Disclaimer: I still do not own Harry Potter.

Author's Note: Hey everyone, I hope you're all doing okay. I know it's been ages since I've last updated, and I'm really sorry about that. To be honest, I've been suffering with a lot of stress about things lately, and haven't really felt the inspiration to write much. Thankfully, my muse is beginning to return now, and I apologize again for taking so long. I hope this chapter is worth the wait.

As far as the Aurors knowing about the third-floor corridor, we don't know for sure, but I'm going on the assumption that they didn't know. I honestly think that if more adults had known about what was going on in first year, they would have put a stop to Dumbledore putting the Philosopher's Stone in a school full of children. Even though Hogwarts is supposed to be one of the safest places in the wizarding world, I think people would very much object to the stone being there.

As far as the whole "die a painful death" statement Dumbledore made, you're right. It's considered more a sarcastic thing to say in Britain, but I also think that certain children, young ones in particular, might see it more as a dare. Over the years, I've become way more critical of Dumbledore, and I'm certainly not the only one who thinks he said it on purpose to pique Harry's curiosity. Maybe it's not the way Rowling truly meant it, but it's definitely the way I see it.

And yes, Harry is definitely coming into his own. I really hope you guys enjoy this chapter.

xxxxxxxxxx

Benjamin Stebbins had been an Auror for quite a number of years, and he thought he'd known what to expect when he took the job. But as he, his two companions, and Minister Fudge traversed the corridors to get to the third floor, he never would have expected this.

Growing up, he'd always had a high level of respect for Albus Dumbledore. But at the same time, he'd always known that the Headmaster was just as fallible as any other man. Many in the wizarding world seemed to think he could do no wrong and worshiped the very ground he walked on, but Ben knew better. Living through the war, he was aware that Dumbledore was one of the few people to go up against You-Know-Who and live to tell the tale - this was considered a miracle in itself. Very few people could say they had accomplished that. Usually, if You-Know-Who wanted you dead, you died. That was the way it was.

That was why, when little Harry Potter had thwarted him, and subsequently ended the monster's vicious reign of terror, there were days and days of wild celebration throughout the wizarding world. Auror Stebbins himself had partaken wholeheartedly in those parties; there had been precious little to rejoice about for years and years. He had only just joined the Auror force when the war had ended, and throughout those first few chaotic months afterwards, he participated in catching many a Death Eater and throwing them in Azkaban, precisely where they belonged.

Transitioning to peacetime had not been easy, even though many people might think it would be. Putting a world back together which had fallen apart was more difficult than even Benjamin Stebbins had expected. But, together with his comrades, they had done the best they could to fix what had been broken. Some things, he realized, could never be mended - never could the grief and loss disappear for those who had lost a loved one to the abomination known as You-Know-Who, and the many Death Eaters that had willingly done his bidding were forever to be shut away from society. And, unfortunately, the ideology that was spewed by the bigots in the wizarding world could not be gotten rid of so easily. Benjamin wasn't naive; he knew that there were many who would still speak of exterminating Muggles, Muggle-borns, Squibs, and anyone else who defied their so-called way of life.

And there was another thing that Benjamin thought about from time to time - the welfare of Harry Potter, the savior of the wizarding world. Very few people seemed to know what had happened to him - Stebbins guessed that Dumbledore and his inner circle probably knew, but the rest of the wizarding world were told that little Harry had been taken somewhere for safety, but would emerge in the wizarding world again when it was time for him to take his place there.

And now, he had. Benjamin Stebbins liked to think he wasn't surprised by much, but Harry Potter had done it. Stebbins kicked himself for believing what everyone else seemed to - that there was no doubt Harry would go into Gryffindor, just like his parents. They had been very popular back in their day, and there had even been bets taken that the Head Boy and Head Girl would start dating. Their shouting matches were well-known throughout the school, but there was no doubt in Benjamin's mind that the two had chemistry. Then, at Christmas of their seventh year, they walked into the Great Hall holding hands. Stebbins, his eyes bright with triumph, had held out his hand, and his dormmate, scowling, had grudgingly handed him five Galleons. And the rest, they say, is history.

Now, all these years later, Stebbins had been taken aback by Harry. He proved to not only be in a different house than Stebbins had expected, but his whole demeanor was different too. Benjamin, being a Ravenclaw, liked to think he had more sense than most people, and he had never subscribed to the whole "you're a Slytherin, therefore you're evil" notion. As a matter of fact, wouldn't it make sense that some of the Slytherins became what society expected them to be? If they were to be looked on with suspicion and mistrust, then why be a beacon of light when no one would listen to them anyway? How many times had Stebbins heard the phrase, "Society creates its own monsters"?

Benjamin could honestly say he took a definite liking to Harry as soon as he looked at him and heard him speak. The Auror could see the weight of grief and loss on the boy - it was plain to see that Hermione Granger, the girl who had died, had been his friend. But he was managing to hold himself together, telling Fudge and the Aurors his side of the story. And Stebbins knew it wasn't only Gryffindors who were brave - Slytherins certainly had it in them, too.

And Dumbledore? Stebbins was extremely close to losing all respect for him. In his years as an Auror, there had been many discussions between him and his fellows about Dumbledore. His opinion of the man had begun to darken, and this ... this proved that the saintly Headmaster was indeed no saint. Saying to a roomful of children that going to the third-floor corridor would result in a slow and painful death? Sure, it might be meant humorously so as to tell the students not to go out of bounds, but Stebbins was also positive that some might take it as a dare. And as he and the others reached that particular corridor, Auror Stebbins was very curious to see exactly what had caused Dumbledore to make such a statement. Little was he to know that he was about to be completely flabbergasted, shocked beyond anything he had ever known before.

"Alohamora." It was his colleague, Auror Susan Harrington, who pointed her wand at the locked door, and she was wearing that look - that look Aurors always wore when they weren't sure what to expect, but were ready for anything. It was the kind of look Stebbins had often seen during his first few months in the Auror core, those few months before the war had ended.

And so, with their wands raised, the three Aurors and Fudge walked inside the corridor.

"HOLY SHIT!"

It was Auror Scott Wilkinson who shouted the profane exclamation. Stebbins had been about to say something very similar, but Scott had taken the words right out of his mouth.

A huge, three-headed dog viciously growled at the newcomers, drool coming out of all three of its mouths. Stebbins glanced at Fudge out of the corner of his eye, and saw that the Minister of Magic was as white as a sheet, and looked about ready to collapse right there on the floor. "Stay there," he said unnecessarily to the terrified man. "We'll take care of this." All three Aurors lifted their wands, and each cast a Stunning spell at the enormous animal. It instantly stopped growling and keeled over, falling to the ground.

"Those Stunning spells don't last long on a creature like this," Stebbins said, and he raised his wand again, conjuring a harp. Beside him, Auror Harrington charmed the harp into playing automatically.

After this was done, there were several seconds where the Aurors stared at one another in disbelief, paying no attention to the trembling Minister of Magic, who had fallen to his knees on the cold stone floor. Useless fool, Stebbins thought derisively to himself. It was one thing to be scared of a three-headed dog - he couldn't say he wasn't frightened himself - but it was quite another thing to be Minister of Magic and show such ineptitude in front of three of your Aurors. Benjamin worked for Fudge, but did he like or respect him? Absolutely not.

It was Wilkinson, once again, who voiced exactly what Stebbins was thinking. "What the FUCK," he hissed, his eyes almost bulging out of their sockets, "is a Cerberus doing inside a school full of children?"

"Must you be so profane, Scott?" Auror Harrington asked him. "But I would ask the very same thing." Her eyes were bright and assessing as she looked around, and Benjamin had the utmost respect for her. Out of everyone in the room, she seemed to have it together the most. "Well, it's certainly guarding a trapdoor," she said. "What say we go and seek out some answers?"

"Yes, let's," Wilkinson growled, the gleam in his eyes almost maniacal. "What has that old fool done?"

After several minutes of exploration and discovery, Benjamin Stebbins could honestly not find any words to describe the emotions roiling inside him. He and his fellows had discovered so much in the last several minutes that it was hard to fathom precisely where to begin.

But the thing he felt above all, the emotion that was most prominent inside him, was pure and utter disgust at the man so many in the wizarding world thought to be infallible. He didn't know why or how he knew, but he had no doubt this was a scheme of Albus Dumbledore's. The shifty look in the man's eyes, that calculating gaze that had been there - the old man knew precisely what was here, didn't he? There had to be a very good reason for the existence of this whole set of puzzles and traps.

But what truly baffled him was why this was all here. It was obvious that not all of the puzzles had been placed in this corridor yet - there were several places where it looked like things should have been, but weren't. And at the end of the puzzles was just empty space. Had Dumbledore not put his final touches to this so-called genius plan yet?

Benjamin knew that he and the Aurors would find out the answers to these questions, and if it was up to him, they would do it sooner rather than later. If Dumbledore wouldn't talk, one of his staff surely would, wouldn't they? Who else had been involved in putting all this together?

But the thing that angered him the most, and he knew it was the same for his fellows, was when he had found a room that now contained nothing but a ghastly smell. Being an Auror, he had been taught about many magical creatures and how best to fight them. And trolls had been on that list. The ghastly smell was that of a troll who had once been here.

And that troll, Stebbins surmised, had been the very one who had somehow left this lair and killed Hermione Granger.

"What are we going to do?" Wilkinson asked, his fists clenched as all the Aurors returned to where the Cerberus still slept. "We can't just leave this thing in here, can we?"

"We must, for now," Auror Harrington replied, not looking at all happy with the prospect. "Let's keep the harp playing, so there is no danger of that beast waking up. After we've sorted out more of this situation, we'll call for backup. We'll need a lot more of us to get this creature out of here. A Cerberus in a school! I'd like to know exactly what's going on around here."

"Come on, Minister, let's go," Auror Wilkinson demanded of Fudge. To his credit, the man was upright again, but he still looked pale and shaken.

"We need to take Dumbledore to the Ministry for questioning," were the first words out of Fudge's mouth as the group emerged from the third-floor corridor, shutting the door firmly behind them, and Harrington locked it with her wand. "And we need to question the staff. This is entirely unacceptable. What the devil is happening around here?"

"I don't know, but Harry Potter deserves a bloody Order of Merlin," Stebbins muttered.

"I told you, that boy would do great things for the wizarding world," Wilkinson said, his mouth in a tight line. "A bloody Cerberus. In a bloody school. I can't bloody believe it."

The group was quiet the rest of the way back to the Headmaster's office, but once they got there, it was Harrington who repeated the juvenile password to the office. Once the spiral staircase had brought them up to the door, Fudge wrenched it open without knocking, his face having turned red with fury.

"You will come with us to the Ministry at once." He pointed at himself and Wilkinson. "AT ONCE, Dumbledore," he snarled, spit practically flying from his mouth. "Auror Harrington, Auror Stebbins, you will remain here and question the staff."

"Gladly," Stebbins said. The more time that passed, the more his anger grew. Oh, what he'd give to question the Hogwarts staff. He was going to find out who was complicit in all this, exactly whose fault it was that a troll, who had not been there by accident, had gotten out and murdered a student.

"I assure you, my staff did nothing wrong," Dumbledore said, standing up. It looked like he was going to go quietly, but then again, this was Albus Dumbledore. Fudge and Wilkinson would have to watch him closely; he must have some trick up his sleeve, right?

"That's for us to judge," Stebbins growled at the old man. "You do as you're told."

And with that, Benjamin Stebbins and Susan Harrington turned and left the Headmaster's office, not bothering to listen to any more that Dumbledore might blather, or what Fudge or Wilkinson would say next. All Stebbins knew now was that there was more of this mission he must complete.

Why, exactly, had the third-floor corridor been turned into what it was?