "When I showed up, Harry was fighting him. He was about to retaliate when he saw me and fled." The three centaurs looked up.
"Mars and Pluto have transposed!"
Firenze nodded. "Now you see why I am against the circle's decision, Ronan.
Bane glared at Harry. "For once we agree, but for different reasons. I say we kill him while we still can." He pulled out a large knife and waved it in Harry's direction.
Before anyone could respond, they heard the sound of snapping twigs, and Hagrid appeared with the other students in tow. "Sorry 'bout that, Harry, had to get Malfoy here calmed down a bit before I could come an' get yeh." Hagrid noticed the knife Bane had and the general mood of the group, and his own changed to fit the situation. "Just what's happenin' here, gents? You okay there, Harry?"
Harry took the opportunity to stand up and walk over to Hagrid as Bane grudgingly sheathed his hunting knife. "I'm fine, Hagrid. I was able to heal the unicorn, too."
"Issat right?" Hagrid looked behind Firenze and saw the unicorn lying there, its breathing now a bit steadier than before. "How 'bout that! Looks life we got ourselves a healer in the makin' here!"
Bane seemed to be annoyed, but Ronan was impressed. "Indeed. It seems you've done a great thing tonight, Harry. Hagrid, I suggest you avoid taking students into the forest at night in the future. Now come, you two."
The group watched them walk away into the shadows. "What was that about, Harry?" One of the twins asked.
"I have no idea, but I'm sure it wasn't good," he answered honestly as they began the trek back towards the castle. The others would have to hear about this, and he doubted it would be a pleasant conversation.