Severus cleared his throat and then paused, gathering his thoughts. He had long questioned the wisdom of Dumbledore and the previous Headmasters about allowing the basilisk to remain in the castle for so long when it was an obvious danger to the students if it ever broke free of the Chamber of Secrets, as had so obviously happened now. Severus had long suspected that the monster behind all the petrification was the basilisk, but had never been able to catch it in the act, or find it so he could 'speak it.
"The basilisk was, as the Wise One said, Salazar Slytherin's familiar. Back in those days, every witch or wizard had a familiar, and the familiar was usually attuned to his or her master and served as his eyes and ears in places and also his guardian. Salazar was very powerful and so was his familiar. Some people refer to the basilisk as the King of Serpents, though I am sure the Wise One would disagree. No disrespect intended, Revered One."
The Wise One gave a soft hiss. **None taken, Severus my friend. Basilisks have always been arrogant and put on airs, much like my dragon cousins. We are related . . .by a distant ancestor, much the way a dog and a wolf are related. But a basilisk is coldblooded and cannot survive extreme temperatures. Basilisks are also fond of manflesh and have been known to go mad and kill anything which approaches their lair. Though I have no way of knowing unless I see for myself, Harry's description suggest that the basilisk in the castle may have succumbed to loneliness and senility. A most deadly combination. Continue, please, profess-ssor.**
Severus returned to his narrative. "I am a descendant of Salazar Slytherin, and have family journals which he kept chronicling his life and important events. One of the things I noticed is that when he lived in the castle, he taught Defense and Potions and also trained those who possessed the gift of Parseltongue. He was a very erudite man, and preferred books over people, though he always treated his apprentices well. His basilisk was called Icefyre and it respected and adored him. He invented a sort of head covering that would enable the basilisk to accompany him about the castle and not worry about unintentionally petrifying a student. Salazar was well-respected in the pureblood magical community and when he broke with the rest of the Founders it was not only, as rumor and popular belief would have it, because Gryffindor and Hufflepuff insisted on letting Muggleborns into the school.
"You see, Salazar felt it unwise to allow most Muggleborns into Hogwarts for two reasons. One, half of those with magic came to hate and fear their brethren, regarding them as "evil sorcerers" and "tainted with black magic", they were convinced they were cursed and nothing would change their superstitious minds. They especially hated Salazar, who had a snake familiar and could speak Parseltongue. Two, getting Muggleborns to join them was extremely risky, as this was the time of witch hunts and burnings. Several wizards and witches lost their lives trying to bring an apprentice to Hogwarts, and some led the witch hunters directly to the sanctuary. This was before Hogwarts had such strong wards about it. The wards came about as a direct result of such occurrences. As a matter of fact, Slytherin created them.
But not before several wizards and witches were slain by witch hunters or betrayed by some apprentices who had been brainwashed and agreed to become spies for the Inquisition. It was for that reason that Salazar said no more Muggleborns should be allowed into the school. He felt it was the only way to protect those wizards and witches who remained at the school. It was not, as some would have it, because of some prejudice towards Muggles and Muggleborns. He suggested that scouts go out and search for those Muggleborns who displayed early signs of magic and that they be removed from their homes and taken to a different location to be taught. If the parents were amenable to letting their child study with a "learned scholar" and were paid a fee for it, then the child could come with their blessing. But if the parents were very religious or otherwise abusive or intolerant, the child should be kidnapped and their magical powers revealed some time later.
His colleagues did not like that solution and kept accepting Muggleborns without precautions. Salazar hated the waste of life that he was sure to occur and so he broke with his fellow Founders. But before he could totally pack up and leave, he went to help out a wizarding family who was being attacked by some members of the Inquisition. It was a trap, and Salazar was captured and tortured by the witch hunters. He died unbroken though, and took many of the witch hunters with him."
"That's terrible!" Harry said. "What happened to the basilisk? And how come McGonagall doesn't know that story?"
Severus' mouth twitched. "Potter, she is Head of Gryffindor House and we are her rivals. The version of the Chamber of Secrets she told has been passed down since the time of the Founders, and no one knows who first started the rumor and altered the facts of the story. After You-Know-Who came to power, no one cared to hear the true story of Salazar, they preferred to tar all Slytherins with the same filthy brush. We became the dark House, sly and cunning, and the basilisk became a creature of legends and nightmares.
"What happened to the basilisk, you ask? I believe that Salazar sent it to sleep in the Chamber, so it would not harm anyone accidentally while he was out of the castle. The basilisk could be unpredictable, and it was still a dangerous creature, despite being Salazar's familiar. I think that after Salazar died, the snake went mad. It could not deal with the loss of its master. It could not speak with any save Parselmouths and I think by the time of Salazar's demise, all of them, there never were many to begin with, were gone from the school. So it was alone with its grief and anger. It must have felt Salazar's death, he said he was bonded to it."
The Wise One shook her head. **How dreadful, to feel his master's pain and yet be unable to rescue him or even seek revenge upon those who had slain him. That would drive any familiar insane.**
"That's really awful," Harry murmured, starting to feel bad for the basilisk. "But what about the legend that Salazar set a curse upon the school and that only the Heir of Slytherin could open the chamber and release a terrible monster that would cleanse all the Muggleborns from Hogwarts?"
Severus looked at Harry sharply. "Think about what you just said, Mr. Potter. Does that doctrine sound familiar to you? It should. But Salazar Slytherin did not say it. Though someone else who considered himself the Heir of Slytherin did. Can you guess who it was?"
Harry thought for several moments. He knew it sounded familiar, but his head was starting to hurt pretty badly and he felt all achy and was at turns hot and very cold. His head felt muzzy and he struggled to give the professor the correct answer. He wasn't a dunce, he knew who it was that had probably invented that saying. It was just . . . he couldn't recall it right now. He rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand, massaging the scar he had received as a baby from . . . "Voldemort!"
"Potter!" Snape rebuked sharply. "Do not speak his name! Names are power, to say his name is to alert him to your presence. Is that what you want?"
Harry shook his head. "No, but . . .you asked me to guess . . ."
"From now on, refer to him as You-Know-Who or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."
"Fine!" Harry said snippily, he was starting to feel really sick and not in the mood for Snape's insistence upon propriety, or whatever one wanted to call it.
"Potter," growled his professor warningly.
Harry mumbled a "Sorry", though he really wasn't. "Tell me more about the basilisk? Please?" he added, remembering his manners.
"Very well. Since you've asked me politely," acquiesced the Potions Master. "Mind you, I have only supposition to go on, since You-Know-Who never left a record of his school days or actions that I know of. When he attended school, he was known as Tom Riddle, and he became the only Parselmouth to set foot in the castle since Salazar, at least according to the student records. Riddle was exceedingly ambitious and clever, and he enjoyed roaming the castle, discovering hidden passages and rooms no one ever knew about. He also enjoyed finding out secrets about other students and using them to make them do what he wished. In short, he was a manipulative little dungbeetle. I believe that Riddle discovered the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets one day, and learned how to open it somehow. Salazar probably had keyed the Chamber to something only a Parselmouth would be able to unravel—a word or charm or something. Because Riddle was a Parselmouth, he would have been able to communicate with the basilisk. He was a very persuasive young man, from what we know, he was handsome and charming as a lad, and became Prefect and Head Boy eventually."
**By then, Icefyre must have been insane with boredom and loneliness,** said the Wise One. **Basilisks are more social than most serpents, and he must have been delighted to find another Speaker to talk with at last. Imagine, being locked up in a room for centuries, alone with grief, hallowed by loss and regret, nursing a profound hatred of the humans who had stolen his wizard away.**
"It would have been easy for Tom to persuade Icefyre that he was a friend, like Salazar. As you say, Wise One, the basilisk would have been ripe for Riddle's manipulation. I am sure he was the reason why the basilisk remained in the castle rather than fleeing once the Chamber was opened. Icefyre would have wanted to remain near the only wizard who would understand him and help him get revenge upon those who had killed his master."
"That's why you think the basilisk is petrifying people?" Harry clarified. "Because it thinks they killed Salazar?"
"In part. From what you've heard, I would also imagine it is hungry."
**I would say so. It takes a great deal of food to sate a hungry basilisk. And as I said, they are not choosy about what they eat, so long as they can swallow it whole.**
Harry looked faintly ill, though he had known before that was how snakes ate, by swallowing their food whole. Their fangs were not used for chewing but for defense.
"Then you think it's hungry again?"
"The chamber hasn't been opened in fifty years, Potter. While a snake can go for long periods without food, even magical snakes need to eat." Snape pointed out.
**Starvation is a great motivator for Icefyre to seek out prey rather than the usual method,** remarked the ruffed serpent. **Basilisks are loyal, strong, and have a great deal of protective magic in their scales, and their poison is very deadly. But he's not exceptionally bright and is probably more than a little mad by now. Still, you shouldn't be so harsh upon him. Every creature follows its stomach and it does not murder two-legs, but does what it must to survive.**
Harry nodded. "I understand. But it's still rather . . .disgusting. His diet, I mean. But professor, if you and I are the only Parselmouths in the castle, then who opened the Chamber of Secrets this time?"
"I do not know, Potter. But I shall find out." Snape said grimly. "When was the first time you heard the basilisk?"
"My head hurts," Harry mumbled.
"Why? From using your brain?" Severus asked sarcastically. "The more you dither, the more chance your classmates have of dying from the basilisk's gaze!"
The Wise One sighed. **S-Severus, you might be a little more patient. He hass just been through a rather trying injury. Harry, try and remember. It is important.**
"Okay." Harry would try, because he admired and respected the great serpent. He glared at his teacher. "It isn't my fault the basilisk kills people."
"I never said it was." Severus snapped, nettled. "But you remember plenty of other things that you shouldn't. Such as how to get to the Sorcerer's Stone. You can remember this, Potter." He tried to sound encouraging instead of exasperated. The boy picked a fine time for a memory lapse!
Harry concentrated through his muzzy head. When had the first time been? Before Mrs. Norris was petrified. He recalled the first Quidditch practice. "It was way back at the beginning of school. We had Quidditch practice, only the Slytherins called the pitch first to train Malfoy, and Malfoy called Hermione a Mudblood, and Ron tried to hex him, but his wand backfired and he ended up spitting up slugs . . ."
"Malfoy called Granger a Mudblood?" Snape hissed, and his eyes were black as coal and blazing just as brightly. Harry couldn't know it, but Severus detested that particular word and anyone who used it, Slytherin or otherwise. Yet another thing he would discuss with Lucius' son once he returned to the castle.
Harry nodded, wondering why Snape looked so furious. Surely he had heard the term before? "Anyway, Ron got detention with Filch and I ended up helping Lockhart with his fan mail. That was when I heard it for the first time . . .when I was on my way back to Gryffindor Tower. It made me freeze up and then I started to run up the stairs."
"Can you recall a date?"
"Umm . . .maybe the first weekend of term. Don't remember what date it was, sir."
Severus thought hard. "I believe it was the fourth or fifth of September. When was the next time you heard it?"
Harry thought hard. "Just before Mrs. Norris was found. That was right after the Deathday party for the ghosts on Halloween. The voice was hissing about killing and crunching bones and I followed it and found the writing on the wall and Mrs. Norris. Filch thought I did it, but it wasn't me."
"Filch was overwrought. His familiar was injured," said Severus. "None of us thought you petrified her, Potter. You're not skilled enough to cast such advanced magic. Why did you not tell anyone about the voice you heard?"
"Why? Because I thought I was going mad. Ron and Hermione couldn't hear it, I was the only one. I didn't know it was speaking in Parseltongue. How could I prove there even was a voice if I was the only one who could hear it?"
**He does have a point. And you know, professor, that Parselmouths have a reputation as being rather . . .dark.** Snape made a wordless hiss of acknowledgment. **Why did you never hear it?**
"I suppose because I was never around when it was moving around and talking to itself," said Snape. "I am still trying to figure out how it is getting about the castle without being seen by everyone."
"Maybe there's a secret passage?" Harry suggested.
"Perhaps. Basilisks cannot turn invisible."
"They can't?" Harry looked at the Wise One for confirmation.
The snake laughed, a strange sound, like bubbling oatmeal. **Aesclepius's staff, no! They do not have enough magic for it.**
"Do you?" asked Harry curiously.
**I don't know. I have never tried to do it. But if any serpent had the ability, it would be me and mine. Our immortal blood is a conduit to the magic of the earth and sky. We are the reason you wizards can speak to us.**
"I have never heard that before," Severus said, intrigued. "How did that come about?"
**I and my sisters were created first by our parents. One of them decided she wished humans to be able to understand us, and she bit one of them, a young wizard, and through the bite transmitted the Parseltongue. This was before we were regarded as instruments of evil. The wizard considered it a great honor to be given the gift of Parseltongue. A few more of my family tried it and soon we had several witches and wizard who could speak with us. They intermarried and kept the gift in the bloodline, though it was not directly inherited. Sometimes it skipped children.**
Harry was fascinated and wondered what ancestor he had had to give him the ability. It had to be someone on his dad's side, right? Harry suddenly felt the cave go in and out of focus. The Wise One wasspeaking but he couldn't make sense of her words. It was all a roar of noise and his vision was blurry. "Professor, I . . . really don't feel good." He groaned. Then the world spun away.
The Wise One hissed and caught the boy before his head smashed into the stone floor. **Severus, he's very hot. I fear he is terribly ill.**
Snape reached over and felt Potter's forehead with the back of his hand. "Bloody hell! He's like a furnace. We need to bring down that fever fast. But I don't have my potions or my lab here to make more."
There was a note of desperation in the professor's voice. He had just brought the boy back from the brink of death once, he did not know if Harry could survive a second stress-filled illness, his magical core was badly weakened and so was his body. Once more, the life of the child he was sworn to preserve hung in the balance, and only he could save it. But how? "He needs the Hospital Wing and Madam Pomfrey. I barely qualify as any kind of Healer and without my potions lab I'm useless." He murmured in Parseltongue, fatigue and despair slamming into him with the force of the Hogwarts Express.
The Wise One swiveled her head around, her green eyes narrowed, still holding Harry snugly in her coils. She had dampened down her naturally high body temperature to a somewhat cooler range, more like that of her distant basilisk cousins. **For s-s-shame, S-Severus-s-s! Giving up before you have barely begun! Where is your courage and s-s-stubbornness-ss now? The child needs you, now more than ever! Use your S-s-slytherin ingenuity and quit whining. Where there's a will, there's a way.**
He stared at her. The last thing he had expected was to get a scolding from her, and in Parseltongue her censure bit sharply, like a lash flicked over his bare back. His first instinct was to retort that he was not a miracle worker, Slytherin or otherwise. But he held his tongue. For he knew better. Give in to despair and doubt and you had done half the enemy's work for him. And he was not yet ready to let Harry go without a fight. "What way?" he demanded, Parseltongue slipping hard and cold off his tongue.
The Wise One's eyes gleamed gem bright in the light from his wand. **Here before you s-s-stands the premiere teacher of Healing methods upon this-ss island. And for many of those centuries, I Healed without magic, only knowing herbs and anatomy. 'Twas I who taught the God of Medicine his trade. What is the first rule of a high fever?**
"To bring it down as quickly as possible," Severus replied immediately.
**Yes-s-s. There is the s-s-stream. It is cool running water from the high peaks.** The great serpent slithered over to the stream, and Snape quickly removed Harry's clothing. The Wise One made a soft purring sound at the boy. **Ssshhhh, littling. This sshall be a sshock, but 'twill help keep the blood from boiling in your veins.** The ruffed serpent glided into the stream, immersing her patient in the cool water all at once, careful to keep his head above water, resting upon her massive scales.
Harry cried out in protest, his eyes flying open. "Ahhh! It's cold! Help!" He tried to struggle, but the Wise One held him fast, crooning reassurance to him until he quit trying to get away. After the initial shock, Harry went numb, and started to adjust to the water, which was the same temperature as an ice bath, and felt extremely good upon his feverish skin.
The freshet was not particularly deep, and most of the serpent was out of the water, though she made certain her coils containing Harry remained submerged. She turned to the Potions Master. **Look up above me, to the right. There you sshall find ssome niches-s. Inside them are bowls made from my s-shed scales. Are you familiar with bark from a willow tree, S-severus?**
"Yes. I use that in my Fever Reducer Elixir." He moved to where she had indicated, finding a recessed niche some six feet up along the wall. He reached up and took down a shallow bowl made from the Wise One's golden scales stuck together with some sort of adhesive. Inside were dried strips of shredded willow bark. "This?"
**Correct. Now, use your magic to conjure a cauldron to s-s-steep the willow bark in. It must s-s-steep for at least an hour or more for full efficacy.** she instructed.
He obeyed, trusting her expertise. After the bark was bubbling away, steeping in the boiling water, which he had brought to a boil by a simple spell any second year could master, he also discovered a cup made of smaller shed scales-**For infusions**-plus an earthenware jar full of honey, a spoon made of horn, and various other containers of herbs, dried and mashed. As he lifted each one off the shelf, she told him what it was. Some he recognized, others he didn't.
At her direction, he added a handful of cherry bark to the cauldron-**to sstave off lung infections and coughs**-hyssop extract, which cleansed and purified the body and respiratory tract, when Snape added a pinch of it to the cauldron, a soothing essence was released, calming his nerves and causing him to feel less tense. He added thyme and some licorice root as well. Then he stirred all together and let it steep.
Meanwhile, the Wise One kept Harry submerged in the stream for awhile longer, then removed him and dried him by raising her body temperature to the equivalent of a dog or cat's, which warmed Harry nicely and caused him to stop shivering.
Severus kept an eye on the potion and when it was done, decanted it into the small cup. He then added three spoonfuls of honey at the Wise One's insistence. "How did you make these cups and bowls?"
**From my shed scales and a bit of my saliva, which can sometimes act as a binder, like glue.**
"I see. How very clever."
The next hurdle was getting Harry to take the tonic. At first he refused to swallow it, coughing and spitting it out. Snape knew the potion did not taste very good, but Harry needed to drink it. He urged the boy over and over to drink , but Harry stubbornly refused it. Snape was growing more and more exasperated and only the Wise One's presence kept him from flying off the handle.
Finally, he decided to be sneaky and gave Harry sips of water and then a spoonful of the potion, alternating it until Harry had swallowed all of the potion. But it didn't work as fast as Severus was used to, or perhaps Harry was more ill than he had thought, because even after the potion was inside him, the boy still had feverish nightmares, where he pleaded with his aunt and uncle to let him out of his cupboard.
"Please, Uncle Vernon . . . I'll never tell anybody about anything at home again. I didn't want to lie when Miss Young asked me where I got the bruise and told her Dudley pushed me. Then she asked me about why I had no clothes that fit me and why my glasses were all bent and I just told her the truth . . . I'm sorry she called you to school and talked to you . . . I didn't know she was going to do that. . . Please, Aunt Petunia, if I promise to never tell anybody again will you let me out? It's been three days . . .I'm so hungry and thirsty and the bucket's full . . .I've learned my lesson . . ."
Listening to Harry's voice, broken and frightened, speaking of things that no child should have to endure, made Severus even more determined to get the boy away from Privet Drive. Potter's relatives were nearly as bad as some Death Eaters he'd known and for far less reasons. But at least now he knew why Harry had never told a soul about what he had lived through at Privet Drive.
"Shhh. It's all right," he said, trying to speak soothingly, using his handkerchief to sponge down Harry's face and body. "You shall not go back there again. You have my word and whatever else I have been, I am a man of my word. I shall protect you till my last breath, even from your own family."
Harry was shivering and moaning. "Never tell . . .never ever . . ." Then his voice changed, becoming more like his usual one. "Professor, why do I have to go back there . . . I like it here at school . . . why can't I stay here over the summer? My relatives don't understand me or magic . . . I could work and help you out around the castle . . .? Oh, I see. Never mind then."
Snape could not believe his ears. Potter had gone to Dumbledore and asked to stay at school over break and Albus had not even gone to investigate the reasons why Potter might want to stay, besides the lure of magic. How dense could the old man be? If one listened closely, one could hear the fear and desperation in the boy's tone. It reminded him sharply of himself, hurting and afraid, but not daring to let anyone know how badly Tobias beat him. He reached out and gently carded the agitated boy's hair, recalling his mother doing something similar when he was this age. "There now. You'll be all right. No one will hurt you here. Just relax and sleep, Potter."
Harry was lost in a mire of frightening dreams, dreams where he watched as Uncle Vernon burned all his school things and snapped his wand and broke Hedwig's wings with a cane. He wept and tried to stop the obese man, but he was helpless against Vernon's hatred, without his wand he couldn't defend himself. He threw himself at Vernon, only to have Vernon transform into a shadowy figure who shot a green bolt of light at him. A woman's voice screamed his name and then he was falling . . . falling down . . .to be caught in a pair of strong arms that held him close. He heard a familiar voice say, "You're safe, Potter. No one will hurt you. Now go to sleep."
Harry sighed and allowed himself to tumble into the soothing cool dark. He could sleep now, for Snape was here to protect him. Now at last he could rest.
Severus noted that Harry's breathing became easier after he had spoken to him and his fever had seemed to go down. It had not broken yet, but the tide was starting to turn. Harry was wrapped in Snape's cloak, resting in the coils of the Wise One, she had made of her length a kind of huge basket, and Harry was curled up at the center of it, slumbering easily now.
Severus made tea from chamomile and mint leaves he found among the Wise One's stores, it eased the hunger pangs he had begun to feel. He hoped that Dumbledore had seen his Patronus and was trying to figure out a way to get to his stranded student and professor. It was then that Snape recalled only Parselmouths could find the cave. That was a problem.
But he would worry about that later. His first priority was making Harry well. The Potions Master kept vigil over the skinny boy the rest of the night, keeping him cool and giving him more water and sips of potion. Finally, as a cloudy gray dawn lit the sky, Harry's fever broke and he fell into a healing sleep.
**Well done, S-S-Severus! Did I not tell you that you would ssucceed? You ought to trust yourself more often.**
"I couldn't have done it without your help," admitted the proud wizard.
**That is why I am here. To teach Parselmouths the forgotten lore of healing and wisdom. You are tired, why don't you take a nap?**
By then Severus was more than ready to sleep. His back and shoulders ached from bending over Harry and the cauldron for hours. So he took the snake up on her offer and fell asleep next to the Wise One.
The snake allowed her two apprentices to sleep a bit longer before quietly removing Harry from her coils and placing him gently next to his mentor. Then she used her power and her strength to break down the wall of snow blocking the cave, making herself glow with the brightness of a thousand suns. She melted some of the snow and then used her nose like a battering ram to smash through the snow packed entrance. Once she had enlarged a hole, she slipped out into the forest to hunt, marveling at how pretty the forest looked beneath the moon, which made the snow sparkle like diamonds.
A quick hunt for a deer and then she would return to the cave to look after her new friends.
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