Strange Visitors from Another Century
Chapter Twelve: Shadow's Edge
I like being on holiday; I think this is the longest chapter yet, and the shortest time between updates. Thank you very much for all the reviews, favourites, and alerts, they certainly inspire me to write faster. I hope you all enjoy this chapter.
By the way, is there anyone who fancies making a cover image for this? I honestly cannot do anything artistic to save my life. If so, I'll be happy to write a oneshot of your choice in gratitude.
Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter, and am not affiliated with Bloomsbury or Scholastic Inc.
As usual, the attack came without warning.
Harry set his teeth against the sudden rush of memories. Keep calm, he told himself, and concentrate.
This was so much easier now that it didn't hurt.
There was the mental equivalent of a flick in the forehead.
Harry forced his mind away from thoughts of early lessons and towards his new ones. A random memory. He quickly thought of his first week at Hogwarts, and the number of times he had gotten lost, and concentrated solely on the dead ends and false passages. He remembered how it felt to look and not find what he was looking for, no matter how hard he tried. For a brief moment, he felt a flicker of satisfaction.
Then Voldemort appeared in the middle of the corridor.
Harry jerked away instinctively, and that was all it took. The memories rushed in again, spiraling out of his control. His parents' deaths, Quirrell, Riddle in the Chamber...
But Harry wasn't finished yet. For once, he wasn't going to lose focus straight away. He ignored the memories spinning in front of him, and remembered the last time he had actually seen Voldemort.
The graveyard. Cedric. The duel. Fighting, and running, and knowing it was useless, but having no other choice...
And then the memories were gone, and Harry found himself standing in Slytherin's office. He was gasping for breath, but he couldn't prevent the grin from spreading across his face. Slytherin's eyes narrowed.
"That was not what we discussed."
"It worked," Harry protested.
"Only because it was me. Anyone else-"
"I know," said Harry quickly. "They wouldn't care." But his grin widened. The fact that Slytherin did care meant more to him than the lessons. As if sensing his emotions, Slytherin's glare softened.
"You did do well to maintain your concentration. You are making excellent progress."
Harry smiled. "It helps to have a decent teacher."
"Indeed." He tilted his head to one side. "Are you all right?"
Harry's smile faded. Using memories of the graveyard had distracted Slytherin from his attack, but the memories had only been effective because they were so unpleasant. Slytherin's wards had kept the nightmares away for the past few weeks, and there had been so much going on that he hadn't had time to dwell on them. To have relived them so suddenly was a bit of a shock.
"I'm fine," said Harry quietly. Slytherin just looked at him, and he sighed. "I can deal with it."
"I know you can," Slytherin replied. "That does not mean you have to."
Harry paused. He kept forgetting that. Slytherin's lips set. "Is there no one in your time you trust?"
Harry twitched. "I trust Ron and Hermione."
"Apart from them. Are there any competent adults?"
"My godfather, Sirius," said Harry. "He'd do anything to protect me. And there's Dumbledore."
Slytherin raised an eyebrow. "You trust him?"
Harry hesitated. Even a couple of weeks ago, he would have agreed without hesitation, but after learning about the prophecy, and the Horcrux... "I don't know. I need to talk to him."
"That would be best," Slytherin agreed. "He may have had an explanation."
Harry snorted softly. "It'll have to be some explanation."
"Indeed." He didn't elaborate, and Harry knew from past discussions that he was about as happy with Dumbledore as Harry was. He didn't have time to brood further on it though, as Slytherin abruptly changed the subject.
"In the meantime, I still need to practice the Patronus Charm."
Harry hid a grimace with an effort. It had been a week since the disastrous lessons, and despite Slytherin's request for more, Harry was in no hurry to oblige him. He knew it was important, that Slytherin needed to be able to face Dementors, but the last incident had not been what one would call encouraging. Unfortunately, since Harry was the only one who could turn the Boggart into a Dementor for them to practice on, he had no choice but to be involved.
"I know," he muttered.
Slytherin sighed. "I know it is difficult, Harry. But I cannot put others at risk through my own failure."
Harry now knew exactly how Lupin had felt. "All right."
"Thank you. We can continue with those this evening." His face twisted slightly into a scowl. "Godric and Helga are insisting on being present."
"Good." Harry knew he wouldn't be able to cope with the consequences, and he had no intention of trying.
Slytherin nodded ruefully. "It is probably for the best." He hesitated a moment. "Are you sure you are happy to do this? I know it is a lot to ask."
"I was the same when I first learned," Harry assured him. "I know what it's like." He sighed. "I may not like it, but do get it. I'll do whatever I can to help."
"I appreciate it," said Slytherin softly.
Harry shrugged. "It's just what Lupin did for me." He gave a slight smile. "He's another adult I trust."
"I am glad to hear it." He stretched out his muscles, one hand going automatically to massage his leg. "Would you like to try again, or leave it at that for today?"
Harry hesitated. He wanted to leave it, but... "No, let's go again."
Slytherin's eyes narrowed. "Harry?"
Harry dropped his gaze. "I need to get this right." His failure to learn Occlumency had already put his friends in danger once. He was not going to let it happen again. A hand rested lightly on his shoulder.
"You are already doing everything you can."
Harry glanced up. "How did you-"
"You have a tendency to brood on your mistakes," Slytherin pointed out. "Harry, working yourself to exhaustion will not do any good."
Harry gave a small smile. "I guess not."
Slytherin's grip tightened reassuringly for a brief moment before he dropped his hand. "I think we should get some air. We have been down here for some time."
Harry was all too happy to agree. Maybe some time away would make things easier. Slytherin always seemed to know what would help. He had to smile at the thought. Salazar Slytherin was the last person he ever thought would willingly help him. Not that he was complaining. Having someone who did have his well-being in mind was... nice.
Harry tilted his head back as they stepped out into the sunshine, the warm rays soothing away the headache that had begun to develop. He knew it wouldn't last; already there was a distinct chill to the wind. Soon it would start be winter.
"It'll be snowing soon," he murmured.
Slytherin pulled a face. "Wonderful."
"You don't like snow?"
"It's nice to look at," Slytherin allowed, "but it's too cold."
"Funny that," said Harry before he could stop himself.
Slytherin tapped him lightly on the leg with his staff. "Hush." There was no bite to his voice though. "And the cold brings its own complications."
Harry paused. He hadn't thought of that. "I'm sorry," he began, but Slytherin shook his head.
"I grew accustomed to it a long time ago. That does not mean I have to like it."
"How long has it been?" Harry asked.
For a long moment, he thought Slytherin wouldn't reply, but then some of the tension seemed to fade from his teacher's face. "I was eight," he said softly.
Harry's stomach twisted violently. "I'm sorry."
Slytherin inclined his head slightly. "It was a long time ago."
That just made it worse, but Harry didn't say anything. He had never liked pity, and he knew Slytherin well enough by now to know that he felt the same way.
Fortunately, he was spared from having to reply by the sight of a flying figure coming into view. "Who's that?"
Slytherin's eyes narrowed. "A messenger."
Harry's heart quickened. "More trouble?"
"Possibly." His eyes unfocused for a moment, and Harry guessed he was calling the other Founders, before his attention returned to the messenger. "Yes, it is one of Hengist's boys. He has a broom for contacting us in emergencies."
"Indeed, though I pity whoever has to use it. A more uncomfortable mode of transport is difficult to imagine."
Harry grimaced at the thought. Maybe he could convince Hermione that Cushioning Charms were an essential piece of magic and get them invented eight hundred years early. Harry shook himself sharply; this was no time for distractions. He started slightly as Ravenclaw abruptly appeared next to them.
"We do not know yet," Slytherin murmured.
Ravenclaw ignored him. "I thought they would take longer than this."
Slytherin sighed. "So did I."
Harry glanced at him. "You think it's the Order again?"
Slytherin scowled, but before he could confirm or deny the suggestion, there was a series of cracks, and Gryffindor and Hufflepuff arrived with Ron and Hermione in tow. All their faces were very grim.
"What's going on?" Ron asked. "Is it those wizards again?"
"We will find out in a moment," said Hufflepuff.
"Because that would be strange, wouldn't it? I mean, I thought they were going to wear us down with magical creatures, and surely they couldn't find more that quickly..."
"I don't think that's helping, Ron," Hermione murmured.
Ron's ears tinged pink, but Gryffindor shook his head. "He does make a good point. To attack so soon after the last one is highly unusual."
Slytherin nodded. "Finding Dark creatures would most likely not be a problem for them, but I would expect them to wait for us to lower our guard before trying again." His scowl darkened. "I must stop underestimating them."
"None of us would ever accuse you of that," said Hufflepuff quietly.
The look on Slytherin's face roused Harry's curiosity yet again, but before he could question it, the boy flew down and landed in front of them. He was out of breath, and there was genuine terror in his eyes. "Need help," he gasped. "Wizards... attacked us."
"How many?" Gryffindor asked.
"I saw six, but there may be more. Hengist told me to get here as quickly as possible."
Slytherin looked at Gryffindor. "We need to go."
"Agreed." He turned to the boy. "Stay here. We will deal with this."
Harry glanced at Ron and Hermione, who nodded, and looked at the Founders. "We want to come."
Gryffindor pinched the bridge of his nose. "This is not a good idea."
"But we need to practice fighting Dark wizards," Harry protested. "Voldemort doesn't just use trolls you know."
Gryffindor and Slytherin exchanged one of their wordless communications. And then Slytherin turned to them.
"You will not engage any enemy by yourselves. This is not negotiable," he said, when Harry opened his mouth to argue. "We do not have time to discuss it. If you do not agree, you will not be coming."
Harry didn't like it, but Slytherin was right. This was no time to argue. "Fine."
"We will keep them safe," said Gryffindor to Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw.
"We know," Hufflepuff assured him. "Just be careful."
"One moment," said Ravenclaw. She took out her wand and muttered a quick spell.
"What was that?" Harry asked.
"A translation spell. You will be well outside the Hogwarts wards, and you will need to be able to communicate with the others."
Gryffindor nodded approvingly. "Good thinking."
Slytherin held out his arm to Harry. "Time to go."
Any nausea Harry felt from the trip was forgotten the moment he opened his eyes. It took him a moment to recognise the main street of Hogsmeade, not because of the differences in architecture, but because of the dozens of screaming people running past them. "Merlin," he breathed.
Slytherin's lips thinned. "Damn." He turned to Gryffindor, who had just appeared next to them with Ron and Hermione. "Over there."
Harry whirled in the direction he had pointed. Six figures dressed in long dark robes were firing curses at helpless bystanders. Several bodies lay sprawled on the floor, and even as they watched, another wizard was blasted back through the air. He hit the floor with a yell and lay still.
Slytherin muttered something, and Disapparated. Harry's mouth fell open, but then Gryffindor was speaking. "Stay here. Defend yourselves if you are attacked, but do not try to engage them. We will manage this."
"Where did Slytherin," Ron began.
"He is preparing. Now, wait here."
"We will," Hermione promised.
Gryffindor smiled at them before he too Disapparated. A moment later, he appeared in the centre of the group, and chaos reigned.
Harry had thought Gryffindor's performance against the trolls impressive, but that was nothing compared to this. Two of the wizards were down before any of them even had time to turn, and the enemy spells went wide as Gryffindor immediately twisted out of reach. Every movement was perfectly planned and executed, and despite being outnumbered, Gryffindor easily held his own. In fact, he actually seemed to be enjoying himself.
"Incredible," Hermione whispered.
"I've never seen anyone duel like this," said Ron. "Not even Bill and Charlie when they..." His face suddenly drained of colour. "No!"
Harry's heart stopped. One of the wizards Gryffindor had felled was now rising unsteadily to his feet, his wand pointed straight at Gryffindor's back. Harry opened his mouth to yell, but already the wizard's arm was coming back to cast, his eyes blazing with fury.
Then the light died as he collapsed back to the floor. Harry had a brief glimpse of a dark figure behind him before it disappeared again.
"Over there!" Ron gasped.
Harry stared. He couldn't do anything else. Gryffindor's rate of casting was so fast that it appeared he was performing dozens of spells. Far more than any one person possibly could. Harry concentrated. Yes. Now he could see it. While Gryffindor held the attention with his spectacular display, Slytherin took a more subtle approach. Even as he watched, one of the wizards abruptly tripped and stumbled back, right into the path of another curse. Harry just caught a glimpse of Slytherin's smirk before he Disapparated yet again.
"Look how well they work together."
"They must have trained for years," said Ron. "See how they're anticipating each other."
Harry could only nod. The two of them worked in perfect synchronisation; Gryffindor distracting them, and then casting the finishing blow when Slytherin caught them off guard.
"No wonder they were said to be the best," said Hermione. "How could anyone fight them?"
Harry shook his head. "They couldn't."
Indeed, it might be six against two, but there was no doubt as to who would be victorious. The wizards were falling back, their faces now betraying their uncertainty, and Gryffindor and Slytherin pressed their advantage. It was quite clear that they were not going to take long.
And then another scream rang through the air.
Harry whipped round. "Did you hear that?"
Hermione's face was white. "It sounded like – Harry, where are you going?"
Harry was sprinting in the direction of the screams. Gryffindor's instructions had been quite clear, but he couldn't just stand here and let a child be killed. He rounded a corner and saw it; a small boy, no older than five, was crouched against the wall. Standing over him, wearing smug grins, were two more wizards, wearing the same dark cloaks as the others.
Harry's wand was already in his hand.
Unfortunately, it was rather harder to aim when running. The spell shot straight past its target and hit the wall. Harry followed it up with a Disarming Charm, but now the wizards were on their guard. One of them blocked the spell with ease, just as his partner fired off one of his own.
The force of the spell sent him staggering back a step, but the boy's terrified expression was all the incentive Harry needed. "Reducto! Bombarda!"
Ron and Hermione had joined him, and wasted no time in joining the assault. The wizards fell back under the barrage of spells, and Harry saw an opportunity. "Cover me."
"We've got it," said Ron grimly. "Expelliarmus!"
Harry bent over and began forwards. A spell exploded next to him, and Harry had to cover his eyes from a shower of dust, but he kept moving. The boy was curled into a ball, his hands over his head, and even from a distance Harry could see him shaking with terror. So far he seemed unhurt, but with all the spells being thrown around, such a state of affairs could not last long. Harry caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and threw himself to the ground, just as a spell shot over his head.
"I'm fine," he yelled. He risked a glance up, and saw that Ron and Hermione had both taken cover in the shadow of houses, but their expressions were murderous, and they were casting even more furiously than before. Another quick look told him that their attackers were preoccupied, and Harry took the opportunity to pull himself to his feet and sprint the final distance to the child. He reached the cover of the wall just in front of a spell, and he covered the small body with his own as rock scattered around them.
"Are you all right?"
The boy turned a tear-stained face up at him, but his reply was lost in the crack of another spell. Harry gritted his teeth. "You need to get out of here! Run!"
Still the boy did not move; it was clear he was frozen with fear. Harry glanced round and threw up another quick Shield Charm before turning back.
"Come on." They couldn't afford to waste any more time. He grabbed the child's arm and pulled him roughly to his feet, ignoring the terrified whimper. "You're going to be fine. He kept his eyes on the attackers, but Ron and Hermione seemed to be keeping them busy. Harry glanced round, and caught side of a narrow alley a few metres away.
He kept the Shield Charm up and was glad he did. They were barely halfway when the movement was noticed, and Harry clenched his teeth as the shield shuddered under a sudden impact. "Go!"
He pushed the child away, and gripped his wand with both hands, begging the shield to hold. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the boy disappear into the alleyway, but his relief was snuffed out in an instant at Hermione's terrified scream.
"Harry, watch out!"
Harry turned just in time to catch a blur of silver and then a lightning pan tore across his leg. "Argh!"
His wand fell from his finger as he fell to the floor, his injured limb no longer able to bear his weight. Harry grabbed at the injury, and nausea welled up in him as his fingers came away sticky. Summoning all his courage, he looked down to find himself bleeding from a deep cut across his thigh. A few feet away lay a bloodstained knife.
"Damn," he swore. The wound didn't look serious, but it hurt like hell. And worse still, he had dropped his wand and was completely undefended. From the smirks on the attackers' faces, they were very well aware of that fact. Harry looked round desperately, but his wand was nowhere in sight, and now they were raising theirs...
Ron was suddenly in front of him, and the expression on his face was like nothing Harry had ever seen.
"I'll kill you, you bastards!"
"Ron, no!" Harry shouted. He tried to force himself up, only to find Hermione by his side.
"Stay there, and put pressure on it," she snapped. "We'll manage."
"Get out of here," Harry gasped. "Find Slytherin and-"
"We're not leaving," Hermione hissed. "Now keep quiet, and stay still."
"Shut it, Harry," Ron snarled. "You're being a prat."
"Couldn't have said it better myself," Hermione muttered.
Harry could only stare at them, stunned into silence by their vehemence. Neither bothered arguing further, they simply took up a position in front of him, taking it in turns to attack and defend. The enemy attackers looked slightly taken aback by their sudden determination, and Harry felt a flicker of hope. Ron and Hermione were fighting better than Harry had ever seen them, and for a dizzying moment, he wondered if they were going to make it out of this after all.
Then Ron was sent flying back through the air. He hit the ground with a thud and lay still.
"Ron!" Hermione screamed. She moved to cover him and Harry, but it was now two against one, and Hermione had never liked duelling. Harry scrambled desperately for his wand, teeth gritted against the pain in his leg, but his vision was blurred with sweat and fear, and he just couldn't see it. Panic such as he had never felt welled up in him. Harry was used to fighting for his life, but now Ron might be dead, and Hermione might soon be dead, and there was nothing he could do.
No, he would not accept that. He finally caught sight of his wand; it lay where he had dropped it, several metres away. Harry clenched his teeth and began to drag himself towards it, heedless of the spells that shot over his head. He had to do something.
But already Harry knew it wouldn't be enough. Try as he might, there was simply no way he could get to it in time. A split-second later that fear was confirmed when Hermione's wand flew from her hand to land in between her and their assailants. Harry saw smirks broaden into full-blown grins as she stood there, helpless but refusing to back down, and then a jet of purple light was flying through the air towards her, and he was shouting because there was nothing else he could do, and there was nothing that could stop it hitting...
Nothing except the shimmering golden shield that suddenly appeared before her. The spell was absorbed with no more than the sound of a ringing bell, and Godric Gryffindor stepped forwards, his wand in his hand, and his face like thunder. "Stand down, Hermione," he said quietly. "Leave them to us."
Pure relief left Harry feeling like he was going to collapse. Gryffindor was here. Everything was going to be fine. The feeling when Slytherin silently appeared next to his fellow Founder. "I'll take the one on the left, you take the one on the right?"
Gryffindor's smile was nothing less than predatory. "Agreed."
Harry had thought that they had been ruthless before. He had been wrong. The earlier ones had been defeated. This pair were annihilated. He looked away, unable to watch as shouts and pleas for mercy rang out. Never had it been so clear just how different their time periods were. For a moment, he wanted nothing more than to be back in the Ministry, Prophecy and Death Eaters, and all.
But the memory of the terror on that boy's face, and the pleasure the men had taken in it silenced the doubts. This was not their time, they did not make the rules. They would just have to live by them.
Finally, silence fell.
Harry looked up to find Slytherin's silver eyes locked on his. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Harry managed. "Ron?"
"Godric has him, but it looks like he is only dazed. You are bleeding."
With a huge effort, Harry pulled himself together. "I don't think it's too deep."
"I'll be the judge of that." Surprisingly gentle fingers lifted the torn cloth away from the wound, and he hovered his wand over it. Harry watched in astonishment as the throbbing eased, and the flow of blood dried up.
"How did you-?"
"It is hardly the first time I have had to treat such injuries." Harry winced at the implications of that statement, but was distracted by Slytherin glancing back to him. "You were lucky."
Harry nodded. "I know. I didn't expect him to have a knife."
"That is something we will have to address. Muggle weapons are commonly used in conjunction with wands." His eyes narrowed. "However, a more pressing concern is the matter of your disobedience."
"We didn't-" Harry protested.
"We told you not to engage the enemy by yourselves." There was no mistaking the danger in his voice. "I hope you can explain yourselves."
Harry glared at him. "They were going to kill a little boy, and you were busy. What other choice did we have?"
"It's true," said Hermione. "We were only just in time as it was."
Slytherin glanced from one to the other. "Is that so?" Both nodded, and he sighed. "I see."
Harry eyed him warily. "You're not mad?"
"Probably," said Slytherin wryly. "But we would have done the same."
"Indeed we would have," said Gryffindor. He had evidently been listening from where he was tending to Ron. "Of course, we would not have been left in this condition. I think we need to increase your training schedule."
Slytherin smirked. "An excellent idea."
Harry and Hermione exchanged a wary look. Was this their idea of a punishment? They had learned from experience that both could be extremely inventive. Gryffindor caught the look, and his expression softened.
"You did do well," he said. "Now we just need to ensure that the outcome is a little less bloody next time."
Harry gave small smile. "I like that idea."
"Me too," Ron mumbled. He still looked very pale, but he was able to meet Harry's anxious gaze. "Did Grawp sit on me?"
Harry laughed in pure relief. "No, you just walked into a spell. How do you feel?"
"Like my head's about to split open." His eyes widened. "You're bleeding."
"It's not serious," Harry assured him.
Hermione knelt next to him. "I'm fine, they only disarmed me."
Ron shoulders slumped. "Good."
Gryffindor held out a hand to help him up. "Let's get you back to the castle. Helga will be able to fix you both up."
Harry had never been so relieved to hear that suggestion. Slytherin helped him to his feet, and offered him his arm.
"Try to keep your weight off of it as much as possible," he said quietly. "We don't want to do any more damage."
Recognising that this was no time for pride, Harry accepted the assistance. "Thanks." The initial sharp pain had been dulled by Slytherin's spell, but it still ached abominably whenever he put weight on it. He felt a sudden surge of empathy for Slytherin; no wonder he was so quiet if he had to endure this every day. Except on a much larger scale.
He was woken from his thoughts when Hermione moved closer. "Here's your wand," she said quietly. "And there's someone coming over." Harry tensed, but Slytherin shook his head.
"He is a friend."
Harry had to admit that he didn't look like an enemy. The man approaching was tall and broad-shouldered, but his broad, open face practically radiated likeability. He bowed when Gryffindor went to meet him, and the two held a quick murmured conversation.
"Who is he?"
"Hengist of Woodcroft," Slytherin replied. "He was one of our first students."
Harry frowned. The name was ringing bells, but he couldn't quite place it. Hermione opened her mouth, but Ron's eyes lit up. "Hengist? He founded this place, didn't he?"
"You only know that because it was on a Chocolate Frog Card," Hermione muttered.
"So? They're a valid source of information."
"It's not important," Harry interrupted, with a pointed look at Slytherin, who nodded.
"However you got the information, you are correct," he said. "He established this settlement some years ago and, as you can see, it has thrived."
Harry nodded, but Hermione's expression turned wary. "Sir, he's still coming."
"Just stay calm," said Slytherin softly. "You are our students; he will need no further assurances than that."
Harry and Hermione exchanged a wary look, but before they could say anything Hengist was before them and bowing to Slytherin. "As always, I cannot thank you enough for your assistance."
"It was the least we could do," Slytherin assured him. "Your people are well?"
"A few minor injuries, but nothing serious. It could have been much worse." His gaze travelled to Harry, Ron and Hermione. "I must thank you also."
"It was nothing," Harry mumbled.
Hengist shook his head. "No, it was not. I owe you a great debt."
Slytherin smiled. "We are very proud of them."
Harry felt his face heat up at the double compliment. Ron and Hermione were not much better off. Slytherin and Gryffindor exchanged an amused look, but Hengist's eyes widened.
"You are injured."
"Not seriously," Ron assured him. Harry winced; the fact that he was slightly slurring his words was not helping his case. All traces of humour had disappeared from the Founders' faces.
"I think it is time we returned to Hogwarts," said Gryffindor. His calm tone belied the concern in his eyes.
"Quite," Slytherin agreed. "Helga and Rowena will be wondering where we are as it is."
Hengist nodded. "Never a welcome state of affairs." Though he too kept his tone light, his anxious gaze kept drifting back to Ron and Harry. Gryffindor clapped him on the back.
"They will be fine. Helga will have them right as rain in an hour or so."
Hengist dipped his head. "You are right, of course." He looked at the trio. "I meant what I said. If you ever have need of help, you have only to ask."
"Thank you," Hermione whispered.
Slytherin gripped Harry's arm more tightly. "Come. It is time for us to be going."
Harry barely had time to nod to Hengist before the world dissolved into the whirling, crushing nightmare that was Side-Along Apparition.
That particular method of transport was always uncomfortable, but with a wounded leg, it turned out to be nothing less than horrific. Slytherin's iron grip on his arm was literally the only thing keeping him upright as they reappeared in the infirmary. "Ow," he mumbled.
Somehow, Slytherin's grip tightened, and then Hufflepuff was at his side, guiding him to a bed. "Sit down, dear. She glanced at Slytherin. "The rest of you?"
"Ron has a slight concussion, the rest of us are unharmed. Ah, here they are."
Gryffindor had just appeared with Ron and Hermione, and Hufflepuff lost no time in ushering them to beds too.
"I'm not hurt," Hermione protested. "It's Harry and Ron that need help." She tried to get up, only for Ravenclaw to lay a hand on her shoulder.
"You just experienced your first proper battle," she said gently. "You may not be injured, but you still need to relax."
Harry couldn't agree more. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, the terror of the morning was beginning to set in, and he soon found himself shaking uncontrollably. He had fought other people before, in the graveyard and the Ministry, but this was something else. Then he had been trying to escape; this time he had head deliberately chosen to fight. He had attacked others, had been willing to do whatever it took to survive. What did that make him?
Then a hand rested on his shoulder, and he looked up into Slytherin's concerned face. "Breathe, Harry."
Harry took a deep breath, and let it out again. "I'm fine."
"Why don't you let me be the judge of that?" said Hufflepuff. She ran her wand over his leg and nodded. "This is not serious. Salazar..."
"I can deal with this," said Salazar quietly. "Ron needs your attention more."
Harry felt a sudden surge of panic. "Is he-"
"He will be just fine," Gryffindor assured him from Ron's side. "But a concussion requires more delicate handling."
Hufflepuff nodded. "Fortunately, I have had plenty of practice." She shot a wry glance at Gryffindor and Slytherin before resting her hands on Ron's temples. Harry watched in fascination as her hands began to glow with a soft golden light, but his attention was abruptly diverted by Slytherin drawing his wand.
"What are you going to do?" He trusted the man completely, but past experience had made him wary of anyone casting spells on him. Slytherin met his gaze steadily.
"I am going to heal it, if that is all right?"
Harry nodded. "Yeah."
Slytherin gave him a small smile. "Try to relax. This will not hurt, but there will be some discomfort."
He wasn't lying. It wasn't painful exactly, but the sensation of his flesh knitting itself back together was an unpleasant one to say the least.
"You are lucky that this is superficial," Slytherin murmured. "It will be sore for a day or two, but there will be no lasting damage."
Harry swallowed. "Good." To distract himself from the experience, he looked over to Ron and Hermione. Hufflepuff was still working on Ron, but already his colour was looking better. Hermione and Ravenclaw, meanwhile, were deep in conversation. Slytherin followed his gaze.
"They will be too."
Harry nodded, but didn't reply. Slytherin's eyes narrowed. "What is the matter?"
Harry looked down. "I thought we were ready. But if you hadn't come when you did..." He broke off, unable to voice the terrifying truth.
"That is the risk we all take," said Slytherin quietly.
"I know. But we weren't ready." He attempted a smile, but knew that it came out as more of a grimace. "Guess we should have listened to you."
Slytherin shook his head. "You did as well as could have been expected. If anything, it is we who are at fault; we never considered the possibility that the use of Muggle weaponry would come as a surprise to you."
Harry shook his head. "It's not your fault. We should have remembered that things would be different."
"You should not have had to." His expression hardened. "We will remedy this situation."
"Agreed," said Gryffindor grimly.
"What happened?" asked Ravenclaw.
"One of them hit me with knife," Harry told her. "I wasn't expecting it."
"Don't worry about it, mate," Ron mumbled. "I didn't know you could use throwing knives in battle either."
"You can," Gryffindor assured him. "I favour the sword, but Salazar has always preferred knives."
Slytherin nodded. "They are more versatile," he said by way of explanation. "They are effective at both short and long range, and are not limited to use in battle."
Harry stared at him. "Are you saying you carry them around with you normally?"
"Of course. One never knows when an attack may come." He extracted a thin bladed knife from his boot, and handed it to Harry. "Be careful."
Harry held it gingerly, but made no effort to hide his fascination. Even he, who had no experience with weapons, could tell that it was a good one, perfectly balanced and maintained. A thought struck him and he looked up. "You've got one in your other boot too, haven't you?"
Gryffindor barked a laugh. "Among others."
"More?" Hermione asked. She too had come over and was staring at the knife.
Slytherin shrugged. "It is always worth having one or two in less obvious places."
Harry opened his mouth, then closed it again. Just how paranoid was he? Although considering all that had happened, he probably had the right to be. Gryffindor caught his expression and smiled.
"In any case, it will certainly be worth going over the basics of how to fight an opponent who is also skilled with Muggle weaponry. The longer you stay here, the more likely you will be to need it."
Ron's eyes lit up. "We can learn to use swords and stuff?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Boys."
"Quite," Hufflepuff agreed.
"It would be useful for them to know," Slytherin pointed out. "Although I would not get too excited," he said, when Harry and Ron exchanged eager looks. "It takes many years to master this style of fighting."
Gryffindor nodded. "As long as you can keep yourselves alive long enough to escape, or for one of us to assist you, that should be sufficient."
Harry frowned. He understood that it was difficult, but he hated the thought of having to wait to be rescued every time they ran into one of these enemies. Gryffindor's eyes narrowed. "Salazar was not exaggerating," he said sharply. "It took years of training with both sword and magic before I was able to use them in concert effectively, and Salazar was much the same."
"Longer," said Slytherin. "I began training later in life, and it made a considerable difference."
Ron scowled. "I still don't like running."
"Tough," said Gryffindor flatly. "Your life is more important than your pride."
There was no arguing with that, and Harry and Ron fell into a mutinous silence. Gryffindor and Slytherin exchanged an unreadable look, but neither tried to comment. After a few minutes, Hermione and Ravenclaw began to continue their previous conversation, albeit much more quietly.
It was Hufflepuff who broke the silence. "How do you feel now?" she asked.
Ron carefully moved his head from side to side, and his resentment faded into wonder. "It feels as good as new." He stared up at her. "Thanks."
Hufflepuff smiled and patted him on the head. "You are welcome." She crossed to Harry. "And you?"
Harry blinked; he had completely forgotten his injury. He looked down in time to see Slytherin clean the dried blood from his skin and robes. "All done," he said quietly. Another tap of the wand, and the rent in the cloth was mended. Harry stared at it, and then back at Slytherin.
He suddenly felt ashamed of himself. Here he was complaining about not being able to master a complicated fighting style, when Slytherin and the others were just trying to keep him safe. Slytherin's gaze softened. "No matter," he said gently. "Learn all you can, and we will manage from there."
Harry nodded. "All right."
Hufflepuff looked between them, a small smile growing across her face. Harry glanced over to see that Ron and Gryffindor were talking quietly, and that Ron too looked happier than he had done previously. Hermione came over to join him. "Are you sure you're all right?" she asked anxiously.
"We're both fine," Harry assured her.
"Yeah," Ron agreed. He was slightly shaky as he stood up, but he shook his head at her offer of help. "Don't think I'd be up for fighting anything else today though."
"You won't," Gryffindor promised. "In all honesty, I think you have earned a day off."
Harry let out a sigh of relief. He enjoyed his lessons, but even Hermione would have struggled to concentrate after all that.
"An excellent idea," said Ravenclaw briskly. "May I suggest we remove ourselves outside? I have a feeling this is the last sunshine we will have for some time."
"And we know how accurate your feelings can be," said Hufflepuff with a smile.
Nobody had any objections, and a few minutes later they were stepping out into the grounds. There was a slight nip to the breeze, but not enough to be uncomfortable, and the skies were a clear blue. Harry shook his head. It was hard to imagine a day like this holding anything troubling, yet only an hour ago they had been fighting for their lives. It was difficult to adjust.
"Will everyone in Hogsmeade be all right?" he asked.
"Hengist has it under control," Gryffindor told him. "Unfortunately, he is accustomed to events such as these. If he needs our help, he will let us know."
Ron flopped down on the grass with a groan. "I hope he doesn't. I haven't felt this tired in months."
Harry grunted in agreement. He'd never felt so stiff in his life, not even after Wood's most demanding Quidditch practices. Hufflepuff gave them a sympathetic look.
"I will have the house-elves heat some water later. A hot bath will make you feel much better."
"And it will get easier the more you train," said Gryffindor. "Everyone feels like this at first, but it will improve."
Harry grimaced. That day couldn't come soon enough for him. Ravenclaw leaned forwards.
"So does nobody in your time use Muggle weapons?"
"Muggles haven't used swords and things like that for a long time," Hermione explained. "And most purebloods probably think it would be beneath them."
"Then they are fools," said Slytherin flatly. "This form of combat requires an unrivalled degree of skill and, as you saw today, a skilled warrior can easily hold his own against multiple opponents."
Ron rubbed the back of his head. "You don't have to tell us." He shook his head. "I've never heard of anyone fighting like that."
Hermione raised an eyebrow. "Not even from Bill?"
Ron ignored her. "I do know that anything other than a wand is banned on the duelling circuit. Maybe that had something to do with it."
"Duelling circuit?" Gryffindor queried.
"It's a series of competitions," Ron told him. "Only the very best are even allowed to enter. Professor Flitwick, our Charms Master, used to be a Duelling champion."
Ravenclaw glanced at Gryffindor. "He would not happen to be a Gryffindor, would he?"
Hermione smiled. "Actually, he's the head of Ravenclaw."
Both Ravenclaw and Gryffindor appeared taken aback by that, but Slytherin just smiled. "He sounds like a most interesting character," he said. "It is a pity we will never get the chance to meet him."
"You'd like him," Harry agreed. "He's a brilliant teacher; he makes even the boring stuff fun."
Gryffindor raised an eyebrow. "Boring parts?" Harry hesitated, then saw the twinkle in his eyes and relaxed.
"Very funny," he muttered half-heartedly.
Hufflepuff looked thoughtful. "Has this Professor Flitwick ever tried to set up any extra Duelling lessons? It sounds like he could teach you a great deal."
"He could, but I don't know if he has the time," Hermione replied. "The heads of the houses each have to do a lot of extra work."
"Pity," said Gryffindor. "Considering the standard of your Defence teachers, separate Duelling lessons would be very useful."
"They did try to set up a Duelling Club in our second year," said Harry. "It, er, didn't go so well."
Slytherin raised an eyebrow. "Dare I ask why?"
Harry grinned. "Well, our Defence teacher that year was running it, and he was-"
"A moron," Ron supplied.
Hermione nodded. "It's true; in fact that's putting it politely. I've never met anyone quite so incompetent."
"Not that you thought so at first," Ron muttered under his breath. Harry caught it and smirked, causing Hermione to shoot them a suspicious look.
"Do we want to know what he did?" Hufflepuff asked warily.
Harry's grin widened at the memory. "For a start, he asked Professor Snape to help him."
"And that was a bad idea?"
"Very. I hate Snape, but even I have to admit that he's a brilliant wizard. They gave a demonstration at the start and Snape blasted him off the stage with one spell."
Gryffindor stared at him. "One spell?"
"Yeah," said Ron. "Expelliarmus. Only time I've ever applauded Snape."
"And this was your Defence instructor?" He sounded like he couldn't quite believe his ears. Harry shrugged.
"That was Lockhart for you. He couldn't even show me how to block spells properly."
"Why was he even hired?" Slytherin demanded.
Hermione grimaced. "Unfortunately he was the only applicant."
"It sounds like you would have done better teaching yourselves," said Hufflepuff.
"We couldn't have been much worse," Harry agreed. "You should have seen his first lesson."
Ravenclaw closed her eyes for a moment. "What did he do?" Her tone was more resigned than anything else.
"Well, he started off by testing us on how well we'd read our books."
Ravenclaw frowned. "That sounds reasonable."
"Yeah, but the questions were things like 'what is Gilderoy Lockhart's favourite colour?'"
Her eyes narrowed. "Excuse me?"
Ron nodded. "And 'when is Gilderoy Lockhart's birthday?'"
"What is Gilderoy Lockhart's secret ambition?" Hermione added. "How many times has Gilderoy Lockhart won Witch Weekly's Most Charming Smile Award?"
"What does any of this have to do with Defence?" Gryffindor exploded.
Harry grinned. "It gets worse."
"How could it possibly get worse?"
"Well Hermione got full marks for one thing – Ow, Hermione!"
Harry ignored the interruption with the ease of long practice. "He'd brought along some creatures for us to study. He said they were among the most dangerous creatures we would ever face."
Amused smiles disappeared in an instant.
"What did he do?" Slytherin hissed. He was once again gripping his staff very hard. "If anyone was hurt..."
"Everyone was fine," Harry assured him. "You see, these terrifying creatures turned out to be a cage full of pixies."
There was silence for a moment.
"Harry," said Hufflepuff slowly. "I think I must have misheard. Did you say pixies?"
It was all Harry could do to keep from collapsing into laughter. "Yep."
Gryffindor's shoulders began to shake. "Pixies?"
"Ah yes, those legendary menaces," said Slytherin dryly. "I do hope you survived such a traumatic experience unscathed."
Harry swallowed his laughter with an effort. Ron was already chuckling in anticipation. "Oh, that wasn't the end of it."
Ravenclaw's eyes widened. "You cannot mean... He didn't..."
"He did. He released them."
That was too much for Gryffindor. His guffaws joined Hufflepuff's giggles. Ravenclaw just shook her head, her eyes sparkling with mingled exasperation and amusement. "Unbelievable."
"That's what we thought at the time," Ron managed.
Slytherin glanced at them. "I agree. Moron was indeed a polite way of putting it."
Harry laughed and lay back on the grass. The memories of the morning were fading now, lost in the bright sunshine and his friends' happiness. Truly, it was good to be alive on a day like this. No one spoke, each revelling in the rare moment of peace.
It was Gryffindor who broke the silence. "Hello."
Harry sat up with a grunt. "What is it?"
Gryffindor nodded past him as he rose to his feet. "It appears we have a visitor."
Harry's heart leapt, but there was no alarm in Gryffindor's voice. He glanced round to see a horse and rider approaching. He had just entered the ground and Harry relaxed; if they were a threat; the Founders would be able to tell by now. Instead, a genuine smile was spreading across Slytherin's face as he pushed himself upright.
"It has been some time since we last saw him."
Gryffindor steadied him automatically, his eyes still on the rider. "Indeed, though I think I can guess the purpose of his visit."
"That is no great achievement," Ravenclaw murmured. Unlike the others, her expression was one of distinct wariness. Hermione glanced at her.
"Is everything all right?"
"He is a friend," Hufflepuff assured her.
Harry frowned. They were all on their feet as they waited, and he couldn't suppress a sudden twinge of unease. He knew there was no reason for it, he hadn't even met this visitor yet, but something told him that they were going to be important.
"Who is he?" Ron asked.
"His name is Edmund," said Gryffindor. "Like Hengist, he was one of our early students."
"And one of my best," said Slytherin. "He finished his education some years ago, but he visits every now and then."
"What do you think he wants?" Hermione asked.
"I am not sure," Ravenclaw murmured. "But I can guess."
Harry was on the verge of questioning her further when Edmund rode up and came to a halt in front of them. He was a handsome man, with brown hair tied back, and a neatly trimmed beard. He could only have been a few years older than them, but he carried himself with a dignity that made him appear much older. At the moment though, his blue eyes sparkled with genuine pleasure as he dismounted.
"Good day to you all." He went straight to Slytherin and began to bow, only for Slytherin to instead shake his hand.
"It is good to see you, Edmund. I trust you are well?"
"Very well, thank you. How has everything been here?"
"The usual," said Gryffindor cheerfully.
"So random attacks and strange happenstances?"
Gryffindor laughed and clapped him on the back. "However did you guess?"
Harry used the reunion to study the new arrival more closely. He was very tall and thin, and his robes were well made and clearly expensive. Harry frowned. He had never met this man before in his life, yet somehow he seemed familiar. Hermione also looked thoughtful, but before they could say anything, Edmund shot them a curious look. Hufflepuff caught his eye.
"Edmund, meet Harry, Ron and Hermione. They are new students of ours."
"It's a pleasure to meet you," said Hermione tentatively.
Edmund nodded politely to each of them. "Likewise." He turned to Ravenclaw. "Professor, may I speak with you?"
Ravenclaw sighed, but she nodded. "Certainly."
Slytherin murmured something to Edmund, who grimaced, but nodded before moving away with Ravenclaw. The other three Founders exchanged weary looks.
"This is not a good idea," Gryffindor sighed.
Hufflepuff glanced at Slytherin. "Is there anything you can do?"
Slytherin scowled. "I have lost count of the number of times I have tried. He will not listen."
"It is the only thing he does not take you advice on," said Hufflepuff consolingly. "You cannot take it personally."
Harry coughed loudly and the three of them started.
"Ah, our apologies," said Gryffindor. "We were slightly distracted."
"Yeah, we noticed," Ron mumbled.
"What's going on?" asked Harry. "What does he want?"
"What he always wants," said Slytherin. He ran a hand through his hair and began to ease himself back down onto the grass. Harry joined him.
"And what's that?"
Gryffindor sighed. "Helena."
Harry tensed immediately. Ron and Hermione exchanged a look. Helena was a little bit of a sore spot. She seemed to be going out of her way to avoid them, but with so few people in the castle, it was inevitable that they would run into each other occasionally. Each time Harry tried to talk to her, and each time he was rebuffed with the same haughty arrogance she had displayed during their first encounter. It was infuriating. Nothing he said or did ever seemed worthy of the slightest attention.
And yet, despite the coolness and the disdain, Harry just couldn't let it go. Admittedly, that was partly because she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Unlike most of the girls back home, with the cosmetic charms and their constant makeovers, Helena's beauty was completely natural, and far more attractive to him as a result.
Harry grimaced. Yes, she was beautiful, but that wasn't the only reason. He couldn't help thinking that there was more to her than the aloof persona she liked to show. If there was, Harry wanted to get to know her, and he could only do that if he kept trying to talk to her. No matter how exasperating it might be.
"What do you mean, he wants Helena?" he asked.
Hermione raised an eyebrow. "What do you think it means?"
...Oh. Harry felt something unpleasant uncoil in the pit of his stomach. "Huh."
Any charitable thoughts he had had towards Edmund were diminishing rapidly.
Gryffindor nodded. "He has asked her for her hand in marriage several times a year ever since she was thirteen."
"Thirteen?" Ron exclaimed. "That's a bit young isn't it?"
Hufflepuff frowned. "Not really. I was that age when I married."
Hermione glanced at her. "I didn't know you were married."
Hufflepuff's eyes darkened. "I was."
"That is beside the point," Slytherin interrupted. "In this time, girls frequently marry at twelve of thirteen. I take it that this is no longer the case." Harry eyed him, startled by the abrupt subject change, but Ron was already shaking his head.
"My parents were eighteen, only just out of Hogwarts when they married, and everyone thought they were too young."
"And we're still off the point," said Harry. "Does Helena not want to marry him then?"
Hufflepuff shook her head. "She is quite adamant that she will not take a husband."
Harry's relief immediately faded to depression. "Really?"
"Not until she finds someone good enough," said Slytherin wryly. "It may take some time."
"Someone good enough, huh?"
Gryffindor's eyes narrowed. "I hope you remember our previous conversation."
Harry swallowed. "Yes, sir." He tried to squash the brief flicker of resentment; it was only understandable that Gryffindor would be concerned for someone he was so close to. Understandable, but not pleasant. His annoyance wasn't helped when Slytherin shot him an amused look, but Hermione too was frowning.
"Is that why he's talking to Professor Ravenclaw? He's trying to convince her to help?"
Hufflepuff nodded. "Not that it will do him any good."
"What do you mean?"
"Rowena will not force Helena to marry anyone she does not wish to," said Gryffindor flatly. "Edmund should know that by now."
"We have all told him often enough," Slytherin agreed. "But he is stubborn."
"You taught him well," Hufflepuff murmured.
Slytherin dipped his head in acknowledgement. "Thank you."
"I'm not sure that was a compliment," Ron mumbled.
Gryffindor rolled his eyes. "For him, it is."
Harry once again dragged the conversation back to the original point. "So Helena isn't in love with him?"
"God no," said Gryffindor. "Sometimes I wonder if she loves anyone."
"That is unfair to her," said Hufflepuff reproachfully. "She loves Rowena, all of us in fact. Even if she struggles to show it."
"True," Gryffindor acknowledged. "But romantic love is a very different matter."
Harry sighed. None of this was making him feel much better. He knew that any romance would be doomed from the start, but it would have been nice to have some hope. He glanced over to where Edmund and Ravenclaw were talking, just in time to see Edmund bow and stride off towards the castle. Ravenclaw stood staring after him for a moment, before shaking her head and coming back over to them. Gryffindor twisted to look up at her.
"He didn't listen, did he?"
Ravenclaw sank down next to him. "No." She picked listlessly at a blade of grass until Gryffindor covered her hand with his own.
"It is not your fault."
Ravenclaw didn't reply. Slytherin sighed. "He would not listen to me either. There was nothing you could have said to change his mind."
Ravenclaw closed her eyes. "Maybe not. But that does not make it any more pleasant."
Hufflepuff patted her on the arm. "He will be all right. They both will."
"I am not so sure," Ravenclaw murmured. "How many times does this make?"
"Too many," said Slytherin quietly.
Ravenclaw looked at him. "You have thought about this too?"
"Of course I have. He is still my student." He looked down. "I do not like seeing my students hurt."
"They will work it out between them," Gryffindor assured them. "They will be all right. Eventually."
Slytherin sighed. "I hope so."
Harry shot him a curious look, but the genuine misery on his face pushed his feelings about Helena to one side. Edmund might have left Hogwarts to live his life, but Slytherin still cared about him. All the Founders did. It was oddly touching, but at the same time, he could only imagine what it was like to see people they cared for so much in pain. Their reticence to allow him and the others to fight the Order suddenly made a lot more sense. It was a sobering thought, and Harry cast desperately about for a change of subject.
"Professor, can I ask you something?"
Ravenclaw seized the distraction with equal relief. "Certainly. What is the matter?"
"I was wondering if that charm you put on us this morning is still working."
She nodded. "It should last for a week or so. It should not matter; as long as you re within the Hogwarts grounds, your words will be translated automatically."
"That makes things so much easier," said Hermione fervently.
Ron nodded. "Wish it was still like that back home."
"We will sort it out," said Harry firmly. And speaking of which... "Professor, can I ask how the time-travel research is going?"
"You may. I am making progress, but I am afraid it is going to take some time." She glanced at the other Founders. "It will certainly not be ready before the rest of our students return."
Gryffindor frowned. "That could be problematic."
"Not necessarily," said Hufflepuff. She looked at the trio. "Would the three of you be happy to join the rest of our students in lessons?"
"Of course," said Hermione. "But won't it be odd having three students who already know magic turn up?"
Slytherin shook his head. "A sizeable number of students were trained in the basics before being sent to us for more advanced training. You will not attract too much attention."
Harry nodded, but that wasn't his main concern. "What if we make mistakes? We're not from this time; we're probably not going to know things they take as common knowledge."
"You will have to be careful," said Gryffindor. "And we still have just under three weeks. We have time to teach you not to stand out so much."
"Thanks," said Ron. ""We'll look like right idiots if we get the basic stuff wrong."
"We will avoid that," Gryffindor assured him.
"What sort of magic will we be learning?" asked Hermione.
"That will depend on you, in part," Ravenclaw answered. "All students are required to take Transfiguration, Charms, Herbology, Potions, Duelling, and Astronomy, but you will also have the option to study Divination, Arithmancy, Magical Creatures, Runes, Warding, Alchemy, Music, Crafting..."
Ron's mouth fell open. "That many?"
Harry was little better off. He had heard of some of those, such as Alchemy, being offered to the best N.E.W.T. students, but others he had never even heard of. What was Crafting? And why teach Music?
"There is powerful magic in music," said Ravenclaw, and Harry realised with a start that he had said the last question out loud. "You need only read your histories to know that. Some of the most powerful enchantments we know of have been created through music."
Harry just nodded, slightly stunned by the passion in her voice. Gryffindor smiled at him. "That was my reaction too."
"Only until I started playing."
Slytherin smirked. "And never since."
"You can hardly blame me," Gryffindor protested. "That last time I had heard you-"
Ravenclaw raised an eyebrow. "Yes?" There was no mistaking the warning glint in her eyes. True to form, Gryffindor reacted with the danger with his usual speed.
"It had been beautiful, but you had never even mentioned incorporating magic into it."
Harry bit his lip to keep from grinning. Slytherin didn't bother. Ravenclaw just rolled her eyes. "I see." She turned to Hermione, pointedly ignoring the grin that passed between Gryffindor and Slytherin. "You would be free to choose your extra subjects, though certain classes, such as Crafting and Alchemy, are only available to students in their final years of study."
Hermione nodded, her enthusiasm not at all dampened by the news. "I would like to continue with Runes and Arithmancy, and would it be possible to take Warding too? And Magical Creatures would be fascinating to study in this time; I expect there are a number of creatures here that we wouldn't be able to study back home..."
"You do realise that you still need to eat and sleep, don't you?" Ron interrupted.
Hermione frowned at him. "It's not that much." Slytherin just raised an eyebrow, and her cheeks tinged pink. "It is?"
"Just a little," said Hufflepuff gently. "We do not want you to overwork yourself."
"Third year," Ron coughed.
Hermione bit her lip. "I see your point."
Ravenclaw smiled at her. "We do appreciate your enthusiasm; we just do not want you to make yourself ill. Take some time to think about it. We still have a couple of weeks to decide."
Slytherin nodded. "And I would be happy to discuss whether you have the requisite knowledge to take Warding at a later date."
Hermione brightened. "Really? Thank you."
"You are welcome." He turned to Harry and Ron, who were trying, unsuccessfully, to suppress grins. "The two of you will also need to decide what you want to do."
Harry sighed, his amusement at the situation vanishing immediately. "Great."
"What is it?"
Harry shrugged, unsure of how to put it into words. Every time he had to decide anything even vaguely related to the future, he had just gone along with whatever Ron or Hermione were doing, simply because he never knew what else to do. He didn't really know what his strengths were, other than Quidditch and surviving, and he had never had had anyone to ask to get an unbiased opinion. "I don't know what I should do." he said quietly.
"What do you want to do?" asked Slytherin.
"I want to be an Auror."
Slytherin frowned. "These are the Dark wizard hunters in your time, are they not?"
For some reason Slytherin did not look pleased, but he said nothing. Before Harry could question him, Gryffindor started speaking. "All the core subjects will be useful to you then. It is fortunate that we will also be continuing Occlumency and Healing."
Ron blinked. "We will?"
"Certainly. You will need them when you return, and it will not be difficult to arrange private lessons."
Harry stared at him. It was one thing for the Founders to spend so much time with them during the holidays when they had no other responsibilities, but it was quite another for them to do so on top of all their other duties. And yet they did not even seem to have considered the idea of not doing so. Not for the first time, the depth of their dedication took his breath away.
Harry looked up to meet Salazar's silver gaze. "Yes, sir?"
"What you do will be your decision, and yours alone. But if you do need advice, we would all be more than happy to answer any questions you might have."
"He is right," said Hufflepuff, "and that goes for the two of you as well," she added, glancing at Ron and Hermione. "Please do not hesitate to come to us."
"We won't," said Hermione quietly. "Thank you."
"You are most welcome."
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes before Gryffindor turned to Slytherin.
"Have you made any progress with your own research?"
Harry's attention switched to him immediately. He had been doing his best not to pester Slytherin about it, avoiding all thoughts of the soul fragment helped, but the matter was always there in the back of his mind. Slytherin glanced at him and sighed.
"Some," he said. "Unfortunately every source agrees that Basilisk venom and Fiendfyre are the only things that are certain to work." He sighed. "The theory is that the Horcrux must suffer too much damage for it to be able to repair itself."
"Which would be more than enough to kill me too," Harry finished.
Slytherin looked at him. "I have not finished looking," he said. "Do not give up hope just yet."
Harry nodded, but he couldn't bring himself to reply. He was beginning to wonder if they were ever going to find a way out of this.
"At least we know how to destroy it," said Gryffindor. "All that remains is to discover a way to isolate it from Harry."
Slytherin scowled. "Yes, just that minor detail. No problem."
Hufflepuff laid a hand on his arm. "You will find a way. You always do."
Slytherin gave her a small smile. "Thank you."
Ron nudged Harry. "See? It'll be fine."
Gryffindor nodded. "We will do this, Harry. Have we ever lied to you?"
Harry shook his head. "I know. Sorry, I just..."
"We understand," said Hufflepuff gently. "But we will find a way."
"I will visit my library again," Ravenclaw offered.
Slytherin glanced at her. "I appreciate it, but your father is hardly likely to have information on such a subject." He shook his head. "I will have to try other sources."
Hermione's eyes narrowed. "What kind of other sources?"
Slytherin met her gaze without flinching. "Dark wizards."
Harry stared at him. Surely he was joking. He had to be joking. Right? The dawning horror on Ron's face showed he was in complete agreement.
"But they're evil!" he exclaimed. "Why would they do anything to help you?"
"They wouldn't," said Slytherin calmly. "But they are the only ones who possess the information I need."
Maybe, but Harry could see quite a glaring flaw with this plan. "Won't that be really dangerous? I mean, you fight Dark wizards all the time. Won't they try to get revenge?"
The smile that Slytherin gave him left Harry in no doubt as to how Slytherin had earned his reputation as a master of the Dark Arts. "They know better."
Harry swallowed. This man, someone even Dark wizards knew to fear, was not the teacher he had come to respect. Slytherin caught his eye and his expression softened.
"I will not be in any danger. I will simply be visiting an old friend."
Ravenclaw frowned. "Zalasta?"
Slytherin glanced at her. "You may not approve of him-"
"For good reason."
"But he is a useful ally," Slytherin continued unperturbed. "And he has access to resources that are now beyond me."
Gryffindor folded his arms. "I still do not trust him."
"You have no reason to."
"Who is he?" asked Harry.
"As I said, an old friend."
Hermione frowned. "But he's a Dark wizard, isn't he?"
"Yes," Slytherin admitted. "Although his interests run to the academic, rather than to the practical applications."
"He's still Dark," Ron protested. "How do you know you can trust him?"
Slytherin raised an eyebrow. "Whoever said I trusted him?"
"You said he was your friend."
"What does that have to do with it?"
Ron's mouth opened and closed for a minute. Harry glanced helplessly at Gryffindor, who shrugged. "It makes sense to him."
Maybe, but Harry was still struggling with the concept. He trusted all his friends simply because they were his friends; it had never occurred to him to do any differently. Ron and Hermione also looked bemused, though the other Founders seemed to be taking it in their stride. Harry supposed they were used to it. Slytherin glanced round and sighed.
"I respect him," he explained. "We have a number mutual interests and acquaintances. He has no reason to harm me, nor I him. Would I trust him with my secrets? No."
Harry ran a hand through his hair. "That still doesn't make sense."
"Does it help if I tell you that he does not trust me either?"
"Not really." Not for the first time, Harry realised that for all their similarities, there were certain characteristics that they simply did not share.
"If you don't trust him," said Hermione, "then why risk asking him about this?"
"I frequently ask his advice regarding more obscure branches of the Dark Arts," Slytherin explained. "He will not be suspicious of this request. At least, no more so than usual."
Harry glanced at Ron and Hermione, and was glad to see that he wasn't the only one starting to get lost. This was a type of relationship he had never encountered, and Harry could not deny that he didn't like it. Surely it was too dangerous, though for Slytherin or his friend Harry couldn't say. He looked at the other Founders. None of them looked particularly pleased, but neither did they appear alarmed. Gryffindor let out a long sigh.
"Do you think he will be able to help?"
Slytherin met his gaze steadily. "It can do no harm to try."
"It might," said Hufflepuff quietly.
Slytherin squeezed her fingers lightly. "It is worth the risk."
Harry's head jerked up, a protest half-formed on his lips, but all thoughts of arguing died at the light in Slytherin's eyes. He knew it would do no good; Slytherin would do this to protect him, just as he had with Gryffindor that very morning, just as all the Founders had over the past few weeks. Why, Harry didn't know. But he knew better than to protest by now, and he saw the same acknowledgement reflected on every face present. Slytherin just nodded.
"I will arrange it then."
Harry glanced at him. "Be careful."
Slytherin's expression softened into something remarkably like affection. "Always." He leaned back, eyes sparkling. "In the meantime, why don't you tell us more of this wonderful Professor Lockhart of yours?"
Ron immediately launched into yet more tales of Lockhart's arrogance and vanity, and Harry felt some of the tension drain from his body as laughter and mockery ensued. There were still problems, and plenty of them, but they had had enough of Dark wizards and Horcruxes. For now, the sun was shining, and his friends were close. The darkness could wait a few days.
Well, this was going to be a shorter chapter, but the fight scene ended up a quite a bit longer than I expected. Sorry about that. I'll talk more about Lockhart and Umbridge in later chapters, but I wanted to keep the tone a bit more light-hearted after the first part. Well done to anyone who gets the reference to another awesome fantasy series by the way.
Please let me know what you thought.