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Chapter 16 : Into the Forest
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The Fat Lady snored peacefully as Albus heard the portrait hole close softly behind them a few minutes later. “Careful, Scorpious, that was my foot.” Lavender warned in a low hiss as they started on their way down the dark corridor, the only light being a few lanterns that had been lit as dinner had ended.
It cast an eerie sort of glow around the walls and floor but Albus ignored it and the sudden tightening in his stomach to hear Scorpious say. “Maybe you shouldn't be walking so close!”
“I'm not trying to, we've got to stay under the Cloak!” Lavender shot back, sounding a little irritable. Albus worried that putting them underneath the Cloak had been a rather bad idea when Scorpious's nerves were already a little tense, “maybe we should hold hands?” she suggested.
Albus felt his cheeks turning faintly pink and Scorpious spluttered something incoherent that sounded a lot like, “Mermwoualdgan”. “We held hands when we went to steal the Sorting Hat with Rose and Corner, remember?” he asked to his moody blonde friend as they paused uncertainly in the corridor.
“I didn't hold your hand, Albus!” Scorpious said, looking disgusted when he flicked his eyes over at him. Their wands were all lit, basking them in a silvery white sheen that made every bead of sweat visible, “and we should link arms or something, no one's holding hands.”
Lavender seemed wistful and Scorpious nudged him sharply in the ribs until he stepped on his foot. “I suppose that's all right but I just don't want to lose you two if something happens and we get separated” Albus hoped that nothing like that happened as he felt her linking her arms with his, Scorpious grumpily doing the same on his left.
Awkwardly, they started on their way again, Scorpious grumbling all the while as Lavender blushed beside him. Albus wasn't really sure when he would actually like to hold a girl's hand but he doubted that, with them currently either like Sally or Corner that he could wait a good long while.
With the three of them linked arm in arm like Christmas ornaments, the walk was a little stilted at first. Despite it, they made easy progress, only stopping against a wall or holding their breath when they saw a passing Prefect or Peeves (The ghoul would be far worse than any Prefect).
The Bloody Baron was moaning and groaning somewhere in one of the castle towers, creating a mad tempo that made their ears ache. Loud thuds and mysterious taps of other, strange sounds in the depths of the castle made the Misfits jump every so often.
But Hagrid needed them and they would have to keep their pace going if they wanted to get there sooner rather than later to find him in one piece. While Albus didn't doubt that his friend could handle himself rather well against Zabini, he worried still that something in the Forest itself might sink its claws or fangs into him.
Giant spiders were one thing but centaurs and rabid werewolves were another, Zabini of course being the ultimate nightmare. Albus felt himself swallowing rather hard as they made their way down corridors, taking the usual route to the Great Hall and as they walked, looking carefully around every angle they could for a Prefect or teacher, he hoped that they weren't making a really stupid mistake.
But he didn't know if he could go another few days wondering about Zabini and this seemed to be their only chance to catch him in the act. It felt stupid now but he would take his chance.
If things got a little bizarre and he figured that they would sooner, rather than later, then they would run as fast and as hard as they could with their arms waving crazily over their heads. The image of the three of them doing just that actually caused him to snicker a little and just as they found themselves wandering hurriedly (Though awkwardly) out of the Great Hall, did they suddenly stop.
Peeves was blocking the exit and playing a furious game of tennis with Roxanne Weasley against the doors, the two of them locked in what was obviously a draw. “I'm not losing to you again tonight!” Albus heard his cousin snarl.
“So you say, Lady Weasley!” Peeves cried madly as they continued their game, the smack and thwack of the ball ringing in Albus's ears.
Roxanne gave a very competitive laugh, did a weird little dance as she got the upper hand and proceeded to deal with Peeve's horrible curses. Scorpious had turned all gooey at the sight of her, “I love your cousin,” he said to him in a whisper, his eyes focusing on her backside. “Why'd Benjamin have to date her and not me?” he complained.
Albus rolled his eyes. “She's a little old for you, you know.”
Scorpious snorted. “At least I'm human,”
Albus asked him. “Why don't you like your brother?”
“Why should I?” was Scorpious's moody reply.
Albus paused, noticing that they were thankfully talking in whispers. Roxanne and Peeves were too busy playing tennis to really notice though, “I mean, is he really mean to you or something?”
Scorpious frowned while Lavender gave him a curious glance. “He's Benjamin, all right? There's just not enough words in the dictionary to describe him.”
“James and Mason said he's real tall and creepy,” Albus found himself whispering as his cousin started to lose to the ghost. The thwack, crack of the tennis ball made an eerie echo in the Hall.
Scorpious paused before he said dryly. “They wouldn't be lying.”
Before Albus could ask him just what that was supposed to mean, they were interrupted. Lavender had been quiet up until now, but she said lightly in a whisper to them, “I hope your cousin wins, Albus” and thinking that he would have plenty of time to ask Scorpious about Benjamin later, the two of them found anxiously watching the game, which seemed to be dragging on far longer than humanly (Or ghostly) possible.
Albus sighed. “This is taking too long!” he whispered sharply.
“Its a good game though,” Scorpious replied.
Peeves was cracking his tennis racket wildly while Roxanne danced and jerked around, crowing vengeance. Lavender nodded in agreement, “Too bad they're in the way.”
Albus had to agree with her. “Maybe we can sneak around them?” he whispered to his two friends uncertainly.
Peeves gave a howl of outrage as Roxanne got control of the game, looking wild and a little crazed herself. “I don't know, they look really intense,” Scorpious said as he watched his older cousin wistfully before nudging Lavender, “you'd better be careful, Lav, she looks like a serious player.”
“I'll do my best,” Lavender whispered back. Albus was rather curious on how the game would go himself but they didn't have time to think about it just now, “Victoire said that she's the best Beater Hufflepuff has had in years.”
Scorpious sighed lovingly. “Of course she is.”
Albus wondered if he would actually throw up but thankfully, Roxanne eventually won the game and as Peeves floundered and raged about it, she suggested that they go blow up a few bathrooms on the second floor. “I am all yours Lady Weasley!” Peeves declared boldly.
“Indeed my friend! I've got my best cherry bombs and my dad told me to make sure I get the Prefect's bathroom too. He's always hated them,” Roxanne said to the pest, who was floating around her head and making faces at her, “come on, before someone sees. I might go fishing for one of the giant squid's babies tomorrow. Wanna come?” she asked him devilishly.
After watching the cretin nod eagerly and float away with her like they were old friends, (Albus had a strange feeling that they were) the Misfits found themselves rushing towards the exit. “Hagrid had better be still alive. I could be dreaming of my future wife tonight!” Scorpious complained hotly, glaring at Lavender for no apparent reason.
Albus watched their friend roll her eyes. “I'm sure she'd love to know all about it but we don't have time for that right now. Mr. Hagrid needs us and stop glaring at me!” Lavender snapped.
Scorpious retaliated by pulling on her cheek until Albus nudged him in the ribs, reminding him of the door that demanded their attention. “Stop fighting you two and help me!” Albus commanded and with a sigh from both sides, his friends pressed their hands against the old wood, pushing them open and throwing themselves into the cold winter night.
The Forbidden Forest was like a menacing cage.
Albus couldn't help but think that over and over again as they found themselves stumbling along an old worn path near Hagrid's hut, the three of them holding out their wands for light. Winds howled, branches and twigs crunched and he felt as if, in the darkness, millions of little eyes were watching him, assessing what little courage he thought he had.
“What way do you think Mr. Hagrid went?” Lavender asked to the two of them while they found themselves walking deeper into the gloom, the sheer claustrophobia of the place making them shudder. Scorpious was looking over his shoulder anxiously from time to time as if something might leap out from behind a boulder and attack them but Albus didn't think that they would bother.
Surely, a giant spider would have the sense to come out of a tree, wrap them in a web and drag them underground. “Not sure, but he couldn't have gotten too far, right?” Albus asked doubtfully as his two friends shot him a glance. They had passed by Hagrid's hut of course, knocking on the door and then peeking in the frosted windows after they hadn't gotten an answer aside from Fang's barking.
Scorpious was grumbling to himself as they continued walking, his eyes flickering to the ground, “Wait.” He said quickly, stopping Albus and Lavender roughly.
“What?” Albus asked him in a tight whisper.
Scorpious pointed down at the ground and they looked, noticing that there were much larger footprints on the frosted path. Smaller ones were beside them, ones that didn't belong to them and they felt a burst of triumph, “These must be his tracks!” his moody friend declared.
Albus was briefly thankful that the winter weather had came, because otherwise he wouldn't have been sure on how to find Hagrid. His father probably hadn't had these sort of problems and he said with a bite of determination, “Let's follow them and once we catch a glimpse of Hagrid, make sure that he's okay and not in trouble, let's get out of here.”
Lavender and Scorpious nodded firmly and they pressed on, darkness wrapping around them. Their only light came from their wands and Albus thought that they should have been smarter and gotten a lantern but he'd figured that someone would have spotted a few of them missing.
It was the sort of thing that Filch made certain to pay attention to and that was the last person that they needed sniffing around. He swallowed hard, knowing that their wand light didn't cast much. More than once, he found himself thinking he'd seen something in the distance, where mist danced and sounds drifted slowly to their ears...but more than once, it had been nothing.
All sorts of things lived in the Forest and he kept expecting to see the mangled corpse of other Hogwarts kids lying about in here but he felt that that was a bit much. His father and other relatives had told him that a lot of kids had died here in the Forest fighting Death Eaters and Albus had heard James saying that there were ghosts here.
Ghosts were one thing but he was certain that those were the least of their worries if all the rumors were true. “Its so spooky out here,” Lavender surprised him by saying as they continued following Hagrid's tracks.
They were leading them over a hill and they huffed a little, glancing around and hoping that no monster was catching onto their scent. “You find this spooky? You, who think that a two-headed piranha is cute?” Scorpious asked her, sounding stunned.
“Sheriff is cute,” Lavender replied defensively even while Albus felt her moving a little closer to him. “But this place is just creepy,” she said honestly, her eyes widening with obvious fear, her earlier happiness gone.
Scorpious snorted. “You're so strange, Lav,” he said but he'd forgotten that Lavender had been known to be sort of a coward by Gryffindor standards and Albus felt badly for just now remembering that, “this should be like paradise to you.”
Albus shot him a glare. “Shut up,”
“What?” Scorpious demanded hotly.
Lavender ignored them both, effectively ending what might have been an oncoming argument. “I really hope Mr. Hagrid is okay. I think the other footprints are Zabini's but you never know.” But the Potions teacher was the only person, other than that prankster that was coming into the Forest, “I wish that he had taken Professor Longbottom with him.”
“Maybe Zabini needs Hagrid to protect him from the centaurs,” Scorpious suggested to her and Albus doubted that he had asked for it. “I bet they'll try to aim for his head with those arrows the next time.”
Lavender nodded, looking grim. “This way, Mr. Hagrid went this way,” she said as she looked down at the larger than life footprints that Albus couldn't help but noted went off the path. Frost was still rather heavy, covering up most of the thick roots that were littered around like giant snakes, “it gets darker the more you go in.”
Scorpious didn't like hearing that truth and Albus saw him swallow hard, his eyes becoming like grey steel. But it was a truth that they couldn't help but notice and they all shuddered as a strong wind blew, bringing with it the scents of mold, frozen leaves and grass and the odor of various animals.
Something creaked and clicked in the trees and Albus felt the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end, “I can't see anymore footprints. Maybe Mr. Hagrid turned back,” Lavender said after a while, her voice a bit panicked as she stared at the ground.
How she was able to walk, look at the footprints and stay linked with them was beyond Albus but he glanced down. Mist was wrapping itself around the hem of the Cloak like ice, obliterating the last of Hagrid's footprints and they weren't able to tell whether he had gone left or right or down a hill.
“What should we do?” Scorpious hissed, shivering despite all of his clothes.
Before Albus could suggest that they turn back, if they could even dare to find their way out, there was a scream. A bloodcurdling, painful sort of scream and they jumped nearly three feet into the air, gripping one another, “What was that?” Lavender asked, eyes wider than saucers.
“I don't know but whatever it was, it didn't sound happy.” Albus found himself saying stupidly and Scorpious nodded in agreement. The scream came again, louder this time and he glanced around, “it sounds like its coming from there.” He was looking past Scorpious's shoulder, “its far away though.”
Scorpious and Lavender turned, bringing his body with them to hear more clearly as the scream came again. Mist clung a very far distance away, but whoever was screaming was so loud that they might as well have been right next to them and Albus felt gooseflesh popping up along his skin. “What should we do? What if its Mr. Hagrid?” Lavender cried worriedly. “Do you think we should go get a teacher?”
“There might not be any time to go back and do you think we can even find our way out of here?” Albus asked her in a near panic. Even now, all the tall, twisted trees and lumpy boulders appeared the same. The darkness was creeping in, choking the three of them, “we should go see who that is!”
Scorpious gritted his teeth. “What if its not a person at all? What if its a trick? I heard that a manticore can sound human.” He said, naming a beast with a human face and lion body that devoured stray travelers.
Lavender gnawed on her lower lip. “But what if it is Mr. Hagrid?” she asked worriedly, “...what if it is?” she whispered, sounding far more than frightened now.
Not waiting to find out, Albus flipped up the Cloak and darted towards the screaming, which struck up again. He couldn't tell whether it was a man or a woman, it was so strained, “Albus, what are you doing? Albus!” Scorpious shouted after him but his voice already sounded far away.
Roots snagged on his trainers and Albus was more than certain that he would freeze to death but that scream...someone was in trouble. What if it were Hagrid? Hagrid, who was his friend and that he loved? He didn't think that he could deal with it if he were hurt and needed his help.
Bleakly, he knew that he would rather have Lavender and Scorpious far away from this. It was what his father would have done for Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione.
Albus wasn't his father but he could pretend to be for right now.
“Albus!” Lavender's voice screamed from a distance. There was the sound of footsteps crunching and slipping behind him but Albus stumbled and ran farther away, that scream still exploding in the air.
As Albus thrust himself farther into the mist, nearing that horrible sound with only his wandlight to guide him, he hoped that he wasn't too late. Too late to do something at least, considering that he was still a kid but if his father could walk in the Forest and face his death then he could at least face this. Whatever it was. Gritting his teeth and hating the gnarled branches smacking and snagging onto his clothes, Albus's feet suddenly connected with air.
Crying out at the sudden emptiness, he tried to stop it but he was already falling, time slowing as he seemed to descend for hours and hours when it could have only been a few seconds. Rocks, dirt and bits of frozen grass clung to every bit of him as he landed unceremoniously onto his stomach, the wind knocked out of him.
Sounds were dull and that screaming...he could still hear it, and it felt so close that his ears were thumping. “Do not let it escape!” a man's voice, garbled and unfamiliar cried ferociously nearby.
Albus blinked, coughing and gagging. His stiff fingers searched for his wand and he curled his fingers around its shape in the brittle grass but he must have made a sound because there was a confused, “Who's there?”
Apparently, there was more than one person here and Albus raised his head, trying to see. It was so dark that there shapes were nothing more than midnight painted on black but he was able to make out something...something that looked like horses but couldn't possibly be, “Its a fowl from that school!” another voice, close to hm declared, sounding disgusted.
Albus coughed and wiped his mouth, his stomach feeling as if he would never be able to breathe properly again. The screaming was still going on and though he wasn't sure how he did it, he gripped his wand, saying, “Lumos,” and jerked back in shock and horror.
Centaurs were pacing on what looked to be a flat bit of clearing, their massive human-like chests bare and bellowing. The screaming was coming from one of their own, a wounded female that was wild in the face and being restrained with tight, silvery ropes that appeared to be unicorn hair. Albus could make out at least eight of them in the group and the captured female had a knife to her throat, “What are you doing out here?” one of the centaurs demanded, clopping forward.
“I...I got lost,” Albus managed to say, still coughing. He looked, wild eyed at the captured female, fear for her making him numb with anger and confusion, “what are you doing?” he demanded.
The centaur he stared up at was blonde with a very handsome face and a stubborn jaw. “That is none of your concern, human,” he said coldly, gazing down at him with disdain and what looked a lot like pity.
Albus forced himself onto his feet, glaring at them all even though he knew it was only his fear. Would they hurt him for being in their territory? “S...she was screaming, I thought someone needed help,” he found himself defending coldly.
“That beast doesn't need help from you or anyone else. She has been accused of slaying her own mate over a pitiful lover's quarrel that you of course will not understand for some time yet,” the centaur said and Albus swallowed the lump forming in his throat, wondering what they were going to do to her. “We do not tolerate murder in our herd.”
“Are you Firenze?” Albus asked him, staring into shadowed eyes that regarded him curiously. The others were still pacing, the female now subdued to the point where her screams were only whimpers that still made him shudder with unease, “you're the herd leader aren't you?”
The centaur shook his head, sending glints of blonde hair everywhere. “You're referring to my father, who at this very moment is dealing with the half-giant and the other Hogwarts fool that parades inside our Forest.” He explained and Albus eyed him, wondering if he would either help him or try to hurt him as well, “I am Kane,”
“I'm Albus Potter,” Albus found himself saying, not sure why he was even bothering to do so. Kane's companions were watching him curiously, though he had a feeling that it wasn't from real interest, “will you let me go?” he demanded, holding out his wand as if he could do real damage.
That seemed to amuse Kane and his face, though shadowed appeared to twist into what looked like a smile. “That depends,” he said lightly, though there wasn't anything friendly about the way he paced around him, asking, “are you friend or foe, child?”
Albus thought that it was a peculiar question to ask him when he was, to their eyes nothing at all. He was scrawny and dirty and he didn't know any really good magic like Lavender or Rose and there was no way that he could fight them or even run away when he had no idea where he could run to. “What do you mean?”
“There has been strange activity in our Forest as of late. Nothing is as it seems and even a child that you never see can prove to be a danger,” Kane said to him with a strange little smile at him. Albus didn't appreciate that he seemed to think he knew something that he didn't, “the stars are shifting...the moon not so bright. Dark days are coming and I ask you now, are you friend or foe?”
Albus wasn't sure if any answer would be the right one but if he was hoping to get out of here with his skin intact, he had to play smart. “I'm a friend.” Somehow, the words sounded like a bond that he wouldn't be able to break and he didn't like the thought that he might owe them anything. “Now will you let me go?”
“I will take you to the half-giant but I warn you,” Kane said as he suddenly snatched Albus up by the arm and yanked him onto his back, “that I will not take kindly to you trespassing again without my father's permission.”
Gripping the long locks of his hair awkwardly, Albus made sure that his grip on his wand was still tight. He somehow felt like hexing the centaur, “Just take me to Hagrid, okay?” he snapped, knowing his attitude wouldn't be appreciated.
Kane laughed though and the sound made his spine tingle with unease but the other centaurs made a path for him. Albus took one last fleeting glance at the female that was bound and surrounded before feeling the wind rushing past him as he was suddenly thrust forward against the centaur's neck. Crisp air bit into his face as Kane darted around the clearing, leaped onto a rocky shelf and rushed forward, as Albus hung desperately on.
Trees blurred past and Albus heard Kane laughing at him as he was nearly thrown off by his wild riding and insane jumps that made his teeth rattle when they landed. He hoped that Scorpious and Lavender were all right and that they weren't looking for him right now, stumbling around in the Forest when there were monsters just waiting for a meal.
So worried by that thought that he forgot about his own predicament, Albus was painfully jerked to reality by Kane's sudden stop. The sudden motion caused his head to bang painfully onto his neck. “Careful human,” the centaur chastised hotly, his tone gruff and mean, “I do not take kindly to being wounded.”
“No? Well, how do you think I feel?!” Albus snarled furiously as he was, once again yanked by his arm and forced onto the ground. Kane glared down at him warningly, releasing him, but he didn't tear his gaze away and the centaur gave a little nod that was almost approving. “Where's Hagrid?” he demanded.
Kane apparently had led him to the very edge of the Forest. Albus could see Hagrid's hut in the distance, the chimney smoking and the first sign that his friend was probably inside. “I have brought you to him, as my father must have concluded his ridiculous meeting with him and that other foolish human.”
“Yeah but you said that you'd take me to Hagrid and your dad,” Albus found himself reminding the creature, thinking that he was rather slippery.
Kane barked a laugh, obviously finding him amusing. “My father has much more important things to do than waste his time with children and I've brought you to the half-giant. Just as I promised...do you think me a liar?”
Albus glared over his shoulder at him. “No, and thanks.” He said, though he had a feeling that his intelligence had been highly insults as he started to limp away, feeling aches and pains from his fall, “you're...you're not going to kill that other one back there are you? The girl?” he asked, looking over his shoulder.
“Female.” Kane corrected, looking like some sort of thing from a nightmare as he lurked near a thicket of trees. Albus shivered and waited for his answer, and there was an odd little pause before the creature said slowly, so slowly that for a moment it felt as if he weren't hearing him at all. “Some evils can't be cured, some mistakes never forgotten.”
Albus frowned. “So you're gonna kill her?”
Kane smiled hauntingly. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.” Albus felt an inkling of dislike pouring into him, “but the person wandering into our Forest cares very little for wrong or right.”
“You mean Zabini?” Albus demanded.
Kane appeared briefly confused but he gave a nasty smile. “No, not him. Though, he is a sad case and be sure to inform him that his attempts to cure the creature's evil are for naught.” Albus wondered what he meant by that but the centaur was already moving away, merging back into mists and dreams.
Okay, that's it for this! Thanks for reading and I'll see you all again. Now, I have no idea what to update for next. Sigh.
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