22What Is Forgotten Is Not Gone
"Those who seek immortality are fools,
for immortality does not exist – not in
life, and not in deed. This multiverse has
but one overseer. His name is Entropy, and
He will not remember you."
–Emperor Decimus Nesaeil, purportedly on being asked to
convert to the Church of the Infinite Strand
The only Hogwarts ghost that Harry had ever spoken with much had been Nearly Headless Nick, who had been occasionally helpful in the past (and also decidedly unhelpful, but Harry still thought well of him). The ghosts generally kept to their own Houses. The Fat Friar and Nick, though, were at least approachable and friendly. The Bloody Baron and the Grey Lady were silent, ominous figures who rarely, if ever, made any gestures towards inter-House cooperation.
So when they found the Grey Lady near the North Tower, and she responded when Luna approached her, Harry was interested just to hear her voice. It was low and smooth, and had the same hollow, spectral undertones as the other ghosts. Even Nick at his most exuberant sounded a bit like he was at the bottom of a well.
"What are you doing here, Miss Lovegood? School has not yet started," the Grey Lady said, floating towards them.
"I've come to speak with you," Luna told her.
The slightest frown creased her placid, ethereal face. "Have you?"
"I need to ask you about the Lost Diadem."
The frown morphed into open annoyance; apparently, the Grey Lady's airy demeanour was a bit of an act. "I'd thought better of you. Many a student has bothered me for the diadem, hoping to cheat their way to better marks. I did not help them, and I will not help you."
"Oh, it's not for me," Luna said pleasantly. "It's for Harry."
The Grey Lady glared at Harry. "Whatever advantage you seek for the coming school year, you won't get it from me."
"Uh…" Harry shot a sideways glance at Luna, wondering if he should address the Grey Lady directly. Luna looked encouraging enough, so he said, "I'm not looking for the diadem for classes or anything. It's for…" How to put it without giving anything away? Neville and Luna had simply been told they were on a 'mission', and since military terms had worked well enough so far– "It's for the war effort."
The Grey Lady's expression did not change. "Generations of students have given me excuses–"
Harry had neither the time nor the inclination to stand there and be lectured. "Lady, are you even listening to me? Or do you want You-Know-Who to win, because it really seems like you do."
The ghost was taken aback, floating further away with wide eyes. "No, I… Is this really necessary?"
"Listen to him!" Ginny urged. "This is important!"
"Perhaps since you're a ghost, you don't care too much what happens to the school–" Harry began.
The Grey Lady drew herself up sharply. "How dare you?! I am the ghost of House Ravenclaw, and as such–"
"Good, brilliant, then you don't want the Death Eaters to take over your precious House permanently!" Harry said a bit too loudly, and Ginny placed a cautioning hand on his arm. He bit his cheek and said, more calmly, "I have to find that diadem. Everything depends on it."
"Do you think yourself so unintelligent that the diadem would bring you victory? The Dark Lord must also be wise, yes?"
"Harry hasn't said, but I don't think it's for wearing," Luna commented.
"It's not. I can't tell you what it's for, but I can tell you it isn't for me, either," Harry said to the reluctant ghost. "If you know anything about it, you have to tell us. Or I guarantee, you won't have a House much longer."
"Are you threatening me?" the Lady said with a desperate air, looking less like she believed that and more like she was running out of reasons not to talk.
"It's not me. Don't you get it?"
The Grey Lady stared silently at a distant point somewhere past Harry's shoulder. Then she sighed, the puff of her breath washing over Harry like the first touch of winter. "…It once belonged to my mother," she said. "When I lived, I was her daughter, Helena Ravenclaw."
"And the diadem?" Harry didn't really care about the Grey Lady's life story.
"It… came into my possession," she said hesitantly, perhaps glossing over more than a few details. "It was hidden in Albania for a time. There it remained, after my death. I told no one. Until…"
Harry grimaced. "Until Tom Riddle."
"Yes," the Grey Lady said regretfully. "He was sympathetic, I thought he… He told me he understood."
Harry supposed the story of the diadem was tragic, or something. "Do you know what he did with it?"
"I do not. But I know it is no longer where I once left it. He stole it… Ironic, I suppose…" she said with sadness.
"Is the statue in your common room accurate? I mean, is that what the diadem really looks like?" Ginny asked.
"Yes. The gemstone is a sapphire."
"Well, that's better than nothing," Harry muttered. "Thank you for your help." He turned away from the Grey Lady, letting Luna thank the ghost more thoroughly. His mind was otherwise occupied.
He was almost positive that the diadem was at Hogwarts. It made sense, logically and intuitively. He'd seen the memory of Riddle with Dumbledore, asking for a teaching position. It would have been the right time to hide the diadem, the perfect false pretences. But where would he have put it? Hogwarts was so vast… There was the Chamber of Secrets – secrets which Riddle thought only he had unravelled. There was also the Slytherin common room, where he had made the connections that would form his future cadre. Harry didn't believe that Riddle would have placed it near another House's territory. He despised them and what they stood for. Except, perhaps, Ravenclaw? Harry wasn't sure how Riddle had felt about Ravenclaw. Indifference, at best, surely.
"At least we know what it looks like," Ron was saying. "Bloody big sapphire like that? It'd be hard to miss."
Which was worrying, really, as something that obvious should probably have been spotted by someone. "Yeah. Gin, you got the coin?" he said, looking at the Map again.
"I set it. I told them we'd be here… Or should we move?" she said.
"No, it's clear for now. We can stay." There was no one in the vicinity of the North Tower, and it was safer to stay put.
"She really didn't want to talk about the diadem," Neville said, watching as the Grey Lady floated down the corridor, disappearing into the darkness.
"But she seems likely to keep quiet about this," Harry said. He located Hermione and Scott on the Map – they were moving in the right direction, so Hermione must have seen the message on the DA coin. Their path looked to be safe.
"That her?" Ron said, leaning over the Map.
"Yeah, she's fine. And invisible, probably," Harry replied.
"Wish I could say the same for us. So, where do you want to start?"
Harry thought about that. He looked at the Map again, locating the Carrows. They were in the dungeons. "The Chamber first."
"Lovely. Odds on Myrtle keeping her mouth shut?"
"Damn it, I didn't even think about her."
"Let me and Luna go first, she doesn't get so shirty when it's girls coming in," Ginny offered.
"Scott might be able to get rid of her," Harry said distractedly.
Scott and Hermione were past the point that they might run into the Carrows, but they were moving almost parallel to McGonagall, who seemed to be going toward the Headmaster's Office. There were a few smaller passageways connecting the two hallways, so hopefully the pair were keeping quiet. McGonagall's dot kept moving without pause. Soon, Scott and Hermione were ascending. Harry observed their progress until they were almost at the nearest juncture.
"They're here," Harry told the others. He pointed to the right.
At first, there was nothing. After a moment, a very faint rustling could be heard.
"Nobody hex me, please," Hermione said from somewhere to Harry's immediate left. He stepped back and she pulled the Cloak off, her wild hair clinging to it with static. "That was quite the climb," she huffed, her face flushed. "Scott was right behind me, I don't know what he's doing."
"Should we go check on him?" Neville said uncertainly, raising his wand.
Luna laid a hand on his arm. "It's best to wait. I wouldn't want to surprise him."
Scott traipsed around the corner a handful of seconds later. "We weren't followed," he declared. He surveyed everyone, stopping in the middle of his perusal to give Harry a very long, piercing stare.
"I know you weren't followed, I've got the Map," Harry reminded, holding the parchment up. He frowned in response to Scott's scrutiny and glanced downwards, wondering if the Grey Lady had breathed frost on him or something.
"Good," Scott said, looking away. "Where to?"
"The Chamber," Ron said with false cheer. "Can't wait! Did I tell you I nearly died last time I was there?"
Scott shook his head. "Dumbledore already checked the Chamber."
Harry blinked in surprise. "How do you know?"
"We spoke to his portrait," Hermione explained. "He didn't have any additional notes, but these books might be of some use. Ron, can you hold open the handbag for me?"
Harry looked at her, eyes wide. "You saw Dumbledore?"
"His portrait," Scott reiterated. "We can talk about it later, the important thing is the Chamber's already searched."
Harry desperately wanted to know more about the Headmaster's
portrait, but he pushed it aside. "Then we'll have to wait until we can get down to the Slytherin common room. Did you think to ask Dumbledore for the password?"
"I didn't even know they had a password."
"What if we ask the Fat Lady? Maybe she can break the rules, since it's such an emergency," Ginny suggested.
"Why would she know it?" Ron said.
"I don't know… The portraits talk to each other all the time," she said.
"The Slytherins don't have a portrait. It's just a bloody stone wall."
Ginny made a face. "Really? Well, that's boring…"
"They'll know," Scott said, putting a finger on the dots representing the Carrows.
Hermione blanched. "No, no! We're being low key, remember? Violence is the last thing we need!"
"Where else can we go?" Harry put to all of them, mentally agreeing that having Scott do… whatever it was he had in mind was a last resort. And not just from some sort of squeamish, moral standpoint – risking exposure was the last thing they needed. "Everybody think."
Harry turned inward, racking his brain. The Chamber and the Slytherin dungeon were certainly the most likely places, but Riddle might not have been so obvious. The self-proclaimed Dark Lord loved secrets, the obscure, the forbidden. There were several passages that were not well known, and a few empty rooms that saw almost no traffic. None of them were 'secrets', strictly speaking… Also, anything left there would be rather obviously out of place. Unless it was hidden behind a brick or a loose flagstone. Of course, anything so cleverly concealed would be more or less impossible to find, so Harry tried not to think about that.
Obviously out of place… Where would a Horcrux not be obviously out of place? The locket had originally been in a cave, surrounded by very obvious traps and placed on a pedestal. If Voldemort had dispensed with the deadly protections and ominous pageantry, he could have buried the locket somewhere in the crevice, beneath the water. But he hadn't. And though that did fit Riddle's rather grandiose preferences, it suggested to Harry that there had to be some way to detect Horcruxes magically. Or maybe Riddle just wanted there to be no chance of forgetting where he'd placed one, along with the symbolism and ties to his past. But the locket wasn't the only his method of concealment. Nagini was hiding in plain sight.
The Trophy Room? Maybe, but Harry had been in there plenty of times and Ron had even cleaned it, once. No diadems in there, by Harry's recollection. Not that his memory was perfect. It was probably worth checking out if no one came up with a better location. It was the kind of room where there were enough shiny things that one more might be overlooked. Well, the diadem would probably be recognised by any Ravenclaw, so maybe not so much…
Everything in the Trophy Room was pretty organised, anyway. Harry remembered asking for ideas during the search for the real locket; Scott had said he would have hidden it in the attic, where there were so many things that one more wouldn't have stood out. The truth ended up being fairly close to that, but it also hadn't been by Riddle's design. He put his Horcruxes in places that meant something to him, places he probably thought that only he would know about: the cave, Gaunt's shack… Which begged the question of where the diary and the cup had been kept. Maybe, at some point, he had thought them no longer safe in their first locations, and given them to trusted Death Eaters instead.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Luna calmly observing everyone, with Neville looking as puzzled as she was serene. The two of them probably had a fairly good idea of what was going on, but they couldn't be allowed to know the specifics. It wasn't that Harry didn't trust the two of them – he would with his life, if necessary, but, as the only ones who were returning to Hogwarts, they had to be kept ignorant for their own protection.
"Nev, Luna – can you two go back down the hall for a minute?" Harry felt terrible even asking, but it had to be done. "We need to talk about some things, and…"
Neville's face fell a bit, but he nodded. "Right, yeah. Come on, Luna."
Luna noticed Harry's distress. "It's all right, Harry," she told him as she turned to leave, "you do what you must."
Harry was tired of not having a choice, especially when his friends paid the price. He nodded stiffly to Luna in acknowledgement, still guilty. With Neville, she went back down the corridor where they had come from, staying within sight but not within hearing distance.
"Okay, so I just thought of this," Harry said, crossing his arms as he mulled it over. "So, Riddle gives his diary to Malfoy's dad for safekeeping. But then he gets back and finds out that it's been destroyed because Lucius didn't keep it safe at all."
"I'm surprised Malfoy Senior survived that little faux pas," Scott mused.
"I guess he's still useful. Anyway, so then he decides to give the cup to Bellatrix; but, he makes sure she puts it in Gringotts."
"Kylie never said that," Scott pointed out. "That could have been Lestrange's decision."
Harry frowned, thinking about the slight girl's stammered confession. "…Then I don't know. But where else would she put it? And Kylie knew that it went to Gringotts, so Bellatrix had to have told Riddle what she was doing, and he was okay with it."
"He's not taking the same chance," Hermione said.
Harry nodded. "Right. But just the cup. He didn't give any of the others to anyone else. The snake makes sense – I mean, who's going to want that, it takes care of itself– but that means he thinks the locket is still in the cave and the ring is still in that old shack. He trusts those places… But, more than that, they're really important to him. If there was somewhere else as important, I think he would have kept the cup there. But he didn't, and not the diary, either."
"So we have to be on the right track, yeah?" Ron surmised. "This was his home for years, same as us."
Harry thought about the orphanage, but quickly discarded it as a possibility. Riddle would never hide a part of his soul in a Muggle setting. "Now that I think about it, I'm not sure about the Slytherin common room. There's so many people going through there, and a lot of them would know at least a little about Dark magic."
"It's not impossible that it was ignored. Remember, the locket was in a state similar to hibernation, despite being on a shelf in the open," Hermione said. "Though that wasn't deliberate on Riddle's part."
Scott made a noise of disbelief. "I don't get him, then. That's stupid. If anyone is going to understand a Horcrux for what it is, it's a Slytherin, and Riddle doesn't want that. Plus, it's not like the Houses are totally segregated. Yeah, the Ravenclaws know about the Lost Diadem and the other students probably don't so much, but all it takes is one Slytherin visiting her Ravenclaw boyfriend to see that statue. And a diadem in Ravenclaw colours, it's like, what the hell is this doing here?"
"But would Riddle have thought of that, is the question," Hermione said.
"I don't know. More and more, I'm starting to realise that I don't understand how this guy thinks. He doesn't make sense."
"I doubt splitting his soul has done any favours for his reasoning."
Scott gave her an appraising look. "You think he's insane?"
"I think he's blinded by avarice and misanthropy. And more than a bit obsessive, as well."
"Compulsive, too. It's that tendency we're up against at the moment."
"Yeah, he's effing mental, we know," Harry interrupted, breaking back into the conversation before Hermione and Scott could totally run away with it. "And that's why he'd hide something here to begin with. Because he thinks he's such a big deal, because he loves knowing things that no one else knows."
"Or at least that he thinks no one else knows," Scott said absently.
"Right, secret rooms that maybe aren't as secret as he…" Harry's arms dropped, going slack as a realisation struck him like lightning. "…You think Riddle would ever ask a house-elf about Hogwarts?"
Hermione scoffed. "Of course not. I doubt he'd deign to recognise their existence."
"Right. But it was a house-elf that told me about the Room of Requirement."
There was a long moment of silence as they all stared at each other, caught in simultaneous revelation.
Ginny broke it. "Bloody hell!" she swore. "Were we in there with it this whole ruddy time?"
"Nearly, I should say – the room can take many forms, we don't know how many, and it could be in any one of them," Hermione said, eyes bright.
"Then let's be specific, and see if that works," Harry said eagerly. He waved to Neville and Luna, getting their attention and bringing them back over. "We're going to the Room," he told them.
"Should I bother asking why?" Neville said with an unconvincing laugh. He was obviously hurt by the exclusion.
"I wouldn't. You're already in a bad position," Scott said seriously.
"Oh." Neville looked at Luna with concern. "Right."
Harry knew finding the correct configuration for the Room might end up being quite the problem, but he was so relieved to have a real, solid lead on the Horcrux that he barely cared. It felt like a good one, too. He really thought they were on to something. The Room of Requirement was exactly the kind of arcane mystery that Riddle would have latched on to.
The Map led them to the Room without incident; the upper levels remained dark and empty. The sheer size of Hogwarts had often been exhaustingly inconvenient when going from class to class, but for the purposes of stealth it was a real benefit.
need a place to hide things…" Harry verbalised his thoughts, pacing before the entrance. "We need somewhere to keep something important…"
"A diadem, especially," Hermione added.
"We need a place to hide a diadem…"
"We need a storage room, Room," Scott said.
The door appeared. Harry looked at it for a moment, hesitant to open it. "Think we'll get it right the first time?"
"You said diadem, like, exactly. If the Room didn't understand, I don't think it would open at all," Ron opined.
"It's always given us what we wanted before," Ginny said optimistically.
That was true, and, for all the times they had used the Room, they had never really explored the limits of what it could do. "Please work," Harry muttered, and then he pulled the door open.
When they stepped inside they were greeted by a mess the likes of which Harry had never seen.
There were piles of furniture, endless shelves, mounds of discarded papers and quills, and more miscellaneous rubbish than could be comprehended. The ceiling vaulted overhead, higher than usual, deep shadows pooling out from the arches, painted by light from a source that wasn't immediately apparent. Just outside of the small, clear circle in which he stood, Harry spotted six different swords, an armchair with half the stuffing falling out, a cage with what looked to be at least eight different bird skeletons littering the bottom, a jester's cap, a pile of soap bars, a Muggle refrigerator, a snapped broomstick, a tarnished trophy, and what looked like a car tyre stuffed with towels. Above all else, there were books, thousands of them, stacked on every shelf and flat surface.
Harry squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and tried to smother a hysterical laugh. "…Hey, Scott."
"Yeah?" Scott said, nudging at an overturned vase with his foot.
"Remember where you said you'd hide something if you had to?"
"Aw, man. I usually love being right."
"What is all this?" Neville said, gawking at the heaps.
"Everyone's favourite rubbish bin," Ron surmised.
"And even that's an understatement," Hermione said. She picked up a book at random: the cover was inscribed in a language Harry didn't recognise. "I would say generations of students have left things here, going back to the founding. Although… Even given the antiquity of the school, there are too many things for everyone to have stumbled across this by accident. I wonder if the Room was common knowledge, once."
Scott shrugged. "And people share."
Hermione nodded and leaned close to his ear, speaking quietly. Harry took a step towards them to listen. "True. I think we need to reconsider Riddle's motives, in this instance. It's not possible that he thought only he knew about the Room, not looking at all this."
"Unless he knew something we don't," Scott whispered back.
"Such as?" Hermione asked, frowning.
"Maybe we're making a wrong assumption about the nature of the room. Maybe when students lose things at Hogwarts, it all finds its way here."
"That's an interesting idea… But, how would that come about?"
Scott rolled his eyes. "How does any of this shit happen? I don't know, it sounded magical."
"Does it matter?" Harry interrupted. He glanced away to make sure Neville and Luna had wandered off. "He put the Horcrux in here, and if we didn't know what to look for we'd never find it. And we might not anyway, no matter how long we spend. So… let's start."
"Go team," Scott drawled.
"We should have him encourage our enemies," Ron sniggered.
Harry ignored the two of them and carefully stepped his way over to a bookshelf that was large enough that he wouldn't be able to reach the top of it. There was more than just books stacked on it, and he dug around in a few small bins and pulled a handful of wooden coins out of a brown bag. Three other cloth bags contained marbles. He moved a clay pot filled with desiccated twigs and gingerly poked aside a pair of bloodied trousers.
"Don't touch those, Harry," Ginny said, scrunching up her nose. "You don't know where they've been."
"I don't know where any of this has been. Could all be covered in anything," Harry said, shrugging.
Ginny withdrew her hand from a zebra-striped pillow. "Oh, lovely."
"It's not that bad, actually. It's pretty interesting in here," Harry noted.
"You would say that. It's like we've shrunk down and ended up inside your trunk," she gibed, moving off in Hermione's direction.
Strains of music filtered in from his left, and he turned to see Scott standing in front of a music box, playing along to the twinkling refrain with an extremely out of tune guitar. "That's not what we're looking for," he called out to Scott in exasperation.
"This guitar is a piece of shit. This is, like, a fifty-dollar garage sale guitar," Scott replied.
"Hey, Harry!" Ron yelled. Harry craned his neck even further back – he could only see about half of Ron behind a large metal wardrobe. "Look at this, it's one of the chess pieces I played with in first year! You know, the big ones!"
"Is it the one that brained you?" Harry asked.
"No, it's just a pawn," Ron said, sounding disappointed.
"So we know someone's been in here since then, at least," Hermione remarked, her voice drifting up from behind a pile of folding chairs.
Harry opened his mouth to respond when a loud crash rang out from somewhere on the other side of the shelf he was searching. "What's that?" he said, trying to look around the shelf.
"Are you all right, Neville?" Luna said.
"It's all right! It's just me. I fell," Neville shouted, sounding harried.
Harry moved back to where he had been and knocked a grey book off one of the slats. He winced when it bounced off his foot and bent down to pick it up, glaring at it. Von unaussprechlichen Kulten? What the bloody hell did that mean? The designs around the edges of the cover were vaguely sinister. The words looked German, he thought.
"Hey, Scott." Harry leaned back and whipped the book towards Scott, who deftly snatched it out of the air. "Is that German?"
Scott glanced down at the cover. "Yeah… I don't think you should read this."
Harry hadn't planned on it. He abandoned the shelf and crept sideways between two book mounds and then awkwardly climbed over a record turntable. He carefully bypassed a rack of corked potion bottles, the contents of which still looked vile, despite their apparent age (there was a heavy coating of dust on the glass). Nothing but books, a chipped tea set and a wooden desk littered with carved hearts. He pushed a few stacks of books aside half-heartedly, feeling like he wasn't in the right place. Maybe there was somewhere with more jewellery…
A conversation drifted up from behind a jumbled wall of chairs. "Where on earth did you– no, it doesn't matter. Just put it back," Hermione ordered.
"Why should I? Harry gets a gun, why can't I have an axe?" Ron countered.
"Harry is learning how to use that gun properly. Are you going to ask Scott for axe lessons?" Hermione said condescendingly.
"I might at that," Ron said pugnaciously.
"Ron! You can barely lift it, and you're telling me you're going to lug it along on our next outing?"
"It would look good on my wall, anyway."
"That thing is not going in our bedroom," she said with a note of finality.
Harry tuned them out, moving deeper into the Room. Weird echoes stirred about the stacks, muffled noises of movement and snatches of words slipping between dust-coated slats and yellowed pages. He hoped it was all from his friends, or maybe some harmless magical portraits. He didn't like to imagine what else might be moving and speaking in the Room. Thus far, no one had encountered any objects that were hostile or even all that dangerous, but that could easily change. He was actually surprised he hadn't cut himself on anything yet.
Thinking of the portraits that might be in the Room, he was more than a bit jealous that Scott and Hermione had been able to speak with Dumbledore's visage. Between the two of them they could be trusted to have covered anything relevant, but Harry still wanted the opportunity for himself. He had personal questions. And an aching part of him might be assuaged by seeing even a flat replication of the Headmaster. It would have been a bright spot of something approaching normalcy, a short trip to saner times. Though, more and more it seemed the sanity of the wizarding world had been nothing but a ruse, a thin veneer. The Dark had still been there, biding its time, waiting for the master to return.
Harry tripped over a large chunk of amber containing a single enormous butterfly, effectively removing him from his thoughts. He'd lost sight of the others, and stood still for a moment to regain a sense of direction. Blurry shapes were moving to his right, distorted by a poorly arranged pile of crystal balls.
It was Neville and Luna. "What creature do you think this horn belongs to?" Luna was saying.
"Um… I think that's a big spring," Neville said.
"Oh! I see, it's for sitting."
There was a steely, reverberating rattle and then a tremendous crash, followed by the patter of books against the floor. Harry winced.
"Luna!" Neville sounded more amused than frantic, so Harry assumed everything was all right.
"I would have bounced well if this shelf weren't in the way. What a bother," Luna sighed. "At least I landed on my bum. I think it's all right. Would you like to check it for me?"
"Yes!" Neville blurted out. "I-I mean, no! No. …Wait. Yes. If you'd like."
Harry turned and retraced his
steps, hoping to run into Ginny. Around the previous curve of shelves he instead encountered Scott again, who was busily rummaging through a multi-level cupboard on the opposite side of the book-littered aisle. "Find anything good?" Harry asked.
Scott withdrew, showering the ground with empty envelopes. "Not unless you like stamps. Ever wanted to be a philatelist?"
"I don't even know what that is."
"Then probably not. Hey, did you hear Ron found an axe?"
"I heard." Harry picked up a book bag that turned out to be filled with used quills. "Half this shite should have been binned."
"There's a strong similarity to an evidence locker. Looks like a lot of this stuff was hidden to cover up some rule breaking. Stop detentions before they start, that kind of crap." Scott held up a bent, rusted golf club, the end of which was dented and clearly bloodstained. "And some not-so-minor infractions."
Harry grimaced. "I hope they didn't hide whoever they used that on in here, too."
"No bodies… Yet. The night is young."
"Not young enough. We have to get out of here before morning," Harry said tensely. Moving their venture into the Room had bought them some time, now that they didn't have to worry about being exposed in the hallways. But the cover of night was still necessary to make their escape.
"Try to relax; just be methodical," Scott said calmly. "I think you were right. I think it's in here somewhere."
Harry wasn't quite as convinced, but it was easy enough to believe that pretty much anything could be in the Room. He still didn't have a good idea of the size of its current incarnation. Average view distance was about five feet in any direction – the aisle he was sharing with Scott offered a whole fifteen feet before it took a turn (or just ended; Harry couldn't tell from where he was standing and he couldn't remember where he'd come in). He rotated in a circle, looking for something solid and uncluttered enough to climb. The only thing fitting that criteria was Scott.
"Hey, lift me up," Harry said, raising his knees and surmounting a pile of books with an ungainly hop.
Scott nodded his head in acquiescence. "All right, but don't get used to it. I'm still taller."
He bent down and picked Harry up by the feet without any apparent effort. Harry waved his arms about wildly, trying to remain upright through the transition and managing to steady himself using the top of the cupboard once he was standing on Scott's shoulders. What he saw was slightly more encouraging than he had expected.
"It's bigger than usual," he said, trying to look backwards without falling. "But not huge. I can see the walls, we're pretty close to the left one."
"No. There's a videotape up here, if you want it."
"Sure, why not." Scott lowered Harry and took the VHS tape from him. "Oooh, C.H.U.D."
"Is that any good?"
Scott squinted. "Mmmmm, by what metric?"
Fifteen minutes later, Harry was knee deep in loose papers, all of them conspicuously lacking any marks (perhaps some professor had decided to 'lose' the work – which begged the question of why they hadn't banished or burned them, but whatever). He had discovered about eight different varieties of hats, none of which resembled a diadem. He looked around, unable to see any of his companions from where he was. He possessed the growing suspicion that most – if not all – of them were becoming increasingly distracted by items of personal interest. He'd caught Hermione arranging textbooks by year, Ron finding more of the life-sized chess pieces, Ginny placing several antique Quaffles in the handbag, Scott cleaning a flintlock rifle with a school flag, Neville collecting seeds and Luna building a book fort.
All of them had been appropriately repentant when confronted, with the exception of Scott, whose bizarre placidity was both annoying and an expression of fatalism uncharacteristic enough to cause genuine concern. Harry was starting to think that either Scott knew something the rest of them didn't, or the shape was muddling the Kharadjai's mind again. Which, come to think of it, might be a good sign.
Harry retraced his steps until he found Scott, who had moved away from the rifle and was digging into an uneven pile of candelabras.
"Is the shape telling you anything?" Harry asked abruptly.
Scott shrugged. "No, nothing overt. Although I did say there was something up north, and look where we are now."
"All right. But, you know, you've been acting really weirdly laid back considering, so… What's the chance that there's a Horcrux in here, as an Important Thing or whatever you call it, and it's affecting you?"
Scott's face went blank for a moment, and then he frowned slightly. "I don't think that's very likely."
"But you didn't say it was impossible."
"I just thought you seemed pretty sure there was a Horcrux in here."
"Not at first. I thought it was about as likely as anywhere else, maybe a little more," Scott explained. "Then after we dug around a bit, I figured there was nothing. I almost voted to leave, seemed like we were wasting our time. But after a little more digging, I realised there was enough stuff in here that Riddle might feel comfortable hiding something."
"You almost wanted to leave?" Harry said, surprised. He personally didn't feel they had searched sufficiently to be sure of anything.
"Yeah, I wasn't buying it. Which, admittedly, was a wrong impulse, there could be anything in here, I don't know why I… Would think that and then immediately be so convinced there… was…" Scott's teeth gripped his bottom lip in a savage grimace, and he spun on his heel. He glared ferociously towards the aisle they had previously been in. "I really don't like having my head fucked with."
"OI!" Harry shouted, pulling out his wand. "EVERYBODY GET OVER HERE!"
There was a collective clattering as the distributed group converged on Harry's position, knocking over who knew how many books in their rush to respond. Hermione clambered over a school desk, Neville and Luna came rushing around the nearest corner, Ginny squeezed her slim frame between two shelves and Ron ploughed straight through a stack of novels, scattering them all over the aisle.
"Here!" Ron said, panting.
"What is it? Why are you shouting?" Hermione said frantically, searching for a target.
"Scott just narrowed it down for us," Harry told them.
"With his obliviousness," Scott growled. He had one of his handguns out and was running a thumb over the trigger guard, his thumbnail white with pressure.
Hermione observed his behaviour with alarm. "Your…?"
"We think the diadem is right over there. Scott was by it and it made him think there was nothing here," Harry said, stating what he had inferred.
"You're okay, though?" Ron said, nudging a still rigid Scott with one elbow.
Scott's face had slid into a blank combat state. "Depends on how you want to define that."
"You're not dead."
"By that very wide definition, yeah, I'm okay."
"It was already attacking you?" Hermione said with great concern. "That's worrying. It shouldn't know what we're up to, not yet."
"Then I guess it's been paying attention," Harry said grimly. "We have to find it before it can do real damage. Hermione, get Scott's cube out. Come on, let's find this thing."
Harry led the group back to where Scott had suddenly become convinced that they were on a fool's errand. He was expecting the search to take time: the heaps of rubbish in that particular space were especially daunting and he didn't know if the diadem needed a direct line of sight, or if it was completely buried and worked in an area. Either way, the longer it took to find, the more it would awaken. As ably demonstrated by the locket, a Horcrux was at least moderately powerful once it chose to defend itself. If they were lucky, the diadem was still half-asleep. If not… Well, he didn't know what the alternative scenario would be, exactly, but it wouldn't be good.
"Um, is that it?" Neville was saying.
"That's it," Scott said.
Harry blinked, removed from his thoughts. "What?"
"That's it, right there. Right in front of my face."
And sure enough, there it was. Scott must have been looking right at it the first time he had passed through. It sat on a pile of bundled clothing, innocuous, non-threatening. It was old and tarnished, stained by time and neglect. The sapphire had little lustre, the silver was blackened. It looked more like rubbish than a priceless treasure.
Harry snatched a tattered set of robes off a nearby table and wrapped it around his hand. "Hermione, hold the box open."
"I'm not positive a few layers of cloth are adequate protection," she nervously replied. She readied Scott's cube regardless.
"I'll be quick," Harry told her, not actually sure if that would make any difference. "Scott?"
"Hurry. I'm having trouble pinning it down," Scott said, his eyes unfocussed.
Harry didn't need extra encouragement. He was starting to feel like going anywhere near the diadem was a terrible idea and he should probably just leave, but he was cognisant enough to recognise the impulse as not being his own. Hermione held the cube out and he swiftly batted the diadem into it, the silver ringing out when it hit the bottom. Hermione snapped the box shut and slid it back into her handbag.
Harry pulled the robes off his hand and made sure his skin hadn't rotted away. He didn't think that was an unreasonable reaction considering what the diadem was and who had made it. Hermione's handbag wasn't disintegrating, so that was a good
sign. They had agreed to take the Horcrux back to Grimmauld before confronting it. None of them felt comfortable trying to destroy it in an unsafe location, considering the unknown qualities it might use to counter-attack.
Harry checked the Map as they hurried back down the cluttered paths to the exit. He'd been possessed by the paranoid fear that, somehow, the Carrows would be camped just outside the door, guaranteeing a confrontation. Harry couldn't think of any way that might happen other than the Grey Lady's betrayal, but it was a fear born of increasing tension now that they had to escape. No doubt Riddle could draw the right conclusions if two of his minions had been defeated just outside of the Room where he had hidden one of his Horcruxes.
But the upper levels of the school remained clear, silent and dark. Once they left, there would be no evidence they were ever there at all.
They retreated back to the Astronomy Tower, following Scott's dim outline and the occasional glint of moonlight on the steel of his weaponry. At the top, the moon had begun to peek out from behind the clouds, but it was still dark enough for their purposes. They descended on the brooms and hurried across the sussurating expanse of darkened grass, blades hissing gently against their ankles and stretching back upwards after being crushed in their wake.
As they went across the gloom-shrouded lawn, Harry suddenly realised that Scott wasn't with them. He checked the shadows closely. "Where's Scott?" he whispered.
"He must have gone ahead," Hermione guessed.
Harry clenched his teeth in frustration. It wasn't as if they could sit around and wait. "Let's get back to the wall."
They were about two-thirds of the way back when Harry spotted Scott in the muted moonlight. The Kharadjai was moving low and fast, coming back towards them from the direction of the lake. Harry knew better than to stop out in the open, so he kept going, knowing Scott would catch up.
It wasn't long before Scott fell in beside Harry. "Where'd you go?" Harry hissed.
"I had to check something," Scott replied.
"You can't just disappear like that! You're the one always telling us to stick together!" Harry lambasted him.
"I couldn't exactly leave a note. I'll explain when we get back, just keep moving."
Harry was still angry (the whole moment also brought back some of the leftover rage concerning Scott's lies at the Hollow), but he let it drop. There was a time and a place to berate Scott, but deep in enemy territory was a poor choice of both.
When they reached the wall, Harry paused whilst the others climbed over. He looked back towards the school, looming over the lake like a man-made mountain. Gryffindor Tower was dark. It was nearly September; the nights were growing cooler. The castle was his home, and instead of anticipating his return to its enlightened halls, he was running from it.
He didn't want to turn and look away. He might never see Hogwarts again.
"Get over here, you pillar of salt," Scott murmured, poking Harry's shoulder and jolting him from his reverie.
Harry tore his gaze from the school and put his foot into Scott's waiting hand, vaulting over the wall. The woods cloaked him beneath the rustling canopy, and all together they slipped back into the night.