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Watch the staircases. Sometimes they move, Percy had warned the first years when they had first arrived at the school. Only he had never explained how to avoid them when you were on one and it suddenly decided to shift while you were halfway down, on the way to Herbology. Harry, Hermione, and Ron had all been making their way down from their second floor Transfiguration class when the staircase they were on suddenly began to move.

Hermione yelped and grabbed tightly to the bannister, while Harry and Ron just froze, afraid to move lest they slip and fall off into the empty air as the staircase realigned itself with a loud creaking noise. When it had settled into place with a pop, the three students glanced about.

"Where are we, Harry?" asked Ron, as if Harry could somehow discern their location out of the air.

Harry stared about him. He didn't recognize any of the portraits on this floor. Most of them were dark and bore pictures of scary subjects, like a gryphon attacking a knight, and a man lying in a pool of blood with a woman in a long blue dress beside him sobbing. "Alastair! Alastair, my love!"

Harry jumped about a foot, and ran quickly away from the portrait of the wailing woman and the dead man. As he passed several other portraits, of various monsters, growled and hissed at him. He had no idea where he was, or where he was going, but he knew he didn't want to be near the portrait of the crying woman. The sobbing woman triggered something in him, and he felt as if he had heard another woman crying that exact same way, long ago. But of course, that was ridiculous. He knew no other woman save his aunt, and she never cried over anything.

"Harry! Wait up!" called Ron, and began to run after his friend, his bookbag bumping loudly against his shoulder.

"Where are you two going?" shrilled Hermione, her little face set in a reproving frown. "I don't think we should be here. I think this is the third floor, and it's forbidden." She began to follow them hastily. "We're going to get in so much trouble. Professor Dumbledore said at the beginning of the welcome feast we weren't allowed here, that we would die a gruesome death."

The boys paid her no attention. She shivered, for the portraits along the corridor were all nasty and snarling and she was beginning to be really afraid. "Harry! Ron! We should go back and wait for the staircase to move again. It's dangerous here."

Ron glanced over his shoulder, looking a bit nervous himself. "That could take ages, Hermione. Maybe this isn't the third floor and we can find another way down."

Hermione shook her head irritably. "Ron, I know I'm right, and we should leave immediately. I don't want to get expelled. And neither do you two. What would your mother say?"

"Don't know, I never knew her," Harry replied, halting and allowing his friends to catch up, because there was safety in numbers.

"Mine would tell you to mind your own business," put in Ron impudently.

"She would not, Ronald Weasley!" Hermione sniffed. "Fine! Go on, get expelled . . .or . . .killed . . .see if I care!" she spun about, ready to march back down the corridor, when Harry spotted a large wooden door ahead.

"Wait! There's a door here." He tugged hard on the brass door ring. "Ugh! It's stuck! I . . .can't open it."

"Let me try." Ron walked over and attempted to open the door too. But the door didn't even budge.

Hermione just shook her head. "Here. Let me. Boys!" She pointed her wand at the door and cried, "Alohomora!"

Immediately, there was a sharp snick and the door swung open with a soft shriek. Hot air blasted out into the corridor and Harry sniffed sharply, his nose was keener than most of his other senses due to his poor vision. "Huh? What's that smell? Smells like . . . " he paused to analyze the scent wafting to him. " . . .a wet dog. Or a dog that needs a bath."

"Get real, Harry. The only dog in this school is Fang, and he's never allowed in the castle," Ron pointed out.

"Oh, for heaven's sake, will you two quit jabbering and move?" Hermione snapped, then she pushed past the two boys and into the room beyond, which hopefully was some kind of exit.

But she had not gone two feet into the large circular stone room before freezing in terror. Her breath came in short swift gasps and she feared that she would faint right then and there.

"Hermione? Is there a way out?" Ron called.

"Hey, Hermione. What's in there?" Harry asked, then he reached out and dragged Ron in after him. The door shut with an audible click, but neither boy took notice of that little fact.

For they were all staring in horror at the monstrous dog that lay sprawled on the floor in front of them.

It was the size of a bus, massive shoulders rippling with muscle, paws the size of Harry and Ron's heads, brownish brindled fur and three, not one, but three heads, and all of them were so huge that they could have swallowed each of the children whole in one gulp. One head looked like a giant mastiff, the other resembled a giant wolf, and the third looked sort of like a bulldog. The heads were sleeping, puddles of drool seeping from beneath the mastiff and the bulldog to spread in a sticky mess across the floor.

"Oh! It's a Cerberus!" Hermione gasped, finding her voice. She gulped and stared at the dog in a kind of fascinated horror. "I've read about them."

"Big surprise there," muttered Ron, his eyes bugging out.

"They're very rare and they're almost extinct because people don't breed them much, they're very territorial and they make excellent guard dogs . . ."

"Save the bloody lecture, Hermione!" hissed Harry. "We've got to get out of here. Before it wakes . . .up . . ."

He started to move backwards, but just then the wolf head sniffed and its yellow eyes opened and saw them.

It bared its massive fangs and howled, and immediately the other two heads woke up and began slavering and barking.

"RUN!" Ron screamed, and bolted headfirst into the door, which had mysteriously locked itself.

He pounded on it in a frenzy. "Help! Let us out! Let us out! I don't wanna die!"

"Hermione, cast the spell again!" shouted Harry, yanking hard at the door.

The dog was on its feet, and coming towards them.

Hermione was frozen. "N-Nice doggy. Want a b-biscuit?" She reached into a pocket and took out a honey biscuit she had been saving for a snack and threw it hard in the opposite direction.

The mastiff head whipped around and snatched the treat out of midair.

But the distraction was enough for the Gryffindor to gather her courage and run, yelling, "Alohomora!" and pointing at the door.

The door burst open, and Ron, Harry, and Hermione all piled through, slamming it shut behind them.

They heard a loud THUD as the dog threw its weight against the charmed door and snarled loudly.

"Ahhh!" Ron yelled, and sprinted down the corridor back towards the stairs, Harry and Hermione right on his heels. "Are they freaking NUTS? Keeping that thing locked up in a school! It almost killed us all."

"Did you see the trapdoor by its paws?" Hermione asked suddenly.

"Huh? I wasn't looking at its feet! I was looking at its teeth!" Ron sputtered.

Hermione tisked at him. "You really need to pay attention. It was obviously guarding something. That's what Cerberus's are bred to do, guard magical treasures."

Harry looked thoughtful. Hagrid had gotten a small unmarked package out of a vault called 713 before coming to Hogwarts along with Harry. He had said that Gringotts was the safest place to hide something besides Hogwarts. Perhaps that was what the dog was guarding?

They reached the stairs and sprang onto them, praying they would move again, and this time they did, moving and extending all the way back down to the ground floor. The three petrified apprentices dashed down them, only to skid to a halt at the bottom, where Draco Malfoy was standing, peering up at them with a smirk of unholy glee on his patrician face.

He was flanked by his two constant companions, the rather dimwitted Crabbe and Goyle.

"Well, well. Look who it is. Weasel, Potty, and the Muggleborn. And what were you three doing on the third floor? Is that forbidden? I think I heard someone say that if any student were caught there it would mean . . .expulsion."

Hermione went fishbelly white. "I-It was an accident we ended up there, Draco. The staircase moved . . ."

"The staircase moved . . ." Draco mimicked her squeaky voice perfectly. "Lame excuse, Know-It-All. Nobody in their right mind's gonna buy it, ‘specially not after I tell them I heard you three plotting to sneak up there and wander around." He laughed nastily.

"You're a bloody liar, Malfoy!" shouted Ron. "We never wanted to go there, it just happened."

"Sure it did, Weasley," sneered the other boy. "You're a troublemaker, just like the rest of your poor bastard family, and so is Potter there. How many detentions have you had from Snape now, Potter? Ten? Tsk! Tsk! Not looking too good."

Harry felt his temper go from a simmer to a boil in two seconds flat. The rational part of his mind was shrieking, Ignore him, Harry, for the love of Merlin! Snape will have your hide if you get into a fight again. But the rational part of his brain was drowned by the red fury surging up from somewhere deep within him.

"Sod off, Malfoy!" he snarled.

"Or what? You'll hex me?" sniggered the other boy, his gray eyes glittering with barely concealed scorn. "Bet you don't even know which end of a wand is which, Potter. I heard you didn't even know that magic existed until Hagrid came to get you off that rock your relatives lived on."

Beside him, Crabbe and Goyle sniggered loudly.

Harry gritted his teeth, struggling against the urge to pop Malfoy one right in the teeth. He had acted like he didn't know about magic to preserve his dark angel's secret. "So what? I know enough about magic now to knock you flat on your arse, Malfoy," he blustered.

The blond lofted an eyebrow. "Think so? Prove it."

"No, Harry, don't . . ." began Hermione uneasily. "He's up to no good . . ."

The boys ignored her, as usual.

"How, Malfoy?"

"A wizard's duel. Ever heard about one of them before?"

"Harry, dueling is forbidden!" Hermione cried.

"Only if you get caught," Draco laughed. "You game, Potter? Or are you a little coward half-Muggleborn?"

Harry tensed, glaring at the supercilious Slytherin. "I'm no coward, Malfoy. When and where?"

"Harry!" Hermione wailed.

"The empty classroom next to Charms, midnight tonight." Draco stated, his nose twitching eagerly. "Wands and spells only, no contact."

"Who's your second, Malfoy?" asked Ron, shooting the other a nasty look.

"No seconds. Just Potter and myself," Draco said.

"But it's tradition to have seconds," Ron objected.

"Either you do it my way, Potter, or else I go straight to the Headmaster and tell him I saw you three creeping around the third floor. Then we'll see who gets thrown out on his ear, won't we? Maybe you and Weasley can beg for handouts on the street corners and Granger can advertise for you-WILL WORK FOR FOOD."

Harry felt his stomach twist. He was unsure if Malfoy was correct about expulsion, but did he really want to take that chance? Beside him, Hermione was white and shaking, and Ron was scared too, though he was trying to hide it under a facade of bravado.

He sucked in a breath. If Snape ever found out . . .Harry knew he was a dead man. But better the wrath of the Potions Master than his friends' expulsion. Malfoy had connections, he came from a rich pureblood family.

"Shut it, Malfoy! I'll do it."

"Harry, no!" Ron protested. "You need a second as a witness . . .! He's a Slytherin, he'll try and cheat!"

"Against Potter?" Malfoy laughed. "A three-year-old could beat him! It'll be the easiest duel I've ever been in. Midnight, Potter, the empty classroom next to Charms. I'll be waiting. And if you don't show . . .it's bye bye Hogwarts! My father will see to it that you're all expelled, count on it!"

Then he turned and walked away, his nose in the air, like he was a big-shot arrogant toff.

"Oh, Harry!" moaned Hermione. "What have you done?"

Harry didn't answer. He was too busy reviewing all the spells he knew in his mind, trying to come up with something he could use to defeat the arrogant prig. And then he prayed that they wouldn't get caught.

Hermione glanced at her watch and yelped. "Oh NO! We're going to be late for Herbology! Hurry!"

She darted out the entrance, and after a minute, Ron and Harry ran after her. The last thing they needed was to get a teacher annoyed at them.

* * * * * *

Evening came, and for the first time since coming to Hogwarts, Harry found himself hoping that Severus was too busy to summon him to flying practice. He was a bundle of nerves, and he knew the Potions Master knew him too well to not see right through him and know something was wrong. He had never been able to lie to Snape at all, and he wouldn't have a prayer of doing so now. One look from the tall wizard's obsidian gaze and he would spill everything.

For once, it seemed fate was on his side, because Hedwig came with a note around seven o'clock. It read:

Catch up on your studies tonight. I expect an improvement in your handwriting as well. No slacking! Tomorrow will be soon enough to practice. Destroy this.

Harry quickly crumpled the note and chucked it into the fireplace, where it burnt to a cinder. He heaved a sigh of relief. Somebody up there liked him. He ruffled Hedwig's feathers and then went upstairs to get his bookbag. Homework was the least of his concerns, but perhaps he could find something useful in his Charms text.

He settled down in the common room with his Charms book, determined to try and memorize a useful defensive spell, when Hermione appeared and came over. "Harry," she whispered, her face grave. "You can't mean to go through with this? It's . . .it's insane. Malfoy's grown up with magic. He probably knows all kinds of curses and hexes."

"So what? If he tells, we're all dead, Hermione. Besides, I've been looking for an excuse to pay the arrogant snot back since we started school. Now's my chance." Harry said hotly.

"Oh, brilliant! Now's your chance, all right. Your chance to get expelled for good."

"Only if we get caught, and I won't. Trust me." Harry said, sounding a good deal more confident than he felt. "Know any good charms to kick someone's arse, Hermione?"

Hermione sniffed. "I don't believe in physical violence." Then she sighed. "But I do know one spell . . .it's not really harmful, but maybe it'll surprise him . . .It's a Leglock Jinx."

Harry's eyes gleamed. "Cool. Teach me?"

"Okay. The incantation is Locomotor Mortis."

Harry smiled. "Thanks, Hermione. This could be just what I need to kick Malfoy's privileged arse." I hope.

Ron joined them soon afterwards and offered a few pointers as well. The evening passed quickly, and before Harry knew it, it was almost midnight. He slipped silently out of his four poster and crept noiselessly down the stairs in his bare feet, holding his trainers in one hand.

The common room was dark, only the embers of the fire cast a dim glowing light near the hearth. Harry walked all the way to the portrait hole, then turned and looked back up to the top of the stairs to the boys dormitory, where Ron's head peered out, looking like a disembodied spirit in the dim light.

"Good luck, Harry!" he mouthed.

Harry nodded and opened the portrait hole, glanced cautiously about the corridor, then went out.

"And where are you going at this time of night, young man?" asked the Fat Lady.

"To an appointment. Hush!" Harry hissed, putting on his sneakers.

Then he crept down the stairs of Gryffindor Tower and up to the second floor to the empty room next to the Charms classroom.

* * * * * * *

Harry waited for what seemed like forever, pacing softly up and down the room, his hands clenched in white-knuckled anticipation. Where was Malfoy? After all his posturing and sneering, Harry found it impossible to believe he had chickened out. Was he all talk and no guts?

Not that Harry particularly wanted to fight him, but still, Malfoy needed to be taken down a peg or two in a big way. Harry was sick and tired of allowing people to walk all over him. He had to endure Dudley and his gang for too many years without respite because if he dared to try and get some of his own back, his uncle would have stripped his hide off and hung him out to dry. But now . . .now maybe he could show one bully that he wasn't about to take anything lying down.

That Leglocker Jinx ought to knock Malfoy right on his privileged arse all right. If he ever shows up. What the hell's keeping him? It's fifteen minutes past midnight.

Harry was starting to get a bad feeling about this. He knew the longer he lingered here, the greater the likelihood he had of being caught by Filch or Mrs. Norris, or Merlin forbid, Snape. George and Fred Weasley had told him that Snape often prowled the halls as well, searching for any student out of bed. That would be all Harry needed.

He walked to the door of the room and peered around the frame, trying to see if anyone was coming along the corridor or up the stairs.

But the hall was empty.

Harry stepped out into the corridor, moving cautiously towards the stairs, intending to wait for five more minutes and then leave. Clearly Malfoy was a classic coward.

Little did Harry know that Malfoy was pent up in his dormitory, not daring to stick a toe outside his bedroom, lest his angry Head of House catch him. He had gone back to Slytherin House all smug and happy, intending to teach Potter a good lesson, only to be confronted by a very irritated Potions Master. Draco had been the shocked recipient of a thorough dressing down for trying to sneak out of the common room and also having an arrogant attitude. "Just because you are a pureblood, Mr. Malfoy, does not mean you are Merlin's gift to the wizarding world. Now desist with this arrogant spoiled attitude immediately, or else I shall have you gutting rats and pickling toad ovaries for the whole term." When Draco had protested, Severus had informed him coldly that if he were found out of bounds again, he would be serving detention for two weeks straight, and not even Lucius would be able to get him out of it.

"When you are at school, you are under my authority, Mr. Malfoy, not your father's, and as such your actions are answerable to me. Therefore, you had best watch yourself, or else you'll find out why no Slytherin ever crosses me twice, am I understood?" And Snape had given the spoiled boy such a glare that Draco had squeaked and stepped backwards, fearful the man would do him some serious physical harm.

"Y-Yes, sir."

"Get in your dormitory then, and mind you stay there," ordered the Potions Master crisply, and Draco had no choice but to obey. "I'll be coming to check up on you periodically, and if I find you aren't there . . ."

Of course, Harry had no knowledge of what had transpired, only that he was hanging around an empty room waiting for the Slytherin to show up.

Harry peered down the staircase, thinking he saw a flash of movement coming towards him. He squinted, even with his new glasses, he still didn't see well in the dark. Was that a flash of pale hair?

He leaned forward slightly and then something shoved him hard from behind.

One minute he was standing on the top of the stairs and the next he was falling, tumbling head over heels down the entire flight of stairs.

He tried desperately to break his fall, but only succeeded in turning himself over so he was skidding down on his right hip and then his head cracked hard against the edge of a stair and he was knocked into a deep blackness and knew nothing more.

Harry lay at the bottom of the staircase, limp and still, blood pooling from his head, like a broken ragdoll.

Up above, his assailant smiled coldly and turned away.

Little did he know that the bracelet about Harry's wrist was sending an urgent signal to the one who had always protected the boy, to save the life he had pledged to protect yet again.

So how did you like that little twist?

Yes, I know the cliffie is awful! Don't hex me, it was necessary. Tension makes for a good read.

Next: Severus goes to save Harry.

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