Outside the mullioned windows, the teen could see dark thunderheads gathering, the precursor to another spring shower. If it didn’t rain that afternoon, it would by evening, he predicted. Great, just what the already soggy grounds of Hogwarts needed.
He looked thoughtfully at his phoenix, which was napping peacefully on a pine branch, and remembered that first game of Dark Cauldron, seemingly an eternity ago. Like the game modeled after it, life in the Wizarding world sure could take some unexpected twists and turns. If someone had told him then that Snape was working for Dumbledore as a double-agent, and that the Potions professor and Deveroux were somewhere in the middle of the process of falling head-over-heels for each other, and that Harry and his friends were about to make the biggest mistake of their lives, he wouldn't have believed it. If someone had told him that he and Ron would stop speaking to each other, and that he would find himself avoiding his former friends and confiding instead in a sixth-year Slytherin, he would have told them they were as bangers as the notorious, long-ago-disbanded, law-breaking, half-mad Quidditch team which had spawned the slang term. In short, even if someone had warned him, he probably wouldn’t have listened. And the phoenix card made him think of Fawkes, and that made him think of Dumbledore who had tried to warn him, and that made the teen feel even more depressed.
The Gryffindor looked up to see two of his dorm-mates, Seamus Finnigan and Dean Thomas, looking at him. Dean seemed to regard Harry thoughtfully, but Seamus was grinning from ear to ear.
“Planning your next Dark Cauldron strategy?” Seamus asked.
“Not really,” Harry replied with some reluctance. “Just remembering that first game. It seems so long ago.”
“Too long ago,” Dean agreed with a small grin. “You know a true addict should strive to play once a week.”
“Once a day would be optimal,” Seamus added. “That’s what the pros do.”
Dean snorted. “Yeah, but the pros don’t have Professors McGonagall and Deveroux assigning them loads of homework, either.”
Seamus and Dean both laughed at that, but Harry merely groaned. He didn’t need another reminder that he was behind in his studies, or that Deveroux would soon be assigning the fifth-years more homework, now that her condition had improved.
“Seriously, though,” Dean said. “It’s time we made a serious DC’er out of you. Do you have any of the Dark Cauldron companion guides? We can go over some common strategies and what cards you want to put in your deck…”
“That would be a waste of time,” drawled a familiar voice.
“Sod off, Malfoy,” Seamus snapped without turning around.
“Yeah, don't waste our time,” Dean added with some heat.
Malfoy laughed nastily. Goyle gave his usual trollish chuckle, and Crabbe adopted a predatory grin.
“The three of you together don’t have brains enough to beat the best deck money can buy,” Malfoy said.
“The best deck in the world won’t win unless there’s some brainpower behind it,” Harry shot back. “Too bad you can’t buy intelligence.”
“Or a personality,” Seamus added, and he cast a scathing look at Malfoy.
The grins from the three Slytherins disappeared.
“You’re going to regret that, Potty,” Draco said, and his lip curled up in a snarl. “All three of you.”
“If that was a threat,” Harry said coolly, “then you’ll have to do better. Look, I’m trembling with fear.”
Malfoy’s eyes blazed angrily. “You will be, little Potty. Someday you will be. I promise you that. But in the meantime, play with your stupid little cards with the other amateurs, if it amuses you. I know you couldn’t win a game of Dark Cauldron against a real player, just like you won’t win…in life.”
“Is that a challenge?” Harry’s green eyes locked onto Draco’s gray ones. “You want a game, your deck against mine?”
“Perhaps, if you make it worth the waste of my valuable time,” Draco replied with his usual drawl. “What will you offer in return for your inevitable defeat?”
“Harry…” Dean murmured in a warning tone.
“What?” Harry snapped testily, rounding on Dean.
“Colin’s first game, Welsh Greens, 'nuff said?”
Harry returned an uncomprehending look.
“He means you’re walking into a trap!” Seamus explained in an exasperated tone.
Harry shrugged. “So? I can handle it!”
“If you’re playing against Harry, you’re playing against us too,” Seamus decided, glaring at Draco.
Harry didn’t know whether to be annoyed at the implication that he couldn’t handle Draco by himself, or pleased that Seamus had offered his support. So he said nothing and waited for Draco to make the next move.
Malfoy smiled like a feral cat watching a sparrow in its grasp. “All right, Potty, if you have to have your friends with you to hold your hand for you, then I’ll bring mine as well. I’ll pick five of the best Slytherins for my team, and you pick the best losers you can dredge up. We’ll be there tomorrow, in the Great Hall.”
“Card-borrowing is allowed by Gryffindor rules!” Seamus threw in, his mind already in strategy mode.
Malfoy considered the proposal a moment, shrugged, then nodded. “Slytherins don’t usually share cards, but we’ll play by Gryffindor rules if the winning team captain gets his choice of the loser’s cards…from any of the losing team's decks.”
Dean and Seamus exchanged uneasy looks, now that the proposed challenge threatened to cost them more than their pride. But Harry set his jaw in a determined way, and his eyes flashed.
“Let’s do it,” Harry said fiercely. “I’d like to have a Staff of Destruction.”
“What time?” Malfoy demanded, looking down his nose at the three Gryffindors.
“This time tomorrow,” Harry said, rising from his chair. “In the Great Hall. By Standard Tournament Rules except for card-borrowing. Winner gets his choice of twelve cards.”
“Whatever you say, Potty.” Malfoy folded his arms across his chest and looked bored. He was almost yawning, to Harry’s extreme annoyance. “See you tomorrow. Might as well take a good look at all your cards, Potty, since it’ll be the last time you’ll ever play with them.” Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle turned, and their laughter reverberated through the walls of the library as they left. Madam Pince glared after them disapprovingly and tsked.
“Why do I get the feeling,” Dean queried dismally, “that I have just handed my entire DC collection to a Hungarian Horntail?”
Harry, Dean and Seamus practically ran back to the Gryffindor common room.
“Semper Fi,” they shouted together, once they arrived at the portrait of the Fat Lady.
“Yes, always…HEY!” the Fat Lady shouted as Seamus gripped the frame and flung it open. “Young ruffians!”
The three Gryffindors paid her no mind as she continued to complain and straighten her pink gown.
“Hey everybody, Harry’s challenged Draco Malfoy to a Dark Cauldron game!” Dean announced as soon as they entered the room.
“The winner gets his choice of twelve cards,” Seamus said. Harry fingered his wand and wondered if he could hit two big-mouths with one Silencing Charm. But he changed his mind and left the wand in his robe pocket as he realized that it was already too late.
Parvati and Lavender exchanged looks and shook their heads. Alicia and Angelina both snorted in disbelief and Katie tsked and rolled her eyes skyward. Hermione barely looked up from her Herbology book, but Harry could tell from her brief glance that she thought the whole idea was ridiculous.
The Gryffindor boys, however, were more enthusiastic.
“Wow!” exclaimed Colin, awestruck. “You’re taking on Malfoy?”
Dennis stared at Harry, open-mouthed. “Alone?”
“Is it a one-on-one game?” Neville asked at the same moment.
“It’s six against six, in the Great Hall, tomorrow,” Dean replied.
“Yeah, so I need to find more teammates,” Harry added.
Heads bobbed with excitement, and the room began to buzz with talk. Dark Cauldron notebooks, folders, cards, and strategy guides immediately began to appear from every book bag, shelf, drawer, and closet. Fred and George made the mistake of Summoning their card albums simultaneously, and cards spilled everywhere when the albums collided in mid-air.
“Hey Harry!” Kenrick shouted from across the room. “Wanna borrow any of my cards?”
The offer was immediately echoed by some two-dozen generous first, second, and third-years, and then the bickering began over whose cards were best-suited to aid the Gryffindor paragon.
Harry groaned. It was going to be a long twenty-four hours.
Neville quietly got up and went upstairs to the boys’ dormitories. Dean, Seamus and Harry sat down on the couch and immediately began plotting. Ron, Colin and Dennis came over as well, with Kenrick hovering right behind them like an over-exuberant hummingbird. Fred and George paused in the middle of collecting, sorting, and re-filing their cards, and looked on with keen interest.
“Harry, the way I see it, you’ll have one key advantage,” Dean said. “Malfoy will be confined to the players from his own House. No one else would want to play on his side.”
“He’s double-crossed too many people for that,” Seamus added.
“Malfoy will probably pick Crabbe, Montague and Geoff Hanes. You can count on it,” Dean said. “All three are his suck-ups and will do whatever he tells them to. And if Malfoy is smart, he’ll put his personal feelings aside and ask Nathan Quinn to join him.”
“Quinn is very clever,” Seamus observed. “A dangerous opponent. I played him once, and he’s more cut-throat than I am. I’ve heard that he’s the only one in the Slytherin common room who has won a game against Malfoy, and that may be part of the reason why they dislike each other so much.”
“That’s why I’m not sure Malfoy will ask him,” Dean said, “and I don’t know if Quinn would accept.”
“But really, for their side, that’s about it,” Seamus continued. “Ulger and Madora might help out if Draco asked them to, but I doubt he will. Prefects really don’t have the kind of time it takes to get good enough to be competitive. Goyle’s dumber than a rock, and if Draco chooses him, then he’s only hurting himself. Other than that, there aren’t any other Slytherin DC players that I’m aware of.”
“Bulstrode isn’t too bad,” Dean amended, “but she’s only played a few games. And like Crabbe and Montague, she’s too obvious in her strategy.”
“You played a game with Bulstrode?” Seamus queried in surprise. “When?”
“Last month. In the library during study hall.”
“Because no one else wanted to play her, and I was bored.”
“And…?” Seamus prompted.
Dean shrugged. “And she gave me a couple of cards I really needed for my vampire deck.”
“Oh, okay. You know, you really had me worried for a moment there.”
“So anyway, she’s new, and she’s still learning the various strategies. But she may have put together a better deck by now.”
“But the ones you really need to watch out for are Quinn and Malfoy,” Seamus summarized.
“They’ll be the brains of the group.”
“A rather shallow pool,” said Ron. The others snickered.
“But where does that leave me?” Harry asked.
“That leaves you with the Dark Cauldron cream of the crop,” Dean said smugly, “since you can recruit your team from any house you want. After all, you and Draco didn’t formally agree to limit your team to your own house; he merely assumed that you would. In fact, I might not even play. There are at least half a dozen people in Ravenclaw alone who have better decks than mine.”
“Not to mention better luck,” Seamus added wickedly.
Dean made a face while Seamus and Ron laughed.
“I seem to recall that we won that last game against you lot,” Harry pointed out dryly.
“And Dean hasn’t won a game since,” Seamus couldn’t resist adding with another laugh.
“So anyway, Gloria Hyran, Argyle Greytalon and Matis Greggs are your best DC’ers in the school,” Seamus said. “And they all hate Malfoy. They’ll be more than delighted to have a chance to make him squirm.”
“So with Gloria, Argyle, Matis, and myself that makes four,” Harry said, as he ticked off the names on his fingers. “I still need two more people.”
“Seamus wants to play; he just doesn’t want to put his best cards on the table,” Dean ribbed, in retaliation for Seamus’ taunts. “I have to admit though; he’s probably the best DC’er in Gryffindor House, because he’s as ruthless as Malfoy and luckier than a leprechaun. And you’re going to need someone who thinks like a Slytherin if you want to beat Slytherins.”
“Well, thank you, Dean, I’m flattered! I’m touched! I’m in!” Seamus said with a smirk, and a mock-bow. “If you’ll have me on the team, that is.”
“I’ll think about it,” said Harry.
“Can I play?” Kenrick piped up from the back of the group. “I’m pretty good!”
“No!” Harry, Dean, Seamus, Colin, and Ron simultaneously responded without looking up.
“How about me?” Ron suggested, as if the answer were obvious. “I’d love to settle the score with Malfoy just as much as anyone here.”
Harry was about to say “yes,” but Dean cut him off.
“Ron, no offense,” Dean said. “But you’ve played, what, twice?”
“Harry is going to need some experience on his side for this one,” Seamus added. “Not to mention a better-than-mediocre deck.”
Harry squirmed uncomfortably. He wanted to beat Draco, and in order to do that, he needed the best team he could possibly put together. But how could he make Ron understand that? The tension between the two of them was bad enough already. It would certainly hurt Ron's feelings if Harry excluded him from the team.
“Harry hasn’t been playing that long,” Ron protested, “and I think loyalty is more important than experience. I want in.”
“Experience isn’t an issue in Harry’s case. He’s obligated to play, since he was the one challenged,” Dean reasoned.
“Look, mates, it’s my team,” Harry insisted, declining to add that Ron’s ‘loyalty’ had been less than praise-worthy of late, “and that means I choose who’s on it.”
“Right,” Seamus said, “So what do you think, Fearless Leader?”
Ron gave Harry a tight smile. “Well?”
Oh boy, Harry thought, how do I tell him no?
Ron’s face fell. “I see. You don’t want me on the team. I can take a hint.”
“Ron, I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Harry protested.
“No, Dean’s right,” Ron said bitterly. “You have to win. I want you to win. And if I were on your team, I’d only get in the way.”
Before Harry could say anything else, Ron stood and left the room. Neville passed him on his way back from the dorm room.
“Is everything all right?” Neville asked as he stared back and forth between Harry and the departing Ron.
“Never better,” Harry said in a hollow tone. Dean and Seamus exchanged uncomfortable looks.
“Well,” Neville said as he cast another look up the stairs, “I have something.” He turned back to Harry and pressed a card into his hand.
Harry gasped when he saw the card: the Blazing Aura. “Neville, you can’t!”
“What is it?” Kenrick queried, pushing his way into the group around Harry to get a better look.
“It’s only for the game tomorrow, and then you can give it back. But I want to see you win,” Neville said with determination. “Malfoy won’t be expecting this.”
“Wow!” Kenrick whispered. “The ultimate card!”
“But Neville,” Harry protested, “if he wins, he’ll take it!”
“Malfoy won’t win,” Neville stated, his features set. “I know you can beat him.”
“Thanks, Neville,” Harry said, and he ran a finger along the edges and face of the card.
“Hey, everybody, Neville’s loaning Harry a Blazing Aura!” Kenrick shouted.
“Nice going, Javier!” Harry hissed. “It was supposed to be a secret! We don’t want Malfoy to know ahead of time what we’re planning!”
“Right,” said the first-year, nodding sagely. “Sorry about that.” Then he turned and shouted to the younger Dark Cauldron enthusiasts. “Er…never mind, everyone! I heard wrong. He’s only letting Harry look at it!”
Dean rolled his eyes. “Oh yeah, that was convincing.”
“So much for the element of surprise,” Seamus grumped. “Unless we can mass-Obliviate the lot of them, or Stupefy them into next week.”
“Say, where do you suppose we could find Gloria, Matis and Argyle at this time?” Dean asked as he looked at his watch.
Harry also threw a glance at his wristwatch, and his eyes widened in surprise. It was after 6:30, later than he thought.
“Don’t know,” Seamus said, and he absently scratched the side of his nose as he thought.
“Actually,” Harry said, “I know where they should be.”
Dean, Seamus and Neville stared at Harry, who merely shrugged.
“Why don’t the three of you follow me,” Harry invited. He Summoned his backpack from the floor, and a few Potions supplies from upstairs.
"I wish you'd warn me before you do that!" Ron's angry voice floated down the stairwell.
"Oops," Harry muttered sarcastically, stuffing the summoned supplies into his bookbag. "Too bad I didn't break a vial of Bubotuber pus over his head."
Seamus snickered and Dean grimaced at the thought.
“So…er, where are we going?” Neville asked.
“To the dungeons, the Potions classroom,” Harry responded. “I have to go there pretty soon anyway.”
Seamus stared at Harry incredulously. “The Potions classroom? Why?"
“I’ll explain on the way,” Harry responded as he headed towards the portrait. The four students left Gryffindor tower, and Harry quickly explained about Jaspine’s Potions workshops.
“Jaspine?” Dean whispered. “That psycho Slytherin…?”
“Don’t call her that!” Harry snapped defensively. “She’s not at all like the rumors make her out to be, unless you get on her bad side,” he said impatiently.
Dean stared at Harry in surprise, and then gave Seamus a questioning look. By now, it was all over the common room that Ron and Hermione were an item, that they and Harry weren’t speaking any more than necessary, and that Harry had been disappearing on Wednesday and Saturday evenings to some unknown destination for the last several weeks. It was also whispered that Harry’s mysterious absence from Gryffindor tower had something to do with the aforementioned Jaspine Greggs. Seamus returned the gaze with a blank look and shrugged his shoulders. Then both of them turned simultaneously toward Neville, who merely shrugged as Harry continued.
“I found out by chance about the workshop she’s been running for the past few weeks, and that she only teaches the people she’s invited. Malfoy showed up one time with his friends and tried to get a fight going, but she kicked him out. He hasn’t been back since, probably because he’s afraid of the trolls patrolling the dungeons. Anyway, I’m hoping that she can save my Potions grade, since Karkaroff’s no help at all.”
Neville bit his lower lip, obviously not convinced that Jaspine was trustworthy despite Harry’s vote of confidence. Dean and Seamus continued to trade looks as the four Gryffindors made their way to the dungeons, where most of the serious Potions students had already gathered. When they arrived, Jaspine was humming as she brought out various jars of potion ingredients.
“Hi, Wiz,” Jaspine called out as Harry entered. She raised her eyebrows as she took in Harry’s three friends. “Brought friends with you tonight? Well…if they’re here to work, we’ve still got room. But if they’re here to talk, I’d rather they do it elsewhere.”
Dean and Seamus bristled at Jaspine’s imperious tone, and at the fact that she had addressed Harry instead of them.
“Actually, we came to talk to Matty, Gloria and Argyle,” Harry said. “We should be done before the workshop starts. But if we’re not, well, can you give us a few extra minutes? It’s rather important.”
“Malfoy challenged him to a Dark Cauldron game tomorrow,” Seamus enlightened. “Six versus six.”
“Ooooooooooooooh,” the Potions students murmured, almost in unison.
Harry noted that there were several new faces at this workshop besides Dean, Neville and Seamus, but there were only two other Slytherins besides Jaspine herself: Malcolm and Blaise.
“Malfoy doesn’t play for free,” Matis said, a shrewd look on his face. “What’s he want, other than the chance to beat you, Harry?”
“Winner picks twelve cards of his choice from the opposing team’s decks,” Harry replied.
“And gets bragging rights,” Seamus added.
“That goes without saying,” Gloria remarked dryly. “Dark Cauldron wouldn’t be any fun without a little bragging now and then.”
“I need five people for my team,” Harry continued, “five people who can help me humiliate Draco, and who don’t mind gambling their best cards for the opportunity. Seamus has already signed on, and I’ve got Dean if I need him. But I’d really like to have four more people.”
“Malfoy has almost all the best cards,” Argyle said thoughtfully. “And he knows how to use them. But he and Nathan Quinn are the only good Dark Cauldron players in Slytherin, particularly if you’re talking about a team game which depends very heavily on cooperation versus individual skills.”
Matis snorted. “Quinn wouldn’t play on Malfoy’s team even if Malfoy paid him. They can’t stand each other.”
“Oh, I think I see a different picture,” Jaspine said, a calculating look on her face. “If I asked Quinn to play on Malfoy’s team, I’ll bet he could arrange it.”
Harry gaped at Jaspine. “But why would you want Draco to have competent teammates?”
Jaspine's grin was pure malice. “You want to win, don’t you? And you know that Malfoy’s going to pull every dirty trick in the book to humiliate you, right? Well, it takes a Slytherin to beat a Slytherin. You’ll have to play by his rules if you want to win…which means bending or breaking the rules a little. So here’s my plan. I’ll talk to Quinn, tell him what we’ve got in mind, and I think he’ll go along with it. Then he’ll wheedle his way onto Malfoy’s team…where he’ll be in position to betray Ferret Face at a crucial moment in the game.”
“In other words, Quinn will be our mole,” Seamus summarized, his malicious grin nearly matching Jaspine’s.
“Brilliant!” Dean exclaimed. He looked at Jaspine with new respect. “Bloody brilliant! Malfoy won’t see it coming!”
“Well, now we’ve got a strategy,” Neville said. “But we still need a team.”
“Argyle?” Seamus asked. “Gloria? Matty? Are you in?”
“Yes! Count me in, Potter,” Gloria said. “What time, and where?”
“Tomorrow afternoon, in the Great Hall,” Harry said. “After classes and before dinner.”
“I’m in,” Matis decided with a wicked grin that resembled his sister’s. “I’d love to see the expression on Malfoy’s face when he realizes he doesn’t stand a chance!”
“Argyle?” Seamus asked hopefully.
Argyle shrugged and smiled. “My homework is done, and I’m caught up on studying. I’m always ready for a good game of Dark Cauldron, and this promises to be a good game.”
Harry felt like leaping in the air and clicking his heels. Everything was going his way! Malfoy was seriously going to regret this challenge!
“Excellent,” Seamus said. “Now we only need one more player. How about Justin Fitch-Fletchley?”
“He’s still in the medical wing from that doxy swarm in Hagrid’s class yesterday,” Gloria said, and she clucked her tongue sympathetically. “One bite won’t do more than make you scratch a little, but…”
“Last I saw him, he was still swollen to about twice his size,” Argyle added. “I heard that Hagrid had to exterminate all the doxies afterward. No idea what we’re going to be studying next, but I’m a little afraid.”
“How about Ernie or Hannah?” Dean suggested.
“We could ask them,” Matis said, “but they are pretty conservative players. I don’t think they’ll want to risk good cards against Malfoy’s Staff of Destruction. How about you, Sis? You’re pretty good, and if you join us, we’ll have a representative from each house.”
“Me?” Jaspine looked up from the canning jars in amusement. “I’ve only played a few times. I’m no expert.”
“But you have a natural instinct for the game,” Matis pointed out. “Besides, if you and your friend Quinn get together, you can work out a way to signal each other to exchange information during the game.”
“Are you, my honorable black-and-yellow Hufflepuff sibling, actually proposing that my nefarious silver-and-green Slytherin self should plot, scheme, backstab, and cheat?” Jaspine teased with laugh.
“Er…well, you know what they say about love, war and Dark Cauldron,” Matis hedged. “And fighting fire with fire. You know Malfoy won’t be following the rules.”
“I know it, but I’m surprised to hear you admit it. You know Matty, if you weren’t already a badger, you could almost be a half-decent snake.”
“Hardly! But six years of being cooped up in the same school with you must have rubbed off on me,” Matis said.
“Sure,” Jaspine said, grinning wickedly. “Blame it on me. Well it looks like you had better watch out, Harry. My brother thinks I’m a bad influence. But if you don’t mind that, then count me in,” Jaspine said. “I’ll talk to Quinn tonight, and see if he feels like playing tomorrow.”
“Where is Quinn, anyway?” piped up a new third-year Ravenclaw girl Harry didn’t know.
“He’s in the medical wing. With Justin,” Jaspine said. “Don’t know why, though. It isn’t doxies, that’s for sure. I’ve heard that something happened to him in Charms, that he made a mistake, and a spell backfired. But frankly, I don’t believe it. Charms is his best subject. So anyway, you’re all set, Harry, and we’re running late for the workshop. We can all talk more about team strategy afterward until curfew, and at lunch tomorrow if everyone wants to meet at the near end of Slytherin table, say, around 12:30?”
“How about Gryffindor?” Harry counter-proposed. “Draco or one of his trained rats might eavesdrop if we give them too good an opportunity.”
Gloria sniffed. “They’ll eavesdrop anyway, but you’ve got a point, Potter. No sense making it easy for them.”
“Gryffindor at 12:30 it is, then,” Jaspine decided. “Everyone agrees?”
Heads nodded and Seamus said, “Team Hogwarts is going to tear Team Slytherin apart! I can’t wait to see this!”
Jaspine brought out two more jars and a small black cauldron. “So, do you three want to take part in tonight’s lesson?” the sixth-year Slytherin asked Dean, Seamus and Neville. “Might help you pass your OWLs,” she added.
Dean and Seamus exchanged looks and shrugged. “Sure, why not?” Seamus said. “We might as well do something useful while we’re waiting to get back to DC strategy.”
“I don’t really care about Potions,” Dean said. “But my parents won’t like it if I don’t get at least an Acceptable on all my OWLs.”
“I second that,” Seamus chimed in.
“I’ll just watch,” Neville said. “I’m excused from that part of the OWLs.”
Jaspine tsked. “That’s a deplorable attitude for you lot to take toward such a fascinating subject!” she criticized.
“Speak for yourself,” Dean grumbled.
“Give Jaspine a chance,” Harry encouraged. “Maybe you just don’t like Potions because you don’t like the other teachers you’ve had.”
Dean, Seamus, and Neville stared curiously at Harry for a moment.
“I’ve got extra supplies here, if you want to share and work together,” Jaspine said into the awkward silence.
Neville started backing out of the room. “Er…maybe I should just go. I’m not on Harry’s team tomorrow, and I’m really not very good at Potions.”
“Oh, come on, Longbottom, why don’t you give it another try?" Jaspine persuaded, "I’ve heard about your troubles with Potions, but I don’t think it’s all your fault. You just need a little support and encouragement.”
“No,” Neville disagreed hastily. “You really don’t want me in your class. I think I’ll just...” he gestured lamely toward the door with a thumb.
“Nonsense!” Jaspine insisted with a determined look.
Neville turned and made for the door, but he wasn’t fast enough.
Jaspine darted around the desk at the front of the room and raced to cut off Neville’s escape, clapping him on the shoulder as she beat him to the doorway.
“Stay. I can’t back down from a challenge, and I’d like to prove to you that I can coach you through a standard fifth-year potion without any accidents,” Jaspine insisted as she steered Neville back inside.
“B…But…But…” Neville squeaked in futile protest, now helpless in Jaspine’s grasp.
“I won’t take no for an answer, Longbottom,” Jaspine said firmly. “Now, have a seat.”
“But I don’t have any supplies…” Neville tried to protest.
“I told you, I brought extra,” Jaspine cut him off, pushing him into a chair beside Dean and Seamus. And she handed the three of them extra cauldrons, knives and vials. “So let’s get started before eight o’clock, alright? Tonight, we’re going to work on antidotes.”
Neville sighed and fumbled with the ingredients Jaspine had presented. “I wish I had a partner,” he lamented, staring hopefully at Dean and Seamus.
But the other two Gryffindors pretended not to hear him. Harry thought about offering Neville his own somewhat dubious assistance, but then that would leave Matis without a partner. And besides, partnering with Neville could be hazardous to his health.
As the lesson progressed—from bad to worse—it became painfully evident that Jaspine had finally met her match in the incompetence of poor Neville.
“No, Longbottom,” Jaspine tried to explain patiently. “You don’t want your potion at a rolling boil yet. You need to back off on the heat.”
Neville immediately complied, but in his nervousness, he completely doused the fire underneath his cauldron. The Gryffindor let out an exasperated groan as the potion immediately began to cool and solidify.
Jaspine heroically attempted to salvage the situation by reigniting the fire for him.
Unfortunately, Neville tried to do the same thing at the same exact moment.
Whoosh! Flames jetted out from under the cauldron like a blast furnace, and Jaspine had to back up several steps to keep from getting a faceful of flames. Cauldrons were nearly upended as everyone around Neville scrambled to get away from the heat.
Jaspine’s eyebrows were singed, Neville’s bangs started smoking, and Dean intervened by hastily dumping water over the round-faced teen’s head to keep his smoldering hair from catching fire. That took care of the immediate problem; Neville’s hair was saved. However, whatever water missed Neville’s head went into the cauldron instead, and the blackened potion popped and snapped like popcorn, emitting a noxious smelling gas into the air.
“Bloody hell!” Jaspine grumbled, drawing her wand to extinguish the flames again.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I ruined it,” Neville babbled as Jaspine muttered under her breath and cast a Scourgify spell on the cauldron to get rid of the botched, foul-odored brew.
“It’s all right, Neville,” Jaspine said impatiently. It was obvious to everyone that she was trying to console him, and failing miserably to adopt a sympathetic tone. “Scourgify!” The rest of the black goo disappeared, but the room still reeked. Jaspine groaned and cast Purgare Ventus to clear the air.
“Maybe I should just go,” Neville suggested as he stood and turned towards the door. “Potions doesn’t agree with me. I…I tried to warn you.”
Jaspine merely coughed and nodded as she checked her cauldron to see if it was salvageable.
“Come back if you change your mind,” Jaspine said with forced optimism. Harry could tell, though, that Jaspine’s confidence was shaken.
“I won’t,” said Neville, “but thanks anyway.” And on that note, he walked out.
“Well, at least it isn’t permanently damaged,” Dean said, peering at the cauldron.
“No, it will be all right,” the sixth-year Slytherin agreed, then she cast an incredulous look out the door. “I heard some hair-raising stories about that one, but I thought that it was only because of… Well, Snape could be rather critical and overbearing toward the ones he didn’t like. But now I’m seeing another side to the stories.” She gave a laugh, again forced, as she turned her attention back to her other students.
Harry stared at the doorway, then at Jaspine, and wondered.
Venice! City of dreams, of passions, of old loves; yet sometimes dreams changed, and passions died, and old loves were set aside or discarded. Beauty, romance, music, and more than a thousand years of history flowed through the veins of the city's waterways and canals. But there was corruption and decay here as well.
Even in Venice, Voldemort had a presence; even here could his influence be felt. When the sun hid her glory behind a thick blanket of clouds, the dance of reflected light from the rippled surface of the waterways, cast onto the aged earth-toned walls of the buildings, ceased abruptly. The diffused lighting cast a gloomy pall over the patchwork, man-made canyons of wood, cement, plaster, and iron. The winged lions, who watched over the people from atop their columns and pedestals, seemed no longer familiar, but frightening. The gondolas shuddered and nodded their long, elegant necks, as if they could feel something terrible lurking beneath the waves of the lagoon which the people could not see. And Wizards drew their wands and checked the wards around their homes, while Muggles shivered and prayed for Santa Maria to keep them safe.
Here in this city, a wizard could get away with almost anything, and if the Muggles saw anything they weren't meant to, they would think it only a part of the magic of Venice. But the magic of Venice was changing.
Leslie Marmion, long-time resident of Venice, gazed dispassionately at the skinny, olive-skinned, black-haired young man before him. The young man was barely out of his teens, inexperienced in the ways of the world, and eminently expendable. Pity to send one like him on such a dangerous errand, into a dark place from which he might never return. The young man had potential, and Marmion had once hated wasting potential. But the young man’s life was irrelevant now, as irrelevant as his own. Nothing really mattered anymore, save for ensuring that certain demands were met. For the Dark Lord’s desires had become his own. Marmion knew this as well as he knew his own name, and the names of all who worked for his organization. Yes, Marmion knew that he was merely a pawn of great evil, that he had become the very thing he had once dedicated his life to fighting. And this did not displease him in the least.
Zielah Fi’ar! Indeed, he thought his current state-of-being far superior to the old.
“What is it, Signor Marmion? You called for me?” the younger man asked, his large black eyes wide, and, in some respects, innocent. Antonio Giovanni, like so many others, had not noticed the change in his boss, did not realize that, even now, he was serving a new master. And as long as Giovanni remained ignorant of the change in his allegiance, Marmion saw no reason to prematurely end the young man’s life. Nevertheless, Marmion was not one to take chances…
“Si, Antonio,” Marmion said smoothly. “I have an assignment for you.” He handed the youth a sheet of ivory-colored parchment paper, which was folded over three times and sealed with red wax. An English rose was imprinted within the wax. The rose was Marmion’s family crest, and had been so for over a hundred years, or so he told everyone. The truth was that he had invented it, along with his current identity some fifteen years ago, when he decided to fight back, instead of running like his parents. “Take this, and give it to Signora Bellancina. Let no one else see it, and do not trust anyone else who asks for it. This is for her eyes only; do you understand?"
“Si, Signor. I will neither show it, nor mention it to anyone but her.”
“Make haste, for it is extremely important,” Marmion commanded in fluent Italian.
Antonio Giovanni bowed his head. “Si, Signor, I will go this instant.”
Marmion watched the lad depart through glittering blue eyes. He felt uneasy for some inexplicable reason, and shifted uncomfortably in his chair. There had been no lie in Antonio’s eyes. The lad was ultra-loyal, and had never once failed him. And yet, and yet…
He ran a hand through his light blond hair. His other hand idly drummed the surface of the plain oak desk he was seated behind. Several family pictures and thin red pendants with the "Marmion family crest" of a white English rose set in a navy blue diamond with gold trim decorated the walls of the tiny office where he now carried out the Dark Lord’s orders. What to do about Giovanni, he wondered, what to do? Kill him to be on the safe side? Let him go, and ignore the groundless niggling suspicion in his head? Turn him over to the Dark Lord for questioning…?
His eyes rested, out of old habit, on the picture of himself, taken when he was 14 and had answered to a different name. He stood on the wharf in front of his parents looking miserable and scared, just before their ship was to leave their Welsh homeland, bound for Italy and freedom from the Dark Lord’s oppression. Or so the family had vainly hoped. Marmion’s parents were long gone now, slain two years after their arrival in Venice, murdered by the forces they had attempted to flee. Too late they had learned that there was no escaping the long reach of the pale hands of the Dark Lord.
Owen, now known as Leslie, had escaped his pursuers and had eked out a living sleeping in doorways and stowing away on boats until a kind Italian family had taken him in. He had sworn to spend the rest of his life fighting the Death Eaters, the dark-robed, white-masked killers who had taken his parents from him, and their dark master, the most terrible threat to humanity since Mortgona. Such had been the purpose of his old life.
But this past no longer mattered to him. Marmion now realized that he had only temporarily set himself against the Dark Lord fifteen years ago, and that it was almost inevitable that he would eventually return to the Dark Side, the victorious side. Indeed, he could feel only a detached amusement at all the ironies in his life. This and a bit of unease about the immediate present…
“Marcello,” Marmion called out, and a silent, burly figure emerged from the shadows.
“Si?” the lumbering figure rumbled.
“Follow him,” Marmion commanded. “I am uneasy about him.”
“Why? He is loyal. He has always served us well,” Marcello replied lazily.
“Do not question my judgment! I want him followed! Those are your orders. Watch him, and if you see anything suspicious, you will interrogate him and then kill him. Do you understand?”
“Si, Signor Marmion. I will do as you say.” With that, Marcello left. And as he did so, three hulking, shadowing figures followed close behind.
Marmion observed, with his usual detachment, that they reminded him very much of the hulking figures who had slain his parents and pursued him through the waterways of Venice until he had found a place to hide. He and his parents had been fools, but he was wiser now.
Antonio Giovanni hurried up, down, and around the winding sidewalks and steps of Venice where the sound and smell of lapping water greeted him at almost every turn, and the rows of windows and rounded archways gazed down on him like watchful eyes. Giovanni spared not a glance for the distant domes and statues of Santa Maria Della Salute, nor the familiar outline of the Palace of the Doges where tourists went to climb the golden stairway and gaze at sumptuous paintings in gilded frames. Let the tourists dawdle and have their fun. Giovanni had more important things to do!
Getting the disturbing feeling that he was being followed, every once in a while Giovanni broke his stride to look over his shoulder, but each time he saw nothing. It never occurred to him to pay more attention to the black, banana-shaped boat which glided silently through the canal behind him, dogging his footsteps at every turn, but maintaining, always, a respectable distance. He never noticed the three passengers in the gondola who were pointing a camera at familiar sights and pretending it was their first time in Venice. He did not see that the poleman was only pretending to do his job. Had he been a little more observant, he could have easily shaken the pursuit by leaving the lagoon and the canals far behind and heading further inland. There he could get lost so quickly and easily in the narrow, winding passages that they'd never find him no matter how long they searched. But Giovanni remained blind to his pursuers, and the water current enchantments speeded the gondola along behind him.
The wizard hurried on, putting a flock of startled pigeons to flight, and nearly knocking over another pedestrian in his haste—an older woman carrying a sack full of bread, cheese and meat. The old woman clutched frantically at her bag and threw a string of Italian curses at his back. Brutto cretin! Antonio thought testily.
Strains of O, Sole Mio drifted out of a nearby window as an aspiring musician practiced his mandolin, and the tantalizing smell of baking bread filled the air as Giovanni ran on. He took several corners at a run, causing a frazzled shopkeeper to jump back into his doorway to avoid a collision, and the men in the gondola cursed as they lost sight of their quarry. Giovanni threw open a battered wooden door on his right, and the door groaned in protest as the young wizard then slammed it with some force. He raced up three flights of stairs and passed an elderly man who hobbled down the hallway, coming back from his room. The elderly man glared at Antonio with squinty, near-sighted eyes.
“Your rent is due,” the old man wheezed. "600,000 lira. Plus 100,000 for last month."
“Si, si,” Antonio said impatiently. “Domani mattina.”
“Domani, domani,” the old man mimicked. “It is always ‘domani’ with you! The next time you leave town, you'll find your things in the street when you return. Rio Della Guerra Street. Three meters under water!”
Antonio ignored the threat, throwing open the door to his room and slamming it shut, the sealed note from Marmion clutched in his hand. Hoping that his Floo connection had not been cut off yet, he ran to his fireplace and removed a handful of crystalline powder from a plain, earthen jug on the mantelpiece. The young wizard threw the powder into the fireplace and cried, “Bumblebee!”
“Signor Dumbledore? Are you there?” Antonio called breathlessly as he knelt before the green flames. He was still somewhat winded from the haste of his journey.
“Yes, I am here,” came the mild response. There was a slight pause, and then the older wizard's voice took on a more urgent tone. “Is that you, Antonio Giovanni?”
“Si, signor,” Antonio replied, wondering about the anxiousness in the older wizard's voice.
“Antonio, I have been trying to reach you for several days, were you not aware of this?”
"No, signor. I have heard nothing. But I have only just returned from several out-of-town errands."
"Most distressing," Dumbledore murmured. "Most distressing indeed."
"Antonio," he queried in a stern voice that demanded an honest answer, "if you have not received any of my messages, then why have you decided to contact me today?"
"I do not know what has happened to your messages, signor," the younger wizard replied in a sincere and frustrated tone. "I have not received them. Perhaps someone else has intercepted them, but if so, then they have not told Signor Marmion yet. For he would have demanded to know why I have been talking to you, and he would have been most angry, I fear. He is not as he used to be."
"Yes, I know, Antonio. And this is why I had hoped to talk to you before this."
“Then you know at least part of the reason why I have risked using the Floos! There is some evil at work here, and I need your advice how to fight it. And I have brought you something that may be of great importance to your work. Signor Leslie Marmion, whom I have worked for, for several years without complaint, has given me a sealed note and told me that it is to be delivered to Signora Donna Bellancina without delay. But I want you to see it instead. I have not opened it. I am afraid to look. I do not know what instructions it contains, and I am afraid to read them.
“Signor Marmion, he has changed somehow. He gives orders that, I believe you would say, trouble my conscience. He holds meetings late at night, and I have overheard in them words of a language I do not know…”
Dumbledore’s voice came somber and fearful through the green flames in Antonio’s flat as he interrupted sharply, “Do not repeat what you have heard, Antonio! Only tell me if you have ever heard the phrase…” and here the older wizard paused and took a deep breath. With great reluctance and distaste he said at last…
“Zielah…I will not say the rest.”
“Si, Signor,” Antonio said softly. “Zielah Fi’ar. I have heard this many times of late behind closed doors, sometimes in my master’s voice, sometimes in voices I do not recognize. I do not know what this means, but it fills me with great terror, and I want to run away.”
“Good,” said Dumbledore, much to the young wizard’s bewilderment. “Not that you have heard this from the lips of Signor Marmion, Antonio,” Dumbledore clarified. “But that you recognize the evil it represents. It means that you have not yet been tainted by the Darkness that has claimed your master.”
“But what does it mean?” Antonio asked, feeling a finger of fear curl around his spine.
“It means that you are in more danger than you realize,” the older wizard replied enigmatically.
“Is this why he sends important messages to wicked Signora La Donna, and others like her, whom he used to hate?”
“Most likely,” Dumbledore murmured. “I think you had better come here, Antonio.”
“Ignis Loqui,” Antonio muttered, before plunging his upper body into the green flame. The world seemed to spin for several disorienting moments, and then he saw the outline of the Hogwarts headmaster and his office. He stretched out the hand holding the sealed note through the fireplace in Dumbledore’s office, and the older wizard retrieved the paper with a pair of tongs.
“I do not wish to touch it until I am sure there are no harmful enchantments on it, should the wrong recipient attempt to handle it,” Dumbledore explained mildly. He waved his wand several times over the letter, murmured, “Occultus Minatio Revelio,” and waited. Then he smiled, took his wand, inserted it between the sealed folds of the letter, and gave it a sharp twist. He then pointed his wand toward a blank sheet of foolscap on his desk, where blunt, blocky handwriting began to appear. Dumbledore recognized it as Marmion’s distinctive hand, and yet, there seemed something not-quite-right about it. The headmaster’s smile of amusement at having borrowed Aurellia’s favorite method of snooping through Snape’s correspondence faded quickly into a look of horror as he read the letter.
“Merlin!” he whispered, stroking his beard and meditating on what his next move ought to be in light of this windfall of confidential information.
At length he turned back to the youth in the fireplace. “Antonio, you did well in bringing this to me, but I am concerned for your safety.”
“Do you think I should leave this place?” the young wizard asked eagerly. He hoped so. The landlord had sounded most impatient, and he had no money for rent right now. Not to mention the fact that all this errand running for Marmion was beginning to frighten him.
“Tonight, if not sooner!” Dumbledore replied harshly. “Leave everything behind but your wand and money for traveling expenses! Tell no one you are leaving! Tell no one where you are going! Go to France. Ask Madame Maxime, the headmistress of Beauxbatons Academy for shelter. I’ll have further instructions for you when you have...”
But Antonio did not hear the entirety of his instructions. For in front of Dumbledore’s startled eyes, he screamed and disappeared from the fireplace, and the green flames immediately extinguished themselves with a whoosh. The headmaster grabbed a handful of Floo powder to re-establish the connection, and practically dove into the fireplace, paying no attention to his protesting knees.
He arrived, whirling and coated with ash, in Antonio’s sparsely furnished room, where Antonio himself was being held by two burly men, with two more in front of him, brandishing wands in threatening fashion.
"I SAID, WHO WERE YOU TALKING TO?" one of the men shouted.
“STUPEFY!” Dumbledore cried out as he leveled his wand at the wizards in front of Antonio. They collapsed in a heap on the ground, while the other two went for their wands.
Antonio seized the opportunity to break free and distract them, while Dumbledore dispatched them in similar fashion before they could figure out how to react to both threats.
“Antonio! Did they harm you?” Dumbledore asked anxiously, peering into the younger wizard’s eyes with an intensity that spooked Antonio.
Antonio put a hand to a bruise on his cheek, and winced. “No, Signor Dumbledore; they had time to do no more than take my wand and hit me a few times. Otherwise, I am, as you say, all right. For now. Thanks to you. Begging your pardon, but I will need my wand…”
As Dumbledore nodded understandingly, Giovanni turned his attention to the pockets of his assailants, helping himself to a sizeable stack of lira as he searched. For the long-suffering landlord, he promised silently, retrieving his wand with a smile.
“They will recover shortly,” Dumbledore warned sternly. “And neither of us should be here when they do. You must go to France and Beauxbatons immediately, and tell Madame Maxime that I have sent you. I will tell her what has happened here, and to look for your arrival. You may or may not be able to trust her as you trust me, but I have heard no reports of Dark activity at Beauxbatons, as of yet. Do not freely give your trust to anyone else you may meet along the way. The enemy will not stop looking for you, and you will not be safe until you have reached the school in France, if even then.”
“Si,” Antonio said as he became a whirlwind of activity, grabbing a duffel bag and throwing various odds and ends into it, along with part of the purloined money. “And is there anything else I should tell the lady, other than that I have been sent by you?”
“Yes,” Dumbledore said somberly. “Matters are worsening at an alarming rate, faster than even I had feared. No amount of caution can be too little. Say to her in an offhand manner the phrase you have heard your master use, the one we discussed that you do not understand; the one that fills you with fear.”
Giovanni’s eyes widened with shock. “But why? I thought you did not like to hear it…?”
“Yes,” Dumbledore replied wearily, “I know it troubles you. But it will be even more troublesome for all of us if Madame Maxime has fallen to the Darkness like your master Marmion, and we remain ignorant of the fact.”
“Then you are not sure…?” Antonio queried.
“I am afraid,” Dumbledore said simply. “Now pay close attention to my instructions. You must watch her reaction carefully, without seeming to do so. If she smiles and repeats what you have said in the same fashion as your former master, then you must leave the school as soon as possible and try to make your way to the Leaky Cauldron in London. Say to the barkeeper of the Leaky Cauldron that you would like to have a word with Rubeus Hagrid, and wait there until he arrives. He will bring you to Hogwarts where you will have my personal guarantee of safety, and I will know by your arrival what has transpired. Do not try to contact me unless it is a life-or-death matter. It will be too dangerous for you, and I probably will not be able to Floo to your rescue, the next time. Have you got all that?”
“Watch for reaction, Leaky Cauldron in London, Rubeus Hagrid, no contact except emergency, and in all likelihood I shall be followed by servants of Dark Lord who wish to kill me. To think that before this darkness came, I used to wish for more excitement in my life!”
“Things may not be as bad as I fear. I only want to prepare you for the worst. Quite likely Madame Maxime will seem startled, or offended, or uncomprehending, after you have greeted her in the fashion of Voldemort’s servants. If she reacts thusly, you must then tell her that you were told to test her before trusting her. Tell her what you have told me concerning Mr. Marmion, and she will understand, for I have already sent her a similar warning. Also, tell her that I fear he and others are being used in a plot to foment war between Italy and France.”
“Si, Signor Dumbledore. I will do as you say,” Giovanni said, heading for the door with his dufflebag over his shoulder, his left hand full of lira, and his wand clenched firmly in his right hand.
Dumbledore left the way he had come, and the flames in the fireplace extinguished themselves with a whoomp. The thugs on the floor awakened soon after to an empty room with a wide-open door, and the joyful exclamations of a suddenly happy old landlord outside in the stairwell.