Harry slid down the pipes for a good long while. It was slimy and dark, but with enough light falling in from other pipes he passed on the way that he could see his surroundings. The pipe levelled out before he hit the ground, and he shot out of the end with a wet thud, landing on the damp floor of a dark stone tunnel large enough to stand in. McGonagall was just getting up a little ways away, covered in slime. Snape had lit his wand, and Lockhart's face looked ghostly white in its light.

"We must be miles under the school," said Harry, his voice echoing in the black tunnel. No one answered him. He squinted around at the dark, slimy walls, wondering if he had travelled as far as under the lake.

McGonagall cast a haphazard cleaning charm on herself and Harry, before conjuring a rooster sitting in a basket. "Remember," she said, "any sign of movement, close your eyes right away."

Harry also lit his wand with a muttered Lumos as they set off. The tunnel was so dark that they could only see a little distance ahead. Their shadows on the wet walls looked monstrous in the wandlight. The rooster would cluck every now and then and their footsteps were making loud slapping noises on the wet floor as they walked, but otherwise the tunnel was quiet as the grave. The first unexpected sound they heard was a loud crunch as McGonagall stepped on what turned out to be a rat's skull. Harry lowered his wand to look at the floor and saw that it was littered with small animal bones.

He tried not to think of what they would find in the Chamber itself, what a potential victim of the basilisk might look like. He tried to be reassured by the professors' presence, by Snape subtly keeping his wand directed at Lockhart's back, but he sorely missed the presence of his friends. Harry tried to tell himself that it was a good thing they were safe back in the bathroom, but their accusing eyes still haunted him. Ron had argued with McGonagall on his behalf. His mention of Fudge had finally made their head of house listen to them. And how had Harry repaid him? He had gone on without Ron.

But they had bungled it, Ron and Hermione, Harry tried to tell his guilty conscience. They had argued like children, until McGonagall had dismissed them as such. And Harry had had no choice. He could not have risked being left behind.

Maybe closing the entrance behind him had been taking things too far, he finally conceded. His friends could have followed in secret, and McGonagall would hardly have been able to stop them. But what if she had just forced all of them to go back? What then? No. Harry mentally shook himself. What was done was done. He had chosen to do all he could to be included. He would make the most of it.

Trying not to draw too much attention to himself, Harry pulled his foe-glass out of his pocket. It was hardly a forbidden object, even if he would rather not explain how it came into his possession. But under the circumstances, he decided awkward questions were worth the risk.

The foe-glass showed Lockhart, which no longer surprised him, but there was also the basilisk in the background, and even more worryingly, there was a rat next to it. At least he was still alive, Harry tried to reassure himself.

"Potter, what are you looking at?" said Snape, drawing the other two teachers' eyes to Harry as well.

"It's a foe-glass," he admitted, but did not go on, unwilling to explain further. Thankfully Pettigrew was not visible in his human form. Foolish of him not to consider it. He hastily put the foe-glass back in his pocket.

"It – it must be broken," Lockhart said after a lengthy moment, as he felt the other two teachers' eyes on him. He tried to grin, but only managed a grimace. The looks he received made him draw his gaze away from them. He looked very uncomfortable, and rather feeble, unable to defend himself.

"Would this be a new development?" said Snape, tone casual, eyes on McGonagall rather than Harry.

Wanting to switch the topic, Harry ignored McGonagall's muttered, "Hardly," and shook his head. "Er, no. He, er, he's made an appearance before," he mumbled.

"Unbelievable," muttered McGonagall under her breath. "What is your problem with Potter, anyway?" she said, unable to contain herself. "Was he drawing away your fans' undivided attention?"

Harry thought back to the first time he had noticed Lockhart in his foe-glass – right after a class with him enacting a banshee. It had been the first time Harry had openly questioned the veracity of Lockhart's adventures. He considered pointing this out, but seeing how pathetic Lockhart looked, he relented, biting back on the words.

McGonagall also turned back around with a head shake, leading the way forward, around a dark bend in the tunnel. "Stay back! There's something up there—" she said a moment later, coming to a halt.

They froze, watching. Harry could just see the outline of something huge and curved, lying right across the tunnel. It was not moving.

Glancing back at the other two teachers, he saw Lockhart's hands were pressed over his eyes. Harry turned his back to look at the thing through a mirror, his heart beating so fast it hurt. From the corners of his eyes, he saw Snape doing something similar, while McGonagall had her wand pointed at the unfortunate rooster, making it crow. Lockhart yelped at the noise, sinking to his knees.

Very slowly, his eyes following the reflection in the mirror, Harry twisted and turned, his wand held high to illuminate the space behind him. The light slid over the reflection of a gigantic snake skin, of a vivid, poisonous green, lying curled and empty across the tunnel floor. The creature that had shed it must have been twenty feet long at least.

Harry was the first to turn back around, just as Lockhart had begun moaning in fear. McGonagall tried to stop him, but Harry could not afford to waste time, not until he knew that Sirius was safe. "It's just the shed skin," he said, both in answer to McGonagall's protectiveness and to reassure Lockhart.

"I want to stay alive," came the pathetic reply as Lockhart finally opened his eyes. "I – I'm not needed—"

"Too late," came Snape's sharp reply. He pointed his wand at Lockhart.

Harry suppressed a sigh, feeling almost sorry for him. But he could not be trusted to go back, of course. Why had that useless fraud bothered to come along? he thought with some annoyance.

Lockhart gave an odd, jerky motion towards Snape, before straightening up. A fleeting expression passed over his face, something akin to embarrassment, perhaps, but he quickly looked away.

They set off past the giant snake skin, Harry firmly in the middle. The tunnel turned and turned again. Every nerve in Harry's body was tingling unpleasantly. He wanted the tunnel to end, yet dreaded what he would find when it did. And then, at last, as they crept around yet another bend, he saw a solid wall ahead on which two entwined serpents were carved, their eyes set with great, glinting emeralds. Harry approached after McGonagall, his throat very dry. There was no need to pretend these stone snakes were real; their eyes looked strangely alive.

He could guess what he had to do, even if both McGonagall and Snape had not pointed it out immediately. He cleared his throat, and the emerald eyes seemed to flicker. "Open, "said Harry, in a low, faint hiss. The serpents parted as the wall cracked open, the halves sliding smoothly out of sight.

There were many scenarios Harry had imagined would greet him behind those doors, but none had quite included Wormtail running towards the entrance while simultaneously morphing back into Pettigrew. It was an odd sight, watching the fat rat act so energetically.

"Welcome back, Master—" he began to say, before he noticed his visitors, and squealed, tried to draw back, and fell.

"Who—" McGonagall began to say, her outstretched wand freezing mid-air, as recognition overtook the spell she was about to utter.

Snape's thunderstruck, "Pettigrew?!" was followed by the grubby rat animagus scrambling to reach his wand.

Harry was not surprised, he had expected the teachers' reaction, he had his wand drawn, firmly pointed at Pettigrew, he began to shout, "Petrificus—"

But he never got to finish the spell. His wand flew out of his hand, as did Snape's and McGonagall's. He followed the arcs they made in the air, twisting around to see Lockhart catching all three wands in his fist, his own wand directed at them.

"Lockhart! Are you mad!" Snape reached for his wand, only to be pushed back by an invisible force.

The next moment, Pettigrew was also pointing his wand at the group of Harry, McGonagall and Snape, caught in the middle.

"A little change of plans, Wormtail," Lockhart said calmly. "But let's get inside first."

"Yes, Master! Of course, Master!" squealed Pettigrew.

Harry felt himself move without his own accord. So, apparently, did the two other teachers. They moved to stand on either side of Harry, trying to shield him from the two wands pointed their way. Dread began to fill Harry's heart. He must have misheard, he must have misunderstood—

"We won't be needing that." Lockhart vanished the rooster McGonagall had conjured. Then he opened his mouth and hissed – but Harry understood what he was saying. The snake door slid back shut behind him at his command.

"Have you lost your mind!" McGonagall all but shouted. "You can't be hoping to tackle the basilisk on your own—"

It dawned on Harry, who for a second had thought – hoped – the same thing, that this was not a case of Lockhart trying to take the glory for himself at all.

McGonagall must have come to the same conclusion, because she broke off what she had been saying. Her eyes darted around, along the towering stone pillars entwined with more carved serpents, casting long, black shadows through the odd, greenish gloom that filled the very long space of the chamber, before landing on Pettigrew. "And you – you're – but you can't be—"

"Pettigrew," Snape all but snarled – a statement, rather than a question. "How – why are you still alive?"

The pudgy little man shifted uncomfortably. "M-master, was it really necessary to bring them along? N-not that I'm questioning your plans—"

"Do be quiet, Wormtail. I had to… improvise." Lockhart would not even look at him, instead directing an intense stare at Harry that looked wholly foreign on his features.

"You're not supposed to be alive!" Snape all but shouted. In his anger, he all but seemed to have forgotten that they were all without wands, had not one but two wands directed at them, and a basilisk on the loose. "But you're not a dead hero, either, are you, Pettigrew? Not that 'hero' ever applied to you, but—"

"Be quiet," Lockhart silenced Snape with a wave of his wand.

McGonagall seemed to have thought she could use the distraction and dived for the wand in Lockhart's hand. She managed to get a hold, but Pettigrew's "Incarcerous!" caught her a moment later, wrapping her in conjured ropes. Snape tried to react to the situation, going for Pettigrew, but now Lockhart was faster, catching him with a stunning spell.

"Enough of this!" said Lockhart, then collected himself, the smile returning to his face. "No more distractions. I've waited a long time for this chance to see Harry Potter, the boy who lived. To speak to you." He directed the last directly at Harry, never taking his eyes off him.

Harry had seen that expression before, if on a completely different face. He was beginning to realise what state he and the other two professors had found themselves in, and it did not look good for them. At least Sirius did not seem anywhere in sight.

"You're possessed," Harry ground out. "Like Ginny. We ran into you after she attacked us—" Of course, Harry thought. Lockhart must have found the diary after Ginny ran away.

"You interfering little pest," said Lockhart quietly. Or rather, not Lockhart, but whoever was possessing him. A smile was curling at the corners of his mouth – which had little resemblance to Lockhart's usual jaunty grins. "Ginny Weasley was all too willing to open her heart and spill all her secrets to an invisible stranger before you and your little friends started hounding her every step—"

"The diary," said Harry at once, ignoring the sharp indrawn breath of his head of house. "That's what you're talking about, that's how you possessed her—"

"Yes, my diary," said not-Lockhart. "Little Ginny had been writing in it for weeks, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes – how her brothers tease her, how she had to come to school with second-hand robes and books, how" – his eyes glinted – "how she didn't think famous, good, great Harry Potter would ever like her… Of course, you forced me to petrify her far too soon, and I had to start all over again, with Lockhart this time."

"But the diary was seen on the Hogwarts express, on the way to London. Why – how did you—"

"You just don't know when to leave well enough alone, Potter," not-Lockhart said, still smiling broadly. "There was a – miscalculation – on Wormtail's part." His smile dimmed a little when saying this, but he ignored Pettigrew's quiet whimper. "Imagine how angry I was when, after so luckily finding a willing vessel to carry on my work, I found myself corresponding with this overeager, if somewhat disgraced servant of mine—"

"I just wanted to offer my – my assistance," squeaked Pettigrew, then sneered nastily at Snape's crumpled form. "Which is more than some of your supposed servants are doing—"

"I told you to be quiet." not-Lockhart's face contorted.

"Y-yes, master!" came Pettigrew's high-pitched reply at once.

A moment of silence fell, as not-Lockhart collected himself, forcing another broad smile on his face. Snape was still out cold, and McGonagall had pursed her lips so tightly together, Harry thought it must hurt.

"Of course I insisted he return the diary from where he took it. A simple enough task, if you ask me. But it almost overexerted his abilities. Didn't it, Wormtail?" Not heeding the squeaky, near tearful reply, not-Lockhart went on. "He finally managed to get it back to Lockhart on the Hogwarts Express. The poor self-important fool couldn't imagine anything better than having a real confidante. As you so rightly suspected, his only real skill is memory charms, which he's used quite successfully over the years to take credit for others' accomplishments—"

"That's why I kept seeing him – you – in my foe-glass. Ron thought Lockhart hated me because I'm famous—"

"Oh, but he does, yes. Made it so much easier to direct his attention towards investigating your comings and goings—"

Harry thought back with a sinking feeling to his detention with Lockhart after the Christmas holidays, when Lockhart had tried so hard to find out the reason for his detention. How many clues he had missed—

"If I say it myself, Harry, I've always been able to charm the people I needed. So Lockhart poured out his deepest fears, his darkest secrets to me. It's very boring, listening to someone so self-absorbed. But I was patient. I wrote back. I was sympathetic, agreed with him that his petty little crimes were perfectly justified. I grew powerful, far more powerful than foolish, attention-seeking Gilderoy Lockhart. Powerful enough to start feeding him a few of my secrets, to start pouring a little of my soul back into him…"

"And no one noticed that he had changed," added Harry dismally. Ron had noticed the changes in Ginny, as had her brothers. It had still been mostly luck that had helped them free her from the possession; Lockhart never stood a chance.

The man wearing Lockhart's face laughed at that, a high cold laugh that did not seem to suit him. It made the hairs stand up on the back of Harry's neck.

"Oh, but he didn't change all that much," said not-Lockhart softly. "He did not mind nearly as much as Ginny Weasley to open the Chamber of Secrets, to strangle the roosters, and to finally set the Serpent of Slytherin on your half-breed friend."

"Miss Weasley wouldn't have gone along quietly," McGonagall whispered. "She would have – she did fight you—"

"Yes," said not-Lockhart calmly. "Once she began to notice what she was doing. It was very amusing. I wish you could have seen her new diary entries, Harry… far more interesting, they became… 'I think I'm losing my memory," he recited, watching Harry's horrified face, "There are rooster feathers all over my robes and I don't know how they got there. I can't remember what I did on the night of Halloween, but a cat was attacked and I've got paint all down my front. Percy keeps telling me I'm pale and I'm not myself. I think he suspects me… There was another attack today and I don't know where I was. What am I going to do? I think I'm going mad… I think I'm the one attacking everyone!' But stupid little Ginny never really stopped trusting her diary."

Harry's fists were clenched, the nails digging deep into his hands.

"Then, of course, you and your bothersome friends had to force me to – abandon her. Lockhart – oh, he was not too disturbed when that great oaf, Hagrid, was petrified. On the whole, he was all too eager to conspire against you, Harry. Especially after your loyal mongrel started hounding him, digging up his past – once again interfering where—"

"But, M-Master," interrupted Pettigrew, "you said you'd deal with him, you said—"

As not-Lockhart directed a murderous glare at Pettigrew, Harry took advantage of the momentary distraction of their captors to look around. In the direction of the entrance, McGonagall was between him and Lockhart, looking ready to jump in front of Harry, ropes or no ropes. In the opposite direction, Pettigrew stood not far from Snape's unconscious form.

McGonagall did not seem to know a way out of the mess they were in, as far as Harry could tell. She also seemed confused by some of what was being said – especially the reference to Sirius. Harry knew he might be in for some hard questions if Sirius' name came up, but it could not be helped in the current situation, especially with Pettigrew's last comment.

"Deal with him?" he asked, just as not-Lockhart had begun shouting at Pettigrew to shut up.

"Yes, Potter," said not-Lockhart, his gaze firmly back on Harry, but without the disturbing smile. Instead, his face was contorted into a nasty grimace. "You had to interfere yet again, to force my hand before my plans had been finalised. I knew you'd be hatching some new trouble as soon as I saw you talking to her—" he pointed at McGonagall "—this morning, but how did you manage to find the entrance to my Chamber of Secrets in a few hours?!"

Harry shrugged. "Moaning – er, I mean, Myrtle Warren saw it before she died. She told us. Bad deeds don't just stay hidden forever, you see? Eventually, you get the punishment you deserve, Riddle—"

McGonagall looked like she could barely restrain herself from telling him to stop talking, but Harry would not heed her unspoken warning. He had too much anger bubbling in his chest for that.

"You dare! I promise you, Potter, that's the last—"

But Harry never found out what Riddle was promising him, for at that moment, the serpent doors slid open, followed by synchronous shouts of, "Petrificus Totalus!"

Ron and Hermione stood inside the Chamber, unexpected, unanticipated, and very, very welcome.

The situation developed at lightning speed after that. Sirius, running in right after, Harry was considerably less happy to see. McGonagall gave a shout of terror, recognising him as soon as she saw him. Pettigrew reacted with surprising speed to the change of situation. He began firing spells at Ron and Hermione before they had even stopped hexing Lockhart. Harry was proud of his friends, of the speed with which they threw up the shield charm, and the strength of it. They still might have lost, but Sirius was there, looking nothing short of murderous as he went after his former friend.

Harry dived for his wand in Lockhart's limp hand – partly to stop Sirius, if needed. McGonagall managed to untangle herself from the ropes, and went for her wand as well. Harry hesitated to stop her, which he regretted not a moment later, as she began to attack Sirius.

Pettigrew, rightly assessing his odds of winning, dived towards the entrance, transforming into a rat midway. He slipped past Sirius, and ran. With a truly foul curse, Sirius turned and ran after him.

"BLACK!" shouted McGonagall – uncomfortably close to Harry's ears – as she reared up to run out after the two men.

She did not get the chance. Harry heard the all too familiar hissing once again, as the serpent doors slid shut in front of McGonagall. Whirling around, he saw a figure at the far end of the Chamber, in front of the statue, high as the Chamber itself, which stood against the back wall.

"Accio!" shouted the figure, and Lockhart's wand flew into his outstretched hand.

Everyone shifted their attention towards that figure.

"Who are you!" said McGonagall, wand ready, still shooting glances behind her at the entrance, as if deciding how to go after the fled marauders.

"Speak to me, Slytherin, greatest of the Hogwarts Four," the figure hissed again, and Harry was the only one who understood what he was saying.

Harry looked up at the statue. Slytherin's gigantic stone face was moving. Horror-struck, Harry saw his mouth opening, wider and wider, to make a huge black hole. And something was stirring inside the statue's mouth. Something was slithering up from its depths.

"Close your eyes! Close them now!" shouted McGonagall, and once again conjured a rooster – this time without bothering with a basket.

"Enough of that!" shouted the figure in front of them. Then he waved his wand in a complicated pattern.

If he spoke a spell, it was too quiet for Harry to hear, but there was no need. He saw the effect of it. The rooster became eerily quiet, and as Hermione tried to speak, her mouth moved, but no sound came from her.

Harry and Ron pressed themselves against the serpent pillars on one side of the Chamber, reaching for their mirrors, while McGonagall rushed to Snape on the other side of the Chamber. Hermione ran over there as well, next to Lockhart's prone body. With a non-verbal spell McGonagall was able to revive Snape, but Harry could see her gesturing wildly, trying to explain the situation to him, jerking him back around as he tried to look behind him.

Something huge hit the stone floor of the Chamber. Harry felt it shudder – he knew what was happening, he could sense it, could almost see the giant serpent uncoiling itself from Slytherin's mouth. Then he heard the hissing voice: "Kill them; leave only the boy."

From the corner of his eye, he could see Hermione searching Lockhart's pockets, which confused him, until she triumphantly held up a little black book in her hand: Riddle's diary. McGonagall grabbed it out of her hand, trying to destroy it herself. Snape went for his wand, still lying next to Lockhart's hand.

The basilisk was moving towards them, fast; Harry could hear its heavy body slithering heavily across the dusty floor. The figure was laughing – Harry recognised the high, unpleasant sound. It was Riddle.

"Leave the boy for last!" Riddle said.

After both teachers had tried a couple spells to destroy the diary without any success – Snape catching on quickly enough that it was important to do so – McGonagall fired a frantic spell behind herself, something violent and destructive, by the sound of the crumbling stones. Harry did not dare look behind them, not even through his mirror. She repeated the spell, and Snape did likewise. The Chamber walls shook unpleasantly from the impact, and Harry's heart gave a lurch. This place had been built far too many centuries ago, to withstand that much damage. The basilisk seemed to have stopped in its tracks, at least.

"MOVE!" Riddle shouted. "Dislodge the stones! Move!"

A rumbling could be heard, a slow shifting of rocks. Snape and McGonagall were trying to break whatever silencing spell Riddle had cast over the entire Chamber, wands pointed at their throats, but without success. Then McGonagall cast another spell, which drew all the broken off rocks towards her. As soon as the serpent moved, she flung them all towards the direction of the noise. They hit with a very satisfying thud.

Riddle responded with an enraged shout, followed by a spell hitting next to McGonagall, just as she ducked behind the pillar. Snape turned around, and responded with a volley of spells of his own. Harry would have shouted at him to stop, had he still had his voice. But McGonagall followed suit. He dared to glance around as well.

Several of the serpent pillars lay smashed on the ground. The basilisk was encased in a large portion of the rubble, but was still trying to move, to dislodge the stones from its body. McGonagall kept flinging more rocks its way, just as soon as she could afford to take the attention away from Riddle, who kept both her and Snape well in check.

He was a tall, black-haired boy, strangely blurred around the edges, as though Harry were looking at him through a misted window. He looked far too young to be able to hold his own against two competent, adult duellists, and yet, it seemed he was the one playing cat and mouse with the two teachers.

His friends joined Harry. They had their wands drawn, and Hermione gestured frantically at all three of them, then at their throats. The boys nodded. They grabbed each other's hands, like the wizards of old, their wands held between them. It was not a proper counter-spell, but more of a return to normalcy of each others' magic that they had become so well acquainted with over the previous months. With a gasp, Harry felt his voice returning.

Hermione did not waste any time attacking the basilisk. She was in the nick of time, as Riddle was successfully keeping both teachers' attention on himself. McGonagall and Snape shot them surprised looks at hearing her voice.

Riddle snarled, pushing the adults back. "Very well! If that's how it must be—" Riddle blasted the rocks away from his basilisk, sending them flying in all directions, reverberating against the ancient walls.

They all frantically strove for cover, flinging themselves at the pillars, as the great serpent slowly tried to shake off the battering it had received. Hurt it may be, but it was still very deadly.

"I will not be denied," Riddle pronounced. "You will answer my questions, Potter, or I will kill your would-be protectors and little friends one by one!"

"In your dreams!" shouted Ron from next to Harry. "You and your puny snake are not a match against the five of us—"

"Ron!" both Harry and Hermione snapped. Harry suspected – hoped – that his friend was right, but making Riddle mad was hardly the best course of action.

"Call back your snake, and face me, then!" shouted Harry instead, deciding that buying themselves a little time would not go remiss.

A long, quiet moment later, he heard the basilisk slithering away from them. "Very well, Harry Potter," said Riddle, with a hint of his disturbing smile of before. "You may face me."

Harry felt rage bubble up inside him at the arrogance, but turned around – after checking that the basilisk was turned away through his mirror. His friends did likewise, coming to stand beside him. "What questions?" he spat.

"Well," said Riddle coldly, "how is it that you – a skinny boy with no extraordinary magical talent – managed to defeat the greatest wizard of all time? How did you escape with nothing but a scar, while Lord Voldemort's powers were destroyed?"

"You think you're the greatest wizard of all time?" snorted Harry. "Hiding behind a made-up name, Voldemort—" Harry heard his friends' gasps, and the jerky motions from where he assumed the still muted Snape and McGonagall were.

"Voldemort," said Riddle softly, "has always been my truest name…" These words were followed by shimmering words appearing in mid-air, spelling out the name:

TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE

A moment later, the letters rearranged themselves, to:

I AM LORD VOLDEMORT

Riddle began to explain how he had begun using the name to his most intimate friends at Hogwarts, to get away from his muggle heritage. Ron did not fail to remind him that his mother had not been a witch, as Riddle claimed, but a squib. Harry almost shut his friend up, but as Riddle began claiming once more that he was the greatest wizard, Harry felt his anger rising again.

"You're not the greatest sorcerer in the world," said Harry, breathing fast. "Sorry to disappoint you and all that, but the greatest wizard in the world is Albus Dumbledore. Everyone says so. Even when you were strong, you didn't dare try and take over at Hogwarts. Dumbledore saw through you when you were at school and he still frightens you now, wherever you're hiding these days—"

The smile had gone from Riddle's face, to be replaced by a very ugly look. "Dumbledore's been driven out of this castle by the mere memory of me!" he hissed.

"Your memory hasn't done much of anything," said Harry triumphantly. "No one's died this time, not even the cat. In a few days the mandrake draught will be ready and everyone who was petrified will be all right again—"

"Haven't I already told you," said Riddle quietly, "that killing mudbloods doesn't matter to me any more? For many months now, my new target has been – you."

If he expected this to be a surprise, Hermione disappointed him, recounting his plans back to him step-by-step, including the final attack on Hagrid right after he had mentioned monsters to Harry in the great hall. "You realised he'd talked to us, didn't you?" she said triumphantly. "You knew we must be on to you—"

Riddle, enraged, sent a curse their way, but the three friends had a shield up right away – and so did Snape and McGonagall. For all his arrogance, Riddle seemed well aware that he was outnumbered, and outmatched, so he began taking out his anger on Hagrid instead, telling them how he had framed the younger boy fifty years ago. When he mentioned how it had taken him five years to find the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets, Hermione could not suppress a snort. Harry had to agree. No wonder Riddle had been rattled by the fact that they had found it so quickly.

"You may have deceived some people, but I know Dumbledore saw right through you," said Harry.

"Well, he certainly kept an annoyingly close watch on me after Hagrid was expelled," said Riddle carelessly. "I knew it wouldn't be safe to open the Chamber again while I was still at school. But I wasn't going to waste those long years I'd spent searching for it. I decided to leave behind a diary, preserving my sixteen-year-old self in its pages, so that one day, with luck, I would be able to lead another in my footsteps, and finish Salazar Slytherin's noble work."

"How exactly did you do that?" This was spoken, surprisingly, by Professor McGonagall, who had apparently broken the silencing spell on her. "What are you?" she asked quite insistently.

Riddle's eyes glittered malevolently, and there was a strange red gleam in them.

"You are the memories in a diary," said Harry slowly. "And the more secrets people share with the diary, the easier you control them. But you said you poured some of your… You began sharing your secrets with Lockhart—"

Something very strange was going on. He stared numbly at Riddle, at the orphaned boy who had grown up to murder Harry's own parents, and so many others… Harry noticed suddenly that Riddle's outline was becoming clearer, more solid…

Hermione gasped. "You're coming alive!" She whipped her head around to glance at Lockhart's prone body at one end of the Chamber. "He's been looking worse and worse these past months…"

"He's put too much of himself into the diary, into me," Riddle said. "Enough to let me leave its pages at last. He was very obliging until the very end, came down here – almost – voluntarily. Only really tried to fight me when he saw the basilisk skin, but by then, it was far too late…"

"What sick, twisted thing are you—" began McGonagall.

"He's trying to get us to talk!" said Ron. "Because he still needs time—"

"And the longer you talk," said Riddle, unrepentantly, smiling broadly, "the longer you stay alive. To business, Harry," he went on softly. "Twice – in your past, in my future – we have met. And twice I failed to kill you. How did you survive? Tell me everything."

Harry thought fast, weighing their chances. The basilisk was still dangerous, but badly hurt. They could bludgeon it to death easily enough. The Chamber was looking worse for wear, but even should parts of it collapse, McGonagall and Snape would probably be able to get them out safely. And the longer Riddle stood there, the stronger he became. They were better off fighting him sooner rather than later. Snape still held the diary, Harry noticed suddenly. And his wand was pointed at it—

"No one knows why you lost your powers when you attacked me," said Harry abruptly. "I don't know myself. But I know why you couldn't kill me. Because my mother died to save me. My common muggle-born mother," he added, shaking with suppressed rage. "She stopped you killing me. And I've seen the real you, I saw you last year. You're a wreck. You're barely alive. That's where all your power got you. You're in hiding. You're ugly, you're foul—"

Riddle's face contorted. Then he forced it into an awful smile. "So. Your mother died to save you. Yes, that's a powerful counter-charm. I can see now… there is nothing special about you, after all. I wondered, you see. There are strange likenesses between us, after all. Even you must have noticed. Both half-bloods, orphans, raised by muggles. Probably the only two parselmouths to come to Hogwarts since the great Slytherin himself. We even look something alike… But after all, it was merely a lucky chance that saved you from me. That's all I wanted to know."

Harry stood, tense, waiting for Riddle to raise his wand. But Riddle's twisted smile was widening again.

"In fact, Wormtail told me something similar about you, Severus Snape," he said, for once taking his eyes off Harry to look at the potions master instead. "Another half-blood, raised among muggles you despised. Eager to prove yourself, once you had found your way to me. And yet, you either don't recognise me, or you've become that fool Dumbledore's pet. Join me now, and I'll forgive your betrayal—"

"I think not," snarled Snape, and sent a volley of spells to attack the diary. For a moment it looked like it was becoming damaged, but a moment later, it had repaired itself.

This did worry Harry a bit after all.

"How disappointing," Riddle told Snape. "You've chosen mediocrity among Dumbledore's defenders. But I'm not so easily defeated by such childish efforts. You'll find there's little you can do to stop me from regaining life. Now I'm going to teach you all a little lesson. Let's match the powers of Lord Voldemort, Heir of Salazar Slytherin, against famous Harry Potter, and Dumbledore's loyal, foolish pets—"

"Dumbledore'll know how to destroy your diary!" said Harry. "And once we've killed your snake, there'll only be one of you against all of us—"

"I can kill you, but you cannot kill me! And we'll never find out if that old fool might have figured out the secret of the diary, because I've long since rid the school of him—"

"Dumbledore is not as gone as you might think!" said Harry, mostly to contradict him.

But it was enough to summon Fawkes to them, carrying the Sorting Hat. Riddle laughed hard at the supposed weapons Dumbledore had sent his defenders. He stopped laughing soon enough, when Fawkes had punctured the basilisk's eyes.

It was easy from then on. The phoenix's song was giving them all an overflow of courage. McGonagall, who knew the secret of the Hat, pulled the sword out of it and did not waste any time decapitating the basilisk. Riddle got mad at that, and began duelling in earnest. There were a few nasty-looking green spells thrown about. Snape was holding his own, though, and soon McGonagall joined as well. They were tense, silent, fully focussed on staying alive, Harry could tell.

Then Hermione drew the boys' attention. "The diary – it can't be destroyed by magical means. But I've read – the basilisk venom – it's very destructive, more than ordinary magic—"

Harry and Ron nodded to her, rushing over to the basilisk. Harry picked up the sword of Gryffindor to saw off a fang. But Snape still had the diary, and it would not do to distract him.

Then, as if he had heard them, Fawkes soared back overhead in a rush of wings, and something fell in front of Harry – the diary.

For a split second, both Harry and Riddle, wand still raised, stared at it. Then Harry seized the basilisk fang and plunged it straight into the heart of the book. There was a long, dreadful, piercing scream. Ink spurted out of the diary in torrents, streaming over Harry's hands, flooding the floor. Riddle was writhing and twisting, screaming and flailing and then…

He had gone. Lockhart's wand fell to the floor with a clatter and there was silence. Silence except for the steady drip drip of ink still oozing from the diary. The basilisk venom had burned a sizzling hole right through it.