Ripple Effect: Stone of Immortality

The Cerberus Gauntlet

Things couldn't have been worse.

Filch took them down to Professor McGonagall's study on the first floor, where they sat and waited without saying a word to each other. Heidi was trembling. Excuses, alibis, and wild cover- up stories chased each other around Harry's brain, each more feeble than the last. He couldn't see how they were going to get out of trouble this time. They were cornered. How could they have been so stupid as to forget the cloak? There was no reason on earth that Professor McGonagall would accept for their being out of bed and creeping around the school in the dead of night, let alone being up the observatory, which was out-of-bounds except for classes. Add Norberta and the invisibility cloak, and they might as well be packing their bags already.

Had Harry thought that things couldn't have been worse? He was wrong. When Professor McGonagall appeared, she was leading Tianna.

"Harry!" Tianna burst out, the moment he saw the other two. "I was trying to find you to warn you, I heard Malfoy saying he was going to catch you, and he said you had a drag -"

Harry shook his head violently to shut Tianna up, but Professor McGonagall had seen. She looked more likely to breathe fire than Norberta as she towered over the three of them.

"I would never have believed it of any of you. Mr. Filch says you were up in the observatory. It's one o'clock in the morning. Explain yourselves."

It was the first time Heidi had ever failed to answer a teacher's question. She was staring at her slippers, as still as a statue.

"I think I've got a good idea of what's been going on," said Professor McGonagall. "It doesn't take a genius to work it out. You fed Mercutio Malfoy some cock-and-bull story about a dragon, trying to get him out of bed and into trouble. I've already caught him. I suppose you think it's funny that Longbottom'teth here heard the story and believed it, too?"

Harry caught Tianna's eye and tried to tell her without words that this wasn't true, because Tianna was looking stunned and hurt. Poor, blundering Tianna - Harry knew what it must have cost her to try and find them in the dark, to warn them.

"I'm disgusted," said Professor McGonagall. "Four students out of bed in one night! I've never heard of such a thing before! You, Miss Bones, I thought you had more sense. As for you, Mr. Potter, I thought Gryffindor meant more to you than this. All three of you will receive detentions - yes, you too, Ms. Longbottom'teth, nothing gives you the right to walk around school at night, especially these days, it's very dangerous - and fifty points will be taken from Gryffindor and Hufflepuff."

"Fifty?" Harry gasped - they would lose the lead, the lead he'd won in the last Quidditch match.

"Fifty points each," said Professor McGonagall, breathing heavily through her long, pointed nose.

"Professor – please.."

"You can't -"

"Don't tell me what I can and can't do, Potter. Now get back to bed, all of you. I've never been more ashamed of Gryffindor and Hufflepuff students."

A hundred points lost. That put Gryffindor in last place. In one night, they'd ruined any chance Gryffindor had had for the house cup. Harry felt as though the bottom had dropped out of his stomach. How could they ever make up for this?

Harry didn't sleep all night. He knew Tianna, like himself, was dreading the dawn. What would happen when the rest of Gryffindor found out what they'd done?

At first, Gryffindors passing the screens that recorded the house points the next day thought there'd been a mistake. How could they suddenly have a hundred points fewer than yesterday? And then the story started to spread: Harry Potter, the Pyromanical Champion of Gryffindor, had lost them all those points, him and a couple of other stupid first years.

From being one of the most popular and admired people at the school, Harry was suddenly the most hated. Even Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs turned on him, because everyone had been longing to see Slytherin lose the house cup. Everywhere Harry went, people pointed and didn't trouble to lower their voices as they insulted him. Slytherins, on the other hand, clapped as he walked past them, whistling and cheering, "Thanks Potter, we owe you one!"

Only his friends stood by him.

"They'll all forget this in a few weeks. Fred and George have lost loads of points in all the time they've been here, and people still like them."

"They've never lost a hundred and fifty points in one go, though, have they?" said Harry miserably.

"Well - no," Ron admitted.

It was a bit late to repair the damage, but Harry swore to himself not to meddle in things that weren't his business from now on. He'd had it with sneaking around and spying. He felt so ashamed of himself that he went to Cane and offered to resign from the League team.

"Resign?" Cane thundered. "What good'll that do? How are we going to get any points back if we can't win at League Battle? Harry, what you did was stupid, but you are still our best team member"

But even League Battling had lost its fun. The rest of the team wouldn't speak to Harry during practice, and if they had to speak about him, they called him "the Pyromancer."

Heidi and Tianna were suffering, too, as well as Susan for being related to Heidi. They didn't have as bad a time as Harry, because they weren't as well-known, but nobody would speak to them, either. Heidi had stopped drawing attention to herself in class, keeping her head down and working in silence. Neville, while upset, did try to get Gryffindor off Harry's back, since he had helped Tianna with Malfette.

Harry was almost glad that the exams weren't far away. All the studying he had to do kept his mind off his misery. He, Ron, Frank, Heidi, Tianna and Susan kept to themselves, working late into the night, trying to remember the ingredients in complicated potions, learn charms and spells by heart, memorize the dates of magical discoveries and goblin rebellions...

Then, about a week before the exams were due to start, Harry's new resolution not to interfere in anything that didn't concern him was put to an unexpected test. Walking back from the library on his own one afternoon, he heard somebody whimpering from a classroom up ahead. As he drew closer, he heard Quirrell's voice.

"No - no - not again, please -"

It sounded as though someone was threatening him. Harry moved closer.

"All right - all right -" he heard Quirrell sob.

Next second, Quirrell came hurrying out of the classroom clenching his fingers on his right hand. He was pale and looked as though he was about to cry. He strode out of sight; Harry didn't think Quirrell had even noticed him. He waited until Quirrell's footsteps had disappeared, and then peered into the classroom. It was empty, but a door stood ajar at the other end. Harry was halfway toward it before he remembered what he'd promised himself about not meddling.

All the same, he'd have gambled twelve Philosopher's Stones that Snape had just left the room, and from what Harry had just heard, Snape would be walking with a new spring in his step - Quirrell seemed to have given in at last.

Harry went back to the library, where Susan was testing Ron on Runic Traps. Harry told them what he'd heard.

"Snape's done it, then!" said Ron. "If Quirrell's told him how to break his Anti-Dark Force spell -"

"There's still Fluffy, though," said Susan.

"Maybe Snape's found out how to get past him without asking Hagrid," said Ron, looking up at the thousands of books surrounding them. "I bet there's a book somewhere in here telling you how to get past a Cerberus. So what do we do, Harry?"

The light of adventure was kindling again in Ron's eyes, but Susan answered before Harry could.

"Go to Dumbledore. That's what we all should have done ages ago. If we try anything ourselves we'll be thrown out for sure."

"But we've got no proof!" said Harry. "Quirrell's too scared to back us up. Snape's only got to say he doesn't know how the troll got in at Halloween and that he was nowhere near the third floor - who do you think they'll believe, him or us? It's not exactly a secret we hate him, Dumbledore'll think we made it up to get him sacked. Filch wouldn't help us if his life depended on it, he's too friendly with Snape, and the more students get thrown out, the better, he'll think. And don't forget, we're not supposed to know about the Stone or Fluffy. That'll take a lot of explaining."

Susan looked convinced, but Ron didn't.

"If we just do a bit of poking around -"

"No," said Harry flatly, "we've done enough poking around."

He pulled a schematic for a sonic screwdrive and started to learn the major components.

The following morning, notes were delivered to Harry, Heidi, and Tianna at the breakfast table. They were all the same:

Your detention will take place at eleven o'clock tonight. Meet Mr. Filch in the entrance hall.

Professor McGonagall

Harry had forgotten they still had detentions to do in the furor over the points they'd lost. He half expected Heidi to complain that this was a whole night of studying lost, but she didn't say a word. Like Harry, she felt they deserved what they'd got.

At eleven o'clock that night, they said good-bye to Ron and Frank in the common room and went down to the entrance hall with Heidi, who was waiting for them near the main staircase. Filch was already there - and so was Malfoy. Harry had also forgotten that Malfoy had gotten a detention, too.

"Follow me," said Filch, lighting a lamp and leading them outside.

"I bet you'll think twice about breaking a school rule again, won't you, eh?" he said, leering at them. "Oh yes... hard work and pain are the best teachers if you ask me... It's just a pity they let the old punishments die out... hang you by your wrists from the ceiling for a few days, I've got the chains still in my office, keep 'em well-oiled in case there ever needed... Right, off we go, and don't think of running off, now, it'll be worse for you if you do."

They marched off across the dark grounds. Neville kept sniffing. Harry wondered what their punishment was going to be. It must be something really horrible, or Filch wouldn't be sounding so delighted.

The moon was bright, but clouds scudding across it kept throwing them into darkness. Ahead, Harry could see the lighted windows of Hagrid's hut. Then they heard a distant shout.

"Is that you, Filch? Hurry up, I want ter get started."

Harry's heart rose; if they were going to be working with Hagrid it wouldn't be so bad. His relief must have showed in his face, because Filch said, "I suppose you think you'll be enjoying yourself with that oaf? Well, think again, boy - it's into the forest you're going and I'm much mistaken if you'll all come out in one piece."

At this, Tianna let out a little mewl-like squeak, and Malfette stopped dead in his tracks.

"The forest?" he repeated, and he didn't sound quite as cool as usual. "We can't go in there at night - there are all sorts of things in there - werewolves, I heard."

Tianna clutched the sleeve of Harry's jacket and made a choking noise.

"Malfette, werewolves aren't savage beasts all the time. And it's not even a full moon, educate yourself" Harry snorted. "And anyway, when Werewolves are transformed, they prefer open plains with tall grass, not forests"

Hagrid came striding toward them out of the dark, Fang at his heel. He was carrying his large shotgun, and a belt with extra ammo.

"Abou' time," he said. "I bin waitin' fer half an hour already. All right, Harry, Heidi?"

"I shouldn't be too friendly to them, Hagrid," said Filch coldly; "they're here to be punished, after all."

"That's why yer late, is it?" said Hagrid, frowning at Filch. "Bin lecturin' them, eh? 'Snot your place ter do that. Yeh've done yer bit, I'll take over from here."

"I'll be back at dawn," said Filch, "for what's left of them," he added nastily, and he turned and started back toward the castle, his lamp bobbing away in the darkness.

Malfoy now turned to Hagrid.

"I'm not going in that forest," he said, and Harry was pleased to hear the note of panic in his voice.

"Yeh are if yeh want ter stay at Hogwarts," said Hagrid fiercely. "Yeh've done wrong an' now yehve got ter pay fer it."

"But this is servant stuff; it's not for upstanding humans to do. I thought we'd be copying lines or something, if my father knew I was doing this, he'd.."

tell yer that's how it is at Hogwarts," Hagrid growled. "Copyin' lines! What good's that ter anyone? Yeh'll do summat useful or Yeh'll get out. If yeh think yer father'd rather you were expelled, then get back off ter the castle an' pack. Go on'"

Malfoy didn't move. He looked at Hagrid furiously, but then dropped his gaze. Tianna was shooting a nasty glare at Malfoy, having caught that little snippet about 'upstanding humans'.

"Right then," said Hagrid, "now, listen carefully, 'cause it's dangerous what we're gonna do tonight, an' I don' want no one takin' risks. Follow me over here a moment."

He led them to the very edge of the forest. Holding his lamp up high, he pointed down a narrow, winding earth track that disappeared into the thick black trees. A light breeze lifted their hair as they looked into the forest.

"Look there," said Hagrid, "see that stuff shinin' on the ground? Silvery stuff? That's unicorn blood. There's a unicorn in there bin hurt badly by summat. This is the second time in a week. I found one dead last Wednesday. We're gonna try an' find the poor thing. We might have ter put it out of its misery."

"And what if whatever hurt the unicorn finds us first?" said Malfoy, unable to keep the fear out of his voice.

"There's nothin' that lives in the forest that'll hurt yeh if yer with me or Fang," said Hagrid. "An' keep ter the path. Right, now, we're gonna split inter two parties an' follow the trail in diff'rent directions. There's blood all over the place, it must've bin staggerin' around since last night at least."

"I want Fang," said Malfoy quickly, looking at Fang's long teeth.

"All right, but I warn yeh, he's a coward," said Hagrid. "So me, Harry, an' Heidi'll go one way an' Mercutio, Tianna, an' Fang'll go the other.

"No." Harry said. Hagrid paused, and looked at him questioningly. "I don't want to leave Malfoy alone with Tianna. I'll go with Malfoy and Fang"

Hagrid nodded, and continued, "Now, if any of us finds the unicorn, we'll send up green sparks, right? Get yer wands out an' practice now - that's it - an' if anyone gets in trouble, send up red sparks, an' we'll all come an' find yeh - so, be careful - let's go."

The forest was black and silent. A little way into it they reached a fork in the earth path, and Tianna, Heidi and Hagrid took the left path while Malfoy, Harry, and Fang took the right.

So Harry set off into the heart of the forest with Malfoy and Fang. They walked for nearly half an hour, deeper and deeper into the forest, until the path became almost impossible to follow because the trees were so thick. Harry thought the blood seemed to be getting thicker. There were splashes on the roots of a tree, as though the poor creature had been thrashing around in pain close by. Harry could see a clearing ahead, through the tangled branches of an ancient oak.

"Look -" he murmured, holding out his arm to stop Malfoy.

Something bright white was gleaming on the ground. They inched closer.

It was the unicorn all right, and it was dead. Harry had never seen anything so beautiful and sad. Its long, slender legs were stuck out at odd angles where it had fallen and its mane was spread pearly-white on the dark leaves.

Harry had taken one step toward it when a slithering sound made him freeze where he stood. A bush on the edge of the clearing quivered... Then, out of the shadows, a hooded figure came crawling across the ground like some stalking beast. Harry, Malfoy, and Fang stood transfixed. The cloaked figure reached the unicorn, lowered its head over the wound in the animal's side, and began to drink its blood.

"AAAAAAAAAARGH!"

Malfoy let out a terrible scream and bolted - so did Fang. The hooded figure raised its head and looked right at Harry - unicorn blood was dribbling down its front. It got to its feet and came swiftly toward Harry - he couldn't move for fear.

Then a pain like he'd never felt before pierced his chest; it was like his heart was constricting on itself. Half blinded, he staggered backward. He heard hooves behind him, galloping, and something jumped clean over Harry, charging at the figure.

The pain in Harry's chest was so bad he fell to his knees. It took a minute or two to pass. When he looked up, the figure had gone. A Centaur was standing over him; he looked young; he had white-blond hair and a palomino body.

"Are you all right?" said the centaur, pulling Harry to his feet.

"Yes - thank you - what was that?"

The centaur didn't answer. He had astonishingly blue eyes, like pale sapphires. He looked carefully at Harry.

"You are the Potter boy," he said. "You had better get back to Hagrid. The forest is not safe at this time – especially for you. Can you ride? It will be quicker this way.

"My name is Firenze," he added, as he lowered himself on to his front legs so that Harry could clamber onto his back. It was an honor for a centaur to allow a member of another race to sit on their back.

There was suddenly a sound of more galloping from the other side of the clearing. Two more centaurs came bursting through the trees, their flanks heaving and sweaty.

"Firenze!" The black haired and –bodied centaur thundered. "What are you doing? You have a human on your back! Have you no shame? Are you a common mule?"

"Do you realize who this is, Bane?" said Firenze. "This is the Potter boy. The quicker he leaves this forest, the better."

"What have you been telling him?" growled Bane. "Remember, Firenze, we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens. Have we not read what is to come in the movements of the planets?"

The other centaur pawed the ground nervously. "I'm sure Firenze thought he was acting for the best," he said in his gloomy voice.

Bane kicked his back legs in anger.

"For the best! What is that to do with us? Centaurs of the forest are concerned with what has been foretold! It is not our business to run around like donkeys after stray humans in our forest! Like those Deserters"

Firenze suddenly reared on to his hind legs in anger, so that Harry had to grab his shoulders to stay on.

"Do you not see that unicorn?" Firenze bellowed at Bane. "Do you not understand why it was killed? Or have the planets not let you in on that secret? I set myself against what is lurking in this forest, Bane, yes, with humans alongside me if I must."

And Firenze whisked around; with Harry clutching on as best he could, they plunged off into the trees, leaving the Forest Centaurs behind them.

Harry didn't have a clue what was going on.

"Why's Bane so angry?" he asked. "What was that thing you saved me from, anyway?"

Firenze slowed to a walk, warned Harry to keep his head bowed in case of low-hanging branches, but did not answer Harry's question. They made their way through the trees in silence for so long that Harry thought Firenze didn't want to talk to him anymore. They were passing through a particularly dense patch of trees, however, when Firenze suddenly stopped.

"Harry Potter, do you know what unicorn blood is used -for?"

"No," said Harry, startled by the odd question. "We've only used the horn and tail hair in Alchemy."

"That is because it is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn," said Firenze. "Only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips."

Harry stared at the back of Firenze's head, which was dappled silver in the moonlight.

"But who'd be that desperate?" he wondered aloud. "If you're going to be cursed forever, deaths better, isn't it?"

"It is," Firenze agreed, "unless all you need is to stay alive long enough to drink something else - something that will bring you back to full strength and power - something that will mean you can never die. Mr. Potter, do you know what is hidden in the school at this very moment?"

"The Philosopher's Stone! Of course - the Elixir of Life! But I don't understand who -"

"Can you think of nobody who has waited many years to return to power, who has clung to life, awaiting their chance?"

It was as though an iron fist had clenched suddenly around Harry's heart. Over the rustling of the trees, he seemed to hear once more what his dad had once told him concerning the one who killed his mother: "Some say he died. Complete Bull, in my opinion. I honestly don't know if he had enough human left in him to die."

"Do you mean," Harry croaked, "that was Vol-"

"Harry! Harry, are you all right?"

Heidi was running toward them down the path, Hagrid and Tianna puffing along behind her.

"I'm fine," said Harry, hardly knowing what he was saying. "The unicorn's dead, Hagrid, it's in that clearing back there."

"This is where I leave you," Firenze murmured as Hagrid hurried off to examine the unicorn. "You are safe now."

Harry slid off his back.

"Good luck, Harry Potter," said Firenze. "The planets have been read wrongly before now, even by centaurs. I hope this is one of those times."

He turned and cantered back into the depths of the forest, leaving Harry shivering behind him.

Ron had fallen asleep in the suite, waiting for them to return, while Frank was reading a book in his armchair. Ron shouted something about sharks with lasers on their heads when Harry roughly shook him awake. In a matter of seconds, though, he was wide-eyed as Harry began to tell him and Heidi what had happened in the forest. Tianna had gone to bed immediately after getting back. Harry had invited her to the suite to chat, but she just got skittish and said she had to get up early the next day and fled.

Harry couldn't sit down. He paced up and down in front of the fire. He was still shaking.

"Snape wants the stone for Voldemort... and Voldemort's waiting in the forest... and all this time we thought Snape just wanted to get rich..."

"Stop saying the name!" said Ron in a terrified whisper, as if he thought Voldemort could hear them.

Harry wasn't listening.

"Firenze saved me, but he shouldn't have done so... Bane was furious... he was talking about interfering with what the planets say is going to happen... They must show that Voldemort's coming back... Bane thinks Firenze should have let Voldemort kill me... I suppose that's written in the stars as well."

"Will you stop saying the name?!" Ron hissed.

"So all I've got to wait for now is Snape to steal the Stone," Harry went on feverishly, "then Voldemort will be able to come and finish Neville off... Well, I suppose Bane'll be happy."

Heidi looked very frightened, but she had a word of comfort.

"Harry, everyone says Dumbledore's the only one You-Know-Who was ever afraid of With Dumbledore around, You-Know-Who won't touch Neville or anyone here. Anyway, who says the centaurs are right? It sounds like fortune-telling to me, and Professor McGonagall says that's a very imprecise branch of magic."

The sky had turned light before they stopped talking. They went to bed exhausted, their throats sore. But the night's surprises weren't over.

When Harry pulled back his sheets, he found his invisibility cloak folded neatly underneath them. There was a note pinned to it:

Just in case.

Harry smiled and put it away in his desk drawer, and climbed into his pajamas. Once in bed, and as he was about to fall into a deep slumber, he remembered a small detail he'd forgotten to mention to his friends.

Why did his chest hurt near Voldemort? Did it have anything to do with his scar?

In years to come, Harry would never quite remember how he had managed to get through his exams when he half expected Voldemort to come bursting through the door at any moment. Yet the days crept by, and there could be no doubt that Fluffy was still alive and well behind the locked door.

It was sweltering hot, especially in the large classroom where they did their written papers. They had been given special, new pens for the exams, which had been bewitched with an AntiCheating spell.

They had practical exams as well. Professor Flitwick called them one by one into his class to see if they could make a pineapple tap-dance across a desk. Professor McGonagall watched them turn a mouse into a snuffbox - points were given for how pretty the snuffbox was, but taken away if it had whiskers. Snape made them all nervous, breathing down their necks while they tried to remember how to make a Forgetfulness potion.

In Technomancy, Harry had to take apart and rebuild a sonic screwdriver… blind folded and with sensation numbing gloves. He did pretty well, when compared to everyone else. His Sonic Screwdriver only exploded twice. In his mundane classes, they mostly consisted on doing a test on everything they'd done that year, and Harry promised himself he was going to quit Math's next year and take up Battle Magecraft like he said he'd do.

Harry did the best he could, trying to ignore the stabbing pains in his chest, which had been bothering him ever since his trip into the forest. Tianna thought Harry had a bad case of exam nerves because Harry couldn't sleep, but the truth was that Harry kept being woken by his new nightmare, which included a hooded figure dripping blood in it.

Maybe it was because they hadn't seen what Harry had seen in the forest, or because they didn't have scars burning on their chests, but Ron, Frank, Heidi and Susan didn't seem as worried about the Stone as Harry. The idea of Voldemort certainly scared them, but he didn't keep visiting them in dreams, and they were so busy with their studying they didn't have much time to fret about what Snape or anyone else might be up to.

Their very last exam was Elementalism. Everyone had to make a show of how much control they have in their chosen element. Harry chose fire, and probably dwarfed everyone in how well he could manipulate it. He chose to re-enacted his Flaming Sword Dash move he did in the Gryffindor vs Hufflepuff match. Heidi used the water element, and ripped a chunk of water from the lake, suspended it above them and spread the water molecules out thinly, before releasing it bit by bit. By doing this, Heidi created a soothing rain, that created a rainbow when the light from the sun hit it just right.

"That was far easier than I thought it would be," said Heidi as they joined the crowds flocking out onto the sunny grounds. "I didn't even have to create any shapes with the water after making it rain, and I was so tempted to do a water version of your signature move."

"Signature move? That's not my signature move. I just used it to end the match quick before Snape could give Hufflepuff another free shot." Harry said, finding a place near the lake, a little bit away from the Elementalism Court, and sitting down.

"Hmm" Heidi said, and sat down next to him, closing her eyes and relaxing. Harry noticed that Heidi had a few red streaks in her hair, and it was going a bit red at the roots.

Soon enough, Frank, Ron and Susan joined them, as well as Tianna shockingly. Ron summoned a lawn chair and sat down, whipping out a pair of shades and relaxing. Frank followed suit, taking off his shirt to sun himself a bit. Susan stared for a few minutes, before breaking her gaze away from her boyfriends chest and struck a conversation with Heidi about their exams. That left Harry to talk to Tianna.

"No more studying," Tianna sighed happily, stretching out on the grass. "You could look more cheerful, Harry, we've got a week before we find out how badly we've done, there's no need to worry yet."

Harry was rubbing the centre of his chest.

"I wish I knew what this means!" he burst out angrily. "My sca.. chest keeps hurting – it's happened before, but never this often as this"

"Go to Madam Pomfrey, If it's your chest it could be serious," Heidi said, turning from her talk with her sister.

"I'm not ill," said Harry absently. "I dunno, it's been like this for as long as I've known."

"Were you going to say scar, a minute ago?" asked Tianna, getting a strange look on her face.

"N-no! It's nothing. Forget I said anything" Harry said, feeling a little panicked. He couldn't let them see it.

"Harry. Tell us" Susan said, joining the conversation, with Heidi following. Harry looked between the three irate females, one of which possessed very sharp claws. He sighed and unbuttoned his shirt, showing off his chest. It was quite a sight, not just from the muscle he'd gotten from weight training, but also the ugly jagged scar running down his chest. If one squinted, it looked a little like a deformed lightning bolt.

"Oh my god" Heidi gasped, her hand over her mouth. Harry blushed and buttoned his shirt up.

"My dad said I got it when my Mum died. Apparently, Voldemort had blasted a window to get into the house, and a shard of glass impaled me. Mum put me under a stasis charm, and Dad tried to fight off Voldemort. He knocked dad out, then killed Mum. By the time Dad woke up and got me to St Mungos, it was too late to heal without leaving a mark. The magically charged shard of glass missed most of my vital organs, but I have this reminder, as well as a smaller one on my back. The spell used on the glass was a blasting curse, and the Healers theorised that I'll have these phantom pains for most of my life, but they never said it'd be this bad" Harry finished his explanation, looking down at the grass. He glanced up and saw the horrified faces of his friends.

"The life of the Police Chief's son is not perfect, guys" Harry said, trying to crack a joke. Heidi slapped him across the head then hugged him tightly. Harry winced at the pain in his head and felt confused by the hug.

"Heidi, stop hugging Harry" Ron said, not bothering to look over. Frank and Ron either remained oblivious to the exchange, or decided not to heckle Harry for details.

"I sometimes get the feeling my scar only hurts when dangers nearby…" Harry muttered as Heidi pulled away.

Ron couldn't get worked up, it was too hot.

"Harry, relax, Hermione's right, the Stone's safe as long as Dumbledore's around. Anyway, we've never had any proof Snape found out how to get past Fluffy. He nearly had his leg ripped off once; he's not going to try it again in a hurry. And Tianna will League Battle for England before Hagrid lets Dumbledore down."

"He's righ- Hey!" Tianna snapped, glaring at Ron. The ginger snickered a little.

Harry nodded, but he couldn't shake off a lurking feeling that there was something he'd forgotten to do, something important. When he tried to explain this, Susan said, "That's just the exams. I woke up last night and was halfway through my Transfiguration notes before I remembered we'd done that one."

Harry was quite sure the unsettled feeling didn't have anything to do with work, though. He watched an owl flutter toward the school across the bright blue sky, a note clamped in its mouth. Hagrid was the only one who ever sent him letters. Hagrid would never betray Dumbledore. Hagrid would never tell anyone how to get past Fluffy... never... but -

Harry suddenly jumped to his feet.

"Where're you going?" said Ron sleepily.

"I've just thought of something," said Harry. He had turned white. "We've got to go and see Hagrid, now."

"Why?" panted Susan, hurrying to keep up.

"Don't you think it's a bit odd," said Harry, scrambling up the grassy slope, "that what Hagrid wants more than anything else is a dragon, and a stranger turns up who just happens to have an egg in his pocket? How many people wander around with dragon eggs if it's against Terran law? Lucky they found Hagrid, don't you think? Why didn't I see it before?"

"What are you talking about?" said Ron, but Harry, sprinting across the grounds toward the forest, didn't answer.

Hagrid was sitting in an armchair outside his house; his trousers and sleeves were rolled up, and he was shelling peas into a large bowl.

"Hullo," he said, smiling. "Finished yer exams? Got time fer a drink?"

"Yes, please," said Frank, but Harry cut him off.

"No, we're in a hurry. Hagrid, I've got to ask you something. You know that night you won Norberta? What did the stranger you were playing cards with look like?"

"Dunno," said Hagrid casually, "he wouldn' take his cloak off."

He saw the six of them look stunned and raised his eyebrows.

"It's not that unusual, yeh get a lot o' funny folk in the Hog's Head - that's the pub down in the village. Mighta bin a dragon dealer, mightn' he? I never saw his face, he kept his hood up."

Harry sank down next to the bowl of peas. "What did you talk to him about, Hagrid? Did you mention Hogwarts at all?"

"Mighta come up," said Hagrid, frowning as he tried to remember. "Yeah... he asked what I did, an' I told him I was gamekeeper here... He asked a bit about the sorta creatures I took after... so I told him... an' I said what I'd always really wanted was a dragon... an' then... I can' remember too well, 'cause he kept buyin' me drinks... Let's see... yeah, then he said he had the dragon egg an' we could play cards fer it if I wanted... but he had ter be sure I could handle it, he didn' want it ter go ter any old home... So I told him, after Fluffy, a dragon would be easy..."

"And did he - did he seem interested in Fluffy?" Harry asked, try ing to keep his voice calm.

"Well - yeah - how many three-headed dogs d'yeh meet, even around Hogwarts? So I told him, Fluffy's a piece o' cake if yeh know how to calm him down, jus' play him a bit o' music an' he'll go straight off ter sleep -"

Hagrid suddenly looked horrified.

"I shouldn'ta told yeh that!" he blurted out. "Forget I said it! Hey - where're yeh goin'?"

Harry, Ron, Susan, Tianna, Frank and Heidi didn't speak to each other at all until they came to a halt in the entrance hall, which seemed very cold and gloomy after the grounds.

"We've got to go to Dumbledore," said Harry. "Hagrid told that stranger how to get past Fluffy, and it was either Snape or Voldemort under that cloak - it must've been easy, once he'd got Hagrid drunk. I just hope Dumbledore believes us. Firenze might back us up if Bane doesn't stop him. Where's Dumbledore's office?"

They looked around, as if hoping to see a sign pointing them in the right direction. They had never been told where Dumbledore lived, nor did they know anyone who had been sent to see him.

"We'll just have to -" Harry began, but a voice suddenly rang across the hall.

"What are you six doing inside?"

It was Professor McGonagall, carrying a large pile of books.

"We want to see Professor Dumbledore," said Susan, rather bravely, Harry and Ron thought.

"See Professor Dumbledore?" Professor McGonagall repeated, as though this was a very fishy thing to want to do. "Why?"

Harry swallowed - now what?

"It's sort of secret," he said, but he wished at once he hadn't, because Professor McGonagall's nostrils flared.

"Professor Dumbledore left ten minutes ago," she said coldly. "He received an urgent owl from the Terran Republics Britain Magi Department and apparated to the nearest Space Port immediately."

"He's gone?" said Harry frantically. "Now?"

"Professor Dumbledore is a very great mage, Potter, he has many demands on his time -

"But this is important."

"Something you have to say is more important than the Terran Republic, Potter.

"Look," said Harry, throwing caution to the winds, "Professor - it's about the Philosopher's Stone -"

Whatever Professor McGonagall had expected, it wasn't that. The books she was carrying tumbled out of her arms, but she didn't pick them up. "How do you know -?" she spluttered.

"Professor, I think - I know - that Sn- that someone's going to try and steal the Stone. I've got to talk to Professor Dumbledore."

She eyed him with a mixture of shock and suspicion.

"Professor Dumbledore will be back tomorrow," she said finally. I don't know how you found out about the Stone, but rest assured, no one can possibly steal it, it's too well protected."

"But Professor -"

"Potter, I know what I'm talking about," she said shortly. She bent down and gathered up the fallen books. I suggest you all go back outside and enjoy the sunshine."

But they didn't.

"It's tonight," said Harry, once he was sure Professor McGonagall was out of earshot. "Snape's going through the trapdoor tonight. He's found out everything he needs, and now he's got Dumbledore out of the way. He sent that note; I bet the Terran Republic will be right surprised when Dumbledore turns up."

"But what can we -"

Heidi and Tianna gasped. Harry, Ron, Frank and Susan wheeled round.

Snape was standing there.

"Good afternoon," he said smoothly.

They stared at him.

"You shouldn't be inside on a day like this," he said, with an odd, twisted smile.

"We were -" Harry began, without any idea what he was going to say.

"You want to be more careful," said Snape. "Hanging around like this, people will think you're up to something. And Gryffindor really can't afford to lose any more points, can it?"

Harry flushed. They turned to go outside, but Snape called them back.

"Be warned Potter – any more nighttime wanderings and I will personally make sure you are expelled. Good day to you."

He strode off in the direction of the staffroom.

Out on the steps, Harry turned to the others.

"Right, here's what we've got to do," he whispered urgently. "One of us has to keep an eye on Snape – wait outside the staff room and follow him if he leaves it. Heidi, you'd better do that."

"Why me?"

"It's obvious," said Ron. "You can pretend to be waiting for Professor Flitwick, you know." He put on a high voice, "'Oh Professor Flitwick, I'm so worried; I think I got question fourteen b wrong...'"

Heidi punched Ron in the arm for that, but agreed to go and watch out for Snape.

"And we'd better stay outside the third-floor corridor," Harry told Ron and Frank. "Come on."

But that part of the plan didn't work. No sooner had they reached the door separating Fluffy from the rest of the school than Professor McGonagall turned up again and this time, she lost her temper.

"I suppose you think you're harder to get past than a pack of enchantments!" she stormed. "Enough of this nonsense! If I hear you've come anywhere near here again, I'll take another fifty points from Gryffindor! Yes, Weasley, from my own house!" Harry and Ron went back to the suite, Harry had just said, "At least Heidi's on Snape's tail," when the door to the suite swung open and Heidi came in. Frank gave Heidi and Susan a Guest Key to get this far into Gryffindor Dorms.

"I'm sorry, Harry!" she wailed. "Snape came out and asked me what I was doing, so I said I was waiting for Flitwick, and Snape went to get him, and I've only just got away, I don't know where Snape went."

"Well, that's it then, isn't it?" Harry said.

The other four stared at him. He was pale and his eyes were glittering.

"I'm going out of here tonight and I'm going to try and get to the Stone first."

"You're bonkers!" said Frank.

"You can't!" said Heidi. "After what McGonagall and Snape have said? You'll be expelled!"

"SO WHAT?" Harry shouted. "Don't you understand? If Snape gets hold of the Stone, Voldemort's coming back! Haven't you heard what it was like when he was trying to take over? There won't be any Hogwarts to get expelled from! He'll flatten it, or turn it into a school for the Dark Arts! Losing points doesn't matter anymore, can't you see? D'you think he'll leave you and your families alone if Gryffindor wins the house cup? If I get caught before I can get to the Stone, well, I'll have to go back home and wait for Voldemort to finish off me and my family, it's only dying a bit later than I would have, because I'm never going over to the Dark Side! I'm going through that trapdoor tonight and nothing you four say is going to stop me! Voldemort killed my mum, remember?"

He glared at them.

"You're right Harry," said Heidi in a small voice.

"I'll use the invisibility cloak," said Harry. "It's just lucky I got it back."

"But will it cover all five of us?" said Ron.

"All - all five of us?"

"Oh, come off it, you don't think we'd let you go alone?"

"Of course not," said Frank briskly. "How do you think you'd get to the Stone without us? I'd better go and took through my books, there might be something useful..."

"But if we get caught, you two will be expelled, too."

"Not if I can help it," said Susan grimly. "Flitwick told me in secret that I got a hundred and twelve percent on his exam. They're not throwing me out after that."

After dinner the three of them sat nervously apart in the Dorm room. Nobody bothered them; none of the Gryffindors had anything to say to Harry any more, after all. This was the first night he hadn't been upset by it. Susan was with them and skimming through all her notes, hoping to come across one of the enchantments they were about to try to break. Harry, Ron and Frank didn't talk much. All three of them were thinking about what they were about to do. Heidi just sat and stared into the fire, seemingly hypnotized by the dancing flames.

Slowly, the room emptied as people drifted off to bed.

"Better get the cloak," Ron muttered, as Lee Jordan finally left, stretching and yawning. Harry ran upstairs to their dark suite. He putted out the cloak and then his eyes fell on the flute Hagrid had given him for Christmas. He pocketed it to use on Fluffy - he didn't feel much like singing.

He ran back down to the dorm room.

"We'd better put the cloak on here, and make sure it covers all five of us - if Filch spots one of our feet wandering along on its own -"

"What are you doing?" said a voice from the corner of the room. Tianna appeared from behind an armchair. She was wearing a bathrobe over her flannel pajamas.

"Nothing, Tianna, nothing," said Harry, hurriedly putting the cloak behind his back.

Tianna stared at their guilty faces.

"You're going out again," she said.

"No, no, no," said Heidi. "No, we're not. Why don't you go to bed, Tianna?"

Harry looked at the grandfather clock by the door. They couldn't afford to waste any more time, Snape might even now be playing Fluffy to sleep.

"You can't go out," said Tianna, "you'll be caught again. Gryffindor will be in even more trouble."

"Tianna, remember what we were talking about with the Philosopher's Stone? Well, it's extremely dangerous, can bring the dead back to life and if we do not stop Snape from stealing it, he may bring Voldemort back from the dead! Do you want that?" Harry asked, his patience growing thin. Tianna looked a little shocked, and could have been pale under her blonde fur.

"N-no…" Tianna muttered.

"That's right, now we have to go." Frank said.

"I'll come too. I-I want to help" Tianna said, looking at them. Harry sighed and looked up at the clock again.

"Alright, but if there's any serious danger, you need to get out of there" Harry said, and the six left the Dorm room. Harry was about to address the issue of the cloak, when Tianna snapped her fingers and shimmered out of sight. Frank and Susan did a simlar spell, which left Harry, Heidi and Ron to go under the cloak.

In their nervous state, every statue's shadow looked like Filch, every distant breath of wind sounded like Peeves swooping down on them. At the foot of the first set of stairs, they spotted Mrs. Norris skulking near the top.

"Oh, let's kick her, just this once," Ron whispered in Harry's ear, but Harry shook his head. As they climbed carefully around her, Mrs. Norris turned her lamplike eyes on them, but didn't do anything.

They didn't meet anyone else until they reached the staircase up to the third floor. Peeves was bobbing halfway up, loosening the carpet so that people would trip.

"Who's there?" he said suddenly as they climbed toward him. He narrowed his wicked black eyes. "Know you're there, even if I can't see you. Are you ghoulie or ghostie or wee student beastie?"

He rose up in the air and floated there, squinting at them.

"Should call Filch, I should, if something's a-creeping around unseen."

Harry had a sudden idea.

"Peeves," he said, in a hoarse whisper, "the Bloody Baron has his own reasons for being invisible."

Peeves almost fell out of the air in shock. He caught himself in time and hovered about a foot off the stairs.

"So sorry, your bloodiness, Mr. Baron, Sir," he said greasily. "My mistake, my mistake - I didn't see you - of course I didn't, you're invisible - forgive old Peevsie his little joke, sir."

"I have business here, Peeves," croaked Harry. "Stay away from this place tonight."

"I will, sir, I most certainly will," said Peeves, rising up in the air again. "Hope your business goes well, Baron, I'll not bother you."

And he scooted off

"Brilliant, Harry!" whispered Ron.

A few seconds later, they were there, outside the third-floor corridor - and the door was already ajar.

"Well, there you are," Harry said quietly, "Snape's already got past Fluffy."

Seeing the open door somehow seemed to impress upon all three of them what was facing them. Underneath the cloak, Harry turned to the other two.

"If you want to go back, I won't blame you," he said. "You can take the cloak, I won't need it now."

"Don't be stupid," said Ron.

"We're coming," said Heidi.

Harry pushed the door open, and Susan, Frank and Tianna reappeared.

As the door creaked, low, rumbling growls met their ears. All three of the dog's noses sniffed madly in their direction, even though it couldn't see them.

"What's that at its feet?" Susan whispered.

"Looks like a harp," said Frank. "Snape must have left it there."

"It must wake up the moment you stop playing," said Harry. "Well, here goes..."

He put Hagrid's flute to his lips and blew. It wasn't really a tune, but from the first note the beast's eyes began to droop. Harry hardly drew breath. Slowly, the dog's growls ceased - it tottered on its paws and fell to its knees, then it slumped to the ground, fast asleep.

"Keep playing," Ron warned Harry as they slipped out of the cloak and crept toward the trapdoor. They could feel the dog's hot, smelly breath as they approached the giant heads. "I think we'll be able to pull the door open," said Ron, peering over the dog's back. "Want to go first, Heidi?"

"No, I don't!"

"All right." Ron gritted his teeth and stepped carefully over the dog's legs. He bent and pulled the ring of the trapdoor, which swung up and open.

"What can you see?" Susan said anxiously.

"Nothing - just black - there's no way of climbing down, we'll just have to drop."

Harry, who was still playing the flute, waved at Ron to get his attention and pointed at himself.

"You want to go first? Are you sure?" said Ron. "I don't know how deep this thing goes. Give the flute to Heidi so she can keep him asleep."

Harry handed the flute over. In the few seconds' silence, the dog growled and twitched, but the moment Heidi began to play, it fell back into its deep sleep.

Harry climbed over it and looked down through the trapdoor. There was no sign of the bottom.

He lowered himself through the hole until he was hanging on by his fingertips. Then he looked up at Ron and Frank and said, "If anything happens to me, don't follow. Go straight to the Suite and send Hedwig to Dumbledore, right?"

"Right," said Ron.

"See you in a minute, I hope...

And Harry let go. Cold, damp air rushed past him as he fell down, down, down and - FLUMP. With a funny, muffled sort of thump he landed on something soft. He sat up and felt around, his eyes not used to the gloom. It felt as though he was sitting on some sort of plant.

"Its okay!" he called up to the light the size of a postage stamp, which was the open trapdoor, "it's a soft landing, you can jump!"

Ron followed right away. He landed, sprawled next to Harry.

"What's this stuff?" were his first words.

"Dunno, some sort of plant thing. I suppose it's here to break the fall. Come on, you four!"

After Susan, Frank and Tianna jumped down, the distant music stopped. There was a loud bark from the dog, but Hermione had already jumped. She landed on Harry's other side.

"We must be miles under the school," she said.

"Lucky this plant thing's here, really," said Ron.

"Lucky!" shrieked Tianna. "Look at you guys!"

She leapt up and struggled toward a damp wall. She had to struggle because the moment she had landed, the plant had started to twist snakelike tendrils around her ankles. As for Harry, Frank, Susan and Ron, their legs had already been bound tightly in long creepers without their noticing.

Tianna had managed to free herself before the plant got a firm grip on her. Now she watched in horror as the three Gryffindors and two Hufflepuffs fought to pull the plant off them, but the more they strained against it, the tighter and faster the plant wound around them.

"Stop moving!" Tianna ordered them. "I know what this is - it's Devil's Snare!"

"Oh, I'm so glad we know what it's called, that's a great help," snarled Ron, leaning back, trying to stop the plant from curling around his neck. "Shut up, I'm trying to remember how to kill it!" said Tianna.

"Well, hurry up, I can't breathe!" Harry gasped, wrestling with it as it curled around his chest.

"Devil's Snare, Devil's Snare... what did Professor Sprout say? - it likes the dark and the damp…"

"Fire!" Harry said, his eyes lighting up. Fire seemed to shoot from his body and swirl around him and his friends, heating and drying up the area. The Devils Snare quickly cringed away from the light and warmth. Wriggling and flailing, it unraveled itself from their bodies, and they were able to pull free.

"Lucky you take Care of Magical Plants, Tianna," said Harry as he joined her by the wall, wiping sweat off his face.

"Yeah, and good thing Harry's a Pyromaniac" Frank said, rubbing his head. Harry blinked.

"You mean Pyromancer, right?"

"Yeah, that too"

"This way," said Harry, pointing down a stone passageway, which was the only way forward.

All they could hear apart from their footsteps was the gentle drip of water trickling down the walls. The passageway sloped downward, and Harry was reminded of Gringotts. With an unpleasant jolt of the heart, he remembered the dragons said to be guarding vaults in the wizards' bank. If they met a dragon, a fully-grown dragon - Norberta had been bad enough...

"Can you hear something?" Susan whispered.

Harry listened. A soft rustling and clinking seemed to be coming from up ahead.

"Do you think it's a ghost?"

"I don't know... sounds like wings to me."

"There's light ahead - I can see something moving."

They reached the end of the passageway and saw before them a brilliantly lit chamber, its ceiling arching high above them. It was full of small, jewel-bright birds, fluttering and tumbling all around the room. On the opposite side of the chamber was a heavy wooden door.

"Do you think they'll attack us if we cross the room?" said Frank.

"Probably," said Harry. "They don't look very vicious, but I suppose if they all swooped down at once... well, there's no other choice... I'll run."

He took a deep breath, covered his face with his arms, and sprinted across the room. He expected to feel sharp beaks and claws tearing at him any second, but nothing happened. He reached the door untouched. He pulled the handle, but it was locked.

The other two followed him. They tugged and heaved at the door, but it wouldn't budge, not even when Heidi tried the Unlocking charm.

"Now what?" said Ron.

"These birds... they can't be here just for decoration," said Susan.

They watched the birds soaring overhead, glittering - glittering?

"They're not birds!" Harry said suddenly. "They're keys! Winged keys - look carefully. So that must mean..." he looked around the chamber while the other two squinted up at the flock of keys. "No brooms or anything. Maybe we need to fly up there. Remember flying lessons?"

"Didn't Tianna break her tail during that first lesson, and then you got into an all-out war with Malfette and Slytherin and the classes had to be cancelled after that first lesson?" asked Frank, looking at Harry. Harry thought for a second, before slowly nodding.

"Yeah… Alright, Frank, Ron and I will fly up there. I'll go at it from the top, and Frank and Ron will fly at the key we want from both its sides, so basically flank it. I'm guessing we'll be looking for something old and brass, like the lock, and if it's been caught already, it might have some damage to it, like a wing or something. Got it?"

Ron, Frank and Harry all lifted into the air, through their own means. Ron simply levitated, Frank conjured an anti-gravity field around him, and Harry blasted into the air, using fire shot from his hands and feet like boosters.

After a minute's weaving about through the whirl of rainbow feathers, he noticed a large brass key that had a bent wing, as if it had already been caught and stuffed roughly into the keyhole.

"That one!" he called to the others. "That big one - there - no, there - with bright blue wings - the feathers are all crumpled on one side."

Harry dived, Ron rocketed upward, the key dodged them both, and Frank streaked after it; it sped toward the wall, Harry leaned forward and with a nasty, crunching noise, pinned it against the stone with one hand. Susan's, Heidi's and Tianna's cheers echoed around the high chamber.

They landed quickly, and Harry ran to the door, the key struggling in his hand. He rammed it into the lock and turned - it worked. The moment the lock had clicked open, the key took flight again, looking very battered now that it had been caught twice.

"Ready?" Harry asked the other five, his hand on the door handle. They nodded. He pulled the door open.

The room ahead was massive, and consisted of a thick wall, with only three entrances. As they looked into the entrances, they seemed to branch off into different directions.

"Great. A freaking maze" Harry groaned. He turned to the others. "Any ideas?" he asked.

"Uh, Heidi and I used to play in mazes when we were young. Our grandparents always told us to just keep to the left. Or something like that. I'd suggest two of us go through each entrance. Harry and Heidi, you go through the one in the middle, Frank and I'll go through the middle and Ron and Tianna you got the last one. Alright, let's go and if you can't find the way out, just sit tight until help comes along" Susan said. Everyone agreed and went through their own entrance.

The maze was a tricky one, being enchanted by Beja'Toogra'teth. Harry and Heidi first came upon a trap in the floor, where when a stone was tread on, it caused the floor to vanish, revealing a bubbling tar pit. Harry nearly fell in, but was pulled back Heidi at the last second.

"Thanks" Harry said, nodding to Heidi and continuing forward, making sure to miss the stone that triggered the trap. Harry and Heidi follow Susan's suggestion of keeping to the left, and made it out with Ron and Tianna.

"Frank? Susan?" Harry yelled out into the maze.

"A little lost mate! You go on ahead, we'll see if we can get through" Frank yelled back. Harry nodded to himself, and gestured the others to follow. Harry opened the door at the end, and stepped inside.

The next chamber was so dark they couldn't see anything at all. But as they stepped into it, light suddenly flooded the room to reveal an astonishing sight.

They were standing on the edge of a huge chessboard, behind the black chessmen, which were all taller than they were and carved from what looked like black stone. Facing them, way across the chamber, were the white pieces. Harry, Ron, Tianna and Heidi shivered slightly - the towering white chessmen had no faces.

"Now what do we do?" Harry whispered.

"It's obvious, isn't it?" said Ron. "We've got to play our way across the room."

Behind the white pieces they could see another door.

"How?" said Heidi nervously.

"I think," said Ron, "we're going to have to be chessmen."

He walked up to a black knight and put his hand out to touch the knight's horse. At once, the stone sprang to life. The horse pawed the ground and the knight turned his helmeted head to look down at Ron.

"Do we - er - have to join you to get across?" The black knight nodded. Ron turned to the other two.

"This needs thinking about he said. I suppose we've got to take the place of four of the black pieces..."

Harry and Heidi stayed quiet, watching Ron think. Finally he said, "Now, don't be offended or anything, but neither of you are that good at chess -"

"We're not offended," said Tianna quickly. "Just tell us what to do."

"Well, Tianna, you take the place of that bishop, and Heidi, you're next to her instead of that castle. Harry, you can take the other bishop"

"What about you?"

"I'm going to be a knight," said Ron.

The chessmen seemed to have been listening, because at these words a knight, two bishops, and a castle turned their backs on the white pieces and walked off the board, leaving three empty squares that Harry, Ron, Tianna and Heidi took.

"White always plays first in chess," said Ron, peering across the board. "Yes... look..."

A white pawn had moved forward two squares.

Ron started to direct the black pieces. They moved silently wherever he sent them. Harry's knees were trembling. What if they lost?

"Harry - move diagonally four squares to the right."

Their first real shock came when their other knight was taken. The white queen smashed him to the floor and dragged him off the board, where he lay quite still, facedown.

"Had to let that happen," said Ron, looking shaken. "Leaves you free to take that bishop, Heidi, go on."

Every time one of their men was lost, the white pieces showed no mercy. Soon there was a huddle of limp black players slumped along the wall. Twice, Ron only just noticed in time that Harry, Tianna and Heidi were in danger. He himself darted around the board, taking almost as many white pieces as they had lost black ones.

"We're nearly there," he muttered suddenly. "Let me think let me think..."

The white queen turned her blank face toward him.

"Yes..." said Ron softly, "It's the only way... I've got to be taken."

"NO!" Harry, Tianna and Heidi shouted.

"That's chess!" snapped Ron. "You've got to make some sacrifices! I take one step forward and she'll take me - that leaves you free to checkmate the king, Harry!"

"But -"

"Do you want to stop Snape or not?"

"Ron -"

"Look, if you don't hurry up, he'll already have the Stone!"

There was no alternative.

"Ready?" Ron called, his face pale but determined. "Here I go - now, don't hang around once you've won."

He stepped forward, and the white queen pounced. She struck Ron hard across the head with her stone arm, and he crashed to the floor - Tianna screamed but stayed on her square - the white queen dragged Ron to one side. He looked as if he'd been knocked out.

Shaking, Harry moved three spaces to the left.

The white king took off his crown and threw it at Harry's feet. They had won. The chessmen parted and bowed, leaving the door ahead clear. With one last desperate look back at Ron, Harry, Tianna and Heidi charged through the door and up the next passageway.

The next room looked like a normal room, though the floor seemed to be tiled with pavement slabs. Each one had a run on them. Heidi stepped forward when she spotted the door, but Heidi stopped her.

"Wait…" she said. She tore a strip of cloth of her shirt sleeve and transmuted it into a handful of rocks. Heidi took one and tossed it onto the first square. It lit up, and a beam of blue light enveloped the stone vanishing it.

"Alright, either those are teleport pads, or that stone was just vaporized. Either way, I do not want anyone to step onto a tile without testing it first. Tear of some cloth from your person, and transmute them into throwing stones." Heidi instructed. The human boy and the nefarian girl nodded, tearing off a bit of their own sleeves and transmuting their own stones. Well, Tianna needed a little help.

Slowly, they made their way across the room, tossing stones onto the tiles around them in order to find a safe passage. It took a bit, but in the end they all made it through.

"That was probably Bronzehearts challenge. Crafty old dwarf" Heidi said, shaking her head.

"You know him?" Harry asked, frowning. Travel Magic was a third year course. Heidi smiled.

"Yeah, mum was his favorite student, and he sometimes comes over to discuss Lesson Plans" Heidi said. At Harry's questioning look, she explained. "Mum teaches Advanced Travel Magic at the Magi University of London"

"Ah, best continue on." Harry said, and led them into the next room. Luckily for them, the next two rooms had been done for them. In what was most probably Circuit's challenge; the smoking remains of several heavy duty sentry guns laid scattered around the room. In Quirrels challenge, it appeared the challenge was to face a troll, similar to the one Harry and Heidi had fought on Halloween.

Snape was very brutal on this one, since the Troll appeared to have had most of its internal organs torn from its body and sprayed across the room. Harry felt sick, while both Tianna and Heidi were sick. Harry patted them on the back, and used a strong scourgify to clean the air and most of the blood.

The next room was a surprise. It consisted of a wooden table with seven differently shaped bottles standing on it in a line and a sheet of paper.

"Snape's," said Harry. "What do we have to do?"

They stepped over the threshold, and immediately a fire sprang up behind them in the doorway. It wasn't ordinary fire either; it was purple. At the same instant, black flames shot up in the doorway leading onward. They were trapped.

"Look!" Heidi seized a roll of paper lying next to the bottles. Harry looked over her shoulder to read it:

Danger lies before you, while safety lies behind,

Two of us will help you, whichever you would find,

One among us seven will let you move ahead,

Another will transport the drinker back instead,

Two among our number hold only nettle wine,

Three of us are killers, waiting bidden in line.

Choose, unless you wish to stay here forevermore,

To help you in your choice, we give you these clues four:

First, however slyly the poison tries to hide

You will always find some on nettle wine's left side;

Second, different are those who stand at either end,

But if you would move onward, neither is your friend;

Third, as you see clearly, all are different size,

Neither dwarf nor giant holds death in their insides;

Fourth, the second left and the second on the right

Are twins once you taste them, though different at first sight.

Heidi let out a great sigh and Harry, amazed, saw that she was smiling, the very last thing he felt like doing.

"Brilliant," said Heidi. "This isn't magic - it's logic - a puzzle. A lot of the greatest magi haven't got an ounce of logic, they'd be stuck in here forever. Or, at least, they used to. Snape must be set in the old ways"

"But so will we, won't we?" "Of course not," said Heidi. "Everything we need is here on this paper. Seven bottles: three are poison; two are wine; one will get us safely through the black fire, and one will get us back through the purple."

"But how do we know which to drink?"

"Give me a minute."

Heidi read the paper several times. Then she walked up and down the line of bottles, muttering to herself and pointing at them. At last, she clapped her hands.

"Got it," she said. "The smallest bottle will get us through the black fire - toward the Stone."

Harry looked at the tiny bottle.

"There's only enough there for one of us," he said. "That's hardly one swallow."

The three of them looked at each other.

"Which one will get you back through the purple flames?"

Heidi pointed at a rounded bottle at the right end of the line.

"You and Tianna drink that," said Harry. "No, listen, get back and get Ron, Frank and Susan. Fly out and use my flute to get past Fluffy - go straight to the suite and send Hedwig to Dumbledore, and we need him. I might be able to hold Snape off for a while, but I'm no match for him, really."

"But Harry - what if You-Know-Who's with him?"

"I'll try to keep him busy. Maybe I can make him think I'm interested in joining him, just so he doesn't kill me straight away" Harry said, shrugging.

Heidi's lip trembled, and she suddenly dashed at Harry and threw her arms around him.

"Heidi!"

"Harry - you're a great wizard, you know."

"Noncense, I'm just a normal kid doing what's right," said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.

"Harry - be careful!" Heidi said, wiping her eyes. Tianna gave him a tight hug, and then looked at him with a firm look in her eye.

"If you die in there, I'll personally learn necromancy so I can bring you back and kill you again" she growled. Harry looked shocked for a second, before grinning and ruffling Tianna's blonde mane.

"You drink first," said Harry. "You are sure which is which, aren't you?"

"Positive," said Heidi. She took a short drink from the round bottle at the end, handed it to Tianna and shuddered.

"It's not poison?" said Harry anxiously.

"No - but it's like ice."

"Quick, go, before it wears off."

"Good luck - take care."

"GO!"

Heidi and Tianna turned and walked straight through the purple fire.

Harry took a deep breath and picked up the smallest bottle. He turned to face the black flames.

"Here I come," he said, and he drained the little bottle in one gulp.

It was indeed as though ice was flooding his body. He put the bottle down and walked forward; he braced himself, saw the black flames licking his body, but couldn't feel them - for a moment he could see nothing but dark fire - then he was on the other side, in the last chamber.

There was already someone there - but it wasn't Snape. It wasn't even Voldemort.

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