White clouds drifted across the ceiling of the Great Hall. Harry watched them float from one side to the other as he munched on his toast.
‘When does the tournament start again, Hermione?’ Ron asked.
‘It’s only been a few days since the beginning of term, Ron.’ Hermione shook her head. ‘You really need to learn some patience.’
‘It feels like we’ve been here for ages.’ Ron reached for the nearest rack of toast. ‘Ages.’
‘We were here a bit earlier, but still, it’s barely September. Nothing’s happening until October.’
‘It’s a travesty,’ Ron mumbled around a mouthful toast. ‘All that hype about the bloody tournament and we have to wait until October to enter.’
Hermione’s eyes narrowed. ‘Don’t swear.’
Ron flinched out of elbow range.
‘Not much point entering now, mate,’ Dean said. ‘Got to wait for the other two schools first.’
‘Are you going to enter?’ Seamus asked.
‘Nope,’ Dean replied. ‘I choose life. I had a research about it when I heard. It’s been cancelled for centuries because all the champions kept dying before the end.’
‘Doesn’t sound like eternal glory to me,’ Neville piped up.
Ron chomped his way through the rest of the toast rack and ladled half a plateful of eggs in front of himself.
Where does all the food even go?
Seamus grinned. ‘Sounds like unexpected death to me. Still, I’m entering. They’ll have made it safer or something now, I’m sure. Otherwise they wouldn’t have been allowed to bring it back.’
Ron emerged from behind his mountain of eggs. ‘Well, if you see a basilisk, just summon Harry and hide for a bit. That ought to do the trick.’
Dean sniggered. ‘That’s pretty much the plan. I’ll let the seventh years know. They’re the ones who’ll get chosen anyway. The tournament is supposed to have the best possible student chosen from all the entered names.’
‘How does it know?’ Neville asked.
Dean shrugged. ‘Some magic, I guess.’
Everyone turned to look at Hermione.
‘What?’ She huffed and crossed her arms. ‘I’m not interested in a silly tournament, we’re almost at OWL year now.’
‘That’s a point,’ Harry said. ‘I’d wager the champions will all be sixth years really. No exams to worry about that year.’
Ron’s chewing halted. ‘Nah. Nobody’s going to care about exams more than the tournament. I’m definitely entering. Can you imagine Percy’s face if I won?’
‘You’d get another howler from your mum,’ Dean said.
‘Worth it for eternal glory.’ Ron’s eyes turned distant and a little misty. ‘Pretty much everyone in Gryffindor is putting their name in, even some of the firsties wanted to.’
‘House of the brave,’ Seamus said.
‘House of the brave and Neville.’ Dean prodded Neville on the arm. ‘Maybe you’ll be champion, Nev. Up for it?’
Neville paled. ‘I prefer to leave that stuff to Harry. Giant snakes, swords, dark lords, and lethal tournaments are his area of expertise.’
Ron grunted. ‘It’s about time it was someone else’s turn.’
‘Madam Pomfrey might not let you out next time,’ Seamus said.
‘We’ve got double Defence with Mad-eye,’ Neville said. ‘Madam Pomfrey might be seeing all of us if what I’ve heard is true.’
‘Oh?’ Harry swivelled round. ‘What did you hear?’
Given the Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor has nearly killed me every single year, it’d probably be smart to keep an eye on this one from the beginning.
‘Apparently he’s been talking about the Unforgivable Curses.’ Neville’s voice shrank to a tiny whisper.
‘Bit of an odd thing to teach,’ Dean muttered.
No argument here. Harry doubted many would approve. Still, dark wizards seem more dangerous than most creatures, so maybe it’ll be useful.
‘It’s probably useful,’ Ron said. ‘Dad says those three spells are the ones that are most often used by wizards involved in the dark arts.’
Dean glanced at the clock. ‘We’re about to find out.’
A nervous gaggle of students huddled behind the desks in Mad-eye Moody’s classroom when Harry arrived and took a seat in the middle of the pack.
‘Oi! Potter!’ Malfoy sneered at him over Hermione’s head. ‘How’d you enjoy the World Cup? I heard you collapsed again. Saw a dementor did you?’
‘No, Malfoy.’ Harry gritted his teeth and swallowed a flare of anger. ‘I did see a blond man in black, hooded robes, though. Did your father enjoy his after-party?’
Malfoy recoiled as if struck. ‘My father had nothing to do with that. As if it wasn’t enough that you pranced around with mudbloods and blood-traitors, you’ve lowered yourself to slander too.’ He turned away to Pansy Parkinson.
Slander’s all you manage on a day-to-day basis, you slimy cockroach.
‘Ignore him, Harry.’ Hermione covered his wand arm with her hand.
Ron had his wand in his hand. ‘Ve–‘
Professor Moody stomped in the room and Ron stuffed his wand back into his robes. Purple veins clustered in the sizeable gash through the professor’s nose and his electric-blue, magical eye whirled across the room. It flicked from student to student, peering into the shadows around the edges of the room.
‘I am Alastor Moody.’ He heaved himself past the desks to the front, his wooden leg clunked on the stone floor with each step. ‘I served as an auror in the war against the Dark Lord. I’ve seen almost all there is of the dark arts and not from a practitioner’s perspective.’ He snatched a large, bell-shaped jar from under his desk and hauled it onto the front row.
Three large spiders sat inside, hunched into their long, hairy legs. Ron’s chair scraped backward and thudded into the bench behind him.
Moody’s mouth twisted into a grimace. ‘When it comes to the dark arts, I believe in a practical approach. There’s nothing out there that will really prepare you for what’s to come. Pictures in a book look nothing like the real horror. When you can taste and smell it all around you. I survived the war, but it cost me an eye and a leg and more to do so. Most didn’t survive at all.’ He unscrewed the top of the bell jar with stiff, jerky motions and placed it on the desk. ‘There’re only three curses that will get you a lifetime ticket to Azkaban if performed or attempted on another human being. Can anyone name any of them?’
‘The Imperius Curse,’ Malfoy said with only the slightest hint of a sneer.
‘You’d know all about that one, wouldn’t you, boy?’ Professor Moody barked. ‘I’d wager your father told you about it. He used it as an excuse to escape that very same ticket to Azkaban.’
Malfoy’s sneer flushed red and he balled his fists under the desk.
Professor Moody levitated a spider out of the jar and onto the desk. ‘Nasty curse, the Imperius. Gives complete control of the victim to the caster. The ministry had terrible trouble with it, because if the caster knows what they’re doing, it’s very hard to tell when anyone is under it. It is, however, the only one of three that can be defended against. A strong-willed wizard or witch can fight it off.’
Professor Moody raised a thick, notched wand and thrust it at the spider. ‘Imperio.’
The spider careened around the room, scuttling over students and dancing on desks. Laughter burst up from around the room.
Harry grimaced. Wouldn’t be so funny if it was one of us, would it?
Ron gripped the edge of the desk until his knuckles turned white and watched the spider like it was Aragog himself.
‘Another curse?’ Moody directed the spider back onto the desk at the front. ‘Anyone?’
‘The Cruciatus Curse,’ Neville whispered.
‘Yes, Mr Longbottom. The torture curse, its incantation is crucio.’ Moody’s magical eye froze on Neville’s face. ‘I will not be demonstrating that one in front of the eyes of children.’
He scooped the spider up and poked it back into the jar with the tip of his wand. ‘And the last one?’
‘The Killing Curse,’ Ron murmured.
‘Speak up, Weasley,’ Moody growled. ‘You’re correct. The Killing Curse. It cannot be deflected or magically blocked; its only survivor is Mr Potter.’ Professor Moody stared at Harry and his scar as if Voldemort himself was about bubble out of his face, then screwed the jar lid back on.
Good thing he didn’t tell us the incantation for it. Malfoy and his lackeys would be out practicing it on small animals before the end of the day.
‘Blimey,’ Ron whispered. ‘That was an intense lesson.’
‘The lesson has not ended, Mr Weasley.’ Professor Moody tucked the jar of spiders back under his desk. ‘There is a very lengthy chapter on hex-deflection in the text I recommended for this year, read it before next lesson, either in here or wherever you please.’
He turned and stomped into his office. Harry glimpsed an array looking glasses and mirror-like artefacts before the door slammed shut.
I wonder what those do?
‘Come on,’ Hermione tugged at his arm. ‘I want to check on Neville.’
Neville? Harry glanced around. He seemed ok, a bit shaken, but ok.
‘I’ve got to go get started on Flitwick’s essay,’ Harry said. ‘I don’t want to fall behind.’
Hermione huffed and folded her arms. ‘Fine.’
Harry rolled his eyes and bit his tongue. As if you don’t go off to the library on your own all the time.
He slipped through Myrtle’s cubicle and into the Chamber, vanishing the dust on the stairs until Ginny’s tiny footprints were gone. Like it never happened. Harry paused before the ink stain, then vanished that, too. Good riddance.
‘I’m back.’ He told the statue in parseltongue. The door grated open and the tongue-bridge rose out of the water. ‘It really does work for any command.’
‘Oh, joy,’ the portrait snarked. ‘Company.’
‘Beggars can’t be choosers,’ Harry replied as he strode into the library. ‘It’s me or Riddle.’
‘You’re probably more sane,’ Slytherin said. ‘That seemed quick, though. Decided to skip class, then?’
‘It’s been over a day…’
‘How am I supposed to know?! There aren’t any windows and the last I knew the year, it was the mid-twentieth century.’
‘The century is almost over.’
‘Like I care,’ Slytherin muttered. ‘I’m a painting. I will exist until I am destroyed. Time means little to me now.’
Harry raised an eyebrow. Godric Gryffindor must’ve been pretty bad if he was the childish one.
‘However, for those who have less time and wish for more, I’ve a pleasant surprise.’ Salazar gestured at his desk with his wand, dislodging his living, serpent necklace.
Harry spotted a slim golden hourglass dangling off a wooden hook. ‘A time-turner…’
‘Yes. One of the most valuable things in here.’ Slytherin gathered his serpent back onto his shoulders. ‘It can’t be removed from the Chamber of Secrets, though, I enchanted it.’
‘That’s a good thing, very farsighted of you.’
Voldemort would wreak havoc with one of these.
‘I did it so Godric would stop stealing it,’ Slytherin said.
Harry’s eyebrows slipped up into his hairline.
‘It’s true, I would’ve never admitted it otherwise.’
‘I thought the two of you were supposed to be enemies, not involved in some war of pranks?’
‘I didn’t carry out pranks. We just had a healthy spirit of competition. I made all the wards around the castle with Rowena, so he transfigured and enchanted all the gargoyles and suits of armour. When I created the Headmaster’s office with Helga, he and Rowena snuck off to make some secret room of their own. They were very proud of it. Especially when I couldn’t find it.’
‘What secret room?’
‘They called it the Room of Requirement,’ Slytherin said. ‘I never found it, but they never found my Chamber of Secrets either.’
‘Any idea where it is?’ Harry asked. ‘Or what it does?’
‘Presumably it is whatever it is required to be, but no, I’m not sure exactly where it is or how to find it. I narrowed it down to the seventh floor, but it’d be a waste of time searching for it when you have all this.’ Slytherin waved an ostentatious hand around his library.
‘True,’ Harry said. ‘I have some magic to practice.’
‘Not in here you don’t,’ Slytherin snapped. ‘Out into the hall where you won’t make a mess of everything. Leave the time-turner there, too. It’s limited to about twelve hours, but you can come down after class and use it to repeat the day whenever you like.’
That’s a good idea. Harry strode back across the bridge. I can get three times as much done as I hoped now.
‘Reducto.’ He whipped his wand through two sides of a triangle and unleashed the blasting curse at the dead basilisk.
It sputtered out on the poisonous green scales.
Magically resistant hide.
His curse sailed past the snake and struck the pile of bones at the far end of the chamber. They exploded into a cloud of fine dust and settled onto the floor like the ash at the World Cup.
Harry repeated it a few dozen more times, fixing anything that looked like it was meant to be there. Pretty much got the hang of that one, now.
‘Have you finished destroying the finest room in this castle?’ Slytherin called.
‘I fixed it afterwards.’ Harry wandered back into the library. ‘Do you know anything about using transfiguration and conjuration in duels?’
‘I am Salazar Slytherin.’
‘You said Godric Gryffindor was the expert.’
‘I’d like to think I know enough to teach a fourteen year old. Sit and listen.’
‘I’ve used it before.’ Harry settled himself in the chair behind the desk. ‘Sort of.’
‘You have?’ The snake’s head rose up beside Slytherin’s ear. ‘When? How?’
‘I conjured a basilisk out of ash and killed a wizard who was attacking me.’ A weight lifted off his chest as the words tumbled out. ‘I didn’t mean to kill him. I just didn’t want to die.’
‘Good for you.’ Slytherin scratched his chin with the tip of the snake’s tail. ‘What was the spell? Serpensortia?’
‘I didn’t use a spell, I just waved my wand and… made it happen.’
‘You said not to do magic in here.’
‘So pick me up off the wall and carry me out there. It will be nice to have a change of scenery.’
Harry picked the portrait off the wall with a groan and staggered over the bridge.
‘Watch the water! Watch the water!’ Slytherin’s wand spurted silver sparks and the snake buried it’s face in the wizard’s robes. ‘If you drop me!’
Harry propped him at the side of the chamber and mopped sweat of his brow. ‘Why on earth do you weigh so bloody much?’
‘Is that my basilisk?’ Slytherin asked.
‘She grew a lot.’ Slytherin’s smile was a small, faint curve of his lips. ‘How did you kill her?’
‘With a sword.’
‘It had better have not been that ridiculously shiny, goblin-made atrocity Godric used to wave around.’
‘It was exactly that sword.’
Slytherin’s wand exploded in silver sparks and a furious torrent of parseltongue curses spewed from the founder’s lips. ‘Show me this conjured serpent, then.’
‘I managed to repeat it with fire,’ Harry said. ‘I don’t know how well water will work.’
‘Just try, it shouldn’t really matter.’
He pictured the basilisk coalescing from the pool just as it had struck from the cloud of ash, then slashed his wand forward away from himself.
A vast, liquid basilisk maw swept from the pool and crashed against the wall. Spray spattered Harry’s robes and face.
‘Well now,’ Slytherin said. ‘That’s a very impressive piece of silent battle-conjuration, especially for someone your age. If you hadn’t used a serpent, I daresay Godric himself might’ve deigned to teach you. Not that you’d have learnt anything from that idiot.’
‘Er, thanks,’ Harry replied.
‘Try again. This time don’t imagine a striking snake, but one that hovers in the air over the pool.’
Harry did so. They watched as the water coiled into the form of the king of serpents. A deep, throbbing ache seeped into Harry’s body as the vast liquid serpent twisted above the pool. He gritted his teeth, then released the spell before his legs gave out. The water splashed back into the pool.
‘I can imagine how tiring that must have been.’ Slytherin waved his wand at the pool. ‘It looks powerful, but draining. That’s not a spell you should be using until you’ve got a lot better at directing your magic.’
‘I have no idea how to do that,’ Harry said.
Slytherin shook his head and muttered something in parseltongue under his breath. ‘To conjure and animate something so big requires a great deal of magic. Even in my prime, I’d be capable of wielding it for no more than a few minutes and you’re pouring magic all over the place. Focus only on the objective of your spell when you cast it.’
Harry struggled to stand.
‘Not now. There’re some rituals you can undertake to strengthen both your body and magic.’ He eyed Harry like a snake would a mouse, and the serpent around his neck stared with him. ‘I’d recommend them. They did Tom Riddle a world of good back when he was scrawny little thing like you.’
‘I’m not doing anything that wizard did.’
‘You’re going to use the time-turner aren’t you?’ Slytherin asked.
Harry scowled. ‘Yes.’
‘Then you’re following in his footsteps already. That time-turner is what made him such a brilliant student. Of course, you’re rather more sane than he turned out to be. You don’t have delusions of vengeance against muggles or an over-inflated sense of self-worth, do you?’
‘Not that I am aware of,’ Harry retorted.
‘Good.’ Slytherin nodded and the snake on his shoulders bobbed it head, too. ‘Use the time-turner, do the rituals, outstrip him, then redeem the title of Heir of Slytherin if you dislike the connotations he gave it so much.’
Harry carried the portrait back to its resting place. ‘I’m not doing the rituals.’
‘Suit yourself. It’ll make carrying my picture a lot easier if you did. If you happen to change your mind, you’ll find the ritual books you’re looking for in the corner of the library up there.’ The painting pointed to a high spot just behind where the ladder rested.
‘I’m not doing them.’
‘I’m not going to force you,’ Slytherin promised. ‘You’re my heir, the last reputable member of my family as far as I know. I’ll help you as much as you allow me, especially since you saved me from the insane ramblings of my poor basilisk.’
‘I’m not sure I want to ask.’
‘She had nightmares,’ Slytherin replied. ‘I think the magic I was used to create her, which made her loyal to me, punished her for what she did, even if she believed it was what I wanted. I’m glad you put her out of her misery. She’s free of Tom Riddle and I no longer have to listen to her tortured raving.’
‘Where did she go?’ Harry asked. ‘I just walked in here and found the study. It’s far too tidy to have housed a seventy foot serpent.’
‘She slept underneath. If you intended to wake her, any parseltongue command would’ve brought her forth. You wanted to open the door, so you came here. A good thing, since you probably wouldn’t have been able to get out of her resting place had you fallen down there.’
Harry threw a glance around the study and measured the depth of the ache in his limbs. I’d like to stay and have a go at the shielding charm, but I don’t think I’ve much left in me.
‘I’m going to head back to Gryffindor Tower,’ he said.
Slytherin exploded into another string of parseltongue, so Harry left him to it and headed back to the common room.
‘Where’ve you been?’ Hermione demanded. ‘I looked in the library and asked around, but nobody’s seen you since you left after class.’
Harry shrugged. ‘It’s easier to work out of sight where I won’t be disturbed.’
‘Did you finish the essay? I can look over it for you.’
‘It’s not quite done yet,’ he said. ‘I want to check a couple of things, maybe squeeze in an extra bit to give Flitwick a good impression at the start of the year.’
‘Good idea.’ Hermione beamed, then her face fell. ‘Ron’s upstairs with Seamus and Dean. Neville said he was fine, since you were so concerned earlier, but I think the Unforgivables really bother him. He’s shut himself inside his bed hangings and isn’t talking to anyone.’
Maybe he knows someone who got hit with one of them. Someone other than me, that is.
‘The Unforgivable Curses bother everyone except the worst kind of wizards, Hermione,’ he said. ‘What would you have to be to not be bothered by curses to control, torture, and kill?’
‘I think they bother Neville more than most.’ Hermione’s brown eyes bored into his. ‘And I think you know that, even though it doesn’t seem to bother you.’
‘What am I meant to do?’ Harry asked. ‘I can’t undo whatever it was that happened.’
Her lips thinned into a white line. ‘No, but you should be upset that something like that happened to one of your friends.’
‘Like how everyone’s so upset it happened to me?’ Harry raised an eyebrow at her. ‘They celebrate my parents’ deaths every year, Hermione. You all do.’
‘Different? How?’ He stepped her past her and headed upstairs. ‘Because you all got something good out of it, it’s all ok? The greater good?’
Hermione flinched. ‘No… but you’re not Neville, you’re Harry.’
He left her behind. You don’t know Harry. None of you do. Even Neville had his grandmother before coming to Hogwarts. I only had myself.