"What are you doing here?" Harry demanded, his voice full of hatred and malice. Millie and Daphne flanked him, folding their arms across their chests imposingly.
Ron Weasley glared back across the entrance hall at him. The git turned to look at Mr. Filch, who was grinning sadistically. "I don't want to serve detention with them," he protested.
"Nobody cares what you want, Weasley," said Filch in a gravelly voice. "When it comes to detentions, you don't get to do things you like." He lit a lamp and leered around at them, the lantern casting flickering shadows on his pock-marked face. "Follow me," he said ominously.
Filch led the way outside, marching across the dark ground. "Bet you'll think twice about breaking rules again," he taunted them. "Oh yes, some hard work'll show you. Hard work and pain are the best teachers in the world, if you ask me. Such a pity they phased out the old punishments. Hangin' by your wrists for a few days on the ceiling, that'd teach you. I've still got the chains in my office, you know. I keep 'em well-oiled in case they ever change their minds."
The old man's voice was raspy, as though he'd spent a great many years outside in rough weather. In telling them about the old punishments, he sounded wistful, but not terribly disappointed. He must know what they would be doing tonight, Harry realized, and it was sufficiently horrible that the caretaker didn't think they were getting off easily.
"Don't think of running off, now either," he warned them. "It'll only be worse for you if you do."
The moon was bright, but the sky was cloudy. Harry knew that Professor Sinistra, watching the stars, would be livid, taking the presence of the clouds as a personal affront. The intermittent light threw shadows everywhere. Ahead, Harry could see the lighted window of Hagrid's hut.
"Is 'at you, Filch?" Hagrid's booming voice called out. "Hurry up, I want teh get started."
"Wants to get started drinking," Daphne whispered to Harry.
Harry's heart fell. Hagrid certainly wouldn't go easy on them after what they'd done and tried to do. This night was looking longer and longer. He suppressed a groan.
"Yer late," Hagrid rumbled at them. He peered intently into their faces. "Filch, yeh bin tellin' 'em tales an' scarin' 'em? 'At's not yer place. Yeh've done yer bit. I'll take over from here."
"Bah," said the old man, spitting on the ground. "I'll be back at dawn for what's left of 'em." Without further comment, he took his lantern and went back to the castle.
"Hope yeh dressed warm," Hagrid said ominously. "We're goin' in ter the forest teh look fer summat."
"The forest!" all four students exclaimed together.
"'At's right," Hagrid answered them. "Summat's bin huntin' unicorns, and we're gonna track it down."
"There's all sorts of Dark creatures in there!" Millie protested.
"Then you should feel right at home," Weasley muttered.
"Shut up, Weasley!" Daphne snapped at him. "Isn't the forest out-of-bounds to students?" she demanded of Hagrid.
"Should've thought o' that before yeh went breakin' rules, now, shouldn't yeh have?" Hagrid replied.
"We didn't break any rules!" Harry shouted at him. "Professor McGonagall thought we were lying about your bloody dragon! She didn't believe us just because we're Slytherins!"
"What dragon?" Weasley asked innocently.
"You know very well what dragon, Weasley!" Millie yelled at him. "How'd you get detention, anyway?"
Weasley was silent, staring at Millie with hate in his eyes.
"Professor Snape caught you sneaking back inside the castle, didn't he?" Daphne crowed.
"I wondered how he seemed to be waiting for me," Weasley said slowly. "You tattled on me, didn't you?"
"You should have left well enough alone," Harry sneered at him. The nerve of that git!
"Since everyone here knows we weren't lying," Millie said conclusively, "the three of us will wait right here."
"Bye-bye, boys," Daphne said, waving at them. "Have fun searching the forest!"
"Yeh'll do as yer told," Hagrid growled at them. The Slytherins stared back at him defiantly. It was a contest of wills, and Hagrid really had no chance. Armoured by the knowledge that they were in the right, Harry, Millie, and Daphne stood firm. Finally Hagrid looked away.
"C'mon, Ron," he grumbled. He picked up his lantern and crossbow. Fang followed close at his heels as Hagrid stomped off towards the treeline.
Weasley glowered at them for a moment. "You'll get yours," he threatened before he also followed.
"This could have been a lot worse," Daphne commented, sitting down on the grass.
"Yeah, but we're stuck here for the next few hours," Harry pointed out. "Filch said he'd be back at dawn?"
"Only from one point of view," Millie said, reaching into her robes and pulling out her collapsible brass telescope. "I came prepared."
"That's funny," Daphne smirked, also reaching into her robes. She brought out a pack of cards and held them up. "Because so did I!"
Harry laughed. By Merlin, he loved his friends.
They watched the stars and noted the way the planets had shifted. Daphne observed that Mars was unusually bright. Whenever clouds covered up the sky, they played card games. They talked about the various unpleasant fates that Weasley deserved.
About two hours had passed when Harry heard a noise from the forest. He turned, hoping it would be Hagrid, done with Weasley's detention, so he could go sleep. He didn't see the glow from the big man's lantern. He peered into the darkness, sure his mind was playing tricks on him. The shadows couldn't be moving, surely?
A cold wave of terror gripped him. The shadows were moving, and one of them was drawing closer. Not knowing what was going on, he stood and drew his wand. The girls had risen with him, and they too had their wands out.
The moon appeared suddenly from behind a cloud, and moonlight revealed a figure cloaked in shadow, with bright silver liquid dripping from its mouth. The strange creature came towards him, quicker than anything, stretched out long and crawling across the ground like some stalking beast.
Harry opened his mouth to scream, but only a dry wheeze of air came out. Daphne was terrified too, as her piercing shriek nearly deafened him. Surely someone would hear her.
A pain like he'd never felt before lanced through his head. It was as though his scar were on fire. Brilliant fireworks exploded in his vision. Half blinded, he staggered backward and fell to his knees, imagining he heard hooves galloping nearby.
Then suddenly the pain was gone. Harry opened his eyes and thought he must be dreaming. There was a centaur standing over him. He recognized it from the description in Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. It had white-blond hair and bright blue eyes.
"Are you all right?" it asked, reaching out to pull Harry to his feet. "You are uninjured?"
"Yes, I think so," Harry said faintly. He looked over his shoulder at Daphne and Millie, who were wide-eyed and frozen in place. He looked back at the centaur. "What in the name of Hogwarts was that- that thing?"
The centaur didn't answer his question. "You are Harry Potter," it said. "You had best be back to the castle. It is not safe for you here, at night especially."
"We, we have detention," Millie said, her voice just as faint as Harry's.
The centaur snorted. "I am Firenze," he introduced himself. "That silver liquid you saw was unicorn's blood. Something has entered the forest to slay these noble beasts. Do you know what unicorn's blood is used for?"
Harry tried to think past his fright. He failed. "No," he said.
"It is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn," Firenze said darkly. "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. Such life comes at a terrible price, though. You would have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will live but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips."
Harry didn't know what to think. "Who would do such a thing?" he wondered. "Wouldn't it be better to die?"
"It would be," Firenze agreed, "but if there were something else that you could drink, something that would grant unending life, full strength and full power, Mister Potter, wouldn't that be worth it? Do you know what is hidden in the school, Mister Potter?"
"The Philosopher's Stone!" Harry exclaimed. "Of course, the Elixir of Life! But who-?"
"Can you think of nobody who has waited many years to return to power, who has clung to life, awaiting a single chance?"
An iron fist clamped itself down around Harry's heart and throat. Over the rustling of the breeze in the trees, he heard, plain as day, Hagrid's words to him on the night they had met: "Some say he died. Codswallop, in my opinion. Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die."
"Do you mean," Harry croaked, "that was-" He couldn't even say it. "That was Voldemort?"
Daphne and Millie pressed up against each other in fear of the dreaded name. Millie had heard him speak it before, but her reaction was no less awed than before.
"Harry!" Hagrid called out. "Harry, are yeh a' right?"
"I take my leave of you, Mister Potter," Firenze said, disappearing into the night from whence he had come.
"We're fine, Hagrid," Harry called out.
"Thank goodness," he said, lumbering up. "I found another dead unicorn," he told them. "The centaurs tol' me summat's been roamin' around, and it were best if yeh dinae stay near the forest tonight."
"Or any night," Harry agreed. "We'll just be going back now." Hagrid didn't object. Weasley scowled by way of farewell.
Harry was as tense as a taut string on the walk back. If someone touched him the wrong way, he was likely to break and run. Fortunately there were no further incidents as he and his friends quick-stepped it back to safety, but the deceptive quiet didn't prevent him from carrying his wand in his tight-clenched fist.
When they reached the safety of the common room, he bid Daphne and Millie a good night and retired to his dorm room where he hung up his cloak, pulled off his robes, got into bed, and drew the bedcovers up to his chin. He shut his eyes tightly and waited for sleep to come. Every slightest sound had him jumping. At one point he even reached out to grab his wand. Finally he could bear it no more.
This is the Slytherin dormitory, he told himself firmly. I'm perfectly safe here. Now go to sleep.
And sleep he did.
"We've got to tell someone," Harry said firmly. "This has gotten way out of hand."
The first year Slytherins were gathered in the boys dormitory. Now, after lunch, was the only free time they'd had. While Harry had been impatient to share his new knowledge with his friends, there hadn't been time to address the issue thoroughly. Together in the privacy of the dorm, he, Millie, and Daphne told the others what had happened in the forest. They told about Firenze, the unicorns, and the shadowy figure that had tried to attack them.
"We'll tell Professor Snape," Draco decided.
"Utterly preposterous," Tracy objected. "He is still a suspect."
"He's no more guilty than I am," Millie declared.
"And you have ironclad proof, do you?" Pansy asked sarcastically. "You're one hundred percent sure of his innocence."
"Obviously if such proof existed, we could just go lay our troubles before him," Theo said. "I can't conceive of how it could or would be Snape, but the possibility is there, however remote."
"So what do we do?" Daphne asked. "We're stuck in the middle."
"We go to the Headmaster," Theo said. A volley of protests met that suggestion. "Quiet," he said, raising his voice to be heard. "I don't think much of the Muggle Lover either, but Dumbledore is said to be the greatest wizard of our age. They say he's the only one You-Know-Who was ever afraid of. Back during the war, Hogwarts was the only place that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named never attacked."
"So long as Dumbledore is here, You-Know-Who won't dare to come after the Stone," Tracy said, "and there's still the matter of the magical defences. We don't know them, but you can bet that Snape would never tell Quirrell how to solve his test."
"The Stone is safe," Harry decided, "but we should go to Dumbledore anyway. I think he ought to hear what the centaur told us."
"What, that You-Know-Who is after the Stone?" Pansy scorned. "I'm sure he already knows that. Why do you think the Stone was moved here from Gringotts? Don't forget: they have dragons at Gringotts."
They all considered that.
"Pansy is right, too," Draco said. "What are we going to tell Dumbledore that he doesn't already know?"
"So what do we do?" Millie asked, kicking at the leg of her desk.
"We can't do anything," Daphne answered. "We just have to trust Dumbledore to take care of it."
"I think we can trust him," Harry said. "He's always opposed You-Know-Who. Who could take care of the Stone better?"
"Probably no one," Theo agreed. He pulled out his Potions text. "Now then, I think we've about exhausted this conversation. Harry, tell me about root of asphodel."
Convinced that Dumbledore had the situation under control, they didn't let it bother them anymore. Harry had managed to shake off the worry that Voldemort was lurking right around the corner ready to snatch the Stone and murder him in the night. After their conversation, the Slytherins devoted all of their non-classroom time to studying.
Their exams took place beginning the following Monday. With summer well-started, the heat was mildly uncomfortable, more so in the large classroom where they sat the written examinations for all of their subjects. They had been given special quills enchanted with an Anti-Cheating Charm just for the occasion.
In addition to the written tests, they had practical examinations. Professor Flitwick called them into his classroom one at a time to see if they could make a pineapple tapdance across his desk. Old McGonagall watched them with a steely gaze as they attempted to turn a fieldmouse into a snuffbox. Points were given for how pretty the box was, but taken away if it still had whiskers. Professor Snape's exam was a bit ironic. They had to remember how to brew a Forgetfulness Potion.
Their final exam was on Wednesday, and Harry cheered with his friends when Professor Binns instructed them to lay down their quills and roll up their parchment. The agonizing hour of answering questions about batty old wizards and goblin uprisings was ended, and they were free, gloriously free, for a whole week until their marks came back.
"That was much easier than I thought," he heard Granger saying as the crowds of students made their way out onto the sunny grounds. "I needn't have learned about the uprising of Elfric the Eager or the Sixteen-thirty-seven Werewolf Code of Conduct."
God, her voice was so prissy and stuck-up. He'd studied as much as he could stomach for this exam, and still he feared what sort of mark he would receive. He looked over at Draco and tipped his head in Granger's direction. Harry rolled his eyes, prompting Draco to smile.
Outside, the first years lounged about in the warm June weather. They sprawled about in the shade under a tree. Down by the lake they could see the twin Weasley brothers tickling the tentacles of the giant squid.
"I hope it eats them," Draco said, aimlessly pulling apart blades of grass. "Couldn't happen to uglier people."
Confident that Dumbledore had everything well taken care of, they'd let the matter of the Philosopher's Stone drop in favour of studying and preparing and revising. Now that too was behind them, and they were free to just be kids again. They made small talk about nothing at all. They played games. The afternoon was very lazy and indulgent. It was finally drawing towards teatime when Harry felt intense pain in his scar. He clapped his hands to his forehead with a startled exclamation.
"Harry, what's wrong?" Draco asked. He hunched down and looked up into Harry's face.
"My scar," he breathed through the pain. "Burning."
"It's been fine since the forest!" Theo said. "Why is it hurting all of a sudden?"
Harry felt like he was back in his nightmares. All he could think about was the shadow man -- Voldemort! -- who was after the Stone. He rubbed at his scar, trying to ease the pain. "It's a warning," he said sure without knowing why. "Danger is coming."
Pansy was eyeing him suspiciously. "You sound strange, Harry. Maybe you should go to Madam Pomfrey."
He shook his head. "I'm not ill," he said. "I can't stay in the hospital wing. Voldemort is coming. I can't let him get the Stone."
All of his friends winced as he spoke the forbidden name. He was past worrying about their delicate ears for the moment. "Quirrell must have found out how to get past Fluffy," he said. He took off for Hagrid's hut with his friends trying to catch up.
"Hagrid, open up!" Harry half-shouted, pounding on the door. "We need to talk to you!"
"Talk teh me, eh?" the big man said, opening the door to his home. "More likely yeh be wantin' ter hex me."
"Never mind that!" Harry said. "Have you told anyone about Fluffy? Anybody in a hooded cloak, maybe?"
Hagrid frowned. "What would yeh be wantin' ter know that fer? I ain't been meetin' with no strangers in no cloaks recently."
"Recently?" Daphne pounced on his words. "So you have met someone in a hooded cloak? When?"
"Back when I won that little thing in the card game," he said. "I dinae think much of it; lots o' folk in the Hog's Head keep their hoods up. It's an unsavoury sort of place, but there's no card playin' at the Three Broomsticks."
"The egg!" Theo exclaimed. "Of course, how could we have been so stupid! It was just too much of a coincidence to be trusted. Hagrid, you always wanted a dragon more than anything, right? And this fellow just happens to show up there with one when you do? It's too good to be true!"
"Did you talk to him, Hagrid?" Harry asked. "Did you say anything about the school?"
"I might've," Hagrid said, his eyes floating. "I tol' 'im what I do; he asked about the creatures I keep. I mentioned wantin' a dragon ever since I were a boy." He frowned, looking as though he were thinking very hard. "It's all kinda fuzzy. He kept buyin' me drinks, yeh know? Well once I tol' 'im about the dragon, 'e shows me this egg 'e 'as and would I like to play cards for it. Double-checked to make sure I could 'andle it, 'e did. I tol' 'him, after handlin' Fluffy, a dragon would be easy."
"Was he interested in Fluffy?" Millie pressed him.
"Oh yeah, o' course he were. S'not often yeh get teh hear about a three-headed dog. I tol' 'im, Fluffy's a real sweetheart if yeh just play 'im some music; he'll go right teh sleep."
"That's it!" Draco cried.
Hagrid looked horrified. "No!" he exclaimed. "I shouldn'ta told yeh that!" he sputtered. "Forget that, please! Hey, where yeh goin'?"
"Where's Dumbledore's office?" Harry shouted as they ran. "He needs to hear about this! His security measures have been compromised!"
Nobody knew where the office was. None of the other teachers were to be found either. Most of them were probably busy grading exam papers. One, Harry knew, was plotting to get past Fluffy and steal the Philosopher's Stone. He said a curse he'd once heard Dudley use. It was all going so horribly wrong.
He went down to the dungeons and into his dorm room and sat on his bed. He sat staring at his invisibility cloak hanging at the foot of the bed, pondering what to do. The pain in his scar had receded somewhat, but was still very much there. He thought long and hard, trying to make up his mind to do what he knew needed to be done.
Finally he rose to his feet as the bell tolled curfew. He flung the cloak about his shoulders. "I'm going after the Stone," he said to his friends, who had been sitting with him in silence. "It's the only way to keep it safe. I can't shake this feeling that it's not protected anymore."
Draco also got to his feet. "I'm going too."
"Me as well," Theo said.
"We'll watch your back, Harry," Goyle said, nodding at Crabbe.
"You're not going without me," Tracy told him.
"Someone has to keep an eye on Theo," Pansy said obnoxiously.
"And someone needs to make sure you two don't kill each other," Millie laughed. "Count me in."
"Daphne?" Tracy asked.
Daphne shrugged. "The more the merrier."
Harry didn't object. He knew that he had to go. If his friends wanted to come with him, he had to trust them to know their business. He wordlessly led them to the common room, out into the corridor, and up to the third floor. For the whole walk they were silent, Harry scouting ahead in his wonderful cloak. Finally they were before the forbidden door.
"Music soothes the savage beast," Theo reminded them, "so we start singing as soon as the door opens. Got it? Jerusalem."
"Alohamora!" Millie opened the lock. She pulled it open, and they scurried inside.
Fluffy was just as huge as Harry remembered. All three heads locked onto them, three horrible noses sniffing at them, three rumbling growls warning them away.
"And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England's mountains green," Theo sang loudly.
"And was the Holy Lamb of God, on England's pleasant pastures seen?" Draco joined in.
"And did the countenance divine, shine forth upon our clouded hills?" Harry bawled.
From the first sung note, Fluffy's eyelids had gotten heavy. By the third line, the growls had ceased, and the great beast was nodding its heads in time to the music.
"And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark satanic mills?" Pansy, Millie, Daphne, and Tracy were singing now too.
"Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O Clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land."
Fluffy tottered from side to side and then fell to his knees before slumping to the ground. Snores began to drown out their singing, and they knew he was asleep. The dog's hot breath washed over them, and drool slipped from his mouths.
Harry looked around. Other than the way they had come in, there appeared to be no exit from the room. He glanced at his friends and gestured to the four walls. Theo shrugged. Draco looked puzzled.
"There!" Harry spied the trapdoor. He tugged at the iron ring, but couldn't budge it. Crabbe and Goyle nudged him out of the way and lifted it easily. The hole it revealed was dark and foreboding.
"No stairs," Harry said, pitching his voice under the singing, which had begun anew.
Goyle peered down into the darkness. "If there's a bed of spikes at the bottom of this hole, I'm going to be very upset," he said. Without further ado, he hopped lightly into the square of blackness and vanished from sight. "Yar!"