Running through a forest was not the best way to spend the night. Running through the forest to escape angry Death Eaters was right up there as the worst way to spend a night ever. Harry didn't think things could get worse than the worst, so he was pretending that his most hated teacher wasn't running beside him most of the way. They had backtracked a few times, with Snape pausing to set strange magical traps in likely places as they went. Their only sign of pursuit was a ghastly skeletal bird that had followed them for hours until Snape had sent a patronus at it. Harry had yet to work up the courage to ask Snape why his patronus' form was a sea gull.
He still felt relatively fresh after a night of running and hiding, but Professor Snape had dark circles showing under his eyes and his steps were slowing. Casting all those spells must have been tiring.
Suddenly, Harry stopped. "The portkey!"
"What?" growled Snape, and Harry winced. Snape was going to kill him for forgetting.
"Dumbledore gave me two portkeys. One to take me to you, and one to take us to him. I still have it in my pocket," Harry said as meekly as possible.
Snape was slowly clenching and unclenching his hands as his face turned even whiter than normal. "You… imbecile! And I thought Longbottom was the one who couldn't remember his own head! Do you really wonder why you fail to excel at Potions?"
Talking back to Snape was not a good idea. Or so the little voice at the back of Harry's head kept saying, but Harry was beyond listening to it. "Perhaps I fail to excel because I find Potions boring and the teacher hostile. I still came to save you!"
Snape sneered. "Because you wanted to, or because Dumbledore manipulated you into going? I was in no danger until you arrived."
Harry blinked, his anger disappearing. "Both, I think," he said tiredly. "He wanted me to be there and for Voldemort to find out, but I'm not sure how he made it all happen. I was only revealed accidentally."
"He has another spy who would have moved things along in the right direction if the plans had gone awry," said Snape. "No doubt he relied on your inhuman ability to find trouble to do the rest." The last was said with a certain amount of disgust, but Snape looked more thoughtful than angry now.
"Voldemort said he was going to Hogwarts with the Death Eaters," said Harry.
Snape nodded. "He only left a few to track us, and not his best or else we would have been found out by now." He stared off into the woods, lost in thought. After a few moments, he shook his head violently. The expression on his face was sour. "Enough of this! The portkey, Potter!"
Harry searched quickly through his pockets for the box that contained the portkeys. The white bumblebee carving lay in the centre of the box, while the black raven lay discarded to one side. He held the box out towards Snape.
"At the same time, Potter."
As one, they brought their fingers to touch the small carving. There was a tug at his navel. Harry's eyes bulged. He stumbled and the box fell from his hands – onto the soft forest floor.
"What happened?" Harry asked, dazed.
"The portkey isn't working." Snape was practically growling at him.
"What does that mean?" Harry asked.
"It means that our destination doesn't exist any more."
Harry's eyes widened in shock. "But it can't be. Dumbledore-" he protested.
"Dumbledore is as human as the rest of us, despite his inhumanity." Snape must have been tired to make such a statement without his customary sneer. Harry watched as he took out his wand and placed the portkey on the ground before him. Waving the wand over the bumblebee carving in precise movements made strange runes and symbols appear and disappear at an astonishing rate. Snape was muttering to himself, but he didn't look too angry, so Harry decided to risk a question.
"What are you doing?" he asked. Snape paused the symbols and looked over at him.
"Changing the portkey's destination. It requires all my skill at arthimancy and ancient runes, so if you wouldn't mind being quiet?" he snarled.
Harry nodded, trying not to quaver under a stare that promised him a slow and painful death whenever its owner found the time. Snape went back to work and Harry wandered about the area aimlessly. A slow drizzle started, and he found himself shivering in his robes. Where was his cloak?
His cloak. His invisibility cloak. It was somewhere back in that clearing, or even worse, in Voldemort's hands.
Harry cursed. If Snape heard him, he didn't look up. A childish part of Harry wanted to insist they go back and reclaim the invisibility cloak, but that would be suicide and Snape would never agree to it in the first place. He really was paying the price for his stupidity today, wasn't he?
"Potter!" called Snape. Harry walked back over to Snape.
"Yes, Professor?" he said, using politeness to cover his anxiety.
Snape impatiently gestured to the portkey.
"It's ready. Let's go." He reached down for the carving, but Harry held back.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"The quidditch field if my calculations are correct. The ocean if they're not." Snape didn't seem to want any more questions and grabbed his sleeve before picking up the portkey. There was the familiar hook in his navel and Harry hardly had time to think that this was not his preferred way to travel, when they found themselves standing on the quidditch pitch, slightly off the centre.
The wind was blowing the last of some stray rain clouds away. Sunlight shot down out of the clouds in brilliant rays to illuminate a scene of devastation. Hogwarts was a pile of smoking rubble. As they watched, a single tower swayed in the breeze then crashed to the ground, sending up a cloud of dust. Harry could see a red and gold Gryffindor banner waving haphazardly from where it had snagged on part of a staircase. He looked over at Snape. His face was unreadable.
"What happened, Professor?" he asked. His voice was loud in the silence.
Snape sounded preoccupied when he answered.
"The question is not what happened, but why did he let it happen?" Snape mused.
Snape cut him off, though he didn't seem to be explaining. It was more like he was thinking out loud. "He's been manipulating us from the start. Right down to revealing who he was and to making sure that you would end up at the meeting. It must have been part of his original plan. I refuse to believe that his thousand years of plotting just went horribly wrong."
Harry looked back at the ruin that had been his home for five years. Had Slytherin made a mistake?
"Come on, Potter," Snape said. He strode off in the direction of the Forbidden Forest, the movement breaking Harry out of his shocked stare.
"Where are we going?" he called, hurrying to catch up.
"The gathering point. That's where everyone is supposed to be in such an eventuality."
"Do you think they're still-"
Snape cut him off. "If Slytherin had anything to say about it, they are." His face looked grim though and he quickened his steps.
They reached the edge of the forest. Hagrid's Hut looked abandoned. The shutter on one of its windows was swaying in the breeze. Snape didn't pause, but entered the dark forest. Harry followed him silently, his mind filled with worry for his friends. Surely Dumbledore had gotten them out in time?
Snape turned left randomly, and Harry wondered how he knew where they were. All parts of the forest looked depressingly similar to the forest they had spent the night in, and they weren't following any of the paths that Hagrid usually patrolled. They walked further before turning right. A few paces more, and Harry nearly stopped in surprise. A clearing materialized in front of them.
It was large, large enough to hold the entire school, which was what it was currently being used for. In a loose circle around the outside of the main group of students stood the professors and a few prefects. They looked tired, but their wands were held at ready.
Professor Sprout noticed them first, but she only saw Snape's black Death Eater robes and not the Professor himself. She and the Ravenclaw prefect near her started cursing.
"Stupefy!" called the prefect.
"Premocorpus!" said Sprout.
Harry was close enough behind Snape to hear him snarl under his breath. His wand was in his hand, and he brought it down in a precise slashing motion.
"Agnos aegis!" Snape called out, and a shimmering white wall sprang up between him and the curses. Harry recognized it as one of the more advanced shielding charms. It glowed red and yellow respectively when the two curses hit. Harry could see the blurred forms of the other professors and prefects moving in to fight.
"Professors! It's Harry Potter and Professor Snape!" Harry yelled as loud as he could. Snape was good, but he couldn't face down the entire school. Another curse came their way, splashing purple on the shield.
"Minerva!" Snape bellowed. "Call off the dogs, you ruddy bint!"
Harry had never heard anyone dare to insult Professor McGonagall like that, especially to her face.
"I called her that during a detention in sixth-year," muttered Snape through gritted teeth. He must have been insane back then. Sweat was rolling off Snape's face; the strain of holding the spell after a night of flight was beginning to show.
A second later, a stern "Stop!" echoed through the clearing. "Take down your spell and let us see your face," McGonagall ordered.
Harry thought he heard Snape sigh with relief as he ended the spell. McGonagall was standing a short distance away, as were half the professors. She was covered in dust, and – now that he looked – so was half the student body. The stern look on her face melted when she recognized the both of them.
"Harry!" came the chorus of cries, and Ron and Hermione were hurtling out the crowd towards him. He couldn't stop grinning as they each gave him a huge hug, and he had to tell them at least five times that he really was fine. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Professor McGonagall looking at their reunion with tears in her eyes, while Snape scowled at the entire scene, tapping his wand impatiently against his leg.
"Much as I'm enjoying this touching reunion, we have more pressing business," Snape said. Harry was secretly grateful since it had looked like Hermione was going to start on one of her lectures about his disappearance.
"Where is the Headmaster?" Snape asked carefully, and Harry was sure he had been about to say Slytherin instead of Headmaster. He looked around and realized there was no sign of the old wizard whose plans they had been playing out all night.
"Oh, Severus," said McGonagall, her eyes tearing up again. She seemed to have forgotten how Snape had insulted her a few moments before. "He stayed until the end so that we could escape."
"He's dead?" Harry stared at her. Slytherin couldn't die. He had been here forever and surely death wasn't in his plans? "What happened?" he demanded at the same time as Snape. Both of them pretended they hadn't noticed.
"You-Know-Who and his Death Eaters apparated to the front of the castle and called for Headmaster Dumbledore. They had some Muggles with them, in the grips of Imperius, and an invisibility cloak that You-Know-Who said was Mr. Potter's. He threatened to kill the Muggles, then Mr. Potter, if we didn't allow him entry. He asked specifically for a duel with Headmaster Dumbledore. When we could find neither of you, the Headmaster was forced to admit defeat. We evacuated, and he went to face Voldemort in the main hall. The last I saw, Albus had his back to me, facing Voldemort and an awful hissing was drowning out all other sound. I- I couldn't stay and we had our hands full facing the Death Eaters." There was a determined look on McGonagall's face. "They harmed none of us!"
Harry could see it in his mind's eye. Dumbledore and Voldemort facing each other across the hall, having a conversation in a language that only the two of them could understand. What had they discussed now that Voldemort knew the truth?
But why was Slytherin dead now? Why was Hogwarts destroyed? Surely, Slytherin, with his years of experience, could have defeated Voldemort.
If Snape was shaken by her words, he didn't show it. "And the Ministry?"
"They should know by now," said Professor McGonagall grimly. "When the letters arrived, we used the owls to inform them of where we were. I have Hagrid patrolling, looking for them should they get lost."
"The letters?" asked Harry.
"Letters to many of us from the Headmaster. He must have known that this would happen." The sad look was back in her eyes for a moment, but she shook her head and the grim look returned. "He asked me to inform you, Mr. Potter, that he has remanded you to Professor Snape's custody. He shall be your guardian from now on."
"What?!" They were all talking over each other. Ron's voice was the loudest, but Harry, Hermione and Snape were all commenting as well. Professor McGonagall let them speak over each other for a few moments, then gestured for silence. She looked directly at Snape. "He asks that you honour his final request and see that Mr. Potter is adequately prepared for the future. I'm to help you in any way."
"How nice," sneered Snape, his face turning pale with anger.
"I don't want to go with him!" protested Harry.
"Professor Snape will be able to protect you, Harry," said Hermione unexpectedly.
"Hermione!" Ron sounded scandalized. "Nothing could be worse than having to―" He broke off when he realized that Snape was standing only a few feet away, glaring at him. The professor looked like he wanted to kill something. He opened his mouth to speak, and no doubt rip Ron to verbal shreds, when Professor McGonagall intervened.
"Your letter, Severus." She thrust a thick envelope right under his nose.
Snape gave it a wary look, then opened it. There was a thick sheath of papers inside. Snape skimmed the top documents, the muscles in his jaw freezing up, fixed in a frown. He seemed to find the main letter of the bunch and settled down to read. Harry leant over, trying to see. "The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches…" was as far as he got before Snape moved the paper out of sight and glared at him. Harry had the feeling that if Professor McGonagall hadn't been present, Snape would have hit him over the head with it.
Harry turned to his own letter, opening the single sheet of parchment that sat in the envelope addressed to him. There was nothing in it really. A simple apology in Dumbledore's handwriting ― that he now saw was ever so similar to Slytherin's old diary entry. A polite request that he didn't kill Professor Snape (Harry could only hope that Snape had gotten a similar note regarding Harry), and a blessing, wishing him good luck, good health and good friends. He turned the paper over to see that there was nothing on the other side. That was it? Where were their answers?
Ron had sidled up close to him and now whispered in his ear. "We got your note, mate. What did you mean, 'you were right'?"
"I-" Harry started to answer quietly, when something clicked inside his head. His eyes widened in horror and shock as images tumbled through his mind.
Dumbledore forcing him to swallow a lemon drop, his eyes sad. And then…
"A timed Forgetfulness Potion. You'll forget the last five minutes and the next hour, until a time of my own choosing. It should take effect any moment now..."
Harry stared at him. He felt… odd. Like there was a little tape recorder in his brain, spinning and recording, and once it reached the end of the tape he would forget it had ever existed.
"What now?" he asked.
"Now," said Dumbledore. "Now, I tell you the truth."
Harry snorted with anger. The truth? From Slytherin?
Slytherin gave him a cynical little smile. "Oh, I know you won't believe me, but it doesn't matter if you do. All you need do is listen."
"On that day, nearly one thousand years ago, I started a cycle. The magic is a bit too advanced for you at this point, Harry. Nor would I tell you all for fear of the knowledge becoming common place, but suffice it to say, I tied my life into the life of the castle."
"Hogwarts?" Harry asked, in spite of his resolve not to allow Slytherin to lead him on.
The old wizard nodded. "Hogwarts was founded on the site of magical convergence. In addition, we imbued it with enough protective spells to make the land around here practically sing with magic. You have seen it in the Forbidden Forest and the lake."
"My initial idea came from the butterflies. So impermanent, yet their cycle never really ends. I trapped a few in an endless cycle of near death and rebirth and saw that the cycle could override death. It could allow me to protect Hogwarts and the future in ways my co-founders never dreamt of. Perfecting the timing, the spells and the potions took years. Until the day when I was ready… Poor Godric." Slytherin looked lost in thought for a moment.
"I was sorry to deceive him. He deserved an explanation as a friend, but instead I decided to play my usual games with him. I didn't expect the storm. The magic of the castle was not… displeased exactly. Surprised, I expect. Such arrogance to tie my life to the very foundation of the castle, and yet, it worked. I would age, then cycle back to childhood, then age again. Forever, or so I thought."
"I couldn't stay and let them see. Not even Helga. And so, I set out on my long life of hiding. Of coming back time and again as a different person. A young student. The middle-aged bachelor. The old wizard on his last legs."
"Rowena realized what I had done right before the end, but her words are in a code only someone with the right facts will be able to decipher. It was her diary entry that was most important for you to read, and yet not even your friend, Hermione, found her entries that interesting."
Harry bristled at the insult to his friend, but was unable to deny the uneasy feeling that continued to grow in his stomach the longer Slytherin talked.
"I took what comforts life offered me, but otherwise, I devoted myself to my task. I must protect Hogwarts and guard against my own heir. His existence was set in prophecy and I must be there in the end to confront him."
"But," interrupted Harry, unable to stay silent any longer. "Why tell us now? And why me and Professor Snape?"
Slytherin removed his half-moon spectacles and placed them carefully on his desk. Harry found himself on the receiving end of one of the most penetrating looks he had ever received.
"My cycle is ending, Harry. The magics I rely upon to sustain me will fail within the year. It was not unexpected, but I thought I had more time. I thought I might wait until your final year at least."
"Professor Snape was told because he will use the information well, as any Slytherin should, and you were told for the same reason, only you have another role to play as well. I am leaving you with a great burden, but I'm confident you will prevail."
"Ah, I have said too much. A failing of old age."
Harry glared at him. "I thought you said you were telling the truth."
"I am. It's just that not all truths are meant to be told. Our hour is nearly up, and so I would like to tell you some more truths. The truth is that I feel honoured to know a young man of your calibre. I am proud of you and know you will go far. I ask you to try a bit harder to understand Professor Snape in the future. And finally, please forgive me?" His blue eyes were sad, and for the first time since he was fed the lemon drop, Harry found himself referring to the older wizard as Dumbledore in his head.
He started to say yes, then stopped. He was being manipulated again, wasn't he? Forgiveness was not something that could be granted so easily, nor should it be.
Dumbledore nodded, unsurprised, then gave him a small smile. "It was to be expected. Good luck, Harry Potter. Three, two, one…"
And the office disappeared. Harry had his eyes scrunched tightly up, and shifted irritably when he realized he was kneeling on a cold, stone floor. His eyes flew open. There was no stone in the forest that he knew of.
Across the room, staring straight at him, was the evil grin of Slytherin's statue. He looked around to confirm what he already knew. He was in the Chamber of Secrets. There was a great crack running through the statue, and that wasn't the only damage the chamber had suffered. It was a wonder the roof was still being held up, the walls had so many cracks in them.
How had he gotten here?
"If there were still a Hogwarts, I'd have you expelled," said a familiar voice behind him. He turned.
Snape was standing, having obviously clambered over a pile of rubble that partially blocked the main tunnel leading out. There was dust in his hair, though it didn't show on his black Death Eater cloak. The look of fury on his face was terrifying for its coldness. "Would you like to explain why you apparated from the clearing to down here, of all places?"
"Apparated?" repeated Harry blankly. He had been prepared to defend himself, but the accusation had thrown him off. "I don't know how and Hermione says you can't on―"
"Hogwarts is destroyed. You can apparate anywhere so long as you know where you're going. Care to explain?"
Harry did. He repeated the conversation as verbatim as he could. Snape only interrupted a few times and appeared to fall more deep in thought the more he learned.
"Is that all he said?" Snape asked when Harry was done. Harry nodded. "Very well. Some side effect of the potion must have drawn you here, though I doubt he expected you to apparate. Unless there is something you are supposed to do here in the chamber. Can you think of anything?"
"No. Nothing. I haven't been back here since second year. I thought Dumbledore had sealed the entrance," said Harry.
"Another mystery," muttered Snape as he paced around the room, peering into the darker corners. Harry watched him, feeling heavy as the lack of sleep from the night before caught up with him.
"Is he really dead?" The words had slipped out before he could think.
"He let Hogwarts fall," said Snape. It wasn't a true answer, but it was all Snape would say on the matter.
"How did you find me?" asked Harry. With the castle destroyed, there should have been no obvious entrance to the chamber.
Snape snorted. "I followed my tracking spell." He didn't elaborate further.
Harry realized what he was talking about. "The purple one you put on the book in Dumbledore's office?" Snape gave a small nod, staring off at the cracked face of Slytherin on the other side of the chamber. "But why would it lead here? Wouldn't it lead to his," Harry swallowed, "body?"
"The spell led here. To the centre of that statue that looks nothing like him." As they watched, the face crumbled into ruin so that nothing was recognizable. Snape's face was blank. He turned to the tunnel that led out. "Come on, Potter."
Harry surveyed the chamber one more time. Remembering a basilisk, a young dark lord, blood on the ground, and a statue to a man who had cheated death. He followed Snape out.
And deep below the ruins of Hogwarts, where not even the pipes descended, sat another chamber. Not one of secrets, but one of rest. On a comfortable bed within the chamber lay a young man with deep, red hair, his eyes closed in slumber and his chest rising and falling softly in tune. A tray of charmed food and water sat on the only table, and mounted on the walls were the bodies of hundreds of butterflies, their green and silver wings sparkling in the dim light.
A/N: Thanks to Claire S. for betaing and thank you to everyone for reading. I hope you all enjoyed this story. THERE WILL BE NO SEQUEL, so please don't ask me for one.
Thanks to Charma1219, Indigo Ziona, Ozma, shadowycat, Pajaro Negro, two2blue, Calandra Facete, npetrenko, Alchemine, Magpie Poet, Blanca, gjegje, Futon, silverpen, Elven child, Lirael, Celtic Angel18 and Slrmn82.
Two2blue: Hopefully, most of your questions were answered in this chapter. Voldemort has written off Snape at this point. The chairs were a sort of test of personality on Voldemort's part. The type of chair someone creates would tell him something about the person creating it.
Alchemine: The new Death Eater was a bit of a throw away character on my part. Just another bit of information that was meant to add to the clues but not actually help in any way. A false lead in other words:) And I'm afraid I could only make Voldemort as bright as Rowling did (in fact, *looks at OotP* I suspect I gave him too much credit… oh dear).