As Hagrid led the party to the right, Aurellia could contain her curiosity no longer. She waved a hand toward the steeply sloped passage behind them and inquired as to its destination.
"Oh, we definitely wouldn't want to go that way," said Hagrid. "That tunnel runs all the way under the lake and dead-ends under a certain hill on the far side. Yeh can't get out that way 'less yeh happen to be…er, well, you'll see."
"Unless we happen to be what, Hagrid?" Aurellia asked curiously, looking in amazement at the vastness of the tunnel they traveled through. "Giants?"
Hagrid chuckled and said, "Wahl, giants have been through here at one time or 'nother, so I've heard. They helped dig part o' these tunnels way back in the time o' the Founders. An' they've made repairs, propped up weak walls and ceilings, cleared out rubble from collapsed areas many times in the years since. S'one of the projects Dumbledore wanted…er, maybe I shouldn'ta said that."
Aurellia grinned. "We know about the giants, Hagrid, and we know what they've been working on. So is this part of the underground Dumbledore wanted them to clear out? Are we going to meet them tonight?"
"Er, no," said Hagrid. "They ain't here yet. This part was fixed up mostly by the goblins, trolls, and meself, whenever we had some free time to work on it. We've been at it for oh, about a year and a half now. And we're just about done."
They passage continued to curve around toward the right, and now the walls seemed to take on a faint, warm, reddish glow as dirt gave way to stone. The air was growing warmer and dryer as they continued, and Aurellia and Remus took off their cloaks. Remus carried them both over one shoulder, insisting, despite her protests, that Aurellia should not overexert herself.
Soon the party came to a wall of vertical iron bars, the tops and bottoms of which were firmly embedded in the stone floor and ceiling. Hagrid hollered a greeting through the bars which was not immediately answered, much to his dissatisfaction.
Meanwhile, Remus sniffed the air with a pensive look on his face. All at once his features lit up with sudden recognition, and he exclaimed, "I know where we are! Hagrid, this is…"
"Aw, don't spoil it!" The half-giant barked quickly, nodding his head toward Aurellia.
Remus grinned and said, "Of course my sniffer could be mistaken…"
"What, Remus?" Aurellia prodded. "Where are we? And what do you smell?"
The wizard was spared from having to reply by the sound of running feet. A voice hollered an apology and a greeting their way, and then there came a sound of metal against stone as the iron bars began to retract into the ceiling. As soon as they had risen high enough for him to duck under them, Hagrid did so quickly and then stood erect on the other side, beckoning for Aurellia and Remus to join him.
In the dim light of the corridor and Hagrid's wand, Aurellia and Remus saw a ginger-haired wizard turn away from a lever on the wall and move to join them.
"Charlie Weasley!" Remus exclaimed with a smile. "So, how do you like the underside of Hogwarts, so far?"
"Charlie Weasley?" Aurellia said, "I teach your younger siblings, Fred, George, Ron and Ginny. You're the dragon expert in the family, aren't you?"
"That's right…" Charlie began.
“Here be dragons!” Hagrid interrupted proudly, flinging his arms out to encompass everything around him.
Aurellia looked around the half-giant and stared in surprise. They were standing in a large antechamber which opened into an even larger room beyond. Two great hearths dominated each wall, the smoke disappearing up unseen shafts cut into the earth above them, while heat poured into the room around them like the interior of a furnace. She waved a hand in front of her face stirring the hot air, but accomplished nothing in the way of easing the sensation of being roasted alive. "Beastly hot in here, don't you think, Mr. Weasley?" she remarked, frowning.
"You're complaining about the heat?" Remus remarked, staring at Aurellia in surprise.
Charlie shrugged. "Heat's a bit of a nuisance, I'll admit, but necessary for now, unfortunately. The dragons have only just arrived, and the inner caverns still have to be heated up to a temperature they're more comfortable with. The Dragon Tiles help, of course, but even they need a heat source besides the dragons themselves until they've warmed up. Until then we're utilizing every fireplace available."
"You mean it's going to get even hotter in here?" Aurellia queried in disbelief.
"A little," came the reply. "But once the dens are cozy and the dragons are comfortable, we can put out the raging infernos in our office area."
"This is your office area?" Remus asked with keen interest. "Hmm…I don't think I ever saw this before."
"Well, it's not as nice as our home base in the Hebrides, of course, but we do have everything we need here. Let me take you on a little tour."
Aurellia mopped her sweaty forehead with an already damp sleeve. "I hope it's cooler in there," she opined, pointing straight ahead of her.
"'Fraid not much," Charlie replied, going over to the lever on the wall to drop the bars back in place behind the little party before the tour could continue. "But eventually it'll be much warmer back there," he said as he indicated the inner portion of the dragons' territory, "and much more tolerable out here." He waved a hand around the entrance room and the larger office area beyond. "And you do get used to the heat after a while, believe it or not."
"What are the bars for?" Remus inquired, shooting a glance at their now impassable retreat.
"A precaution," said Charlie. "We don't want the dragons to get out and run amok on the campus where the students are. Normally there is always at least one Handler present at all times to keep an eye the dragons, but it pays to have extra safeguards."
"T'would also keep any curious intruders at bay as well, I'd reckon," Hagrid remarked thoughtfully. "On the off-chance a student might get past Karalthe."
"Well, it's mostly for the dragons," said Charlie. "Any competent third-year student or above could easily figure out a way to cut through the bars or slip between them. We'll be adding a few extra wards and other defensive measures later, though, once we've got the dragons settled in."
"What about in the meantime?" Aurellia wondered.
"In the meantime, we'll be keeping an eye on this area, and so will Dumbledore," Charlie explained, shrugging.
Hagrid, Remus and Aurellia followed Charlie into the larger room, gazing up in amazement at the impressive stalactites hanging from the ceiling, at the great fires roaring in the fireplaces along the walls, at the heavy wooden desk awkwardly perched in one corner, as far from the sources of the blazing heat as possible. Behind the desk was a simple wall-clock and calendar, a few moving pictures of Dover, Cornwall, the Orkneys, the Faroes, and the Hebrides. All around the desk the floor was occupied with stacks and stacks of cardboard boxes, wooden crates, plastic cartons, bubble wrap, packing material…
"Well, welcome to my humble abode," said Charlie, "for the duration of the war at least."
"What is all this other stuff?" Aurellia asked curiously, pointing eagerly at the nearest mountain of boxes.
"I'm not sure, really," came the honest reply. "Some of it's for the dragons, of course, most of it in fact. It takes a lot to keep dragons well-fed, happy, occupied, and under strict control. And some belongs to the boss, of course. Some is my personal stuff, and some, Truman's. And some is for the Potions workroom which we'll be setting up tomorrow or the next day. We're still sorting through things. After all, we've only just arrived."
"Potions workroom?" Remus inquired. "But I thought Hogwarts already had a Potions lab?"
"Well, to provide for the students' lessons and to keep the infirmary supplied with healing draughts, sure. Professor Snape used to take care of that, and I guess his successor does now, doesn't he?"
Aurellia looked down suddenly, and Remus jumped in quickly, "Well, Professor Karkaroff is doing his best to fit into Snape's various roles, but how did you hear about that? I only just heard about it myself."
Charlie shrugged. "Boss told Truman and I before we left the reservation. I suppose Dumbledore told him. Anyway, a classroom-type workroom isn't what we need down here. Dragons have special needs, and we need specialized equipment for things like tanning and curing dragon-hide, collecting, treating and storing dragon dung for use as fertilizer, distilling dragon dust for use in potions, and cutting, grinding, and polishing cast-off dragon scales, horns, and talons…"
"Not to mention weapons and armor repair and enhancement," Remus added.
Charlie shot him an intense, searching look. "You're not just any member of the Alliance of Light, are you, Mr. Lupin? If you know about that, then you must be in the Order of the Phoenix."
Lupin nodded shortly and said, "Dumbledore believes the war is coming sooner than anyone suspects, and he believes it will come here, to Hogwarts. You're here not only for the sake of the dragons but also to help the rest of us prepare to fight back. Tell us everything without reservation, Mr. Weasley. We're in this fight together, all of us."
Charlie nodded briskly and led the party across the sweltering main room over to a long, winding hallway, large enough to accommodate passage of the newly resident dragons. "The Potions workroom is going to be off this hallway in the first room to the left," he said, pointing toward a wide entrance and a large round room beyond. "The next two rooms are going to be used for storage of straw, dragon meds, riding gear, emergency feed, and other supplies, and we're setting up our living quarters in the third one, over there on the right."
"You're all living in the same room?" Aurellia wondered as Charlie took them to the aforementioned enclosure and pushed aside a curtain strung across the yawning entrance in make-shift fashion. "Won't you get in each others' way?"
"Nah," said Charlie. "There's only the three of us: me, Truman, and the boss. And we'll be working in two twelve-hour shifts, so we won't all be in here at the same time. And confidentially, Boss is going to be on one shift, with Truman and I on the other because he snores louder than a Sonoro'd Hungarian Horntail."
Aurellia laughed at the mental picture and sympathized with Charlie. "I can see you're going to have plenty of room," she observed, peering at the round walls and high domed ceiling. "I get the impression this room wasn't originally intended to house humans, though?"
Charlie grinned. "No indeed! This is actually a dragon's den, but since there are only three dragons here at present, we've got plenty of spare rooms."
"I see," said Aurellia, gazing around her in the light from the fireplace on the far side of the round room. "Do all the dens have fireplaces like this one?" she inquired.
"Yes," came the reply. "And they're all in use right now, too, but as I said earlier, we'll douse most of the fires in a few hours, starting with this one, I think."
"Definitely," Aurellia agreed emphatically. "Is that why the rooms are round, then? To more effectively hold in the heat? Or do the dragons prefer their dens this shape?"
"It's the heat, mostly," said Charlie. "And look at this." He motioned for the visitors to bypass the cots and other packed and unpacked belongings littering the floor in the center of the chamber, and indicated the polygonal-tiled walls which glowed dimly around the fireplace on the far side of the room. The tiles closest to the flames seemed to emit an inner reddish light, whereas those further away merely reflected the orange-hued radiance of the fireplace. "These are Dragon Tiles," he explained, as the others came over to observe.
Aurellia reached a hand out in curiosity, as if to touch one, but Charlie quickly blocked her. "Unless you fancy putting your hand on a red-hot stove burner, I wouldn't do that," he warned. "These tiles absorb heat, magnify it, and reflect it back. They work marvelously where there's a dragon present, so well that you don't even need the fireplace once they're warmed up. As for in here, though, we're not sure whether we'll get enough heat from the dragon dens down the hall to stay warm, but we think that we won't even need to keep this fire going later."
"Dragon Tiles," Aurellia murmured. "I've never heard of them. Did you make them?"
"Jumpin' Jobberknolls!" Hagrid exclaimed. "Yeh never heard of Dragon Tiles, Perfesser?"
Aurellia shook her head as Charlie stared in surprise and Remus looked on with amusement.
"Wahl, they get 'em from places like Giant's Causeway in Ireland, and Devil's Tower in the United States. Muggles call 'em…bath…bathy…eh, bath-somethings."
"Batholiths," supplied Remus. "It's a type of igneous intrusion, that is, magma creeping up from the earth's mantle into the surrounding rock. Devil's Tower, for example, used to be the neck of a volcano millions of years ago. Wind and weather eroded away the outside of the volcano, leaving only the hardened interior. The magma forms long polygonal columns as it cools and hardens. Wizards take the most evenly formed five and seven-sided columns because there's magic in them."
"Yeah, the experts take 'em and slice 'em into those tiles like what yeh see in dens and other places where dragons like to be. They react to the heat and magic of dragons, and ta-dah, instant oven!" said Hagrid.
"Fascinating!" exclaimed Aurellia. "But don't Muggles notice when the columns keep disappearing from their famous landmarks?"
"Nah," said Hagrid. "I think whoever's authorized to mine 'em is obliged to replace 'em with summat that looks similar but doesn't have the magic."
"I see," said Aurellia. "But Remus, where did you learn so much about geology? I didn't know you were interested in earth science?"
Remus shrugged. "Well, you know it's a habit of mine to read whatever I can find whenever I can find the time. And if the information is interesting enough, I even retain it."
Aurellia grinned. "And Hagrid, I know how you know about this. I suppose having dragons at Hogwarts is for you a bit like having a life-long dream come true."
“Right you are! Say, Weasley,” Hagrid asked eagerly. “Could I help yeh with feedin' the dragons this evenin'? Please?”
“'Fraid not, Hagrid. They’ve already eaten,” Charlie said smoothly. Aurellia had to wonder if Charlie had anticipated this question.
“Awww,” Hagrid said, disappointment etched in his features. “Perhaps next week, then?”
“After classes, perhaps,” Charlie conceded. “But Hagrid, you have to remember, feeding a dragon can be a very unpleasant business, and if you aren’t careful…”
“I’m sure I’ll be all right,” Hagrid said. “I know I kin handle it, and I’m not afraid of ‘em. Just treat any creature with respect…”
Aurellia, Charlie and Remus exchanged looks.
“…and they’ll be nice back. No problem,” Hagrid continued. "Take Karalthe for instance…"
“I take it you’ve never heard of the story of Dhistia and the Dragon,” Aurellia cut in, and she raised her right eyebrow.
“Huh?” Hagrid asked, puzzled.
“Obviously not,” Aurellia said with a wry grin. “There is an old folk tale which my… birth parents used to tell me about Dhistia and the dragon.”
“You know, a couple years ago I read a book about Greek myths,” Remus reflected. “Actually, I think it was Luk who found this book. But in that book the myth was called Distia and the Manticore.”
“Yes, Luk showed me the Greek version of the story,” Aurellia explained. “There are a lot of variations on the same theme. Most of the time, the girl is called Dhistia, and very often, she’s an elf. This is because the story was taken originally from the High-elves and adopted into other cultures. The monster changes from region to region, and also depending on the story-teller’s discretion. Most of the time it’s a dragon, but I’ve also heard the manticore used, too. One of the Greek versions says the creature was a chimaera. In Africa, it’s a Nundu or Erumpet. Once I even heard a story about Dhistia and the Kelpie.”
“So, er, no offense Perfesser Deveroux, but what’s the story already?” Hagrid asked, and he shuffled his feet.
“Well, once upon a time, there was a young elf maiden named Dhistia,” Aurellia said. “She was known for her sweetness and goodness, and everyone loved her. One day, when she was strolling through the woods by herself, she happened across a baby dragon with a broken wing. She took pity on the dragon and secretly nursed it back to health, telling no one else in the village of this because she was afraid the others might kill it. She did this for a year, feeding and tending to the dragon with meticulous care. Eventually, its injuries healed, and it grew to a large size.”
“Awwww,” Hagrid said. “I betcha they became real close, didn’t they?”
Aurellia arched her eyebrows. “Not quite. You see, because the dragon was growing up, it was getting harder and harder for Dhistia to feed it…”
“Oh, so she had to let him go free?” Hagrid asked.
“No, one day it killed her and ate her.”
“Oh!” Hagrid grimaced and looked down at his feet. He had obviously not expected that ending!
“The story, you see, is an allegory to teach us to beware of monsters. No matter how hard you try to change it, a dragon will always be a dragon,” Aurellia said, and she fixed a stern look at Hagrid. “A dragon will never be a house-pet.”
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that story,” Charlie mused, then he cast a sidelong glance at the half-giant. “But it provides an excellent lesson.”
“Yeh’ve made yer point, and I get it,” Hagrid muttered dejectedly. “But that don’t mean I like it.”
“Come on, everyone,” Charlie said, changing the subject. “We need to get on with the tour."
"Say, where does the passage under the lake go?" Aurellia asked suddenly. "Hagrid implied that it dead-ended unless…?"
"Unless you're a dragon, or happen to be riding one," Charlie finished for her. "It only works for dragons. That's where we let them out to hunt. The lower tunnel feeds into the hollow interior of a hill on the far side of the Hogwarts lake. The top opens out, giving the dragons a nice wide hangar to enter and exit."
"Amazing!" the elf exclaimed. "I would never have guessed! So then why the entrance under Karalthe's tree?"
"Well, that was originally intended as an emergency escape route if the castle or the dragon dens should happen to be overrun by an enemy. The occupants of the castle could be evacuated into the Forbidden Forest, and from there, hopefully, a retreat could be made to some other refuge. There's supposed to be a secret passage from the dungeons of Hogwarts to the dragon dens…"
"Blimey! I never knew that!" Hagrid exclaimed. "I wonder why the 'eadmaster didn't tell me…?"
Given the loquacious half-giant's tendency to blab about things, especially things concerning dragons, Aurellia thought Dumbledore's reasoning sound and not the least bit mysterious. To Hagrid she said, "I suppose he thought it best to keep the knowledge of such a passage as closely guarded as possible. Can't you just imagine what would happen if Harry Potter or one of his Gryffindor chums found out about it?"
"I'd give them three days—four at most—before they figured out how to sneak all the way down from the dorms to Norbert's den and back without getting caught!" Charlie exclaimed, grinning proudly. "My brothers couldn't resist the temptation to go looking for trouble, all on the pretext of thwarting some Death Eater plot, of course."
Remus smiled and mused, "Gryffindors will be Gryffindors. You'd better keep a close eye on that passage, Mr. Weasley. I have a feeling you'll have uninvited guests from upstairs one of these days…"
"Only if they can find the passage, which, in all honesty, is bloody unlikely. I don't even know where it is meself. Boss may know, but he's been too busy getting the dragons bedded down to go looking for it."
"I'll bet I know where it is," Remus said, much to the others' amazement. "Mr. Weasley…"
"Charlie, please," the Dragon Handler corrected. "Sorry, but every time I hear that I start looking around for me dad. And besides, it makes me feel old."
"Charlie, then," the werewolf continued, "and if we're dropping formalities, then call me Remus. 'Mister' makes me feel old too. What's at the other end of the main corridor, past the dragon dens?"
"Nothing but a dead end, far as I know," the younger wizard answered. "There are twenty-four dens arranged on either side of the circular passage outside. Since the corridor itself shares a common wall with the round dragon dens on the inside and outside of the circle, it zig-zags back and forth, like a snake, until it reaches a solid stone wall when it curves back around, almost to where it started."
"I wonder why they didn't just join the two ends and make it one complete loop," Aurellia thought aloud.
"Maybe they did…" Remus murmured. "One end of the passage is that way, right?" he inquired, pointing through the wall of the Dragon Handlers' room in the direction the four of them had just come from.
"Yes," said Charlie.
"And we are directly under the castle here, aren't we?" the werewolf asked.
"As far as I know, all of the dens are directly under the castle. They'd have to be in order to be covered by the Anti-apparition Charm and other defensive wards and spells. The center of the circular passage would be under the center of the castle itself. By the way, Boss says that's where he expects the Coramentiahl would be located."
Remus closed his eyes and thought for a moment, visualizing the layout of Hogwarts which he knew quite well, thanks to the explorations of his student years. After a moment he opened his eyes again and said, "Unless I miss my guess, that would be somewhere in the neighborhood of…Dumbledore's office."
"Makes sense to me," Charlie agreed. "That would be the most logical place."
"But according to legend, Hogwarts has two Coramentiahlen," Aurellia pointed out. "If one is inside or near Dumbledore's office, then where would the other…?"
"Aw, not that rot about Slytherin's Coramentiahl again! I told Ron a few months ago when he wrote me and asked, that it's all a load of rubbish we used to tell the firsties to scare 'em," Charlie snorted, waving away the unfinished question.
"Rubbish that happens to have made its way into Hogwarts, a History," the elf pointed out. "If it's just a myth, then why is it mentioned in a history text?"
"I don't know. Ask Dumbledore. I deal with dragons, not boring ol' textbooks."
"Honestly, Ari, there is no second Coramentiahl at Hogwarts. If there were, James, Sirius and I would have found it," Remus chided gently.
"Oh?" Aurellia inquired, lifting an eyebrow. "And does this concern another one of those amusing little 'Marauder' anecdotes you neglected to tell me about, like the Shrieking Shack?"
"Er…James and Sirius got into an argument one night about whether or not it was real, so we spent the rest of that year looking all over the school for it. Then the next year was O.W.L. year and we got busy with other things. Needless to say, we never found it, because it doesn't exist. Slytherin's Coramentiahl is only another Hogwarts myth."
"And the Chamber of Secrets is just a myth too, I suppose?" Aurellia retorted sweetly.
"Some myths are just myths, Ari," Remus argued mildly.
Charlie led the others back out into main hallway and turned left. The party again passed the two storage rooms, future Potions workroom, and the entrance to the Handlers' office, before coming to a halt at a solid stone wall which prevented further passage.
"This shouldn't be here," said Remus. "I don't understand…"
"Were you here before, Remus?" Charlie queried in surprise. "I didn't know that Dumbledore had let anyone else down here before we arrived, aside from Hagrid and the repair crew."
The werewolf nodded reluctantly. “Yes, I was here once, but not recently. There were no dragons when we came down here—a good thing for us!"
"You and the Marauders, I assume," Aurellia put in.
"Yes. That was at the end of our fourth year, when we were looking for Slytherin's Coramentiahl. But after our one and only successful excursion to this part of the castle, we found the passage blocked off. Unfortunately, this was before we made the Marauder's Map, and later, we couldn't remember exactly what we'd seen down here. We had to leave everything beyond the cave-in blank on the map."
"Cave-in?" queried Charlie and Hagrid, the latter scratching his shaggy head in bewilderment.
"Yes, there is a cave-in somewhere on the other side of this wall. Part of the tunnel apparently collapsed between our first and second visits here. Then these walls must have been added later on, on either side of the cave-in to stabilize the tunnel."
"I wonder…" said Aurellia.
"Yes, I know," Remus chimed in. "The timing was interesting, to say the least. Back then we never suspected anything other than a simple cave-in, and we turned around and left. Now I have to wonder if the passage was deliberately blocked over the summer in order to keep students out. Our second visit was around the beginning of O.W.L. year, and as I said, we became too busy to investigate further. But it was also around that time that we started hearing rumors about dragons somewhere in Hogwarts. And when we stayed up late studying, we'd look out the windows and sometimes catch glimpses of something big flying in the moonlight out over the Forbidden Forest.”
"So the dragons were brought in over the summer, and the passage was deliberately caved-in in order to keep the students out," Aurellia summarized.
"Yes, and the dragons were brought in because the war with Voldemort was already heating up, but we didn't know that much about it back then. We weren't given the opportunity to see the dragons up close…"
"I hope Dumbledore isn't making a mistake, letting the older students come down here as part of their Care of Magical Creatures Class," Aurellia remarked. "Someone's going to come down here when they're not supposed to, and there's going to be trouble."
"Nah," said Hagrid, shaking his massive head. "No one's gettin' past Karalthe, and no one's gettin' in by way of the dragon-hangar. An' if the cave-in kept the Marauders out, it'll keep anyone out."
"And we'll be adding some extra security along the tunnels as well, just as soon as we get everything unpacked and set up," Charlie stated. "Don't worry, Professor Deveroux, your students will be perfectly safe."
"If you say so," the Defense teacher murmured skeptically. "But isn't it a bit of a risk to you Dragon Handlers, leaving this passage blocked? What if you need to escape quickly, and the route to Karalthe's tree becomes impassable as well?"
"Then we'll ride the dragons out through the dragon hangar on the other side of the lake," said Charlie, shrugging. "I'm not worried. Besides…" He drew his wand and faced the stone wall in front of the party. "I'm not at all convinced that this dead-end is as solid as it looks."
The ginger-haired wizard raised the wand over his head and brought it down in a swift slashing motion. “Transitus draconis habitare, aparo!” he intoned. A great ragged gash formed in front of him as the stone wall split down the middle, then vanished.
"Well!" exclaimed Aurellia. "That just goes to show that looks can be deceiving!"
"Well, I'll be a house-elf!" Hagrid exclaimed. "How'd you do that?"
Charlie grinned and pulled a scrap of foolscap out of his robe pocket. On it were written the words he had just spoken. "Dumbledore gave it to the boss just before we left the reservation. Boss gave it to me for safe-keeping. Said it was a password of some kind to get into Hogwarts. He didn't pay much attention when Dumbledore said where to use it, and told Truman and me he'd ask again later."
"Well, I guess you can tell him you've figured it out for him," Aurellia observed with a smile. "I wish you were in one of my classes, Mr. Weasley. Most of my students don't show enough initiative."
"Merlin, no! No offense, Professor," the Dragon Handler responded quickly, "but I hated school. It was dreadfully boring. Dragons are far more interesting than textbooks and spellwork."
"Is that the cave-in yeh told us about, Remus?" Hagrid inquired, pointing ahead of the group at a solid barrier of piled-up boulders and dirt.
"Indeed," came the reply, "but I'll bet there's a way through that as well. Mr…er, Charlie?"
The Dragon Handler looked at the paper with the password on it and shrugged. "Don't know. Boss didn't say, and there's nothing else written here."
"How about the Revealing Spell?" Remus suggested.
Charlie pointed his wand at the mountain of rubble and tried the recommended spell. "Occultus Minatio Revelio!" Nothing happened for the space of an instant, and then suddenly, the entire pile of rubble began to glow with a dim reddish light. "Well, that's interesting," he said.
"What does that mean?" Aurellia wondered, stretching forth a hand, then quickly jerking it back as she thought of the Dragon Tiles.
"Well, there's obviously something hidden here…but the Revealing Spell can't pinpoint it. If there is a way through here, we'll not find it without Dumbledore's assistance. I'd bet good Galleons he's the one who put this here when you were a student, Remus."
"Where inside the castle does that passage come out, Remus?" Aurellia asked. "Is it anywhere near the Potions classroom?"
"No, it's closer to the Slytherin dorms. There's a certain statue sculpted out of a huge dolomite block. Viron Von Arx, forever immortalized in his famous career as a great dragon-slayer. He's killing Grendel, the fierce Norwegian Ridgeback. The statue sits on a giant obsidian pedestal in an alcove just before you get to the Slytherins' sliding wall.
"Oh, I know where that is!" Charlie exclaimed. "To think, I stood right in front of a secret entrance to the dragon dens of Hogwarts, and didn't even see it!"
"Well, it's not easy to see. It turns out the pedestal is hollow. To open it, you knock on it three times and say, "I've come to see Grendel's resting place."
"That's rather obscure," Aurellia remarked. "How did you ever figure that out?"
Remus gave a Mona Lisa smile and said, "Some other time, Ari."
Charlie remarked, "Well, I don't think we need to worry about students sneaking down here any time soo…"
He broke off abruptly as the four of them heard a very loud, deep snorting sound coming from down the hallway, then a loud choking and splashing sound. "Evanesco!" boomed a baritone voice down the corridor. "Scourgify! Ah, it's too much for one wand! Greggs! Drop whatever yer workin' on over there and get in here, laddie! Wait! Go see where Weasley's gone off to and fetch him first! Then get in here!"
“Ah, there ain’t nothin' worse than a dyspeptic dragon,” said Hagrid. “Do yeh want me to help ya make a nice, strong cauldron o’ Stoke-Fire tea for ‘im?”
“No, no, Hagrid, that’s all right. We’ll handle it,” said Charlie. "It's our job."
An instant later, a slim wizard about Charlie’s age, with olive-brown skin and short, straight black hair, came running toward their small party. “Charlie, MacFusty's calling for us," he announced, paying no attention to the others in his urgency.
"I heard," Charlie replied with a long-suffering sigh. "It's Mr. Messy again, isn't it?"
"Yeah, Scorchy again. And it's the worst he's ever been,” the new wizard announced.
Charlie groaned and rolled his eyes. “Great. He never did tolerate changes to his routine, and he bolts his food every time like it's his last meal. So who's got cleanup duty this time? You or me?”
Another, even louder retching sound could be heard, followed by loud oaths and exclamations of disgust. "Greggs! Weasley! Where are ye, lads?" shouted the voice from down the corridor.
“Both of us,” Truman said, "and probably the boss too from the sounds of it. Merlin, I would have thought twice about this career if I'd known what all I'd be doing!"
"Ah, you love it," teased Charlie. "Where else do you get to shake hands, er…pincers with a practical joking spider, feed vile medicines to a vicious, snarling beast with teeth the size of coyotes, and Vanish dragon puke while your tone-deaf boss sings the same old Scottish tunes day after day after day…"
"Well, when you put it that way," Truman said with a grin. "But you know, watching them hatch, being there when they first come out of their shells…that's what makes it all worthwhile."
"Not to mention the danger and the excitement of riding them when they go out to hunt," Charlie added.
"Or the danger and the excitement from just feeding them their medicine," Truman said dryly. "So who've you lured down here with you, Hagrid?" he asked, changing the subject abruptly and waving a belated greeting at Aurellia and Remus.
Hagrid waggled a thumb at the aforementioned teachers and said, "Wahl, yeh ought to remember Mr. Lupin from your Defense classes couple o' years back, and this here's Perfesser Deveroux what teaches the same class this year."
Truman shrugged and looked an apology at Remus. "Sorry, Mr. Lupin, but I think you came after my time here," he said. "And I quit Defense Against the Dark Arts after my fifth year. N.E.W.T.-level Potions, Charms, Transfiguration, and Care of Magical Creatures kept me plenty busy those last two years, not to mention Quidditch and my apprenticeship."
"Isn't Defense Against the Dark Arts required for Dragon Handling?" Aurellia queried in surprise.
"Preferred but not necessarily required," Truman explained. "See, there were other factors that counted in my favor when I got the apprenticeship. Quidditch experience helps a lot. All that flying and dodging Bludgers is great practice for dragon riding. And a mastery of N.E.W.T.-level Potions and Magical Creatures were required for my particular position at the Hebridean Reservation. Plus, I did get an O on my Defense O.W.L., even though I didn't get the N.E.W.T."
"I see," said Aurellia. "You really should have taken those last two years of Defense, though, especially in light of recent events."
Truman shrugged. "Well, who figured on the return of You-Know-Who back then? I expected I would learn whatever else I needed to in the field, and since Defense is mostly a hands-on practical subject anyway, why add any more work to my already heavy load?" He paused, gave Deveroux a look of mild curiosity, then said, "Hogwarts can't seem to get or keep Defense teachers. How did they talk you into teaching the class, and are you going to leave at the end of the year like all the others?"
Aurellia shrugged and said simply, "I like a challenge, and I intend to prove that the jinx on my job is mere superstition. I'm staying for as long as they'll keep me."
"Then you're either barking mad or very brave!" Truman observed with a grin. "Either way, I'll bet you're a lot tougher than you look."
"Me brother Ron told me he saw Professor Deveroux beat Snape in a duel, or she would have, if he hadn't cheated and cast something illegal," Charlie threw in.
"Your brother also likes to spread a lot of dragon manure," Truman said skeptically. Then, unable to resist asking, he turned his attention back to Aurellia. "Did you really duel ol' Snape, Professor?"
"Er…well, yes, but it was no big deal. It was only a classroom demonstration," Deveroux replied briskly in a tone that clearly said the case was closed.
"Well, I suppose we should be leaving now, since the dragons aren't feeling up to having company this evening," Remus broke in quickly in an attempt to head off any further inquiries about Snape and Deveroux and last year's dueling debacle.
“Can I do anythin' to help out before we go?” Hagrid asked eagerly.
“'Fraid not, Hagrid,” Charlie said, shaking his head. “You need to take the others topside to safety. Meanwhile I'm going to be busy helping the boss with Scorchsnout for the next several hours. This is one task I wouldn’t wish even on the Malfoys. Whenever anyone tries to clean up Scorchy's den or give him his medicine, he always throws a temper-tantrum, and he gets Norbert on the rampage as well. We’ll probably be up the rest of the night with those two until they finally settle down."
"What about Tiamat? I thought she had the younger fellas wrapped around her venerable claws?" the half-giant inquired. "Doesn't she usually help keep order?"
"Only when she's awake," the ginger-haired wizard replied with a grimace. "But she's old, and the trip here wore her out. She's down for the night, unfortunately. Well, there's nothing to be done but endure until the dragons get used to the routine here. You remember how to go back up, Hagrid?”
“Yeah, I do,” Hagrid said in obvious disappointment. “I just wish I could…”
More snorting and roaring could be heard down the hall, followed by more cursing and a very human-sounding yelp of pain. "Now you stop that right now, laddie!" came an angry voice from the same direction. "Greggs! Weasley!"
“Sorry to break up the party, mates, but we really should go now,” Truman said, motioning for Charlie to follow. "Hagrid, come back and visit us in a couple of hours. We should have things somewhat under control by then. Hopefully."
Hagrid stood staring after the two Handlers as if half-hoping they'd change their minds and invite him to follow, until Remus and Aurellia finally each took one of the half-giant’s arms and steered him back toward the entrance to the Handlers' office and beyond it the tunnel which led to the spider's exit.