It was the perfect place to hide in the open. And it was the perfect place to recruit the youthful wizards and witches who longed for something more than what their ordinary surroundings could provide. The Van Helsings were already his. Soon this would all be his, and his alone. Governments, businesses and organizations were already beginning to bow to him, though most were not yet aware of it.
Lord Voldemort had established a temporary camp in the city. One could look outside the small windows of the abandoned dwelling and see the Begej River and the Catedrala Metropolitana, its ornate steeples punctuating the horizon.
However, Lord Voldemort did not even glance outside to admire the beauty of the sunset or skyline. Instead, he was glaring at Lucius Malfoy, who had just finished his report on Snape's capture the night before.
"I am highly displeased with the reports I have received of your mission, Luciussss. Ten corpses in exchange for one captive! This is unacceptable! I can hardly win this war if every battle proves to be as costly as the lassssst! You promised me there would be no casualties!"
"We...we were taken by surprise, my lord."
"Taken by surprissssse?" Voldemort echoed with a sarcastic, snake-like sneer. "By a single wizard outside the protection of his place of power, without even a familiar to fight alongside him? If you are going to make excuses for your dismal failure, you shall have to do better than that, my servant."
"I mean...we were...surprised by his new skills. His whole manner of combat has changed. He has become...more dangerous somehow. And he knows spells which are most assuredly not to be found anywhere in the library of Hogwarts, nor even in the Ministry Archives."
Malfoy reflected for a long moment. "Does the incantation, 'Chiel'Ri' mean anything to you, my lord?" he asked at last.
The Dark Lord's red eyes narrowed. "Yesssss," he hissed thoughtfully. "It is a very ancient spell. Severussss is resourceful indeed to have discovered such a spell on his own."
"I wonder," the blond-haired wizard mused, "if he discovered it, or if it was taught to him."
"You have a theory, Luciussss?" And the Dark Lord's scarlet eyes burned with sinister eagerness.
"Indeed I do, my lord. I have heard many things about the new Defense teacher at Hogwarts, Aurellia Deveroux. And the things I have heard do not seem to add up."
"Explain yourself," the Dark Lord commanded, as he began to pace back and forth before the fireplace.
"Where shall I begin, my lord? I have heard enough to fill entire tomes...but everything I have heard has been, well...contradictory. Severus has told me that she is a Muggle-born newcomer to the Wizarding world who enjoys music, Quidditch, teaching, and practical jokes, but knows nothing of battle or true power. My son, however, has told me that she is powerful and resourceful enough to hold her own in a mort-de-kai, with Severus no less! And yet she was nearly slain at the end of this mort-de-kai by a simple disarming spell. And then there is the matter of her unique wand, and her strange ability to charm unicorns..."
"Stop!" Voldemort commanded harshly, abruptly ceasing his restless pacing and holding up a spidery white hand.
Malfoy immediately fell silent, and he waited nervously for the Dark Lord's next words.
"Your son has obviously been the source of the bulk of this information..." Voldemort stated.
Malfoy nodded. "He is a competent and trustworthy spy, my lord."
Voldemort snorted contemptuously and said, "If he is as competent as you say, then you should know the name of the disarming spell which nearly killed this Deveroux..."
"Alas, my lord, I do not," Malfoy replied regretfully. "However, it will be but a simple matter for Draco to find out. He will be able to inquire of the eyewitnesses to the duel as to the name of the spell that ended it. I will also order him to learn as much as he can about Aurellia Deveroux without raising too many suspicions."
"Yesssss, excellent. Do as you have proposed. Meanwhile I shall personally question Severus about this Aurellia Deveroux, after I have made use of him in another fashion..."
"If I might ask, what do you intend to do with our catch, my lord?"
"I will have Merlin transport him to our camp in Bregovo, in Bulgaria, and chain him out in the sunlight for a few days. That will most assuredly take the fight out of him."
"It could kill him."
"I sincerely doubt that. He will not be left out long enough for that to happen. I will let it be known to the resistance where he is being held and that he is being transported to my new headquarters. But he will be more heavily-guarded than he appears."
"So, you will use him as bait for the resistance. Send out invitations and see who comes to the party.…"
"Precissssely. Severusss will repay me for his treason by helping me crush the Bulgarian resistance. Whether he likessss it or not."
"You may only be wasting your time, my lord. The vampires do not care about their outcasts. After all, no one came to Betrug's aid at Exilat. Dumbledore's allies will surely not be foolish enough to fall for it. They will know that it is a trap."
"They may suspect, yesssss," the Dark Lord hissed. "But I know Albussss Dumbledore, and I know his great weaknessss. He will not pass up a chance to rescue his precious Black Phoenix. He will send ssssssomeone he trusssssts, and we will be ready for them when they come."
Professor Dumbledore was going through his pile of mail and fire parchment when he heard a loud, authoritative knock on his door.
“Enter,” Dumbledore called out wearily.
The heavy door swung open and Alastor Moody came inside the headmaster’s office, his wooden leg thumping across the floor. The ex-Auror was dressed in plain, silvery-grey robes. His one eye was fixed on the headmaster and the magical eye scanned the room cautiously.
“Alastor, old friend,” Dumbledore said with a tired smile. “How have you been? What news do you bring?”
"I, meself, can’t complain, but as to the rest of the world? T'aint good, Albus, t'aint good," Moody growled as he plopped himself down on a seat in front of Dumbledore’s desk. "There are more disturbances in France, now that they have openly rejected Voldemort, errr ... I mean, those trying to bring back You-Know-Who's 'ideals'." He gave a harsh laugh. "Some families there are moving to Beauxbatons and surrounding areas, and to the other high places as well. They're already seein' the handwriting on the wall, Albus. But with Madame Maxime gone again wit' the giants, and that dunderhead deputy of 'ers, whassisname ... Dory, Anatole Dory running things in her absence, well. With that mousy, spineless idiot, they don't stand a chance. Beauxbatons will fall before summer's out, Albus, mark my words."
"I dearly hope you are proven wrong, Alastor," the headmaster said with a grave expression. "I'll speak to Madame Maxime about this next time I have a free moment.”
Moody shrugged. "Wouldn't mind bein' proved wrong in this case, but I doubt I will be. While Dory's a good go-fer and assistant, he's not the leader they need."
"And what about Bulgaria?"
"Remus said he got a note from Jerald Krum earlier today. It was terse and to the point. Things ain't good there at all. They've begun evacuation proceedings for the entire area for those not essential to maintainin’ what’s left of the resistance," Alastor said. "And tain’t much left. You know they don't have a fort strong enough to hold off You-Know-Who's forces, 'cept Durmstrang, and you know the reputation of that place."
"Yes, I know. I've heard as much," Dumbledore said, as he glanced at the letter from Karkaroff, which now lay on his desk.
"Is Hogwarts going to be ready for the refugees, you think?"
"We are going to have to be, from the looks of things," Dumbledore replied. "I would prefer you keep this to yourself for now, but some of the giants from Gaba Maal's settlement are in the Underground in Scotland already, not far from here. They are already helping clear out the tunnels and caves for their use and for the refugees who are sure to come trickling in any day now. They aren't anywhere near being done, but we will make do. I wasn't going to have the other giants come until after the students left for summer -- didn't want to cause any undue alarm -- but I may have to shorten the time frame in light of this news. Is it true, then, that Adolpho Adlar is indeed on Voldemort's side?"
"I've heard that, but not from any source I trust," Moody said. "Wouldn't be surprised though. Remember, he was a chum of that rotter Karkaroff. But here's the problem I foresee: those refugees are gonna need help getting here safely. Portkeys, and I'm sure you don't need told this, are too dangerous. I don't need to remind you again about what happened last year."
The headmaster winced. "No Alastor, you've reminded me plenty of times already."
"Anyway, we can't count on havin' them Apparate in because not all of them kin Apparate. Lots of young ones and elderly, feeble folks, and some have Muggle families. Someone's gonna have to go over there and meet with them, get them to the U.K. and then get ‘em here," And here he paused, a dark expression crossing his face. "I know Snape knows his way around that country pretty well seein' as how he lived there when he was a kid. Course that was before his family up and moved to get away from the Van Helsings somethin' like thirty years ago. I don't trust him, never have, but I don't trust any of the locals there either. Too many of them played both sides during the last little conflict with You-Know-Who. So as the lesser of two evils, I s'pose I'd recommend you send him. He knows the territory, he knows the language, and most importantly he knows better than anyone how to handle the current situation with the vampires and the Van Helsings."
"I wholeheartedly concur with your assessment Alastor, but unfortunately I can't send Severus right now."
"Why not? What's he doing that's so important..." the old Auror broke off midsentence, seeing the pained expression on the headmaster's face, "Bloody hell, don't tell me he went back over to Voldemort!"
"No," Dumbledore replied miserably. "He...he was ambushed the night before last." For what seemed like the hundredth time, Dumbledore told the "official" story about Snape's ill-fated flight.
"So he got nine of 'em eh?" Moody chuckled. "Pretty impressive, but it doesn't top my record, heh. You know I had heard something about your strange weather. Word at the Leaky Cauldron was that it rained wizards at Hogwarts, but I thought the story was just hogwash. Still do if yeh want my honest opinion. Severus, ambushed! Must have been napping on his broom. Tsk! Most careless of him," the old Auror said sarcastically. "What was he doing out there on a broom anyway? Thought he didn't like flying!"
Dumbledore winced as Moody continued.
"Heh, I'm sure the real story is far more interesting, but I don't really care what happened to him. I told you you were going to regret keeping him in your inner circle after he started in with the Dark Arts again. Told you you were making a mistake trusting him with your international network, but would you listen to me? No, I'm too paranoid, you said. I don't trust my own shadow. Albus, do I have to tell you all over again why I don't trust anyone?"
"No, Alastor. I know you're angry with me, and I know why. And I suppose you have every right to be. I was not careful enough, and that is why we are all facing this situation today. Nonetheless, you are wrong about Severus. If he has fallen into Voldemort's hands, I am sure that he did not go back willingly."
"Yeah, and compromise is a road that doubles back on itself until it returns to the same darkness it claims to have left," Alastor said, unconvinced.
Dumbledore again winced at having his own words thrown back in his face by the cynical Auror.
"Well, who else do we have who can serve as guide across the Channel and check out these rumors?"
"Hmm...I’ll contact Padfoot to see if he can get word to Bill," Dumbledore said. "He just got back from the Ukraine, but Bill always keeps Mundy and Sirius informed as to where the Drummer location is. I'll have to recall Buckbeak from reconnaissance duty in Arabia, though. We'd heard rumors of an illegal Hippogriff ranch..."
"Oh yes, Sirius and Buckbeak, another pair of fine upstanding allies," Alastor growled, both his eyes rolling almost in unison.
"Alastor, I told you that ...."
"Yeah, I know, I know. Sirius and Buckbeak were framed, Harry Potter rescued them, and all that. Right. Well, if he's the best we've got, I reckon beggars can't be choosers. Things are getting desperate for you already, aren't they, Albus old chap?"
Thinking that Moody had been rather aptly named, Dumbledore ignored the Auror's biting remarks, went to his fireplace, and tossed Floo powder into the flames. He was actually starting to miss Snape's ever acrid tongue.
"Mundungus Fletcher's," he said. "Padfoot, are you still there?"
"He's ... he's not here, Albus," Dumbledore heard Fletcher's voice reply.
"Where is he? Where did he go?" Dumbledore inquired sharply, a shiver of fear running up his weary spine.
Fletcher's head and shoulders appeared in Dumbledore's fireplace. "Er ... he went ... out."
"Out where, Mundy?" Dumbledore said, his voice rising slightly with tension.
"He ... he went to Little Hangleton," Fletcher said. "He left yesterday. He didn't want you to know...but, Albus, I'm worried about him."
"Little Hangl ... oh no!" Dumbledore exclaimed, appalled. "That fool! That reckless, thoughtless, fool-headed, brainless..." He stomped over to his chair mumbling to himself and flopped down heavily. "No wonder Severus kept threatening to strangle him!" he complained, putting a hand to his forehead, "Now I know the feeling!"
Alastor stared at the wrinkled, flame-wreathed face of Fletcher, then at Dumbledore. "I don't know about Padfoot being innocent of them deaths, but if stupidity were a crime, even your influence couldn't save him from a trip to Azkaban, Albus!"
"I don't believe this!" Dumbledore muttered, ignoring Moody's caustic remark. "He's gone after Severus, hasn't he?"
Fletcher nodded, the flames swirling lightly around the image of his head. "I think that may very well have been his intention. Well, what did you need him for?"
"We need someone to help the Bulgarian, and possibly French refugees across the Channel and into the Northern U.K. Underground," Moody replied.
"I'd go, but my rheumatism," Fletcher said, apologetically.
"No, Mundy," Dumbledore said as he scanned the pile of scrolls on his desk and his calendar. "I appreciate the offer, but I need to contact Bill Weasley, to see if he can go.”
“Well, all right,” Fletcher said. “But why Bill? Why not Remus? Bill’s just settling in his new location at the paper. Besides, even if he doesn’t know the territory, Remus has an uncanny sense of direction. Always said you could place him in the middle of the Sahara and he’d find his way out again, no problem.”
“There will be a full moon in a few days and by they way, I'll need you to receive and deliver messages while Remus is out of commission,” Dumbedore replied. Fletcher smacked his forehead and rolled his eyes towards the ceiling. “Pity that. You are right, Remus would have been the next best guide, but it's too risky.”
"No, I reckon you don't want a rampaging werewolf leading a bunch of people," Moody said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Remus is very good about taking Wolfsbane, especially when he can't get to his own quarters," Dumbledore said mildly. "I'd be more worried for his sake ... I don't know how the refugees would react when facing a werewolf, even a tame one. Also," and Dumbledore's face clouded. "He doesn't recover from his transformations as quickly as he used to." The headmaster turned back towards Fletcher. "Can you get a discreet note out to Bill and his friend Zared Rogan?"
"Consider it done, Albus," Fletcher said with a nod. "I'll let you know what they say." With a hiss and swirl of flame, Fletcher's head disappeared from the fireplace.
"Now, what am I going to do about Sirius?" Dumbledore muttered, returning a hand to his forehead. "That insubordinate, reckless fool! If I ever see him again, I think that I will put him in wizard chains, and he is going to stay put for once in his life while I give him a three-hour-long lecture about the importance of following orders!"
"He might not find anyone or anything there," Moody said.
Dumbledore looked up sharply. "What do you mean?"
"Well, it's nothing I have been able to verify, but I heard rumors at the Leaky Cauldron that the old Riddle place caught fire in the wee hours this morning," Moody replied. "I haven't had a chance to check out the papers, Muggle or otherwise. Course, you can't trust half of what's printed there now that that Skeeter cow and her Voldemort-loving chums are controlling the media."
"The Riddle Mansion? Burned?" The headmaster's brow furrowed. "I'm not sure if that's good news ... or bad news. Was it attacked by someone or something? Rogue dragon or wizard perhaps?"
"Don't know," Moody replied. "May just as well have been deliberate, a sign that Lord Voldemort has utterly abandoned his human roots."
''Hmm..." Dumbledore said, mulling it over. "I don't like the sound of that. Voldemort would not destroy his place of power without good reason. We have speculated for some time that he may no longer have any humanity left in him. This is a very troubling indication that our speculations may in fact be reality."
"Albus... fire is one of the few things a vampire fears...."
Dumbledore looked down at the stacks of papers and scrolls on his desk, closed his eyes, and sighed. "I know," he said quietly. "But I do not think that..." he paused, continued sadly, "I do not think that Voldemort would kill him until he had succeeded in breaking him and learning everything he knows."
"Unless he has turned traitor and gone back willingly like I've been telling you all along."
"No!" the headmaster insisted rising to his feet, "Listen to me, Alastor. I know I have made some mistakes in the past..."
"That's an understatement," the old Auror muttered, rolling his eyes again, and this time they were completely out of sync.
"I know Severus! He will not turn. Voldemort may as well try to break a mithril spear."
"Don't be so sure, Albus. From the rumors I've been hearing lately, Voldemort has been doing exactly that."
Dumbledore strode angrily from behind his desk, and he paced back and forth before the fireplace, which was free of any wizard heads and shoulders for the time being. Fawkes yawned, blinked sleepily and watched for a few moments, then went back to napping on his perch. He was looking very scrawny and scraggly as the date of his self-immolation and rebirth was fast approaching.
"We are assuming, of course, that the Riddle Mansion was deliberately razed," the headmaster pointed out. "But there remains the possibility that it was an accident or an attack. If that's the case, then it means that Sirius just might make it back in one piece with all the confusion, but it also means that we will have no idea where Severus is ... or Voldemort and his allies, for that matter. If the Riddle mansion is, indeed as you say, gone, where then do you suppose...?" Dumbledore paused, and his eyes widened in alarm. "Alastor, you ... you don't think?"
Moody nodded. "Durmstrang. Why else would Voldemort have started with Bulgaria? Durmstrang is a powerful and ancient fortress, in an ideal, remote location. It has been rendered unplottable, although thanks to the Bulgarian resistance we know it’s somewhere in the Balkans. It is rumored to stand on land heavily tainted by dark magic. Rumor has it that the school was built over Salazar Slytherin's own short-lived school, Midgard. Voldemort would be drawn to it.…"
"Midgard was built in Norway, near Bodo," Dumbledore corrected mildly. Then his brow furrowed. "But if that is true, that would mean without a doubt Adlar has been playing us for fools," Dumbledore said, "That lied to us when he promised to resist ...."
"Yeah, he resisted with all the strength and backbone of a flobberworm," Moody growled.
"But if Adlar has been with Voldemort from the start, then Karkaroff could hardly have been hiding in a secret chamber in Durmstrang somewhere. So where has he been holing up all this time...?"
"Karkaroff!" Moody exploded with anger. "Now don't you dare start tellin' me you've been dealing with the likes of that snake too!"
"No," Albus said quickly, hoping that Moody hadn't noticed the letter on his desk. "Not yet."
"Not yet?" Moody roared, "What do yeh mean, not yet? Whatever happened to your little speech about compromises when you threw out the Van Helsings, eh? Now I hear you're dealing with werewolves, vampires, giants, even Death Eaters! And don't you dare say former Death Eaters, because there ain't such a thing! Albus, one of these days you're gonna compromise yourself right into Voldemort's cauldron, if yeh haven't already!"
"We've had this argument before, my friend," Dumbledore said gently. "Trust my judgment for once, please?"
Moody backed off the subject with obvious reluctance. "I don't agree with yeh, Albus, and I think your judgment is leakier than a rusted out cauldron. But for the sake of old friendship, and the fact that you're the boss, I'll say no more about it. 'Sides I best be going. Have a long trip ahead."
Dumbledore looked worried. "Alastor ... where are you going?"
"You know where I'm going."
"Don't do this. That's an order. I can't afford to lose you too."
"Admit it, Albus, you're worried about him," Moody said simply. "And you'd go after him yourself if you could."
"I never could protect him from himself..."
"Well, Sirius was always a hot-headed fool. Just hope I can get there in time to stop him from doing somethin' dumb. Dumber than going out to one of Voldemort's strongholds alone and without backup, that is."
"I was speaking of Severus, but now that you mention it I suppose it applies equally to Sirius. Alastor, I would prefer that you stay here, but I won't stop you from going if you insist."
Dumbledore sighed. "Very well then, be careful old friend," Dumbledore said as he put a hand on Moody's shoulder. "I don't know what you'll be facing in Little Hangleton. It could very well be a trap."
"I've gotten out of some pretty tight scrapes before. I'm not an apprentice, you know," Moody growled. "Take care, Albus," he said, then he turned and walked slowly out the door, wooden leg thumping a slow, dogged staccato on the hard stone floor.
"Take care, Alastor," Dumbledore said as he watched his oldest friend depart.
Why am I here? Harry thought bleakly.
He and dozens of other students were in the Great Hall for another Saturday afternoon workshop. About 20 fifth-, sixth- and seventh-year students sat at each house table. Before each student were seven beakers containing a liquid or powder and seven vials containing different colors of liquid. In front of these were strange, hard blocks of some unknown greenish-gray matter measuring one foot lengthwise and four inches deep.
Some students talked in muted voices, mostly about Snape’s “ambush” two nights ago and the triple attack three days ago. But most of the students sat silently and looked at the dais where Dumbledore and Deveroux were making some sort of preparations for the workshop.
Harry felt a stab of guilt as he saw the pallid face of his Defense teacher, the strained look and fatigue in the features of the headmaster. He gazed bleakly at the beakers and vials and wondered if Snape was supposed to have taught this workshop with Deveroux, instead of Dumbledore. The teen tried to get Ron’s attention, but Ron was staring off into space and deliberately refusing to look over. Hermione, meanwhile, was deep in the middle of a lengthy soliloquy about what she thought the goal of the workshop would be, how they ought to approach it, and how brilliant Deveroux’s workshops were, and so forth, et cetera, ad nauseum. She appeared to be so wrapped up in her own clever deductions, that she seemed not to even notice that neither Ron nor Harry were paying the least bit of attention to her words—nor for that matter, were any of the other students to judge by the numerous yawns and bored looks. How easy it was, Harry thought bitterly, for his friends to move on. But then, they didn’t have the nightmares to deal with, did they?
Then Harry had a sudden thought. Jaspine! He had forgotten about her. Maybe…
He looked over across the room to where Jaspine sat at the Slytherin table, quietly contemplating the racks of beakers, bottles and vials in front of her. To his surprise, Harry noted that the other Slytherins seemed to be deliberately ignoring her, and he thought back to Jaspine’s confrontation with Draco after the marksmanship workshop. He had noted then and earlier in the library that Jaspine’s friends were all younger students. Most of the sixth- and seventh-year Slytherins either adored Draco and detested Jaspine, or disliked them both equally, or ignored them altogether as they focused all their time and concentration on preparing for their upcoming NEWTs. Jaspine must hate sitting alone in the middle of a group of her own housemates, Harry realized. And he could sympathize. How well he knew the feeling of isolation, of being suddenly abandoned by his friends… as if it were all his fault that the avengers’ plot had gone all wrong!
Jaspine looked up once in his direction, and Harry half-waved a hand, hoping she would understand and respond in kind. But his hope was in vain. For Jaspine seemed not to notice, her mind obviously elsewhere. Probably on her upcoming sixth-year finals, Harry decided.
The teen sighed. Despite being in a room full of people, he felt completely alone.
“Harry!” Seamus called out. “Harry? Are you all right?”
Harry started at the unexpected inquiry.
“Yeah,” Harry replied flatly, “All right.” Sure, I’m responsible for Snape getting captured by Voldemort, and Deveroux looking like death warmed over, and my best friends aren’t talking to me any more, and I can’t talk to anyone about what happened that night, and Snape keeps tormenting me with these nightmares, but yeah, other than that I’m fine. Just fine…
He had dreamed last night that he was walking through the dungeon hallways on the way to Snape’s office. For some reason he was holding a Sonoroball in one hand and a length of Muggle ‘Trick’ rope in the other, though he couldn’t remember why. His footfalls echoed strangely off the bare stone walls and ceiling, and the torches hissed and sputtered menacingly as he passed them. A sense of urgency welled up inside him, of time swiftly slipping away, and he quickened his pace. Dreading what he would find when he reached his destination, Harry hit the office door at a dead run and charged through it without even breaking his stride.
The door swung back on its hinges and hit the inside wall with a loud, resounding bang like a gunshot.
Inside, the Potions master was facing the far wall, his back to the teen. It struck Harry as odd that Snape should be there…
But why would that be unusual? Harry had remembered thinking. It was Snape’s office, after all.
“What do you think you are doing down here, Potter?” Snape greeted in typically venomous fashion, without turning.
“I…” Harry gulped as he reached in his robe pocket for his wand. But his wand wasn’t there! Nor, for that matter, were the items he had been carrying when he came down here.
My wand? Where is my wand? Harry thought frantically.
“What do you want, boy? Speak quickly; I haven’t got all day!”
“I … I only wanted to know. I wanted to know…why,” the teen managed to stammer around a suddenly dry throat.
Snape then started laughing, but it was a dead, chilling sound.
“It is too late for that, Potter,” he whispered. “Too late.” At last he turned to face Harry, and the teen cried out in horror. Snape was wearing his Death Eater mask, and two red streaks trickled from the corners of the mask’s eyes. “There is no more time. I told you to speak quickly, did I not?”
Harry suddenly realized that the rope he had been carrying earlier was now entwining itself around and around the Potions master.
“You have killed me, Potter,” Snape accused hoarsely. “As surely as if you had poured Blacklotus Nacre down my throat.” The rope continued wrapping itself around Snape, covering him from head to toe.
“Blacklotus Nacre, Potter…” Snape whispered an instant before the ropes covered his mouth, and then his eyes, completely obscuring him.
“No!” Harry shouted. “Wait! I didn’t mean for it to go that far. I didn’t mean it!”
Suddenly, Harry found himself on an unfamiliar, snow-covered mountaintop. He shivered in fear. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
There came a high-pitched cackling, and his scar burned white hot. Harry fell to his knees with a cry and clamped both hands over the scar as Lord Voldemort’s laughter echoed through the lonely mountain range. Suddenly, a shadow fell over the teen. Harry looked up to see a Death Eater coldly peering down at him, wand drawn.
“Kill him,” Lord Voldemort commanded from some unknown location. “Harry Potter must die!”
And the Death Eater raised his wand, took aim…
…. and Harry had awakened, sweating profusely.
Oh yeah, everything was just fine, Harry thought bitterly.
Seamus gave Harry a long, questioning gaze. But Harry shrugged indifferently and turned his gaze toward Dean, who was in the middle of a long narrative about how he had heard that Terry Boot’s aunt, uncle and cousin had just left Zauberplatz when it was attacked, and how they were still looking for Hannah Abbott’s older sister in El Mercadore. Seamus directed his attention likewise toward the grim news, leaving Harry to his thoughts.
Preoccupied with his own problems, Harry paid little mind to the fears and concerns of the others.
Finally, Dumbledore tapped the edge of the dais table with his wand. The sound resonated around the room, and everyone stopped talking to look at the headmaster.
“Good afternoon,” Deveroux said, her voice strangely flat. She looked drawn, as if she hadn’t slept, Harry noticed. “For today’s workshop we will be concentrating on magic skills that do not require the use of a wand. Therefore you are to put away your wands for the duration of this workshop.”
There were some murmurs of surprise at this pronouncement.
“Now then, your first objective,” Deveroux continued after the talk died down, “is to find the object hidden inside each block. The vials in front of you contain substances that will allow you to analyze the composition of each block. Once you have determined that, you must then create a potion to dissolve the block. The beakers at your workstations contain more than enough of the ingredients required to make this potion… if you prepare it correctly. The first seven students from each House to dissolve their blocks will advance to the next stage of the workshop. You may begin now.”
This workshop had to have been Snape’s idea, Harry thought with an inward groan as he peered at the vials in despair. He sniffed each of the seven vials, trying to discern what might be in them. One was very flowery-smelling, one had a citrus scent, one smelled of cinnamon, two had no discernable odor, one smelled like cleaning ammonia and the last smelled strongly acidic. Harry shook his head in dismay. He had no idea what was in the vials, and he sincerely wished that they could work in groups – Hermione would no doubt be the first to find out what was inside her block.
The teen decided to dribble a few drops from each vial onto the brick to see what would happen. But nothing happened. Harry gave another small sigh. He should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. But now what should he do?
Harry started trying the vials in combinations of two. He attempted to combine the flowery-scented mixture with each of the other vials in turn. Nothing happened until he tried mixing that vial with some of the contents of the ammonia-like substance, and the resulting solution evaporated in a small puff of noxiously sweet-smelling vapors. Amidst a coughing fit, the teen waved his hand to try to clear the air, and wished that he could use his wand to cast a Ventus spell. Harry set the flowery-scented vial (now three-quarters empty) aside as he tried mixing the citrus-scented vial with the others. Nothing at all happened this time, except that now many of his vials were almost empty. He started to reach for the cinnamon-scented vial….
“Very good, winners! Everyone else, stop what you are doing,” Dumbledore’s voice called out. “The seven finalists from each house are as follows…”
Harry felt rather relieved that he would not be competing in the next stage of this workshop. He looked over and saw Hermione smugly holding a piece of metal. He barely listened as Dumbledore called out the names of the finalists: Jaspine Greggs, Draco Malfoy, Claire Staidman, Pansy Parkinson, Millicent Bulstrode, Aaron Koates and Clyde Jenkins for Slytherin; Gloria Hyran, Mandy Brockelhurst, Roger Davies, Padma Patil, Lisa Turpin, Daniel Breckeridge and Jason Little for Ravenclaw; Hermione, Fred and George Weasley, Katie Bell, Lavender Brown, Lee Jordan and Alicia Spinnet for Gryffindor; and Susan Bones, Kevin Haas, William Viddipurse, Benjamin Brett, Herman Csolgetz, Conrad Gransberger and Ashley Lithen for Hufflepuff.
Harry left silently along with the others who had not made the final cut. He vaguely heard Deveroux giving the finalists their next instructions, but he didn’t care. All he wanted to do was go to Gryffindor tower and crawl back into bed. But then, what would he do if the nightmare came back …?
The teen looked up to see Ron approaching him. Ron had been rather quiet and distant all day yesterday, and this morning Harry had not waited for Ron to get up, but had gone down to breakfast half an hour early. For some reason he couldn’t explain, he really didn’t want to talk to Ron right now.
“So, how did you do?” the red-head asked nonchalantly.
“Not too well, obviously,” Harry replied curtly as they and several other Gryffindors headed up the stairs toward Gryffindor tower. “I couldn’t concentrate. I kept thinking that this workshop couldn’t have been Deveroux’s idea…”
“Er..I couldn’t concentrate either, but then, Potions was never my strong point,” Ron said as he flushed, but then quickly recovered. “Hermione talked me into it, you know. She said I should give this workshop a try because I was bound to do better than the last time…”
“You weren’t going to compete?” Harry asked quietly.
“No…I…er…” Ron said, trailing off into an awkward pause, “I had been thinking of asking Angelina to help me practice my goalkeeping today.”
“You were going to ask Angelina?” Harry inquired sharply. “Angelina, and not me? Why? Because I usually just chase after the Snitch, is that it? Come on, Ron, you know I can throw the Quaffle just as well as she can!”
“Well, yeah,” Ron said, shifting uncomfortably, “But I figured you would be going to the workshop and you’d rather…”
“Well you could have asked!” Harry spat irritably.
Ron blinked at him for a moment in surprise. “Fine, whatever. I still need to practice, and I don’t feel like studying this afternoon. Want to practice after lunch? If Slytherin isn’t out there hogging the pitch as usual, that is…”
“No,” Harry replied bitterly. “I don’t think I want to. And besides, Slytherin isn’t going to be out there today, remember?”
“Oh…yeah…that,” Ron replied in a sheepish tone.
“Yeah. That.” Harry snorted in exasperation. He realized this was the first time he had exchanged more than two words with his friend since Thursday night, and things were not going well. Ron was really starting to get under his skin.
Harry and Ron paused on the landing, and waited for the other Gryffindors to pass them on the stairs. Harry gave Ron a pointed look that said, “Welllll?”
“Well, cheer up, mate,” Ron decided. “Maybe it’s for the best that Snape left. I mean, sure, Deveroux and the Slytherins are gonna miss him for a while, but they’ll get over it. It’s not like he’s any big loss to society after all. Life goes on, right? Look, the weather’s beginning to break, and there’s our next Quidditch game to look forward to…if the lake recedes enough by then,” he joked.
“Are you going to just laugh this off?” Harry whispered angrily. “Can’t you see what we’ve done?!”
Ron’s face fell, and he scowled. “All right, we screwed up. Fine, I’ll admit it,” he said quietly with a nervous glance toward the entrance to the common room. “But I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Snape brought it all on himself, and he had no business going out alone and getting himself captured. And as for Deveroux, I think you are only seeing what you want to see.” He stormed past Harry and went back down the stairs and out through the main door leading outside.
Dean, Seamus and Neville stared, the first two with perplexed looks and Neville with a somber look.
“What was that all about?” Seamus asked. “Did you two get into another snit over something?”
“Mind your own business,” Harry muttered. “It’s nothing…”
Seamus stared curiously for a moment, and then turned his attention to the Fat Lady who was asking for the password. Dean arched his eyebrows at the whole exchange, but said nothing. He and Seamus passed the portrait painting and entered the common room without further comment. Neville waited as the painting swung shut behind them, then looked at Harry through sad eyes.
“Go talk to him,” Neville said quietly.
“Why should I?” Harry spat. “He’s the one who doesn’t want to face…” he stopped abruptly and waited as several first-year Gryffindors came up the steps. “Face reality.”
“But you guys are best friends! You shouldn’t let this divide you, Harry,” Neville said, eyeing the first-years cautiously.
“He doesn’t want to talk about it,” Harry spat out as he angrily stomped up the steps. “He thinks we should just go on as if nothing happened. He doesn’t think that we are responsible for…well, you know.”
Neville nodded somberly. The first-years passed him and entered the common room without a backward glance. Neville caught the frame of the painting and held it open for himself and Harry.
“Don’t get involved, Neville,” Harry ordered suddenly. “Just stay out of it. Until that prat comes to his senses … there is nothing you can do, and nothing I care to do.” And with that he pushed past the perplexed-looking portrait painting before Neville could stammer a reply.
The four groups of finalists, meanwhile, had regrouped into the Defense Against the Dark Arts practice room. But instead of several rows of individual cells, there were now only four large alcoves, each barred by a large, wooden door. Each door had a large knocker in the center at eyelevel, and each knocker had a head which corresponded to one of the four houses. There was an iron black badger head for the door labeled Hufflepuff at the far left, a golden lion’s head on the next door labeled Gryffindor, a bronze hawk’s head at the Ravenclaw door and a silver serpent on the Slytherin door on the far right. On each door was a set of seven locks of varying shapes and sizes.
Hermione looked at the square piece of brass-colored metal in her hand. Obviously, this next puzzle was to unlock the door, but how were these squares to be used?
“Congratulations to all of you,” Deveroux said. Her voice carried easily through the room, but it sounded flat, hollow. Hermione didn’t dare look up at the Defense teacher, for she was too afraid of what she might see. Accusation. Disappointment. Anger.
Hermione couldn’t blame Deveroux for being angry. She was angry, too: with Harry, with Jaspine, with Ron and with herself. For the hundredth time she asked herself, why, oh why did I agree to join them in that stupid plot? She wondered idly if she could requisition the Time-Turner again, but doubted that McGonagall would agree to it, given the circumstances under which she intended to use it. And besides, even if she could still use it, Hermione had learned that the time-turner had serious limitations. How could she possibly stop herself, Harry, Ron, and Jaspine from interrogating Snape…without being seen? Somehow, she had a despairing feeling that undoing the mistakes of the past was not so easy as turning over a magical hourglass.
“Now for the next challenge,” the Defense teacher continued in that same hollow tone, “Each house team will go to the appropriate door and attempt to unlock it using the keys each of you have obtained. Professor Dumbledore?”
The headmaster waved his wand in a large, slow sweeping circle over the group of students. Hermione looked down in surprise to see her square of metal shimmer, then elongate into the shape of an ornate brass key.
“Inside each of these doors there is a special prize for all of you, a reward for advancing this far,” Deveroux said. “Also ….” And here she paused, and Hermione looked up. The teen saw an angry, defiant look come into Deveroux’s eyes.
“There will be 50 points for first place, 30 points for second and 10 points for third,” Deveroux said in a brittle tone. Dumbledore turned and peered over the tops of his glasses at the Defense teacher, obviously surprised by this unexpected change in the point system.
“If the headmaster has no objections,” Deveroux added coolly as she turned to the older wizard.
“No, Professor Deveroux,” Dumbledore said, his blue eyes devoid of their usual twinkle. “I have no objections.”
Was it Hermione’s imagination, or did the headmaster look…worried? There was clearly something going on here that she didn’t know about, and she had a strong suspicion that it had something to do with Snape.
“You may begin now,” Deveroux announced, and the finalists advanced to their respective doors.
The Gryffindors stared at their door for a moment. The lion-head knocker stared back cryptically.
“Any ideas, mates?” Fred asked.
“Well, I guess we’re supposed to test each lock with our key until we find the right one,” Alicia responded, and she placed her key into the highest lock. It slid in easily, and she gave it a slight clockwise twist.
But nothing happened. “Hmmm…” was all Alicia said.
“I’ll bet we have to put in all of the keys before the door opens,” Hermione suggested. “And I’ll bet we have to keep trying different combinations until we get all of the right keys in the right locks.” She placed her key into the next keyhole and turned it clockwise as Alicia had done, standing on tiptoe as she did so.
The other students quickly followed suit with the other locks. But the door remained closed after all of the keys were in place.
George groaned. “Seven keys, seven locks. There must be thousands of possible combinations!”
“So… does anyone have the faintest idea how we are going solve this puzzle before graduation?” Fred asked.
Suddenly, the mouth of the golden lion began to move.
“Three keys are in the corrrrrect position, fourrrr arrrrre not,” the knocker rumbled in a lion-like roar. The golden ring which passed through its muzzle shook at the sound of its voice. “Two keys were turrrrrned in the corrrrrrect dirrrrection, the otherrrrr five werrrrre not.”
“It’s a logic puzzle!” Hermione whispered. She felt a lump form in her throat as she remembered solving another logic puzzle, on the way to the Sorcerer’s Stone. And that logic puzzle had been Snape’s contribution to the defense of Hogwarts’ precious treasure.
“Well, let’s try rearranging the keys and see what happens,” said Lavender.
“No!” Alicia said. “Some of them are already in the correct position. Let’s work on that first … then we’ll try to figure out which way to turn the keys.”
“No, we have to do this in a more methodical fashion. We’ll…we’ll start from the top and work our way down,” Hermione said, her voice shaking slightly. She couldn’t believe this, it was too cruel, too painful, too…horribly appropriate. She should have known right away that Dumbledore wasn’t supposed to be the one co-administrating this workshop with Deveroux. The Potions were a clear indication of that, and the logic puzzle made the realization all but inescapable. No wonder Professor Deveroux seemed a little out of it today!
“Come on, Granger, what are you waiting for? Do you want to let Slytherin beat us again?” Katie complained as the other Gryffindors waited, with keys in different locks this time, for Hermione to use hers.
Mechanically, Hermione inserted her key into the last available lock. Don’t think about it, she told herself silently. Don’t think about Deveroux’s feelings today, or Snape’s expression that night, or the look on Dumbledore’s face yesterday morning… Oh, why couldn’t she concentrate on the key problem? What would be the next logical step – she, Hermione Granger with all her cool intellect, with all of her knowledge of practical matters, she couldn’t see, couldn’t find the answer.
The lion told them that four of the keys were still wrong and three were still right, and only one had been turned in the right direction this time. The solution seemed more elusive than ever!
Hermione gave herself a mental shake. She had to concentrate, had to focus on the present, not the past. She joined her teammates in rearranging the keys again, and they were rewarded with the lion telling them that they now they had four keys in the right position, and five of them had been turned in the correct direction. Their next change, however, brought it back down to three and three. By the next move, Hermione had figured out for certain four of the seven keys, position-wise at least. Rotation would be best left until after they had the positions nailed down, Hermione decided.
Suddenly, they heard a loud cheering to their left.
“Bloody hell! Already?” George complained as he placed his key into a new keyhole.
“That had better not be Slytherin,” Lavender grumbled, glaring at Hermione.
“No,” Hermione observed as she looked over to see a group of students laughing and high-fiving each other, and each carrying small bags. “It was Hufflepuff! Hufflepuff solved it first!”
“But how??” Lee asked, his eyes huge. “We’ve only just now figured out where half of the keys belong, and we haven’t even begun to figure out which ones get turned which direction.”
“Maybe they just got lucky. But if we don’t get on with it and keep trying, we won’t even get 30 points for second,” Alicia said. “Hermione?”
But Hermione’s attention had drifted toward the Slytherin team where a slugfest was about to erupt over who had control of the keys. Jaspine, not surprisingly, was right in the middle of it, and already rolling up her sleeves. Hermione sniffed irritably. Snape may have gone, but Slytherin was still Slytherin. Some things never changed.
“Lavender, quit it!” Katie’s irate voice snapped Hermione’s attention back to her own team’s problems. “We need to keep trying the keys in a certain order so that we can work out the solution by simple deduction. But now you’ve gone and mixed them up!”
Lavender stepped back with an injured sniff as Alicia and the others prepared to try the keys in yet another combination.
“Seven keys arrrrrre in the corrrrrrrrect keyholes,” the lion announced. “Seven keys have been turrrrrrned corrrrrrrrectly.”
“Simple deduction, huh?” Lavender said, her sour look replaced by a smug grin.
“Congrrrrrratulations, Grrrrryffindorrrrr!” roared the lion. And the door swung open.
Deveroux and Dumbledore were sitting in two wooden chairs at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the dais from which Deveroux usually ran her practice sessions. The two professors politely applauded the victorious Hufflepuff team as the yellow door with the iron badger head swung open. Then Dumbledore turned to Deveroux.
“I think this is your best workshop yet, Aurellia,” Dumbeldore praised with forced cheerfulness. “An excellent combination of applied knowledge, magical skills, logic and teamwork.”
“Yes, it has worked out rather well, headmaster,” Deveroux remarked without emotion as she watched the remaining groups struggle to solve the puzzle.
A pause. Dumbledore sighed. “Are you still angry with me, Aurellia? Do you want to talk about it?”
“No, Dumbledore. I don’t.”
Another pause. “I … I don’t know. Just not now.”
Dumbledore looked sadly at the young elf. He remembered when he had first met her how withdrawn and run down from grief and shock she had been after her cousin’s death. She had opened up a little to Lupin, but the werewolf had kept a respectful, brotherly distance – probably due to the fact that he was dealing with his own grief at the time. The headmaster had been pleased when Snape and Deveroux had started to connect. Indeed, getting those two together had been a surprising and unexpected success on the level of Hufflepuff guessing the correct key combination to their door only a minute and a half into the competition.
But now …
Deveroux had withdrawn again, and this time anger and withdrawal were her shell, instead of the restless activity of her first few weeks at Hogwarts. Dumbledore suspected that the new wall she had constructed around herself would be far harder to break through than the last, if indeed it could ever be breached. Alas, it seemed more likely that Aurellia would break first. He knew very little about the high elves, unfortunately, due to the isolation they had imposed on themselves after Grindelwald’s rampage, and of course, Voldemort’s subsequent genocide. But one thing he did know was that elves withered and sickened under constant stress…and grief. Especially if they could not work through it and accept it. Indeed, what living thing did not deteriorate under constant emotional pain?
“Aurellia, do you remember the night I showed you the scrying basin?”
Cold, stubborn silence. Then, quietly, distantly, “Yes.”
“Earlier that night I saw something in that basin that I’m sure you will remember as well. You warned someone,” Dumbledore persisted gently, “about keeping things bottled up. You warned that the bottle might one day explode.”
Aurellia’s already pale face went white, and she clenched her fists. “Headmaster I do not want. To talk. About …him.”
“Very well, I’ll respect your wishes, even if I disagree with them. But Aurellia, I am worried about you, I…”
He was interrupted by the sound of applause and cheering.
Dumbledore sighed again.
“Oh, look …” Deveroux observed coolly, “Another team has solved the puzzle.”
And she applauded half-heartedly.
Dumbledore joined the applause as well, but his eyes were on Deveroux, not the second-place Gryffindors, and they were filled with sadness.
Harry sat at the table, mindlessly thumbing through his Transfiguration handbook. He would occasionally look at Ron, who was pretending to study his Charms books but who really was staring off into space.
Dean and Seamus were looking at each other’s Dark Cauldron Cards and reading the February edition of Warlock Games Monthly – it had just arrived with that morning’s post. But occasionally, Harry would see them look up from their magazine and glance at him or Ron. Neville was practicing Summoning the pillows off of an overstuffed chair near the fireplace, but occasionally he, too, would glance at Harry or Ron.
Harry gave a small grunt of irritation. He wasn’t sure what bothered him more, the casual, everyday activities carried out as if nothing was wrong – or the glances that said something was wrong.
Just then, Hermione and the other students who competed entered the Common Room.
“Well? How did it go?” Dean asked. “What was the final challenge?”
“Did we come in first?” Seamus asked.
“Second,” Alicia said. “Hufflepuff came in first, far ahead of the rest of us. They even confessed it was plain, dumb luck. I guess they got all of their keys right on their third try.”
There were a few grumblings about not coming in first, but only a few.
“Well, at least it wasn’t Slytherin,” Ron said philosophically. “So we got 10 points.”
“That’s the strange thing,” Fred said.
“We got 30 points,” George added. “Deveroux went and changed the point system. First got 50, as usual. But second got 30 and third got 10.”
“Strange,” Neville remarked, almost to himself. “I wonder why it was changed?”
“Ravenclaw came in third, a few seconds behind us,” Angelina said. “We had to unlock a series of locks to get at what was behind the door.”
“So Slytherin came in last?” Harry asked incredulously.
“Woo hoo!” Ron cheered. “I bet ferret-face wasn’t happy with that!”
“Yeah,” Lee Jordan said. “We and Ravenclaw finished up, and we could see the Slytherins still struggling with their door. They haven’t grasped the notion of teamwork, and I don’t think they ever will. Then that psycho Greggs girl got into it with Malfoy and his chums, and then Dumbledore had to intervene to keep it from turning into an all-out fist-fight.”
“Hang on,” said Ron. “Jaspine almost got into a fist fight, with the headmaster standing right there?”
“Yeah, and then I saw something I thought I’d never see.”
“Yeah, she fell to pieces,” Fred said. “Greggs just seemed to come apart. Wonder what happened?”
“So, what did you win?” Neville asked as he let a hovering pillow drop back onto the chair. “What was behind the doors?”
Hermione and the others held up their small, red velveteen bags.
“There are a few things inside, but we haven’t had a chance to check them out yet,” she said.
The seven champions dumped the contents of their bags onto the Common Room table. They all received the same things: four pieces of Leprechaun gold, an intricately embossed silver and gold lock with a small golden key, a book and a simple Muggle compass. There also was a note. Hermione opened hers up and read it aloud:
“Do not place your trust in wealth, because it can disappear. Do not place your trust in institutions and the law, because those can be twisted and corrupted under poor guardianship. Do remember that the simple solution is sometimes the best solution, and never lose sight of your direction. Above all, place your trust in education, for when everything else falls, true knowledge will survive and stand the test of time.”
“Heh,” Lee muttered reflectively. “That sounds like Deveroux.”
“Sounds kind of like Snape, too,” Alicia added. “You know, I wonder if he was supposed to have been doing this workshop? I found it odd that the headmaster would be there.”
Several heads nodded in puzzled agreement, except Hermione, and Harry could feel the witch’s eyes bore into him. Sighing, Harry abruptly got up from the table and flew up the stairs to his dorm, wondering bitterly all the while why everything had to remind him of Snape that day.
End of Chapter 41
Note: The reference to the mithril spear is, of course, a reference and a nod to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series.