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Chapter Six: And Then There Were Three

Slytherin swept his hand towards Helena, his eyes flashing with hunger, and opened his mouth to speak, "Domin..."

A fraction of a second before the word could leave his mouth, however, Snape heard another voice resound across the hospital wing. "Silencio!" it screamed in earnest.

Slytherin's voice caught in his throat and his hand instinctively flew to his neck as he whirled to face the now-familiar voice behind him. Harry stood several feet away, his wand pointed at his Potions Professor. Slytherin waved his hand over his throat furiously and strode towards his nemesis, eyes blazing.

"Not quite so easy to silence a Founder, boy!" he raged as Harry instinctively backed up, his eyes widening in fright. Salazar raised his hand before him and opened his mouth to speak once again.

"One more word and I'll curse you into the next life, Salazar!" a strong female voice snarled behind his back. Again, the curse on his tongue remained unspoken and Slytherin turned abruptly to face the woman behind him.

Ravenclaw had risen from the bed and now stood directly behind Slytherin, tall and regal, even in hospital robes. Her hand was raised before her and she looked rigid with fury.

Slytherin's demeanour, however, changed completely in the blink of an eye. The fury vanished instantly from his eyes and was replaced by a smooth, seductive gaze and serpentine grin. "Rowena, my dear," he purred, his hand lowering, "I was merely . . ."

"About to curse Harry to death, I would guess," said the gentle voice of Dumbledore as he stepped around the side of a privacy screen.

Slytherin spun to meet the new intruder and stopped dead at the sight of the Headmaster, the grin vanishing from his face. For a moment, no one spoke and the tension rose markedly. Quite suddenly, however, Slytherin lowered his chin to his chest and began to laugh slowly. By the time it had reached its crescendo, Salazar's head was thrown back and his laugh echoed throughout the entire hospital wing.

Harry glanced curiously at Dumbledore who merely regarded the Founder with patient interest. When Slytherin had finally gained control of himself, he turned to Rowena and shook his head. "Always one step ahead of me, my dear. Nothing has changed in a thousand years!" He turned to Harry and Dumbledore. "This was a trap I take it, my dear Headmaster? A trick to get me to expose the other Founder's Pendants?"

Dumbledore did not respond, but the twinkle in his eye spoke volumes.

Snape felt a wave of relief sweep over him. Of course Dumbledore would have seen this coming. Why had he doubted? There was no way he would have knowingly allowed Salazar Slytherin to freely roam Hogwarts, even with Snape's assurances that he had him under control.

"But I am being rude to our newest arrival," Dumbledore was saying as he gave a little bow to the tall woman behind Slytherin. "Welcome back to Hogwarts, Rowena Ravenclaw," he said, smiling.

Rowena tossed her long mane of hair back out of her face and nodded at Dumbledore, uncertainty playing across her lovely face. "Thank you. I must admit, however, that I am at quite a loss as to what has happened here." She looked around the room, letting her eyes fall briefly upon all of the occupants in turn. "Of course, I can sense that Salazar is inhabiting this body here," she said, waving vaguely at Snape. Slytherin bowed dramatically in response, allowing Snape's robes to swish regally as he swept his arm in front of him. Rowena did not look impressed with the theatrical civility and turned back to Dumbledore, "And I am sensing that you are in charge here."

Dumbledore smiled gently and nodded, "I am the Headmaster of Hogwarts, yes. And this," he lifted a hand towards Harry, "is Harry Potter, one of our students."

Rowena smiled at him, "And the young man who saved my life."

Slytherin rolled his eyes and shook his head, "Oh, for heaven's sake Rowena. Must you always be so dramatic? I wasn't trying to kill you!"

Rowena rounded on Slytherin, her eyes blazing a furious sapphire blue, "Oh, yes, you're quite right, Salazar! Forgive me! You merely intended to turn me into your personal love slave! I really must learn to control my unfortunate tendency towards exaggeration!"

Dumbledore and Harry exchanged a significant look and the older man finally stepped forward. "I am sorry to interrupt this reunion, but I am afraid that circumstances demand that we discuss the issue for which we have all gathered," he said, his face grave.

"Issue?" Slytherin asked impatiently. "What issue?"

Dumbledore lowered his head slightly and regarded them sadly over his half-moon glasses. "The issue of Helga Hufflepuff."

Slytherin was suddenly taken aback and seemed unable to immediately find words. Rowena's eyes widened and she stepped forward, "Wh . . . what's happened to her?" she whispered as though frightened of the answer.

"Her last descendent is dying, Rowena," Salazar said softly as he turned to Ravenclaw. "There is no other."

The words seemed to take a few seconds to sink in as Rowena looked at Slytherin. "Bu . . . but, Salazar, that means . . . that means that she'll . . ."

"be forever trapped within her Pendant, yes," Dumbledore said quietly.

Rowena's eyes welled momentarily and she looked up at Dumbledore, "Where . . ." she asked, her whisper barely audible.

Dumbledore pointed sadly to the woman lying silently in the bed across from them, her face pallid. "I'm afraid we do not even know her descendant's name," he said quietly.

Rowena hesitantly made her way to the side of the woman's bed and sat down beside her, taking her hand in hers. She seemed too overwhelmed to speak and shook her head disbelievingly.

Salazar walked quietly to the other side of the bed and looked down, his face unreadable. Only Snape, forced to experience the man's feelings, knew the deep anguish he suddenly felt. All other matters seemed temporarily forgotten.

Dumbledore moved to stand at the foot of the woman's bed, Harry close behind him. "I believe it is time for a decision to be made."

Both Rowena and Salazar looked over to the old Headmaster. "Decision?" Slytherin asked hoarsely.

"A grave and serious one, I'm afraid. One which I believe you must all be present to make. Harry," he said and turned to the student standing nervously behind him, "are you ready?"

Harry took in a deep breath and nodded, pulling his chin up bravely. "As long as he promises to give my body back when everything's done."

Dumbledore smiled, "I think that is a given, Harry."

Snape couldn't help thinking that Harry was exactly the same after the spirit of Godric Gryffindor had been released into him as he had been before. He hadn't been surprised to learn that his least favourite student was a descendant as it seemed to Snape that Potter positively oozed Gryffindor from every horrendous pore. *The brat's probably loving every minute of this*, Snape thought bitterly. Harry and Godric, chums forever! Snape felt his insides writhe and he actually felt ill.

"I agree completely, my boy," Slytherin muttered as he perched himself on a window sill across the hospital wing from the others. "Enough to make one lose one's breakfast. Gods! He even looks like Godric. How revolting!"

Slytherin had watched from his safe distance as Rowena had opened the Pendant Box one more time to reveal the Pendant of Gryffindor, a roaring golden lion with a sparkling ruby eye. Being somewhat younger than the others who had been possessed, Harry had hardly even flinched when the spirit of Gryffindor had been released into him. Snape had been pleased when Salazar had rolled his eyes as it had saved him the frustration of wanting to roll them himself but not being physically able to.

Slytherin and Gryffindor had exchanged a few brief pleasantries before the younger man had retreated to the bedside of the Hufflepuff descendant. Salazar supposed the brief truce between the two of them would come to an abrupt halt once Rowena told Godric what he'd tried to do to her when she first woke up.

With all three Founders now released and up-to-date on their current situation, Dumbledore beckoned them all to him. They did as they were instructed, though Snape could feel Slytherin seethe at being told what to do by the Headmaster.

Once gathered around the foot of the Hufflepuff descendant's bed, Dumbledore looked down at the prone figure before them. He sighed deeply and folded his hands in front of him. "It seems to me that two choices lay before you, my friends," he said sadly. "The spirit of Helga Hufflepuff can either remain entombed forever in her pendant, or it can be freed into her last descendant."

A tear travelled slowly down Gryffindor's face as he looked down at the woman in front of him, "Where she will die," he whispered softly.

"Where she will be set free, Godric," Rowena said tenderly, gripping the man's arm supportively.

The younger man nodded slowly, tears now streaming freely down his face. He looked over at Slytherin and Snape was momentarily shocked at the depth of the pain in the man's eyes. Salazar nodded mutely at Gryffindor. Though outwardly Snape knew that Slytherin looked composed, he understood that the man had not voiced his opinion because he would simply have lost control if he had tried to speak.

Godric looked over at Dumbledore and nodded to him, tears still streaming unchecked down his face.

Dumbledore returned the nod sadly and handed him the Pendant Box.

With shaking hands, Gryffindor moved his own pendant across the top and muttered an incantation. He looked up at Rowena and nodded silently. Taking a steadying breath, she opened the box and put her hand inside. Gently, as though handling something made of the most delicate crystal, she lifted out the chain that supported the Pendant of Hufflepuff. A black badger looked back at them through an amber eye, its face kindly and gentle.

At the sight of it, Rowena's resolve broke and she wept openly, the hand holding the pendant shaking conspicuously.

Returning the box to Dumbledore, Godric quickly helped Rowena over to the bed and they sat down together on the side of it. Salazar silently sat on the other side of the prone figure, trying desperately to remain composed.

Trying to control her sobs, Rowena shakily opened the woman's hand and placed the pendant inside. With a nod to her companions, they all reached over together and closed the fingers around it. A bright yellow light shot through all of their fingers and they collectively looked down at the woman before them.

With a gasp, the woman's eyes flew open, and she stared up at them.

All three suddenly broke into smiles and beamed down at her, shocked and relieved. "Helga!" Rowena said hoarsely.

Helga Hufflepuff looked into Rowena's eyes, kindness and warmth seeming to shine from within her. Slowly, she looked over at Godric and finally at Salazar. Slowly, she looked back up at the ceiling above her and a gentle smile lit her face. "My dear friends," she whispered softly. "My dear friends."

And then her eyes fluttered closed, the smile faded from her lips and the light of life fled from her kindly face.

There was silence in the hospital wing, as though the world was holding its breath. The three sat staring at their friend in shocked disbelief. As though unable to process what their own eyes were telling them, they all looked at one another, hoping for clarity.

Snape felt something break deep within, like a dam bursting, and he knew Salazar's resolve was lost. Clarity had been achieved, it seemed, and he knew that Helga Hufflepuff had left this world.

The sobs that suddenly broke the silence seemed wrenched from the deepest parts of their souls. The three remaining Founders somehow managed to find one another's hands as their heads bent in grief, their shoulders heaving with their unrestrained cries.

And then there were three.


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