Harry poked around the floor of the broom closet with one foot. He found a bucket and several mops before his toes came into contact with something soft and warm.
Now, how to do this? He dragged Smith up and onto his shoulder. I guess I’ll have to improvise. Things usually work out.
Harry stepped out of the broom closet and wandered down toward the Hufflepuff common room.
‘Zach.’ A tall, pompous-looking Hufflepuff gave him a nod, then wandered across. ‘The whole school’s being locked down, we’ve got to go back to our common rooms and stay there until further notice. What’s happening? What did Umbridge want?’
‘She gave me a cup of tea and asked me some questions,’ Harry said.
‘Oh? What about? I heard she talked to Potter, too.’
‘Someone set fire to her office, burnt the whole thing completely clean.’
‘That explains why there’re aurors here and we’re all being shut in.’ Smith’s friend frowned and knocked on a barrel a few times. ‘Saw them come in through the hall a few minutes back, they swept right through after Umbridge without a word.’
‘Well, if they find whoever did it he or she’s in trouble,’ Harry said. ‘I daresay the only things Umbridge has left are in her handbag.’
‘Good riddance to all that bloody pink. Did she actually make you take veritaserum?’
‘The tea.’ Harry feigned shock. ‘It could’ve been in the tea. It did taste weird.’
‘That must be illegal.’ Smith’s friend paused before a cosy gathering of chairs and sofas. ‘I’m going to ask Cedric about it.’
‘I think I’m going to lie down,’ Harry said. ‘I’m starting to get a serious headache.’
‘It’s probably because of what that woman made you drink. I’m definitely talking to Cedric about it.’
Harry nodded, hung back to wait for everyone’s eyes to move away, then slipped upstairs and hunted through the rooms for Smith’s. He dumped Smith on the bed, dispelled his disillusionment, and drew the hangings.
‘Obliviate,’ he murmured, feeding an abridged version his memories of the conversation with Umbridge into the blank after Smith’s lunch.
He disillusioned himself, ducked out of the hangings on the far side, and crept out of the Hufflepuff common room.
Heat flared across his body, then everything began to shift. Harry gritted his teeth and staggered out of the Hufflepuff Common and room and into the first dark corner, undoing the charms on his robes. He ground his forehead into the wall and held his breath until his bones squirmed back into place and his muscles stopped writhing.
Let’s not ever do that again. He gulped down a mouthful of cold air. I’d rather transfigure my entire body.
Harry slipped back into Gryffindor Tower and joined the huddle of people round the fire. ‘Someone set fire to Umbridge’s office.’
‘She thought it was you?’ Nev asked.
Hermione pursed her lips. ‘Was it you?’
‘I wish it had been me, but I’m tired and not feeling well. I don’t know what’s in Umbridge’s teabags, but that cup of tea didn’t agree with me at all.’
‘You drank it.’ Hermione’s voice climbed an octave. ‘It had veritaserum in it, Harry. What did you tell her!’
‘I don’t remember it too well. She asked me where Dumbledore was, but I’ve no idea, so we kind of just went round in circles.’ Harry feigned a yawn. ‘Now I’m going to go sleep.’
Nev nodded. ‘Veritaserum’s powerful stuff. Hope you feel better tomorrow, mate.’
Harry unfolded the Marauders’ Map and traced Umbridge’s name drifting toward Hagrid’s Hut, accompanied by two whom he assumed were the pair of aurors she’d summoned. It’s finally time.
Harry pulled the curtains closed round his bed, then cast a sticking charm on them, and opened the window. He eyed the drop. This is a terrible idea. He glanced around the wall for handholds, but there were only open windows. My firebolt.
He checked the dormitories for Katie and found her name in the common room. Umbridge and her aurors names’ floated into the edge of the Forbidden forest where the map ended.
Harry edged out on the ledge. ‘Accio.’
His firebolt zipped out of the window a few floors up and slapped into his outstretched hand. He swung a leg over it, disillusioned himself, and dived. The wind rushed past him as corkscrewed over the greenhouses and yards to Hagrid’s pumpkin patch. He tucked the broom out of sight between two large pumpkins and hurried into the forest.
The crunch dead pine needles and branches under Umbridge’s short, loud stomps echoed beneath the branches. Dead twigs cracked beneath her aurors’ boots. They had their wands outstretched, casting beams of light around in the gloom. He spied Dawlish’s face between the trees and Umbridge’s pink cardigan a short distance behind.
No need for me to tangle with the aurors. I just have to make sure they get separated from Umbridge at some point.
Harry tracked the three of them through the woods. The pines grew more dense, the trunks thicker, and the arching roots rose up to his waist.
‘I’m telling you this is bad idea,’ Dawlish’s partner said.
‘We’re aurors, Shacklebolt,’ Dawlish muttered. ‘We follow our orders to keep people safe. If we don’t follow orders, everything falls apart.’
‘This isn’t keeping anyone safe as far as I can see,’ Shacklebolt said. ‘We’ve been sent into an area well-known for being inhabited by some of the most dangerous magical creatures in Britain and she hasn’t even told us why.’
‘I’m sure Dolores has a good reason, King.’ Dawlish glanced back. ‘I hope she has a good reason.’
‘What do you think we’re doing out here, then?’
‘If Dolores is risking herself to come out here, then it must be important,’ Dawlish said.
‘Important to her and Fudge,’ Shacklebolt replied.
‘Yes,’ Dawlish said. ‘I’m sure you would see it that way.’
‘What do you mean?’
The pair split up to walk around one of the trees. Harry checked Umbridge’s line of sight, then drifted a little closer.
‘We’ve been working together for the best part of a decade, King,’ Dawlish said. ‘I know whose ideals you follow, don’t think I haven’t noticed you disappearing off at odd times.’
‘I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ Shacklebolt said.
‘Don’t worry, King, you’re an excellent auror. I don’t care if you’re a member of Dumbledore’s covert little group, anything to get Fudge out before Madam Bones decides to start a military coup just to be rid of his incompetence.’
Harry cursed under his breath. Of course, Kingsley Shacklebolt had to be a member of the Order of the Phoenix. He slipped ahead of them, hurrying along. This has to look natural, then.
‘Time to improvise,’ he murmured.
Harry picked his way through the trees, glancing back at the beams of light flashing over his shoulder until he reached the first span of spider webbing between two pines. He disillusioned it and all the webbing within sight, following Hagrid’s path all the way to Aragog’s hollow. The shadows of the acromantula crawled up and down the massive trunks above him.
I may regret this. A small smile crept across his lips. Fleur may end up melting my face.
He revealed himself. Furious clicking erupted around him and vast arachnids descended to surround him. Harry flicked his wand back out into his palm.
‘So, friend of Hagrid, you’ve returned.’ The ancient, milk-eyed acromantula patriarch stalked out from under the roots of the largest of the pines. ‘I remember your last visit well.’
So do I. Harry recalled the mad dash through the trees with a horde of man-eating spiders on his heels with a wry smile. Let’s hope it goes a bit better this time.
‘Are you going to try and eat me again?’ he asked.
‘My children are always hungry,’ Aragog murmured. ‘But no. My family owes you a great debt, slayer-of-the-creature-we-do-not-speak-of. Hagrid told me of your deed, you freed my old friend from his prison with your actions and saved my children from the creature’s hunger.’
‘A debt,’ Harry mused.
‘Yes,’ Aragog whispered. ‘A debt. However, you did not know of it until now. Why have you come?’
‘I have a deal for you and your children,’ Harry said.
‘A deal…’ Aragog clicked his pincers and stalked closer, looming over Harry.
‘Fulfilment of your debt, if you like.’
‘What would you have from my family, friend of spiders?’
‘There was a wizard who was once known as Tom Riddle—’
‘I know of Tom Riddle,’ Aragog hissed. ‘He expelled me from my home, destroyed the future Hagrid had planned.’
Well, that makes things much easier.
‘He unleashed the basilisk I slew and he goes by a new name now. He calls himself Voldemort and seeks to dominate Britain.’
‘You would have us fight him,’ Aragog murmured. ‘We are hunters and ambushers. We live amongst webs and shadows. Outside our forest we’ll be little more than a shield against spells. I will not condemn my children to such a fate.’
‘I ask you and your family to guard the forest against him, to agree never to aid or join with him, no matter what he offers, or how long he lives.’ Harry slipped his wand away. ‘If you agree, then I will hold your oath fulfilled… and as a gesture of friendship, I will hunt with you.’
‘I agree.’ Aragog clicked his pincers. ‘You ask for little in return for the freedom you have gifted us. When will you hunt with us?’
Harry smiled. ‘We already are.’
‘Where is our prey?’
‘Walking toward us, lured into the middle of your web, to this very clearing. A trio whom I can offer one of to you and your children.’
‘Only one?’ Aragog’s pincers trembled. ‘Why only one?’
‘The other two must live. They are unknowing allies.’ Harry watched the other acromantula ascend back into the trees.
‘I have told my children that you are one of our family, just as Hagrid is,’ Aragog said. ‘I accept your hunt.’
Harry strode forward under the spider’s belly and crouched in the shadows of the hollow beneath the largest pine. ‘The female in pink is your prey. Scare the others off and I will ensure she is trapped here.’
Aragog rose onto his rear legs and waved both forelimbs and pincers in the air, clicking his mandibles together so fast it sounded almost like gunfire. ‘My children will chase the two others away, we will deal with the female.’
Footsteps drew near through the trees. Harry’s heart picked up its beat and a great swell of anticipation rose in him.
Almost there. He peered out round the roots. No more Umbridge, then I’m free to go after the prophecy.
The two aurors spread out, pacing the edge of the clearing, their wands levelled at the shadows among the roots.
Umbridge stumbled to the centre, the map clutched in one hand. ‘For the Greater Good,’ she cried.
Yes. Harry watched the acromantula descend from above with a small, thin smile. But mostly for revenge.
Shacklebolt swore. ‘Run! Dawlish! Dolores!’
Dawlish banished a spider away into the trees, then conjured a shining shield of magic with his partner. Acromantula bounced off it and rolled across the ground. Umbridge shrieked and sprinted for the safety of the shield.
‘Osassula,’ Harry whispered.
The dark purple curse hissed through the acromantula and struck Umbridge on the ankle. A loud snap echoed through the clearing and she dropped with a scream. The spiders swarmed over her.
Dawlish and Shacklebolt exchanged a look, then turned and ran. The acromantula gave chase.
‘Filthy spiders,’ Umbridge screeched. She pressed her glowing wand tip to her leg, then fired curses into the shadows around her, clutching at her ankle. ‘Disgusting creatures!’
Harry strolled out from the hollow. ‘I see you followed the map I made.’
‘Dumbledore,’ she spat. ‘You’ll suffer for this, for consorting with such things.‘
‘Dumbledore?’ Harry drifted a little closer.
‘Potter,’ she breathed. ‘I am the headmistress of Hogwarts, undersecretary to the Minister of Magic. You will be expelled, your wand snapped, and then you’ll be sent to Azkaban for the rest of your life. It will only take a word from me to Cornelius and you will be destroyed.’
A small, cold, thin smile curved Harry’s lips. ‘You seem to be under the delusion you’re leaving this forest.’
A crazed, desperate gleam rose in her eyes. She snatched the tiara from her handbag and clapped it onto her brows. ‘Yes,’ she muttered. ‘Yes.’
Harry glanced at her handbag. I’ll leave it. Hagrid might find it to prove she was eaten in here.
A white curse flashed past him and carved deep gashes into the trunk of a pine. Harry deflected the second curse away into the ground and stepped closer to her.
‘Crucio,’ she hissed.
A single butterfly fluttered from the tip of Harry’s wand and swallowed the beam of red light, bursting in wisp of dark vapour.
‘Lacero,’ he murmured, advancing over the ground. ‘Lacero.’
The first purple curse ripped through her cardigan as she Umbridge rolled away. The second tore a line across her forearm, splattering blood across the pine needles. Her short wand slipped from her stubby fingers.
‘No,’ she shrieked, grabbing her wand and dragging herself away through the needles.
‘Ossasula.’ Harry’s curse fractured her pelvis. The loud snap echoed and her hoarse scream reverberated through the trees.
Umbridge clawed her way across the dirt toward the path, sobbing and muttering beneath her breath. Her soiled pink cardigan and skirt dragged countless needles in their weave. A loud crack echoed through the trees and she reappeared a few metres away.
Apparition. A chill lanced through Harry.
He stepped after her and stamped on her wand; it crunched to pieces beneath his foot. Harry flipped her over with his foot. Thick lines of tears dribbled down her pale, mud-smeared, flabby face.
‘Please,’ she whispered, clutching at the tiara with her unharmed hand. ‘Please, help me.’
‘There’s no help coming.’ Harry pried the map from her and tapped it. ‘Sometimes, when something seems too good to be true, it’s because it is.’
Her eyes widened, then the blood drained from her face.
Aragog stalked from the depths of the hollow. ‘This is our prey?’
‘She’s yours now.’ Harry glanced back over his shoulder. ‘Kill her.’
‘We spiders don’t kill our prey so quickly.’ A hoarse laugh came from Aragog. ‘We keep them still, warm, and breathing, then feast for as long as they last.’
Umbridge whimpered and the sour smell of urine filled the hollow. The other acromantula returned, scuttling from the shadows.
‘I thank you for your gift,’ Aragog whispered. A brief flurry of clicking echoed from the trees around the hollow. ‘My children say the other two have fled the forest unharmed. Our hunt is successful, friend of spiders. I and my children will defend the forest from Tom Riddle and those who follow him.’ He lunged over Harry and seized Umbridge in his pincers.
She gurgled, then flopped to the floor as limp as a drowned worm. The tiara rolled to Harry’s feet.
‘Curious…’ He bent down and retrieved it, brushing the dirt and needles away.
Aragog smothered Umbridge in webbing, then dropped her to the floor and let another spider carry her up into the trees, dangling her on a single rope of spider silk.
Are you worth keeping? Harry polished the tiara on his robes and turned it over until he found writing etched in a ring around the sapphire. Wit beyond measure, is Man’s greatest treasure. Cute, if a little bit sexist.
He weighed the circlet on his palm; its warmth soaked into his hand and it shuddered, letting out a soft chitter. ‘Silver and sapphire.’ A flash of Fleur’s bright blue eyes and her shimmering silver dress passed through his mind and the tiara hummed. ‘I think I’ll keep you.’