“Are we there yet?” Sirius asked as the group emerged from a pipe.
The fact that the meagre light from their lit wands showed that they were now in a much bigger tunnel and that there were shadows of a myriad of other pipes leading off and away from the tunnel indicated that they’d reached the main section of Slytherin’s hidden lair deep under the school.
“Nearly,” Harry sighed, annoyance clear in his voice.
“And here I thought that only non-magical children constantly asked that question when on long trips with their parents,” Hermione commented sotto voce.
“No, it’s all children, even the magical ones,” Minerva replied, having heard her.
Harry, after having a good long look each way, including walking half a dozen metres in either direction, finally worked out where they were.
“It’s this way,” he said, starting off in the first direction that he’d checked.
Obediently, the others followed, the sound of something snapping echoing loudly in the tunnel and making each of them wince. Lowering his wand, Harry peered at his feet and breathed a sigh of relief when he realised that all that they were walking on were rat bones. Still, though, he did his very best to take care where he placed his feet, although avoiding all of the bones was next to impossible.
Finally, after what seemed quite a long time of walking in the near-dark, they reached the end of the tunnel. Before them, taking up most of the wall, was a massive circular, silver door. It was intricately carved, and inlaid with gems, the two snakes that ran around the edge of it, each with the tails of the other in their mouth most predominant.
Having already been here before, albeit not for a number of years, Harry knew exactly what to do. Stepping forward, he held his lit wand high.
“§Open§” he hissed.
Instantly, the twin snakes began writhing around the outside of the door, unlocking the various locks as they went, if the rhythmic sound of thunks that came from the door was any indication.
Finally, after the last lock had disengaged, the door silently swung open.
“After you,” Sirius said, bowing dramatically while looking at Harry and winking.
Taking the cue, Harry strode forward, the others at his heels.
“Ignis,” he intoned, giving his wand a wave at the nearest wall sconce.
In response, the torch lit and then, one by one, each of the others spread around the cavernous Chamber of Secrets lit in response. As light burst forth, more and more of the Chamber could be seen. It was still as dirty and damp as it was the last time that he’d been down there. Pools of water were contained away from the walkways that led towards the back of the great, high-ceilinged cavern, but that didn’t mean that the they weren’t in danger of slipping on mossy patches if they weren’t careful.
Together, the six walked the length of the cavern, none speaking and all stepping as lightly as they could, until they stopped, looking up into the great monkey-like face of the statue in front of them.
“He may be considered one of the greatest wizards ever, but Merlin, Slytherin is ugly,” Sirius commented.
“I’m just glad you had that basilisk rendered into potion ingredients and removed; I don’t think I would have liked to be down here with that thing staring at me,” Neville shuddered.
“And definitely not with the smell that would have accompanied it,” Daphne added, wrinkling her nose.
“Well, this is our home for the next couple of days,” Minerva stated. “I suggest that we get ourselves settled and get some sleep; the next little while is going to be tense enough as it is without adding sleep deprivation into the potion.”
With nods all around, Neville swung his pack off of his back and opened it. Sticking his arm into it as far as it would go, he began pulling out sleeping bags and bottles of water. Meanwhile, Harry, Sirius and Minerva were transfiguring pieces of rocks into beds, with Sirius’ being the most elaborate, with intricately carved headboards, while Minerva’s were more practical, more approximating a camp bed.
It didn’t take overly long before all six were lying down, the blankets pulled up to their chin to ward away the cold that seeped down through the bedrock from the Black Lake far above them.
Not one, though, could say that they slept well; all mostly only dozed, tossing and turning continuously in a futile attempt to get comfortable.
“This isn’t working,” Harry stated some hours later. “There’s no way I can sleep here.”
The fact that he’d been hearing constant rustling from the beds all around him, meant that he was fairly certain that he wasn’t the only one.
“Perhaps we should get up and get to work,” Minerva suggested.
“Yeah, the sooner we start mapping these tunnels, the sooner we can get those kids out of here,” Sirius agreed as he sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.
“Can we have something to eat before we start?” Neville asked.
“I second that idea,” Hermione agreed.
“That sounds a wonderful idea,” Minerva stated. “If we have a decent breakfast now, we’ll be less distracted later by rumbling stomachs.”
The small meal boxes that they extracted were found to contain full English breakfasts kept under a stasis charm, all they needed was to be heated up and they were ready to eat. Sitting on the edges of their beds, three side by side on Harry’s and the others on Neville’s, they dug in to their eggs, bacon, fried tomatoes, toast and hash browns. One of the flasks that had been packed for them was found to be filled with orange juice; tea, much to Sirius’ disgust, was missing altogether.
As they ate, they discussed their ‘plan of attack’ for determining the best pipes, tunnels and passageways to get them to not only the kids, but also the professors.
“I say we start at the top and work our way down,” Sirius suggested.
“Makes sense,” Harry agreed. “The most dangerous part will be the Slytherins; the more we can do before we get near them, the better.”
“I agree,” Daphne said. “There are bound to be quite a number of the Slytherins that have either taken the Mark or are sympathetic to Riddle’s cause.”
“I believe that we’re in agreement,” Minerva said. “As soon as everyone’s eaten their fill, we’ll be on our way.”
The transfigured beds were left as they were; after all, they’d likely be needed later. The outer door to the Chamber was left open, Hermione even going so far as to place a large rock in the way to ensure that it remained so.
“Just in case something happens and we get separated from Harry,” she explained, to appreciative nods.
And then the hard part began, climbing up through miles and miles of tunnels and slippery pipes. More often than not, Sirius was forced to duck his head to keep from scraping it on the low ceiling. The sound of their feet was unexpectedly accompanied by the click of claws after Sirius had had enough and simply transformed into Padfoot to deal with the problem.
Their path was anything but straight. The pipes and passages twisted and turned, not to mention turning at right-angles once they were definitely within the walls of the castle itself. Occasionally, they encountered stairs, some, disconcertingly enough, taking them down instead of up, as they were aiming for.
“How do we know where we are?” Neville asked a couple of hours later.
Harry stopped, looking down at the Marauder’s Map in his hand with a frown. Neville’s question was very apt. These passages inside the castle walls weren’t marked on the map and, therefore, there were no tiny footprints with their names labelled on them indicating exactly where they were in the castle.
Looking up and down the passageway, he, surprisingly, almost instantly found what he was looking for: a small etching of a snake three blocks up from the ground.
“Only one way to find out,” Harry said, holding out the map to Hermione. “Keep an eye on this. The rest of you, have your wands ready.”
Then, before anyone could protest, he kicked against the snake carving, pushing the block slightly in. A puff of dust shot out from the cracks around the edges of the door that appeared at the same time as a click was heard. Then, silently, the door swung open inwards, just enough to allow a snake to slip through or for a very large snake to be able to nudge it fully open.
Flattening himself against the bricks, Harry peered out through the crack. The corridor beyond was blessedly empty, unsurprising as the map indicated that all of the students were currently in classrooms. Edging the door open a little, Harry took a better look down the corridor. Then, feeling brave, even with his heart hammering in his chest, he slipped his head out and looked down the other way.
“It’s okay; it’s clear,” he said before he stepped boldly out into the corridor.
It was nearly a full three minutes later before he heard Hermione’s triumphant cry.
“Got you! We’re on the sixth floor. Around the bend that way,” here her arm pointed down the corridor to the right, “is the Arithmancy classroom.”
Having achieved the information that was needed, Harry ducked back into the hidden passageway and told the door behind him to close in parseltongue.
“That was very foolhardy, Harry,” Minerva scolded.
The boy in question simply shrugged. “Perhaps, but it needed to be done.”
“You know, there’s an awful lot more of these entrances than I’d expected,” Daphne remarked from where she was bent over the paper she’d laid out on the ground.
As they’d travelled through the passageways, Daphne had been diligently mapping them as best as she could – every turn they took, the tunnels that they explored that turned out to be dead ends and each level that they thought that they’d climbed. Looking down, Harry saw her draw in a new picture of a snake in the passageway that they were traversing. There were now over a dozen of them that they’d come across, this though, was the first to have a label attached to it: Arithmancy.
“Both Gryffindor and Ravenclaw dorms are located on the seventh floor, so we’re going to need to go up one more floor, then either head west towards Gryffindor or east towards Ravenclaw,” Minerva commented.
In the end, the decision of which one to visit first was taken from them, the passageway that they followed taking a sharp jink before they’d even gone up to the next level. Following it along, they came unexpectedly to a dead end.
“Looks like we took a wrong turn somewhere,” a tired sounding Neville remarked.
“Actually, I don’t think we did,” Harry contradicted him before nodding to the snake etching near the ground.
“The only question now is, whereabouts are we?” Hermione asked.
“Hey, that’s different,” Sirius remarked.
Seeing all eyes turned to him, he pointed at the wall in front of them.
“Why would there be a snake carving up here?” he asked, indicating said carving located at head height. “No snake could reach that one.”
“The basilisk could,” Harry countered.
“Not a comforting thought,” Minerva muttered.
Harry, though, moved closer to the wall, his focus on this strange snake. Why would it be there? It had to have been put there by Slytherin himself. A glance down the passageway showed that it couldn’t be there for the basilisk; there was no way the giant snake would have fit through the passageway to get there. Therefore, it had to be there for a person to use.
“§Open§” he hissed.
This time, instead of the expected outline of a door appearing, a section of the rocks to the side of the carving shimmered before turning transparent. Stepping even closer, Harry realised that, although he could now see through the bricks, it was as though they were still there, as a ghostly image.
“It’s like the exit from the passage near the greenhouses,” Neville stated.
“You’re saying that we can see out but no one can see in?” Harry asked.
Neville simply shrugged.
“What can you see, Harry?” Sirius asked.
Harry moved first to one side and then the other, frowning.
“I think it’s the Ravenclaw common room,” he said. “At least, I can see plenty of blues and bronzes and some bookcases. The problem is that there’s a ruddy great big statue sitting just in front of the door.”
“Let me take a look,” Minerva said.
She’d barely switched places with him before the Headmistress let out a gasp.
“That’s not just any statue, that’s the statue of Rowena Ravenclaw herself,” she said. “Congratulations, we have indeed found a hidden entrance to the Ravenclaw common room.”
“I’m marking it on the map,” Daphne announced.
“One down, three to go,” Hermione smiled.
“And then the professors’ quarters to find,” Minerva stated.
“And a way into the dungeons to get out Trelawney and the others down there. §Close§,” Harry said, turning the bricks opaque once more.
“Let’s get moving,” Sirius said.
Daphne’s map had grown quite a lot as the day had progressed; indeed, twice she’d needed to lay it down with the edges of a new piece of paper just overlapping it before magically joining them together. Dozens of small snake etchings had been marked on the map, five of which, not counting the ones marking the entrance to the common rooms, had labels attached where Harry’d quickly ducked out into the castle proper to check their location.
Currently, the map was laid out on one of the beds, two others having been pulled close by to be used like benches to a table.
“It’s going to be a bit of a hike getting back down here after getting the kids into the passageways,” Sirius commented.
“That can’t be helped,” Minerva replied. “We need to be down here in order for the portkeys to work and not be stopped by Hogwarts’ wards themselves.”
Harry meanwhile, was using his wand to trace the fastest route from each common room down to the Chamber, marking each in the House’s respective colour. While he was still incredibly proficient with his wand, he missed the feel of his rowan staff in his hand, there was just something … right about it, and the added power didn’t hurt either. Unfortunately, the staff wouldn’t shrink with him when he changed into Tavi, thus it had to stay behind back at Diricawl.
“Ravenclaw and Gryffindor’s paths meet here,” Harry said, tapping the intersecting red and blue lines. “That’ll make it easier to get everyone together and down here. With there only being six of us, we’re going to be spread too thin, but linking up means that one or two of us can lead the students from this point while the others go on to the next targets.”
“I want us to stay in pairs, at a minimum, at all times,” Sirius stated, looking at each of them in turn to ensure they realised how serious he was. “If something goes wrong, if we’re discovered, having an extra wand at your back will be essential.”
“That route works well,” Hermione added, “Look, it joins up with Hufflepuff here, and then with Slytherin here.”
“The big question will be, where the staff are and how easy they’ll be to get out,” Minerva stated.
“A question for tomorrow,” Sirius said. Then, after casting a quick tempus, added. “It’s time to check in with home.”
Brandishing his wand, he produced a silvery grim, who stood menacing the Chamber, its hackles raised and teeth bared before turning back to eye Sirius.
“Message to Remus: Progressing well. Hope to be done mapping by tomorrow night.”
After a minute bow of its head, the ghost-like grim bounded across the Chamber and disappeared through the wall.
The following evening saw the six once more gathered around the now much expanded map. A dozen or so extra passageways and the corresponding snake drawings in the appropriate places had been added. In addition to this, two purple lines branched off to two separate locations on the second floor.
“From these two points, we can access all of the staff,” Minerva said, indicating where each of the purple lines ended. “Unfortunately, that’s as close as we can get. In order to get them into the passageways, we’re going to have to venture into the castle corridors themselves and physically go door to door.”
“There’s likely to be charm alarms on each of those doors,” Sirius warned, “so when we go after them, we’re going to have to hit hard and fast.”
“How do we know that none of them have turned?” Neville asked.
“We don’t,” Minerva replied grimly. “But we can make educated guesses. I know my old colleagues well and none of them would have allowed themselves to be Marked. As for the new teachers,” she shrugged, “it’s certain that Alecto and Amycus Carrow are Death Eaters. I’m fairly certain that Mister Elmsworthy can still be trusted, but Miss Channing is a complete unknown. We’ll leave her until last and hope for the best.”
“What about the ones in the dungeon?” Harry asked, indicating the Marauders Map which was open beside the new one.
All eyes settled on the labels of Sybil Trelawney, Dean Thomas, Quincy Rivers and Olivia Snook.
“Unfortunately, they’re going to be the most heavily guarded,” Sirius stated. “We leave them until last and I’ll go after them personally.”
“Remember, this is a rescue mission. We’re not here to engage the Death Eaters in battle, in fact we’re hoping that we won’t even see one,” Minerva emphasised. “We go into each House, have the students gather in the common rooms, check for any Marked student. Those we find, we stun and bind. Then we simply get them into the passageways and down to here. Once the students are safe in the tunnels, we attempt to rescue the staff and those in the dungeons.”
“We’ll leave the portkeys here,” Sirius added. “As soon as the students start arriving, we start porting them out. These passages may be fairly secure, but they’re not impenetrable.”
“I assume that we’re sticking to the plan of having us go in pairs?” Harry asked.
Minerva nodded. “Yes. Myself and Neville; Sirius and Daphne; Harry and Hermione. One male and one female in each pair, making it easier to reach each dormitory.”
“What about Professor Snape?” Hermione asked, “he’s Hogwarts Headmaster now.”
“He is,” Sirius agreed. “He’s also a Marked Death Eater. Regardless of where his loyalties lie – and I have a pretty good bet of where that is – he stays behind. Diricawl’s wards won’t let him through even if he is on our side.”
“Alright, everyone,” I think that we’re as prepared as we’re going to be,” Minerva said. “I suggest that you all try to get a few hours’ sleep. It’s going to be a long night.”