AN: So, same deal as chapter 6: the fifth section has dialogue and ideas taken straight from OotP, so you can skim it if you like, but there's enough difference that I felt I should include it. I make no claim to those words which are JKR's.
Chapter VIII / Through the Eyes of the Serpent
He was sitting in a high backed chair in a dark, curtained room, lit only by a single branch of candles at his right, though they were, of course, charmed to give out somewhat more light than usual. A book lay open on his lap, but he was no longer reading it. He had become lost in thought, as he often did these days, his gaze passing over the same few paragraphs without taking any of it in.
His thoughts circled around the same two subjects they had since he had been reborn, with no real hope of him figuring out either one any time soon. That alone was a frustrating enough thought to drive him back to them, but he had been unsuccessful in his attempts at obtaining one and in his research pertaining the other.
And so he was trapped in a cycle of becoming so frustrated that he would try to think about anything else, and then becoming so frustrated that he had not solved them that he would consider these two problems until he had.
His long fingers trailed over a diagram in the book. It should have been simplicity itself to discover the solution to this problem, and yet, it eluded him.
A soft knock roused him from his stupor. He let his gaze pass over the doorway, ignoring the flinch of the man who stood there.
"My lord," Lucius murmured, bowing deeply. "My Lord, if you would forgive the intrusion...you have a guest."
"A guest?" Harry repeated, quite as perplexed as Lucius himself seemed to be. "Who?"
"A vampire, My Lord."
His eyes narrowed slightly, but not in anger. It could not be one of Lucius's own family, nor those like them, for they were free to come and go as the pleased, as were all his loyal followers. He thought perhaps it was one whom he had been seeking for many months; he had, at least, recently begun to sound marginally interested in what he might stand to gain.
"You may show him in," he said, banishing the book back to his quarters with a wave of his hand.
Lucius bowed again, then turned and bowed far less deeply to a man on the other side of the door, gesturing him into the room.
The man who walked through the door radiated darkness. His dark hair and robes contrasted sharply with skin pale as moonlight, and all around him was an aura of shadow nearly visible to one so entrenched in similar magicks as himself. The man's magic stood poised around him, complacent for the time being but ready to be called up in his defence at any time.
"My Lord," the vampire murmured with a very slight bow. He did not speak the title with the reverence he had come to expect from his followers, and he did not cower at all in his presence. It was both admirable and infuriating.
Harry glanced up at the doorway before the vampire. "Leave us, Lucius."
Lucius bowed for a fourth time and backed out into the hallway. The door closed gently behind him.
"You have a considerable amount of nerve, to call on me without a whisper of forewarning," he said mildly, looking back down at his guest.
The creature did not smile, but he had the impression of a smirk on his lips. "An oversight I was unable to avoid, I'm afraid. You have my deepest apologies."
He narrowed his eyes at the vampire, and this time it was because he was not pleased. "Why are you here? I was under the impression you, like many of your kind, had no interest in assisting me and fighting for my cause."
"I thought it was time we moved past tersely written letters," the vampire Sanguini said with the slightest shrug imaginable. "The only way to truly know a man is to meet him in person."
"Then you have not reconsidered joining me?" Harry said, feeling somewhat disappointed. He knew that this particular vampire was very well respected among his kind—his current allies had been keen enough to share such information. If Sanguini joined him, a fair number of the rest of his kind would surely follow.
"I am always considering it," Sanguini murmured. "But I have not decided to join you, no."
"Then you are wasting my time," Harry said with a sneer, and he raised his wand.
Sanguini only stared back at him calmly, as if he did not realize that he was bringing upon himself the wrath of the powerful wizard to walk the earth. "Perhaps," he said quietly, "but only if you do not allow me a question or two."
Harry stared at the man incredulously. "You dare—"
"I dare," Sanguini said, crossing his arms and looking thoroughly unimpressed. "And if you desire my assistance, you will answer them."
It was shock and shock alone that stayed his hand. He could not believe...what insolence...to speak to a wizard such as he in this manner...
"I would like to know," Sanguini murmured, his eyes flashing red in his amusement, or perhaps as warning, "what you have to offer my people that I would not be able to find elsewhere. And I would like to know what our standing will be among your followers. I will not submit to anyone who chooses to see me and mine as less than we are."
"I have told you this already," Harry snarled. His wand itched to be used on this impudent intruder. What did he think their many letters had been about?
"I wish to hear it from your own lips," Sanguini said. "It would be foolish of me to believe everything offered to me in writing."
That could not be all. The vampire did not have to come here himself for something so simple. He suspected there was far more to it...perhaps the creature had a method of divining his true intentions from his speech in a way he could not from paper and ink. But he was well practiced in the art of deception and he had many years experience in shielding his mind from others.
"You would, of course, be in equal standing with my other followers," he said quietly as he slowly got to his feet. He had become too restless with irritation to remain seated, and he would appear to be more fearsome besides. He began to pace, slowly, in front of his chair. "You would have the same opportunities to rise among their ranks, to succeed or fail with the same rewards or consequences, to be given the same chance earn your place among my most trusted."
A lie, of course. He could not imagine a time when he would allow a vampire into his Inner Circle. But he would put forth the appearance of allowing them the opportunity to try.
Sanguini's expression was indiscernible. He could not tell whether the creature believed him or not, whether the offer was good enough for him. It was infuriating. He could always glean the surface thoughts of those around him with the slightest glance, and he did not appreciate suddenly being left in the dark.
"A fine offer," Sanguini said after a moment. And he said no more, only waiting patiently for him to go on.
Harry bit back a curse and continued, "As for what else I have to offer you...Lord Voldemort is generous and will always reward those who have chosen to aid him. We will dismantle the laws that the Ministry has put forth to force you into being everything but what you are. Magic such as yours should not be tamed or fettered. And you will, naturally, have an unlimited supply of food, in the form of those who fight against us."
There were some laws that would have to remain in place, of course, and perhaps even be intensified. The vampires could not continue mingling with Muggles as they often did. He had no compunctions against them killing and drinking the blood of Muggles—there was little else Muggles were good for—but the turning of and mating with Muggles would be put to an end.
"Only if we choose to aid you," Sanguini said.
Harry sneered at him. "Of course."
Sanguini said nothing else but now, at least, he could tell that the man was thinking it over. He tried not to feel impatient as he waited. He could demand an answer if the creature took too long.
After a moment, Sanguini cocked his head slightly to the left and regarded him with a look of disappointment. "The problem, my Lord, is that what you have chosen to offer us is nothing we could not find somewhere else."
He laughed and sneered at the vampire. "You lie. Who could possibly want to offer such freedoms to you?"
Sanguini's eyes narrowed slightly, but that was the only bit of emotion he showed. "That hardly matters. All that matters is that we have received a better offer elsewhere." And then he turned on his heel as if he thought the conversation was over and it was time to leave.
The curse passed his lips in a hiss of rage, a jet of light that would cause this insolent creature the most pain imaginable.
Darkness writhed around the vampire and swallowed the spell before it could come close to touching him.
Sanguini turned slowly, an infuriatingly patient but disappointed look on his face, one that reminded him disgustingly of Dumbledore the very first time they had ever met.
"There are two nights in the year when you have no hope of touching me, Voldemort," he said quietly. The disappointment shown through his voice even more than his face, and Harry bristled with rage. "I chose to meet you on one of them as a precaution, and I see I was not wrong. The spirits of the dead always guard most fiercely those who are close to them. You, who run from death, should not forget that so quickly."
Harry seethed and flung another curse, this one nonverbal, in an attempt to relieve his anger. Again, the curse stopped short, consumed by the magic around the vampire, which he began to suspect was not all his own but only borrowed on this night when the dead walked the earth.
Sanguini lifted his hands in a gesture of apology. "I have enjoyed our correspondence. I do hope you'll come up with a better offer with which to court me," he said, and then he strode out of the room.
Harry woke with a scream of pain that ripped itself from his throat. He flailed in his sheets, desperately trying to grab his head, but only tangling himself up in them. The more he flailed, the more trapped he became, and the more trapped he became, the more he flailed to get free, to find some way to relieve the pain—
"Harry!" someone shouted from very close, too close, and then they were grabbing him, trying to hold him down. "Harry! Calm down a minute, would you!"
Harry opened his eyes. Ron was leaning over him, his face pale and frightened in the darkness. He was the one trying to pin Harry's shoulders to the bed.
"Is he all right?" asked a terrified voice from nearby.
Harry shut his eyes again. It hurt to keep them open. His head felt like it might split in two.
"I'm fine," he said shakily. He moved to sit up on his elbows and immediately regretted it; it only made him feel nauseous along with the pounding in his head. "I'm all right..."
"Maybe we should get someone..."
"I'm fine, Neville," he said, a bit more firmly this time. He did not feel fine, not at all, but he definitely did not want to get anyone else involved in this. He was going to have enough trouble explaining to the people already in the room.
He must have made a face to this effect, because Ron straightened and said, "Let's just all get back to bed, all right? Probably just a bad dream, you know...Could happen to anyone..."
He heard the others grumble a bit, and Neville especially sounded as though he would have liked to do something to help, but he also heard a bit of shuffling as they returned to their beds.
Once it sounded like everyone else had stopped moving, Ron wrenched his hangings shut and sat on the edge of Harry's bed, helping him carefully sit up.
"Are you all right? What happened?"
Harry cradled his head in his hands; it helped somewhat with the headache, but his voice was still shaky and hoarse when he spoke. "It was...I saw Voldemort...I was Voldemort...he was...he was talking to someone, trying to get them to join him..."
There was a lump in his throat he had to speak around, and he realized that he'd been crying at some point. He was glad the position of his hands was hiding his eyes and that fact from Ron.
"Did you say," Ron murmured, sounding terrified, "that you were You-Know-Who...?"
Harry felt sicker than ever. He ground his hands against his forehead. "Whatever he was offering wasn't good enough...he was so angry...he really wanted this guy to join him..."
"Well, that's good, isn't it?" Ron said, but he did not sound like he felt much better than Harry did. "Listen, it was probably just a bad dream—"
"No!" Harry said furiously, glaring at him from between his fingers. "It was real, I was there. It was like the visions I was having last year..."
His scar throbbed again. Harry let out a faint moan and pressed his hands harder against it.
"Are you sure you don't want to get anyone...?" Ron asked, but Harry was shaking his head before the last words were out of his mouth. He quickly stopped, though, because it only made him feel like he might actually be ill.
Ron was quiet for a long time. Harry thought he might know what he was thinking, and as soon as he heard Ron take in a breath to speak, he had his own mouth open. "I don't have to tell anyone about this. They already know anyway."
By "they" he meant Dumbledore, though it could have included Sirius too, who indeed knew that he would occasionally have visions of Voldemort to go along with the searing pain in his forehead. He had never actually seen through Voldemort's eyes before, but the act of seeing what he was doing itself wasn't new. He felt no inclination to tell them something they already knew.
He thought there might be something else behind his reluctance as well. The vision had been jumbled and confused, more a collection of emotions and actions than images, unlike those he had had last year, and so he had been unable to tell who Voldemort's guest was exactly. But there had been something familiar and something very painful about him, whoever he was, and Harry thought that he might be the reason he had been crying, though he could not say why. He did know that he did not want to tell anyone, and especially Dumbledore, about his being there.
"I reckon Dumbledore'd want to know about this, Harry," Ron said, but he did not sound as though he was going to argue the point. He was quiet for another moment, then he shifted and reluctantly stood up. "You going to be okay?"
"Yeah, I'll be all right," Harry muttered. He carefully moved so he was laying down again, this time facing away from Ron. He was sure Ron would press the issue if he noticed the tear tracks on his face.
Ron hovered by his bed for another moment, but when it became clear that Harry was not interested in saying anything more, he slipped out of the hangings and shuffled back to his own bed.
Harry bit his lip and buried his face in his pillow as his scar began burning again, more fiercely than ever. If Voldemort kept this up, he would never get back to sleep. His dreams had started out with the stupid corridor he kept seeing almost every night; why did it have to morph into this?
"Are you sure you don't remember any more than that, Harry?" Hermione asked the next day.
Harry shook his head. "I told you, it wasn't like the others I've had."
He and Ron had told Hermione what had happened as soon as they'd had a private enough moment, which happened to be in the middle of Charms. Charms class was also so full of noise and movement that it was easy to have a conversation without anyone listening in, and today was no exception. They had moved on from Silencing Charms to Loudening and Quieting Spells, which operated on similar principles but were more delicate and refined. The room was full of noise from ravens and bullfrogs whose caws and croaks had suddenly been amplified to echo throughout the room or quieted to nothing more than a whisper.
"Sonorus!" Hermione intoned, waving her wand at the raven in front of her. "Well, it's good that he wasn't able to get another ally," she said to Harry and Ron, who were just barely able to hear her over the sudden racket her raven was making.
"Yeah. It's just too bad Harry couldn't tell who it was. Maybe we'd have liked to have him instead," Ron said. He still looked a bit nervous about this particular subject, but he had at least stopped giving Harry any furtive glances since breakfast.
Harry shrugged awkwardly and pointed his wand at Hermione's raven. It, combined with this subject, was beginning to give him another headache. "I would've rather not seen anything at all, honestly. Quietus!"
The raven stared at him and let out an especially loud cry.
"I wonder why you did, though," Hermione said quietly, frowning thoughtfully at nothing. "I mean, you've never had any of your other visions from...well, from that perspective, have you?"
Harry shook his head again. He did not want to think on it particularly hard, either. He had a feeling he would only start feeling sick again.
"I still reckon you ought to go to Dumbledore," Ron muttered. He jabbed his wand toward the bullfrog on the desk in front of him. "Sonorus!"
"I told you, he already knows," Harry said shortly as Ron's bullfrog only stared at him and did not make a sound.
"Yes, but Harry, he really ought to know if you're seeing things from...well, from that perspective," Hermione said, sounding rather worried, though her attention was on Ron and his efforts to make his bullfrog make some sort of noise. "He would want you to come to him with this, even if you think he knows already..."
"Yeah, and I reckon he'd want to know there's someone out their You-Know-Who's interested in, who isn't interested in him," Ron agreed. He was now poking the frog with his wand. "C'mon, you were making plenty of noise before..."
"Well, don't poke it, Ron," Hermione said exasperatedly.
"What else am I supposed to do, I can't even tell if it worked or not..."
He jabbed his wand especially hard toward the frog. It jumped out of the way and let out a reproachful croak that was not amplified at all but did sound about an octave higher than usual.
Hermione sighed and waved her wand at it. "Finite. There, now you can try again. In any case," she said, turning to Harry now, "after what happened with Malfoy, don't you think it's time you talked to someone about this?"
Harry tried very hard to keep any emotion of his face. He was not sure what expression he might have had otherwise. "We don't know they're related," he said quietly.
"Yes, but we don't know they're not," Hermione said, frowning back at him. "Wouldn't it be easiest for Dumbledore to be the one to figure that out?"
Ron's frog suddenly let out a deafening croak. Ron himself looked rather bewildered, as he had no longer been trying to make it louder.
"All I'm saying is, he already knows I've been seeing things and feeling things," Harry said, trying very hard not to think about the fact that he hadn't ever had a vision from Voldemort's perspective before. "And I reckon he's got his own ways of finding out what he's up to and who he's meeting. That's supposed to be Snape's job, isn't it? So he'll probably know about this even if I don't tell him."
Harry shook his head, jabbing his wand furiously at his own bullfrog. "Drop it, Hermione, all right? He obviously didn't care about the thing with Malfoy. Why would he care about this?"
"Oh, Harry, I really don't think that's true..." But Professor Flitwick was moving toward them to check on their progress, and she trailed off before he could get close enough to hear what they were saying.
It was just as well, Harry thought as he jabbed his wand a little too hard and his spell ended up reducing his frog's croak to the barest whisper. He was getting rather tired of being advised to go to Dumbledore. It had been two weeks since his duel with Malfoy, and Dumbledore had not once looked at him in all that time. Harry was loosing faith that he ever would again.
Besides, he had more pressing things to worry about. Voldemort had decided to throw a tantrum at an extremely inopportune time. Their match with Slytherin was the next day, and he needed to keep his mind on that rather than the Dark Lord's mysterious visitors.
As it turned out, keeping a level head and his thoughts on the match were exactly what he'd needed to do. Harry wondered later what the outcome might have been if he'd allowed himself not to.
The day of the match dawned bright and cold. It was an excellent day for Quidditch—overcast, so they would never be flying into the sun, but clear and calm otherwise, so they would not have to be playing this match in a storm. It had been looking more and more likely they might have had to, as October had wound down and more days then not had come with rain and wind, so it was a lucky break that they would have such fine conditions for the match.
Harry had tried pointing this out to Ron, but he was so nervous in the face of his first Quidditch match that he had a hard time appreciating this fact in the middle of trying not to be sick.
It was not long before Harry was feeling rather ill himself. The match was a nightmare. The Slytherins had come up with a repulsive song designed to keep Ron as off balance as possible, but Harry had to reluctantly admit that even without them singing it, Ron was so nervous that he wouldn't have preformed much better. Harry thought it was a blessing that he managed to catch the Snitch rather quickly.
Then two things had happened at once: Crabbe had sent a Bludger flying into his back in revenge for winning the match, and Malfoy and Montague together had begin insulting the lot of them, though they had most viciously gone after Ron and his family. Perhaps if Harry had felt like he could move, he would have attacked them or tried to hex them, but the Bludger had done its job in taking him down for a good minute. In fact, he rather thought it might have broken a rib or two.
Fred and George, on the other hand, were not so easily thwarted. It had taken all three Chasers to keep Fred from rushing Malfoy and Montague, but that left no one to stop George (Ron had left the pitch as soon as they had touched the ground, so at least he was spared further insult). George was on top of Montague in half a second, attacking him which such ferocity that he had to be knocked back with a spell from Madam Hooch's wand before he would stop.
It did not feel like they had won the match at all after that. It felt rather like they had lost it spectacularly when they found out later that Fred and George had been banned from playing Quidditch for life. McGonagall would have been quite happy to have only given George a week of detentions, but Umbridge had intervened with a brand new Educational Decree which allowed her to override other teacher's disciplinary actions and substitute her own.
It was beastly and unfair, not only that she had done it but that she had gone so far as to include Fred in the punishment as well, and Harry wondered what might have happened if he'd been able to take out his fury on Malfoy or Montague too.
Lucky, they were given a reprieve from feeling miserable, as that night was the night Hagrid had come back. Harry, Ron, and Hermione snuck down to his hut to greet him and to find out why he had been gone so long.
Hagrid was not a pretty sight. He looked as though he had been beaten up several times, and one side of his face was so swollen and bloody that he had to keep it covered with a slab of dragon meat. To their frustration, however, he would not say what had happened to cause it.
They were, however, able to wheedle him into telling them where he had been during the summer (although he still refused to explain why he had been gone so long when his travel partner had returned to her school months before). As Harry had begun to suspect, Dumbledore had sent him as an emissary to the giants, much as Voldemort had done with a few of his followers. In fact, Hagrid and Madam Maxime had nearly run into them, and they had been unlucky enough to witness the Death Eaters managing to court the giants when they themselves had not been able to.
It was just another bit of depressing news to round off an already miserable day, but Harry couldn't help but wonder what Voldemort had offered the giants. He had not read an awful lot on what sorts of regulations there were on the giants—though he thought this might have been because there had never been many giants in Britain to begin with—but Hagrid's description of how they had been living repulsed him. He did not particularly want giants roaming about, free to demolish what and kill whomever they wanted, but it was not fair to force them to live in such a limited space where all they could do was kill each other and slowly wipe themselves out.
He regretted that Voldemort was the one who had been able to get their aid, but he found it was less because it was Voldemort and more because it meant their own offer obviously hadn't been good enough and it should have been. They were supposed to be better than Voldemort; they should have been able to give the giants a much better offer.
Then he remembered all that he had read in the last month and how their side had been the ones to issue all these laws and regulations in the first place, and he regretted it even more.
They were forced to cut their reunion short by a sudden appearance of Professor Umbridge at Hagrid's front door. She had come, like them, to find out where Hagrid had been and why he had been gone so long, though he was considerably shorter and more tight-lipped with her than he had been with them. Their brief exchange of words did not inspire a lot of confidence in any of them, and Harry had a sinking feeling that when Hagrid had his first class on Tuesday, she would be there to inspect it and make them all miserable.
It was with a certain trepidation that Harry, Ron, and Hermione trudged across the grounds toward Hagrid's hut on Tuesday. Hermione had visited him for hours on Sunday, trying to convince him to go with something safe for their lesson, so that Umbridge would have no reason but her own prejudices to give him a bad review, but she had reported back that she had been rather unsuccessful. Hagrid simply did not understand that Umbridge would look for any reason, no matter how small, to sack him. He only insisted that no one in their right mind would rather study knarls than chimeras and left it at that.
They expected to find Umbridge waiting for them all to arrive so she could begin her scrutiny. When they arrived, however, she was nowhere in sight. Instead, Hagrid stood alone at the edge of the forest with half a dead cow heaved over his shoulder. He did not present an encouraging sight; the mottled purple bruising on his face had become tinged with sickly yellowish-green, and several of the cuts looked as though they were still bleeding. Harry could not understand why he had not simply gone to Madam Pomfrey; his giant blood could not have possibly made it so difficult for her to heal him that they might as well not even try.
"We're workin' in here today!" Hagrid called happily to the approaching students, jerking his head back toward the dark trees behind him. "Bit more sheltered! Anyway, they prefer the dark..."
Harry immediately felt twice as apprehensive as before, and he shot Malfoy a furtive glance, which Malfoy returned just as nervously. Malfoy did not look quite as nervous as Harry thought he might have if they had not already ventured into the forest once this year, but Harry could tell they were thinking the same thing. The centaurs had not wanted them in the forest, and they would probably not take kindly to them venturing inside again, even if they were with Hagrid.
But there was no way to alert Hagrid of this, either in the middle of class or without having to answer some very awkward questions, so they would just have to hope that the centaurs would not choose to attack them while they were with Hagrid and a dozen or so other students.
"Ready?" Hagrid said happily, looking around at the class. Harry felt a pang of regret; Hagrid had not been lying when he'd said he'd been looking forward to this lesson. "Right, well, I've bin savin' a trip inter the forest fer yer fifth year. Thought we'd go an' see these creatures in their natural habitat. Now, what we're studin' today is pretty rare, I reckon I'm the on'y person in Britain who's managed ter train 'em—"
"And you're sure they're trained are you?" said Malfoy, sounding considerably more nervous than he had looked a moment ago. Harry wondered if he was remembering that Fluffy had once been Hagrid's too and suppressed a grin. "Only it wouldn't be the first time you'd brought wild stuff to class, would it?"
Most of the class nodded or murmured in agreement, the Gryffindors looking a bit reluctant but agreeing all the same.
"'Course they're trained," Hagrid said, scowling at him.
"So what happened to your face, then?" Malfoy demanded.
"Would you shut it?" Harry hissed at him, wishing he was close enough to hit him in some capacity. Malfoy only looked back at him defiantly; their half-truce did not extend to anyone but Harry himself, as far as he was concerned.
"Mind yer own business," Hagrid said angrily. "Now if yeh've finished askin' stupid questions, follow me!"
He turned and strode into the forest, hoisting the dead cow up a bit higher on his shoulder. The rest of the class looked even more apprehensive about following him now and gave each other furtive looks to see who would be brave enough to go first. Harry let out an irritated sigh and marched off into the forest after him, with Ron and Hermione close behind him. He glanced back when he heard others start to follow as well and smirked a little when he saw that Malfoy was leading the rest of the group, obviously keen to stay as near to Harry and safety as possible.
They walked for about ten minutes before they reached a small clearing, around which the trees were so tightly packed together that they blocked out enough sun for it to be as dark as twilight and there was no snow on the ground at all. Hagrid deposited his half a cow in the middle of the trees and stepped back to face his students, most of whom were creeping toward him tree by tree, as if they thought spending too much time in the space between would encourage something to attack them.
"Gather roun', gather roun'," Hagrid said, giving them an encouraging gesture. Harry, Ron, and Hermione stopped at a comfortable distance from him, and Malfoy stepped up beside them, nervous but determined to keep close as close to Harry as he could without making it look as though they were friends.
"Now, they'll be attracted by the smell o' the meat," Hagrid said as the rest of the class finally settled, "but I'm goin' ter give 'em a call anyway, 'cause they'll like ter know it's me..."
He turned back around, threw his head back to shake his hair out of his face, and gave a horrible, shrieking cry that echoed through the trees. The class shifted nervously, most of them looking even more terrified by this than they had by just walking into the forest. Malfoy's hand was flexing at his side, as if he would like nothing more than to grab onto Harry sleeve again.
Hagrid gave the call again. Another minute passed, while the students looked about nervously for whatever was supposed to be coming. Then, as Hagrid leaned his head back a third time, Harry nudged Ron and pointed into the black space between two trees opposite them.
A pair of blank, white, shining eyes was staring at them from out of the darkness. A moment later, it was followed by a reptilian head, and then a skeletal body with huge, leathery wings as the odd-looking horse stepped through the trees into the clearing. It stared at the class for another long moment, its tail swishing behind it, then it leaned down and began peeling strips of flesh from the cow with its teeth.
Harry could have laughed with relief. At last, here was the confirmation he'd needed that these odd horses were real and he had not been imagining things; Hagrid knew about them too. He turned to Ron to say so, but Ron was still looking around in apprehension, and before Harry could say anything, he whispered, "Why doesn't Hagrid call again?"
Harry looked around, but it seemed that most of the class was still in the same state of confusion as Ron. In fact, he thought only two other people could see it; Neville, whose eyes were following the tail as it flicked back and forth, and a stringy Slytherin boy, who was watching it eat with a look of great distaste.
"Oh, an' here comes another one!" Hagrid said proudly, as a second horse stepped out of the trees and joined the first in their feast. "Now...put yer hands up, who can see 'em?"
Harry raised his hand immediately, glad that he would finally be learning the truth behind these mysterious horses. Hagrid nodded at him.
"Yeah...yeah, I knew you'd be able ter, Harry," he said solemnly. "An' you too, Neville, eh?" An'—"
"Excuse me," Malfoy said, sounding as though he would dearly like to be sneering at Hagrid but not quite able to, "but what are we supposed to be seeing?"
Harry frowned at him. Malfoy obviously couldn't see them—he was still looking in completely the wrong direction—but he almost sounded as though he already knew why.
Hagrid's answer was to point at the dead cow. The rest of the class stared at it for a moment, then a few of them made startled sounds and Parvati even shrieked. Harry could not blame her; bits of flesh being stripped away and disappearing into nothing was surely an unnerving sight.
"What's doing it?" Parvati demanded, looking terrified as she retreated behind the nearest tree. "What's eating it?"
"Thestrals," Hagrid said proudly, and Hermione gave a soft "oh!" of comprehension next to him. "Hogwarts has got a whole heard of 'em in here. Now, who knows—?"
"But they're really, really unlucky!" Parvati interrupted. "They're supposed to bring all sorts of bad luck, Professor Trelawny told me—"
"Professor Trelawney wouldn't know real bad luck if it kicked her in the face," Malfoy sneered at her. Then he immediately look alarmed that he had inadvertently defended Hagrid and sneered at him too. "But they are supposed to be dangerous."
"Naw, they aren' dangerous," Hagrid said, waving his hand. "I mean, they can look after themselves all righ', but most anythin'll bite yeh if yeh bait it, won' it? And they aren' unlucky either, tha's just a bunch o' superstition, they're dead clever an' useful. 'Course this lot don' get a lot o' work, it's mainly jus' pullin' the school carriages unless Dumbledore's takin' a long journey an' don' want ter Apparate—an' here's another couple, look—"
Two more horses came out of the trees, this time walking through the students to get to the small clearing. One brushed past Parvati and she squealed again. "I think I felt something! I think it's near me!"
"Don' worry, it won' hurt yeh," Hagrid said patiently. "Righ', now, who can tell me why some o' you can see 'em and some others can't?"
Malfoy crossed his arms and looked sourly off into the trees, looking dearly like he would have liked to answer this if it did not happen to be Hagrid's class. Hermione was the only other person who seemed to have any idea and she raised her hand.
"The only people who can see thestrals," she said when Hagrid gestured for her to go on, "are people who have seen death."
"Tha's exactly righ'," Hagrid said solemnly. "Ten points ter Gryffindor. Now, thestrals—"
Harry tensed and looked around. Professor Umbridge was standing not too far behind him, wearing a green tweed cloak and hat that made her look more like a toad than ever, with her clipboard clutched in her stubby fingers.
Hagrid had not seemed to notice her. He seemed to be under the impression that the thestral nearest him had made the sound and was now looking it over in concern.
"Hem, hem," Umbridge said again, and this time Hagrid looked up and saw her.
"Oh, hello!" he said cheerfully.
"You received the note I sent to your cabin this morning?" said Umbridge. "Telling you that I would be inspecting your lesson?"
She was speaking with the same loud voice she had used when she had confronted him the other night, the one that sounded as though she thought she were speaking to someone rather slow. Harry clenched his fists and tried to focus on something else, like the thestral that stood perhaps a meter from Malfoy and was eyeing him with interest. He had every reason to feel hostile toward Umbridge at the moment, but he could not afford to lose his temper with her again.
"Oh yeah," Hagrid said brightly. "Glad yeh found the place all righ'! Well, as you can see—or, I dunno—can you? We're doin' thestrals today—"
"I'm sorry?" Umbridge said loudly, cupping her hand around her ear. "What did you say?"
Of course, Umbridge was doing a very good job of making it very hard for Harry not to lose his temper again. He had a vastly different understanding of her feelings on part-humans now, and he knew that could be her only reason for treating Hagrid this way.
"Er—thestrals!" Hargrid said loudly, looking immensely confused. "Big—er—winged horses, yeh know!"
He waved his arms hopefully. Umbridge raised an eyebrow at him and set to work scrawling her quill across her clipboard, muttering loud enough for everyone to hear as she wrote, "Has... to... resort... to... crude... sign... language..."
"Well, anyway," Hagrid said, turning back to the class and looking slightly flustered. "Erm...what was I sayin'?"
"Appears... to... have... poor... short... term... memory..." Umbridge muttered, scribbling away.
By this time, Harry was shaking with rage, and he was not the only one; Hermione had turned scarlet with anger. Most of the Slytherins, on the other hand, were grinning amongst themselves...all except Malfoy, who was frowning at him and did not seem to care what Umbridge said other than the effect it had on Harry.
"Oh, yeah," Hagrid said, giving the clipboard an uneasy glance but continuing on valiantly, "I was gonna tell yeh how come we got a herd. Yeah, so, we started off with a male an' five females. This one," he said, patting the first thestral to appear, "name o' Tenebrus, he's my special favorite, firs' one born here in the forest—"
"Are you aware," said Umbridge loudly, interrupting him, "that the Ministry of Magic has classified thestrals as 'dangerous'?"
Hagrid chuckled, waving his hand again. "We went o'er this already. They migh' take a bite outta you if yeh really annoy them—"
"Shows... signs... of... pleasure... at... idea... of... violence..." muttered Umbridge, scribbling away at her clipboard again.
"No—come on!" Hagrid exclaimed, looking a bit distraught now. "I mean, a dog'll bite if yeh bait it, won' it—but trestrals have jus' got a bad reputation because o' the death thing—people used ter think they were bad omens, didn' they? Jus didn' understand, did they?"
Umbridge ignored him as she finished writing her last note, then she looked up at Hagrid and said very loudly and slowly, "Please continue teaching as usual. I am going to walk"—she mimed walking with her fingers—"among the students"—she pointed around at individual members of the class—"and ask them questions." She pointed at her mouth to indicated talking.
Hagrid looked bewildered as to why she thought he could not understand normal English. Harry, on the other hand, had had enough.
"He can understand you just fine, you know, he's not stupid!" he snarled before he realized he was doing it. Next to him, Ron gave a small moan and Hermione hissed, "Harry, please, no!" but he did not care. He had not believed he could hate anyone so very much, and he felt that if he did not say something, he might explode with rage.
The rest of the class fell quiet, holding their collective breaths. Half of them had experienced one or two of these bursts of rage before and they were now waiting apprehensively to see what the result would be this time. The others had only heard about them, and most of them were trying not to look too gleeful.
Umbridge turned to him slowly. "Another week of detentions, I think," she murmured, carefully jotting that down as well. "And if you criticize my methods again, Mr. Potter, I assure you, the punishment will be far worse."
"Hey, now, that ain' righ'!" Hagrid said angrily, but Harry was not going to give him a chance to dig his own hole. He interrupted him before he could say anything more.
"Your methods don't have to include treating someone like they have no idea what you're saying," he said, his voice shaking with fury.
It was quiet, far too quiet, after that proclamation. Not even the wind rose up to rustle the leaves in the trees. Harry felt Hermione grab his sleeve, and he could feel Malfoy's stare burning a hole in his head. He ignored them both.
Umbridge closed her eyes for a brief moment. When she opened them again, she did not look at him, but rather back down at her clipboard, where she wrote as she said quietly, "And suspension from the Gryffindor Quidditch team for the rest of the year."
Harry stared at her in shock. She couldn't...this wasn't even related...
Umbridge smiled faintly and looked back over at Hagrid. "Well, Hagrid, I think questioning your students won't be necessary after all. You will receive"—she mimed taking something from the air in front of her, speaking again in that loud, slow voice that made Harry bristle—"the results of your inspection"—she pointed to her clipboard—"in ten days time." She tucked her clipboard under her arm and held up ten stubby fingers.
Then, smiling wide and looking more like a toad than ever, she turned on her heel and bustled off back toward the castle, leaving behind a rather shell-shocked Hagrid and his equally horrified class.
Harry did not speak to anyone for the rest of the class, nor did he even really pay attention to anything else that was said. When Hagrid finally dismissed them (sooner than he might have had their class not been interrupted so horribly), Harry spun on his heel at once and stalked off into the forest, leaving Ron and Hermione racing to catch up.
He shouldn't have done it. He did not know what had possessed him to say anything in the first place. And now he had another week of cutting open his hand and he was essentially banned from playing Quidditch for the rest of the year...
He tried very hard not to think about how certain people where going to react to that. If Angelina didn't yell at him again, he would be lucky. And McGonagall had just stopped giving him disappointed looks in class over his last detention.
When Ron and Hermione caught up with him, Hermione had her mouth open, but one look from Harry made her snap it shut again. He did not need another lecture about how stupid that had been when he was already giving one to himself.
They were just leaving the cover of the forest when someone grabbed his arm. He spun around, snarling—until he saw it was Malfoy. Then he just gave him a rather nasty glare and tried to shake him off so he could go back to fuming in peace.
Malfoy allowed him to turn back around, but he did not let go of Harry sleeve. Harry was starting to wonder if maybe someone had placed some sort of attraction charm on it. Why else would people—especially Malfoy—keep grabbing at it?
"What do you want, Malfoy?" Ron snarled at him when it was clear he wasn't going anywhere. "Come to gloat, have you?"
Malfoy ignored him and leaned in close to Harry's ear. "That was stupid," he murmured.
He was using the same serious voice he had used when they had discussed Harry's Parseltongue spell and when he had declared he would never do anything to hurt his family. It made Harry stop and actually pay attention to him, and the look of anger on his face shocked Harry enough to put his own rage aside for a moment. What could have bothered him so much? Surely he was happy that Harry was suspended from the Quidditch team?
"I know that," Harry said, but he couldn't quite keep his confusion out of his voice. He heard Ron and Hermione stop behind him when they finally realized he was no longer with them, but he ignored them.
Malfoy narrowed his eyes and his fist clenched around the cloth it was still holding. "You can't keep losing your temper with her!" he whispered urgently. "All you're doing is bringing attention to yourself."
The phrasing brought back something Malfoy had said at the end of their detention, that he could not afford to have Umbridge pay too much attention to him. Harry had thought at the time it was because of his father, but he could not imagine why he would be bringing it up now in relation to Harry if that were the case.
However, Umbridge did have a grudge against part-humans...and Harry thought he knew what had upset Malfoy so much about this.
"I know," he said again as carefully pried his sleeve out of Malfoy's grip. "And I'm trying. But you know how I feel about this, I couldn't just keep quiet."
"You have to, Potter," Malfoy growled. "You know what she is, who she reports to. You know that promise you made me? Well, that works the other way round, too. So you'd better get your temper under control when you're around her."
And with that, he pushed past Harry and stomped off toward the castle. He had hardly taken tend steps before he paused and turned around, eyeing Harry with a haughty look more like what he'd come to expect on Malfoy's face.
"Oh, and Potter," he said, still sounding furious with him no matter what he looked like, "ten points from Gyffindor for being an idiot."
The three of them stared as Malfoy turned on his heel and continued on his way back up to the castle, and as he met up with his Slytherin friends on the way—he must have told them to go ahead while he stayed behind for a moment.
Ron shook his head, looking baffled. "What was that about?"
Harry shrugged and started walking, only to have to stop again when Hermione stepped in front of him.
"What was that about, Harry?" she asked, frowning at him. "Why was he so upset you had another row with Umbridge?"
Harry almost winced. He could practically see the gears whirring in Hermione's head as she worked on connecting the dots. He didn't think she would, as she was missing vital information that he had no interest in sharing with her, but if anyone was going to figure anything out, it would be her.
"It's nothing," he said, silently praying she wouldn't press him on this. "He's probably just angry he lost his Quidditch rival."
Hermione crossed her arms. "What did he mean by a promise? What would you promise Malfoy?"
Harry shook his head, almost glaring back at her. "That's between me and him, Hermione. Sorry."
He started walking again. This time, Ron caught his arm and stared at him incredulously.
"Wait, you're keeping secrets from us...with Malfoy?"
Harry tugged his arm free and gave Ron the best apologetic look he could manage. It probably didn't come off well. He was tired and angry and he did not want to talk about this anymore.
"I'm sorry, Ron. If I had my way, he wouldn't know about it either." Harry glared off toward the school, where Malfoy was heading to his next class with his friends. "But we sort of came to an agreement during our detention. He won't be telling any of his friends either."
"You can't possibly think Malfoy's trustworthy, of all people, Harry," Ron said weakly. "How do you know he hasn't told his whole House about whatever this is already?"
"Look, you can stop emphasizing his name like that, it won't change anything." Harry would not let himself be intimidated by this, even though he hated that Ron was staring at him like he'd suddenly revealed himself to be Voldemort the whole time. "I know he hasn't. He doesn't have anything to gain by telling anyone."
"And you don't either?" Hermione questioned, eying him suspiciously. "Is that why he'll trust you with whatever this is?"
Harry should have known she'd pick up on that. "I can't say anything else, you guys. I'm sorry. You know I wouldn't keep anything from you if it wasn't really important."
Neither of them looked very convinced by this, but he did at least think that they would stop asking about it for now, though he thought that might be more because Hermione had checked her watch and looked alarmed when she saw that they were going to be late for Herbology if they didn't start moving right away. Harry had a feeling one or both of them would try bringing this up again later, and he was not looking forward to it.
The rest of the week crawled by as if time itself thought Harry should come to regret his last burst of temper.
And regret it he did. If it wasn't Angelina's disbelief and anger so deep that she was no longer talking to him, it was McGonagall's equal amount of disbelief and disappointment and the thirty more points she had taken from Gryffindor for his actions. Or it was the fact that even though McGonagall had appealed to the Headmaster (although, as she had made a point in telling Harry, he did not really deserve to have this punishment revoked), he could do no more than she in getting Harry back on their Quidditch team. Or it was the disappointed and disgusted faces of the rest of his House, most of whom were no longer speaking to him either.
Or it was the nervous glances Ron and Hermione kept giving him, often accompanied by equally nervous glances in Malfoy's direction.
Harry was no stranger to being ignored and even reviled—it had happened to him more than once in his school career—but by the time Friday came, Harry was eagerly looking forward to the weekend, when he would not have to spend any more time with his housemates than he had to. He could shut himself up in the library as long as he wanted, only coming out for food, and he was seriously considering going to the kitchens for that rather than having to endure his Housemates' disgusted glances in the Great Hall.
Then there were the hours he spent in Umbridge's study for his detentions, carving the same few words into his hand over and over. Umbridge had not directed him to write anything new—perhaps she did not was to ruin the words already shining there from their previous sessions—and he hand had stopped healing again only an hour into his first detention. He had become quite adept at ignoring the pain—and at ignoring Umbridge herself—but that did not mean he wasn't fuming every time he wrote those five little words. They were even more insulting now that he was writing them for defending Hagrid.
It was not a lie that Hagrid was not stupid. It was not a lie that Umbridge was a vile woman who constantly overstepped her bounds and he was going to do something about her if it was the last thing he ever did.
But he endured the detentions in silence, saying nothing more than "Good evening" when he arrived just after dinner and "Good night" when he was released around midnight. He would not give Umbridge the satisfaction of knowing just how miserable she had helped make his life in the last week.
When he arrived for his last detention on Friday night, it was with the firm resolve that this would be the last one. Malfoy was right; he could not afford to continue to lose his temper with this woman, not when she both opposed the Order and any efforts to make the Ministry recognize part-humans as another other than animals. He would have to find another way to oppose her that would not draw attention to himself. Besides, taking his anger out on her was no longer satisfying.
"Good evening," he muttered, but he did not wait for a response before walking over to his desk and sitting down. She did not give one anyway. She hardly even glanced up when he came in, although he knew she would have noticed if he had not.
A piece of parchment and the dreaded black quill were already sitting on the desk. Harry immediately started writing; he had no desire to give her a reason to give him another detention, no matter how silly it might be.
I must not tell lies.
The cuts on his hand, still scabbed over and raw from the night before, broke open immediately and began bleeding anew. Harry determinedly ignored it. He had quite a bit of practice in that by now.
I must not tell lies.
After about an hour, there was a small puddle of blood under his hand where he rested in on the parchment. This was hardly the first time that had happened either, and since Umbridge had never made a fuss about it before, Harry ignored that too.
I must not tell lies.
Another hour, and the world outside Umbridge's office window had become a deep, dark blue. Harry's scar was beginning to itch. Harry allowed himself the smallest possible pause to silently groan about his luck. Of course Voldemort would choose tonight to throw another fit of some kind.
I must not tell lies.
The next time Harry checked his watch, it was nearly ten o'clock. His hand was numb with pain and coated with blood. A good portion of the bottom of his parchment was stained red. His scar had not stopped itching and trying to burn, though it had, at least, not gotten any worse, and he had not felt any emotions that did not seem to be his own yet.
I must not tell lies.
"That will be all, Mr. Potter," said Umbridge, finally, just as his watch read twelve midnight on the dot.
In the next moment, his scar flared with pain and he heard a rushing sound in his ears.
Harry did his best to ignore both as he stood and threw his bag over his shoulder. If he could only get out of her office...if did not matter if he had to stop just outside it, so long as he was not in front of Umbridge...
"Good night," he muttered as his scar suddenly flared so badly that he could not see for a moment. He used the last bit of will he possessed to remain upright as he stumbled to the door and wrenched it open. Then he was out and the door was closed behind him and it did not matter if Voldemort was feeling murderous or elated because he would not be collapsing in front of his next-worst enemy.
He staggered against the wall as his vision began to black out again and a rush of voices descended upon him.
Harry whipped his head around toward the voice and that was enough to knock him off balance. He felt himself falling toward the floor...
He was standing in the dark, curtained room again. Of course he was, this was his throne room, his plotting room, the room where he received his guests and gave orders to his followers. If he was not here, it was because he was asleep or did not desire to speak to anyone.
He stood behind his high-backed chair, his fingers resting lazily upon the sides. A man knelt before it in the pool of light the single branch of candles cast in the room, a man with hair nearly as pale as the moonlight and so long that it touched the floor while he knelt there.
"You are sure they will not be persuaded?" he asked in a soft but high-pitched voice. He was not angry or surprised, but he did feel somewhat disappointed.
"Rest assured, Mr Lord, I have not given up," Christopher murmured, keeping his eyes low. "But it will take time. My father was employed by the Ministry for many years and even now still feels loyalty to them. My brothers have no wish to go against him. But I am making progress. I only ask that you allow me more time."
"Of course, Christopher, I am not unreasonable," Harry said softly. "I understand that you are doing all you can to persuade them. However, in time we may simply have to accept that occasionally a family will only produce one member of worth and the rest must be pruned accordingly."
"Yes, My Lord," Christopher said, and he was pleased to note the man's voice did not shake as he thought he might. "I would not spend undue time on a fruitless quest."
"I know you would not," he said. "I have been most impressed with you."
He slowly stepped around the chair, letting his fingers trail across the back. Christopher only inclined his head further in acknowledgement of the compliment. Harry let a small smile touch his lips. Yes, he was becoming quite pleased with this one; it was a pity most others of his kind were not so intelligent.
"As a reward, I have chosen you to complete a special task for me," he said as he stopped just in front of the kneeling vampire.
"Whatever you desire, My Lord, it is my only wish to give it."
Harry smiled and knelt down himself, reaching out with one long finger to raise Christopher's chin. "I would like you to contact the goblins. They will listen to you as they would not a wizard. Tell them that the Lord Voldemort sympathizes with their grievances and desires to change them, if they would only give him their aid."
Christopher's eyes glittered with determination and what he was willing to believe might be gratitude. "Yes, My Lord. Thank you , My Lord."
Harry's eyes shot open and he immediately regretted it. Pain spiked through his head like someone was hammering a nail into the front of it. He could hardly see through it, but at least he could see enough to tell that he was back in Hogwarts and probably lying on the floor.
And Malfoy was leaning over him.
Harry groaned and tried to sit up. He did not need this.
"Hey, wait a minute!" Malfoy said, but he didn't push him back down. Rather, he reached out to help him stand up. "You look like shit, Potter. You sure you're ready to be moving?"
"Shove off, Malfoy," was all he could mutter in response.
Malfoy rolled his eyes and kept on supporting him until he was able to lean over against the wall instead. "I think not. You obviously can't take care of yourself."
"I don't need you taking care of me either," Harry muttered. He used the wall to slowly push himself to his feet. He needed to get back to his dorm before someone—like Umbridge—wondered what he was still doing here this late and gave him another detention. The burning in his scar was already dying down. He should be able to walk soon.
"What happened?" Malfoy demanded, not bothering to dispute him. Their half-truce did not go that deep.
"Bullshit. You were moaning and trying to claw your face off. I had to Silence and Body-Bind you to keep you from attracting attention." Malfoy crossed his arms, glaring at him like it was all Harry's fault he was being inconvenienced.
Harry winced and looked away. It was bad enough that these visions were giving him spitting headaches for hours afterward; it would have been nice if he could stay quiet and still and not let everyone in the area know it was happening too.
Malfoy started tapping his foot. Harry glared at him. "What?"
"I'm waiting for you to answer my question," Malfoy said simply.
Harry groaned and turned away so he could start walking down the hall. "It wasn't anything. Just stress."
"Bullshit," Malfoy said again.
"Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?"
"Why do you care?" Harry demanded, finally getting fed up enough to turn on him. Perhaps some other time, he would have just walked away, but he was furious and tired and his hand had begun throbbing again and now that his headache had subsided slightly, his mind was racing with what he had seen. He needed to get back to his dormitory and he really did not need to deal with Malfoy right now.
"So something did happen," Malfoy said, smirking triumphantly.
Harry groaned and turned away again. "Get lost, Malfoy."
Malfoy caught up with him instead, sneering at him. "Not until—"
"I can't tell you!"
Malfoy stopped in his tracks, staring at him. Harry himself was a bit surprised by the exclamation. It was true, he could not tell Malfoy anything without putting everyone in danger, but he had not realized he felt so passionately about it.
"I can't tell you, Malfoy" he repeated, a bit more calmly. "I can't tell anyone. You'll just have to get over it."
This confession was probably all that kept Malfoy from protesting. Instead, he watched with eyes narrowed as Harry continued on down the hall, away from him and his pressing questions that secretly he increasingly wanted to actually answer.