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Return to Prince Manor by Snapegirl
Chapter 30 : Gauntlet
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 11


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Just before the third task:

Draco finished potting the Spitfire Snapdragon about fifteen minutes before the third task was scheduled to start. He hadn't realized how late it was when he had offered to help Professor Sprout finish planting these and it was only when the clock in the Great Hall chimed the half-hour that he looked at his watch and saw the time. Ahh, Merlin's bloody arse! I'm late for the tournament! I hope Hermione saved me a seat. He quickly washed his hands and dried them and put away his trowel before bolting out of the greenhouse and down the path to the pitch. He could already hear the cheers and jeers from the stadium.

Damn! Damn! I wonder if 'Mione's sitting with Uncle Phil's family and is Katie also? They probably have arrived by now. Hope the twins haven't scared anybody to death. I mean, I think they're wickedly cute, but not everyone likes little vampires. Of course, Aunt Jewels could always say their teeth were Glamoured. He hid a smirk and kept running down the path, panting only slightly.

The next instant he slammed into someone a little taller than he was and was knocked to the ground along with the other person.

Draco sucked in a breath, his chest felt tight, and looked up, startled. "Oh . . . Professor Moody . . .sorry, I didn't see you . . ." he wheezed.

"Maybe you ought to get spectacles then, like your foster brother," snapped the professor, climbing unsteadily to his feet. "Clumsy oaf! Don't you know to watch where you're going?"

Draco flushed and slowly got up. He was in a hurry and not in the mood to get lectured by anyone, even a teacher. "It was an accident! I was trying to get to the tournament, sir! I was in the greenhouse all afternoon—"

"Detention with Professor Sprout, eh? Typical."

"I didn't have detention!" snapped Draco, starting to get angry. Moody had had it in for him since the first day of class and he was getting very fed up with the other's unreasonable attitude. "I was doing her a favor!"

"Lying again, Malfoy? Just like your father, you are! Lucius had a silver tongue, especially when it came to preserving his own arse."

"I don't give a damn what he had, Professor. I'm not his son anymore, now why can't you just get off my back about him?"

"You'll always be a Malfoy, boy, no matter if Snape adopts you. A leopard doesn't change his spots."

Draco saw red. "I can be anything I want to be, and I'll thank you to shut the bloody hell up about Lucius Malfoy! Severus Snape is my family now, judge me by my own merit and not who sired me. I'm not Lucius, and never will be, and if you can't see that, maybe you need glasses . . .sir!" He spat the honorific, and then turned to stride past the one-eyed professor, fuming. He didn't care if Moody gave him detention for his insolence, all he wanted was to get to the stadium and watch his brother compete.

"You dare lecture me, you impudent little pus-bag?" Moody growled and pointed his wand. "I'll teach you to disrespect me!"

WHAM!

Suddenly Draco found himself running on four feet instead of two, twitching a pink nose, and covered in white fur. He stopped short, squeaking sharply. Ahhh! What happened to me? I've become a . . .ferret!

He began to run in circles, panicked at finding himself in a new form. He could feel his heart hammering madly and the ferret mind urging him to run for the safety of the nearest tree or bush alongside the path.

"Fitting. A little white vermin," sneered Moody, his one eye whirling. There was an expression on his face that Draco had never seen before. Cold, cruel, and . . . without mercy.

He squeaked in terror and started to run down the path, the ferret mind overwhelming his own good sense.

"Oh, no you don't! I owe you one, whelp!" Moody flicked his wand.

The next thing Ferret Draco knew was that he was flying high in the air. He curled up into a ball instinctively as he fell back down to land hard on the path. The impact jarred all his bones and sent pain stabbing through him. Oww! That HURT!

He tried to get to his feet and run, but Moody was devilish quick and bounced him several more times, all around the pathway. Each time the impact hurt more and he became dizzy and disorientated and began shrieking in mortal distress.

"That'll teach you to disrespect a teacher!" Moody was snarling, his eye burning with wrath and a sort of sadistic delight as the ferret's cries grew more frenzied.

Bounce! Bounce! Bounce!

Minerva McGonagall was coming down the path at that moment, she was also late, having caught a third-year of her own House smoking an illegal substance in the boys' lavatory. She had promptly removed the offending substance and grounded the boy to his common room and given him a week's worth of detention plus was going to write his parents. As a result, the Deputy Headmistress was not in a very good mood at all.

The ferret's screams grated on her already frazzled nerves and she came to a halt beside Mad Eye and cried, "Alastor, by all that's good on the earth, what are you doing?"

"Huh? Just teaching a no-good little whelp a lesson in manners, Minerva."

He flicked his wand again and the ferret shot into the air and bounced down hard, letting out another pathetic cry.

"Moody . . .is that a student?"Minerva went pale. She pulled her wand and gestured, lightning swift, and the ferret transformed back into a very sore and shaking Draco. "Mr. Malfoy!" She whirled on her colleague. "Alastor, we never use magic as a punishment, you great looby! We give detention or speak to their Head of House!"

"That won't do no good, Snape's too soft on the boy . . ."

"Alastor Moody, this is not Durmstrang! We do not terrorize students into good behavior by using our superior magical skills! Surely Dumbledore told you of this when you arrived!"

"He might've mentioned it." Moody shrugged. "The brat deserved it, answering me back that way—"

"Deserved or not, it is forbidden for a teacher to hex a student that way! Do it again and I'll see to it that you're sacked," the Head of Gryffindor roared, sounding like a veritable lioness defending her cub.

Draco climbed shakily to his feet, blinking back tears. He felt as if he had been caned by Lucius for hours and his lip and nose were bloody. He wrapped his arms about his middle, he didn't think anything was broken, but his ribs throbbed like bloody blazes. He would have smiled at the way McGonagall was lighting into Mad Eye, but his mouth hurt too much. He would have never expected such a rousing defense from the Head of Gryffindor for a Slytherin, but then again, McGonagall was fair and what Moody had done was forbidden in the extreme.

He kept one hand about his middle and limped slowly down the path to the stadium, wishing McGonagall would Transfigure Moody into a toilet plunger and unclog all the backed up toilets with him. He mopped his face with the sleeve of his robe and gritted his teeth. Lucius had cast Crucio on him once to see how long he could withstand it and this was almost . . .not quite . . .but almost as bad as that and the spell Pansy had cast upon him.

Every step he took sent new shockwaves of pain through him, but he was determined not to miss the last task of the tournament. He mentally consigned Moody to depths of hell and a thousand Sectumsempras, hurrying as fast as he dared into the stadium, catching sight of Hermione, who was standing up waving a pennant with Harry's initials on it, holding Siren on her shoulder.

He focused on her and it allowed him to move past the pain.

Hermione scanned the crowd of Slytherins opposite her for Draco, her brow creased in a frown of worry. "I don't see Draco anywhere. I wonder where he could be?" she mused to both Julie and Katie, who were seated next to her in the special box reserved for family members and close friends of the champions.

"Didn't he have some kind of project to help out Professor Sprout?" Ron asked from Katie's other side.

"Oh, that's right. He was going to help her pot some Spitting Snapdragons," Hermione said.

"He must have had an awful lot of plants to pot if he's this late. The tournament's about to begin." Katie said, looking anxiously at her boy friend, standing in front of the huge hedge maze.

"Where's Papa?" asked Siren, he was looking all over for Philip, who had promised he would meet them here.

"He's late too," muttered Julie. "Men! And they accuse women of never being on time." The lady vampire was dressed in a flowing green and smoky gray dress that accentuated her small waist and breasts to perfection. Her twins were dressed in matching outfits, black pants and blue shirts with I Support Snape! Buttoms on them. Ron had given them to the boys, he had found a few extra in his robe pocket.

Both small vampires were under strict orders to not show their teeth to anyone, unless they were family or the select group of Harry's friends who knew about what they were. The boys were so excited that they couldn't sit still, and kept jumping all over, screaming, "Go, Harry!" and waving pennants with Gryffindor colors on them.

Suddenly, Setus yelled, "Look, 'Mione! There he is! There's Draco!" His sharp vampire eyes had spotted the Slytherin making his way through the crowd towards their special ringside seats.

Hermione turned, ready to scold her boy friend a little for leaving things till the eleventh hour, and gasped. "Oh, good sweet Merlin! What happened to his face?"

"Looks like somebody beat him up," said Setus helpfully. "Maybe that's where Papa is, beating up the bad kid who beat up Draco."

"Papa doesn't beat up kids," Siren said scornfully. "He'd get in trouble."

"Okay, Mr. Smarty-pants. Then maybe he's scaring them to death. Or giving them a good spanking. He's a grown-up, he can spank kids."

Hermione smiled. "I hope whatever he's doing to them, it makes them run and hide under the bed till term is over."

"A black eye, a bloody nose, and a split lip," Julie catalogued all the injuries she could see before Draco even arrived. "I'll need my potions kit. I always carry one with me, because of my wild children. One never knows when one will need to fix a cut or a bruise." She turned to rummage in a medium-sized black Armani purse she carried.

Draco reached them a moment later. "Sorry I'm late. I ran into a problem on my way here."

"Who did that to you?" Hermione demanded, furious.

"Did some nasty big kids beat you up?" asked Siren worriedly.

"Did Papa catch them and beat them up?" Setus demanded.

"What? No, they weren't kids, but I wouldn't mind if he did catch that damn crazy old fart and beat him up," Draco said, trying to answer all the questions at once.

"You mean, a student didn't do this to you?" Hermione exclaimed, horrified. "Then who did?"

"Moody," Draco snapped.

"Bloody hell!" Ron cried.

"Ron!" Katie elbowed him in the ribs. "Watch your mouth, there's little kids here."

The Gryffindor blushed and muttered an apology.

"The professor?" Hermione looked as if she were either going to pass out or storm out of the box and attack Mad Eye.

"You know somebody else by that name?" Draco asked.

"Sit down here and let me see those injuries," Julie ordered firmly. She pulled Draco down to sit beside her and opened her potions kit. Both her children grimaced.

Draco's eyes widened as he realized something. "Oh, damn, I'm bleeding near you, my lady."

Julie frowned and tilted his head back, gently wiping his face with a damp cloth. "That's irrelevant. I am not a fledgling, to go into blood rage over a mere cut," she whispered so only he could hear her. "Besides, I have fed recently, so no worries, little dragon." She continued to apply several potions and pastes to him, and in a matter of minutes, his face was healed.

"Draco, why would Professor Moody do something like that?" Hermione persisted.

"Because he's an arse and he has it in for me because of Lucius," Draco replied. "He Transfigured me into a ferret and he . . .bounced me all over the path like a bloody rubber ball. That's how I got this," he gestured at his face.

"That's awful! He ought to be sacked for that," Katie cried.

Julie handed him a vial of a pain reliever and he drank it, knowing it would help with the rest of his bruises and sore ribs.

"Then what happened? Did Pap come and scare him silly?" asked Siren.

"No. McGonagall came and tore into him. She was mad as a soaking wet cat being chased by a dog. I've never seen her like that." Draco answered.

"Good! You ought to report this to Dumbledore, Draco," Hermione said angrily. "No teacher should be allowed to get away with using harmful magic on a student!"

"Don't worry, 'Mione. Once Dad hears about this, Mad Eye will be lucky he can still walk out the gates on his own two feet and not be carried out in a coffin." Draco said grimly. "Stop fretting. I'm fine." He hugged her. "Now let's watch the last task."

They focused their attention upon the field and the four champions.

Down below, Harry looked up from studying the door to the labyrinth, it was made of heavy oak and bound by iron, fingering his shimmerling brooch as he did so. He had decided to wear Severus' Christmas gift to him that evening for luck, since he didn't plan to cheat and call upon the host of the Seelie Court for aid in the tournament. His eyes met his father's, and he saw Severus give him a short nod of approval and a small encouraging smile as well.

He squared his shoulders and faced forward, thinking, Only one more task and then I am done with this damned tournament. Then I can relax till the end of term and return to Prince Manor at last. He couldn't wait for the end of school, he missed his home with an ache that was almost physical. His hand clutched the silver medallion he always wore beneath his clothes. He could feel the warmth radiating from it and was filled with a feeling of extreme longing. Come back. Come back. I am waiting for you. Come back. He could almost smell the merlinnas ripening on the trees in the orchard, the fae fruit that bloomed only when the heir was in residence. He could almost taste their sweet and tart flavor upon his tongue, he loved them because with each bite they tasted of home, of lazy summer days and starry nights, of comfort and peace, and a promise that he would never be unloved again, for he was the heir and the land and he were one.

He shook his head abruptly. He had to quit dreaming of Prince Manor and concentrate on the task at hand. Just do it, Snape. He traced the shimmerling brooch again and forced himself to block everything else out. All he had to do was make it through the gauntlet and the labyrinth. Then it would be over.

Now Bagman was speaking, standing up from his spot upon the judges' platform. "For this last task, ladies and gentlemen, the champions must enter the labyrinth and run a magical gauntlet, they will have two hours to complete the task, and the first one to touch the Triwizard Cup wins the tournament and the prize money. You will not be able to see all of the gauntlet, but some parts will be accessible for your viewing entertainment. Do enjoy watching and rooting for your favorite champion. May the best witch or wizard win!"

A smattering of applause followed that statement.

"Oh, before I forget . . .to make this fair, we have decided that the wizard with the least points coming into this task shall have the opportunity to enter the labyrinth first. Five minutes later, the next champion will follow. So, the order of competition shall be—Viktor Krum, Fleur Delacouer, Cedric Diggory, and Harry Snape."

Bagman waved his wand and the great door to the labyrinth swung open.

"Good luck, all of you! And watch out for minotaurs!"

There was a sprinkling of laughter following that pathetic joke.

Harry didn't laugh. He was recalling Phil's instructions from last night, cautioning him about Krum cheating. Be careful and always be on your guard. He and his sort like to strike from the shadows. Watch your back.

Harry sighed inwardly. Great. And now the fairness of the judges work against me, because he'll be in there waiting to ambush me. Well, there was no help for it now. He was grateful for Phil's warning and he turned to Cedric and Fleur and said, very quietly, after Krum had entered the maze, "Watch your back. I don't trust Krum. He might try something."

Cedric nodded. "I don't trust him either. Thanks for the heads up, Harry."

Fleur bit her lip. "'E is a . . .how do you say . . .snake in the grass?"

"Yeah, but don't be so down on snakes. I like them," Harry said. "He's more of a dirty rat or a lurker—you know those magical creatures with the huge mouths that hide in the shadows and bite you from behind?"

Both of the others nodded. They shook hands and wished each other luck. Harry had the uneasy feeling he was going to need it.

Fleur and Cedric went into the labyrinth next and then it was just Harry, waiting the requisite five minutes before he followed Cedric inside. He was uncertain what to expect and so mentally prepared himself for just about anything. He wished that five minutes didn't seem like five hours.

Finally, Bagman called, "And finally, the fourth Hogwarts champion . . .Harry Albus Snape, who is currently our leader."

Everyone clapped and cheered as Harry walked up to the doorway and stepped through.

Inside the labyrinth all was eerily quiet . . .until he walked a few paces down the very ordinary flagstone path, his wand out, and the door to the labyrinth slammed shut. The booming echoed through the air and suddenly he heard an odd grinding sound, as if some great monster were gnashing its teeth, and he saw the walls of the maze, which were covered with creepers, some of which had pointed teeth, move and shift.

The walls change and shift, he recalled from Bagman's earlier speech back in May. Something screamed further up ahead and Harry shivered, uncertain if it was Fleur or some monster. He continued down the path until he reached a triple fork and then he was uncertain which way to go. Then he got an idea.

He whispered a Four Points spell. "Point me to the Triwizard Cup."

His wand spun about on his hand, then froze, pointing unerringly to the left. "All right. Left it is."

Harry walked down the lefthand path and immediately the walls rumbled and shifted once more, moving to block the path behind him. He glanced back and saw only a creeper covered wall. "Guess that answers that question. Can't go back, only forward."

Abruptly the flagstone path changed to one of soft dirt, and Harry smelled the familiar scent of mulch beneath his sneakers. It reminded him of gardening at Privet Drive or working with Draco in the herb garden at Prince Manor. He ventured a few more feet and then the maze opened up to reveal . . .a huge garden with large cup-like red flowers, all leaning to one side and making an odd buzzing . . .no, snoring . . .sound. Large green and blue butterflies swooped and dove about the snoozing flowers and when Harry looked up he saw an incongruous sun shining overhead.

"Huh?" he said aloud. "It was night, or almost dusk, when I came in here. Surely I haven't been in here that long. This must be an illusion, like the way the ceiling in the Great Hall shows the night sky."

He smelled mulch and the heady scent of flowers. He inhaled deeply of the fragrance and found himself yawning. He rubbed his eyes. Get a grip, Harry! Now's not the time to take a nap! What was wrong with him? He was starting to doze off standing here.

He knelt and examined the flower nearest him. Merlin's hairy eyeball! No wonder I'm sleepy. These are Sleepy Puff Poppies. He had worked with them before, making a special Unconscious Elixir along with Severus for the hospital. That elixir was used to keep patients under during operations, and the Sleepy Puff Poppies were an essential ingredient. In order to harvest the poppies, Harry had had to cover his nose and mouth with a large handkerchief and take a mild Stimulant Draft.

Harry gazed out across the field. It looked huge, but he wondered if that too was an illusion. It would have been almost impossible to transplant that many poppies here in so short and amount of time. He knew as well that he would have to walk carefully, because if he stepped upon a poppy, it would wake up and release its sleeping powder.

He dug in his pocket and found a handkerchief, grateful that Katie had insisted he put one there. He enlarged it using a Enlargement charm. Then he wrapped it about his nose and mouth like a bandanna. He took two deep breaths, centering himself. He felt his eyelids start to droop and gave himself a sharp slap to make himself wake up.

His eyes watered from the sting. Then he concentrated upon walking like a shadow, as his kin-sa-dor lessons had taught him. He stepped into the field, dancing lightly through the poppies. Careful, Snape. Wouldn't want to trip and fall. Just another tiptoe through the tulips. He shook his head at his own whimsy. Hell, I must have slapped myself silly.

About a quarter of the way through the field, he felt something stir beneath his shoes, the earth was crackling and moving. He started violently, and jumped away, only to have his sneaker catch a poppy. The poppy "woke up" and opened, releasing a puff of a strong soporific mist.

Harry clamped his hands over his bandanna and tried not to breathe.

The earth suddenly opened a small hole and a slithering Venomous Tantaglia explode out of the dirt and snapped viciously at his ankle.

Harry screamed, but it was muffled by his hands, and jumped back again.

Then he pointed his wand and a spark of fire leaped out and burned the vine to ash.

He carefully started to make his way through the poppies again, tapping himself again on the cheek when he felt himself start to drift.

But no sooner had he gotten halfway across the field, then he felt the earth shudder again, and this time multiple creeping Venemous Tantaglias shot for him, their carnivorous mouths gaping wide.

Harry snarled a curse and ran, trying his best not to waken any of the poppies. He shot Fire Spark spells over his shoulder, to try and make the carnivorous plants slow down or turn about.

Despite his attempts to be careful, he stepped upon a poppy and the resulting jet of mist engulfed him.

He would have been finished then except for the fact that his fae blood made him mostly immune to sleep magic. He managed to shake off the worst of the sleep urging and stumble forward.

He yelled as a Venemous Tantaglia snatched his ankle, but he held still enough to cast a stronger fire spell that burned the hungry plant to ash. The other plants hissed and snarled at him, and he fled, hoping he could make it through.

The final third of the field was upon him, and he was dripping with sweat and longing to take a breath not filled with the smell of poppies. He was almost to then end of the field when more plants popped out of nowhere, hissing and spitting small balls of fire.

"Aww, hell! Not Spitting Snapdragons."

The snapdragons had the heads of dragons, only they were made of flowers, and every fifteen seconds they spit out a puff of smoke and a tiny fireball. All the heads swiveled towards him, and Harry felt like he was in front of an executioner's squad.

He recalled one method to disarm the fiery plants. He began casting an Exinguishing Charm as quickly as he could, aiming with frightening precision at each of the snapdragons.

A jet of water shot out of his wand again and again, smothering the hissing angry flowers. Once he had a large enough hole, he ran for it, making it through the field with only a minute to spare. One of the snapdragons caught his robe as he went by, and singed it.

Then his sneaker touched the opposite end of the path, which suddenly changed into stone.

"Made it! Thank you Merlin!" panted Harry. Thus far he had not seen any signs of the others, and wondered if they were ahead or behind him. He didn't think Viktor would have been able to set up an ambush properly, there was very little cover here. As soon as he was safe, he paused to remove his bandanna and washed his dry mouth out with a little water which he carried in a canteen.

It was then that he saw the body lying next to hedge. He crept over to it, recognized it as Fleur, and then he knelt beside her. She was still breathing, but she was knocked out and therefore disqualified. He was almost certain she was Stunned. He carefully took her wand and cast a Flare Charm, because he needed to call for help, and he couldn't use his own wand or else he might get disqualified.

Red and green and blue sparks shot out and hovered over Fleur.

"Sorry I didn't get to see who it was. Take care."

He carefully drew a small ward circle about her before he left.

Then he felt the maze shift again and when the dust settled he was facing a corridor of polished white marble.

Because it was the only option, Harry walked into it.

This time he felt very cold, and suddenly the corridor started to spin. He shut his eyes and prayed he wouldn't barf. Finally the spinning slowed and he was thrust out into a section of the labyrinth he hadn't seen before. This time the hedge was mostly dead and dying vines all intertwined together and flocks of ravens and crows circled overhead. There were gaps in the hedge and Harry walked very carefully, keeping an eye out for anything like a hand or a wand sticking out through the hedge.

His feet crunched upon something loudly and he swore and looked down.

It looked like he was walking on eggshells, but when he scooped some of the crunching stuff in his hands, he realized that it wasn't anything so innocent as eggshells. It was chips of bone.

"Ugh!" he tossed down the stuff and brushed off his hands.

The ravens began to shriek and then one dived at him. He threw himself flat and rolled, his cloak over his head. The raven shrilled a battle cry and suddenly the whole flock was upon him.

Harry cast a Shield Charm and then he ran for it. "Point me the Triwizard Cup!" he shouted, as the ravens pelted him, their knife like beaks trying to penetrate the hardened air that covered him. Their beady eyes were hard and filled with a terrible hatred.

Harry shuddered, not doubting for an instant that he would be torn to pieces if not for his charm. The wand tugged him onward, and onward he went, ignoring the side passages that opened up and offered him a quicker egress from his winged escort.

Finally he stumbled to a halt, because the corridor ended in a dead end. He nearly screamed in frustration and wondered how the hell the Four Points spell had led him wrong. He turned, forced to face the mocking ravens, and suddenly he had enough of the black doombringers.

He quickly wove an Illusion Charm and set it loose upon them, a huge cat leaping and snarling at them.

The ravens scattered, flying away, and Harry turned back to the wall. This can't be right. It's got to be a trick. Another illusion.

He felt the wall, it felt solid. But then, that was what an illusion was meant to do, fool your senses. He closed his eyes and reached forward and felt nothing but empty air. He took a breath and kept walking, taking one step and then another. He walked for what seemed like forever, blind, until he felt he had gone far enough.

He opened his eyes and found himself in the marble corridor again. He walked on until he came to another dead end, only this one was a true dead end, since the floor simply stopped and fell away. Harry inched over to the edge and saw a huge pit, the sides covered in bones and moss.

Harry wrinkled his nose, for it reeked of mildew and rotting things. Flies buzzed along the ground. He cast the Four Points spell again, hoping it would not insist he go down into the pit. But it pointed unerringly to the other side.

"Bloody hell!" he checked his watch. An hour had gone by. Alarmed, Harry knew he had to hurry. He looked about to see if there was something that might help him get into the pit.

Nothing. No broom, no way to climb down, it was a sheer drop. About twenty feet, too far to jump without breaking his leg. He could feel the seconds ticking away in his head. Think, Harry, think! Use your head. What spells do you know that can get you safely down there?

He tried to relax, tried to recall all the spells he knew. Finally he came up with a simple Featherlight spell that he thought might work. If it didn't . . .he was going to be mighty sorry. But he couldn't just sit here.

He cast the spell, and then he took two steps and jumped off the end of the floor.

He yelled a little as he felt himself falling, but then he stopped as he realized he wasn't falling so much as floating.

He drifted like a feather on the breeze until he landed lightly on the ground, which was spongy and fetid, like a swamp. He lifted his sneaker and grimaced. Gross! Swamp muck! His feet made little sucking sounds as he crossed the pit.

There was a brilliant blue flash and suddenly all the bones upon the sides of the pit reassembled themselves into a legion of skeletons and the earth rippled and reeking zombies with inch long teeth rose from the ground. They took one look at Harry, and their undead eyes glowed with one thing—a poisonous hatred of the living and a desire to rip and tear his beating heart from his chest.

Harry froze. He had been taught by Philip about the various kinds of undead, and one thing remained uppermost in his mind—that the undead were immune to magic. So his wand was useless here. He tucked his wand into his pocket. Now what? He didn't have any holy water or a silver knife or sword.

The skeletons and zombies let out unearthly howls and charged.

There was no more time to think, only to react.

Remember who you are! You are never defenseless, you know kin-sa-dor.

Now all those endless painful sessions came into play and Harry allowed himself to fall into the battle trance so crucial to a practitioner of the fae martial arts. His eyes became sharper, his balance finer, and he quivered all over as he waited for the undead to come with range.

When the first zombie shuffled forward, he sprang, leading with his right foot.

He slammed into the rotting body and knocked the foul thing down.

Then he spun, his arm going high, as he punched the ribs out of the skeleton on his right. The walking bone collector staggered and banged into another skeleton and they both fell down.

His world narrowed into finding gaps inbetween the rows of undead and breaking through it. He used the dance of shadows to the best of his ability, hitting the zombies with his hardest roundhouse kicks and triple snap punches. He was not holding back, and if he had used such tactics against a living opponent he would have broken bones and inflicted grievous bodily harm.

But the zombies and skeletons were slowed and not destroyed and several of them tore at the young wizard with their razor claws and left long scratches upon his arms, legs, and face.

Still, he persevered. He knew if he slowed or hesitated, they would have him, and he did not wish to be torn to pieces. Thank you, Uncle Phil, for teaching me how to fight something that's both stronger and quicker than I am, and thank you, Dad, for teaching me how to keep fighting even after I've gotten my arse kicked to hell and back.

He wrenched his thigh free of a skeleton's bony grip, then turned and kicked it right in the teeth.

"Ha! That'll teach you to feel up a stranger."

The skeleton did not reply, for its head was hanging to one side.

Harry continued shoving and pushing his way past the mass of undead, until finally he had reached the other side of the pit, where a rope appeared out of nowhere.

Despite his burning and aching muscles, Harry grasped the rope and climbed.

The zombies and skeletons howled below but he ignored them, ignored the horrible burning in his chest and throat and the stinging from the cuts and slashes from skeletons and zombies fingernails. He climbed and climbed and climbed forever.

Gasping he finally reached the top of the pit and pulled himself up.

He had made it, he thought giddily. He punched the air with his fist and yelled a victory cry.

It was echoed by the hundreds of students watching, as they could see Harry standing there, bloodied but unbowed.

Harry looked up, saw the crowd cheering and waving, he thought he saw his brother, Katie, and the twins as well, and he grinned insolently and waved, before turning back to the infernal labyrinth.

He found himself running through a series of twists and turns that would have baffled a rat, the walls were shifting every other minute, and if not for the Four Points spell he would have been completely lost. The spell drew him forward relentlessly and he dealt with several more traps before he came to a large forest.

As he made his way through the trees, he saw flickering red lights and heard shouts up ahead. He felt instinctively that this was not part of the challenge, this was probably Krum trying to take out another of his rivals. Wand in hand, Harry sprinted through the trees, which seemed to part and move aside for him.

Sure enough, as he grew closer to the altercation, he could make out Krum's voice, yelling forbidden curses, and Cedric, shouting that Krum was a miserable cheating piece of dung. Sparks were flying all over the place as the two cast curse and countercurse.

Harry crept forward on cat's feet, peering around a tree trunk at the two furiously dueling wizards. Cedric was nearly a match for Krum, but Harry wasn't about to leave anything to chance with the Durmstrang wizard. He waited until Krum was focused on Cedric and casting an illegal Imperius curse before he cut loose with a Stunning Hex.

"Stupefy!" He fueled the spell with all of his anger at the other wizard and Krum went down like a ton of bricks.

Cedric had his wand pointed at the trees and he called, "Come out and show yourself!"

Harry walked out of the trees calmly. "Take it easy, Diggory."

Cedric relaxed a fraction. "Did you just take out Krum?"

"Yes. I don't deal with cheaters." Harry said shortly.

Cedric eyed him. "You look like you've been getting your arse kicked, Snape."

"Sometimes," Harry smirked. He in turn eyed Cedric. "You, on the other hand, almost did get yours kicked."

"I wasn't expecting him to attack me."

"That's why you almost got killed," Harry said. "Did you have to face undead too?"

"Undead? Hell, no! I had to fight off a manticore though. And some really vicious redcaps."

"Huh. Guess the labyrinth is different for all of us."

Cedric nodded. "Thanks for the assist, Snape. Now what?" He turned as they heard a low hiss from behind.

The biggest runespoor Harry had ever seen slithered out of the undergrowth. It was easily the size of a bus, nearly as big as the basilisk he had faced during second year. It was colored a fiery orange with neat black bands upon it and each of the three heads looked very menacing, though only the left head's fangs dripped a clear venom.

"Holy God!" Cedric whispered, his wand forgotten in his hand, totally frozen by the gigantic snake.

The snake curled up in the center of the clearing, and behind it appeared a large door with a jeweled doorknob and keyhole.

Cedric moaned softly. "Bloody hell, don't tell me we have to get past that creature and unlock the door in order to continue."

"I'd say that's exactly what we have to do," Harry said.

"You know any good spells that will kill a snake?"

Harry stiffened. Why was it that whenever they were faced with a snake, people wanted to know the best way to kill it? "Why do you assume we have to kill it?"

"Because how else are we going to get past it? I doubt it'll just let us waltz up and try the doorknob," Cedric snapped.

"It might. If you know the right way to ask it," Harry said.

"Well, I can't talk to snakes, so there goes that—wait a minute! You're a Parselmouth, aren't you?"

Harry nodded, then he stepped forward and hissed softly in Parseltongue, "Well met, brother-in-scales. How fare you?"

The runespoor whipped all of its heads about and looked at Harry with interest.

"A Speaker! It has been long and long since a Speaker talked with us!" exclaimed the right head, which was the planner and decision maker of the three.

"I dreamed yesterday that a Speaker or something like it would encounter us," murmured the middle head, the dreamer, sounding an awful lot like Trelawney in her prediction mode.

"Just because he's a Speaker doesn't mean we can let him walk all over us," hissed the third head, which was the most critical and distrustful of the three. "Don't tread on me, S-s-s-peaker!" Two drops of venom fell from its fangs to land on the ground with a hiss.

"I'm not going to hurt you," Harry told the snake respectfully. "Why are you here?"

"Hurt me?" the third head gave a serpent's version of a laugh, which was a deep hiss that reverberated out of its chest. "I could swallow you in one gulp and still have room for your companion there."

"Quite right. I can't really remember how I got here. Azeal, do you remember?" the middle head looked quizzically at the right head.

"Of course I remember, Azella! We were put here by some fool wizards to get a good meal. Except they never mentioned that the meal would have to be some scrawny human! Blegh! I get indigestion from them."

"Yes-s-s, brother. A nice plump pig or a deer is s-s-o much tas-s-tier."

"You are correct, for once, Ashterith," said Azeal.

"For once? What do you mean—for once?" snapped Ashterith. "I am right much more often than you, brother!"

"Then you don't want to eat us?" Harry hissed, interrupting the quarrel. Runespoors could quarrel among their three heads all day.

"Did we not just state that, little Speaker?" demanded Azeal.

"So then will you let us pass?"

The snake cocked all three heads at him. "Ahh . . .we did not say that, now did we?"

"The wizards requested that we guard this-s-s door," began the third head.

"I find it extremely boring sitting here all afternoon in front of this door. It's stifling my creativity," moaned Azella.

"A pox on your creativity, sister!" hissed Azeal. "We were put here to perform a task, now stop whimpering like a milk serpent just out of the egg."

"I never volunteered for anything!" sniffed Azella, sounding quite put out. "No one ever asks me my opinion!"

"Why would we?" growled Ashterith. "You take forever to decide anything."

"What did they offer you?" asked Harry.

"Hiss-ss. That they wouldn't harm our eggs," Ashterith replied.

"Oh. What if I could offer you the same thing, only better?" Harry countered. "I come from a place where no wizards can set foot without my permission. You would have all the deer and wild pigs you could eat and peace to raise your young as well. And me to Speak with on occasion."

All three heads looked startled.

"Where is this place?" asked Azeal.

"My home. Prince Manor. It's Unplottable and Impenetrable, unless you've been invited in by the heir or heir apparent. It is a place that bonds two worlds together, that of this world and the world of the fae. You'll be safe there and happy. Is that worth more to you than your previous bargain?"

The three heads looked at one another, then they coiled about each other and began hissing and discussing Harry's offer so quickly that Harry had trouble following the conversation.

The minutes ticked by and Harry shifted from foot to foot. But he did not move, knowing that it would never do to make the runespoor nervous, and snakes were notorious for striking if they saw sudden movement.

Cedric too was frozen, his face still pale and sickly.

Azeal and Ashterith seemed to be arguing about what was more important, keeping one's word to the original party or abandoning it for a better deal.

"It would be dishonorable to break one's word," hissed Azeal.

"Ssss! How do we know we can trus-s-t those people to keep their word, brother? I would first trust the S-s-s-peaker. He, at least, res-s-pects us-s-s. I s-s-ay, let us-s-s accept his offer and to the abyss-s-s with the others. I never liked them!" The forked tongue flicked in and out briefly.

"I must say . . .it does sound so . . .romantic . . .to live where fae have lived and be at peace to raise our snakelings," purred Azella. Her head began to sway back and forth.

"Stop that! You look like one of those stupid hypnotized cobras!" ordered Azeal. "Very well, I am outvoted and I must admit . . .his offer is better."

The three unwound from their knot and glided over close to Harry. "Speaker, we have agree to accept your offer. What may we give you in return?"

"Uh, let us pass and do you have a key for the door behind you? Because we would like to borrow it."

"Done!" all three heads hissed at once. The runespoor shot over to a pile of rocks and soon it returned, Azeal holding the key in his jaws.

The snake gently lowered its head and placed the gleaming golden key decorated with precious stones at Harry's feet. Then it glided off to the side.

Harry picked up the key. "Thanks!" he hissed.

"Do not forget your promis-s-s-e!" the runespoor reminded him.

Harry beckoned to Cedric. "Come on, Diggory." He paced the key into the lock and turned it.

The door shimmered and vanished, and together Harry and Cedric entered the final portion of the labyrinth.

The ground beneath their feet was golden and the hedge about this portion of the labyrinth was a beautifully trimmed rose hedge. The path ran straight until the hedge turned into a large circular shape with a large plinth of Corinthian marble in the middle of it. Atop that was the TriWizard Cup, a large golden chalice that glittered with diamond dust. The cup was on a pedestal with the date and a blank spot for the champion's name.

Harry started forward and so did Cedric.

Then they both halted and looked at each other.

"If it weren't for you, I would have been hexed by Krum," Cedric said. "You saved my arse, Snape. Go ahead, the cup's yours."

But Harry hesitated. "Cedric . . .I wasn't ever supposed to be in this tournament. The only reason I'm here now is because somebody who really wanted me to die put my name in the Goblet. So I really don't deserve the victory."

"Snape, don't be ridiculous. You might not have been supposed to compete, but you did and what's more, you outperformed all of us, even that jackass Krum. You deserve it, don't be so bloody noble!"

Harry smiled. "Can't help it. It's how I am." Then he got an idea. "Why don't we share the cup and the victory? Fair's fair."

Slowly, Cedric nodded. "All right. Hogwarts will have a double win then."

The two clasped hands and began to run towards the cup, their eyes shining.

*Harry! Don't touch the cup! It's a Portkey!*

Smidgen burst into view practically on top of him, landing upon his shoulder and digging all four sets of claws into him.

"Oww! Smidgen, what the blue blazes—"

*Don't touch the cup! It's a trap!*

Harry hesitated.

Cedric didn't. His fingers brushed the cup and because Harry was touching him, he too was taken along.

Harry felt the world start to spin about him and he felt a gigantic tug at his naval. "Hey! What's happening?"

He felt a strong hand clamp down upon his shoulder. "It's a Portkey, Harry. A magical object charmed to take you from one place to another."

"Uncle Phil?" He glanced behind him to see the vampire hovering in the air upon a pair of ebony feathered wings.

"Forgive me, I arrived too late to warn you—"

The rest of his words were lost as the Portkey grasped them all in its vortex and spirited them away, to a rendezvous with death and all of his faithful servants.

Hope you all enjoyed that last task. I am literally out of breath from writing it.

Next: Find out what happens with the real Moody and imposter Crouch, plus the final showdown with Voldemort. Who will live and who will die? Should Cedric live?


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