Things couldn't have been worse. Filch took them down to Professor McGonagall's study on the first floor, where they sat and waited without saying a word to each other. Hermione was trembling. Excuses, alibis, and wild cover- up stories chased each other around Harry's brain, each more feeble than the last.
He couldn't see how they were going to get out of trouble this time. They were cornered. How could they have been so stupid as to forget the cloak? Helplessly, he looked at Alex, who was coming up with different alibis herself. There was no reason on earth that Professor McGonagall would accept for their being out of bed and creeping around the school in the dead of night, let alone being up the tallest astronomy tower, which was out-of-bounds except for classes.
Add Norbert and the invisibility cloak, and they might as well be packing their bags already. Had they thought that things couldn't have been worse? They were wrong. When Professor McGonagall appeared, she was leading Neville. "Harry!" Neville burst out, the moment he saw the other two. "I was trying to find you to warn you, I heard Malfoy saying he was going to catch you, he said you had a drag -"
Harry shook his head violently to shut Neville up, but Professor McGonagall had seen. She looked more likely to breathe fire than Norbert as she towered over the three of them. "I would never have believed it of any of you. Mr. Filch says you were up in the astronomy tower. It's one o'clock in the morning. Explain yourselves."
It was the first time Hermione had ever failed to answer a teacher's question. She was staring at her slippers, as still as a statue. Alex raised her hand. "Professor? I can explain," she said lightly. Harry stared at her, amazed. He wondered how she was so calm and collected under Professor McGonagall's angry glare, and he could practically hear the clogs in her head working, as she found an excuse.
Professor McGonagall's nostrils flared. "Ms Russo. I should have known. Following your already quite shaky detention record so far at Hogwarts, I would like to hear the excuse you will offer." "See - professor, what had happened, was that… I got sick of Malfoy always putting others down and bullying them, and a whole bunch of other bad stuff, so I made up some story about a dragon, and after setting up some props and stuff, I let him think that we were passing the dragon to some people tonight at the top of the Astronomy Tower, so he would get caught." Alex explained smoothly, and Harry glanced at Alex. Wow, she really was a good liar!
"Then, these two dunderheads here," Alex continued, gesturing to Harry and Hermione, "tried to stop me when I came out to check on my plan and see if Malfoy was busted or not, and I ended up dragging them along. But what I didn't count for was Neville here," at this Alex gestured at Neville, "to try and stop me too, and overhearing Malfoy."
Professor McGonagall seemed to accept this explanation, and Harry had conflicting emotions. On one hand, he was thankful for Alex's excellent lying skills. On the other hand, he felt guilty that Alex took the blame, and Neville was dragged down along with them.
Harry caught Neville's eye and tried to tell him without words that this wasn't true, because Neville was looking stunned and hurt. Poor, blundering Neville - Harry knew what it must have cost him to try and find them in the dark, to warn them.
"I'm disgusted," said Professor McGonagall. "Five students out of bed in one night! I've never heard of such a thing before! You, Miss Granger, I thought you had more sense. As for you, Mr. Potter, I thought Gryffindor meant more to you than this. And Ms Russo, next time you want to teach Malfoy a lesson, come to us teachers, and not try to be a hero all by yourself. Although Ms Granger and Mr potter were trying to stop you, I'm afraid all four of you will receive detentions - yes, you too, Mr. Longbottom, nothing gives you the right to walk around school at night, especially these days, it's very dangerous - and fifty points will be taken from Gryffindor."
"Fifty?" Harry gasped - they would lose the lead, the lead he'd won in the last Quidditch match. "Fifty points each," said Professor McGonagall, breathing heavily through her long, pointed nose. At this, Alex shot him a warning glance, but Harry ignored it. "Professor - please" "You can't -" "Don't tell me what I can and can't do, Potter. Now get back to bed, all of you. I've never been more ashamed of Gryffindor students."
Two hundred points lost. That put Gryffindor in last place. In one night, they'd ruined any chance Gryffindor had had for the house cup. Harry felt as though the bottom had dropped out of his stomach. How could they ever make up for this? Harry didn't sleep all night. He could hear Neville sobbing into his pillow for what seemed like hours. Harry couldn't think of anything to say to comfort him. He knew Neville, like himself, was dreading the dawn. What would happen when the rest of Gryffindor found out what they'd done?
At first, Gryffindors passing the giant hourglasses that recorded the house points the next day thought there'd been a mistake. How could they suddenly have two hundred points fewer than yesterday? And then the story started to spread: Harry Potter, the famous Harry Potter, their hero of two Quidditch matches, had lost them all those points, him and the American girl, along with a couple of other stupid first years.
From being one of the most popular and admired people at the school, Harry and Alex were suddenly the most hated. Even Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs turned on them, because everyone had been longing to see Slytherin lose the house cup. Everywhere Harry and Alex went, people pointed and didn't trouble to lower their voices as they insulted him. Slytherins, on the other hand, clapped as he walked past them, whistling and cheering, "Thanks Potter, we owe you one!"
Only Ron stood by them. "They'll all forget this in a few weeks. Fred and George have lost loads of points in all the time they've been here, and people still like them." "They've never lost a hundred and fifty points in one go, though, have they?" said Harry miserably. "Well - no," Ron admitted.
One day, Alex couldn't take it anymore. She told Ron, Harry and Hermione to hold their heads in between their hands, and when Ron asked, "What for?" She angrily replied, "For everyone being freaking ridiculous." Afraid of what she would do, Ron quickly did as he was told. When she made sure Harry and Hermione did the same, she quickly did so, and whispered, "Cranium Revolvis." (A/N: Again, inspiration shoutout to rosetrang628! Thanks for the support!)
Everyone in the Great Hall's head revolved completely, and the other three stared at Alex in amazement, while she began buttering her toast. "What? I told you guys they were being ridiculous!" she said calmly in response to their stares. A couple of people seemed to have recognised the source of the spell, and glared at Alex.
She stared at right back at them calmly, and mouthed, "Keep glaring, and it'll happen again." Their glares lingered a little longer, but they eventually decided it wasn't worth it, so they turned back around. Although that helped Harry feel slightly better, he was still extremely upset.
It was a bit late to repair the damage, but Harry swore to himself not to meddle in things that weren't his business from now on. He'd had it with sneaking around and spying. He felt so ashamed of himself that he went to Wood and offered to resign from the Quidditch team.
"Resign?" Wood thundered. "What good'll that do? How are we going to get any points back if we can't win at Quidditch?" But even Quidditch had lost its fun. The rest of the team wouldn't speak to Harry during practice, and if they had to speak about him, they called him "the Seeker."
Hermione and Neville were suffering, too. They didn't have as bad a time as Harry and Alex, because they weren't as well-known, but nobody would speak to them, either. Hermione had stopped drawing attention to herself in class, keeping her head down and working in silence.
Harry was almost glad that the exams weren't far away. All the studying he had to do kept his mind off his misery. He, Ron, and Hermione kept to themselves, working late into the night, trying to remember the ingredients in complicated potions, learn charms and spells by heart, memorize the dates of magical discoveries and goblin rebellions, and Alex would accompany them, but still refused to study along.
Then, about a week before the exams were due to start, Harry's new resolution not to interfere in anything that didn't concern him was put to an unexpected test. Walking back from the library on his own one afternoon, he heard somebody whimpering from a classroom up ahead. As he drew closer, he heard Quirrell's voice.
"No - no - not again, please -" It sounded as though someone was threatening him. Harry moved closer. "All right - all right -" he heard Quirrell sob. Next second, Quirrell came hurrying out of the classroom straightening his turban. He was pale and looked as though he was about to cry.
He strode out of sight; Harry didn't think Quirrell had even noticed him. He waited until Quirrell's footsteps had disappeared, then peered into the classroom. It was empty, but a door stood ajar at the other end. Harry was halfway toward it before he remembered what he'd promised himself about not meddling.
All the same, he'd have gambled twelve Sorcerer's Stones that Snape had just left the room, and from what Harry had just heard, Snape would be walking with a new spring in his step - Quirrell seemed to have given in at last. Harry went back to the library, where Hermione was testing Ron on Astronomy and Alex was flipping through another magazine, looking uninterested. Harry told them what he'd heard.
"Snape's done it, then!" said Ron. "If Quirrell's told him how to break his Anti-Dark Force spell -" "There's still Fluffy, though," said Hermione. "Maybe Snape's found out how to get past him without asking Hagrid," said Alex, looking up at the thousands of books surrounding them. "I bet there's a book somewhere in here telling you how to get past a giant three-headed dog. So what do we do, Harry?"
The light of adventure was kindling again in Ron's eyes, but Hermione answered before Harry could. "Go to Dumbledore. That's what we should have done ages ago. If we try anything ourselves we'll be thrown out for sure."
"But we've got no proof!" said Harry. "Quirrell's too scared to back us up. Snape's only got to say he doesn't know how the troll got in at Halloween and that he was nowhere near the third floor - who do you think they'll believe, him or us? It's not exactly a secret we hate him, Dumbledore'll think we made it up to get him sacked. Filch wouldn't help us if his life depended on it, he's too friendly with Snape, and the more students get thrown out, the better, he'll think. And don't forget, we're not supposed to know about the Stone or Fluffy. That'll take a lot of explaining."
Hermione looked convinced, but Ron and Alex didn't. "If we just do a bit of poking around -" "No," said Harry flatly, "we've done enough poking around." He pulled a map of Jupiter toward him and started to learn the names of its moons. The following morning, notes were delivered to Harry, Hermione, Alex and Neville at the breakfast table. They were all the same:
Your detention will take place at eleven o'clock tonight. Meet Mr. Filch in the entrance hall.
Professor McGonagall Harry had forgotten they still had detentions to do in the furor over the points they'd lost. He half expected Hermione or Alex to complain that this was a whole night of studying lost, or a pranking opportunity lost, but both of them didn't say a word. Like Harry, Hermione felt they deserved what they'd got. Alex just continued eating her cereal quietly.
At eleven o'clock that night, they said good-bye to Ron in the common room and went down to the entrance hall with Neville. Filch was already there - and so was Malfoy. Harry had also forgotten that Malfoy had gotten a detention, too. "Follow me," said Filch, lighting a lamp and leading them outside.
I bet you'll think twice about breaking a school rule again, won't you, eh?" he said, leering at them. "Oh yes... hard work and pain are the best teachers if you ask me... It's just a pity they let the old punishments die out... hang you by your wrists from the ceiling for a few days, I've got the chains still in my office, keep 'em well oiled in case they're ever needed... Right, off we go, and don't think of running off, now, it'll be worse for you if you do."
They marched off across the dark grounds. Neville kept sniffing. Harry wondered what their punishment was going to be. It must be something really horrible, or Filch wouldn't be sounding so delighted. The moon was bright, but clouds scudding across it kept throwing them into darkness. Ahead, Harry could see the lighted windows of Hagrid's hut. Then they heard a distant shout.
"Is that you, Filch? Hurry up, I want ter get started."Harry's heart rose; if they were going to be working with Hagrid it wouldn't be so bad. His relief must have showed in his -face, because Filch said, "I suppose you think you'll be enjoying yourself with that oaf? Well, think again, boy - it's into the forest you're going and I'm much mistaken if you'll all come out in one piece."
At this, Neville let out a little moan, and Malfoy stopped dead in his tracks. "The forest?" he repeated, and he didn't sound quite as cool as usual. "We can't go in there at night - there's all sorts of things in there - werewolves, I heard." Neville clutched the sleeve of Harry's robe and made a choking noise.
"That's your problem, isn't it?" said Filch, his voice cracking with glee. "Should've thought of them werewolves before you got in trouble, shouldn't you?" Hagrid came striding toward them out of the dark, Fang at his heel. He was carrying his large crossbow, and a quiver of arrows hung over his shoulder.
"Abou' time," he said. "I bin waitin' fer half an hour already. All right, Harry, Hermione, Alex?" "I shouldn't be too friendly to them, Hagrid," said Filch coldly, they're here to be punished, after all." "That's why yer late, is it?" said Hagrid, frowning at Filch. "Bin lecturin' them, eh? 'S not your place ter do that. Yeh've done yer bit, I'll take over from here."
"I'll be back at dawn," said Filch, "for what's left of them," he added nastily, and he turned and started back toward the castle, his lamp bobbing away in the darkness. Malfoy now turned to Hagrid. "I'm not going in that forest, he said, and Harry was pleased to hear the note of panic in his voice. "What's wrong Malfoy? Scared?" Alex taunted. Malfoy immediately stood up straight, trying to looking impressive, and said, "Of course not!" Although, his voice cracked a little at the end, and Alex sniggered.
"Yeh are if yeh want ter stay at Hogwarts," said Hagrid fiercely. "Yeh've done wrong an' now yeh've got ter pay fer it." "But this is servant stuff, it's not for students to do. I thought we'd be copying lines or something, if my father knew I was doing this, he'd tell yer that's how it is at Hogwarts," Hagrid growled. "Copyin' lines! What good's that ter anyone? Yeh'll do summat useful or Yeh'll get out. If yeh think yer father'd rather you were expelled, then get back off ter the castle an' pack. Go on"
Malfoy didn't move. He looked at Hagrid furiously, but then dropped his gaze. "Right then," said Hagrid, "now, listen carefully, 'cause it's dangerous what we're gonna do tonight, an' I don' want no one takin' risks. Follow me over here a moment." He led them to the very edge of the forest. Holding his lamp up high, he pointed down a narrow, winding earth track that disappeared into the thick black trees. A light breeze lifted their hair as they looked into the forest.
"Look there," said Hagrid, "see that stuff shinin' on the ground? Silvery stuff? That's unicorn blood. There's a unicorn in there bin hurt badly by summat. This is the second time in a week. I found one dead last Wednesday. We're gonna try an' find the poor thing. We might have ter put it out of its misery." "And what if whatever hurt the unicorn finds us first?" said Malfoy, unable to keep the fear out of his voice.
"There's nothin' that lives in the forest that'll hurt yeh if yer with me or Fang," said Hagrid. "An' keep ter the path. Right, now, we're gonna split inter two parties an' follow the trail in diff'rent directions. There's blood all over the place, it must've bin staggerin' around since last night at least." "I want Fang," said Malfoy quickly, looking at Fang's long teeth.
"All right, but I warn yeh, he's a coward," said Hagrid. " So me, Harry, an' Hermione'll go one way an' Draco, Neville, Alex an' Fang'll go the other. Now, if any of us finds the unicorn, we'll send up green sparks, right? Get yer wands out an' practice now - that's it - an' if anyone gets in trouble, send up red sparks, an' we'll all come an' find yeh - so, be careful - let's go."
The forest was black and silent. A little way into it they reached a fork in the earth path, and Harry, Hermione, and Hagrid took the left path while Alex, Malfoy, Neville, and Fang took the right.
For a while, as they trudged along the path, all was silent. Then, Malfoy walked up to Alex, who was taking the lead, and commented, "You look nice in the moonlight." Alex narrowed her eyes at Malfoy. "Dude, we're in a dark forest trying to look for a unicorn murderer, we're eleven, and I still hate you. Given that I've sent you to Mars before, do you really want to take your chances and keep flirting with me?"
Malfoy audibly gulped, and said, "Ok, point taken. But you will be mine, Alex Russo." He shamelessly winked at her, and she shuddered, keeping her eyes and ears strained for anything out of the ordinary, besides Neville's constant sniffing. Eventually, she felt bad for Neville, and fell into step next to him. "Look Neville, remember that time I apologised for what I did and you forgave me and we became friends again?"
Neville sniffled, "I don't remember that- wait, Alex are you trying to apologise to me?" Alex rolled her eyes, and said, "Maybe." Then, she stuck out her hand. "Friends?" Neville considered it, and shakily shook her hand. "Friends." Just then, something jumped on Neville's shoulders, and he yelled in fear and surprise, shooting red sparks into the sky.
Suddenly, laughter was heard. Malfoy was the one who scared Neville, and was laughing at his expense. Alex angrily marched over to Malfoy, and smacked him in the head. "That wasn't funny! You scared him! Now, the others are gonna think something bad happened to us, and it's just gonna be a false alarm! Ugh!" she threw up her hands in frustration, but Malfoy kept laughing, much to her displeasure.
She had it. Alex took out her wand, and waved it at Malfoy. "From your chin to your toes, an elephant trunk grows." (A/N: for the third time, shout out to rosetrang628! I appreciate your reviews, and I hope u don't mind me using your ideas!)He stopped laughing, and stared at his new elephant trunk in horror. Neville gave a small chuckle, but was silenced by Malfoy's glare. Alex shot him a satisfied smirk. "This is why you should stop bullying poor Neville."
Hagrid came running. "Wha' happened?" Alex glared pointedly at Malfoy. "Ask him." After explaining the situation to Hagrid, he was fuming. He led the three of them, along with Fang, back to Harry and Hermione. After Hagrid explained the situation to them, they seemed to be trying not to laugh at Malfoy's new elephant trunk. Hagrid turned to Alex. "Alex, as much as I would'a did tha' meself, could ya turn 'im back?" Grudgingly, Alex waved her wand, and Draco's nose turned back to normal.
"We'll be lucky ter catch anythin' now, with the racket you three were makin'. Right, we're changin' groups - Neville, you stay with me an' Hermione, Harry, you go with Alex, Fang an' this idiot. I'm sorry," Hagrid added in a whisper to Harry, "but he'll have a harder time frightenin' you, an' we've gotta get this done."
So Harry set off into the heart of the forest with Alex, Malfoy and Fang. They walked for nearly half an hour, deeper and deeper into the forest, until the path became almost impossible to follow because the trees were so thick. Harry thought the blood seemed to be getting thicker. There were splashes on the roots of a tree, as though the poor creature had been thrashing around in pain close by. Harry could see a clearing ahead, through the tangled branches of an ancient oak.
"Look -" he murmured, holding out his arm to stop Malfoy. Something bright white was gleaming on the ground. They inched closer. It was the unicorn all right, and it was dead. Both Harry and Alex had never seen anything so beautiful and sad. Its long, slender legs were stuck out at odd angles where it had fallen and its mane was spread pearly-white on the dark leaves.
Harry had taken one step toward it when a slithering sound made him freeze where he stood. A bush on the edge of the clearing quivered... Then, out of the shadows, a hooded figure came crawling across the ground like some stalking beast. Harry, Alex, Malfoy, and Fang stood transfixed. The cloaked figure reached the unicorn, lowered its head over the wound in the animal's side, and began to drink its blood.
"AAAAAAAAAARGH!" Malfoy let out a terrible scream and bolted, dragging Alex along - so did Fang. As Malfoy dragged Alex along, she stopped. "Malfoy, where's Harry?" she shouted, panicking when she realised Harry wasn't there. Malfoy tried to drag her away, but she stayed put. "Who cares? Come on, let's go!" Malfoy shrieked.
Alex panicked, "You left him there? I'm going back for him!" Malfoy looked at her determined face, and left her, running off in fright. But, when she went back, Harry was nowhere to be seen. Worried, she ran around, searching for either Harry or Hagrid.
Eventually, she found Hagrid. She told him what happened, and they quickly went off to search for Harry. Eventually, they found him along with a centaur, and Hermione quickly ran to him. "Harry! Harry, are you all right?" Alex ran up to him and hugged him. "Thank god! You're alright! What happened?" He stared at her for a few moments before saying, "I'll explain later. And I'm fine, Hermione."
Then, he turned to Hagrid. "The unicorn's dead, Hagrid, it's in that clearing back there." The centaur mummered something to Harry which Alex didn't quite catch, and cantered off, leaving them shivering in the cold.
Ron had fallen asleep in the dark common room, waiting for them to return. He shouted something about Quidditch fouls when Harry roughly shook him awake. In a matter of seconds, though, he was wide-eyed as Harry began to tell him, Hermione and Alex what had happened in the forest.
Harry couldn't sit down. He paced up and down in front of the fire. He was still shaking. "Snape wants the stone for Voldemort... and Voldemort's waiting in the forest... and all this time we thought Snape just wanted to get rich..." "Stop saying the name!" said Ron in a terrified whisper, as if he thought Voldemort could hear them. Alex rolled her eyes, obviously finding Ron ridiculous.
Harry wasn't listening. "Firenze saved me, but he shouldn't have done so... Bane was furious... he was talking about interfering with what the planets say is going to happen... They must show that Voldemort's coming back... Bane thinks Firenze should have let Voldemort kill me... I suppose that's written in the stars as well."
"Will you stop saying the name!" Ron hissed. "So all I've got to wait for now is Snape to steal the Stone," Harry went on feverishly, "then Voldemort will be able to come and finish me off... Well, I suppose Bane'll be happy." Hermione looked very frightened, but she had a word of comfort.
"Harry, everyone says Dumbledore's the only one You-Know-Who was ever afraid of With Dumbledore around, You-Know-Who won't touch you. Anyway, who says the centaurs are right? It sounds like fortune-telling to me, and Professor McGonagall says that's a very imprecise branch of magic."
The sky had turned light before they stopped talking. They went to bed exhausted, their throats sore. But the night's surprises weren't over. When Harry pulled back his sheets, he found his invisibility cloak folded neatly underneath them. There was a note pinned to it:
Just in case.