Harry walked forward a step, then another step, until a sense of unease began to pervade him, a disquiet in his nerves.
He said nothing, lifted no hand; the pervading sense of unease would say it for him.
From behind the closed door of the office came a whisper, carrying through the door as though no door were present.
"It is not my office hours," said that cold whisper, "nor yet the time of our meeting. I take ten Quirrell points from you, and be glad it is not more."
Harry stayed calm. Going through Azkaban had recalibrated his scale of emotional disturbances; and losing a House point, which had formerly rated five out of ten, now lay somewhere around zero point three. Harry's voice was likewise level, as he said, "You made a testable prediction and it was falsified, Professor. I only wished to note that."
As Harry turned to go, he heard the door opening behind him, and he swung back around in some surprise.
Professor Quirrell was leaning back in his chair, his head lolling back against its rest, as a parchment floated before him. Both the Defense Professor's hands rested limply on the desk, as though nerveless. He might have been a corpse, excepting that the ice-blue eyes still moved, back and forth, back and forth.
The parchment vanished, and was replaced by another so quickly it was like the material had only flickered.
Then the lips moved as well. "And from this," whispered the lips, "you infer what, Mr. Potter?"
Harry was shaken by the sight, but his voice stayed even as he said, "That ordinary people do not always do nothing, and that Hermione Granger is in more danger from Slytherin House than you thought."
The lips curved, ever so barely. "So you think I have failed in my grasp of human nature. But that is hardly the only possibility, boy. Do you see the other?"
Harry furrowed his brows as he stared at the Defense Professor.
"I tire of this," the Defense Professor whispered. "You will stand there until you see it for yourself, or else leave." As though Harry had stopped existing, the Defense Professor's eyes looked back to the parchment, once more scanning back and forth.
It was six parchments later that Harry saw it, and said out loud, "You think your prediction failed because there was some other factor at work which was not in your model. Some reason why Slytherin House hates Hermione more than you realized. Like when the orbital calculations for Uranus were wrong, and the problem wasn't in Newton's Laws, it was that they didn't know about Neptune -"
The parchment vanished, and was not replaced. The head rose from its lolling position then, facing Harry more directly, and the voice which issued forth was quiet, but not toneless. "I think, boy," Professor Quirrell said softly, but in something approaching his normal voice, "that if all Slytherin House hated her so much, I would have seen it. And yet three formidable fighters of that House did something rather than nothing, at risk and at cost to themselves. What force could have moved them, or willed their motion?" The icy blue glitter of the Defense Professor's eyes met Harry's own gaze. "Some hand possessed of influence within Slytherin, perhaps. Then how would that hand have benefited itself by harm done to the girl and her followers?"
"Um..." said Harry. "It would have to be someone threatened by Hermione somehow, or someone who would get the credit if she was hurt? I don't know anyone who fits that profile, but then I don't know much about anyone in Slytherin outside first-year." The thought was also coming to Harry that deducing a hidden mastermind from a single mildly-unexpected attack seemed like insufficient evidence to support the prior improbability of the theory; but then it was Professor Quirrell who was doing the deducing...
The Defense Professor was just looking at Harry, eyelids slightly lowered as though in impatience.
"And yes," said Harry, "I am sure that Draco Malfoy isn't behind it."
A hiss of outward air like a sigh. "He is the son of Lucius Malfoy, trained to the most exacting standards. Whatever you have seen of him, even in what seem to be unguarded moments when his mask slips and you trust that you have seen the truth beneath, even that may all be part of the face he chooses to show you."
Only if Draco successfully cast the Patronus Charm as part of keeping up the act. But Harry didn't say that, of course; instead he just grinned slightly, and said, "So either you've really never read Draco's mind, or that's just what you want me to think."
There was a pause. One of the hands turned over, beckoned a finger.
Harry stepped into the room. The door closed behind him.
"That was not something you should have said aloud in human speech," said Professor Quirrell's soft voice. "Legilimency, on Malfoy's heir? Did Lucius Malfoy learn of it, he would have me assassinated outright."
"He would try," Harry said. It should have won a crinkle of Professor Quirrell's eyes, but the Defense Professor's face was unmoving. "But sorry."
When the Defense Professor spoke again, his voice had once more become a cold whisper. "I suppose I could, and pity the assassin." His head fell back against the chair, lolled to one side, the eyes no longer meeting Harry's. "But these small games hardly hold my interest as they stand. Add Legilimency, and it ceases to be a game at all."
Harry hardly knew what to say. He'd seen Professor Quirrell in an angry mood once or twice before, but this seemed emptier, and Harry didn't know what to say to it. What's bothering you, Professor Quirrell? he could not ask.
"What does hold your interest?" Harry said a few moments later, after he'd worked it out as a safer-seeming strategy for redirecting Professor Quirrell's attention to positive things. Citing experimental results about keeping a gratitude journal as a strategy for improving life happiness didn't seem like it would be taken well.
"I will tell you what does not hold my interest," said that icy whisper. "Grading Ministry-mandated essays does not hold my interest, Mr. Potter. But I have undertaken the position of Defense Professor at Hogwarts, and I will see it through to its end." Another parchment appeared in front of Professor Quirrell's head, and his eyes began to scan it. "Reese Belka held a high position in my armies before her folly. I will offer her the chance to stay rather than being expelled, if she tells me exactly of the forces which moved her. And I shall make clear to her what will happen if she lies. I do permit myself to read faces."
The Defense Professor's finger pointed past Harry, toward the door.
"But whether you were wrong about human nature," Harry said, "or whether there's some extra force at work in Slytherin House - either way, Hermione Granger is in more danger than you predicted. Last time it was three strong fighters, so what happens after -"
"She wishes not my help, nor yours," said a soft cold voice. "I no longer find your concerns so entertaining as I once did, Mr. Potter. Go."
Somehow, even though they were all equals and she definitely wasn't in charge, it was always Hermione who ended up speaking first in this sort of situation.
The four tables of Hogwarts, the four Houses having breakfast, were glancing over at where they, the eight members of S.P.H.E.W., had gathered off to one side.
Professor Flitwick was also staring sternly at all of them from the Head Table. Hermione wasn't looking there, but she could feel Professor Flitwick's gaze on the back of her neck. Literally feel it. It was really creepy.
"Why'd you tell Tracey you wanted to talk to us, Mr. Potter?" said Hermione, her tone crisp.
"Professor Quirrell expelled Reese Belka from her army last night," Harry Potter said. "And from all her other after-school Defense activities. Do any of you see the significance of that? Miss Greengrass? Padma?"
Harry's eyes swept over them, as Hermione exchanged a puzzled glance with Padma, and Daphne shook her head.
"Well," Harry said quietly, "I wouldn't actually expect you to. But what it means is that you're in danger, and I don't know how much danger." The boy squared his shoulders, looking straight into Hermione's eyes. "I wasn't going to say this, but... I just wanted to offer to put you under whatever protection I could give. Make it clear to everyone that anyone who messes with you, is messing with the Boy-Who-Lived."
"Harry!" said Hermione sharply. "You know I don't want -"
"Some of them are my friends too, Hermione." Harry didn't take his eyes from hers. "And it's their decision, not yours. Padma? You told me that I owed you no debt for what I did, and that's the sort of thing a friend would say."
Hermione broke her gaze from Harry, to look at where Padma was shaking her head.
"Lavender?" Harry said. "You fought well in my army, and I'll fight for you if you wish it."
"Thank you, General!" Lavender said crisply. "I mean Mr. Potter. No, though. I'm a heroine and a Gryffindor, and I can fight for myself."
There was a pause.
"Parvati?" Harry said. "Susan? Hannah? Daphne? I don't know any of you so well, but it's something I would offer anyone who came to ask it of me, I think."
One by one, the other four girls shook their heads.
Hermione realized what was coming, then, but she didn't see a single thing she could do about it.
"And my loyal soldier, Chaotic Tracey?" said Harry Potter.
"Really?" gasped Tracey, oblivious to the stabbing glares that Hermione and every other girl were directing at her. Tracey's hands flew artfully to her cheeks, though she didn't actually manage to blush, not that Hermione could see; and her brown eyes were, if not shining, at least opened very wide. "You'd do that? For me? I mean - I mean, of course, absolutely, General Chaos -"
And so it was on that very morning that Harry Potter went over to the Gryffindor table, and then the Slytherin table, and told both Houses that anyone who hurt Tracey Davis, regardless of what she was doing at the time, would, quote, learn the true meaning of Chaos, unquote.
It was with considerable restraint that Draco Malfoy managed to prevent himself from slamming his head repeatedly into his plate of toast.
They weren't exactly scientists, the bullies of Hogwarts.
But even they, Draco knew, were going to want to test it.
The Society for the Promotion of Heroic Equality for Witches hadn't announced it, it didn't seem like it would do any good to announce it. But they had all quietly decided (or, in the case of Lavender, been shouted into it by all seven other girls) to take a break from fighting bullies for a while, at least until their Heads of House weren't looking at them quite so sharply anymore, and older students had stopped bumping Hermione into walls.
Daphne had told Millicent that they were taking a break.
And so it was with some puzzlement, a few days later, that Daphne looked at the parchment delivered to her at lunch, drawn in a hand so shaky it was almost unreadable, saying:
2 this afternoon at the top of the stairs going up from the library REALLY IMPORTANT everyone has to be there - Millicent
Daphne looked around, but she couldn't see Millicent anywhere in the Great Hall.
"A message from your informant?" said Hermione, when Daphne told her. "That's odd - I didn't -"
"You didn't what?" said Daphne, after the Ravenclaw girl had stopped in mid-sentence.
The Sunshine General shook her head and said, "Listen, Daphne, I think we need to know where these messages come from before we keep following them. Look at what happened last time, how could anyone have known where those three bullies would be, unless they were in on it?"
"I can't say -" Daphne said. "I mean, I can't say anything, but I know where the messages come from, and I know how anyone can know."
Hermione gave Daphne a look that, for a moment, made the Ravenclaw girl look scarily like Professor McGonagall.
"Uh huh," said Hermione. "And do you know how Susan suddenly turned into Supergirl?"
Daphne shook her head, and said, "No, but I think it might be really important that if we get a message saying we should be somewhere, everyone has to be there." Daphne hadn't seen what had happened with Susan, after Daphne had tried to avert the prophecy by keeping Susan away. But she'd been told about it afterward, and now Daphne was afraid that...
She might have possibly...
Might possibly have Broken Something...
"Uh huh," said Hermione, who was doing the McGonagall Stare again.
Nobody seemed to know where it had started, who had started it. If you'd tried tracing it afterward, tracked it back word by word and mutter by mutter, you probably would have found it all going in a huge circle.
Peregrine Derrick was tapped on his shoulder as he left Potions that morning.
Jaime Astorga heard a whisper in his ear at lunch.
Robert Jugson III discovered a tiny folded note under his plate.
Carl Sloper overheard two older Gryffindors whispering about it, and they gave him significant glances as they walked past.
Nobody seemed to know where the word began, or who had first spoken it, but it named the place, and it named the time, and it said that the color would be white.
"Every single one of you had better be absolutely clear on this," said Susan Bones. The Hufflepuff girl, or whatever strange power had possessed her, wasn't even pretending to act normal anymore. The round-faced girl was striding through the halls with a firm, confident gait. "If we get there and it's just one bully, that's fine, you can fight them the regular way. My mysterious superpowers won't activate if there are no innocents in danger. But if five seventh-year bullies jump out of a closet, you know what you do? That's right, you run away and let me fight them. Finding a teacher is optional, the important thing is that you run away as soon as I create an opening. In a fight like that you are liabilities. You are civilian targets I have to worry about protecting. So you will get away as fast as possible and you will not try to do anything heroic or so help me, the hour you get out of your healer's beds I will personally show up and kick your asses right back in. Are we all clear on that?"
"Yes," squeaked most of the girls, though in Hannah's case it came out, "Yes, Lady Susan!"
"Don't call me that," snapped Susan. "And I don't think I heard you, Miss Brown! I'm warning you, I have friends who write plays and if you do anything dumb, posterity will remember you as Lavender, the Amazing Stupid Hostage."
(Hermione was beginning to worry about just how many other Hogwarts students besides Harry had mysterious dark sides, and whether she was likely to develop one if she kept hanging out with them.)
"Alright, Captain Bones," said Lavender in an unusually respectful tone, as they turned another corner along the shortest way to the library, passing through a rather large corridor studded with six sets of double doors, three sets on either side. "Can I ask if there's any way for me to become a double witch?"
"Sign up for the Auror preparation program in your sixth year," said Susan. "It's the next best thing. Oh, and if a famous Auror offers to oversee your summer internship, just ignore anyone who warns you that he's a terrible influence or that you're almost certainly going to die."
Lavender was nodding rapidly. "Got it, got it."
(Padma, who hadn't actually been there last time, was giving Susan very skeptical looks.)
Then Susan suddenly stopped in place and her wand snapped up and she said, "Protego Maximus!"
A jolt of adrenaline went through Hermione, she was instantly drawing her wand and spinning around -
But she couldn't see anything wrong, through the greater blue haze now surrounding them all.
The other girls, who had likewise pulled into formation, were also looking puzzled.
"Sorry!" said Susan. "Sorry, girls. Give me a moment to check this place out. Thinking of a certain person has just reminded me that this hall we're in right now, with all those doors, would be an excellent place for an ambush."
There was a moment of silence.
"Now," said a harsh male voice, blurred into unidentifiability by a buzzing undertone.
All six sets of double doors slammed open.
White robes filed silently forward, all-concealing white robes without marks of House affiliation and white cloth hiding the faces beneath the hoods. They marched out, and marched out, crowding the great corridor in numbers too high to count easily. Less than fifty robes, probably. Certainly more than thirty. All of them already surrounded by blue haze.
Susan said some Extremely Bad Words, so awful that at almost any other time, Hermione would have noticed.
"That message!" Daphne cried in sudden horror. "It wasn't from -"
"Millicent Bulstrode?" said the voice and its buzzing undertone. "No, it wasn't. You see, Miss Greengrass, if the same girl sends off a Slytherin message every day you fight a bully, pretty soon someone else will notice. We'll have a talk with her after we're done with you."
"Miss Susan," said Hannah in a voice just starting to quaver, "can you be super enough to -"
Wands rose in many hands. There came a series of blinding flashes of green light, a massive volley of shieldbreakers, at the end of which there was no more protective blue dome surrounding them, and Susan had fallen to her knees, clutching her head.
Barriers of solid blackness had sprung into being at both ends of the corridor. Behind the double doors that Hermione could see into, there were only unused classrooms, very dead ends.
"No," said the male voice with that buzz overlaid, "she can't. In case you haven't noticed, you've gotten quite a lot of people very angry at you and we have no intention of losing this time. All right everyone, prepare to fire."
The wands around the perimeter aimed again, low enough that their enemies wouldn't hit each other if they missed.
And then another male voice, with a similar buzz accompanying it, suddenly said "Homenum Revelio!"
An instant later there was another massive volley of shieldbreakers and hexes, fired on reflex at the suddenly revealed figure, shattering the shields which had almost immediately begun to form around it -
And then, as that same figure fell to the ground, a stunned silence.
"Professor Snape?" said the second voice. "He's the one who's been interfering?"
It was the Potions Master of Hogwarts who now lay unconscious on the stone floor, the dirt-spotted robes stirring for a final moment before they settled in place, his fallen hand outstretched toward where his wand was slowly rolling away.
"No," said the first male voice, now sounding a bit more uncertain. Then it rallied, "No, that can't possibly be it. He heard us passing the word, of course, and came along to make sure nobody screwed it up again. We'll wake him up afterward and apologize and he'll Memory-Charm the children so they don't remember, he's a Professor so he can do that. Anyway, we should make sure we're really alone now. Veritas Oculum!"
Fully two dozen different Charms must have been spoken, then, but no more invisible people showed up. One of them in particular made Hermione's heart sink; she recognized it as the Charm which had been listed alongside the description of the True Cloak of Invisibility, which would not reveal the Cloak, but would tell you whether it or certain other artifacts were nearby.
"Girls?" whispered Susan. She was slowly pushing herself to her feet, though Hermione could see her limbs swaying and quivering. "Girls, I'm sorry for what I said before. If you've got anything clever and heroic to try, you might as well try it."
"Oh, yeah," Tracey Davis said then, her voice trembling. "I almost forgot." The Slytherin girl raised her voice, and spoke.
"Hey, all of you!" yelled Tracey in a high-pitched shaky shout. "Hey, are you planning to hurt me too?"
"Yes, actually," said the buzzing voice of the leader. "We are."
"I'm under Harry Potter's protection, you know! Anyone who tries to hurt me will learn the true meaning of Chaos! So are you going to let me go?" It should have sounded defiant. It came out sounding terrified.
There was a pause. Some of the hoods of the robes turned to face each other, then turned back to face the girls.
"Hm..." said the buzzing male voice. "Hm... no."
Tracey Davis put her wand away into her robes.
Slowly, deliberately, she raised her right hand high in the air, and pressed her thumb and forefingers together.
"Go ahead," said that voice.
Tracey Davis snapped her fingers.
There was a long, awful pause.
"Yes, well," said the voice -
Tracey said, her voice sounding even higher and shakier, "Acathla, mundatus sum." Her hand, stretching up still further, snapped its fingers a second time.
A nameless chill went down Hermione's spine then, a frisson of fear and disorientation like she'd just felt the floor tilt beneath her, threatening to spill her into some darkness lying beneath.
"What's she -" began a buzzing female voice.
Tracey's face looked pale, twisted with fear, but her lips moved, spilled forth sound in a high chant, "Mabra, brahoring, mabra..."
A chill wind seemed to spring up within the confines of the corridor, a dark breath that caressed their faces and touched their hands with ice.
"Fire at her on my count!" shouted the leading voice. "One, two, three!" and maybe-forty voices roared spells, creating a huge concentric array of fiery bolts that lit the wide corridor brighter than the Sun -
- for the short moment before the bolts struck and vanished upon a dark red octagon that appeared in the air around the girls, and then disappeared a moment later.
Hermione saw it, she saw it but she still couldn't imagine it; she couldn't imagine a Shielding Charm that powerful, a spell that would withstand an army.
And Tracey's voice went on chanting, her voice sounding louder and more confident, and her face screwed up like she was trying to remember something very exactly.
"Shuffle, duffle, muzzle, muff.
Fista, wista, mista-cuff."
Now all those present could feel it, heroines and bullies alike, the sensation of some dark will pressing down on them, a tingling in the air as something built and built and built. All the blue hazes around the white robes, all the shielding spells, had died out without any visible hex touching them. There were more flashes of light as more desperate spells were fired, but they fizzled out in midair like candle-flames touching water.
The black barriers at the two ends of the corridor had dissipated like smoke beneath the growing pressure, but their evaporation revealed the exits sealed, blocked by tiled slats of dark metal that looked stained as though with blood; and as Tracey chanted "Lemarchand, Lament, Lemarchand," a dreadful blue light began to shine out from beneath the metal slats and between them; and the six sets of double doors slammed shut all at once, as panicked white-robed bullies began to pound on them and howl.
Then Tracey's hand slashed to her left, and she cried "Khornath!", then her hand pointed below her and "Slaaneth!", above her "Nurgolth!", and then, to her right, "TZINTCHI!"
Tracey paused, took a deep breath; and Hermione found her voice and cried, "Stop! Tracey, stop!"
But there was a strange wild smile on Tracey's face. She raised her hand still higher, and snapped her fingers a third time; and when she spoke again, beneath her high girlish voice there was an undertone as though some lower chorus were chanting along with her.
"Darkness beyond darkness, deeper than pitchest black.
Buried beneath the flow of time...
From darkness to darkness, your voice echoes in the emptiness,
Unknown to death, nor known to life."
"What are you doing?" shrieked Parvati, and the Gryffindor girl stretched out a hand as though to pull down the Slytherin, who was now starting to float upward into the air; and both Daphne and Susan grabbed Parvati's arm at the same time and Daphne cried out, "Don't, we don't know what will happen if the ritual is interrupted!"
"Well what happens if it gets COMPLETED?" screamed Hermione, as close as she'd ever come to total brain meltdown.
Susan's face was white as chalk, and she whispered, "I'm sorry, Mad-Eye..."
And Tracey spoke on, her body floating higher and higher off the floor, her black hair whipping wildly around her in the chill winds.
"You who know the gate, who are the gate, the key and guardian of the gate:
I bid you open the way for him, and manifest his power before me!"
The corridor was plunged then into utter darkness and silence, so that only Tracey could be seen and heard, like there was nothing left in the universe except her and the light illuminating her from some nameless source.
The shining girl raised her hand one final time, and with dreadful gravity, pressed her thumb and forefinger together.
And within the darkness Hermione looked at Tracey's face and saw that the Slytherin girl's eyes were now, to the exact shade, the green of Harry Potter's.
"Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres!
Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres!
HARRY JAMES POTTER-EVANS-VERRES!"
There was a snap like thunder, and then -
Harry had chosen to assume a rather relaxed posture, as he sat in a low chair before the mighty desk of the Headmaster of Hogwarts: one leg cocked over his knee, and his arms sprawling casually to either side. Harry was doing his best to disregard the noise from the surrounding devices, although the one directly behind him that sounded like an owl hooting desperately as it was put through a woodchipper was pretty difficult to ignore.
"Harry," the old wizard said from behind the desk, the aged voice level as the blue eyes stared out at him from beneath the shining half-moon spectacles. Headmaster Dumbledore had garbed himself in robes of midnight purple; not true formal black, but dark enough to come close indeed to deadly seriousness, as the wizarding world counted the meaning of fashions. "Were you... responsible for this?"
"I cannot deny that my influence was at work," Harry said.
The old wizard took off his glasses, leaned forward to stare at Harry directly, blue eyes to green. "I will ask you one question," the Headmaster said in a quiet voice. "Do you think that what you did today was - appropriate?"
"They were bullies and they came to that hallway with the direct intent of hurting Hermione Granger and seven other first-year children," Harry said levelly. "If I am not too young for moral judgment, then neither are they. No, Headmaster, they didn't deserve to die. But they did deserve to be stripped naked and glued to the ceiling."
The old wizard put his glasses back on. For the first time that Harry had seen of him, the Headmaster seemed to be at a loss for words. "As Merlin himself is my witness," said Dumbledore, "I haven't the faintest notion of how I ought to react to this."
"That's pretty much the effect I was aiming for," said Harry. He felt like he ought to be whistling a merry tune, but unfortunately he had never learned how to whistle reliably.
"I need not ask you who is directly responsible," said the Headmaster. "Only three wizards within Hogwarts might be powerful enough. I myself did not do it. Severus has assured me he was not involved. And the third..." The Headmaster shook his head in some dismay. "You loaned the Defense Professor your Cloak, Harry. I do not think that was wise. For now that he has escaped detection by simple Charms, he surely knows that it is a Deathly Hallow - if, indeed, he did not know from its first touch upon his flesh."
"Professor Quirrell had already deduced my possession of an invisibility cloak," Harry said. "And knowing him, he has probably guessed that it is a Deathly Hallow. But in this case, Headmaster, it so happens that Professor Quirrell was under one of those face-concealing white robes."
There was another pause.
"How very cunning," said the Headmaster. He leaned back in his throne and sighed. "I have spoken to the Defense Professor. Just before you, indeed. I did not quite know what to say. I told him that this was not the approved Hogwarts policy for dealing with infractions of hallway discipline, and that I did not feel it was appropriate for a Hogwarts professor to do what he had done."
"And what did Professor Quirrell say to that?" said Harry, who was not impressed with Hogwarts's current policies for enforcing hallway discipline.
The Headmaster wore a look of resignation. "He said: Fire me."
Somehow Harry managed not to cheer out loud.
The Headmaster frowned. "But why did he do it, Harry?"
"Because Professor Quirrell doesn't like school bullies and I asked very politely," said Harry. And he was feeling bored and I thought this might cheer him up. "Either that or it's part of some incredibly deep plot."
The Headmaster rose up from behind the desk, began to pace back and forth before the hatstand that held the Sorting Hat and the red slippers. "Harry, do you not feel that all of this has gotten a bit..."
"Awesome?" offered Harry.
"Utterly and completely out of hand would say it better," said Dumbledore. "I am not sure there has ever been a time in the whole history of this school when things have become so, so... I don't have a word for this, Harry, because things have never become like this before, and so no one has ever needed to invent a word for it."
Harry would have tried to invent words to express how deeply complimented he felt, if he hadn't been snerkling too hard to speak.
The Headmaster was regarding him with increasing graveness. "Harry, do you understand at all why I find these events concerning?"
"Honestly?" said Harry. "No, not really. I mean, of course Professor McGonagall would object to anything that breaks up the dull monotony of the Hogwarts school experience. But then Professor McGonagall wouldn't set a chicken on fire."
The frown lines deepened on Dumbledore's wrinkled face. "That, Harry, is not what disturbs me," the Headmaster said quietly. "There was a full battle fought in these halls!"
"Headmaster," Harry said, trying to keep his voice carefully respectful, "Professor Quirrell and I did not choose for that battle to happen. The bullies did that. We just decided to have the Light side win. I know there are times where the boundaries of morality are uncertain, but in this case the line separating the villains and the heroines was twenty meters tall and drawn in white fire. Our intervention may have been weird, but it certainly wasn't wrong -"
Dumbledore had gone back to his desk, sat down in his padded throne with a dull thump, and was now covering his face with both his hands.
"Am I missing something here?" Harry said. "I thought you'd be secretly on our side, Headmaster. It was the Gryffindor thing to do. The Weasley twins would approve, Fawkes would approve -" Harry glanced at the golden perch, but it was empty; either the phoenix had more important things to do, or the Headmaster hadn't invited him to today's meeting.
"That," said the Headmaster in an old and tired and somewhat muffled voice, "is precisely the problem, Harry. There is a reason why courageous young heroes are not put in charge of schools."
"All right," Harry said. He couldn't quite keep the skepticism out of his voice. "What am I missing this time?"
The old wizard lifted his head, his face now solemn, and calmer. "Listen, Harry," said Dumbledore, "hear me well; for all who wield power must learn this in time. Some things in this world are, indeed, truly simple. If you pick up a stone and drop it again, the earth will be no heavier for it, the stars will not move from their paths. I say this, Harry, so that you know I am not pretending to be wise, when I tell you that even as some things are simple, others are complex. There are greater wizardries which leave marks upon the world, and marks upon those who wield them, as a simple Charm would not. Those wizardries demand hesitation, consideration of consequence, a moment to weigh the meaning of their marks. And yet the most intricate magics known to me are simpler than the simplest soul. People, Harry, people are always marked, by what they do and by what is done to them. Do you, then, understand how to say, 'Here is the line between hero and villain!' is not enough to say that what you did was right?"
"Headmaster," Harry said evenly, "this is not a decision I made at random. No, I don't know what exact effect this will have on every single one of the bullies present. But if I always waited for perfect information before I acted, I would never do anything. When it comes to the future psychological development of, say, Peregrine Derrick, beating up eight first-year girls probably wouldn't have been good for him. And it wasn't enough to just stop them quietly and quickly, since then they would just try again later; they had to see that there was a protective power worth fearing." Harry's voice stayed level. "But of course, since I am a good guy, I didn't want to permanently injure them or even cause them any pain; and yet the penalty had to be enough to weigh on the minds of anyone thinking about trying it again. So, after weighing the expected outcomes as best I could with my boundedly rational intellect, I thought it would be wisest to strip the bullies naked and glue them to the ceiling."
The young hero stared directly into the old wizard's gaze, unflinching green eyes locked with the blue behind the spectacles.
And since I wasn't there and didn't do anything personally, there's no lawful way to punish me under the Hogwarts school rules; the only one who acted was Professor Quirrell, and he's fireproof. And just breaking the rules to get at me wouldn't be a wise thing to do to the hero you're grooming to fight Lord Voldemort... This time Harry actually had tried to think through all the ramifications in advance, before he'd made the suggestion to Professor Quirrell; and for once the Defense Professor hadn't called him a fool, just slowly smiled and then begun to laugh.
"I understand your intentions, Harry," the old wizard said. "You think you have taught the bullies of Hogwarts a lesson. But if Peregrine Derrick could learn that lesson, he would not be Peregrine Derrick. He will only be provoked more by what you do - it is not fair, it is not right, but that is the way it is." The old wizard closed his eyes, as though in brief pain, and then opened them again. "Harry, the most painful truth any hero must learn is that the right cannot, should not, must not win every battle. All of this began when Miss Granger fought three older enemies and won. If she had been content with this, the echoes of her deed would have died away in time. Yet instead she banded together with her classmates and raised her wand in open challenge to Peregrine Derrick and all his kind; and his kind cannot but raise their own wands in answer. So Jaime Astorga went hunting her, and in the natural course he would have beaten her; it would have been a sad day, but it would have ended there. There is not enough magic in eight first-year witches all together to defeat such a foe. But you could not accept that, Harry, could not let Miss Granger learn her own lessons; and so you sent the Defense Professor to watch over them invisibly, and pierce Astorga's shields when Daphne Greengrass struck at him -"
What? thought Harry.
The old wizard went on speaking. "Each time you intervened, Harry, it escalated matters further and yet further. Soon Miss Granger was facing Robert Jugson himself, the son of a Death Eater, with two strong allies at his side. Painful indeed it would have been for her, if Miss Granger had lost that battle. And yet again by your will and Quirinus's hand, this time shown more openly, she won."
Harry was still struggling with the notion of the Defense Professor watching invisibly over S.P.H.E.W., guarding the heroines from harm.
"And so," the old wizard finished, "that is how we came to today, Harry, to forty-four students attacking eight first-year witches. A full battle in these halls! I know it was not your intent, but you must accept some measure of responsibility. Such things did not happen before you came to this school, not through all my decades in Hogwarts; neither when I was a student nor when I was a Professor."
"Thank you very much," Harry said evenly. "Though I think Professor Quirrell deserves more credit than me."
The blue eyes widened. "Harry..."
"Those bullies were attacking victims long before this year," Harry said. Despite his best efforts, his voice was starting to rise. "But nobody seems to have taught the students that they're allowed to fight back. I know it's much harder to ignore a two-sided fight than some helpless victims getting hexed or almost pushed out of windows, but it's not exactly worse, is it? I wish I'd read more of Godric Gryffindor's writings so I could quote him, there's got to be something in there about this. Open battle may be louder than the victims suffering in silence, it may be harder to pretend that nothing is happening, but the final result is better -"
"No, it is not," Dumbledore said. "It is not, Harry. To always fight the darkness, to never let evil pass unchallenged - that is not heroism, but simple pride. Even Godric Gryffindor did not think that every war was worth fighting, though he went his whole life from one battle to another." The old wizard's voice went quieter. "In truth, Harry, the words you speak - they are not evil. No, not evil, and yet they have frightened me. You are one who might someday wield great power, over wizardry, over your fellow wizards. And if, come that day, you still think that evil must never pass unchallenged -" Now a note of real worry had entered the Headmaster's voice. "The world has grown more fragile since the age when Hogwarts was raised; I fear it cannot bear the fury of another Godric Gryffindor. And he was slower to his wrath than you." The old wizard shook his head. "You are too ready to fight, Harry. Much too ready to fight, and Hogwarts itself is becoming a more violent place around you."
"Well," Harry said carefully, after weighing his words. "I don't know if it will help to say this, but I think you're getting the wrong impression of what I'm all about. I don't like real fighting either. It's scary, and violent, and somebody might get hurt. But I didn't fight today, Headmaster."
The Headmaster frowned. "You sent the Defense Professor in your place -"
"Professor Quirrell didn't do any fighting either," Harry said calmly. "There wasn't anyone there strong enough to fight him. What happened today wasn't fighting, it was winning."
It was a while then before the old wizard spoke. "That may be as it may be," the Headmaster said, "but all these conflicts must end. I can hear the strain in the air, and with each of these clashes, it rises. All this must end, decisively and soon; you must not stand in the way of its ending."
The old wizard gestured toward the great oaken door of his office, and Harry departed through it.
It was with some surprise that Harry stepped out from between the huge grey gargoyles which had made way for him, and saw that Quirinus Quirrell was still slumped against the stone of the corridor wall, a thick thread of spittle drooling from his slack mouth onto his Professorial robes, in just the same position he'd occupied when Harry had first gone up into the Headmaster's office.
Harry waited, but the slumped man didn't rise up; and after long awkward seconds, Harry began to walk down the corridor again.
"Mr. Potter?" came a soft call, after Harry had turned two corners; a quiet voice carrying unnaturally through the halls.
When Harry had returned he found Professor Quirrell still slumped against the wall, but the pale eyes now watched him with keen intelligence.
I'm sorry to have tired you out -
It was something that Harry couldn't say. He'd noticed the correlation between the effort Professor Quirrell expended and the time he had to spend 'resting'. But Harry had reasoned that if the effort was too painful or detrimental, surely Professor Quirrell would just say no. Now Harry was wondering if that reasoning had actually been correct, and if not, how to apologize...
The Defense Professor spoke in a quiet voice, the rest of the body unmoving. "How went your meeting with the Headmaster, Mr. Potter?"
"I'm not sure," Harry said. "Not the way I predicted. He seems to believe the Light should lose a lot more often than I'd consider wise. Plus I'm not sure he understands the difference between trying to fight and trying to win. It explains a lot, actually..." Harry hadn't read much about the Wizarding War, but he'd read enough to know that the good guys probably had acquired a pretty accurate picture of who most of the worst Death Eaters were, and hadn't just owled them all hand grenades over the course of five minutes.
A soft, soft laugh from the pale lips. "Dumbledore does not comprehend the enjoyment of winning, just as he does not comprehend the enjoyment of the game. Tell me, Mr. Potter. Did you suggest this little plan with the deliberate intention of relieving my tedium?"
"That was among my many motives," Harry said, because some instinct had warned that he couldn't just say Yes.
"Do you know," the Defense Professor said in soft reflective tones, "there are those who have tried to soften my darker moods, and those who have indeed participated in brightening my day, but you are the first person ever to succeed in doing it deliberately?" The Defense Professor seemed to straighten up from the wall with a peculiar motion which might have included magic as well as muscle; and the Defense Professor began to walk away without a look back in Harry's direction. Only a single small gesture of one finger indicated that Harry was to follow.
"I particularly enjoyed that chant you composed for Miss Davis," said Professor Quirrell after they had walked a short distance. "Though you might have been wiser to consult me in advance, before giving it to her to memorize." One hand bestirred itself to within the Defense Professor's robes and drew forth a wand, which traced a small gesture in the air, after which all the faraway sounds of the castle Hogwarts fell silent. "Tell me honestly, Mr. Potter, have you somehow acquired a familiarity with the theory of Dark rituals? That is not the same as confessing an intent to cast them; many wizards know the principles."
"No..." Harry said slowly. He had decided some time ago against trying to sneak into the Restricted Section of the Hogwarts library, for much the same reason he'd decided a year earlier not to look up how to make explosives out of common household materials. Harry prided himself on at least having more sense than people thought he did.
"Oh?" said Professor Quirrell. The man was walking more normally now, and the lips curved about in a peculiar smile. "Why, perhaps you possess a natural talent for the field, then."
"Yes, well," Harry said wearily. "I suppose Dr. Seuss also has a natural talent for Dark rituals, because the part about shuffle, duffle, muzzle, muff came from a children's book called Bartholomew and the Oobleck -"
"No, not that part," said Professor Quirrell. His voice grew a little stronger, took on some of its normal lecturing tone. "An ordinary Charm, Mr. Potter, can be cast merely by speaking certain words, making precise motions of the wand, expending some of your own strength. Even powerful spells may be invoked in this way, if the magic is efficient as well as efficacious. But with the greatest of magics, speech alone does not suffice to give them structure. You must perform specific actions, make significant choices. Nor is the temporary expenditure of your own strength sufficient to set them in motion; a ritual requires permanent sacrifice. The power of such a greater spell, compared to ordinary Charms, can be like day compared to night. But many rituals - indeed, most - happen to demand at least one sacrifice which might inspire squeamishness. And so the entire field of ritual magic, containing all the furthest and most interesting reaches of wizardry, is widely regarded as Dark. With a few exceptions carved out by tradition, of course." Professor Quirrell's voice took on a sardonic tinge. "The Unbreakable Vow is too useful to certain wealthy Houses to be outlawed entirely - even though to bind a man's will through all his days is indeed a dread and terrible act, more fearsome than many lesser rituals that wizards shun. A cynic might conclude that which rituals are prohibited is not so much a matter of morality, as habit. But I digress..." Professor Quirrell made a brief coughing sound, a clearing of his throat. "The Unbreakable Vow requires three participants and three sacrifices. The one who receives the Unbreakable Vow must be one who could have come to trust the Vower, but chooses instead to demand the Vow from them, and they sacrifice that possibility of trust. The one who makes the Vow must be someone who could have chosen to do what the Vow demands of them, and they sacrifice that capacity for choice. And the third wizard, the binder, permanently sacrifices a small portion of their own magic, to sustain the Vow forever."
"Ah," Harry said. "I'd wondered why that spell wasn't used all over the place, every time two people have difficulty trusting each other... although... why don't wizards on their deathbeds charge money to bind Unbreakable Vows, and use that to leave an inheritance for their children -"
"Because they are stupid," said Professor Quirrell. "There are hundreds of useful rituals which could be performed if men had so much sense; I could name twenty without stopping to draw breath. But in any case, Mr. Potter, the thing about such rituals - whether or not you choose to term them Dark - is that they are shaped to be magically efficacious, not to appear impressive when performed. I suppose there is a certain tendency for the more powerful rituals to require more dreadful sacrifices. Even so, the most terrible ritual known to me demands only a rope which has hanged a man and a sword which has slain a woman; and that for a ritual which promised to summon Death itself - though what is truly meant by that I do not know and do not care to discover, since it was also said that the counterspell to dismiss Death had been lost. The most dread chant I have encountered does not sound even a hundredth as fearsome as the chant you composed for Miss Davis. Those among the bullies who had a passing familiarity with Dark rituals - and I am certain that there were some - must have been terrified beyond the capacity of words to describe. If there existed a true ritual which appeared that impressive, Mr. Potter, it would melt the Earth."
"Um," said Harry.
Professor Quirrell's lips twisted further. "Ah, but the truly amusing thing was this. You see, Mr. Potter, the chant of every ritual names that which is to be sacrificed, and that which is to be gained. The chant which you gave to Miss Davis spoke, first, of a darkness beyond darkness, buried beneath the flow of time, which knows the gate, and is the gate. And the second thing spoken of, Mr. Potter, was the manifestation of your own presence. And always, in each element of the ritual, first is named that which is sacrificed, and then is said the use commanded of it."
"I... see," said Harry, as he trod through the halls of Hogwarts after Professor Quirrell, following him toward the Defense Professor's office. "So my chant, the way I wrote it, implies that the Outer God, Yog-Sothoth -"
"Was permanently sacrificed in a ritual which but briefly manifested your presence," said Professor Quirrell. "I suppose we will discover tomorrow whether anyone took that seriously, when we read the newspapers and see whether all the magical nations of the world are banding together in a desperate effort to seal off your incursion into our reality."
They walked on, as the Defense Professor began chuckling, odd throaty sounds.
The two of them didn't talk after that until they came to the Defense Professor's office, and then the man halted with his hand upon the door.
"It is a very strange thing," the Defense Professor said, his voice now soft again, almost inaudible. The man was not looking at Harry, and Harry saw only his back. "A very strange thing... There was a time when I would have sacrificed a finger from my wand hand, to work upon the bullies of Hogwarts as we have worked upon them this day. To make them fear me as they now fear you, to have the deference of all the students and the adoration of many, I would have given my finger for that. You have everything now that I wanted then. All that I know of human nature says that I should hate you. And yet I do not. It is a very strange thing."
It should have been a touching moment, but instead Harry felt a coldness traveling down his spine, as though he were a little fish in the sea, and some vast white shark had just looked him over and decided after a visible hesitation not to eat him.
The man opened the door to Defense Professor's office, and passed within, and was gone.
Her fellow Slytherins were looking at Daphne like... like they didn't have the faintest idea of how to look at her.
The Gryffindors were looking at her like they didn't have the faintest idea of how to look at her.
Showing no fear, Daphne Greengrass strode into the Potions classroom, wrapped in the imperious dignity of a Noble and Most Ancient House. Inside she was feeling much the same way everyone else probably did.
It had been two hours since the What? when the What? had happened and Daphne's brain was still going: What? What? What?
The classroom was quiet as they all waited for Professor Snape to arrive. Lavender and Parvati sat near a cluster of other Gryffindors, surrounded by silent stares. The two of them were looking over each other's homework before class started, and nobody else was helping them or talking to them. Even Lavender, who Daphne would have sworn could never be fazed by anything, seemed subdued.
Daphne sat down at her desk, and took Magical Draughts and Potions out of her bag, and began looking over her own homework, doing her very best to act normal. People stared at her, and said nothing -
A gasp went through the whole classroom. Girls and boys flinched back, leaning away from the door like they were stalks of wheat touched by a gust of wind.
In the door stood Tracey Davis, wrapped in a black tattered cloak which had been draped over her Hogwarts uniform.
Tracey walked slowly into the classroom, swaying slightly with each step, looking like she was trying to drift. She sat down at her accustomed desk, which happened to be right next to Daphne's.
Slowly Tracey's head turned to stare at Daphne.
"See?" the Slytherin girl said in a low, sepulchral tone. "I told you I'd get him before she did."
"What?" blurted Daphne, who immediately wished she hadn't said anything.
"I got Harry Potter before Granger did." Tracey's voice was still low, but her eyes were gleaming with triumph. "See, Daphne, what General Potter wants in a girl isn't a pretty face or a pretty dress. He wants a girl willing to channel his dread powers, that's what he wants. Now I'm his - and he's mine!"
This announcement produced a frozen silence through the whole classroom.
"Excuse me, Miss Davis," said the cultured voice of Draco Malfoy, who seemed unconcerned as he shuffled through his own Potions parchments. The other scion of a Most Ancient House didn't so much as glance up from his desk, even as everyone else turned to look at him. "Did Harry Potter actually tell you that? Using those words?"
"Well, no..." Tracey said, and then her eyes flashed angrily. "But he'd better take me in, now that I've sacrificed my soul to him and everything!"
"You sacrificed your soul to Harry Potter?" gasped Millicent. There was a clatter from the other side of the room as Ron Weasley dropped his inkwell.
"Well, I'm pretty sure I did," said Tracey, sounding briefly uncertain before she rallied. "I mean, I looked at myself in a mirror and I look paler now, and I can always feel darkness surrounding me, and I was a conduit for his dread powers and everything... Daphne, you also saw my eyes go green, right? I didn't see it myself but that's what I heard afterward."
There was a pause, broken only by the sounds of Ron Weasley trying to clean up his desk.
"Daphne?" said Tracey.
"I don't believe it," said an angry voice. "There's no way the next Dark Lord would take you to be his bride!"
Slowly, and with considerable disbelief, heads turned to stare at Pansy Parkinson.
"Hush, you," said Tracey, "or I'll..." The Slytherin girl paused. Then Tracey's voice went even lower, and she said, "Hush, you, or I'll devour your soul."
"You can't do that," said Pansy, in the confident tones of a hen which had worked out a perfectly good pecking order where she was at the top, and wasn't about to go updating that belief based on mere evidence.
Slowly, like she was trying to float, Tracey got up from her desk. There were more gasps. Daphne felt like she'd been Petrified in place within her chair.
"Tracey?" said Lavender in a small voice. "Please don't do all that again. Please?"
Now Pansy was showing definite nervousness as Tracey swayed toward her desk. "What d'you think you're doing?" Pansy said, not quite managing to sound indignant.
"I told you," Tracey said menacingly. "I'm going to devour your soul."
Tracey bent down over Pansy, who sat frozen at her desk; and, with their lips almost touching, made a loud inhaling noise.
"There!" said Tracey as she straightened. "I ate your soul."
"No you didn't!" said Pansy.
"Did too!" said Tracey.
There was a very slight pause -
"Merlin, she did!" cried Theodore Nott. "You look all pale now, and your eyes seem empty!"
"What?" screeched Pansy, turning pale. The girl leapt up from her desk and began frantically rummaging through her bookbag. After Pansy drew out a mirror and looked at herself, she turned even paler.
Daphne abandoned all pretense of aristocratic poise and let her head fall to the desk with a dull thud, as she wondered whether going to the same school as all the other important families was really worth going to the same school as the Chaos Legion.
"Ooh, you're in trouble now, Pansy," said Seamus Finnigan. "I don't know exactly what happens when a Dementor Kisses you, but if Tracey Davis kisses you that's probably even worse."
"I've heard about people without souls," Dean Thomas said gloomily. "They have to dress all in black, and they write awful poetry, and nothing ever makes them happy. They're all angsty."
"I don't want to be angsty!" cried Pansy.
"Too bad," said Dean Thomas. "You've got to be, now that your soul's gone."
Pansy turned, and stretched out a begging hand toward Draco Malfoy's desk. "Draco!" she said pleadingly. "Mr. Malfoy! Please, make Tracey give me back my soul!"
"I can't," said Tracey. "I ate it."
"Make her throw it up!" yelled Pansy.
The heir of Malfoy had slumped forward, resting his head in both hands, so that nobody could see his face. "Why is my life like this?" said Draco Malfoy.
A wild babble of whispers started up as Tracey returned to her desk, now smiling in satisfaction, while Pansy stood in the midst of the classroom, wringing her hands and tears starting from her eyes -
The soft, lethal voice seemed to fill the whole classroom as Professor Snape stalked in through the door. His face was angrier than Daphne had ever seen it, sending a jolt of genuine fear down her spine. Hastily she looked down at her homework.
"Sit down, Parkinson," the Potions Master hissed, "and you, Davis, take off that ridiculous cloak -"
"Professor Snaaaaaape!" wailed Pansy Parkinson in tears. "Tracey ate my sooouuul!"