"Fine," said Harry, and the White Wizard moved aside. "What now, Fearless Leader?"
"Fearless Leader?" Argyle mouthed as Gloria and Matis grinned and Jaspine snickered.
"Single file!” Matis ordered. "Hyran, you're a Plant-lover and mostly immune to the sirens, so take the rear and keep an eye on everyone in front of you. Be ready to put the plants to sleep if someone gets attacked. Potter, behind me, Jas behind Potter. Greytalon, Finnegan, behind Jaspine. Everyone, remember, don’t get too close to the plants, and stay away from the sirens. Move fast, be alert, and be ready with a Timely Intervention."
"Yes, sir!" Jaspine teased with a mock salute.
"Better luck next time, 'harpies'," Matis said, giving the sirens a sarcastic wave as he and the rest of the team bypassed the pond and moved on without further hindrance. The sirens' lips continued to move silently, and their eyes blazed with hunger and hate as their clever prey slipped almost effortlessly from their grasp.
“Watch out, Harry,” Matis warned as the cobblestone path narrowed on the other side of the siren pond. “The plants are every bit as bad as the sirens, and we've lost the protection of the Aura.”
Greenery abounded on either side of Team Hogwarts, and none of it was harmless. Matis' Auror was attacked by thorny vines, but before he could draw his flaming sword to fight, Gloria's Guardian of the Forest charmed them into submission. Then the scent of flowers wafted over them, and the fragrance was every bit as intoxicating as the sirens' song. Twice, the White Wizard reached out to touch some of the lovelier flowers, but both times Jaspine’s Treasure-Hunter gave him a sharp rap with her crossbow, and he changed his mind. After the second time, Harry broke down and played the Bubble-head Charm, and the scent of the flowers no longer affected his character. Once Seamus nearly got swallowed up by a huge Venomous Tentacula, but Argyle freed him with a liberal dose of Floriamortis Potion. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the group left the lethal garden behind and entered a darkened corridor with a large metal door at the end.
Seamus grinned, happy to be past what he considered the worst part of the game, and the Gray Wizard suddenly had a spring in his step. “Well, here we are at last,” he said cheerfully.
“It's locked,” Harry observed as his wizard tried the handle, to no avail.
"Careful, Potter!" Gloria exclaimed, her High Elf rushing forward to grab the White Wizard's hand away from the latch. "Have you forgotten already what happened when I did that?"
"Er…" Harry started to protest, but nothing came to mind. "Well, at least nothing happened this time." The White Wizard ran his lighted wand over the door and around the handle. “Nothing. And I don't have any Revealing Spells. Argyle, do you still have that Secret-Finder? There might be another hidden riddle somewhere.”
"Well of course there's another hidden riddle. There's always another riddle," said Greytalon, and his scholar set to work with the magical magnifying glass. The scholar changed lenses several times and hunted all around the door for several moments before giving up in frustration.
"I don’t know what to do," he said at last, exasperated. "This has never happened before."
Harry smiled and told the White Wizard to try knocking again. "I come," he said, and the wizard held his lighted wand up to the door to look for words on it. Sure enough, Harry's efforts were rewarded.
Answer me boldly, and I'll let you in
Tell me: what would you give to win
"Well, I'll be a boggart," said Greytalon. "It was so easy I missed it."
"What kind of a riddle is that?" Gloria wondered, crinkling her eyebrows in bewilderment.
"Anything," Harry murmured, glaring at Draco. "That's my answer. I'd give anything to beat the likes of you!"
Draco gave a superior grin over the top of the door, the kind of grin which hinted at a game already won, unbeknownst to the opponent.
The riddle on the door vanished into the depths of the metal, in the same fashion as had the one at the entrance to Caliban's Underground. Harry put a hand to the latch, then withdrew it as new words floated to the surface in response to his answer. What he read chilled him to the bone.
Anything? Is that your final answer?
Beware the decisions you make in life;
The price may not always be worth the gain.
Though at first a shortcut may save you strife,
In the end, it may bring you unbearable pain…
Harry suppressed an internal shudder as the door swung open on silent hinges.
On the other side stood Malfoy’s Dark Apprentice, wand drawn and aimed at Harry's White Wizard, a cruel sneer on its face and a cold gleam in its eyes. In front of the Apprentice sat the dark, bubbling cauldron, and around Malfoy and the cauldron ranged the other members of Team Slytherin and their Summoned creatures, along with several of Caliban's most vicious servants.
“Hi, Potter. Remember me?” Malfoy greeted with a sneer, as the walls between his team and Harry's vanished, now that they were in the same room of the fortress. A Division Line appeared between the two teams. "We've been waiting for you for ages."
"I see Hanes finally woke up," Harry remarked dryly, "and found his shoes."
Hanes snarled, and his Dark Wizard raised his wand.
"No," Draco commanded. "Potter's mine." He threw down an Incite to Rage, aimed at Harry.
Heedless of his teammates and the hopeless odds facing him, the White Wizard charged forward.
“Harry!” Seamus groaned.
"Everybody after him!" Matis ordered. "Potter, Shield Charm if you've got one. Now!"
But Harry wasn't listening. A giant fireball crackled from Draco's Staff of Destruction, and Harry’s wizard was hurled backward where he crashed against the wall and collapsed in a heap. Draco laughed viciously and pointed his staff at the other members of team Hogwarts in turn. "Anyone else want a taste of my staff?" he threatened.
“Potter, do you always make a habit of dashing into things before looking?” Matis complained.
“Yes!” Hermione said, and she rolled her eyes.
"Wouldn't be Harry if he didn't," said Ron.
“You aren’t much better, Ron,” Harry complained as the phoenix flew over and healed the White Wizard, and the battered character picked himself up and checked his fire-resistant Salamander Robe for damage.
“That's because I'm always following you!” Ron retorted.
"Fools follow fools," Draco quipped, chuckling at his own perceived wit.
Never one to miss an opening, Jaspine retorted, “Look who's talking, Captain Cretin."
Gloria snorted and rolled her eyes, Argyle snerked, Seamus guffawed, and Harry cracked up laughing. Behind him, Ron was even laughing, but Hermione's unamused reaction mirrored Gloria's.
Matis kicked Jaspine under the table again, and she glared at Quinn, thinking he'd done it. Quinn returned a "What was that all about?" look.
“Button up, all of you!" Matis ordered. "You can quarrel later. Harry, if you don’t do something about your health points, you’ll be out of the game, and I can't help you!”
"Hold your ground," Draco ordered his team. "We've got this game won. It's only a matter of time until they face facts and surrender."
"We'll see about that!" said Seamus, lining up his most useful spell cards.
“How could you possibly pass us up?” Gloria demanded. “You fell so far behind searching for your precious key!”
"Ah, but it pays to have powerful friends." Draco gestured to a card in front of him, which pulsed a sickly, sinister green. It read, "Bound to Caliban," and it was marked with a skull and a bubbling cauldron.
"You sold your whole team out to the enemy!" Jaspine exclaimed. "You filthy little troll turd! How could you?"
"I only played the card for myself. They made their choices. I didn't make it for them," Draco retorted.
"Oh yeah, we had a choice," Quinn observed bitterly, showing some genuine anger for the first time since the game had begun, "between Caliban and your staff."
"You can't do that!" Harry exclaimed. "You can't force people to…"
"Oh, but I can," Draco purred, his apprentice pointing its staff at Harry. "Your turn, Potty. Surrender or die."
"No," said Harry, and the White Wizard raised his wand. "No to both."
"You're thick, Potter," Draco said softly. "We will destroy you if you try to fight, or if we can't, then Caliban will. Either way, I win. A victory for Caliban is a victory for Slytherin."
"Malfoy, you mean, not Slytherin," said Quinn.
Draco glared hatefully at him. "Slytherin," he insisted. Quinn glowered back.
"Is it worth being a slave, Draco? Does winning mean that much to you?" Harry inquired.
“You can’t win by joining with Caliban!” Seamus fumed. “It's not a legal option in tournament play, and even in a non-tournament game it's practically forfeiting!”
Malfoy laughed nastily. “This isn't a tournament game, and Caliban was feeling generous. And since the game permitted the play, it's a perfectly legal option. Just like Quinn playing Lost Item on me. The point is, I now have the power to keep you from winning, and that’s good enough for me! Geoff, introduce Potter to some of your friends."
Hanes' Dark Wizard raised his arms, and Harry’s attention was suddenly drawn to the return of the dementors. He shuddered and felt cold just looking at them.
“Run for your lives, it’s the big bad dementors,” Malfoy said with a cackle. “Are you going to pass out now, Potty?”
“Weren’t you the one who left a wet spot on the cushions on the Hogwarts Express two years ago when the dementors came?” Jaspine said sweetly.
Snarling, Malfoy ordered the Dark Apprentice to "Burn it!", and he pointed at Jaspine. The Apprentice obediently swung his staff, and pointed the crystal at Jaspine’s cards. Her entire hand exploded and coated her and the table in a pile of ashes. Jaspine gave a yelp and cradled sore fingers.
"You Voldemort-loving little git!" Jaspine shouted.
Several shocked gasps and tsks circulated around the room, and even Harry stared at Jaspine in surprise.
"Language, Jas!" Matis exclaimed in embarrassment.
Jaspine shrugged. "So I get another Howler from Mum. I don't care. You saw what he did!"
“Yes, but Jas, you can't say things like that…” Matis spluttered.
Harry threw a glance back at Ron who appeared to be totally absorbed in studying his own fingernails. "You're lucky the teachers were so distracted by the duel that they forgot to owl your Mum about that!" he heard Hermione whisper.
The black-haired teen snorted with amusement, and Ron looked up and glowered at him.
Harry turned his attention back to the game. “Don’t dementors ever go away?” he grumbled as he played what he was sure was his last Patronus Charm.
Seamus shook his head meekly. “Unfortunately, no. They usually stick around and hunt you for the rest of the game.”
"Good going, Seamus." Harry rolled his eyes as his white stag chased down three dementors at once. “Can we persuade them to hunt Slytherins instead of us for a while?"
"You may not have to," Matis observed. "Dementors don't stay loyal to anyone for long. Look."
Malfoy swore as his apprentice was suddenly cornered by two of the dementors while the stag ran the other way. He obviously didn’t have a Patronus available, nor a card currently in his hand to enchant Dark creatures. Harry smiled inwardly as beads of perspiration appeared on Malfoy’s pale brow.
The blond Slytherin played a Summon Reinforcements card and a Sacrificial Lamb card at the same time. Crabbe’s giant Beastmaster and Quinn’s human Gray Wizard instantly appeared at the Dark Apprentice’s side. Malfoy’s apprentice roughly shoved the surprised giant and wizard toward the dementors, and the dementors immediately attacked them. The Dark Apprentice slipped away as the dementors seized their new prey. The "sacrificial lambs" struggled violently, giving out terrible, ear-piercing shrieks as the dark robes enveloped them. Then the two characters disappeared, and the dementors looked for new prey.
Everyone in the room was shocked by the ruthlessness of the move.
“What…? Draco, we're on your side! What did you do that for?” Crabbe demanded, his face pale with outrage.
Malfoy shrugged coolly. “Your character was the weakest on the board, and you were expendable. And as for you, Quinn, I don't think I need to explain.”
“Oh, I get the point,” Quinn said in disgust. "But you're going to lose this game if you keep killing your teammates. Frankly, I hope you do lose."
“That is far and away the dirtiest trick I have ever seen,” Argyle said, and he glared at the blond Slytherin. “And I’ve played Seamus enough times to know. I wouldn't be on your team if you gave me a thousand Galleons, Malfoy.”
“Even I would never resort to something that ruthless,” Seamus said in obvious disgust.
“Who cares what you two half-breeds say?” Malfoy drawled out. "I'm going to win."
"Button your fat lip now, Malfoy," Dean warned. "That's grounds for disqualification."
"Says who?" Draco taunted. "You're not Head Boy."
"Half…" Seamus spluttered furiously, staring at the Slytherin with pure loathing. "What did you just call me?"
But the usually quiet Argyle went one step further. He started to stand, furious at the insult, his straight black hair crackling with energy. "You're going to eat my wand for that, you Voldemort-loving git!"
The reaction from the room this time was more one of surprise than outrage. Jaspine snickered, but held her tongue at a warning glare from Matis.
Both Gloria and Seamus had to force Argyle back into his seat.
"Let it go," said Gloria. "He's all mouth and no substance."
But Argyle wasn't ready to let it go. “My parents have just as much talent as yours, Malfoy,” he said angrily. “If not more. My father is the best and most respected medicine man in my tribe, and my mother is a Nightshade! If you want to talk bloodlines, her family is better than yours! Just because some wizards are too narrow-minded to acknowledge all abilities…”
Malfoy looked down his thin nose at Argyle. “Your mother is a worthless Squib, and your father is no more a wizard than that Mudblood’s parents.” He jabbed a finger at Hermione.
“Don’t you dare call Hermione that!” Ron jumped in at the top of his lungs, and he drew his wand and pointed it at Malfoy.
"Ron, no!" Hermione exclaimed, putting a hand on his arm and pushing the wand away from Draco.
Malfoy leaped to his feet, his wand drawn and pointed at Ron. Harry, Seamus, Argyle, and Jaspine drew their wands in response. Hanes, Parkinson and several of the other Slytherins drew their wands to defend Draco.
Dean tried in vain to soothe the situation, but it was too late. The game no longer mattered now as wands came out all over the room. Harry noticed that Crabbe was watching placidly and making no move for his own wand, apparently resigned to let the situation run its course. Was it a matter of his possible intervention being too obvious, too likely to be noticed this time, he wondered? Or did Crabbe no longer care what Draco did?
There was no time to reflect as pandemonium ensued. Harry could not tell who cast the first spell, but almost immediately, it seemed, the table was overturned, and the board, cards and tokens were scattered across the stone floor of the Great Hall. Suddenly, Harry couldn’t care less about who won the game, as he and his teammates were attacked with several hexes from the Slytherins, and several Slytherins went down due to retaliation from his friends. Screams and shouted spells vied for dominance of the air while wands and fists flew, and feet trampled the forgotten tokens and cards.
Harry ducked down behind his side of the overturned table as two curses zinged over his head and hit two innocent bystanders behind him. Students on both sides not already involved in the fighting were panicking and ducking behind their side of the table, running for the doors, casting Shield Charms, or hiding behind one another. Meanwhile, Pansy's legs went into an uncontrollable tap-dance, tripping several Slytherins around her, and Crabbe's face began to sprout tentacles. Gloria fell to the floor rolling back and forth in an uncontrollable fit of giggles, but whether this was due to a Slytherin spell, Pansy's feet, or Crabbe's modified face, Harry couldn't tell. Seamus and Hanes were ducking and dodging as they dueled each other fiercely over the top of the table, while Argyle searched on hands and knees for his lost glasses. Fred, George, and Ginny had materialized out of the crowd and joined up with Ron and Hermione where they helped fend off half a dozen sixth and seventh-year Slytherins, and Jaspine had enlisted Quinn and Matis to cover her while she did a flying leap over the top of the table to tackle Goyle, Montague, and Bulstrode.
What happened after that became a blur as Harry focused on trying to land a good curse on the elusive Malfoy. He was barely aware of the increasing chaos of the melee around him and the thick haze of spent magic as he cast Petrificus Totalus at Malfoy and missed.
It was only after three simultaneous shouts of “FINITE INCANTATUM,” and the complete silence that followed as the spell-casting stopped, that Harry realized what had just happened. From the angry looks on McGonagall’s, Sprout’s and Flitwick’s faces, the students were all in trouble. BIG trouble.
“Uh oh,” Seamus muttered. He was crouched next to Harry, his eyebrows singed and his face covered with purplish soot. His opponent, Hanes, was nowhere to be seen, having been knocked out cold by a Stunner.
“‘Uh oh’…doesn’t even…begin to…cover it,” Harry whispered back, choking on mucus in between words, as his nose and throat suffered the effects of one of the Slytherins' well-aimed curses.
“Anyone who is not seriously injured, go to your common rooms!” an enraged McGonagall barked out. “At once!”
“Never, in all my years of teaching!” McGonagall spluttered in the headmaster’s office. “Never, ever have I seen such a shameful spectacle! Students brawling in such a disgraceful fashion!”
“Given the state of things when we arrived on the scene, I am amazed there were only four serious injuries,” Flitwick commented.
“None of which include Potter or Malfoy, who probably began it,” Sprout grumbled.
“No,” Flitwick said. “Three were second-years; one was a third-year. To Professor Deveroux’s credit, most of the students capably shielded themselves. Although, several fifth-year Gryffindors and Slytherins did suffer minor afflictions.”
“The question is not so much what happened and to whom, but what are we going to do about this?” McGonagall said, and she turned to Dumbledore.
“Before we can take action, we must know what happened and how it started,” Dumbledore disagreed wearily. His forehead was rested against his hand, with his elbow propped on his desk. This was only the latest problem in an already long day, but at least this one was, comparatively, minor.
McGonagall snorted. “We can only speculate as to what precisely happened, but all evidence seems to point to Mr. Potter and Mr. Malfoy. Again. Apparently Malfoy challenged Potter to a team Dark Cauldron game.” The Deputy Headmistress wrinkled her nose in distaste. “The game became rather heated, insults were exchanged, and then…then the chaos we witnessed.”
“Were any of the prefects involved in this?” Dumbledore asked wearily. “If so, then they have a great deal of explaining to do.”
The Deputy Headmistress, Flitwick and Sprout shook their heads.
“The prefects, and the Head Boy and Girl weren’t even aware of this…game,” said McGonagall, and her nose wrinkled even more. “I have already severely reprimanded my prefects and charged them to keep a closer eye on things, or risk being demoted…”
“Minerva!” Sprout exclaimed, her eyes wide.
“We have to take severe measures,” McGonagall responded. “We have had several instances of fighting and squabbling, and it has culminated in this incident today!”
“Yes, the fight in the fifth-year Gryffindor and Slytherin Potions class, that shameful conduct by the Slytherins during the Marksmanship workshop, and the Slytherin argument in the Potions and Logic workshop...” Flitwick admitted with obvious regret.
“The near melee between Ravenclaw and Slytherin just yesterday,” Sprout added with an accusing sideways glance in Flitwick’s direction. “That could be heard all over the castle.”
“There would have been wands drawn had Filch and I not happened by,” Flitwick admitted sheepishly.
“The fighting has increased because recent events have increased tensions both inside and outside the walls of this school,” Dumbledore said. “The students are acting out their fears and frustrations...and in some cases, they are taking advantage of the fact that the Slytherin House no longer has a strong leader.”
“I thought that catering to Igor Karkaroff’s ambitions was a mistake, Albus,” McGonagall remarked. “I would have preferred Professor Sinistra as Head of House over him.”
Dumbledore sighed. “So you have said. But Professor Sinistra…has considerably less teaching and management experience than Professor Karkaroff. I thought him an adequate, if not ideal choice to replace Professor Snape on such short notice. But I did not expect the Slytherins to reject his authority so quickly or completely. After all, last year they seemed to like him.”
“Last year he was merely a visitor,” McGonagall pointed out dryly. She did not need to add that last year, Professor Snape had had a firm hand on the helm of his House, as well.
“They don’t respect him, Headmaster, and how could they?” Sprout complained. “He knows very little about the subject he is supposed to be teaching!”
“And he doesn’t seem to know how to deal with challenges to his authority,” McGonagall added. “Probably because he’s not accustomed to being questioned.”
“Or perhaps we haven’t given him our full support and approval, and the students are sensing this?” Flitwick suggested mildly.
“You have all raised very excellent points,” Dumbledore stated. “Admittedly, I have serious reservations about Professor Karkaroff’s ability to rise to the new challenges and responsibilities he has been granted. However, I cannot revoke his new title without the Board’s approval…and that is going to be nearly impossible, given the Board’s already significant distrust of my recent actions. Furthermore, I think it is too early to make any long-term decisions with regards to Professor Karkaroff’s future.”
“In the days of Gryffindor and Slytherin, we would have fed him to the dragons,” McGonagall grumbled. “But since we live in more enlightened times, I suppose we’ll have to get used to him.”
Dumbledore considered for a moment then said, “Our options are limited, I’m afraid. Professor Karkaroff is likely to remain here for the duration of the war, and Professor Snape, if he is even still among the living, is unlikely to ever return. All of us will simply have to learn to adjust to the present arrangement. To that end, I propose that we support him more openly in front of the students, and save our disagreements for the faculty meetings. I will speak with him and encourage him to take a stronger hand in managing his House, with my full approval and cooperation. And I will insist that he spend his free time in the evenings and on weekends studying and learning more about the subject of his classes.”
“What are we to do about the Slytherin students in the meantime?” McGonagall wondered. “We cannot permit this disruptive behavior to continue!”
“I would argue that in some cases the Gryffindors have been no better,” Dumbledore responded, staring pointedly at the Gryffindor Deputy Headmistress. “I have been lenient with…the more serious offenders thus far, and you know why this was necessary. However, as you have pointed out, the disruptive behavior has continued unabated.”
“Do you think it necessary to consider expulsion at this point?” McGonagall asked hesitantly. “Matters outside have deteriorated considerably since…”
“No,” the Headmaster countered firmly. “Not until I have all the facts about this latest incident, at any rate. Do you know which students were involved in the brawl?”
The three professors shook their heads.
“Other than the dozen card-players, no,” Flitwick said. “It was virtually impossible to see who was involved, who was trying to break it up, and who was merely acting in self-defense.”
“The game lends itself to arguments,” McGonagall said disapprovingly. “I have heard a number of complaints from my prefects about it. I think we should add Dark Cauldron to Mr. Filch’s list of forbidden items. Immediately. And students should be ordered to turn over all such playing cards to their Head of House or to Mr. Filch within twenty-four hours. No exceptions, no excuses.”
“But until today, the Dark Cauldron games have been more or less good-natured,” Flitwick said. “I haven’t heard any complaints from my prefects. Should we also ban Quidditch simply because it might provoke some arguments over whose team is best or how the game is played?”
“Today’s quarrel may not be the last or most severe we’ll see if we let the games go on without supervision,” Sprout said. “I would point out that Quidditch games are refereed.”
“An excellent, valid point, Hyacinth. Very well, here is my decision. Dark Cauldron games will be suspended for a fortnight,” Dumbledore decided. “I will leave it up to you to deal with any student in your House caught playing during the suspension. However, I don’t agree that Dark Cauldron should be banned entirely. Not at this point.”
“But Headmaster!” McGonagall protested. “Consider the possibilities! Someone could be permanently injured the next time a fight breaks out over this game!”
Dumbledore held up a silencing hand. “The gambling problem took care of itself last semester, as I thought it would once the ‘Grudge Match’ played out to its imminent conclusion.”
“A gamble in and of itself, your determined non-intervention,” McGonagall grumbled, but with little heat.
“A gamble that in time came with its own price, unfortunately,” Dumbledore admitted softly. “But this is a separate case, Minerva, one where the line should be drawn as liberally as possible. Until today, we’ve had no serious problems with the Dark Cauldron games. I fear that if we ban Dark Cauldron outright, it will drive the game underground, where there will be no opportunity to oversee it.”
“Then we will impose harsh penalties for any student playing the game ‘underground’, as you put it.”
“And has that ever stopped Fanged Frisbees, Dungbombs, powdered dragon horn, and Pervigil from sneaking into the school? No, I think if we take that route, we’ll create more problems than we’ve solved. Let’s start with the two-week suspension. We’ll use that time to think of ways we can prevent another brawl like this from happening again, without taking too much freedom away from the students.”
“How about a formal Dark Cauldron Club, with organized matches, tournaments and play-offs? I’ve had a great deal of success with my Gobstones club,” Flitwick suggested.
“And will you be supervising this club?” McGonagall queried. “In addition to your other duties?”
“Of course!” the Ravenclaw Head of House squeaked excitedly. “How else can I persuade the students to teach me all of the latest tips and tactics?”
Sprout grinned. Dumbledore beamed. McGonagall sniffed and adopted a boys-will-be-boys expression.
“As for the twelve directly involved with the game, they will all be given detention with Mr. Filch,” Dumbledore said.
“For how long, Headmaster?” Sprout inquired.
Dumbledore smiled grimly. “For however long it takes them to repair the tables, banners and other decorations, and to clean the mess they made in the Great Hall. Without the aid of magic. Mr. Filch, the prefects and the Head Boy and Girl will be called on to supervise. If there are any further problems, the prefects and student heads will be as liable as the guilty parties. Does that seem fair and reasonable to you?”
All three House Heads nodded firmly in agreement.
“I hope the severity of this penalty will curtail such disruptive behavior in the future,” McGonagall said emphatically.
“One thing we may want to consider, Headmaster,” Flitwick said suddenly. “All of the cards came from outside this school. It is possible that they were tampered with. Perhaps they came enchanted with a Berserker Curse or something that had a similar effect.”
Dumbledore inhaled sharply. “Cursed cards? I hadn’t even thought of that! Minerva, where are the cards and other game accessories?”
“In Mr. Filch’s office,” McGonagall replied. “Under lock and key until we decide whether to confiscate Dark Cauldron paraphernalia permanently.”
“We’ll have to have them tested, to make certain no harmful enchantments were placed on them, before we make any further decisions,” Dumbledore decided.
Just then, Karkaroff came into the room.
“Sorry I’m late, have I missed anything?” Karkaroff said smoothly in his fruity, unctuous voice before unceremoniously seating himself in front of Dumbledore’s desk. McGonagall, Flitwick and Sprout glared at the Slytherin Head of House.
“Igor,” McGonagall said sourly, “how delightful of you to join us. We assumed you weren’t coming.”
“My apologies, Professors,” Karkaroff said. “I have just returned from the Slytherin common room, where I have been lecturing my students on their inexcusable behavior during their little card game, and dealing out the punishments their actions merit.”
“That is why I called this emergency meeting,” Dumbledore said calmly. “So that we could decide the students’ punishments together, as a team. And we have decided to give the card-players detention with Mr. Filch until the Great Hall is cleaned up. If you had come here immediately, we might have incorporated your input into the final decision.”
“My…apologies,” Karkaroff said again, but this time his voice held a touch of impatience and distaste. “I have handled matters within my House as I saw fit. Is that not how things are done here at Hogwarts? I was under the impression…”
“Hogwarts is not the Durmstrang Institute,” Dumbledore said mildly, almost pleasantly, but his eyes were stern and unwavering. “Some decisions and disciplinary matters indeed fall solely under your jurisdiction as Potions master and Acting Head of Slytherin House. However, this incident took place in the Great Hall during a free period, and it involved students from all four Houses. Therefore, it has become a matter for all five of us to consider. In the future, when you are summoned to my office or to an emergency meeting in the staffroom, you will remember your new obligations, and respond immediately, I trust?”
Karkaroff glared resentfully, and his tone lost some of its fruity quality as he said, “Of course, Headmaster. I see that I have over-stepped my authority, quite unintentionally, I assure you. It will not happen again.”
“Excellent,” Dumbledore responded, and he smiled benignly. But the smile did not quite reach his eyes.
“So…you have already disciplined your students before coming to this meeting? May I ask how?” Sprout asked, a little too sweetly. She was making an effort to dispel the tension in the room, but unfortunately, the attempt was a little too obvious.
“I…I have assigned them lengthy essays on why…why fighting over a card-game is wrong, and what they should do to resolve their conflicts more…acceptably,” Karkaroff fumbled. “Since I have already given them this chore, I don’t think it will be necessary for them to serve detention with Mr. Filch.”
“Your students deserve the detention just as much as those from the other Houses, if not more so! It was the Slytherins who provoked the others!” McGonagall stated angrily. “How dare you even suggest that their punishment ought to be lighter?”
“My students were not the cause of the disturbance,” Karkaroff said condescendingly. “They have told me this, and I see no reason to…”
“Then they lied to you!” McGonagall snapped. “And you are a fool to believe them!”
“Professors! Calm down, please!” Dumbledore jumped in with his most authoritative tone, eyeing Karkaroff and McGonagall in turn. “Let us remember our dignity and the dignity of this institution! And let us not stoop to the level of the students in our own disagreements. Professor Karkaroff, your students are not excused from the detention we have chosen as a group. As for your essay assignment, it is strictly up to you whether you wish to withdraw the additional punishment. I would recommend that you do not, as the students should not be given the impression that you are apt to change your mind about disciplinary matters once you have made a decision. Furthermore…I think it is an excellent idea to encourage the students to reflect on their actions, to consider other ways of resolving a conflict besides drawing wands on one another. If the rest of you are in agreement, perhaps you will consider asking the offenders in your Houses to compose a similar essay.”
Karkaroff smoldered, but made no further comment. McGonagall and Sprout were nodding reluctantly at Dumbledore’s logic, while Flitwick adopted a thoughtful expression.
“All right, that’s settled, then,” Dumbledore said. “Filius, since Charms is your area of expertise, I would like for you to check the Dark Cauldron materials to make certain no harmful enchantments have been put on them. Once things have cooled off between the students, and everyone has had time to reflect on the situation, we will meet again to decide how best to handle the Dark Cauldron fad. All of us,” he added, and here he glanced at everyone in turn, especially Karkaroff, “should be ready and willing to cooperate in order to determine the best long-term solution.” He nodded slightly, dismissing them.
McGonagall, Flitwick and Sprout rose from their seats and left the office, but Karkaroff delayed a few moments.
“Headmaster,” Karkaroff protested, “by insisting on this detention in the Great Hall, you must realize that you have put me in an awkward position.”
“How have I done that?” Dumbledore’s tone was mild, but his polite smile was forced.
Karkaroff clenched his jaw. “I fear a…rebellion, a rejection of my authority if I force my students to go to this detention, along with the students from the other Houses.”
“And why would that happen? Are you or are you not the current Head of Slytherin House?”
“Headmaster,” and Karkaroff nervously licked his lips, “some of the students…aren’t used to me yet, and question my right to be here.”
Dumbledore decided to cut to the heart of the matter: “Has Draco Malfoy been causing you problems?”
Karkaroff flinched slightly and didn’t reply, an answer which spoke more loudly than any words could have.
“I see,” the Headmaster said, and he sighed. “You should have come to me about this immediately. I would have preferred not to have to ask.”
The new Slytherin Head bristled. “I prefer to handle things my way, Professor Dumbledore, if you’ll just give me a little more room to maneuver. I don’t need…” he broke off suddenly, remembering the circumstances under which he had come to his new position.
“You don’t need my help? My advice? But I thought that was why you came here in the first place,” Dumbledore pointed out.
“I want your support, not your restrictions!” Karkaroff declared angrily. “I know how to keep rebellious students under control, but I need the authority, the freedom to do it!”
“If you are hinting that I ought to permit the use of magic—particularly Dark magic—on this campus, in order to enforce discipline, then you are treading on forbidden ground, Igor.” Dumbledore’s amiable manner had not changed overtly, yet there was a hint of steel in his tone which begged the listener to consider his next words very carefully.
Karkaroff nervously licked his upper lip and hastily back-pedaled. “Professor! I am deeply offended! I am shocked at this accusation! How can you imply that I, a humble refugee, a defector from the side of He-Whose-Depravity-Has-No-Limits, would stoop to such a level as to suggest the use of…dubious…methods of control?”
“Because,” Dumbledore replied, not giving an inch, “I know that you have used such methods in the past. Your students did not tell me this in so many words, of course, but their manner, when they visited here last year, spoke volumes.”
Karkaroff blanched. “Professor Dumbledore, I have left the past behind! I gave you my word! If you now wish to use this as an excuse to have me…”
Dumbledore raised a hand, cutting off further protest. “I have no intentions of sending you away, Igor, nor of having your temporary title revoked. I only wish to remind you of the seriousness of your past offenses, and of the generosity of myself and the staff here, not to mention the Board of Governors, in taking you in. I will grant that your current position is a difficult one, and that some of the Slytherins are not easy to work with. However, you are going to have to adjust to our methods, just as the students are going to have to adjust to yours.”
“You are tying my hands,” Karkaroff complained, “making my job impossible.”
“No,” the older wizard disagreed firmly, shaking his head. “You are tying your own hands. I cannot untie them for you; it is for you to change your perceptions. And if it is retribution from the Malfoys that you fear, then I would remind you that your former ‘friends’ can’t touch you here. Hogwarts is the safest of the high places, the most strongly defended. So put your fear behind you, and lead by example, not intimidation. If you stand up to Malfoy, ignore his threats, and try to be a positive influence on him, he may yet change. It is not too late for him, nor for you.”
“A pretty speech,” Karkaroff grumbled. “One that my predecessor seemed disinclined to take seriously…”
Dumbledore looked down for a moment, wounded. Karkaroff looked on impatiently and unsympathetically. When the Headmaster looked up again, he seemed sadder and older than he had been only moments ago. “Severus,” he stated quietly, “came to this place with many wounds, many handicaps, many obstacles to overcome. You would not understand, because you are of the type who deal out such things, and blame the results of your work on your victims. He has come much farther than anyone but myself expected, and yet, he had so far to go to truly find healing…
“My hope for him is fading, even as we speak, for I think his life is spent, or nearly so. Nevertheless, I console myself in the knowledge that I did what I could for him. I only regret…” the older wizard sighed. “Well, it is time to leave the past behind, as you say. Igor, this may be your very last chance to prove that you are a good man, worthy of the high ideals of Hogwarts. I was advised to turn you away, but I rejected that advice on the belief that you have come here with the genuine intention of improving yourself and helping us in the coming fight against Voldemort.”
Karkaroff winced at the name of his former master, while Dumbledore concluded warningly, “Do not give me cause to regret my decision.”
The former Durmstrang Headmaster snorted. “You make it sound so easy, Dumbledore. Such pretty words fall from your lips. Why, it almost reminds me of the speech you gave me prior to the Triwizard Tournament. The promises, the guarantees, the noble ideals, and all that talk about promoting peace and friendly competition! And look how that turned out! Hogwarts got more than its fair share of champions, not to mention the cheating, the murder of one of the competitors, and the return of He-Who-Haunts-Our-Nightmares…”
Dumbledore sighed wearily at the reminder of his failures, but Karkaroff ploughed on relentlessly.
“This tide cannot be turned! You are fighting a battle you cannot win! You must know this! And we are not as safe here as you would like to have me believe. Even as we speak…” Karkaroff stopped and bit the inside of his cheek as though to recall the words he had not meant to speak.
“Even as we speak…what, Igor?” Dumbledore queried softly. “Are they making plans to attack us here, already? Is there something I should know?”
Karkaroff reluctantly nodded. “They will kill me if they learn that I have told you this, but it is as you have already deduced. They probably will not spare my life anyway, if they come here. Indeed, Malfoy has said…” he paused, changed gears suddenly. “Yes, they are planning to attack Hogwarts, and you, personally. I don’t know the specifics, but I do know that they will…put these plans into action soon.”
Dumbledore nodded. “You aren’t telling me anything I didn’t already know, or at least guess. I knew that Lucius Malfoy would openly challenge my authority sooner or later. Indeed, it is already beginning.”
Karkaroff stared at the stone floor for several moments before looking up at the headmaster. Dumbledore waited for him to say more, knew that he wanted to say more.
But all the former Durmstrang headmaster had to say was, “I suppose, then, that it is my duty, as a proper Hogwarts instructor and leader, to tell the students of my House who were involved in this unfortunate incident, that they will be quite busy cleaning up after themselves for the indeterminate future.”
“Yes, that is a fair summary of my present expectations…with regards to the students,” Dumbledore replied, with a hint of dissatisfaction, as though he had expected something more.
“Headmaster,” Karkaroff said in parting, as he nodded, turned on his heel, and strode out the door.
Dumbledore stared at the door for several long moments, thinking of what Igor had said, and what he had not said, but merely implied. Should he trust such a questionable, pessimistic ally who seemed to have convinced himself that the fight against Voldemort was hopeless? Then the Headmaster thought of Severus and reconsidered. Perhaps Karkaroff was like Snape, pessimistic and secretive by nature, but looking for a reason to trust, a reason to hope?
And where had that landed Severus?
Dumbledore idly thumbed a piece of fire parchment on his desktop. Karkaroff was not Snape. He had his own baggage to carry or to discard, and his own path to follow, his own choices to make. Dumbledore would give him this chance for his own sake, whether merited or not. And time would tell, he decided.
As for Malfoy, he knew that Lucius Malfoy would challenge him again eventually, as he had in the past during that dreadful Chamber of Secrets incident. But Malfoy wasn’t going to find victory, even fleeting victory, so easy this time, the Headmaster thought. The world had changed much in the past several years, and this time Dumbledore had no intentions of stepping aside.
The Headmaster read the fire parchment on his desk and smiled.
"This is in regards to a certain matter left unmentioned at our last meeting, due to the fact that my friend knows too much already. (While I trust him, I don't trust all of his people, even if they have passed his I.C. test.)
"I've had no success in getting the 'extra security measures' you requested, at least, not through the usual channels. They have been blocking every move I make, especially now that they know I've been to Hogwarts twice in the past seven months. But I have other resources they don't know about, yet. Your first ‘shipment’ should arrive any day now in two groups of three. By that I mean the four-legged and the two-legged varieties. Expect more before summer, including some of the bigger ones. Altogether I have recruited maybe a dozen or so.
"And one other thing: I fear the day is not far off when I may end up on your doorstep in need of permanent lodging myself.
No need to fear lack of shelter my friend, unless Hogwarts, too, should fall to the enemy, thought Dumbledore. But as long as I am here, help will always be given to those who ask for it.
Arms and bookbag crammed full of ill-balanced books and papers, goose-feather quill stuck haphazardly behind his right ear, and his mind drifting through the last fifty pages of Modern Advances in Cauldron-Making, Nathan Quinn was slowly shuffling back to the Slytherin common room after an hour's reading in the library. Without paying much attention to where he was going, he stopped before a bare stretch of wall and said, “Pureblood.” The wall slid away to reveal the passage to the Slytherin common room and dormitories.
As Quinn walked in, thoughts of cauldrons gave way to worries of how he would ever manage to juggle his studies and the detention that had been given to all the participants of the Dark Cauldron game. He sighed miserably and thought that he ought to have expected something like this for getting too chummy with Jaspine Greggs.
The heavyset Slytherin nearly ran into Crabbe, Goyle and Montague at the entrance to the common room.
“Out of my way,” Quinn said in a bored tone, hoping they weren’t in a taunting mood. Surprisingly, they gave way easily, and Quinn walked past them…to find himself inside a ring of his peers, with Malfoy directly in front of him, a predatory look in his pale gray eyes.
“What is the meaning of this?” Quinn asked suspiciously. Nothing good could result from Malfoy looking like that.
“Hello, Quinn,” Draco said. “We need to have a little chat. About you hanging around with Jaspine Greggs.”
Right then, Quinn knew this was going to get ugly, but he plucked up his courage and decided to fight. "That's none of your business, Malfoy,” he said contemptuously. “You are not Head of Slytherin House, even if you like to think you are. When Snape…” Quinn stopped and flushed. It was so hard to get used to the fact that Snape was now gone, and Igor Karkaroff was in his place. Snape would have never tolerated Malfoy’s increasingly arrogant attitude toward his own Housemates. But the new Head of House was weak. Suddenly Quinn was afraid.
Draco saw the fear in Quinn’s eyes and his smile widened.
“It’s not healthy to be hanging around Greggs, Quinn,” Draco said. “I know she pressured you into playing for my team, so that you could betray me when it counted. And you did. You cost us the Quintis key. You taught Greggs how to enchant the decks too, didn’t you?”
“All right, I helped Greggs out a little in the game, but I didn't teach her how to fix the cards,” Quinn lied. “Someone else must have told her about the Slytherin secret. Why don't you ask that smug Gryffindor, Seamus Finnegan? He seems to know all about it."
"I don't care about the Gryffindors right now. I want an explanation from you. Why did you help Potter's team?"
Quinn dropped his books and balled his fists against his hips. "Do you want to know why I did it? Do you really want to know? Fine! Then I'll tell you! I don't like you, Draco. I don't like your attitude, I don't like your bullying, and I don't like what you're doing to Slytherin House!"
"You know, that's just the sort of attitude that gets people in trouble," Draco drawled. Then his voice turned vicious as he said, “Slytherins don’t betray other Slytherins!”
"This isn't your House, Malfoy! You don't decide what Slytherins will or will not do!"
"You betrayed your own kind, Nathan Quinn," Draco continued as if the other Slytherin hadn't spoken. "For that, you must be punished. Slytherin fashion.”
“You're bloody buggers! Karkaroff won’t tolerate…” Quinn protested, but Draco cut him off.
“Karkaroff is busy tending other matters, and won’t be back until well after we are through with you.” He turned to the others in the circle and smirked. “Well, let's not waste any more time talking."
Hoots of derisive laughter followed as the smiling blond teen withdrew a cube of curious, greenish, crystalline substance.
“Masks in place, everyone,” Malfoy called airily as he placed a silver mask over his nose and mouth, leaving his eyes uncovered. The others immediately followed suit.
“Wha…what it is this? What do you think you're doing?” Quinn called out fearfully.
Draco remained silent. He tossed the green cube towards the center of the ring, where it landed about two feet from Quinn. The blond teen then pointed his wand at the cube, which suddenly burst into flame and gave off a sinister green smoke. Quinn began to gasp and choke, then his eyes grew as huge and round as owl eyes, and he started screaming hysterically. Quinn fell to the ground choking and screaming, and he scuttled like a crab, as if trying to crawl away from some unseen foe.
When he got to the edge of the ring of Slytherins around him, they pushed him roughly back into the center, where he rolled around on the floor, crying and flailing and screaming the entire time. Most of Draco's Slytherins were laughing by now, but Quinn couldn't hear them, caught up in his own private hell.
Draco watched impassively for several moments before pointing his wand at the cube again. This time, the small crystal exploded into tiny slivers, and vanished.
The blond teen then took a deep breath and removed his mask. “Purgare Ventus,” he chanted, as he waved his wand above his head like a fan. A gust of wind burst from the wand and began to break up the noxious cloud of smoke surrounding the fallen Slytherin and his tormentors.
Draco quickly replaced the mask, and shuddered involuntarily. Even this minute, brief exposure to the noxious fumes had blurred his vision slightly, and he thought for a moment that he had seen dementors rising from the dark corners of the room. Then his vision cleared and the sinister beings disappeared shortly after he had replaced the mask. He shuddered to think what a longer exposure might have done to him, and he cast his eyes dispassionately toward the writhing Quinn.
After waiting several more minutes to be sure the cloud had dissipated, Draco took off his mask again and tested the air. When he suffered no further ill effect, he nodded briskly to the other members of the circle, and they removed their masks as well.
Malfoy sauntered over to Quinn, who was lying on the floor in fetal position, crying and rocking like a terrified toddler. He looked down in disdain at the older student and sniffed in disgust. "Want to tell me what I can and can't do now, Quinn?" he whispered softly.
Draco waited for several more long moments until the fallen Slytherin began to recover somewhat. This was mainly evident in the fact that Quinn had stopped crying and rocking, and was now hugging himself and trembling instead.
“Quinn," Draco called, hoping the other Slytherin was now lucid enough to respond.
Quinn looked up in stark terror, half cowering as if to ward off a blow. Draco smirked.
"Listen, Dragon-bait! That was just a taste of what I can do. There’s plenty more where that came from,” Draco said softly. “It has several names, but I like to call it…Malfoy’s Wrath.” He laughed nastily. The others in the circle cackled as well.
“Keep quiet about this, and stay out of my way, or you’ll be tasting more of Malfoy’s Wrath in the future,” Draco said. "And above all, stay away from Harry Potter and Jaspine Greggs! And remember that the next time, I won’t go so easy on you. Not only that, but one word to my father, and your whole family could find themselves living their worst nightmares. Long-term exposure can even lead to a one-way trip to St. Mungo’s, you know. I would hate for that to happen to your mother. She makes excellent fudge treacle, as I recall. But rules are rules, and you will abide by them or suffer. Do you understand?”
Quinn didn’t respond as fast as Draco liked, and so Malfoy impatiently kicked him in the ribs and drew his wand.
“Electrica!” Draco snarled, turning the wand on the other Slytherin. "Now do you understand?"
Quinn writhed on the common room floor as shock waves tore through his body.
“S…stop!” Quinn wailed. “Please stop, make it stop make it stop make it…”
Malfoy lifted the spell and sneered at Quinn, who was crying again.
“I said, do you understand?” the blond teen repeated, and his gray eyes glittered with malicious pleasure.
“Don’t hurt my family!” Quinn wailed. “I’ll do anything, but please no more, no more, don’t hurt my family, don’t hurt them, don't…”
“And I won’t,” Draco declared, his tone suddenly almost cheerful, almost friendly. He knelt down and patted Quinn on the shoulder and Quinn flinched and backed away. “Just do as I say from now on, and I won't have to hurt you. And remember, stay away from Greggs. She’s not your friend. Look what she made me do to you.”
Silent tears streamed down Quinn’s face as Malfoy stood up.
“You can go to your room now,” Malfoy said. “Oh, and while you're at it, you should think about changing your clothes.”
Quinn shakily stumbled to his feet, and soon both saw and felt what Malfoy meant. His cheeks burning with this new humiliation, he stumbled down the corridor to the boys' dormitories, with the hoots and jeers of the other Slytherins following him all the way.
End of Chapter 52