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 quills for the exams, which had been bewitched with an Anti-Cheating 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. (A/N: Ironic, huh? :))
Harry did the best he could, trying to ignore the stabbing pains in his forehead, which had been bothering him ever since his trip into the forest. Neville 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 old nightmare, except that it was now worse than ever because there was 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 foreheads, but Ron, Hermione and Alex didn't seem as worried about the Stone as Harry. The idea of Voldemort certainly scared Ron and Hermione, while Alex didn't seem that much affected, 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, with the exception of Alex for the "studying part".
Their very last exam was History of Magic. One hour of answering questions about batty old wizards who'd invented self- stirring cauldrons and they'd be free, free for a whole wonderful week until their exam results came out. When the ghost of Professor Binns told them to put down their quills and roll up their parchment, Harry couldn't help cheering with the rest.
"That was far easier than I thought it would be," said Hermione as they joined the crowds flocking out onto the sunny grounds. "I needn't have learned about the 1637 Werewolf Code of Conduct or the uprising of Elfric the Eager."
Hermione always liked to go through their exam papers afterward, but Ron said this made him feel ill, so they wandered down to the lake and flopped under a tree. The Weasley twins and Lee Jordan were tickling the tentacles of a giant squid, which was basking in the warm shallows. "No more studying," Ron 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 his forehead. "I wish I knew what this means!" he burst out angrily. "My scar keeps hurting - it's happened before, but never as often as this." "Go to Madam Pomfrey," Hermione suggested. "I'm not ill," said Harry. "I think it's a warning... it means danger's coming..."
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 Neville will play Quidditch for England before Hagrid lets Dumbledore down."
Alex turned to Harry with a lazy expression on her face. "I never thought I'd say this, but Ron's right. The stone seems fine, and Dumbledore isn't going anywhere, not for a long time…" she trailed off at the last part, leaving Harry to his thoughts.
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, Hermione 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."
Alex scoffed. "Please, when has anyone ever been nervous because of an exam? Like, ever?" While Ron and Hermione looked at her incredulously, Harry wasn't paying attention. He was thinking about what Hermione said.
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."
As they were running, Alex stopped them. "Guys, you're forgetting? I have a faster way to get there! So stop running! Exercise is terrible for you! Grab on." They held on to Alex, and she flashed to Hagrid's hut. Hermione stared at her wide- eyed. "B-but, you can't apparate within Hogwarts' wards!" Alex smirked. "I didn't apparate, I flashed us to Hagrid's hut."
Hermione looked ready to argue with Alex, and opened her mouth to, but Alex raised an eyebrow at her, and Hermione realised that it was pointless, so she closed her mouth with a huff. Satisfied, Alex turned to Harry and asked, "Why are we here?"
"Don't you think it's a bit odd," said Harry, frantically knocking on Hagrid's door, "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 wizard law? Lucky they found Hagrid, don't you think? Why didn't I see it before?"
"What are you talking about?" said Ron, but Alex seemed to have understood, as a look of realization dawned on her. After a while of frantic knocking on his door, Alex realised Hagrid wasn't in his hut, and peeked her head around the corner to check for Hagrid. He was, in fact, 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 Ron, 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 Norbert? What did the stranger you were playing cards with look like?"
"Dunno," said Hagrid casually, "he wouldn' take his cloak off." He saw the four 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?" Alex asked, inspecting her nails to seem like she couldn't have cared less.
"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 intervened, trying 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, Hermione and Alex 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 three doing inside?" It was Professor McGonagall, carrying a large pile of books. "We want to see Professor Dumbledore," said Hermione, rather bravely, Harry, Ron and Alex 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, and Alex slapped her forehead in exasperation, and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, "Stupid amateurs."
"Professor Dumbledore left ten minutes ago," she said coldly. "He received an urgent owl from the Ministry of Magic and flew off for London at once." "He's gone?" said Harry frantically. "Now?" "Professor Dumbledore is a very great wizard, Potter, he has many demands on his time -
"But this is important." "Something you have to say is more important than the Ministry of Magic, Potter. "Look," said Harry, throwing caution to the winds, "Professor - it's about the Sorcerer'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 Ministry of Magic will get a real shock when Dumbledore turns up."
"But what can we -" Hermione gasped. Harry, Ron and Alex 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 night time 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 stone steps, Harry turned to the others. "Right, here's what we've got to do," he whispered urgently. "One of us has got to keep an eye on Snape - wait outside the staff room and follow him if he leaves it. Hermione, 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..." Alex sniggered, and when Hermione threw her a dirty look, she said, "Oh, don't even bother denying it, we all knew that was bound to happen sooner or later." "Oh, shut up," said Hermione, but she agreed to go and watch out for Snape.
"And we'd better stay outside the third-floor corridor," Harry told Ron and Alex. "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 common room, Harry had just said, "At least Hermione's on Snape's tail," when the portrait of the Fat Lady swung open and Hermione came in.
"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 three 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." "I'm so coming!" Alex shouted excitedly. "You're mad!" said Ron. "You can't!" said Hermione. "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 to the Dursleys and wait for Voldemort to find me there, 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 two say is going to stop me! Voldemort killed my parents, remember?"
He glared at them. "Well don't look at me, I supported your idea, remember?" Alex piped up, somewhat breaking the tension. "You're right Harry," said Hermione 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 four of us?" said Ron.
"All - all four of us?" "Oh, come off it, you don't think we'd let you go alone?" "Plus, I already said I'd be coming!" Alex and Ron shot down his idea of going alone. "Of course not," said Hermione 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 three will be expelled, too." "Not if I can help it," said Hermione 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." "I've done worse," Alex contributed. Six pairs of eyes stared at her. "What? You don't want to know, trust me." Alex had a small smirk playing at the corners of her mouth.
After dinner, Harry, Ron and Hermione sat nervously apart in the common room. Alex rolled her eyes at their fidgeting, and hissed under her breath. "Stop fidgeting! You guys are terrible at this!" To which they shot her a look. Not everyone had Alex's skills of deception, and experience at acting natural in pressurized situations, after all.
Although, 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. Hermione was skimming through all her notes, hoping to come across one of the enchantments they were about to try to break. Harry and Ron didn't talk much. Both of them were thinking about what they were about to do. Alex was just calmly flipping through another magazine. (A/N: Ok, I know technically that's all she does, but come on, all Alex does is flip through magazines, watch tv and eat. And muggle electronics don't work in Hogwarts, and this scene takes place in the common room, not the kitchen.)
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 dormitory. 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 common room. "We'd better put the cloak on here, and make sure it covers all three 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. Neville appeared from behind an armchair, clutching Trevor the toad, who looked as though he'd been making another bid for freedom.
"Nothing, Neville, nothing," said Harry, hurriedly putting the cloak behind his back. Neville stared at their guilty faces. "You're going out again," he said. "No, no, no," said Alex. "No, we're not. Why don't you go to bed, Neville?" 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 Neville, "you'll be caught again. Gryffindor will be in even more trouble." "You don't understand," said Harry, "this is important." But Neville was clearly steeling himself to do something desperate. I won't let you do it," he said, hurrying to stand in front of the portrait hole. "I'll - I'll fight you!" "Neville, "Ron exploded, "get away from that hole and don't be an idiot -"
"Don't you call me an idiot!" said Neville. I don't think you should be breaking any more rules! And you were the one who told me to stand up to people!" "Yes, but not to us," said Ron in exasperation. "Neville, you don't know what you're doing." He took a step forward and Neville dropped Trevor the toad, who leapt out of sight.
"Go on then, try and hit me!" said Neville, raising his fists. "I'm ready!" Harry turned to Alex. "Do something," he said desperately. Alex stepped forward. She raised her wand. "Piggly Wiggly, Get into the Jiggly!" she cried, pointing it at Neville. (A/N: Thks for the idea, rosetrang628!)
All of a sudden, Neville was trapped in a giant block of jelly. Ron, Harry and Hermione looked at her with a mixture of wonder, envy, awe and curiosity. She twirled her wand in her hand expertly, and blew the tip, like it was a gun, then stuck it back in her pocket.
Then, she realised that the three of them were looking at her, and asked obliviously, "What? This is actually normal for me." Afterwards, she remembered what they were supposed to do, and apparently so did Hermione, for she ushered them out the portrait hole, trying to drag along Ron, who tried to sneak a bite of the jelly- "Honestly, Ronald!" she cried exasperatedly.
They quickly pulled on the invisibility cloak, and hastily made their way. 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 lamp-like 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."
Alex had a sudden idea. "Peeves," she 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 Alex. "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 four of them what was facing them. Underneath the cloak, Harry turned to the other three. "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 Hermione. Alex just shoved him in the shoulder good- naturedly, and said, "Shut up, and let's go." Harry pushed the door open. 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?" Hermione whispered. "Looks like a harp," said Ron. "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, Alex?"
"No, I don't! Are you crazy? You go first, you're the guy, aside from Harry, who's playing the dang harp!" "Fine." 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?" Hermione 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 Hermione so she can keep him asleep." Harry handed the flute over. In the few seconds' silence, the dog growled and twitched, but the moment Hermione 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 said, "If anything happens to me, don't follow. Go straight to the owlery 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. "It's 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, Hermione and Alex!" The distant music stopped. There was a loud bark from the dog, but Hermione and Alex had already jumped. Hermione landed on Harry's other side, while Alex landed directly on Harry. She scrambled off him, missing the red blush creeping up his face in the dark.
"We must be miles under the school," Hermione said. "Lucky this plant thing's here, really," said Ron. "Lucky!" shrieked Hermione. "Look at you both!" 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, Ron and Alex, their legs had already been bound tightly in long creepers without their noticing.
Hermione had managed to free herself before the plant got a firm grip on her. Now she watched in horror as the two boys, along with Alex 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!" Hermione 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 Hermione. "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" "So light a fire!" Harry choked. "Yes - of course - but there's no wood!" Hermione cried, wringing her hands. "HAVE YOU GONE MAD?" Ron bellowed. "ARE YOU A WITCH OR NOT?"
"Zippozap Zippozee Zippozarum," said Alex, right before a tendril snaked around her mouth. In a matter of seconds, the three of them felt it loosening its grip as it 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 pay attention in Herbology, Hermione," said Harry as he joined her by the wall, wiping sweat off his face.
"Yeah," said Ron, "and lucky Harry doesn't lose his head in a crisis - 'there's no wood,' honestly." "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 - Norbert had been bad enough…
"Can you hear something?" Ron 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 Ron. "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 three followed him. They tugged and heaved at the door, but it wouldn't budge, not even when Hermione tried her Alohomora charm. "Now what?" said Ron. "These birds... they can't be here just for decoration," said Hermione. 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. "... yes - look! Broomsticks! We've got to catch the key to the door!" "But there are hundreds of them!" Ron examined the lock on the door.
"We're looking for a big, old-fashioned one - probably silver, like the handle." They each seized a broomstick and kicked off into the air, soaring into the midst of the cloud of keys. They grabbed and snatched, but the bewitched keys darted and dived so quickly it was almost impossible to catch one.
Not for nothing, though, was Harry the youngest Seeker in a century. He had a knack for spotting things other people didn't. After a minute's weaving about through the whirl of rainbow feathers, he noticed a large silver 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." Ron went speeding in the direction that Harry was pointing, crashed into the ceiling, and nearly fell off his broom. "We've got to close in on it!" Harry called, not taking his eyes off the key with the damaged wing. "Ron, you come at it from above - Hermione, stay below and stop it from going down! Alex, stay in front of it, stopping it from flying away, and I'll try and catch it from behind. Right, NOW!"
Ron dived, Hermione rocketed upward, Alex flew headfirst towards the key, and the key dodged them all, and Harry 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. Ron, Hermione and Alex'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 three, his hand on the door handle. They nodded. He pulled the door open. 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, Hermione and Alex 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 Hermione 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 three of the black pieces..."
Harry, Hermione and Alex 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 Harry quickly. "Just tell us what to do."
After assigning everyone a chess piece, they started playing. When the first pawn was taken, it was brutally smashed, and the four of them couldn't help but shudder, looking shaken. But when it came to the last move, Ron made a grim but inevitable announcement. "Yes..." said Ron softly, "It's the only way... I've got to be taken, and I'm really sorry Alex, but you too."
"WHAT?" Alex protested, the same time Harry and Hermione shouted, "NO!" "That's chess!" snapped Ron. "You've got to make some sacrifices! Alex takes two steps to the right, clearing her last defence, then 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. "There you go Alex." Harry and Hermione shot one last pleading look at Alex, and she gave them a watery smile. "If that stone really can make money, you guys owe me like a thousand bucks after this. Take care, guys, and good luck."
She took a look at Ron and Hermione, then her eyes rested on Harry's, and his eyes were filled with sadness. Bravely, she took two steps to her right, and the last knight from the white pieces leaped on her, and hit her across the stomach, and then swept a stone sword under her legs, rendering her unconscious.
The last thing Alex remembered was Hermione screaming and Harry shouting out words she couldn't seem to register in her head. Right before everything went black, the last thought she had was, Good luck, guys.