Chapter Seven: Khepri
After a few moments of struggling, Harry managed to throw off the creature's hand, and he shrunk back against the head board, staring up at whatever it was now watching him from the side of the bed.
"You look different in real life," it said, after a moment, in a distinctly male voice. There was an odd accent in there that Harry had never heard before.
"What are you?" growled Harry. "Why are you in my room?"
The creature grinned. Harry hated that smile so much. It almost reminded him of Lockhart, a glitter of teeth - though these ones were far sharper, and far less human. "Call me Khepri," he said. "And I'm here to see you... isn't it obvious?"
"Why?" said Harry, suspiciously. His hand was gripping his wand tightly, and he was fully ready to defend himself if "Khepri" decided to pounce.
"To just warn you..." Khepri said, in that odd accent. Where was that from? Harry couldn't put a label to it at all. "To warn you of danger. Warn you of a threat. It's taken me a while to find you. You are well hidden, Harry Potter. And so well protected... you have two guardians, do you not? One with you now." He tilted his head, and Harry saw that he had long black hair to his waist, carefully braided and weaved with gold. "But it won't protect you. And I'm here to warn you."
"What about, exactly?" said Harry. He realised he was still tensed against the head board, looking up at Khepri worriedly. Those yellow hawk-eyes were very un-nerving.
"So eager?" Khepri whispered. "When I've come all this way to see you? No time to talk?"
Harry, up until now, had been a little reminded of Dobby the house elf, even though Khepri didn't resemble a house elf in the slightest. He was fairly short, the size of the average first year, but he would have still towered over a house elf. House elves also had long, pointed ears, but Khepri's ears, Harry realised, were like a cat's, and perched delicately on the top of his head.
"They'll hear you up here," Harry warned. "Ron and all my other friends. Or I'll scream for them, if you don't tell me why you're here and why you've been messing with my dreams."
Khepri grinned, flashing those sharp white teeth. "You can scream for them all you like. It won't do any good."
Harry felt a cold flush. "What have you done to them?"
"Nothing, nothing," Khepri soothed. "I'm not allowed to contact anybody except you... not allowed to touch, to appear to... you're the only person in the world who can see me now. You, and him."
"Him?" Harry repeated, suspiciously. "Which him would that be?"
"The him I've come to warn you about," said Khepri, grinning at him again. He really was un-nerving.
"Oh yeah?" sneered Harry. "Who?"
Khepri's grin widened even more, if it was possible, and he whispered, "He's looking for it. That's why I'm here, to warn you."
"Who's looking for what?" said Harry, angrily, but before Khepri could answer, the door creaked open.
Snape looked in at him, frowning. "Potter, what are you doing up here?"
"Can you see it?" said Harry, hurriedly.
"It?" Khepri muttered, scandalised.
Snape's frown deepened. "See what? Don't tell me you're seeing things..."
Harry pointed at Khepri, his finger barely inches from Khepri's face, and he panted, begging Snape to understand, "There? Can't you see it? Or him? Or whatever it is... Khepri?"
"Potter..." Snape's eyes swept to Khepri, and then back to Harry. "There is nothing there." He reached out, and swiped his fingertips straight through Khepri, as though he was nothing more than light. Harry's jaw fell. Khepri beamed at him, fangs winking in the light. Snape was staring at Harry in alarm now. He crouched down, and pulled Harry's head back to look into his eyes, frowning. "Your pupils seem fine..."
"You think I'm hallucinating?" said Harry, pulling away and pointing wildly at Khepri, who was now grinning behind Snape's shoulder. "Look! He's right there! He's got like... hawk eyes, and crocodile teeth!"
"Hawk eyes and crocodile teeth," Snape repeated, raising an eyebrow, his tone the sort that was reserved for drunk or mad people.
"You've got to believe me," Harry pleaded. "Professor, I'm not joking, there's something there!" Khepri gave a soft snicker, his upper lip curling back to really show off his canines. Harry grabbed Snape's arm. "There! Didn't you hear him?"
"Potter," said Snape, calmly. He was pulling Harry to his feet, and Harry knew Snape was only using such a soothing tone with him because Snape thought he was losing his mind. "Some fresh air for you, I think..."
Khepri reached out, and grabbed Harry's other arm with his lion paws. Harry was about to try yet again to convince Snape he wasn't crazy, when Khepri interrupted him, talking quietly and seriously. "Your worst enemy is looking for it, and when he finds it, he'll have access to a power so terrible that nobody will be able to save you. Find it before he does. I'll keep in touch."
And then with a huge puff of smoke that engulfed Harry and Snape, Khepri simply vanished from sight. Harry reached out to grab at him, beg him for more answers, but his hands met nothing there in the smoke. Snape was dragging him backwards from the room in a grip so strong Harry would never have thought him capable of it. Harry didn't struggle. He was too busy desperately trying to put Khepri's parting words to memory, and even though they didn't make any sense, he intended to find out what was going on.
"Galloping gargoyles!" Harry heard somebody shout from the floor below, as he and Snape staggered out onto the open corridor overlooking the entrance hall, bringing a cloud of thick black smoke with them.
"Get Lupin up here now!" Snape snarled, dragging Harry out of the choking smoke. "Somebody has done something to Potter!"
"Nobody's done anything to me!" protested Harry.
Snape didn't reply, and the moment they were out of the worst of the smoke, he paused for breath, leaning against the banister. He was completely black in the face, as though somebody had covered him in make-up made from charcoal, and Harry knew he was probably in a similar state. There were footsteps scrambling up the stairs, and Lupin appeared next to them, looking utterly bewildered.
"What happened?" he asked, mildly.
"Potter started talking nonsense - "
"It was not nonsense!"
" - and ended up giving off the smoke."
"It wasn't me!" Harry said, desperately. "It was Khepri!"
"It's alright, Harry," Lupin said, in a very soothing voice, drawing his wand. "Just relax... this smoke can't be good for him... Severus, take his ankles and we'll get him outside..."
"I'm not delirious!" Harry shouted, though it did no use. He found himself being carried out of the building by Snape and Lupin, and put down outside in the grubby little back yard with cracked patio tiles and rubbish bins.
"Well?" Snape demanded. "What's wrong with him?"
Lupin ignored him, and started testing Harry's temperature with his palm. Harry didn't know what he could say to convince them, or what he could do to persuade them to believe him. He was sure he had seen Khepri, completely sure. Harry had even felt him. But anything he said now would just sound like the babbling of somebody who had been cursed, or was losing their mind. He just laid still, and quiet, staring up at Lupin and Snape sadly.
"He's very warm," said Lupin, idly. "Do you have any cooling draft? I think it would help calm him down as well... what do you say happened? What exactly?"
"I went to investigate him shouting in his room," said Snape. He distractedly took a small leather pouch from the pocket of his robes, opening it up and clinking through the contents. "He immediately started asking whether I could see something..."
"Khepri," said Harry, desperately, but quietly.
"Shhh, Harry... just be calm," said Lupin, soothingly. He took the phial that Snape handed him, and uncorked it carefully, pouring a little into his palm. He then spread it over Harry's forehead with one thumb, turning back to Snape. "Then what?"
"He was making little sense," said Snape. "I decided fresh air would perhaps clear his thoughts, but before I could get him out, he gave off all the smoke."
"It wasn't me," Harry tried weakly. "Please... just listen to me, for one moment..."
But nobody was listening. He almost wanted to shout at them, to make them see he wasn't delusional or delirious, but it was no use. Snape and Lupin were both convinced he wasn't thinking properly, and so there was nothing Harry could do but lie back, let them talk about him as though he couldn't hear them, discussing St Mungo's even. Harry closed his eyes in mental exhaustion. What else was there for him to do but play along with what they thought?
He kept his eyes shut, and after a few moments, he heard Lupin say, softly, "Shhh... he's blacked out." Lupin's fingers pressed against his pulse. "Hmm... just sleeping."
Harry frowned slightly, pretending to be asleep, and then he turned his head, shifting. Snape swatted Lupin's hand away. Harry felt Snape kneeling down beside him, and a very cold hand pressed carefully about his forehead. Harry quite enjoyed getting hurt, really. It was the only time Snape's protective side was unearthed properly.
"Potter," said Snape, quietly. "Wake up, Potter..."
"Where... where am I?" Harry croaked, creasing his face in pretend confusion.
"Grimmauld Place," Snape muttered. More cooling draft was being smeared on his forehead, this time by Snape's cold, bony fingers. "What is the last thing you remember, Potter?"
"I was... walking upstairs..." said Harry, feigning the perfect air of confusion. He kept his eyes shut, knowing that if Snape looked into them, he'd realise that Harry was lying. "And then... I don't know... I can't remember..."
He heard the noise of the back door opening, and then Mrs Weasley's voice above him, sounding concerned. "Is he alright? I've got Fred and George to start wafting the smoke out of the windows..."
"Maybe it was just one of those things," said Lupin, mildly. "He's just coming round now, Molly... seems a little confused..."
"What happened?" Harry croaked, tilting his head in the direction of Lupin's voice. He felt arms hooking under his elbows, gently hoisting him up into a sitting position, and then two cold hands resting on his shoulders to keep him upright.
"You had a little episode," Snape's voice said, quietly.
"Poor thing," Mrs Weasley said, crouching down on Harry's other side, petting his hair and peeling it back from his forehead. "It must be all those paint fumes from Fred and George working in the attic... I knew they were no good, I warned them... poor Harry... will he need anything?"
"Fresh air," said Lupin, reassuringly. "Maybe a good drink of water... we'd better get everybody else out, or fanning charms in at the very least. If this is what happened to Harry, I dread to think what Fred and George are like up there. Remove any sharp objects, Molly, at the very least. In fact, knowing Fred and George, remove everything."
"Where... where's Ron?" said Harry, hoarsely. "I want to see Ron... a-and Hermione... and Draco..."
"I'll go and get them," said Lupin, and he moved away through the back door, followed by Mrs Weasley. Harry was left with Snape, who was still smearing cooling draft on Harry's forehead.
"Potter?" he said. "Can you hear me?"
Harry nodded, numbly. "I feel weird..."
"Understandably," said Snape. He sighed. "Potter, Potter... why is it you always insist on getting into danger where I can't protect you?"
"Huh?" said Harry, vaguely.
"In your mind," said Snape. He shook his head idly, and Harry vaguely registered a tissue wiping away the cream on his forehead. "If it was an attacker, I could teach you the counter-curse. If you were lost, I could locate you. If you were diseased, I could cure you. And yet all your enemies are right in the place that only you can fight them... somedays, Potter, I think you're awkward on purpose."
"Not my fault," Harry said. He sniffed, opening his eyes a little to peer at Snape. "I don't mean to..."
"That's precisely the problem," said Snape, with a little smile.
The back door opened again, and Ron and Hermione came out into the night air. Hermione looked worried as always, and Ron was rubbing his nose, frowning, and muttering, "Well, it was a bloody silly place to put a wall anyway... and how was I supposed to see through all that smoke?"
"Harry?" said Hermione, worriedly, as Snape got up and left, closing the door behind him. "Are you okay? What happened?"
Harry sat up, instantly throwing off the confused act. "Guys... promise me you'll believe me if I tell you. Promise me."
"We promise," said Hermione. "Why? What's wrong?"
Harry didn't quite know where to begin - it was hard to know what to say, especially with the fear that Ron and Hermione would deem him "delirious" just as Snape and Lupin had. Carefully, he said, "There was a creature in our room when I got there."
"What sort of creature?" Ron asked, absent-mindedly still rubbing his nose.
"It was... I don't know. I've never seen one before." Harry frowned slightly. "It was like... as high as a first year. But it wasn't human. He had fur, like lion fur, and a mouth with crocodile teeth. Eyes like a hawk, long hair that was braided, and paws. Lion paws." He observed his friends carefully, praying they understood. "He said his name was Khepri."
He didn't see any major signs of disbelief, and so carried on, watching their reactions all the time.
"He was just there when I came in... but I've been dreaming about him. Every night since school finished. He's just there in my dreams smiling at me. And he was there just now... he said that my worst enemy is looking for something... I don't know what it is, but he's looking for it. And when he finds it... something about he'll get access to a power so terrible nobody will be able to save me." He looked up at them worriedly. "Believe me..."
Hermione didn't look very persuaded, but Ron did. "I believe you, mate," he said, firmly. "You've always been right about these things before."
"Um..." said Hermione, nervously.
Ron glanced up at her. "Well, he has." Harry could tell Ron's first reaction was to get angry at her for not believing Harry, but he had then quickly changed his mind, and softened his tone.
"Well... what about... about... Sirius..." she whispered.
Harry looked away. "You always bring the worst things up at the worst times, don't you, Hermione?"
"Oh, Harry... don't be like that..." She gave a little sigh, and sat down next to him on the floor. "I believe you, you know I do... you're not in danger right now though, are you?"
Harry was quiet for a while, then he said, "I don't know... I might be. Voldemort must be my worst enemy... there's nobody else who can really be a problem... and he's looking for something. But I don't even know what it is." He sighed and looked down at his knees, still blackened with the smoke Khepri had left. "Why can't these "messengers" I keep getting just tell me straight what's going on? My second year would have been lot less stressing if Dobby had just appeared and said, "Hello Harry, Voldemort's going to possess your best friend's little sister this year, but he'll be a sixteen-year-old memory, and to stop it all, just check in her books when you come back from the shop, they'll be something there, burn it immediately."
"How did Dobby know about that anyway?" said Ron, looking thoughtful.
"He probably found out about it from Lucius Malfoy," said Harry, with a shrug. "Or Draco." He looked up, suddenly realising something. "Hey, where is Draco?"
"No idea," said Ron. He glanced around. "Haven't seen him since all the smoke went off. He was sitting at the table reading the paper."
"He's probably still inside," said Hermione, shivering a little. "It's really cold... let's get back in. They'll have set up fanning charms by now. Harry, if you see that... thing again, tell us, and we'll all go and talk to Lupin or Dumbledore about it, okay?"
She and Ron helped Harry carefully to his feet, and they made their way inside. Up near the ceiling, a flock of fans were flapping merrily back and forth, gradually dispersing the heavy black smoke. Everybody was huddled around the front door. Mr Weasley was cradling his precious television to his chest as though it was his first born.
"Harry, dear?" Mrs Weasley called. "Come out of the smoke, we don't want any more accidents... how are you feeling?"
"Fine," said Harry, vaguely. "Where's Draco?"
"He was in the kitchen reading the paper when the smoke went off," said Ginny, peering around at him from the door. "He didn't come out though. I thought he went to see you."
Harry was getting a nasty feeling low in his stomach. He hurried into the kitchen, followed by a rather reluctant Ron and a worried Hermione, though it was empty. There was a copy of the Evening Prophet open on the scrubbed wooden table, ruffling in the breeze that was trailing in through an open door next to the stove. Harry had never seen that door open before. He glanced out, and saw a very dark and dirty looking alley way winding away around the back of some terraced houses.
Ron stuck his head out into the alley, wrinkling his nose at the smell. He opened his mouth, and bellow, "Malfoy! Malfoy!" There was no reply, except the echo of his own voice, and the distant mowl of an alley cat. "Not out there," said Ron, shrugging. "Unless he's pretending to be a cat."
"Oh no," Hermione suddenly gasped from behind them.
They whipped around. She was standing over the table, staring down at the fluttering newspaper, her hand held open on the page Draco had been reading before he had gone.
"What is it?" Harry asked, worriedly.
"I know where he's gone," she said. "But... oh, that little idiot! At night! When there will probably be Death Eaters crawling all over the place!"
"Where's he gone?" said Ron, with wide eyes.
Hermione picked up the paper, and held it out before them. A large headline over a double page spread told them all the answers they wanted to know -
MALFOY MANOR TO BE DEMOLISHED - Ministry Given Handsome Sum From Muggle Government For Land. "Motorway" Planned.
Once they had realised what had happened, they had told everybody else. Mrs Weasley had gone hurrying upstairs to the fireplace, followed by most of the other concerned adults. Luna, Neville and Ginny were all still by the front door fifteen minutes later, getting some more fresh air, while Harry, Ron and Hermione debated the problem.
"Okay, let's go through it one more time," said Ron, still looking very confused. "Malfoy has gone...?"
"To Malfoy Manor," said Hermione.
"It's going to be demolished tomorrow."
"Oh, Ron, he grew up there. Fond memories, you know."
"And we are all worried because...?"
"If Malfoy Manor is going to be demolished tomorrow, the place will be crawling with Death Eaters trying to salvage as much of Lucius Malfoy's dark arks things as possible."
"Draco is wanted by Voldemort, Ron."
"If the Death Eaters find him there, they'll take him away and we'll never see him again."
"And this is a problem because...?"
Hermione frowned a little. "Because Draco is a valuable person and a good friend."
Harry, who had been listening to all this rather numbly, had picked up on the Hermione Warning Signs that Ron had not. He jumped into the conversation to try and prevent a fight. "And he knows a lot about the Order. They might use veritaserum on him or torture him."
The door opened, and Snape blew into the room in a billowing cloud of black and green robes, holding a silver pouch in his right hand. "Potter!"
"What?" said Harry, taken aback. "What have I done now?"
"Nothing," said Snape, coldly. "Bring that wretched cloak you have, and hurry up. It's time for your first mission for the Order."
"Why?" Harry squeaked. "What am I doing?"
"Going to Malfoy Manor," said Snape. "Professor Dumbledore believes Draco is more likely to respond to you and I than any other wizards. We are to leave immediately."
Wearily, Harry got up from the table, and with a call of goodnight to Ron and Hermione, Snape lead him away upstairs. After a quick stop at Harry's room so he could fetch his invisibility cloak, they went back downstairs into the lounge, where the main fireplace was. Snape took a pouch of floo powder from his pocket.
"If I tell you, put on the cloak," said Snape, calmly, taking a pinch. "Though you will only need it if there is a definite risk of Death Eaters there. Stay near me at all times, Potter, and have your wand out... take no chances... do you understand? I shall be damned if you are killed on your first Order mission, particularly when you are with me."
"I understand," said Harry. He took out his wand, and stepped forward into the fireplace.
Snape stood next to him, wand gripped tight in his hand, as he threw the glittering floo powder around their feet in one long sweep of his arm. "Malfoy Manor," he growled.
Harry felt his feet lift up off the floor, and he was spinning round and round and round, whirling through the floo network as though he was little more than a whisp of smoke. Something caught his foot hard and he tripped, crying out and swallowing a great deal of ash, but Snape's cold hands grabbed his arms and held him upright. Then, as suddenly as it all began, Harry felt hard stone hit his feet, and he keeled over, landing in a heap on the floor, as the spinning stopped.
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