The Dursleys were so mean that summer that all Harry Potter wanted was to get back to the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. But just as he's packing his bags, Harry receives a warning ...(more)
By the time Halloween arrived, Harry was regretting his rash promise to go to the deathday party. The rest of the school was happily anticipating their Halloween feast; the Great Hall had been decorated with the usual live bats, Hagrid's vast pumpkins had been carved into lanterns large enough for three men to sit in, and there were rumors that Dumbledore had booked a troupe of dancing skeletons for the entertainment.
"A promise is a promise," Hermione reminded Harry bossily. "You said you'd go to the deathday party."
So at seven o'clock, Harry, Ron, and Hermione walked straight past the doorway to the packed Great Hall, which was glittering invitingly with gold plates and candles, and directed their steps instead toward the dungeons.
The passageway leading to Nearly Headless Nick's party had been lined with candles, too, though the effect was far from cheerful: These were long, thin, jet-black tapers, all burning bright blue, casting a dim, ghostly light even over their own living faces. The temperature dropped with every step they took. As Harry shivered and drew his robes tightly around him, he heard what sounded like a thousand fingernails scraping an enormous blackboard.
"Is that supposed to be music?" Ron whispered. They turned a corner and saw Nearly Headless Nick standing at a doorway hung with black velvet drapes.
"My dear friends," he said mournfully. "Welcome, welcome... so pleased you could come..."
He swept off his plumed hat and bowed them inside.
It was an incredible sight. The dungeon was full of hundreds of pearly white, translucent people, mostly drifting around a crowded dance floor, waltzing to the dreadful, quavering sound of thirty musical saws, played by an orchestra on a raised, black-draped platform. A chandelier overhead blazed midnight-blue with a thousand more black candles. Their breath rose in a mist before them; it was like stepping into a freezer.
"Shall we have a look around?" Harry suggested, wanting to warm up his feet. "Careful not to walk through anyone," said Ron nervously, and they set off around the edge of the dance floor. They passed a group of gloomy nuns, a ragged man wearing chains, and the Fat Friar, a cheerful Hufflepuff ghost, who was talking to a knight with an arrow sticking out of his forehead. Harry wasn't surprised to see that the Bloody Baron, a gaunt, staring Slytherin ghost covered in silver bloodstains, was being given a wide berth by the other ghosts.
"Oh, no," said Hermione, stopping abruptly. "Turn back, turn back, I don't want to talk to Moaning Myrtle--"
"Who?" said Harry as they backtracked quickly.
"She haunts one of the toilets in the girls' bathroom on the first floor," said Hermione.
"She haunts a toilet?"
"Yes. It's been out-of-order all year because she keeps having tantrums and flooding the place. I never went in there anyway if I could avoid it; it's awful trying to have a pee with her wailing at you--"
"Look, food!" said Ron.
On the other side of the dungeon was a long table, also covered in black velvet. They approached it eagerly but next moment had stopped in their tracks, horrified. The smell was quite disgusting. Large, rotten fish were laid on handsome silver platters; cakes, burned charcoal-black, were heaped on salvers; there was a great maggoty haggis, a slab of cheese covered in furry green mold and, in pride of place, an enormous gray cake in the shape of a tombstone, with tar-like icing forming the words, Sir Nicholas de Mimsy Porpington died 31st October, 1492
Harry watched, amazed, as a portly ghost approached the table, crouched low, and walked through it, his mouth held wide so that it passed through one of the stinking salmon.
"Can you taste it if you walk though it?" Harry asked him.
"Almost," said the ghost sadly, and he drifted away.
"I expect they've let it rot to give it a stronger flavor," said Hermione knowledgeably, pinching her nose and leaning closer to look at the putrid haggis.
"Can we move? I feel sick," said Ron.
They had barely turned around, however, when a little man swooped suddenly from under the table and came to a halt in midair before them.
"Hello, Peeves," said Harry cautiously.
Unlike the ghosts around them, Peeves the Poltergeist was the very reverse of pale and transparent. He was wearing a bright orange party hat, a revolving bow tie, and a broad grin on his wide, wicked face.
"Nibbles?" he said sweetly, offering them a bowl of peanuts covered in fungus.
"No thanks," said Hermione.
"Heard you talking about poor Myrtle," said Peeves, his eyes dancing. "Rude you was about poor Myrtle." He took a deep breath and bellowed, "OY! MYRTLE!"
"Oh, no, Peeves, don't tell her what I said, she'll be really upset," Hermione whispered frantically. "I didn't mean it, I don't mind her--er, hello, Myrtle."
The squat ghost of a girl had glided over. She had the glummest face Harry had ever seen, half-hidden behind lank hair and thick, pearly spectacles.
"What?" she said sulkily.
"How are you, Myrtle?" said Hermione in a falsely bright voice. "It's nice to see you out of the toilet." Myrtle sniffed.
"Miss Granger was just talking about you--" said Peeves slyly in Myrtle's ear.
"Just saying--saying--how nice you look tonight," said Hermione, glaring at Peeves.
Myrtle eyed Hermione suspiciously.
"You're making fun of me," she said, silver tears welling rapidly in her small, see-through eyes.
"No--honestly--didn't I just say how nice Myrtle's looking?" said Hermione, nudging Harry and Ron painfully in the ribs.
"Don't lie to me," Myrtle gasped, tears now flooding down her face, while Peeves chuckled happily over her shoulder. "D'you think I don't know what people call me behind my back? Fat Myrtle! Ugly Myrtle! Miserable, moaning, moping Myrtle!"
"You've forgotten pimply," Peeves hissed in her ear.
Moaning Myrtle burst into anguished sobs and fled from the dungeon. Peeves shot after her, pelting her with moldy peanuts, yelling, "Pimply! Pimply!"
"Oh, dear," said Hermione sadly.
Nearly Headless Nick now drifted toward them through the crowd.
"Oh, yes," they lied.
"Not a bad turnout," said Nearly Headless Nick proudly. "The Wailing Widow came all the way up from Kent... It's nearly time for my speech, I'd better go and warn the orchestra..."
The orchestra, however, stopped playing at that very moment. They, and everyone else in the dungeon, fell silent, looking around in excitement, as a hunting horn sounded.
"Oh, here we go," said Nearly Headless Nick bitterly.
Through the dungeon wall burst a dozen ghost horses, each ridden by a headless horseman. The assembly clapped wildly; Harry started to clap, too, but stopped quickly at the sight of Nick's face. The horses galloped into the middle of the dance floor and halted, rearing and plunging. At the front of the pack was a large ghost who held his bearded head under his arm, from which position he was blowing the horn. The ghost leapt down, lifted his head high in the air so he could see over the crowd (everyone laughed), and strode over to Nearly Headless Nick, squashing his head back onto his neck.
"Nick!" he roared. "How are you? Head still hanging in there?"
He gave a hearty guffaw and clapped Nearly Headless Nick on the shoulder. "Welcome, Patrick," said Nick stiffly.
"Live 'uns!" said Sir Patrick, spotting Harry, Ron, and Hermione and giving a huge, fake jump of astonishment, so that his head fell off again (the crowd howled with laughter).
"Very amusing," said Nearly Headless Nick darkly.
"Don't mind Nick!" shouted Sir Patrick's head from the floor. "Still upset we won't let him join the Hunt! But I mean to say--look at the fellow--"
"I think," said Harry hurriedly, at a meaningful look from Nick, "Nick's very--frightening and--er--"
"Ha!" yelled Sir Patrick's head. "Bet he asked you to say that!"
"If I could have everyone's attention, it's time for my speech!" said Nearly Headless Nick loudly, striding toward the podium and climbing into an icy blue spotlight. "My late lamented lords, ladies, and gentlemen, it is my great sorrow..."
But nobody heard much more. Sir Patrick and the rest of the Headless Hunt had just started a game of Head Hockey and the crowd were turning to watch. Nearly Headless Nick tried vainly to recapture his audience, but gave up as Sir Patrick's head went sailing past him to loud cheers.
Harry was very cold by now, not to mention hungry.