Team Hogwarts won the Knut toss, giving them the opening turn, but as compensation, Slytherin got the choice of which table to play at. It was to no one's surprise that the game would be played out at Slytherin beneath banners of silver, green, and black. As Dean pocketed his Knut and the players took their places on either side of the table, Jaspine shot a sly wink across the table in Nathan Quinn's direction. Quinn noticed, but he did not acknowledge it, glancing spitefully at his Slytherin teammates and grinning craftily to himself instead.
Harry tried to look nonchalant as he shuffled his cards and surveyed the two sides of the Slytherin table. On his left sat Gloria Hyran, Argyle Greytalon, and Seamus Finnegan. On his right were Matis and Jaspine Greggs. Across the table Draco was trying to look confident and unconcerned about the competition, but his eyes betrayed a trace of fear as he shuffled his deck and laid out his opening hand. He threw a filthy look at Jaspine, who returned it with a glower of her own. Draco was flanked by Vincent Crabbe, Millicent Bulstrode, Tobal Montague, and two other Slytherins whose names Harry didn't know, but he could have sworn he'd seen them bickering over who got to sit across the table from Victor Krum one time last year. One of the newcomers was a ratty-looking, thin-faced sixth-year with a wolf-like grin. Harry disliked him immediately, and not only because he was a Slytherin and friend of Draco Malfoy. The other boy was also a sixth-year, heavy-set and round-faced like Neville. Harry wondered if this was their mole, Nathan Quinn, and he whispered the question to Seamus while Argyle and Gloria arranged their cards.
Seamus nodded. “Yeah, and the skinny bloke across from me is Geoff Hanes,” he added. "You know the others, right?"
Harry nodded, remembering what Seamus and Dean had already told him about Draco’s likely teammates. He set his cards down, arranged his opening hand, and smiled inwardly. It was reassuring to know that Jaspine and Seamus were on his side, and that he had a secret ally on the opposing team, he reflected. Jaspine and Quinn had already proven their worth before the game even started. Quinn had told Jaspine that Malfoy and the other Slytherins planned to enchant their decks so that they could always draw what they wanted, right when they wanted it, and variable cards would always change into whatever the players wanted whenever they wanted it. At the lunchtime meeting, Jaspine had told Harry and the others about the enchanted decks, and then proceeded to teach them the same spell so that they could enchant theirs likewise. Argyle and Gloria had been reluctant to do this, regardless of what the Slytherins were doing. Matis had changed their minds when he reminded them that Malfoy might very well decide to take his winnings out of their decks as well as Harry’s, if there was anything left once he got done using his Staff of Destruction on their best cards. And besides, he had added, who wanted to give Malfoy bragging rights? Seamus had declined to use the recommended charm on his deck, saying that his deck was lucky enough without it, and he didn’t want spoil it. Dean snidely suggested, however, that Seamus’ deck had been lucky all this time precisely because he had been taking his cue from the Slytherins since the beginning of the school year. Seamus’ denial hadn’t been very convincing, but no one pressed the issue.
“Last chance to back out, Potty,” Malfoy said hopefully, his face half-hidden behind the seven-card fan of his opening hand.
“You mean it's too late for you to back out, Ferret Face!” Jaspine retorted before Harry could reply. "Too bad you didn't stop to think about who you might be up against when you challenged my friend!"
"Your friend?" Malfoy spat nastily. "Well, Potter, you're getting desperate for friends these days, since you dumped your old heart-throb on the Weasel!"
"Shut up, Malfoy!" Ron snapped. "You don't know anything about anything!"
"Yes, you'd better stop there, Malfoy, before you say something you'll regret," Hermione added warningly, glaring at him with disgust.
Harry turned his head halfway around to stare at Hermione. "I thought the party line was 'ignore him'?"
"Oooh," Draco purred, ignoring Hermione and smirking at Harry. "Looks like I touched a nerve there, Potty. Maybe..."
"Maybe you'd better shut up and start the game before I start thinking about practicing my Silencio Charm," Jaspine said smoothly, reaching for her wand.
Draco's grinning reply was pure venom. "You just try it, Professor Psycho. I'd love to…"
"Stop it!" Harry ordered. "Just stop it, Malfoy, or I'll…"
"You'll what, Potty?" Draco persisted. "Quit?" He folded his cards and smiled smugly. "Be my guest. I don't want you at my table anyway."
"Oh, shut up, and get on with the game, Malfoy! We just want to play!" Gloria Hyran jumped in irritably.
"Yeah!" agreed Geoff Hanes. "Let's go, Draco. We're ready."
The Slytherin captain stared at his teammate with displeasure and surprise, and Hanes returned the look with equal annoyance. Draco glanced at the Slytherin spectators behind him who seemed mostly supportive of him, but impatient. Further stalling would be counter-productive, he realized, but he also didn't like the thought of a potential loss to Potter's team. Hyran, Greytalon, and Greggs worried him. This situation had somehow gotten totally out of his control, and Draco didn't like it. He didn't like at all.
The octagonal board waited innocently in front of him, full of hidden menace and unpleasant surprises, much like his opponents on the other side of the table. The luck of the draw would be on his side, thanks to his favorite charm, but Draco would have been more comfortable if he could have found a way to enchant the game board too. Unfortunately, no one had been able to do that, not even the Weasley twins. Perhaps Father could have a word or two with the game's manufacturers, and persuade them to do a custom job sometime…
“All right, then,” Malfoy said after a pause and another glower thrown in Jaspine’s direction. “Declare your alignments, and place your tokens.”
Not too surprisingly, everyone on the Slytherin team declared themselves Evil, except Quinn and Crabbe, who went Neutral. Harry, Gloria, Argyle and Matis chose Good, while Seamus and Jaspine chose Neutral. Harry’s token transformed into a human White Wizard, and the first card he played, on Seamus’ and Argyle’s advice, was his phoenix card. Malfoy and his token, a human Dark Arts Apprentice, both visibly paled as the phoenix sang from its perch on the White Wizard’s shoulder, while the green border of the card flared red-and-gold as it came into play. Predictably, Malfoy played his Staff of Destruction, and a solid-looking ebony staff with a blood-red crystal embedded in its claw-tipped end appeared in the hand of his Dark Apprentice.
The opening rounds continued without mishap as summoned creatures, faithful familiars, shields, weapons, armor, and magical tools and tomes came into play. Draco was eager to start burning cards with his trusty staff, but he'd have to wait a while longer before he had sufficient power to make use of that ability. Meanwhile, Harry's phoenix was already making its presence known, that wretched song increasing the strength, courage, and loyalty stats of Harry's White Wizard and teammates.
The hunt for the keys began on a particularly nasty note, with Jaspine sending Cornish pixies at Draco's team, and chuckling while they wasted a whole turn trying to protect their characters and their cards from the destructive thieving creatures.
“They'll attack next turn. You should play that card next to shut down the retaliation,” Ron whispered behind Team Hogwarts' captain. Harry whirled around, while Ron was jabbing his finger at Neville’s Blazing Aura card.
"I don't need your help, Ron," Harry said with tightly controlled irritation. "Besides, it's too soon to play it. I don't want it to wear off before we get to Caliban."
“Button it, Weasley,” Gloria complained. “We've got a strategy. We don't need any help from the audience!"
"And besides, that’s cheating!” Pansy Parkinson complained with a sniff, glaring at both Ron and Harry. "Potter's team should have to forfeit the game for talking to spectators!"
"In that case, Malfoy will have to forfeit too, or were you discussing taking over someone else's place on his team?" Harry retorted coolly, as Pansy quickly straightened up from where she'd been leaning over Malfoy's shoulder, whispering in his ear.
"Okay, new rule from now on," said Dean, taking charge of the brewing conflict. "No more advice-giving from the audience, subject to banishment from the Great Hall. And no more advice-taking from either team, subject to immediate disqualification and automatic forfeit."
Pansy Parkinson smirked and threw a challenging look at Dean, as if to say, “I’d like to see you try and enforce that!"
"Who made you the referee?" Ron demanded heatedly as Pansy's smirk grew into a nasty shark's grin, and Draco's ugly scowl suddenly changed into an amused sneer.
Dean shrugged and explained, "Well, someone's going to have to set some boundaries at the rate this game is going…"
"What do you mean, 'at the rate this game is going', and since when did you become Head Boy?" Ron demanded.
"I really don't need your help, Ron," Harry jumped in loudly, his control over his temper beginning to slip.
"Yeah, go polish your broomstick or something," Jaspine added nastily. "You're not part of this team!"
“Jaspine!” Harry exclaimed with more sharpness than he had intended, while Ron and Hermione glared daggers at the offending Slytherin.
"Go polish your cauldrons!" Ron retorted. "Slytherins don't belong on Harry's team."
"Ron!" Harry snapped, whipping his head around to glare at his friend. "If you want to help, then be quiet. Otherwise, leave."
The redhead stared at his friend with obvious hurt and resentment written all over his features. He started to say something, but changed his mind at the unrelenting look on Harry's face.
"Let's just go," Hermione decided, pulling at Ron's arm, but Ron didn't budge. "I don't like this game anyway."
Malfoy and Bulstrode snickered, Hanes and Montague exchanged impatient looks, and Parkinson gave a catty laugh, while Crabbe studied the brewing argument with quiet appraisal. Quinn seemed, at the moment, to be the only one watching the game as the character tokens of both sides resolutely defended themselves from Caliban's minions and waited for orders.
"No. We're staying." Ron insisted. "Even if we're not wanted. You were right earlier, Hermione. Friends don't walk away from friends."
"No, they stick around and run their mouths until…" Jaspine grumbled under her breath. She was going to say more, but stopped when Matis kicked her under the table.
"Are we playing this game, or are we going to argue all evening?" Argyle complained. "I have to study some time."
"I thought you said you were caught up?" Gloria reminded.
"Yes, and now I have to study for final exams," Argyle clarified.
"Don't remind me!" Matis groaned. "I'm trying not to think about N.E.W.T.s tonight!"
There was a collective groan from all of the seventh-year students and pitying looks from the others around the Greggs' end of the table at the unwelcome reminder of the older students' year-end nemesis.
Meanwhile, Hanes had grown bored of watching the Potter club's dissention and had slapped down a Creature Summon that could also be played as a Catastrophe. Malfoy gleefully slapped him on the back, as Harry's party became embroiled in a Giant Locust Swarm.
Harry and his teammates’ neglected tokens fought bravely but futilely as they tried to fend off locusts the size of dogs. At first, the locusts were little threat, easily destroyed by almost any common spell or weapon, but the real menace of the Locust Swarm card was that it had the annoying tendency to keep renewing itself for endless turns until the defending party was utterly worn out from fighting it. Locust Swarm almost never killed the opponent, but it left them weak and vulnerable to a follow-up attack.
While Ron, Hermione and Dean, Argyle and Gloria, and Jaspine and Matis, continued to bicker in whispers, Harry turned his attention back to the game, where he and his teammates were taking a beating. He swallowed his pride and played the recommended Blazing Aura, ignoring Ron's I-told-you-so huff. Immediately, a great, shining shield formed around Harry’s besieged party, and the cloud of ravenous insects bounced off harmlessly and flew away.
Problem solved. For now, anyway, although there was no telling when the Locust Swarm might decide to return. Harry dusted his hands theatrically as he watched the guffaws on the Slytherin side change to gasps of astonishment and dismay. Blazing Aura, he reflected gleefully, was one of the few cards available that could effectively deal with threats like the locusts. He'd have to remember to thank Neville later when he returned the card, and to tell him that he had, quite possibly, single-handedly saved the game even though he wasn't present.
“How did you ever…who did you steal that from, Potter?" Malfoy demanded to know in a pouty tone as his face contorted into an ugly scowl. He fingered his Staff of Destruction card in helpless frustration, knowing that it was useless against certain cards like Blazing Aura.
"I didn't steal it," Harry said matter-of-factly, relishing Draco's frustrated fury and envy. "I borrowed it. From a friend."
"Who?" Draco demanded to know, instantly thinking of a hundred and one ways to get even with the culprit after this game was over. Particularly if it were someone in his own House. He narrowed his eyes at Jaspine, expecting her name to drop from Potter's lips. Oh, but she was going to pay for this, whether he won or lost the game tonight. No one, but no one betrayed House Slytherin. Especially not a Hufflepuff reject like Greggs!
"N…er, none of your business," Harry replied, deciding not to mention Neville. Draco would find out eventually anyway, probably from Kenrick and his friends. But it would be fun to let him wonder until then.
“Well, as they say, all's fair in love, war, and Dark Cauldron,” Quinn remarked rhetorically. "That was actually a very good play, Malfoy. You can't deny it."
Draco glared at Quinn with unbridled hatred and decided right then that Greggs could wait. First he'd teach Quinn a lesson about paying compliments to the enemy.
Harry’s team high-fived each other as their respective tokens placed Healing Charms on themselves to undo some of the locust damage. In a gesture of mercy and goodwill, Harry’s phoenix flew over to Jaspine’s goblin treasure hunter, who had taken the brunt of the damage, and shed a few tears over the goblin’s worst wounds.
"We've got to get rid of that phoenix, somehow," Malfoy grumbled maliciously.
"Good luck," Crabbe said sarcastically. "You can't even get to it while they've got a Blazing Aura."
"I'll find a way," Draco hissed. "That Blazing Aura won't last forever…"
"Thanks, Harry," Jaspine said.
Harry shrugged. "Thank the phoenix," he said. "He does that all the time, and most of the time, I don't even ask him to."
"Wicked!" Matis exclaimed, practically drooling with admiration. "You must be the only person in the school who has a phoenix, Harry!"
Gloria grinned. "Not counting Professor Dumbledore, of course. They're terribly rare. Wish I had one."
"Can I borrow it sometime?" Matis asked.
"No," Harry replied automatically.
"Well then, can I rent it? A Galleon a game?"
"No," Harry repeated.
"Er…" Harry thought for a moment. How could he say that he didn't trust Matis not to lose it? "Renting out a phoenix seems rather unfair, don't you think?" he said instead.
"And borrowing a Blazing Aura isn't?" Matis retorted.
"Good point," Harry relented. "I'll think about it. We'll talk after the game."
But all discussion on Harry’s side stopped abruptly when Malfoy gave a whoop of glee. While Harry's team had argued, fought locusts, and then finally recuperated, Draco and his goons had ventured deep into the Haunt of Unholy Spirits, a dark and dreadful mire where only Evil characters and Neutral teammates could hope to emerge alive, though not entirely unscathed. The Dark Apprentice was wiping slimy black muck from the platinum handle of a large ornate ruby, topaz, emerald, and sapphire-encrusted key. Pansy squealed with delight as the Slytherins cheered. Those standing closest to Malfoy slapped him on the back as the Dark Apprentice held the key over his head in triumph.
"Amazing what you can find when you look in the right place," Malfoy gloated, savoring his victory, while Harry's side groaned and gave Draco looks of disgust.
"Well, we're done for, now," Jaspine said bitterly.
"How is it that we can put together the better team, put out all our best cards early on, and still lose to those toe-rags?" Seamus complained.
“Er…we have?” Harry wondered as he surveyed his team's downhearted reaction. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but that's only one of the keys, and they're not even close to Caliban's castle yet. Don't you think it's still too early to give up?"
“You don't understand. That's not a key. It's the key. Quintis, the master key.” Seamus explained. "The one that unlocks all the doors!"
"Oh…" Harry said, crestfallen. "That puts us at a serious disadvantage."
"No kidding," Gloria said, glaring suspiciously at Malfoy. "Quite a coincidence that Quintis decided to turn up this game, and they found it. In the first place they looked."
"Pure luck!" Malfoy crowed, looking as though he were enjoying a rather savory toffee. And it was luck this time, not that anyone would ever believe it, he supposed. Well, let them pout and make accusations. Draco didn't care so long as he won.
Jaspine fumed as she exchanged significant looks over the tops of her cards with Quinn. They then exchanged a few subtle hand signals as Malfoy’s party took off on the back of Montague's Ukranian Ironbelly, bound for Caliban’s castle. The dragon was large enough to carry the whole team, but Harry thought that the odds were good it would tire and be forced to land before it reached the fortress, overburdened as it was. If his team hurried, they might be able to catch up.
For the next three turns, it looked as though Harry's team had lost all hope of winning. They had fallen far behind, as their only means of transportation was their own two feet. Their familiars and Summoned Creatures, while useful in battles and in hunting for keys, unfortunately were not suitable for carrying players. The only exception, Harry's phoenix, could only carry one person at a time, by Dark Cauldron rules, contrary to Harry's real-life experience in the Chamber of Secrets. Harry suggested having the phoenix carry his teammates to Caliban's castle one by one, and hopefully enough of them would be there when Draco's team arrived to present a significant threat. Jaspine and Matis liked this idea, but Argyle, Seamus, and Gloria argued that they needed to stick together for mutual protection. As the debate about splitting up the team grew heated, Hanes' Locust Swarm decided to return, settling the matter once and for all. Harry's Blazing Aura was once again able to keep the insects at bay, but it was immediately apparent that the team could not afford to become divided, or they would lose their most powerful protection.
Meanwhile, Draco's team was coasting along on Favorable Wind Currents, their victory seemingly assured, when disaster struck. Quinn took a deep breath, gave Jaspine a slight nod, reached in front of Crabbe, and slapped down a Lost Item card next to the Quintis token in front of Draco. The blond-haired teen stared in disbelief for a moment as the Quintis vanished right in front of his eyes, and then yelled, "What in Mordred's name do you think you're doing?"
"Leveling the playing field," came the dry response. "I want to win this game on strategy, not luck."
Draco fumed. "You can't do that! It's illegal! Take it back!" He threw a pleading look to his Slytherin supporters. "He can't do that!"
"Actually, there's nothing in the rules against playing Lost Item on your own team," Quinn refuted calmly. "As you can clearly see, the game agrees." And sure enough, the Dark Apprentice was raging at his friends while they peered around the dragon's flapping wings toward the ground, searching for the key which had somehow slipped out of their leader's grasp and fallen out of sight into the forest below.
"You'll pay for that!" Draco snarled. "Mark my words! I never should have let you on my team!"
Quinn merely shrugged, then shot Jaspine a subtle grin.
"Tobal, stop the dragon!" Draco ordered in desperation. "We've got to go back and look for it. It's our only hope of getting through the castle without a fight!"
Montague shrugged and did as ordered. "Take us back to where we lost the key, you dumb oaf," he told his character. The Dragon-Tamer grunted his assent and tugged on the reins. Then the dragon banked its wings and turned back in a lazy curve. It blasted a hole in the green canopy below with its fiery breath, then dropped to the ground with a loud whump.
"We should've thrown Quinn overboard before we landed," Bulstrode commented nastily. "Now it's too late."
Draco glowered and the Dark Apprentice twirled his staff experimentally, pointing it in Quinn's direction as if taking aim. "It's not too late, Millicent. I've almost got enough power to use my staff now."
"I've got another Lost Item card, Draco," Quinn threatened coolly, while Draco glared hatefully at him.
"Not anymore!" Millicent retorted, slapping down a Switching Spell.
Several cards in Quinn's hand immediately exchanged places with hers, leaving him with a useless hand, and her with all of his best cards. She briefly flashed her new hand to Draco and laughed maliciously, while Quinn slumped back in his chair looking angry and humiliated. While everyone else's eyes were on the theatrics, Jaspine gave Quinn a light kick under the table, then stealthily slipped two cards from her hand under the table to him. Quinn groped for the cards, then feigned a bored yawn as he casually brought his free hand out from under the table and added the new cards to his own.
Harry's team made slow but steady progress, occasionally fending off attacks from the Locust Swarm and Caliban's minions, while Draco's team turned the forest upside-down with fruitless searching. Eventually, the tortoise gained the advantage over the hare. When twilight fell across the Dark Cauldron realm, and the gloomy, forbidding fortress of the Dark Wizard Caliban loomed into view at last, it was Harry's team that faced the forbidding entrance, sans every single one of the all-important keys.
The White Wizard drew up hesitantly before the heavy, wrought-iron door, wand drawn and lit, and eyes alert for any sign of danger. The phoenix uttered an encouraging chirp from his shoulder as the rest of Harry's party gathered around looking nervous.
"Well, here we are at last," Harry said. "Who wants to go first?"
Jaspine's Treasure Hunter attempted to hide behind the Scholar's robes, but Argyle's character caught the goblin and shoved her forward. "Look! I have a volunteer!" he quipped as the two tokens glared at each other, and the spectators laughed.
"Well, your character would be the best at picking locks," Harry acknowledged, "but I think you should wait a minute before you try. Look, there are words on the door!"
"YES!" Gloria and Argyle exclaimed, high-fiving each other, while Matis laughed, Jaspine grinned from ear to ear, and Seamus groaned.
"Welcome Seeker, to the Underground," Harry read. "Where…"
"Where light grows dim and paths wind 'round," Gloria, Argyle and Matis joined Harry in unison. "If you wish to turn the lock, say 'I come' and give a knock."
"Oh, I hate this one," Seamus grumbled, the only sour note on an otherwise jubilant team.
"What does it mean?" Harry wanted to know. "Is it a trap?"
"No, it's a riddle," Gloria explained. "Caliban is doing riddles and the Hall of Mirrors this time, which is a very good thing for us since we don't have any of the keys."
"See, if we answer the riddles correctly, we won't even need the keys," Argyle explained.
"No," Seamus countered, "we just have to battle whatever pops out from behind the mirrors every time we make a mistake and accidentally break one. Not to mention the fact that one of us will probably go mad and attack the others in the siren room."
"No, no! That's what usually happens, but not this time," Gloria argued. "We've never had the Blazing Aura before. That should get us all through safely."
"If it lasts long enough, and if it holds up against the sirens' attack," Seamus responded pessimistically.
"Well, we'll find out when we get there," said Harry. "I come," he stated, as his White Wizard gave a single rap on the door with his knuckles.
The knock resounded eerily, a low, rolling boom that spilled out beyond the boundaries of the game and its spectators, and filled the Great Hall with a momentary sense of doom. The silvery words on the door vanished into the metal surface, as if they were diving back into the depths of a deep pool. New words floated to the surface to replace them:
To find yourself in the maze of glass
Answer this riddle, or do not pass:
In deepest dark, a light is found
Raise your wand, and utter this sound…
"Oh, that's easy," Harry commented with a smile. "Lumos!"
"The first one is always easy," Gloria remarked with a frown. "They get harder as you go."
Metallic clanking sounds echoed from somewhere deep inside the fortress as bolts were drawn and the door swung inward on its hinges. Walls rose up around the adventurers, blocking their view of the Slytherin side of the table where Draco's team was once again riding its tired, overburdened dragon in a last-ditch effort to catch up, having abandoned all hope of recovering the Quintis.
Harry blinked in surprise as his token entered the maze of mirrors. The reflective walls ran from the floor to a ceiling lost in the yawning darkness above the characters. The mirrors, strangely enough, glowed softly with a slight bluish tint, and the soft whispers of sinister voices seemed to fill the room. "This is amazing!" he exclaimed in an awed tone.
"That's nothing. Journey to Erebor is supposed to be even better," Seamus said with a smile. "I can't wait till it comes out."
"Don't enjoy the view too much, Harry," Matis warned. "The Hall of Mirrors is Caliban's most dangerous defense because you never know what you're up against. It's not what you see in the mirror that matters so much as what lies behind it."
"And I won't know what's behind it unless I break one and let something out, right?" Harry asked as his White Wizard peered into one of the reflective panels and gasped at a pair of sinister yellow eyes staring back at him.
"Usually, but not always," said Matis. "Sometimes whatever's lurking behind the mirror can come through on its own. And when it does, you have very little time to get out of the way."
"Bloody wonderful!" Harry grumbled, as the yellow eyes in the mirror vanished, leaving the White Wizard to frown at his own reflection.
“If I haven’t said it before, I’ll say it now,” Seamus muttered darkly. “The Hall of Mirrors gives me goosebumps. Bloody unnatural, the way it always seems to know what you're afraid of, just like a boggart.”
“Yes, Finnegan, you've worn out that thread,” Gloria chastised, a touch of amusement in her voice. "And you ought to be plenty well prepared for the banshees this time."
"Banshees?" Harry queried. "Really?"
"Yeah," said Seamus. "It's always banshees for me. But there's six of us, so it could be something else this time. I'm lining up my Incendios and Beeswax now, just in case."
"Beeswax?" Harry wondered, not comprehending.
"You put it in your ears to keep their screams from paralyzing you," Seamus explained. "So you can fight back. Use your fire spells. They hate fire."
"And you're a wizard, so you can also use a Bubble-Head Charm, but it has to be an exceptionally strong one to block out sound," Argyle added.
"Or you can use a Cone of Silence," said Matis, grinning at his hand. "That's my personal favorite."
Harry said, "I see." But he wondered what other lovely threats this game held in store for him. If the Hall of Mirrors preyed on fear, then he'd do well to concentrate on drawing a Patronus next turn in case of dementors. But then what if they faced something else, something the Patronus couldn't scare away…?
The other tokens followed Harry’s White Wizard inside. Jaspine's goblin Treasure Hunter brought up the rear, its crossbow locked and loaded, and its quiver full of every kind of useful ammunition available to Dark Cauldron archers.
“I really don't like this,” Seamus complained as his Gray Wizard reluctantly entered the maze, looking around suspiciously.
“Well, now what?” Harry asked. “What direction should we go?”
“Anyone have a Cauldron Compass or Merlin's Map?” Argyle asked.
“Uh huh. I put a Compass on the table ages ago, but it’s not working,” Jaspine grumbled. “Must be the maze itself interfering… or something else.” She heard Draco snicker, but when she glared at him suspiciously, Malfoy’s expression became inscrutable. "Pity I can't see part of the Slytherin table from here," she groused, still glaring at Draco with unbridled hostility.
"We can't see hardly anything they're doing over there now that we're in Caliban's castle and they're still outside," Gloria lamented.
"Wouldn't you like to know?" Pansy sneered as Gloria tried to peer over and around the Hall of Mirrors at Draco's cards, to no avail.
Quinn returned Jaspine's kick under the table, raised an eyebrow when she looked his way, then pretended to scratch his right ear. Jaspine nodded and disappeared behind her fan of cards with a thoughtful look on her face.
Harry only paused for a second before searching through his hand and playing “Take Charge”. The White Wizard looked at the card and took on a slight glow as he strode confidently forward into the maze and motioned for the other tokens to follow. They obeyed, if somewhat reluctantly. Seamus' wizard was shuddering with fear and dread, his wand visibly shaking in his hand.
"Ah, pull yourself together, Seamus," Dean admonished with a grin. "It's just a game, after all."
"Maybe for you! I've got all my best cards at stake here, and my bloody Gray Wizard can't play half of them!" Seamus retorted with a curled lip. "Knew I shouldn't have gone Neutral, even if we do have the phoenix," he grumbled. "Flexibility just isn't worth the cost in power, no matter what job you random."
"You'll be glad you made the sacrifice later on when we battle Caliban, though," said Gloria. "I've never been fortunate enough to have a phoenix on the team before."
“Be careful where you cast in here, Harry,” Matis advised. “Some of the things you'll see are just illusions, reflections in the mirror. But if you break one of the mirrors, who knows what will come out from behind it?"
"Seven years of bad luck?" Harry quipped with a small grin.
"No," Gloria groaned, "I don't think so…"
Suddenly, Harry’s party was surrounded by a dozen or more flaming skulls which floated around them in circles. Instinctively, Harry’s White Wizard raised his wand and…
“No!” Gloria cried out, and she threw down a “Timely Intervention” card. Her High-Elf Guardian of the Forest grabbed at the wizard’s arm only to halt mid-motion as lightning bolts flew unimpeded from the White Wizard's wand toward the leering skulls. "Too late!" she groaned, and Harry’s party hastily ducked behind Matis' Shield Charm as a hailstorm of glass shards flew at them from several shattered mirrors.
"Oh, well done, Potter," Argyle griped acidly as his Scholar shook his robes to rid them of glass shards.
Harry groaned. The assault of broken glass was immediately followed by hordes of goblins. And the goblins all had studded leather armor, wooden bucklers, bows, pikes, halberds, and short swords. In addition to the goblins, the flaming skulls continued to circle, occasionally attempting to ram the adventurers and incinerate them. Team Hogwarts fought valiantly, but they were hopelessly outnumbered, and even Harry's phoenix and Blazing Aura cards couldn’t deflect or heal all the damage they were taking.
"I've never seen so many before!" Jaspine remarked. She shot a suspicious frown toward Malfoy, Bulstrode, Montague, and Hanes, whose cards she could not see due to the fact that they were on the other side of the game board, and her view was blocked by the Hall of Mirrors. "I wonder if Caliban is getting some unexpected help…"
“Quick! In here!” Seamus shouted as his Gray Wizard shattered the remaining lower half of one of the broken mirrors with Quassare and bolted into the hallway behind it.
"Are you sure about that?" Jaspine demanded. "What if it's a trap?"
"Got any better suggestions?" Seamus retorted as the Gray Wizard ran down the vacant corridor without a backward glance.
Harry and the others shrugged and sent their characters racing after the fleeing wizard, fighting through a knot of rabid, spear-wielding goblins on their way to the broken mirror. The foul little creatures gave chase, howling and cackling and loosing arrows over the heads of their fellows toward the adventurers. Gloria's timber wolf familiar took an arrow to the head and fell dead, and Jaspine's Niffler got caught and slain when it emerged from beneath the ground several yards from where it had intended to be. The rest of the team and the phoenix, however, made it to the corridor alive, where the flaming skulls seemed unable to follow, and where they could concentrate on picking off the goblins a few at a time.
After a few moments, Seamus' wizard came racing back, motioning for the other tokens to follow, and the others looked to Harry's wizard to make a decision.
"Offhand I'd say we'll do well to get out of here before Caliban cuts off our escape route at the other end of the tunnel," Argyle observed.
"All right, let's go," said Harry, and the White Wizard took the lead as his team fled down the narrow, winding hallway with the goblin hordes in hot pursuit.
Seamus, meanwhile, grinned nastily as he drew a new card, and he immediately played it.
“This oughta slow ‘em down,” Seamus muttered. From the walls around them several dark-cloaked figures with scaly hands emerged, and Harry shuddered involuntarily. Dementors!
“Seamus, are you mad?” Ron exclaimed, as other spectators likewise questioned the dubious decision of bringing dementors into the fray.
"What are you doing?" Harry demanded.
"Relax, they're mine," Seamus asserted. "They won't hurt us, but sure enough they'll slow the goblins down!"
“When did you get a permanent Summon Dementors card?” Matis asked.
“During our last trip to Hogsmeade,” Seamus said with a smug grin. But the grin faded rapidly when Geoff Hanes played his next card. Due to the fact that Hanes was directly across the table from him, and the game board to his right, Seamus had an unobstructed view of his opponent's cards.
"Enchant Dark Creature?" he gasped. "Hang on, how can you play that, you're still…"
"Stuck outside the fortress?" Hanes supplied with a nasty sneer. "Guess again!"
“Uh oh,” Gloria moaned as Goeff's Dark Wizard appeared from around the bend at the end of the corridor, wand drawn and facing Team Hogwarts and its 'friendly' dementors.
The Dark Wizard murmured an incantation, drew a pentagram in the air with his wand, and the dementors immediately turned their attention from the fleeing goblins toward Harry's team. A second later Harry’s party found themselves running from Seamus’ dementors under Hanes' control, while Malfoy's party laughed gleefully.
“Well, that backfired!” Seamus complained. “There's no way I can break his hold over them. He's got more power than I do, and he’s Evil, which gives him a bonus with Dark creatures. Knew I shouldn't have gone Neutral this game!”
"But you had to be in order for us to be able to use the Phoenix!" Harry reminded as he grabbed a Stupefy from his hand and slapped it down. The scarlet-hued spell struck the gloating Dark Wizard so hard in the chest that it knocked him clean out of his shoes.
"So we have a phoenix. Big deal," Seamus griped as the adventurers darted past the stunned Dark Wizard with the dementors quickly closing the distance behind them. "How's he going to help us against those dementors? Sing them to sleep?"
"Well you're the one that Summoned them!" Jaspine griped.
“Told you you were Bangers to try it!” Ron said, a bit too smugly.
“Button it, Weasley,” Jaspine said nastily. “You aren’t playing.”
Hermione jabbed Ron with an elbow before he could retort.
"Bloody hell! You didn't need to do that!" Ron exclaimed, glowering at Hermione and rubbing his side.
"Shh!" was all Hermione said in response.
“This will take care of them. For now, anyway,” Matis declared, as he played Expecto Patronum. A large white bear burst from the end of his Auror's wand, and the bear chased the dementors back toward the entrance room of the Hall of Mirrors.
Team Hogwarts ran to the end of the secret passage until they reached another part of the mirror maze. This room was completely round and walled in mirrors. The reflective glass panes bulged and twisted, and distorted the reflections in them, making the adventurers appear as tall and thin as flagpoles one minute, and as short and squat as overfed gnomes the next. There seemed to be three different passages leading out of this room, besides the one they had just come from. It was disconcerting looking into them, for the mirrors all around reflected the adventurer's images a hundredfold, as if fragmenting their souls into thousands of pieces.
"Let's pick one and get out here. I don't like this room," Harry said.
"Ditto!" Seamus agreed, poking his head into the passageway nearest to him. "How about this one?"
As the team followed Seamus' suggestion, Harry glanced over to see what the Slytherins were doing, but unfortunately their side of the game board was still blocked. There was no way of telling whether or not Hanes had recovered from the Stunner yet, or what Draco's team might be up to now that they had finally reached Caliban's fortress. Someone over there must be using a "Hidden Plot" or an "Obscuro".
Harry turned his attention back to his character and was surprised to see that his White Wizard wasn't moving. Instead, the wizard was peering intently into one of the mirrors where something seemed to be lurking behind the glass. Harry got a brief impression of something inhuman with malignant yellow eyes and sharp teeth. The White Wizard slowly raised a hand to the smooth plane of glass and touched it with his wand-free hand, as he tried to figure out how to get to the mysterious creature on the other side.
“Oh no you don't!” Matis called out sharply. His token suddenly jumped between Harry’s wizard and the mirror and waved a hand in front of his eyes. "Timely Intervention," one of the most useful common cards in the Dark Cauldron universe, glowed on the table in front of Matis. The White Wizard shook his head as if to clear water from his ears, and he and the Auror ran to catch up with the rest of the team.
“What just happened?” Harry asked, perplexed.
Seamus rolled his eyes. “I can't believe I forgot to warn you about that, Harry. Caliban owns this place, right? So he has a lot of control over what goes on in it, even when his attention is elsewhere, like on the other team. When you're anywhere inside his fortress, he has a way of popping up when you least expect it and ruining your day. That's why you have to be careful and keep a close eye on your character. Especially in the Hall of Mirrors."
"That was Caliban?" Harry wondered. "But I thought he…"
"Looked different?" Matis finished for him. "Yeah, well, he comes in many forms, and not all of his attacks are obvious. After a while get to know all of them, and you begin to get a feel for when he's going to make an appearance."
"I see," said Harry. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it," said Matis.
“All right, Harry,” Jaspine said as the Auror and the White Wizard caught up with the others. “We're at another crossroads. You're still the leader until someone else plays a Take Charge. Which way should we go?”
But before Harry could reply, he saw the reflections in the mirrors around them change into dementors. The dark-shrouded creatures burst forth from the mirrors and thrust out their scaly hands towards the tokens. Despite the fact that it was only a game, Harry had to suppress an urge to cry out in shock.
"Dragon dung!" Jaspine exclaimed furiously as her goblin was grabbed by two clutching dementor hands. "I don't have anything that works on dementors! Someone want to save me from a Kiss-n-Kill? Hurry!"
Ron snickered and muttered, "Who would want to?" while several whispers and catty chuckles circulated among the spectators on both sides of the Slytherin table.
"Better go rescue your girlfriend, Potty," Draco snarled. "Then again, maybe she'd rather kiss a dementor!"
"I'm sure anything would be preferable to kissing you, Malfoy, but then I've always had more taste than Parkinson," Jaspine shot back, glaring hatefully at Draco and the enraged Pansy.
Harry cracked up laughing so hard he nearly dropped his cards, and even Hermione was having trouble stifling her giggles.
"All right, knock it off," Matis ordered. "Potter, if you've got it, play it!"
Draco, Crabbe, Bulstrode and even Quinn laughed at that. Hanes laughed so hard he did drop his cards, while Montague sat scratching his head in bewilderment.
Ignoring the Slytherins' amusement at the unintended entendre, Harry quickly cast down his own Patronus card, and a white stag thundered through the maze to drive off the closest dementors. Harry and his team took advantage of the Patronus distraction and the still sniggering, fumbling Slytherins in order to explore the two passageways leading out of this room. Unfortunately, they found that both passages dead-ended, and time was running out on the Patronus. Harry could hear the Slytherins cackling in glee, and his jaw tensed in frustration.
“What are we going to do?” Gloria cried. "There's no way out!"
Despite Team Hogwarts' desperate predicament, Argyle was smiling. “My father always said that in difficult times, our people prefer to blaze our own trail.”
"Which means…?" Seamus prompted.
But Harry caught the meaning and grinned at Argyle. "I've got one Incendio left. Let's do it!"
The White Wizard pointed his wand at a pane of glass midway between the two blocked passages. Argyle played Volcanic Acid Mixture, and the Scholar tossed a potion bottle toward the indicated mirror. Harry's wizard hit the bottle in flight with his last Incendio Spell, and the whole thing exploded on impact. It blasted a huge, smoking hole in the wall while the team took cover behind another of Matis' Shield Charms.
"All right! Great teamwork!" Gloria cheered.
"Rah, rah. Now let's go before the dementors come back," Jaspine said.
Without another word, Harry’s wizard and his teammates dashed through the opening into a new corridor. The dementors did not follow them as the team ran down the corridor, which ended at a large, arched doorway. The iron door was framed with grotesque-looking dragons and gargoyles, and Harry shivered.
"I think we've found a shortcut, but I'm not sure if that's a good thing," he said.
“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” Matis quipped, in an effort to hide his own unease. "Sure wish we had Quintis right now."
“Well we don't,” Harry said. “So let’s figure out how to get in.”
“We can always try the obvious,” said Gloria, and her High Elf grabbed the iron ring and pulled. The elf cried out in pain and shook its hand, where several red marks and blisters started to appear. She quickly played Healing Salve, and the marks disappeared. "Okay, new plan," she said. "Nobody touch anything without first checking for defensive wards and traps."
"Duh," grumped Jaspine.
“You know, Jaspine," Harry said, "we really need someone who's good at picking locks right now."
Jaspine shot Harry a scathing look that said quite clearly, "You know you're not supposed to talk about that!"
Harry shrugged and added, "Well, your Treasure Hunter is the only one who knows how to use a set of lock-picks."
"Oh," said Jaspine, belatedly realizing that Harry was only referring to the game. Her goblin came forward reluctantly and attempted to work on the lock with its lock-picks. But no sooner had the Treasure Hunter inserted the slender tools into the keyhole, when it was thrown backwards down the corridor with a loud bang. "Oops," Jaspine said with an embarrassed look. "Anti-picking ward."
"Duh," retorted Gloria. "Well, now what?"
“Anyone have an Alohomora?” Jaspine asked as her goblin gingerly picked itself up and rubbed its sore backside.
“Let me try something,” Argyle said suddenly, and he played a tool wildcard. At the moment he played it, the card had a picture of a Secret-Finder, a magnifying glass with seven different interchangeable lenses. The Scholar ran the Secret-Finder over the smooth stones on the left side of the door. "Every once in a while Caliban likes to pull something like this, but as clever as he thinks he is, he has the unfortunate tendency to repeat himself after a while…"
"Fortunate, you mean," Seamus corrected, "For us."
"Aha! I've got it!" And everyone had a look through the lens of Argyle's tool at the chiseled words that could be seen inscribed into the surface of the stone.
“Nice going, Greytalon,” Jaspine said with a grin, and Harry’s team read the engraved words:
“When I am young, I crawl around
On many feet, near to the ground
And when the end of this cycle is nigh,
I sleep in a home that sways on high.
When months have passed and my rest is done
I emerge to enjoy the summer sun
In this new form, I fly my highest
As an adult, I am at my brightest
Who am I, with three lives renewed
Speak my name, and you may pass through.”
"Ooh!" exclaimed Hermione. "I know what it is!"
"No help from the audience!" Dean scolded. "They have to figure it out on their own."
"Gee thanks, Dean," Seamus said with a glare. "Whose side are you on anyway?"
"Fair's fair," said Dean. "Even in this case."
Harry was stumped. “Well, cats are supposed to have nine lives…” he quipped.
Argyle gave a half-smile. “I hardly think that any kind of cat has 'many feet, near to the ground'."
“So what has a lot of feet, goes into hibernation, and when it comes out, it takes to the air?” Gloria asked.
“How about an Augur?” Harry asked. "Don't they hibernate in the winter and have nests high in the air?"
Matis thought a moment before shaking his head. “No, they don't have a lot of feet. Could be a dragon, but the only dragon I’ve ever heard of with more than four legs has been extinct for more than a millennium. The Himalayan White Climbers had six legs, lived in dens high up in the mountains, and hibernated during especially harsh winters. But they are long gone."
"White Climbers had short wings. They couldn't really fly, only glide from one mountain peak to another,” Argyle pointed out. "Maybe it's a Billywig."
Harry thumbed through his hand of cards in frustration as his teammates argued and debated possible answers. They needed to get through that door quickly before the dementors came back, not to mention what Malfoy's team might be up to. As far as he knew, Malfoy was still way behind, somewhere in the Hall of Mirrors, but each minute Team Hogwarts wasted was another minute to Team Slytherin's benefit. He fingered his latest acquisition, a Creature Summon, which was, surprisingly, useless. The card currently had the picture of a Fire Salamander, and what good was a Fire Salamander against dementors or locked doors? If only the enchantment on his deck could change a Creature Summon into an Expecto Patronum…
Suddenly, the fiery amphibian glowed and winked at him, its body surrounded by flickering blue flames. And with that, the salamander vanished and was replaced by an orange and black butterfly, which fluttered its wings coquettishly.
"What the…?" Harry whispered, astonished. He'd seen Dean and Seamus' magazines, catalogues, books and card lists. There was no such thing as a Butterfly Summon in Dark Cauldron! Harry inhaled sharply as the realization dawned. It wasn't a Summon. It was the deck's enchantment. It was giving him the answer he needed, right when he needed it.
“A butterfly!” he called out. “It's a butterfly!"
Jaspine pouted. “Of course! I, of all people, should have known that one. Butterfly wings are good for simple Camouflage Potions, if salamander skin isn’t available.”
The ring on the door automatically lifted up, and a couple of clicks were heard as the bolts were drawn. The door swung open to reveal a large underground garden full of lush blooming flowers, vines, and small fruit trees. Directly ahead was a large pond with a mermaid water fountain in the center. A path between the voluminous greenery on either side led from the doorway to the pond, and continued around the water on either side. Where it led after that was impossible to see in the underground gloom.
"Wicked," said Harry. "Professor Sprout would love this."
"Don't be fooled by appearances, Harry," Gloria cautioned. "Most of these plants are probably intelligent and trained to attack intruders. But the next room we go into will almost certainly be Caliban’s chambers, where we will find the cauldron.”
"What about the Coramentiahl?" Harry wondered. "Don't we have to destroy it first?"
"Not necessarily," said Seamus. "Some games you find the cauldron first, in which case it's better just to skip the Coramentiahl altogether. But the defenses around the cauldron will be more difficult to bypass."
"How much more difficult?"
"We'll be lucky if we don't lose half the team before we even get so much as a glimpse of the cauldron. And that's if Caliban is too busy attacking the other team to deal with us," Seamus said pessimistically. "On the other hand, we have a phoenix."
“We'll manage somehow. All we have to do is make it past this room first,” Matis said. “But it won't be easy. There are sirens in here somewhere, Harry, I'd bet Gringotts on it.”
"Sirens!" Harry had heard plenty about them, and even read about them in Seamus' and Dean's books and magazines. But he wasn't prepared for the six mermaid-like creatures with golden wings which arose from the center of the pond as the party cautiously approached. The aquatic creatures were nothing like the green-skinned mermaids that lived in Hogwarts’ lake. They were fair skinned, with long golden hair and tails the color of polished bronze. Yet it was their soft song, not their looks, which Harry found so captivating. It was sweet, delicate, yet powerful. Unlike phoenix song, which had filled him with courage and energy, this music was intoxicating, and Harry felt drawn toward the pond even as the White Wizard left the path and wandered to the edge of the water. The sirens stretched out their arms, calling to him, begging him to join them. And he longed to go to them.
"Amazing," Harry breathed in awe, staring drunkenly at the Sirens as his character waded into the water. "I've never heard anything so beautiful. How did they manage to make it so realistic?"
“Oh no you don’t, you harmonic harpies!” Gloria flung at them in contempt as her High Elf chased after the blundering White Wizard and stuffed something into each of his ears. Gloria's character then grabbed an arm and drug the mesmerized wizard out of the pond, encountering little resistance as the White Wizard struggled to regain his bearings.
The singing stopped, and Harry blinked several times, feeling very confused as he had after he had watched the Veelas dance at the World Cup Quidditch match. "I think this game is a little too realistic," he observed, once he realized that he had fallen under the sirens' spell almost as completely as his character.
Timely Intervention and Beeswax glowed on the table in front of Gloria. The other players also had played either Beeswax, Bubble-Head Charm, or Cone of Silence. Harry noticed to his chagrin that he had a Bubblehead Charm in his own hand which would have protected his character if he had thought to play it. He tried to give it to Gloria, but she turned it down.
“But don't you need it?” Harry asked, noting that Gloria had employed no defensive measures against the Sirens' enchanting melody.
“Faerie Folk and High Elves have a strong natural resistance to beguiling enchantments such as siren song,” Gloria explained simply. "As long as we move quickly, I'll be fine. And I'll know if the sirens' enchantment is beginning to get to my High Elf, because I'll be able to hear them singing. If that happens I'll let you know, and you can use your Bubble-Head Charm on me."
"So as long as I don't hear them, neither does my character, and vice versa?"
It was at that moment that Harry's Blazing Aura picked a most inconvenient time to burn out, the gleaming silver border of the card fading to a dull white.
Harry glanced over his shoulder at Ron, who merely shrugged as if to say, "It's not my fault you played it too soon!"
"Oh, dragon droppings!" Jaspine murmured. "Now we're in trouble."
"Merlin, they're in for it now!" Dean observed from over Gloria's shoulder.
To Be Continued