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Enter the Dragon (Harry Potter/Shadowrun)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Dunkelzahn, Jul 10, 2018.

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  1. Threadmarks: Section 2.14 - Out of time
    Dunkelzahn

    Dunkelzahn No one of consequence

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    2.14 Out of time


    2.14.1 Out of options

    End of term exams approached, and with them would come the end of the school year. Across the school, the staff busily readied themselves for the rush, preparing the tests that would be administered in the next few weeks.

    In one office, nearly a week ahead of the time that such a thing would be expected, one class’ worth of such examinations lay completed and ready to hand out. Each year matched with an answer key done up in red complete with annotations on how to assign partial credit. On top of the pile of parchments laid an envelope addressed to Albus Dumbledore. The rest of the desk was neatly sorted and done up, almost as if the owner had put things in order in anticipation of a long trip.

    On the other side of the office, said owner stood before a bubbling cauldron and prepared to decant its contents into specially prepared glass canisters. Charmed imperturbable on the inside surface and extremely thin-walled, they looked rather like glass Christmas ornaments — with good reason, for that is what they once were. Within each one was an un-charmed glass vial containing the last of the ingredients required to complete the concoction.

    If he were lucky, the inner vial would dissolve too quickly for him to seal the outer container, and his suffering would be over except for the dying — honestly a minor thing at this point, by his reckoning.

    If he were unlucky, well… it would be just the weapon needed to break the goblin defense on the third floor — and he was sure his soul would be damned for eternity for using it.

    And again, his earthly suffering would be over except for the dying. No change there.

    Hands moving quickly, the incomplete potion was transferred, and the repurposed ornaments were melted shut with a tightly-controlled flame charm just in time to hear the slight crunch of breaking glass and the sudden sizzle as the potion in the spheres changed its nature dramatically.

    Damn.

    He could only hope the goblins were up to killing him tonight — he was out of options.

    2.14.2 Night assault

    The hallway was quiet and dark, and Corporal Mantrap struggled to stay awake for his guard shift in the third-floor hallway of Hogwarts. He commanded half of his section on the current shift, and his second would be taking over with the other half in just over two hours. Nothing had shown up in the hallway before their position since the beginning of the shift, not even that cat Filch kept around.

    It had been a rather boring deployment all around, no action outside that one spot of excitement with the trolls back in the autumn, and the job was going to come to an end in just another month or so when the prize would be moved to another location. It was almost to the point where Mantrap was hoping for another bit of action — just to ward off the boredom if nothing else.

    Almost… but not quite.

    The corporal was a veteran soldier, and he had more than enough experience to appreciate boredom for what it really was: safety. If things got exciting for a soldier… well he wouldn’t be bored, but there would be a whole lot more blood to deal with and a whole lot more dead friends to grieve. So that ‘not quite’ meant Corporal Mantrap was perfectly content to watch a mind-numbingly boring empty hallway for hours on end in the middle of the night…

    “Hey, look alive there, soldier!” he barked at one of the gobs manning the gun emplacement who was starting to nod off.

    …and he was quite happy to force the rest of his section to do so too. The soldier in question snapped back to wakefulness and sounded off an acknowledgement and an apology.

    The acknowledgement came just before the quiet crash of breaking glass.

    The corporal was already thumbing the safety off on his rifle and looking down the hallway for the telltale signs of a disillusioned intruder when the pair of gobs manning the emplacement screamed in agony. Mantrap snapped back to look at them and was horrified to see them missing an arm each and some sort of dark liquid eating its way through his soldiers’ torsos. The gun itself was already a loss, melted through just forward of the ammunition feed.

    It was the last thing Corporal Mantrap would ever see, as it was at that point that the fumes from whatever it was that was eating his men alive reached him and rendered his eyes pits of hellish agony, burning straight through his eyelids even as they reflexively closed.

    Gas!”

    It wasn’t a chemical agent he was familiar with, but the vector was obvious. Chemical weaponry was not something they had prepared for on this deployment — assuming that there was a way to contain the damned stuff even if they had. His gobs had fallen silent at the gun — probably dead from what he had seen before he lost his sight — and if he judged properly from the quiet swearing from the other side of the hallway, the other two had probably been rendered as blind as he was.

    Regardless, his soldiers were well-trained, and they rapidly fell silent as they strained to listen for an approaching intruder. Blind fighting was a necessity in the tunnels at times, though no one was could really claim to be good at it. The best they could hope for at this point was to hear a footstep and then pray and spray in the right general direction.

    While his men were doing that, Mantrap himself groped blindly for his radio to warn the rest of the guard company. The burning in his lungs told him he probably wouldn’t survive much longer himself, but a warning would give the rest of the boys a chance. He had just managed to locate the radio when it fell apart in his hands with an electronic squeal as a silent cutting curse destroyed it, removing his left hand in the process.

    The intruder must have silenced himself. Damn!

    Another ominous tinkle of broken glass heralded the outbreak of yet more screaming, this time from his other two squad-mates, and Mantrap knew that the situation had gone from grim to completely black. The enemy had killed the last of them, then, the bastard!

    As the last gob alive at the post, there was no reason not to go out swinging. His fallen mates would hardly begrudge him an accidental bullet or two to their corpses in exchange for the possibility of taking out their killer. Mantrap braced his L1A1 as best as he could before pointing it in the general direction of where he remembered the hallway to be and emptied the clip as fast as he could work the trigger, slewing the gun in an attempt to cover the whole hallway.

    As the rifle clicked empty, the corporal ejected the magazine then reached for a reload with his remaining hand, pinning the rifle in place with his stump, only to be engulfed by a wave of fire which had him writhing on the floor in agony as he attempted to put out the flames. He managed to smother the last of them just as his thrashing brought his head into all-to firm contact with the wall he had been crouched next to, and Mantrap knew no more.

    2.14.3 Unwanted success

    As the corporal stilled, a pair of shoes appeared in the middle of the hallway, and then a distortion slowly traveled upward revealing a dark figure. The man was wearing standard dark-colored wizarding robes with the unusual addition of a purple turban as he allowed his disillusionment charm to lapse. He panted while clutching at his side to stanch the blood flow from a grazing bullet wound sustained in that last blind spray of bullets.

    That had been a close one.

    After the miserable failure of his Halloween gambit during the previous term, Quirrel had planned carefully for this moment. The trolls had revealed the futility of a frontal assault — despite his master’s arrogance in believing otherwise — and Quirrel had scrambled for a means of neutralizing the goblin defensive position. He had finally hit upon the idea when he overheard some of his first-year students talking about a safety lecture from their potions class.

    That metal cleaning potion Snape had led off with for the first years could be easily converted to his purposes, with both a directly damaging component to take out the fortifications and the deadly gas for killing the guards. It was admittedly risky; any misstep would have led to his own gruesome demise. Ever since he had begun creating the potion and its delivery device, he had been one misstep, one piece of cracked glass, away from a closed-casket funeral.

    It was in large part why he had latched on to the idea.

    His master was a cruel and demanding one, and Quirrel served neither willingly nor eagerly, but the domination methods the monster had used left him little room to act. For the better part of a year since he had fallen victim, the man had been searching for a loophole, some way out, and he had hit upon the desperate idea of taking risks which were more likely to be fatal than successful.

    The Master had commanded that he be willing to die in order to complete the monster’s goals, and Quirrel had chosen to interpret that literally. He could not deliberately sabotage his own efforts, but he could choose the riskiest options that still held a faint chance of success and hope that statistics caught up with him before success. It was a poor option, but it was the best he could manage.

    Death was mightily attractive in comparison to the Master’s service.

    “Shit,” the turbaned man quietly cursed in the silent hallway. Why couldn’t the goblins have managed to find something he had missed? He was tempted to kick the fallen goblin before him in frustrated anger. Barring some fortunate circumstance, his foolish gamble looked like it was going to pay off.

    It seemed that Hell smiled up at fools just as much as Heaven smiled down on them. More’s the pity.

    As Quirrel cast a minor healing spell to seal his wound and a numbing charm to hide the pain, deliberately avoiding cleaning it first in hopes that it might come back to haunt his Master later, he continued on. The next room saw him face to face… to face… to face… with a three-headed dog larger than the staff table in the Great Hall.

    The mutt was enormous and deadly looking, snarling viciously as saliva dripped from its three sets of massive jaws, but Quirrel quickly lulled it to sleep with a music charm cast at the prompting of his increasingly eager Master. The enslaved man had not held out much hope for the efficacy of the rest of the traps; the goblins were by far the deadliest of the lot. None of these would kill him before the Master had his chance.

    Dumbledore was away on business, the goblins on guard had been silenced before they could raise an alert, the shift change wouldn’t occur for another two hours, and Quirrel himself was the staff member on duty for this portion of the castle. Everything was set for Quirrel to succeed in his theft on behalf of his Master. No one was in position to stop him now…

    …least of all himself.

    It was truly a shame, Quirrel quietly despaired, even as he pushed further into the defenses.

    2.14.4 Business?

    “What do you mean the Minister is unavailable?” Albus demanded irritably. “His letter was most insistent on an immediate meeting.”

    First the Minister had called another one of his inane ‘emergency consultations’, and now he lacked even the basic decency to let his security know a guest would be arriving. Sometimes it was the most unlikely things that made him question his decision to refrain from fixing things through brute magical power.

    It was sad how many of those unlikely things involved the current Minister and his cronies.

    “I apologize, Supreme Mugwump,” the thoroughly uncomfortable auror on guard duty apologized. “The Minister is in a meeting at the moment, sir, and he left strict orders that he is not to be disturbed.”

    “A meeting at eleven in the evening?”

    “His wife, sir…” the guard explained in a mildly nauseated voice.

    “His wife,” Albus flatly echoed.

    “Yes, sir.”

    “And why is he holding this meeting in his office?” Albus was almost afraid to ask.

    “I wouldn’t presume to speculate, sir.”

    The uncomfortable silence was broken by a loud slap and a high-pitched effeminate squeal.

    Albus covered his face with his palm in disgust.

    “That’s him now, sir,” the auror offered in a disgusted tone.

    At the elderly man’s questioning eyebrow, the auror elaborated helpfully, “His wife brought along a… toy, sir.”

    “She carried it in?” Albus asked incredulously. “Out in the open?”

    “Not exactly, sir,” the guard hedged, flinching at yet another squeal. “Her… skirt wasn’t thick enough to hide it properly, sir.”

    Oh.

    What had he been doing with his life that it had come to this? Albus shook his head in disgust and settled in to wait.

    2.14.5 Sacrificing a pawn

    Screaming in agony, Quirrel burst through a wall of black flames into a barren stone room.

    “Damn it!” Why couldn’t Severus have used something properly lethal? The potions master had gone and gotten Quirinus’ hopes up when he had left poison in every bottle of his little logic puzzle, and then he hadn’t had the stones to follow through and make the fire properly lethal!

    Chintzy bastard!

    Not bothering to pat out the residual flames — Quirinus was well aware he was about to die when his evil bastard of a Master body-jacked him, and he was doing his level best to leave that body in as poor a condition as he could manage within the confines of the Master’s commands, a final act of spite — the unfortunate defense teacher walked toward the single piece of furniture in the otherwise empty room.

    It was a mirror, oval in shape and full-length, mounted on a rather ornate stand, and the man could feel the magic imbued in it like sunlight on a summer’s day. There was an odd inscription emblazoned across the top of the frame beginning with the word ‘Erised’… ah.

    That was a name he knew. The mirror that showed naught but the heart’s desire. The thing was a legend in the cursebreaking and defense circles, held up as an example of how even the nicest of things could be turned into the vilest of weapons. Many a wizard had wasted away, unable to look away from the images it showed.

    It would make sense, then, for Dumbledore to have hidden the stone in such a way that one had to look into the mirror in order to find it. A potential thief would catch sight of whatever seductive vision the mirror showed and be paralyzed, making for an easy capture.

    Genius!

    Quirrel knew his limits, and he knew that one look in that mirror would be his undoing. If his mental defenses were strong enough to resist that cursed mirror, he never would have been ensnared by the Master in the first place. Better still, his master’s commands would not only allow him to take this opportunity, they would force him to!

    Bless you, Albus Dumbledore!

    Quirinus wondered what vision of desire would capture his fancy and keep him paralyzed until the compatriots of the goblins he had killed came by to slit his throat in well-deserved revenge. Perhaps it would be a vision of the monster who did this to him writhing in agony, enduring all the tortures of hell?

    That’d be his guess. Just thinking about it warmed the cockles of his heart.

    With a newly lightened step, Quirrel boldly rounded the mirror, stopped in front of it and locked his eyes on its surface only to see — his own reflection.

    A reflection that then proceeded to shrug apologetically and hold out a blood red crystalline stone in the palm of its hand before slipping it into its own pocket while holding Quirrel’s horrified gaze with its own regretful one.

    “No… no,” Quirrel stuttered aloud, even as his hand, driven by the compulsion spells, reached down into that same pocket on his own person. “It’s not possible! He couldn’t have done something so… not when it was so close to… if he had just left well enough alone…”

    His hand closed on a hard, angular stone in his pocket that most assuredly had not been there before.

    Damn you, Albus Dumbledore!” the broken man yelled. “Damn you to hell! If you had just left the mirror alone, it would have gotten me and that bastard for sure! Why… why did you have to get cute about it?”

    And then the spells completed, a surge of magic coursed through both the stone and the man, and the turbaned figure erupted in a welter of blood as its flesh reconfigured itself with a wet squelch, quickly taking on a new shape starting with a face on what used to be the back of the man’s head. All the while, blood flowed over the stone and took on a glowing silver hue before flowing back into the rapidly shifting figure.

    A newly reconfigured arm reached up and pulled the bloody remains of a purple turban away from the new figure’s face, and the newly revealed eyes glowed red as they looked down at the stone held in its other hand.

    “Yes,” it hissed in a sibilant tone which had little in common with a normal human voice. “Excellent work, Quirinus. Excellent work, indeed.”

    There was a hissing chuckle. “Ah, that potion was inspired, I must say — oh the screams! I shall have to remember it for the future. And that delicious ending, the desperate man presented with one last hope only for it to be snatched away — ah, if only Albus had actually intended to be so cruel, I might be envious. How marvelous!”

    A quick bit of spell work repaired and adjusted the shredded and ill-fitting robes that were still draped over the man’s new body, and the red-eyed man conjured a mirror — he knew better than to look into the one already in the room. Now that its alternate enchantment was in all likelihood spent, he had no desire to risk himself to its seductive imagery.

    “Not bad for being dead for a decade, I suppose; though the red eyes are new,” the man said examining his reflection closely. “I do believe I like them.”

    A flick of the erstwhile defense professor’s wand dismissed the mirror.

    “Now for some unfinished business…” the macabre blood-soaked figure spun on its heel and walked briskly out the way his unfortunate former host had entered, “it wouldn’t do to leave the Potter job undone. Entirely unprofessional!”

    2.14.6 Realization

    “Albus? What are you doing here?”

    Dumbledore had to acknowledge, his many, many other faults aside, Cornelius Fudge had some of the most impressive emotional control the elderly wizard had ever encountered. It was either that or the man simply had no sense of shame whatsoever… which sounded more plausible, come to think of it.

    Whatever the reason, there was no hint in the Minister’s voice or demeanor of what the man had been doing in his office for the last half hour, though the rather portly man did lose some points for sitting too stiffly. Understandable, certainly, but it detracted from the performance.

    “Minister, you demanded that I meet with you immediately — half an hour ago,” Albus handed the man the memo which had been delivered just before Albus had intended to go to bed.

    The Minister of Magic looked curiously at the parchment in question before stating firmly, “Albus, I sent no such request. Who gave it to you? Should we contact Amelia about a forgery?”

    “You didn’t send it?” Albus frowned. “It arrived in the usual manner, and I thought nothing of it. Hmm, what was that in service of, I wonder?”

    From the doorway, the Minister’s long-suffering bodyguard spoke up tentatively, “Um, sir? It occurs to me that the only things that note accomplished were getting you here and making you annoyed at the Minister for wasting your time. Since I don’t believe you are the sort to hold a grudge with someone over something that they didn’t do, and I don’t think anyone else believes that either, that leaves only one possible motivation for sending the note. I believe it was a means of removing you from your school, sir.”

    Albus’ eyes widened, and he shot to his feet, an odd device appearing in his hand from within his robes. “Corporal? Are you there, Corporal?” There was no response.

    “Cornelius, please pass that on to Amelia and ask her to investigate the forgery,” Albus said indicating the parchment.

    As the Minister nodded agreeably, the Headmaster excused himself, “It seems that I have some urgent business to attend to at Hogwarts, good evening, Minister.” And the room was suddenly one person emptier.

    “Did he just apparate right through the wards, sir?” the auror on duty asked the Minister.

    Cornelius waved off the man’s question. “He always does that,” he said dismissively. The minister dropped the forged memo on his desk to deal with in the morning. “We’re done here for the evening; I’ll be leaving now.”

    “Aren’t you curious about what’s going on in the school, Minister?”

    “Albus will deal with it, and if he doesn’t then as long as I don’t know about it, it’s not my problem.”

    “What about the students, sir?”

    “Like I said, not my problem,” Cornelius shrugged on his coat and reached for his bowler. “If some of the little monsters die on Albus’ watch, he’ll get blamed for it, and the only way I can catch heat is if I was aware of the problem; therefore, I will go home and go to sleep without looking into things.”

    “I see, sir,” the auror said uncertainly.

    “You’ll understand eventually, son,” the Minister said magnanimously.

    As the portly man left the room, his bodyguard muttered under his breath, “God, I hope not,” before following dutifully along.

    2.14.7 Blast from the past

    At the Lair, Harry and his two damsels were engaged in their usual nightly ritual.

    They had returned from the castle after dinner and had gone through their evening chores. Suze had worked on her spinning because her shirts were starting to wear out again; Hermione had curled up with — or more descriptively, around — a book, given her usual choice in reading material; and Harry had eaten his second, much more substantial, dinner.

    Afterwards, the trio had come together to watch the sunset from the lip of the Lair, and then with the fall of night, they had returned to the sitting area intent on reading for a time before they sought their various beds.

    While not strictly a part of the routine, it was not unusual — particularly since the incorporation of Hermione into the group — for this evening reading period to run rather longer than was prudent for growing children, which was why, when a certain blood-drenched figure burst into the Lair along about midnight, all three of the Lair’s inhabitants were still wide awake.

    “So, the Boy-Who-Lived,” an unpleasantly sibilant voice sneered from the entrance. “Ha! The Boy-Who-Won’t-Live-Much-Longer, rather!”

    The red-eyed and nose-less man hissed a laugh as the centaur in the room went for her rifle and knocked her unconscious with a silently cast stunner. He would have to remember to punish it later for its temerity in not waiting patiently to be killed. There was a proper order to this sort of thing, after all.

    “Who the dickens are you?” Harry demanded, rather justifiably put out at the sudden home invasion. “And what do you think you’re doing; how’d you find here to get in; and what reprobate gave you a nose-ectomy?”

    “Are you an imbecile, boy?” the nose-less man growled — rather poorly, to be honest; the hissing really killed the effect.

    Harry looked rather less than impressed.

    “I am Lord Voldemort!” the intruder proclaimed, sounding rather put out that he had not been recognized.

    It had only been a decade, surely his reputation hadn’t faded so quickly?

    “And I am here to finish what I started ten years ago when I killed your parents! Of course I found you, I’m the Dark Lord, and you didn’t even try to protect against scrying! Terribly sloppy of you — though I suppose it’s to be expected; you are a child, after all. Perhaps I should wait for any future child enemies to grow up before murdering them?”

    The creepy-looking man paused for a moment, rubbing thoughtfully at his chin. Adults did tend to be more professional adversaries, and the ultimately futile struggle was the best part of the whole business. “Something to consider I suppose…”

    “What about the nose-ectomy?” Harry prompted curiously when the intruder drifted off before he finished answering his set of questions.

    “Oh, yes, quite — terribly sorry, I got a tad distracted there,” the self-styled Lord Voldemort apologized absently before shifting back to a hissing approximation of dramatically carrying voice. “And — what in Salazar’s name is a nose-ectomy?”

    “Huh. Nah, you can’t be that Voldemort-guy; he splattered himself when he bounced a killing curse off my face,” the young dragon countered.

    Harry wasn’t buying what this guy was selling; his face was way too awesome to leave survivors.

    “And since you found my Lair, you can’t be half as stupid as someone who managed to splatter himself while trying to kill a baby. And since getting your appendix taken out is an appendectomy, I guess getting your nose taken off is a nose-ectomy.”

    The red-eyed fellow who was most assuredly Lord Voldemort, no matter what his soon-to-be latest victim insisted, drew himself up for another round of argument before deflating.

    “Why am I discussing noses with the Potter brat?”

    He shook his entirely nose-free head in disgust before continuing, “Feh! Claim what you like, that mudblood bitch of a mother of yours did… something! A ritual! It caused my curse to rebound, not your face! And as I have progressed further along the path to immortality than any other, all it succeeded in doing was destroying my body, which — with the aid of my most excellent, if unwilling, assistant, Professor Quirrel, who unfortunately perished in the process — I have regained!”

    “No, one of my friends has a photo of the mess. That Voldemort-guy was definitely splattered all over the walls, and the floor, and the ceiling, and the door, and my crib, and the windows, and the hallway outside the door, and…”

    “That’s enough, brat!”

    “Anyway, I mean he went splat! And when I splat things — or I suppose, when my face splats things — they stay SPLATTED!”

    “I have only one thing left to say to you, foolish brat, avada kedavra!”

    And with that, a sickly green light shot out of the intruder’s wand. Harry only had just enough time to say “Hey!” before the curse hit.

    “And now,” Voldemort declared, turning to Hermione, “for you, mudblood! You have the honor to be the second slain by me in this, my new…”

    “You’ve got no idea how much that stings!” Harry loudly declared, sitting back up from where he’d slumped down on the couch.

    This was sufficiently strange to throw Voldemort off-track in mid-monologue.

    “…actually, I have,” Voldemort countered. “By the way, avada kedavra.”

    He turned back to the quivering Hermione.

    “Where was I? Ah, yes, you…”

    “I’m done talking to you! Nobody just…” the Boy-Who-Just-Wouldn’t-Freaking-Die declared, popping back up.

    Avada kedavra, goddamnit!”

    “OW! Nobody just comes in here throwing…”

    “AVADA KEDAVRA!”

    “…killing curses and…”

    AVADA KEDAVRA! WILL YOU JUST PLEASE DIE ALREADY?”

    “…threatening my damsels!”

    AVADA KEDAVRA! AVADA KEDAVRA! AVADA KEDAVRA!

    The Boy-Who-Just-Kept-Popping-Back-Up seemed to be staying down this time, so the highly irritated Dark Lord once again returned his attention to Hermione.

    “Finally! As I was saying…”

    That was when an enormous set of teeth descended on him from above. Harry, his piece said, had reverted to his native form and gone for the bite. Nothing accidental about it; that was intentional, through and through.

    Harry briefly chewed, swallowed, and belched, then said, “Huh.”

    Hermione, who had managed to get her teeth unclenched, let out a distinctly shell shocked-sounding squeak.

    “’S’funny. I didn’t expect enemy to taste like pork.” Harry continued, “Wonder who that was? Sure can’t have been… oh boy, dragon gas!”

    With that, he spun around quickly, sticking his tail and backside out over the lip of the cave, and released what had to be the most epic fart in known history.

    After all, flatulence is usually composed of methane or some such rancid gas, not screaming, disembodied, horribly-traumatized-due-to-just-having-passed-through-a-dragon’s-digestive-tract shades of Dark Lords.

    Hermione, still plastered to the couch where she’d been wishing desperately there wasn’t a Voldemort between her and the guns, blinked several times and managed to get out a stunned, “…uhhh…” between struggling not to giggle in hysterical relief and struggling not to freak out.

    “Huh, that was weird,” Harry remarked, bemusedly scratching at his head — which, coming from a dragon the size of a not-so-small aircraft, looked somewhat strange to say the least — and peering after the spectral Voldemort. “Stuff doesn’t normally do that when I eat it; I guess I better see what Mr. Dumbledore and Madame Pomfrey think about that.”

    He cast a finishing spell — one of the few charms he could now safely manage after nearly a year of constant control exercises — at his centaur damsel in order to remove the stunning spell. It was not the prescribed counter, but it was close enough that the disparity in strength more than made up for the mismatch in spell choice.

    As Suze struggled to her feet, he continued, “Oh well, he tasted like pork, so that’s all… um, oh boy, aw man, I don’t think enemy went down so good.”

    As the philosopher’s stone that Voldemort had been carrying when he assaulted Harry’s Lair went to work on the dragon’s largely-iron physiology from its new home in the same dragon’s absurdly magical gullet and caused him to pass out with a fever, the last thing he heard was Hermione and Suze frantically yelling his name.

    As far as Hermione was concerned, this was definitely a valid justification to pitch a fit of the screaming meemies.
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2020
  2. Threadmarks: Section 2.15 - Aftermath
    Dunkelzahn

    Dunkelzahn No one of consequence

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    2.15 Aftermath


    2.15.1 Battlefield forensics

    Sergeant-Major Hooktalon had been awakened from a sound sleep by a glowing white phoenix carrying thoroughly unpleasant news. Their employer, Albus Dumbledore, had been unable to contact the defense team using their prearranged communications, and he was concerned about the situation.

    Upon arrival at the school, his scout’s report had been even worse, telling as it did of the mutilated corpses of five of his best gobs killed by some sort of chemical weapon in between the painful hissing as the scout was treated for exposure to whatever the blasted stuff was. If not for the profits resulting from their association with the little Potter gent’ she’d have been blinded permanently, as it was the scout would be off-duty until she got fitted for a prosthetic set of eyes.

    Nasty stuff.

    The company was on high-alert and waiting on the arrival of the local potions expert, Severus Snape, to advise them on how to proceed. Hooktalon wasn’t going to throw good gobs into a meat grinder without a very good reason.

    Speaking of Snape, the man of the hour approached at a dead run. It was good to see that sort of concern in a wizard, no matter how abrasive the fellow was; though any good feeling had a hard time squeezing through around the towering rage currently suffusing the Sergeant-Major.

    “What has happened?” the potions master demanded, no panting or shortness of breath. He seemed to be in good condition, too.

    “Our on-duty guard contingent was wiped out, some kind of chemical weapon. Scout’s report says it melted through our machine gun and four of our gobs. Gas too — it blinded our scout even after what looks like about an hour’s time.”

    After a split second of consideration, the dark man replied, “That matches fourteen different potions to my knowledge. I will need to investigate personally. How closely could your scout approach before she was affected?”

    “Eight yards,” Slackhammer replied.

    “That limits the number to four,” Snape said, “but all four can be mitigated through the use of the bubble-head charm. I will investigate personally.” And with that, the man’s wand flickered and twitched as he swept off towards the site of the attack fifty feet down the hallway.

    Hopefully, that would deal with the issue and his gobs could set about finding the bastard responsible for all this.

    Sooner than even Hooktalon had hoped — that Snape fellow knew his business — there came a rush of air followed by a sharp crack and a call of “All clear!” from the wizard. The scouting group approached, led by their coldly furious Sergeant-Major.

    “The remaining fluid is inert; it has already dissolved everything that it can. It is still deadly-poisonous, but it is reasonably safe to handle so long as you do not ingest it,” the potions master reported. “The gas was more troublesome, but I have compressed and contained it for proper disposal in the future.” He motioned to a small glass vial held in his non-wand hand. “The potion in question was a deliberate mis-brewing of a metal-cleaning potion which I taught to the first-years in the fall term — the first class, as I recall. I then detailed how badly it could go when brewed outside of suppression charms as an example of why I demanded their best behavior in class.”

    “Are you saying that one of your first-year students did this?” Hooktalon growled.

    “Unlikely, Sergeant-Major,” Snape clarified, “look at the pattern, two points of origin, at the locations of your soldiers. The brewer created this intentionally and managed to pack it into a thrown container which shattered on impact. The level of skill required to pull off such a feat is monumental, as is the level of risk. Whoever created this weapon had no sense of self-preservation whatsoever — which admittedly fits with some of my more dunderheaded students, but none of those have the necessary skill to survive the attempt.”

    During the conversation, the group had been walking cautiously forward through the various defenses which had been put in place by the professors. All of them had been dismantled with extreme prejudice, until they arrived at a simple table with a collection of vials on its surface in front of a curtain of black flame.

    “This was my contribution,” Snape offered.

    “A logic puzzle?” Hooktalon scoffed.

    “A trap,” Snape corrected. “Every vial contains poison.”

    “Then how did our intruder get through?”

    Snape pressed his wand to the door frame containing the fire, consulting the ward records. “It seems our intruder simply ran through the fire on the way in. There is no record of an exit!”

    “Tough bastard,” Hooktalon said in grudging admiration even as he motioned for his infantry to ready for combat. On seeing his gobs at the ready, he said to Snape, “Open it up!”

    The flames guttered out, and the goblins swept into the room in an obviously practiced and professional manner. After a few moments of carefully peering about the room, watching for the tiny shimmering distortions that betrayed a disillusioned wizard, the all-clear call came back.

    “Do not look into the mirror,” Snape warned even as he walked towards a bloody puddle in front of the mentioned device. There had to be an entire person’s worth of blood pooled on the stone floor.

    “That’s a lot of blood, but where’s the body?” came growled question from the Sergeant-Major.

    “Sir, I found this!” one of the soldiers came up with a blood-soaked scrap of purple cloth.

    “Quirrel,” Snape snarled.

    “He was scheduled as our staff liaison at the time. Betrayal?”

    Snape nodded, “Either that or outside control. Given the blood, I suspect he was the target of a body-reshaping spell, and I know of no reason the man would be willing to go through with such a thing for his own benefit. The spell is absurdly painful and quite permanent. It effectively rips the caster’s body to shreds and sticks them back together in a new configuration, hence all the blood loss. It is not dark in and of itself as it harms only the caster, but the only known means to survive the process involves unicorn blood and a set of personal enhancement spells requiring the depraved sacrifice of several dozen children — or, as we see now, I suppose, the use of a philosopher’s stone.”

    “Sir! There’s a blood trail leading back through the door!”

    “Does it continue on the other side of the door?” Snape asked.

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Control then… likely possession,” the potions master concluded. “Had Quirrel known how to bypass the fire ward, he would have done so on the way in. Whoever or whatever is wearing that body now is much more skilled with wards.”

    “Do we have any idea where the bastard went?”

    “We can only follow the blood trail, Sergeant-Major — follow along and hope.”

    2.15.2 A shot in the dark

    Suze’s world sharpened as the adrenaline hit.

    Harry had just collapsed, looking worse off than she had ever seen him. That sort of thing was not supposed to happen to Great Wyrms, particularly not to her Great Wyrm, and the centaur maiden refused to stand for it.

    The problem, though, was that she had no idea how to help.

    Had it been acromantula venom, she would have known what to do. The same held true for snake bites, eating the wrong mushrooms, broken bones, deep cuts, and any number of other ailments that tended to crop up in forest living. This issue was not among those, and the only course Suze could think to take was getting help from someone better qualified.

    She looked toward the cave entrance. The problem with that course of action was the hundred-foot sheer drop between her and any potential help. She would do no one any good by jumping to her death.

    Suze assessed her assets. Her sister damsel was less than useless at this point, crying inconsolably as she hugged the Great Wyrm’s unconscious head. The girl was still young, she supposed; though at her age, Suze had been helping to fight off acromantula raids like the one that had taken her younger sister. Perhaps humans grew more slowly? She shook her head, dismissing the issue as irrelevant for the moment. Aside from Hermione, she had her weapons and the contents of the Lair, neither of which, unfortunately, included communications devices.

    That lack was an oversight she would have to remedy in the future, Suze resolved as she fought to keep her growing panic down.

    Her eyes flickered, casting about the Lair in search of something she could use until her eyes lit on Harry’s toys. Gathering up one of them — a sort of doll fashioned in the semblance of an odd creature, something Harry had called a ‘dinosaur’ — which was made of a material which had the strange property of glowing in the dark without any magic involved, she swiftly walked over to parchment-laden table and pulled a scrap of the stuff out of one of Harry’s notebooks on which she swiftly scrawled a series of the Clan’s rudimentary trail markings. The symbol for danger, another for help needed, and then her personal sigil which she had crafted on reaching maturity the year previous.

    She then wrapped the parchment around one of her carbon-aluminum arrow shafts, firmly tied the glowing toy onto the same arrow, and jogged to the cave entrance. Once there, she picked out a tree along one of her Clan’s usual patrol routes and let fly, the arrow wedging into the tree at head height, just as she had intended, glowing toy still attached.

    Now she would just have to wait... well, wait and hope her cousins hadn’t gotten complacent in their patrol schedules. Once she got their attention, the ground would be within shouting distance.

    2.15.3 Lost trail

    With Snape in tow, the goblins managed to track the increasingly intermittent blood traces through the castle all the way to the main entrance, at which point the droplets became too infrequent to mark a reliable trail. The squad had just spread out to better search the area when Albus Dumbledore arrived on the scene.

    “Severus, report!” the old man snapped.

    “The goblin security team on duty was killed by an assailant we believe to be Quirinus Quirrel, judging by the distinctive purple turban left behind. He was able to blast his way through most of the defenses, in the end simply charging through my flame ward into the final chamber. There we found a massive amount of shed human blood, which I believe to be indicative of a spell of the corpus reformandam cycle,” Snape grimaced. “Given the lack of an accompanying corpse, I suspect the intruder was successful at retrieving the philosopher’s stone and used its healing properties to obviate the need for the supporting rituals. The intruder then left by way of the same path, this time skillfully bypassing my flame ward in such a way that no record of his or her passing was left. We followed a blood trail to this point, and we have as yet been unable to progress further.”

    “You suspect coercion then,” Albus concluded.

    “Possession, actually,” Snape clarified, “ending in reforming Quirinus’ body to suit the tastes of his killer.”

    “Have you attempted divination?”

    “As a tracker?” Snape said incredulously. “We have no idea of the culprit’s identity, and even the blood left behind will have no connection to it now. It is Quirrel’s blood, after all, not his killer’s.”

    “I have a suspicion…” the elderly man held his wand flat on his open palm and concentrated on his memories of one, particularly unpleasant person. The wand floated above his wrinkled palm, only to spin aimlessly. “Damn.”

    At that moment, there was a deep thumping and rhythmic shaking of the ground which was quickly revealed to be the Hogwarts Groundskeeper jogging at a deceptively fast clip towards the castle.

    “’eadmaster Dumbledore! You gotta come quick, ‘Arry’s mighty sick, ‘e is!” the massive man said. “Ronan came ‘bout in a ‘urry ter tell me. Some feller came by an’ tried ter kill ‘im, but ‘Arry ate ‘im, then ‘e got real sick!”

    “We are on our way, Hagrid,” Albus said seriously. “Please retrieve your broom and relay our goblin friends there yourself. We will go ahead.” Even as he spoke, Albus’ wand was flickering. A broom was summoned from his office, and several messenger patronuses winged their glowing way off to rouse relevant personnel.

    2.15.4 A missing stone

    Dumbledore and Snape were the first to arrive at the Lair, and a remarkable sight greeted them.

    “What in Merlin’s name,” Snape murmured, “has that blasted boy gone and done to himself this time?”

    “He’s… he’s turning into gold,” Hermione stated the obvious, having recovered her wits somewhat with the arrival of trusted authority figures.

    “I have reason to suspect he ate the philosopher’s stone,” Dumbledore said.

    Snape looked quite like he was going to fly off the handle at any moment, looking back and forth between the old man and the very ill young dragon, before he abruptly settled on letting out a bark of harsh laughter.

    “Oh, Merlin, he would, wouldn’t he? Idiotic reptile.”

    Albus had taken the moment to send off yet another patronus messenger with an update to his old mentor — and incidentally, also the owner of said stone — and a request that the even more elderly man come by to help save the young dragon.

    “Do you think he’ll be okay?” Hermione asked as Suze hovered about the slowly changing bulk concernedly.

    “I am afraid I have absolutely no idea, Hermione, my girl,” Dumbledore sadly told her. “We have, as it happens, never seen anything even remotely like this before. At the moment, we can do naught but await Nicholas’ arrival and hope.”

    2.15.5 The Alchemist’s assessment

    Nicholas Flamel, creator of the philosopher’s stone and the world’s preeminent alchemist — a title he had held for the better part of six centuries — arrived at Harry’s remote lair just as the goblin contingent and the school groundskeeper did, a feat made rather impressive by their wildly disparate starting locations. Flamel had been in his vacation home on a tiny island magically hidden away in the southern Mediterranean, while the others had been less than three miles away on the campus grounds.

    The old man had also started traveling some five minutes later.

    The Alchemist was an unassuming-looking man with brown hair and eyes, of less than average height — though he had been considered tall in his youth — who looked to be somewhere between thirty-five and sixty. His skin was ruddy with sun from his interrupted vacation with his wife, Perenelle, who had elected to finish sleeping before dashing off to Scotland for god-knows-what-reason at the request of her husband’s old student.

    On entering the cave, Flamel made a beeline for the dragon, ignoring the various persons in the room and casting diagnostic spells as he walked. Eventually, he put his wand away and simply laid a hand on the massive sleeping dragon, seemingly entering into some kind of mystical communion with the boy.

    “Hmm, most intriguing,” Nicholas spoke his first words since arriving. “I have never seen anything like this before. I’m sorry, Albus my boy, but I cannot say for certain exactly what is happening within this creature’s body.”

    “Will he be okay?” Hermione asked.

    “I cannot be certain, young lady,” Nicholas admitted. “But to that end, I suppose we’d better begin making more detailed examinations.”

    “Will you be okay?” Hermione asked him.

    “Of course!” the youngish-looking man declared, obviously nonplussed. “Why on earth wouldn’t I be?”

    “Um, I thought since Harry ate your stone…” the young girl ventured.

    “Oh, pish-posh and tommyrot! It’s easy enough to make another one, and I won’t need to worry about that for decades yet,” Nicholas told her, waving off her concerns. “It’s not like I was at death’s door when I made the first one. This’ll be the fifth, they do tend to run out from time to time.”

    The Lair fell silent for a time as the ancient alchemist and his somewhat younger protégé devoted their considerable talents toward learning as much as they could about the young dragon’s plight. They were joined shortly by Madame Pomfrey as soon as she recovered her bearings after apparating in.

    “Mr. Snape,” Hooktalon said as quietly as he could manage — being a Sergeant-Major had its downsides, few though they were — “The thief’s been eaten, and the treasure’s been disposed of the same way, it seems to me that our company’s got nothing more to do here. As Mr. Dumbledore’s second on our contract, do we have your agreement that our contract has been honorably discharged?”

    “You do,” Snape said solemnly.

    “Thank you,” Hooktalon said just as solemnly. “And in your capacity as a faculty member in good standing of the institution of Hogwarts, we request permission to return to the castle and see to our dead?”

    “Granted,” Snape said. “A note on the handling, those bodies should undergo a class two decontamination before burial to avoid long-term issues with the burial site. The potion used is no longer caustic, but it remains exceedingly toxic. Your medical personnel will know what the term means.”

    “Acknowledged.”

    “And please,” Snape asked glancing significantly at the massive bulk of the very sick dragon in the room, “if you would alert Mr. Slackhammer as to Mr. Potter’s predicament, it would be much appreciated. We do not know enough about the situation to know how to handle this, and any relevant expertise would be greatly appreciated.”

    The Sergeant-Major gave a solemn nod himself before he and his men affixed ropes to the wall at the lip of the cave and proceeded to rappel down the cliffside. Riding behind a wizard, relying on the good will of that wizard for survival, was something no self-respecting goblin could handle too much of, not after so much bitter history.

    For the infantry-goblins, they had hit their weekly quota with that one broom ride.

    2.15.6 Goblin assistance

    Well before the next sunrise, Snape’s quiet request bore fruit in the arrival of a quintet of goblins to the Lair by way of a portkey. To Hermione’s eye, they seemed a thoroughly impressive group, for all that they were little taller than she.

    Four out of the five were dressed in ornate military dress uniforms and holding automatic rifles in a letter-perfect present-arms parade rest; the fifth was somewhat overweight and clad in a Victorian-looking suit replete with silken cravat, precise top-hat, and mirror-polished cane. One of the four rifle carriers had a white armband around his left bicep, marked by a blue Caduceus, and a second wore a smart peaked officer’s cap and a truly ferocious expression. Hermione thought she recognized the second goblin from somewhere before.

    Had he been one of those who had come last night?

    From the two-part brass collar around the cane’s handle and the telltale bulge in the left armpit of the beautifully tailored suit jacket, the oddly familiar goblin carried at the very least a sword-cane and a handgun. Hermione realized at once that Harry had not been at all joking about the importance of weapons to goblins.

    “Mr. Vice-Chairman Slackhammer!” Dumbledore declared, sounding tired but pleased, or at least doing a good job of faking the latter. “Welcome, welcome! And to your companions the same! What brings you to our young dragon’s abode today? I’m afraid he is more than a little indisposed at the moment.”

    “Ah, Albus, my dear fellow,” the dapper goblin doffed his top-hat to the old man, “it is for precisely that reason that we have arrived. We have come to understand that one of our most valuable of customers has been taken quite gravely ill. I am accompanied by Sergeant-Major Hooktalon, who is already known to you,” here the goblin in the peaked cap touched said cap with his right hand, “Medical Officer, First-Class, Grindbone,” here the goblin with the white armband touched his helmet with his right hand, “Foundry Specialist, First-Class, Flame-Eye,” here the left-hand rearmost goblin touched his helmet with his right hand, “and Colour Sergeant Griphook,” here the right-hand rearmost goblin touched his helmet with his right hand, “all of whom have shown a certain interest in the well-being of our eminently valuable customer Mr. Harry James Potter. It is our hope that Medical Officer First Class Grindbone and Foundry Specialist First Class Flame-Eye might possibly be able to assist your own medical staff in in ensuring the swift return to health of Mr. Potter, while Sergeant-Major Hooktalon and Colour Sergeant Griphook have volunteered themselves and their personnel to ensure the security and safety of Mr. Potter’s valuable holdings in this area during his time of sorrowful incapacity.”

    Grindbone and the fifth goblin, Flame-Eye, quick-marched to stand in front of Dumbledore, whereupon both saluted.

    “Medical Officer, First-Class, Grindbone, and Foundry Specialist, First-Class, Flame-Eye reporting for immediate duty, Mr. Dumbledore, SIR!” Grindbone barked.

    “Thank you, gentlemen,” Dumbledore acknowledged. “Your patient, as you can see, is over here,” he gestured to the mottled gold and black mass breathing shallowly near a rather disheveled seating area. “You will be working with our school Healer, Madame Pomfrey, and my mentor, Nicholas Flamel.” The brown-haired man waved jauntily while the woman in question grunted absently as she continued to focus intently on her spellwork. “Potions Master Snape will be in attendance after breakfast to offer his assistance where needed, as I will be required to return to the school for the day.”

    “So what do we have going on here?” Flame-Eye began in a businesslike tone.

    Flamel spoke up, “It seems that the young fellow here has managed to ingest my stone, and it is having absolutely fascinating effects on his anatomy…”

    Hermione’s attention was pulled from the conversation by an unnecessarily loud statement from one of the other goblins.

    “Mr. Vice Chairman, SIR! Permission to speak, SIR!” the goblin with the peaked cap barked, saluting.

    “Permission granted, Sergeant-Major,” Slackhammer acknowledged respectfully.

    The Sergeant-Major saluted Dumbledore.

    “Mr. Dumbledore, SIR, it is my belief that the young Lord Potter’s enemies might take this opportunity to do his possessions and associates grief while he is unavailable to task himself in the defense of home and family, SIR! I confess I have some liking for the kid as he has shown himself to be acceptably competent in the handling of weapons, and I would not wish to see his belongings unduly messed with behind his back, SIR!” Hooktalon barked.

    “You’re talking about his Lair and the centaurs, right?” Hermione butted in curiously.

    Hooktalon saluted her. “Yes, Ma’am! Indeed I am, Ma’am! The moment those centaurs threw their lot in with our valuable customer, Mr. Potter, their problems became our problems, Ma’am! And I’ll be damned if me and my lads let some damned arachnid mess with a good kid’s home and kin, Ma’am!”

    “I hate bugs, Ma’am,” Colour Sergeant Griphook remarked calmly.

    “I LOVE bugs!” Hooktalon roared. “They make for a splendid grill roast! Tasty with brown sauce! Colour Sergeant Griphook, you and your lads make damned sure Mr. Potter’s belongings here in his home don’t come to grief, me and my lads will make damned sure his centaur allies are secure, and we’ll share the barbecue at the end of the deployment!”

    “That sounds like a bargain to me, Sergeant-Major Hooktalon,” Griphook said.

    Hooktalon nodded sharply. “Good! Medic Grindbone, Specialist Flame-Eye,” he barked. “You’d better make damn sure the young gentleman makes a swift recovery, or there’ll be hell to pay!”

    “SIR! YES, SIR!” came the response from both goblins, who had snapped to startled attention at being so addressed.

    “I know I may sound harsh, but right now Mr. Potter is under your care, lads — you do your damn best, and we’ll see what we’ll see! The young gentleman isn’t just a nice kid, he’s responsible for the biggest upswing in Gringotts’ profit since the machine gun and before the machine gun, the steam engine! That kid is worth nearly ten percent of Gringotts monthly profits, and if he kissed the dust, even the vipers in our legal department would cry! You take damned good care of the young gentleman, and me and my lads will cover the rest! That all clear, soldiers?”

    “SIR! Affirmative, SIR!” came the shouted acknowledgement.

    “Good! Get to work then! HUT, HUT, HUT!”

    With that, Hooktalon saluted Slackhammer once more and then disappeared with another portkey, presumably off to organize his troops below in the forest, even as the medic and foundry specialist turned back to their conversation.

    Hermione could see why even Harry thought Sergeant-Majors were scary!

    In the ensuing quiet, Hermione tried to pick up where she had left off earlier in listening to the discussion on Harry’s health, only to find the conversation had drifted off into esoteric technical realms where she was entirely unequipped to follow, so she made her way over to Suze and gave the centaur a hug. In an odd reversal, while Hermione had been unable to function before help arrived, after it did, Suze had been all but inconsolable at Harry’s illness.

    The young witch didn’t really know what to do for Suze, what to do for Harry, or for that matter, what to do for herself, so she settled in to provide comfort for the first and watch over the treatment of the second. As for the last, well… she’d have to see how that went.
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2020
  3. Threadmarks: Section 2.16 - Recovery
    Dunkelzahn

    Dunkelzahn No one of consequence

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    2.16 Recovery


    2.16.1 The best kind of friends

    Abigail arrived at breakfast with a skip in her step and a song in her heart.

    Lately, things just seemed to be going her way!

    Her recent meeting with Harry had shown her a way forward which would help her to make the world a better place and make a respectable living for herself — without running the risk of being forced to prostitute herself along the way. She’d been talking over the various plans with Harry for the last week, and there was so much… She would have wonderful work to do for the rest of her life!

    Better still, she knew that she’d earned Harry’s trust — enough that he had brought her in on a potentially lethal secret in the form of that political reform. That trust was pure gold right there, as far as Abigail was concerned.

    All told, she was looking forward to meeting up with Harry once again, to plan, to talk, and heck, to enjoy each other’s company. Therefore, she became rather concerned as breakfast dragged on, and Harry’s scruffy mane failed to show itself in the Great Hall.

    Her mood dropped like a stone when an utterly exhausted-looking Albus Dumbledore stood up to give an announcement.

    “It is my regretful duty to announce that your defense professor, Quirinus Quirrel, was killed last night when, under the spiritual possession of a still unidentified entity, he stole an object which had been entrusted to the school for safekeeping and attempted to murder your classmate Mr. Harry James Potter. Mr. Potter remains in critical condition in his home, and cannot be relocated at this time…”

    The announcement went on about a substitute healer while Madame Pomfrey was occupied, and some such things about substitute teachers for similar reasons, but Abigail had stopped truly listening.

    What on earth had managed to hurt Harry enough that he was in critical condition?

    And more importantly, how could she get over to see him?

    2.16.2 Breakthrough

    “Aha!” Snape declared, looking up from Grindbone’s microscope. “Take a look at this, ladies and gentlemen.”

    It had been several hours since the goblins had arrived, Hermione had fallen into a fitful, exhausted sleep leaning up against her fellow damsel who remained watchful. Snape had tagged in for Dumbledore some two hours previous.

    In the intervening time, Grindbone had managed to set up a rudimentary field laboratory which had been put to work processing various biopsy samples. The usual fare of diagnostic spells was just short of useless without Harry awake to allow them purchase.

    Suze watched warily, though with dry eyes, as Snape, Pomfrey, Flamel, Flame-Eye, and Grindbone crowded around the microscope.

    “Fascinating,” Flamel murmured, “and oddly… familiar?”

    “I’ve seen something like this before, sir,” Grindbone volunteered. “During the fighting in Egypt two years back — a young Rupert who got hit by a Midas curse when we fought off that Imperial raid. We tried all sorts of things, but in the end, we just kept pumping him full of blood-cleansing potions and a couple of potions for controlling the transmutation of metals ‘til he pulled through.”

    “Indeed?” Snape asked, glancing at the massive patient and his increasingly gold-mottled hide. “Yes, this does rather resemble the Midas curse, doesn’t it?”

    “I concur,” Nicholas said. “Poppy, Specialist Flame-Eye, your thoughts?”

    “Looks like the young gentleman’s metallurgy is altering itself from the ground up, sir,” Flame-Eye said. “Seems similar to the forging of mithril but involving different metals. His magic reactivity is shooting up like a mortar bomb, though, I’d say we need to concentrate on controlling that.”

    “I am uncertain that we should,” Poppy countered. “From what I can see, that reactivity seems to be a biological response to the issue — almost a magical immune response. Whatever it is, the boy’s magic is moving with a purpose, it is palpable. If we interfere too much… well, sometimes in healing, the only thing to do is keep the patient safe and fed and let their instinctive magic deal with the rest.”

    “Respectfully, Ma’am, that may be, but if we don’t at least slow it down, whatever it’s doing is likely to kill him, just like a fever can kill a gob even if it is a natural immune response,” Grindbone countered.

    “I see, controlling the reaction itself rather than preventing it?” Poppy checked.

    “That’s right, Ma’am,” Flame-Eye said. “It’s like Medic Grindbone said, Lieutenant Crackjaw — that’s the fellow what got hit with the Midas curse, he’s my cousin — he’s been composed of solid gold since ’89, and it hasn’t slowed him down none. Made the lucky Rupert rich off his own skin flakes, too, Ma’am. The trick is controlling the rate and letting the lad’s magic do its thing in its own time.” The foundry specialist rooted through his own pack before pulling out a collection of vials, “These here are the foundry potions we use for controlling the magic reactivity of mithril during its forging, it might be wise to test ‘em on a sample of the young gent’s blood at once, Ma’am.”

    “I’ll handle that,” Madame Pomfrey volunteered. “You boys keep trying to make sense of his bioalchemy — there’s life in the lad yet!”

    Grindbone, seeing that the situation had turned away from his area of expertise once more, addressed the raptly watching Suze, “You okay there, Ma’am?”

    “I am sound,” Suze said in a brittle tone of voice that hinted she was anything but okay. “I am, yet I worry about my Harry a great deal.”

    “Aye,” the medic said kindly, “and so do I. A handful of discoveries stemming from the young gentleman’s biology have netted the Goblin Nation enough money that we’re cycling in new armaments a decade early — and who knows what other miracles his health might lead to?” Grindbone began once again spreading assorted tools out on the table behind the microscope which had recently caught so much attention before he began setting up a field sterilization oven. “Ma’am, do you know what this is here?”

    “No,” the centaur maiden sniffed back more tears which had started to flow during the discussion, “I regret to say that I do not.”

    “It’s a sterilization autoclave,” Grindbone explained, “made to kill off anything that might cause infection, so we can use our tools safely. Now we’ve gone through a lot of what I brought pre-prepared trying to pull samples from the young gent’ — those scales are a pain to deal with — so I’ll need to clean and sterilize some of our tools before we use them again, would you like to help with that?”

    She dashed the tears from her eyes and nodded, gently laying the still sleeping Hermione down on the couch next to her and rising to her feet, “Yes, yes… better to be doing something useful than just sitting here worrying! What should I do?”

    2.16.3 On the mend

    “Reactivity is holding steady, ma’am,” Flame-Eye reported from his position monitoring the physical magical field sensors in place. “Temperature too.”

    The group had managed to rig up a dragon-sized intravenous drip over the past several hours out of a steel oil drum and a charmed length of glass tubing from Snape’s lab, both of which had been thoroughly difficult to properly sterilize. Through it they had been delivering a custom-brewed stabilizing potion — produced to order by the Hogwarts potion master under the direction of Flame-Eye. The had been monitoring Harry’s condition closely ever since.

    “The newly transmuted material in the lad’s scales has changed completely,” Nicholas reported from his monitoring location perched on a massive, scaly shoulder, enchanted magnifying lens in hand. “It is now a silvery color, but it has gone through thirty-seven visibly distinct variations so far. I believe his bioalchemy is in the process of evaluating different options, as absurd as that sounds.”

    “I am growing concerned about the boy maintaining this level of magical activity,” Poppy said. “He’s not eaten in almost twenty-three hours, and given his previous food intake, I would expect him to be near starvation at this point. I have no idea how to get food into him without his cooperation, though — we can hardly give him a molten steel injection!”

    “There’s no help for it, ma’am,” Grindbone offered. “We’ll just have to trust that his body will wake him up when he needs food — unless Specialist Flame-Eye has any ideas on that front?”

    “No, sir,” Flame-Eye averred, “I know metals, but I have no idea how to make a safe intravenous mix for the young gent’. I may not be a medic, but I know how important it is to get concentrations right on the saline bags from back when I went through the standard first-aid course. Figure the potions are okay, but not anything in bulk; we’re much more likely to kill him by trying that than we are to help.”

    “Hmm, that would be an interesting challenge, I say,” Nicholas cut in. “What do you think the limiting factors would be on such a…”

    “Reactivity is dropping like a stone!” Flame-Eye cut in. “Dropping… dropping… dropping… and leveling out… and now he’s back down to the levels you’d quoted as a baseline, ma’am. Whatever his system was doing, I think it’s got it done.”

    The room waited with bated breath for something further to happen, and they were quite disappointed when nothing did.

    “So, how are we to feed the wretched lizard until he awakens in his own due time?” Snape asked. “If an intravenous nutrient drip is infeasible, where does that leave us?”

    “Um, what about intubation?” Hermione spoke up for the first time, having been awakened from her most recent nap by Flame-Eye’s excited announcement about the precipitous reduction in the resident dragon’s magical reactivity. “If you could make a nutrient slurry, then you could pour it down a tube into Harry’s stomach and let it digest normally.”

    “We’d have to get his neck straightened out,” Grindbone said speculatively, looking from the nearly semicircular bend Harry’s neck had assumed when he collapsed to the walls and ceiling of the cave, “but I think we could manage that with some help from the Colour-Sergeant’s gobs to handle the rigging. And powdered coal and iron aren’t too hard to get…”

    “Back at work we’ve got tons of the stuff,” Flame-Eye volunteered, “makes measuring out alloys a lot simpler… well it’s actually powdered coke, but it’d be better than nothing. Got other powdered metals, too, come to think of it if he needs ‘em.”

    “I can put together a recipe for that based on Mr. Potter’s past diet,” Poppy volunteered, already sitting down with a parchment and quill.

    Grindbone nodded, “Thank you, Ma’am! Mix it with water or fuel oil and that’s the nutrient slurry put to; I’d think the only problem left would be heat, do we have any tubing that can handle the young gent’s gullet?”

    “The refractory material I reverse engineered from Mr. Potter’s stomach lining should work admirably,” Snape offered. “However, I have no means on hand for forming it into tubing.”

    Flame-Eye spoke up, “I think one of the lads from the experimental division was working on — I think it was rocket fuel lines — using that material. Something about light-weighting and eliminating excess shielding… they might have a sample we could use.”

    At the group’s general acclamation of this course of action, Flame-Eye went off to arrange transportation through Griphook’s contingent, Poppy’s recipe in hand, and the cave fell silent for a time, interrupted only by Nicholas’ occasional muttering as he puzzled out the composition of the various striations that had formed in Harry’s scales.

    Taking the opportunity presented by the lull in the work of keeping her friend alive and getting him healthy again, Hermione obliquely approached a question that had been nagging at her for some time.

    “What sort of profits does Gringotts make each year?”

    Grindbone blinked at the non-sequitur, then chuckled. “Well, strictly-speaking I shouldn’t tell you that, ma’am, but it’s about two and a half billion galleons as of last fiscal year.”

    You could almost see the gears whirring under Hermione’s bushy brown hair for a long moment, before her eyes bugged out as she got the idea.

    “Wait, what, that’s fifty pounds to the galleon, and Harry’s…” she swallowed heavily. “You’re saying he’s earned you people over two billion pounds in the last year!”

    “You’ve seen his bullion stash?” the medic gestured to the neat stack of gold bars off to one side of the room which was almost three times the size of the wood stove charged with heating the place. “That is composed of about a tenth of his share dividends and interest over the last three years.”

    “…my God. How much is he worth?”

    “Sorry, ma’am, but that comes under client confidentiality. That said, I am allowed to tell you that Mr. Potter is one of the three most affluent clients Gringotts has ever served — and the other two are his business partners.” Grindbone angled a thumb over his shoulder at the chunky automatic rifle he had slung on his back. “Let’s just say, on the change from those three’s transaction fees, the Goblin Nation is going from thirty-year-old SLR’s and Lee-Enfields older than your grandparents to brand new top-of-the-line gear like the H and K G41 rifle I’ve got here — and there are two and a half million battle-ready gobs in this world.”

    As Hermione attempted to wrap her head around this new information about her friend, Flame-Eye returned via portkey, accompanied by three additional uniformed goblins each handling a pallet jack full of bagged powders, a fourth handling another pallet jack containing four steel drums, a serious-looking industrial drill fitted with a long mixing attachment, and an oddly-colored length of small-diameter tubing. The same smartly dressed goblin who had introduced the specialists so many hours previous appeared seconds later.

    “I beg your pardon, ma’am, but I need to get back to work now,” Grindbone broke off their conversation and got back to work.

    Noticing the bewildered-looking girl his subordinate had just summarily left hanging, the newly arrived Vice Director Slackhammer decided to help. It would be ill-advised to interrupt working gobs who knew their business, anyway, no matter how curious he was about his young associate’s condition.

    “Miss Granger, I believe,” at her absent nod, he continued. “Mr. Potter has spoken fondly of you in the past. I am Vice Director Crackjaw Slackhammer, Mr. Potter’s business partner. How do you do?”

    Hermione shook her head in an effort to clear it, her bushy hair waving, “As well as can be expected, I suppose. It’s a bit of a shock.”

    “May I ask what you were speaking about with the good Medical Officer?”

    “I was trying to wrap my head around why you are going to so much trouble for Harry, so I asked about your profits, since the very loud goblin earlier said he was worth ten percent of your profits, and then he told me — Oh! He said he wasn’t supposed to tell me about that — um, he won’t get in trouble, will he?”

    “Did he tell you about our current projections?” the dapper goblin asked seriously.

    “No, he said ‘last fiscal year’.”

    Slackhammer chuckled, “That is acceptable. Past records are technically public knowledge, though we generally do not advertise them. Had he shared current values; he would have faced disciplinary action.”

    The young girl sighed in relief that she hadn’t gotten the helpful goblin in trouble.

    The rotund goblin smiled a toothy smile, “By way of explanation, Miss Granger, young Mr. Potter has a quite distinctive and most pleasing scent that all goblins are easily able to detect.”

    “Really? What does he smell like?”

    “Profit,” Slackhammer said simply.

    “…uh.”

    “Gringotts is after all a merchant bank,” the dapper goblin continued, “and like all banks, we are investors in people, Miss Granger. When an entrepreneur has a fine product, we are eager to ensure said product arrives at a profitable market, for a modest fee, of course. A deal where everyone wins is good for business, and things that are good for business are good for Gringotts. We move money around so that our clients need not go to the related effort, charging a small fee for the convenience, of course, and as you are no doubt aware, money makes money. Money is of limited value if it is merely sitting around in a vault; it is when one makes one’s money work that it is prone to increase in quantity.”

    “To the majority of a bank’s customers,” Slackhammer continued, “the bank itself is there to make sure no harm may come to their money for as long as it remains theirs, and for that our payment is the dividends we accrue through using money entrusted to us to finance loans and to maintain an interest in varied corporate assets; that is how we can afford not to charge a handling fee to those customers who step into our branches to conduct their financial business.”

    The dapper goblin chuckled. “Almost half of the financial assets of wizarding Britain are stored day-to-day at one Gringotts branch or another. The fare your parents paid for your journey to Hogwarts, much of the money that your parents spent during your visit to Diagon Alley, the fees that your parents paid for you to attend the Hogwarts institution, they are stored at Gringotts branches whilst they await a decision as to where to spend them on the part of those who earned them by providing you and your family with the products and services involved. With those liquid assets, we are able to fund loans and engage in dealings within the corporate world, whether magical or not. That, Miss Granger, is what a bank does; that is what we are here for.”

    “Okay, but how does that involve Harry?”

    “As it so happens, Mr. Potter and his business partners have several products quite superior to their nearest competitors, and there are plentiful, well-funded customers eager to apply said products to practical purposes. Of course, we charge a modest fee for currency conversion, such as pounds, or dollars, to galleons, or further to that point, gold bullion, and there are, of course, banking fees involved in the myriad related transactions. Any deal that is profitable to everyone involved is a deal we are proud to play a part in; the end customer is receiving a superior product, the producer gains a profit in providing that superior product, and we make our customers’ lives easier via administrating the flow of trade, and, in many international avenues, providing transport for the product itself. Of course, we charge a small fee, we would be unable to continue providing services to our clients otherwise, and never mind bringing in the profit that feeds us and allows our children to rest easy at night.”

    Seeing that the Medical Officer was beginning to stand back and allow the technicians to do their work as instructed, the Vice-Chairman saw the opportunity to satisfy his curiosity regarding his young business partner.

    “I hope that I have provided some small measure of enlightenment to you, young lady, but I believe that I must engage in a conversation with Medic Grindbone at this juncture,” Slackhammer said. “If I may be excused?”

    “Certainly,” the young girl said, flustered. “Thank you for your time, I didn’t mean to take so much of it!”

    “It is no trouble, no trouble at all. Fare well, young lady!”

    2.16.4 Tragic context

    With the young Mr. Potter’s condition no longer quite so critically concerning, Albus Dumbledore finally had time to breathe, time to sit in his office and rest after nearly sixty hours of activity, time to reflect and get his bearings — and with that time, came the realization that he had yet to report his professor’s death to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.

    So much for time to breathe.

    As it was now after normal business hours for the Department, the Hogwarts Headmaster made his tired way over to his office floo connection.

    “The Ossuary,” he spoke as clearly as he could manage while throwing a pinch of floo powder into the flames. When they turned a lurid lime green, indicating a solid connection, he stuck his head into the fire, once more marveling at the absurdity of wizarding ingenuity.

    “Amelia?” he called.

    “What on earth is so urgent that you felt the need to call me at home, Albus?” a stout, grey-haired woman sporting a monocle, who looked to be in her later middle years snapped peevishly. “I had just sat down for an evening cup of tea.”

    “I am afraid I have some rather unpleasant news to report, Amelia…” the elderly man explained.

    “And it couldn’t wait a few hours until morning?”

    “No, no it could not,” Albus said tiredly. “In fact, I am afraid I have been inappropriately lax in taking this long to report it; my only excuse is that the aftermath of the event has left me with a rather urgent set of tasks which I felt took priority at the time.”

    Amelia’s interest was piqued. “Oh?”

    “I am calling to report the death of one of my professors, Quirinus Quirrel, under strange circumstances which we believe involve possession by at least a class three spiritual entity,” Albus said.

    Amelia’s gaze sharpened, enough that Albus could see it even through the flame. As she took up a quill and began feeling around for some parchment she said, “Continue.”

    “On the evening before last, I was summoned via a memorandum to the Minister’s office for an ‘urgent’ meeting,” Albus began.

    “That was the forged memorandum Cornelius forwarded to me, correct?” Amelia asked, beginning to take notes on a ledger she kept by the fireplace for just this sort of thing.

    “Yes, it was,” he confirmed. “After Cornelius informed me that he had not requested my presence, I realized the memorandum had been forged. When the auror on duty… I’m afraid I didn’t catch his name…”

    “I can find out from the duty roster, continue.”

    “Thank you. The auror on duty raised the possibility that the forgery was sent in order to remove me from the school. I have had a rather valuable research sample on loan from Nicholas for the past eight months, and I had contracted a security team to protect it when it was not under my personal protection…”

    “Nicholas?” Amelia asked.

    “Flamel,” he clarified.

    “Please tell me you didn’t have the philosopher’s stone on Hogwarts grounds,” she pleaded.

    “I would be happy to leave that out of the report if you wish, Amelia.”

    “Damnit.”

    “Carrying on, I immediately attempted to contact the security team and was unable to do so, so I contacted their supervisor to alert him to the situation, and he sent an investigatory team while I returned to the castle at best speed.” Albus paused for a moment. “The guard detail had been killed, messily, via a potion-based attack, and the perpetrator had managed to penetrate the defenses. Once he arrived at the stone, he managed to retrieve it, and was then subjected to what we believe to be a ritual of the corpus reformandam sequence…”

    “My God!”

    “…which used the stone to allow the body to survive the side effects. Given that a rather distinctive clothing item was left behind, we believe the perpetrator was originally our Defense professor, Quirinus Quirrel. It is here that we believe Quirinus was fully taken over by some sort of possessing spirit, as it was then able to cleanly bypass the defenses the intruder had powered through before…”

    “Indicating an unexplained increase in skill, thus the likelihood of a changed persona,” Amelia concluded.

    “Precisely,” Albus said. “From what we have been able to determine, the possessor, having terminated Quirinus, proceeded to Mr. Potter’s home and attempted to murder him but failed when Mr. Potter proved more dangerous than anticipated."

    “An eleven-year-old fought off what had to be at least a class three entity possessing an adult wizard’s form?” Amelia asked incredulously.

    “Yes,” Albus confirmed.

    When he gave no indication he was going to continue, Amelia prompted, “Albus?”

    “Huh?” the elderly man awoke with a start. “I beg your pardon, Amelia, I have not slept in the last — sixty-five? — hours, it begins to wear after a time. Where was I?”

    “The entity had just failed to assassinate Mr. Potter,” she prompted once more.

    “Ah, yes. Mr. Potter managed to destroy the body, sending the spirit off elsewhere, but in the process the boy had a thoroughly unpleasant reaction to the artifact the intruder had stolen. Between myself, Severus, Poppy, and two specialists provided by Gringotts we have spent the last two days attempting to heal Mr. Potter from an ailment distressingly similar to, yet frustratingly distinct from, the Midas curse,” Dumbledore explained. “Hence why it has taken me an inappropriately long time to report the death of my employee.”

    “I see,” Amelia said. “I suppose the delay is acceptable, though it seems you have done most of the investigative work already. What do you know of Quirrel’s initial motives?”

    “Nothing,” he said flatly. “We have not even looked in his quarters yet — I was hoping to be able to offload the responsibility on you so that I can get at least a few short hours of sleep.”

    “Of course,” the Director of Magical Law Enforcement said. “When do you anticipate Mr. Potter being available for interview? And were there any other witnesses?”

    Albus sighed, “Mr. Potter has not yet regained consciousness, though a friend of his, Hermione Granger, witnessed the attack. Unfortunately, as the incident involves the — well, the thing that you asked me not to tell you was in the school — Nicholas has already announced his interest in the situation per the Secret Treaty of 1487, thus witness accounts will be transcribed and delivered with proprietary information redacted by Nicholas’ hand.”

    “Oh, yes,” Amelia said, voice thick with disgust, “that gem of a treaty. Why on earth was that travesty permitted anyway?”

    “Because Nicholas threatened to transform the entirety of the old Roman highway network to gold and devalue everyone’s currency if they didn’t,” came the matter-of-fact response. “He can be quite… persuasive, when he puts his mind to it.”

    “Why was that called the Secret Treaty, anyway?” Statement taken; Amelia decided to take the opportunity to satisfy a long-standing curiosity. “It’s hardly a secret after all, and the title sounds ridiculous.”

    “At the time, the statesmen involved in the debacle were so embarrassed at being outmaneuvered in their attempt to seize the stone that they attempted to bury the resulting treaty from public scrutiny by leaving it without a title,” Albus explained tiredly. “It was still published, however, and one of the scribes had a personal interest in embarrassing one of the politicians involved — something about the scribe’s daughter eloping with the statesman’s son against both sets of parents’ wishes — so he took the blank title as a challenge.”

    “Ugh, it never changes,” Amelia groaned. “I will have an investigation team on site first thing tomorrow morning. Get some sleep, Albus.”

    “I do believe I shall, Amelia,” Albus acknowledged. “Quirinus’ quarters have been on lockdown for the past twenty-seven hours, so I hope the site will be secure, but I am afraid I didn’t think to secure them earlier. Good evening.”

    And with that, the fireplace went black before flaring back to a cheerful orange glow.

    2.16.5 Worried friend

    It had been almost four days since she had last seen Harry — or Hermione for that matter — and Abigail’s concern was rapidly transforming into panic. The professors were almost universally distracted, exams were approaching and with them the end of the school term. When the school term ended, she would have no way to contact Harry if he got better. He had explained in passing that most sensible animals, including owls, refused to go anywhere near him — she could understand their reasoning, she supposed — and with no way to contact him, there would be no way to find out how he was doing or to help if he needed it.

    Worse yet, her primary contact for all things Harry had been absent for two days, presumably tending to the great scaly lump himself.

    Thus it was, when Snape showed up to dinner, Abigail jumped on the chance to find out what was going on, despite the man’s bedraggled and positively exhausted demeanor.

    “Professor Snape,” Abigail demanded, “how is Harry?”

    The dark man gave her a long, unamused look, at which she flushed in embarrassment.

    “Sorry. Excuse me, Professor?” she gave it another shot.

    “Yes, Miss Abercrombie?” he replied.

    “How is Harry?” she asked.

    The potions master sighed, “The boy is now in stable condition, and we have managed to devise a method to keep him fed whilst he is incapacitated. We still have no idea when he will regain consciousness.”

    “Can you tell me what happened to knock him out like this?” Given the boy’s nature, Abigail had thought him immune to this sort of thing. It was… oddly endearing to learn that he was not completely invulnerable.

    Huh. What an odd concept.

    Abigail would have to have a think on that later.

    “Not here,” Snape averred.

    “Then, can I visit the Lair?” she asked.

    “I see no reason that you should not,” the man allowed. “I will be returning for another shift after dinner, retrieve a broom and meet me at the front gate in,” he eyed his plate, “twenty minutes. I am afraid I have neglected to keep up with the prefect schedules, will that interfere with your duties?”

    Abigail’s mood fell, and along with it, her face. “Yes, I’ve got patrol tonight, I almost forgot…”

    “I would be happy to cover for you, Miss Abercrombie,” a new voice cut in. “You are scheduled for nine to eleven in zone four, correct?”

    “Mr. Weasley, why were you eavesdropping on a private conversation?” Snape asked forbiddingly.

    “Well, I was going to ask Professor McGonagall about our homework assignment,” Percy Weasley explained somewhat awkwardly, “and then I heard Miss Abercrombie asking about Mr. Potter, and… well, everyone has been a bit worried about him since the Headmaster’s announcement, but I know he and Abercrombie are close, and I felt I owed Miss Abercrombie a good turn after she set me straight on that incident with Granger…”

    “What ‘incident’ with Miss Granger?” Snape asked sharply.

    “Ah,” Percy sounded somewhat taken aback by Snape’s uncharacteristically energetic response as he attempted to explain. “Our youngest brother, Ronald, was acting up with her, and we — that is myself and my brothers, Fred and George — wanted to find out what was going on so we could set him straight, so we went to ask Miss Granger about what had been going on…”

    “And you failed to realize how the approach of three older boys, brothers to her tormentor, would be seen by the girl?” Snape palmed his face in exasperation. “Gryffindors.”

    Percy grimaced, “It is rather obvious in hindsight, but unfortunately it was not so at the time. In any case, Miss Abercrombie explained my error, and as thanks,” he turned to Abigail, “I wish to reiterate my offer to cover her patrol this evening so that she can go visit her friend.”

    “That would be much appreciated, Weasley. Thanks!” That was a relief.

    Twenty minutes later, on the dot, she was drifting over the treetops trailing her Head of House as he made his tired way back to the Lair. On landing on the now-familiar ledge, she was taken aback by the squadron of goblin guards and the bustling activity in the main chamber of the Lair.

    She was much more taken aback when she got a good look at the enormous bulk of her friend Harry.

    “He’s turned gold!” were the first words out of her shocked lips.

    “Yes,” Snape acknowledged, waving in response to a tiredly departing Suze as she walked down one of the inner passages of the Lair, presumably to get away from the bustle and get some much-needed sleep now that the wizard had arrived for his shift. “A result of ingesting the philosopher’s stone along with the remains of your Professor Quirrel.”

    “He ate the philosopher’s stone?” Abigail exclaimed.

    “Yes, and it has been a struggle to keep the dratted dragon alive through the aftermath of that debacle.”

    From there, Snape went on the relay an abbreviated account of the past few days, and it was almost entirely un-reassuring to Abigail as she took in the totality of her friend’s situation.

    Harry’s head was rigged up in a sort of rope harness in which it hung limply, connected by various pulleys and riggings to anchor points set into the walls and ceiling that kept it carefully positioned in such a way that his neck was stretched out straight from his torso. The ropes were supplemented by wooden blocking in strategically chosen places to take some strain off the dragon’s neck. Aside from his carefully positioned head, the rest of him was just sprawled haphazardly as if he had taken a tumble and been unable to move again — which was a rather accurate description of what had happened, come to think of it. It was an unnatural and disturbing tableau to see her usually energetic and bouncing Harry in such a state.

    Though to Abigail’s mind, the worst bit had to be the long tube carefully threaded down Harry’s gullet.

    People just weren’t supposed to have tubes sticking out of them! She could understand the reasoning when Harry’s innate magic resistance was explained to her — switching spells just wouldn’t work through his skin, much less the skin and intervening flesh to his stomach, and just shoving food down his throat ran the very real risk of choking him to death — but that didn’t make the device any less barbaric to her mind. Nor did it make seeing her closest friend in such a state any easier.

    She had to do something!

    “Professor, what can I do to help?”

    “At present, Miss Abercrombie, you can assist me with preparing Mr. Potter’s next batch of nutrient slurry,” he gestured to the steel drum full of diesel and a collection of bags partially full of various metallic powders, though the pallet off to the side seemed to consist entirely of full bags. “It is a mildly taxing process, as the fluid becomes quite viscous as the proportion of powder in the oil increases. Levitate one of the bags of powdered iron from the pallet off to the right, and we will begin.”

    Putting words into action, the potions master began adding oil to the empty barrel set aside for mixing.

    Easily holding the bag in place above the drum with her levitation charm as her instructor gradually poured its contents into the oil while stirring, Abigail eyed the narrow tube projecting from her friend’s mouth and asked the obvious question, “Professor, if the slurry gets that thick, how do you get it through that tube?”

    Snape grunted as he made a particularly vigorous attempt at moving the now much more sluggish stirring bar, “One of our goblin colleagues produced that odd if wonderful contraption,” he gestured toward a terribly complicated conglomeration of pipes and boxes arranged in a pattern that made absolutely no sense to the pureblood girl. “It consists of an internal combustion engine which burns this oil,” he gestured to the drum he had been pouring from earlier, “in order to rotate that shaft,” he gestured again, “which drives that device,” another gesture, “which he called a hydraulic pump. It causes a fluid to move by applying tremendous pressure — to the tune of more than a thousand times your weight per square inch of cross-sectional area — which is sufficient to force our nutrient slurry down the tube into Mr. Potter’s ravenous gullet.” He grunted once again with the effort of stirring. “We seem to be reaching the point where I will be forced once again to use that infernally loud stirring contraption…”

    He paused in his efforts, removed the iron bar he had been stirring with and retrieved a terrifying-looking device consisting of a large yellow box with various handles poking out of it attached to the end of a long steel rod with vicious-looking spiraling blades arrayed about the other end.

    What on earth was he going to do with that?

    “I do apologize for the noise, Miss Abercrombie,” Snape said, before laying the thing on the ground and giving one of the handles, which proved to be attached to the end of a length of cordage, a sharp tug. Several repetitions of this strange action led to the device emitting a faint plume of thin smoke and growling in a puttering and decidedly disagreeable way. The potions master then picked the thing up and inserted the bladed end of the device into the mixing barrel.

    “I find this device thoroughly unpleasant to use,” the man shouted over the noise of the apparent mixing device in his hands, “as it is both unwieldy and imprecise — also quite loud — but it does provide sufficient power to mix such impressively intractable mixtures as our current brew.” With that, he pulled a trigger under one of the other handles and the device roared, turning the shaft and spinning those vicious-looking blades under the surface of the liquid. The stuff which had previously been so frustrating her Head of House now flowed like water.

    Huh. That was actually rather impressive.

    During one of the lulls in activity, she shouted back, “Why not just use a stirring charm?”

    To which her instructor replied, “Mr. Potter requires a batch of this size every two hours. Even trading off, we would not have been able to keep up for more than a handful of days before Madame Pomfrey and I collapsed in exhaustion, Miss Abercrombie.” He paused to wipe the sweat from his forehead. Wrestling that mixing device around seemed to be a significant effort. “I know that it is not readily apparent for much of the Hogwarts curriculum,” he huffed another breath, “because we have learned to manage the process well for our students over the last thousand years,” and another, “but casting magic costs just as much effort, one way or another, as doing the work by hand,” and another. “It is simply a type of effort to which many of our fellows are much better suited than the more physical alternatives.”

    They returned to the task, Snape carefully measuring out differing amounts of the various other powders and adding them to the thickening slurry, mixing well, until he finally pronounced the process complete, shutting off the infernally loud yellow mixing device at the same time, which he then released, leaving it planted, upright and unsupported in the slurry.

    That did get thick quickly.

    “Miss Abercrombie, please retrieve the end of that hose… the black one with the red flag tied to it,” Snape requested as he removed the mixer and replaced it with a lid sized for the mixing drum with a long tube sticking through it. She did so, and he proceeded to hook the end onto the lid and cover the drum. “Now the green one.” This one he affixed to the end of the tube leading into Harry’s mouth. “And now we start the transfer process.” The potions master went up to one portion of the morass of pipes and boxes Abigail hadn’t been able to make sense of earlier and turned something.

    She had thought the yellow thing was loud, but now she could barely hear herself think!

    The potions master had pushed the lid on the drum slightly to the side, and she could see the fluid level gradually lowering as the thick slurry was sucked up through the tube. She followed along the hoses with her eyes to the absurdly loud pumping device, and then along the other hose to the tube jammed down Harry’s… Abigail shuddered.

    She still couldn’t get used to that… and she didn’t want to get used to it, for that matter. That was not how her friend should be, so she shouldn’t get used to it!

    Pumping the drum of nutrient slurry dry took perhaps ten minutes, during which Abigail had nothing to do but think about the situation and watch Harry’s deathly-still form. The noise from the pumping device was too loud for any conversation with Professor Snape, even if they shouted. Thus, when the pumping was complete, and her Head of House turned whatever it was that he had used to start the thing back to the off position, the distressed sixth-year had had plenty of time to come to a conclusion.

    “Professor Snape,” she began after her ears finally stopped ringing, “may I have the recipe for that nutrient slurry?”

    “Why do you ask, Miss Abercrombie?” he said.

    “Harry is my friend, and he needs help,” she said firmly, “so I’m going to help. If I take care of at least some of this, then you and Madame Pomfrey will have more time to try to figure out how to fix him.”

    The man stared at her blankly for several moments, though Abigail got the impression that he was seeing something else.

    “Professor?” she prompted.

    “I apologize, Miss Abercrombie. I am afraid I was lost in a memory. Your phrasing reminded me of… someone else I once knew.” The potions master shook his head. “In answer to your request, our current mixture consists of seven parts fuel oil, four parts powdered iron, one part powdered copper, …” He continued in that vein for some time, eventually touching on the operation of the hand-mixer and the hydraulic pump, which were actually somewhat more complicated than they had first seemed.

    By the time she had learned the process to Snape’s exacting specifications — a process which had attracted the attention of a curious Hermione from where had been attempting to bury her worries under a torrent of reading under a silencing charm up on the library mezzanine — Abigail’s visit had stretched out to the point that Harry required another batch, a batch which Abigail prepared herself under her potions instructor’s supervision. Handling the mixer was even harder than it had looked, which had been the main reason, she learned, that Hermione had not been permitted to help previously, but the sixth-year managed, nonetheless.

    After that, Abigail sought out her long overdue bed, but she became a frequent visitor to the Lair for the rest of the spring term, faithfully helping to care for her sick friend and eagerly watching for any signs of stirring from the insensate young dragon. Unfortunately, the end of the school year came, and with it her reluctant departure, before Harry awakened.

    It was a thoroughly unpleasant end to a term that had been going so well.

    2.16.6 Awakening

    Severus Snape found himself on dragon-sitting duty once more.

    The term had ended nearly five days previous, and with it, most of the urgent demands on his time. The potions master had chosen, for reasons he carefully did not explore, to fill the slack in his schedule by taking over more of the monitoring shifts to watch over the blasted lizard.

    He had never thought there would come a time when he missed the boy’s incessant questions!

    As it was, the sun had fallen hours ago, and the last batch of ‘food’ for the boy had finished making its way into his insatiable gullet some half an hour previous, leaving the Lair quiet indeed. Miss Granger had gone home to her parents for the weekend, no doubt to seek some comfort in their presence, and even Miss Suze had gone to visit her extended family, provided convenient transportation to the ground via an offer of a reusable portkey from a concerned Crackjaw Slackhammer several days previous. The potions master supposed she had found the ongoing quiet of the Lair too disturbing, now that the monitoring had become a routine rather than a frantic scramble to keep the young dragon alive.

    Snape could sympathize; the atmosphere was all too conducive to quiet introspection.

    Ever since Miss Abercrombie had inserted herself so forcefully into the rotation of caring for the dratted dragon, one memory in particular had been most insistently cropping up, a memory of a slight, redheaded girl with emerald green eyes…

    “You’re my friend, and you need help, Sev, so I’m going to help!”

    The potions master rubbed at his arm, the site of the long-healed bruising that had precipitated that declaration all those years ago; it had been a gift from his father. That conversation with Lily had catalyzed Snape to act, and those actions had precipitated the argument which led to the resolution of his troubled family situation — a resolution which had left him orphaned.

    He did not… could not, regret it. Had he allowed the situation to continue, Lily would have surely involved herself, and that would have exposed her to his father, and that would have been unacceptable. It was about keeping Lily safe.

    Snape let out a bleak chuckle; in his life, it was always about Lily.

    “What are you laughing about, Mr. Snape?” came a thoroughly unexpected, yet thoroughly welcome voice.

    The man turned to the dragon in the room, a dragon who had somehow managed to speak clearly despite the tube extending down his gullet and who was now looking around the Lair as well as he could by moving only his eyes.

    “And why is my head all tied up?”

    All in all, it was typical Harry, and Severus was thoroughly relieved at the indication that his young friend had come through his ordeal at least mostly intact. So relieved in fact that he felt it necessary to express the sentiment aloud.

    “Harry James Potter,” the potions master snarled, “if you ever do something even half so foolish again, I shall never forgive you!”

    …well, he was Severus Snape, after all.

    “…huh?”

    “What madness possessed you to eat the philosopher’s stone, you terminally incautious lizard?”

    “Um… is that a part of a someone who says he’s that Voldemort guy?”

    “I beg your pardon?”

    “Well, this guy with no nose turned up, right, and he said he was that Voldemort twit, only he can’t have been, because when I splat stuff, it stays splatted. And he kind of threw a whole bunch of those killing curse thingies at me — they really sting, you know — so I got kinda angry and, well, ate him. He came outta the other end as some kinda screaming ghost-fart-thingy, and er, I started to feel really weird and…”

    The dragon trailed off for a moment as he went cross-eyed staring at his nose with a ridiculous-looking perplexed expression.

    “Hey! Why’s my nose changed color?”
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2020
  4. SilverEagle2121

    SilverEagle2121 I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    This was an awesome bunch of updates. I definitely enjoyed reading them and can't wait for the next batch to come out. I am also curious as to what the long term effects of eating the Philosopher's Stone will have on Harry.
     
  5. Sigmeister Admiral

    Sigmeister Admiral From the Bottom of the Sea

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    I just stayed up until 03:30 reading this, you utter bastard. Looming sleep deprivation aside, this is a very entertaining read and I look forward to seeing where you take it.
     
  6. WazugDaWurd

    WazugDaWurd Not too sore, are you?

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    I am waiting for the fireworks/slaughter that will happen once Harry finds out about the Malfoy's revenge scheme. You don't tickle a sleeping dragon, you don't steal a dragons treasure, and you DON'T steal/harm a dragons damsel.
     
  7. Rathmun

    Rathmun Is kink-shaming someone's shame-kink still wrong?

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    Having finished this
    I must now wait patiently
    for the next chapter

    ...Ok, that's a lie, I'll be waiting impatiently.
     
  8. Belenus

    Belenus I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    I just powered through this whole thing, 180,000 words, in one go. Took 7 hours. Totally worth it.
     
  9. naarn

    naarn Not too sore, are you?

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    Formerly an Iron Dragon, now a Gold Dragon. Well, that would be an upgrade in a xianxia setting. For an upgrade in any setting... his bioalchemy was doing all sorts of magic during the change, so maybe an Orichalcum Dragon? That would be an upgrade from Iron Dragon in just about any setting. (edit: no wait, orichalcum is already defined as a relatively mundane material in this setting, despite the Shadowrun cross... maybe a Mithril Dragon then?)

    Thanks for the fic. The original showed a lot of promise, it's great to see that made in to a real novel.
     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2018
  10. Threadmarks: Section 3.1 - Outpatient
    Dunkelzahn

    Dunkelzahn No one of consequence

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    3 Pantry Raid


    3.1 Outpatient


    3.1.1 Friends

    Shortly after discovering the changed state of his nose, the bewildered young dragon also noticed the feeding tube extending from under that recolored snout, which prompted yet another explanation, this time detailing just how long Harry had been unconscious and the lengths to which his various friends had gone to help him.

    “Wow!” Harry exclaimed, moved by the devotion his friends had shown.

    Some time passed before he could say anything else, though eventually he recovered enough to elaborate.

    “I have some good friends!” He paused thoughtfully before continuing, “Really good friends.”

    Of course, that was followed by a complaint that the feeding tube sticking down his throat was mightily uncomfortable, now that he knew it was there, especially since his potions master friend insisted that he not bite it off.

    “If you swallow that tube, young man, there is no telling what it might do to you,” Snape insisted. “It was specifically chosen to be undigestible, even for you, and I suspect it would be at the very least exceedingly uncomfortable for you to pass through your digestive tract.”

    After his latest… experience with extreme indigestion, Harry was tentatively willing to concede the point.

    “I am reluctant to leave you unsupervised so soon after regaining consciousness; therefore, I shall alert Miss Suze to your recovery, that she might monitor your health until my colleagues have a chance to run a full set of diagnostics,” the dark man continued as he sent off another of his paper crane messages. “After she has taken over here, I shall retrieve a flame-freezing potion and return forthwith to extract your feeding tube.”

    “Why do you need a flame-freezing potion?” Harry asked curiously.

    “While I am uncertain of your reaction to such,” Snape said, “many humans experience a vomiting reflex in such situations. With humans, such an occurrence is unpleasant but not particularly dangerous, but given the conditions in your stomach, being drenched in your vomitus would be quite lethal in the absence of protective magics.”

    Harry had just enough time to say “Oh” before he was interrupted by a centaur maiden at full sprint.

    “Harry!” Suze cried. “You’re awake!”

    At that point, his centaur damsel did her level best to hug the stuffing out of her dragon, an attempt that basically amounted to plastering her human-like torso against his cheek with her arms spread wide. It was not terribly effective at stuffing removal, but it was the thought that counted.

    Harry certainly appreciated the effort.

    While Harry and his centaur damsel reacquainted themselves with each other, the potions master returned to his laboratory, retrieved one of his strongest flame-freezing potions, and fired off another set of crane-memos to pass on the good news.

    The Lair was about to become significantly less quiet.

    3.1.2 Diagnosis

    Snape returned and removed the feeding tube without incident; as it turned out, Harry did not experience any vomiting reflex as the tube was withdrawn. Snape set it aside for later study, noting some oddly colored deposits on the stomach-end of the device. He had expected some residue, melted iron and such, but Snape was fairly sure that there were colors in that mass which should not have formed at all from the ingredients in the nutrient slurry they had made. There might be some odd alloying process going on, or perhaps something more interesting.

    Five minutes later — less than half an hour after he had sent the original message — for Poppy, Nicholas, Grindbone, and Flame-Eye to arrive at the Lair, and it had taken less than half a minute after that for Poppy and Nicholas to begin casting diagnostic spells. They only delayed even that long because that was how long it took Harry to figure out how to allow the spells through his defenses. It was unclear whether this difficulty was due to his recent physiological changes or simply his long inactivity.

    Suze refused to leave her dragon’s side, despite Nicholas’ insistence — apparently, a number of his diagnostics were dependent on the target not being in contact with anyone else. She did, however, eventually acquiesce to wearing a pair of protective gloves which the Alchemist normally kept on hand for handling volatile samples. Thy served as a magical barrier for the diagnostics while allowing her to stay in physical contact with Harry.

    Nicholas pronounced the setup, “Good enough.”

    Grindbone and Flame-Eye, unable to actively cast such spells on their own, took advantage of their wizard colleagues’ preoccupation to introduce themselves to their patient.

    “Mr. Potter,” Grindbone began, “Medical Officer, First-Class, Grindbone, at your service!” The goblin gave a salute, “Mighty glad to see you up and about, sir!”

    Harry, who had long become used to Madame Pomfrey and Mr. Snape hovering about and casting diagnostic spells while he did something else, responded enthusiastically. “Oh! You’re the medic Mr. Slackhammer sent over to help, right? Thanks!” At Grindbone’s nod, the young dragon turned his massive head to look at the other goblin. “And you’re… Flame-Eye, I think Mr. Snape said?”

    “Foundry Specialist, First-Class, Flame-Eye, at your service, Mr. Potter!” the goblin said proudly.

    “Foundry Specialist?” Harry said. “That means you’re one of the Engineers, right?”

    “That’s correct, sir,” the goblin confirmed. “Foundry operations operate under the Logistics Division of the Engineers.”

    “Cool! Hey, do you know Corporal Hookknife? Ever since he came out here with Sergeant-Major Hooktalon to set up my shooting range, we’ve been keeping in touch by letter, and he’s helped me a whole lot on setting up my Lair. I mean, I wouldn’t have ever figured out how to set up the turbine to run the lights,” the dragon pointed towards the equipment cabinet at the cave entrance with one claw, “if he hadn’t told me about the books to look up! And he pointed me to books on wiring, and books on machining, and books on welding, and books on structural engineering, and books on water treatment, and books on excavation, and books on electrodynamics, and books on calculus, and books on batteries, and books on metallurgy, and books on…”

    “Harry, blathering,” Suze’s perennial refrain was voiced once more.

    “…oh, drat. Sorry, I have a bad habit of doing that.”

    Flame-Eye smiled, “Quite alright, Mr. Potter. It’s always good to see enthusiasm, particularly in youngsters like yourself. Now, I can’t say I know your Corporal Hookknife, but given his mission to come out here and set up a range for you, I’d suspect he’s part of the Field Division, which is the other major branch of the Engineers.”

    “What’s the difference between the two branches?” the dragon asked.

    “To explain it like the recruitment officer did back in the creche, Field Division goes places and makes stuff there,” the foundry-specialist explained, “while Logistics makes stuff here and sends it places.”

    “Okay,” Harry nodded slowly, “I guess that makes sense.”

    The conversation might have continued were it not for the characteristic whoosh of flame from an arriving phoenix. Harry turned to greet his friend, Fawkes, and had just enough time to get out “Hi, Fawkes…” before he caught a bushy-haired missile with his face.

    “Harry, you’re awake!”

    It seemed Fawkes had brought friends.

    3.1.3 Good news, everyone

    Seated at his desk, Albus unfolded the paper crane memo and smiled.

    It seemed Mr. Potter had regained consciousness, and that was the best news he had received all week — not that that was a particularly high bar to clear. Amelia’s investigation of his defense professor, detailed in the report currently sitting in the middle of his desk, had been singularly enlightening — and depressing… so many missed opportunities culminating in such a tragic outcome.

    Albus was not looking forward to the next staff meeting.

    Setting that aside, he would have to go congratulate Mr. Potter on his recovery shortly — just as soon as he finished a reply to Amelia. But first, it seemed his potions professor had suggested Albus contact Miss Granger to inform her of her friend’s recovery. It was an oddly considerate request; Severus was not normally one for such niceties.

    Albus smiled.

    It was a reassuring reminder that the man had a heart. Sometimes, even Albus had his doubts, despite his faith in the repentant spy’s good nature. Severus was a very good spy and was thus quite difficult to read when he so chose. It was good to see even that sort of faint confirmation.

    “Well, Fawkes, my old friend,” Albus turned to address the living flame perched in his office, “it seems Mr. Potter has regained consciousness. Would you be willing to take a note to his friend, Miss Granger, to alert her to that fact?”

    Fawkes chirped a cheerful affirmative, and after Albus wrote a note to that effect, grasped the message in one fiery-taloned foot and took off, vanishing from the office in a rush of flame.

    The elderly headmaster smiled after the wondrous bird for a time before he turned back to his earlier letter with a sad sigh.

    If not for that bird, he sometimes wondered whether he’d be able to keep going.

    3.1.4 Warm reception

    At the Granger family home in Crawley, Hermione paced the living room worriedly, much to the concern of her parents.

    It had been three days since they had brought their daughter home in hopes that a change in scenery would help her deal with her emotions in a healthy way.

    It hadn’t, and the girl had alternated irregularly between desperate research and distraught pacing ever since.

    “…but it could completely change Harry’s biochemistry, and people don’t survive that sort of thing! Not even if they can turn into dragons! I mean, Harry’s tough, but how do you just tough your way through your guts turning to gold?” the bushy-haired girl babbled worriedly. “You can’t do that and live through it!”

    “Hermione,” her mother soothed, “you said your professors and that — Healer, was it? — Madame Pomfrey were doing their best to take care of him. Even the goblins sent some help. I’m sure Harry will be fine.”

    “But Mum, Headmaster Dumbledore even said he had no idea how to fix it or even what was happening!” the girl said, still distraught. “And nothing I’ve been able to find says anything about how to fix this sort of thing, aside from saying that you can’t!”

    Sharon had no answer to that — nothing her daughter hadn’t already shot down multiple times, anyway — so she settled for giving her daughter a hug.

    “He’s my best friend,” Hermione sobbed into her mother’s shoulder. “What am I going to do if he doesn’t make it?”

    The hug tightened. “You’ll get through it somehow, baby, and your father and I will help you, no matter what.”

    On the other side of the room, Hermione’s father made to say something only for his statement to mutate into a muffled curse of surprise as a bonfire flared up near the kitchen.

    “What the bloody hell?”

    Hermione looked up. “Fawkes?”

    The vaguely avian mass of flame chirped in a positive sort of tone before ambling its way over to the girl. It hopped up on the arm of the couch near where Hermione was standing with her mother and offered a rolled parchment, miraculously unburned, to the girl who tentatively took the note and began to read.

    Her father looked over to his wife and mouthed the question, “What’s this?” to which his wife shrugged and tightened her hug.

    “Harry’s awake!” Hermione squealed. “Oh, we have to go see him!”

    “Right, I’ll fire up the car,” Tony Granger began, glad to have a clear course of action to help his daughter — driving the length of the British Isles was a small price to pay — only for the fire-bird to interrupt once again with a chirp and a proffered wing.

    “Really?” his daughter asked the fiery thing. “Oh, thank you very much!” She turned to her parents, “Fawkes offered to take us there now!”

    “And how is it going to do that?” Sharon asked.

    “Phoenixes can teleport using fire,” her daughter explained, “and they can carry tremendous loads, but they are really independent and will only do so when they deem it appropriate. It’s considered a great honor for a phoenix to consent to spend any time with you at all, doubly so when they offer to carry you somewhere.”

    “Huh,” Tony said. “Hermione, how do you know this bird, exactly?”

    “He spends a lot of time with Harry at the Lair,” Hermione answered absently. “They play tag, and Fawkes apparently likes it when Harry breathes fire on him. But seriously, can we go, Daddy?”

    The dentist looked to his wife for confirmation and received a shrug, so he went along with it. “We can go, sweetie.”

    He then looked doubtfully at the fire…bird…whatever, it was big, nearly the size of his daughter, but it certainly didn’t look up to carrying three people, two of them adults.

    “So, how do we go about this?”

    By way of answer, the phoenix hopped onto Tony’s shoulder, its weight giving him no trouble despite its size — must be some sort of magical effect. The bird was barely even warm, despite the flickering flames, but Tony got the firm impression that the bird’s firm self-control was the only reason he wasn’t crisping — an impression reinforced by the exaggeratedly cautious way it closed its claws on Tony’s shoulder.

    The bird’s demeanor reminded Tony of his brother, Bill. Bill was the athlete of the family. He’d played rugby when they were younger and could have gone professional. Instead, he had chosen to enlist and ended up in special forces. Between natural talent and training, it had left Bill by far the strongest man Tony had ever met.

    His brother had had that same walking-on-eggshells attitude the first time he picked up his infant niece — the attitude that said he knew perfectly well that if he did the slightest thing wrong, the fragile life he held in his hands would not survive, and he didn’t want that to happen, so he was being extra careful.

    This bird was acting precisely the same way around Tony, a fully-grown, reasonably sturdy man.

    It seemed that this was another hilariously lethal magical creature encounter for the scrapbook. The Granger patriarch seemed to be amassing quite the collection of those.

    Once the bird settled, it motioned for him to grab hold of his wife and daughter — at this point, Tony didn’t even bother to wonder how the bird got so good at charades — and then the three disappeared in a rush of flames, off to Scotland and a recently-awoken friend.

    3.1.5 Lurking danger

    As the crackling of flames faded with the departure of the family via phoenix, the house fell silent. Then at about the same time a certain dragon was accosted by a bushy-haired projectile, that silence was broken. The door splintered and exploded into the entryway and several of the living room windows shattered, spraying glass all over the room.

    Five men, dressed in dirty but serviceable clothing, burst in through the violently created entrances only to stop in confusion as they realized the living room was empty. As the thugs exchanged looks, puzzled, one of them, seemingly the leader, motioned to two of his fellows to search the rest of the house. As they went, the leader turned to one of his remaining compatriots.

    "Wot the 'ell?" the man said. "I thought ya said they were in the gaff!"

    "Dey wuz!" his compatriot protested. "Dey wuz rite in e'yer juss tree minutes ago!"

    "'eaven and 'ell they're not 'ere na, 're they? So where did they scarper to, then?"

    The third spoke up, "There's sum magic... recent stuff... I fin' they left just as we were settin' up ter come in."

    "They knew we were comin'?" the first asked, worried. "Aahhht from our geezer at the bloody office?"

    The two who had been sent off to search the house came back with negative results.

    No girl, no family, no paycheck.

    "Nuffin' from the geezer at the office," the third spoke up again after consulting a self-updating parchment. "...nuffin' garn on there; we're crystal!"

    "Maybe the bloody twist apparated?" the leader said.

    "Ay thought she wuz twelve?" the second challenged. "Gerraway she could do dat, not carry'n 'er parents wi' 'er. 'ad ter be a portkey, must 'uv 'ad fuckin' off planned."

    The leader thought for a moment, "We daan't kna wagwan 'ere, so we need ter find aahhht." He motioned to the third man, "Put sum monitorin' charms in, 'idden." The third man nodded, setting about the task. "We'll figure it aahhht an' 'ave anovver go." He motioned to the two searchers, "Get the damage fixed up, then we leef everythin' sugar."

    "De gaffer isn't go'n ter like this," the second thug warned. "'e wanted de bird fer auction next week, sounded like 'e 'ad a lot rid'n ed it."

    "'e's got more ridin' on us not gettin' nicked!" the first countered. "We daan't get the twist, 'e daan't get paid, but we get nicked, 'e loses everythin'! The fuckin' pitch will get over it."

    As the third thug finished planting their hidden monitoring charms, the others completed the repairs of the windows, and retreated through the front door. Another quick repair charm later, and the house was left looking exactly as it had fifteen minutes previous…

    …five minutes before the promise of comfort and safety from the cozy family home had been proven a bald-faced lie.

    3.1.6 Physicians’ conference

    Gathering their information had been the work of about half an hour, and the diagnostic team was just settling down to digest what they had learned.

    “I suppose the first thing to address is Mr. Potter’s health,” Poppy began. “His body has somehow managed to reestablish stable metabolic function. Internal structures which were damaged by the uncontrolled transmutation have been restored, either to their original composition or to superior ones. Our patient is no longer in danger of death, though for the life of me, I have no idea how he managed it!”

    “Speaking of superior compositions,” Nicholas said, showing his usual lack of regard for the conversational mood in favor of pursuing his own interests, “the lad’s scales are amazing! The process of controlling the effects of my stone seems to have resulted in a series of layers of different alchemical alloys, some of which I’ve never encountered in all my centuries of investigation!”

    “Certainly, the largest is gold,” the young-looking man explained, tapping each layer as he went on the scale sample he had somehow managed to shave off of the dragon, “terribly boring gold, but then he went through mithril, adamant, eighteen other metals which I have seen before in the lab but never bothered naming, and then a further twenty-seven which I have never seen before! The final choice is in the latter category, though I am not yet certain of the properties it will…”

    “On the topic of the boy’s scales,” Poppy broke in, knowing from recent, exasperating experience that Nicholas would babble on for hours about his field if given the slightest opportunity, “they seem to be pulling away from the underlying skin in a manner I am unsure how to interpret…”

    “Hmm?” Nicholas looked up from his study of his precious sample. “Oh, that, it is common enough. The boy is going through the process of molting. If you’ve spent any time around reptiles, you know the signs. I remember from that time back — oh it was about two centuries now — when I was fascinated by the composition of snake venoms. I kept thousands of the things around back then — eventually got rid of them when Penny got fed up with them finding their way into the bath…”

    The healer sighed in relief. “Well, so long as it is temporary. I thought dragons didn’t molt, though?”

    “Not normally,” Nicholas allowed. “They do drop scales, however, when they suffer from severe scale damage, and I’d imagine having one’s outer integument spontaneously change from relatively sturdy iron to buttery-soft gold qualifies handily.”

    “Fair enough,” Poppy allowed. “Severus, have you anything to add?”

    The potions master nodded. “Two things. One, the previously noted energy defect in Mr. Potter’s metabolism has increased. He is obtaining more energy from his food than should be possible given its composition and the reactions we assume it is undergoing…”

    “Did you account for the absorption of environmental magic?” Nicholas cut in.

    “Yes,” the potions master answered flatly. “Previously the defect was small, and we assumed we were simply not accounting for something the wretched lizard was eating. Now, however, the energy defect is a significant fraction of his total diet — approximately sixty percent, in fact — and we have the unique situation where we have accounted for every dram of the boy’s food intake for the past several weeks. It is no longer possible to assume away.”

    The ancient alchemist nodded thoughtfully before his eyes fell on the discarded feeding tube lying forgotten off to the side. “I have a thought…”

    He walked over and began examining the encrusted end of the tube which had been down Harry’s gullet.

    When his compatriots waited for him to continue, Nicholas waved them to continue, “Carry on, this may take a moment, I’m listening.”

    Snape looked at the man dubiously for a moment before continuing, “Secondly, Mr. Potter’s bulk composition has changed in an unexpected manner.”

    “How so?” Flame-Eye spoke up for the first time with Grindbone looking on attentively.

    “His body now contains significant traces of elements that I know were not present previously and could not have been introduced through his food. I have not tracked down the specific locations yet, but the dratted dragon’s body now contains upwards of two kilograms of iridium, and a tenth of that in osmium, to name the most egregious examples. Some of the others could have conceivably been contaminants, but those two…”

    “Given their relative abundance could not have shown up in anywhere near that quantity without specific attempts to add them,” the foundry specialist finished. “Aye, something strange is going on there.”

    “He’s transmuting them!” Nicholas broke in excitedly. “His physiology has learned to imitate the stone, and it is transmuting new materials to make up for nutritional deficiencies. It also explains the energy defect; he must be transmuting some lighter elements along the way towards iron to power the whole process. A little excess in that sort of thing goes a long way.”

    “Are you certain?” Snape asked. “It does explain our observations, but the risks…”

    “Yes, I am certain,” the alchemist said. “Look here at the residue on the feeding tube.” He poked at a porous brown bit of metal. “This is a bismuth-bronze alloy — see how the flat of my knife slides over the surface? Given the location, this deposit could only have come from the nutrient slurry, and we included copper but no bismuth. I’d be willing to bet the pores in the material are where antimony formed and vaporized out before it could mix, it’s a standard alchemical reaction path if you don’t work to limit it. This entire thing looks like some of my failed attempts at recreating orichalcum using the traditional suspension of molten bronze, specifically the ones I carried out at too high a temperature.”

    Nicholas shook his head in awe, “Our young friend is a living alchemical reactor.”

    “But the energy output…” Snape said with a worried frown. “How has Mr. Potter not exploded yet?”

    “You said the defect existed prior to his ingestion of the stone, correct?” Nicholas confirmed. At Poppy’s nod, he continued, “The boy must have already been doing it, and the stone just helped him improve. If he hasn’t exploded already, he’s unlikely to do so now.”

    After a few moments to let that digest, Poppy asked, “Is there anything else you’ve noticed? It seems Miss Granger is starting to slack off enough on her grip to allow Mr. Potter to hear our assessment.”

    Negative indications came from the rest of the team. It seemed it was time to break the news to their patient.

    At least none of the news was particularly bad — nothing they had been able to find so far, anyway.

    3.1.7 Health assessment

    It had taken nearly an hour for Harry to persuade Hermione to relinquish her death-grip on his face, at which point she settled for sitting on the top of his head in an effort to make sure he couldn’t go anywhere. It was a great deal more effective than the death-grip had been for that purpose anyway, mostly because Harry feared she might fall if he moved incautiously.

    Between Suze, her side plastered against Harry’s cheek as closely as she could manage, and Hermione, seated primly on the crown of his head just forward of his horns, Harry and his damsels presented quite a ridiculous scene when the time finally came to present the results of the extensive battery of diagnostics Poppy and her colleagues had run over the past couple hours.

    “Well then, Mr. Potter,” the healer began, “you have slept through quite the eventful end of term after consuming the philosopher’s stone.”

    “Um, how did that happen, exactly?” the dragon asked. “I mean, I thought I ate that guy that kept throwing killing curses at me and threatening my damsels, not some kind of rock.”

    “We believe the intruder stole the stone from where it was being kept under guard in the castle,” Snape volunteered. “He must have had it on his person when he met his end in your jaws.”

    “Oh… okay,” Harry said thoughtfully before his face twisted in concern. “Wait, was that what Corporal Mantrap was guarding? Is he okay?”

    “No, I am afraid Corporal Mantrap did not survive the attack,” came a new voice as Albus Dumbledore alighted in the entrance to the Lair. “He and four others from the security detail were killed by the intruder.”

    “No,” Harry whispered, distraught. Suze leaned in reassuringly and Hermione patted his head comfortingly, though he felt neither attempt, his scales being what they were. The dragon closed his eyes as a great silvery tear welled up, “Corporal Mantrap is dead? But…but he was going to come over to check on my shooting after his deployment! He can’t be dead!”

    “Sadly, circumstances have conspired not to allow him to make good on that promise,” the elderly headmaster said sympathetically.

    The young dragon sighed, “Oh. You said the rest of his squad got killed too?”

    “Four of them, yes.”

    “Well… well, shit,” Harry said.

    In an attempt at comfort, Dumbledore offered, “You will find over the course of your life, particularly in your case given your projected lifespan, that death of your friends and loved ones is something you must learn to deal with.” The man sighed, “It is unfortunately inevitable. The only advice I can offer is to remember them fondly, cold comfort though it is.”

    The dragon was silent for a moment, “Well, at least we got the guy that did it, right? Who was he anyway? He said he was that Voldemort-guy, but that can’t be right. When my forehead splats something it stays splatted.”

    “That… that is a complicated question,” Albus temporized. “The one who attacked the goblin position was not strictly-speaking the same person who attacked you…”

    “You mean he got away?” Harry demanded, smoke curling up from his nostrils.

    “Again, not exactly,” the elderly man explained. “The man who launched the attack was your defense professor, Quirinus Quirrel, who we have reason to believe was under the domination of a spiritual entity. That entity then used Nicholas’ stone to take over and reshape Quirrel’s body to suit its needs. That entity is the being who attacked you, Mr. Potter.”

    “What do you mean, ‘under the domination of’?” the young dragon cocked his head curiously.

    “We have every indication that Quirinus was attacked and enspelled at some point last summer, and from that point his every action was controlled and driven by the will of another being, the same being who attacked you after killing his pawn and stealing poor Quirinus’ body. Evidence found since the incident implies that your professor fought the control as well as he was able, attempting repeatedly to…” the man trailed off with a sad look on his face. “Well, let us say that Quirinus was unable to control his actions despite his best efforts at thwarting his controller. The details are still under DMLE investigation.”

    “But why didn’t he just not do it?” the dragon asked, puzzled. “I mean, compulsions can’t be that hard to shrug off. And couldn’t he have worked around them anyway, maybe come to you for help?”

    Snape cut in, “Mr. Potter, you have a rather… unique viewpoint when it comes to compulsions in that your metaphysical structure allows you to easily shrug off the worst of them. The rest of us are… not so fortunate,” the potions master concluded with a grimace. “I will endeavor to explain the ramifications to you at a later date, in the meantime, I believe our delays are tempting the good Healer’s patience.”

    A quick glance at the woman in question revealed her irritable expression and peevishly tapping foot, prompting everyone to quickly shut up.

    Thank you,” the healer began. “As I was going to say, Mr. Potter, your ingestion of the philosopher’s stone has had some far-reaching effects on your physiology, some of which are readily detectable, and some of which will likely only become apparent over time. Perhaps the most obvious is the change in your scales.”

    “Is that why my nose changed color?” the dragon asked.

    “That is correct Mr. Potter, though the color will not persist,” Poppy said. “Nicholas has hypothesized that your body managed to test many different ways in which to incorporate the stone into its function, which resulted in a variety of changes in your scales before you seemed to settle on a final material. Your scales are currently composed mostly of gold because that was the original reaction before your magic attempted to guide it in a different direction. Close examination will show your scales to possess striations of a great many different alchemical alloys.”

    “If Nicholas’ hypothesis is correct,” the Healer continued as her patient raised an arm to take a close look at his scales, “your scales will take on the last composition attempted, which is a dark silvery gray, a few shades lighter than your previous coloration.” The nurse paused for a moment. “We will be able to say for certain in a few weeks when you finish molting.”

    “I’m molting?” Harry asked curiously, looking up from his examination. “What’s that mean?”

    “It means that your body is shedding your current set of scales so it can grow new, undamaged ones,” the healer explained as the dragon’s eyes widened. “The current set has already separated from the living parts of your skin, so they’ll start falling off any day now.”

    “You mean I’m gonna be bald!” came the horrified exclamation.

    Snape burst out laughing.

    3.1.8 Instincts and baldness

    It had been a stressful way to wake up.

    Harry stared thoughtfully into the night outside the Lair. The trees atop the opposing bluff were barely visible in the light of the waning moon, and with the electric lights disconnected from power, the Lair was dark. Harry could just make out the faint glow of the inherent magic the infantry-goblins guarding the entrance to the Lair while he recovered. Come to think of it, he would have to see if he could arrange to retain a few of the goblins, at least until his scales grew back in.

    He knew he was going to be a bit vulnerable for a while without those scales — well, relatively speaking anyway, he was still a giant dragon — but the reality of his coming ordeal hadn’t really hit home until the first of the dead golden scales had dropped off his neck and fallen the half-dozen feet to the stone floor, landing with a startlingly loud bong. Harry sniffed; at least human hair had the basic decency to just sort of drift quietly to the ground when it fell out. His scales seemed to feel the need to make a big production out of it.

    It wasn’t fair!

    The young dragon sighed quietly before checking again on his damsels to see if he had awoken them inadvertently. Suze still napped tiredly against his side; Harry had never seen her as frazzled as she had been when he awakened, so he was loath to disturb her rest. Even Hermione had grabbed one of her blankets and curled up against his forepaw. Given her apparent dislike of the idea of sleeping with him and Suze when he first carried her off, Harry took that as an indication that she found his illness just as stressful. Even Hermione’s parents had joined in, insisting on sleeping nearby in the same room, and dragging Hermione’s bed out for that purpose.

    Her dad had made it a point to tell Harry he was going to be keeping an eye on him, too! Harry thought that was really nice of him, and he had made sure to thank him for being such a good friend — though Harry wasn’t rightly sure why that had set Mrs. Granger giggling.

    Come to think of it, Mr. Snape had said Abigail helped a lot with taking care of him too; maybe she was worried? He figured he ought to tell her he was okay, but how? Wizards always used owls, but the things wouldn’t let him get close enough to give them a letter to take to anyone. The last time he’d tried to go to the owlery, it was like a pillow factory exploded — feathers flying everywhere while the owls desperately scrambled to get away from him.

    Harry screwed his eyes shut in concentration as he struggled to think of an alternative. How could he get in touch with Abigail? He didn’t know where she lived, and messenger birds didn’t like him, so… wait, messenger birds; Mr. Snape used that thing where he wrote a note and animated it into a paper crane to fly to somebody! That didn’t look too hard.

    Harry resolved to ask for tuition in such when he next saw his surly friend.

    With that issue resolved for the time being, Harry turned to the problem of his friends’ concerns. The all seemed to have taken his illness really hard, and while that was kind of flattering, after a fashion, he really didn’t want to worry everyone again. It didn’t seem like a pretty mean thing for him to do. The problem was, though, that Harry wasn’t sure exactly what he could have done differently. It was a tough question.

    The last two times, he’d eaten something he shouldn’t have, so maybe he should try to avoid that? Except… well, the troll bone thing was more eating it too fast, than eating the wrong thing, per se. Had he eaten slower, then he would’ve had time to ease off before the bone got jammed between his teeth, so that was more of a “good manners” kind of thing. The last one, though, that was definitely eating something he shouldn’t’ve.

    The only problem was, he hadn’t meant to eat the stupid rock in the first place!

    Harry glared at his golden, slowly-shedding nose, irritated at the memory. That jerk who had attacked him and threatened his damsels had been carrying it on him when Harry ate him. How the heck was Harry supposed to know what people were carrying when they did stuff like that? It wasn’t like they’d be willing to give him a list of everything they were carrying so he could tell whether it was safe to eat them or not! If they were that considerate, the issue wouldn’t’ve come up at all! The young dragon’s expression turned thoughtful as a radical idea took root.

    Maybe he ought to reconsider his policy on eating enemies?

    Harry thought back on the attack and what had been going through his mind at the time. He’d felt strong annoyance, outrage, protectiveness, and then he made a conscious decision to answer the situation with violence. The decision was a deliberate one, but upon making it he’d had a towering impulse to bite down on the enemy. As Harry tried to consider other methods he might have used, running through imagined scenarios of how he could have handled the last incident, it seemed like biting was the endpoint of just about every sequence he could imagine.

    Grabbing something with his claws was a prelude to finishing with his jaws. A wing-strike was intended to stun before, again, going for the throat with his teeth. Just about every idea that seemed like a natural thing to try was a setup for that final bite.

    There was his fire — that was also tied to combat in his head, and not every usage of it was immediately followed by biting, though most were — but fire was kinda indiscriminate. He couldn’t have used that so close to Hermione in any case, and if he was honest with himself, Harry was a bit reluctant in general to use his fire in anger for just that reason.

    Harry could imagine just smashing something with his hand or wing or smacking it with his tail, but that always seemed more of a… deliberate action rather than natural one. Was that the right way to put it?

    In human shape, he punched things — that was the natural way to attack in that form; it was how the body was wired — in dragon shape he bit things for much the same reason. Anyway, it wasn’t something he could picture doing in the heat of combat; if he got worked up to the point where he committed to real violence, he was going to end up biting his opponent, and given the size difference — well, there was no way they weren’t getting eaten if that happened.

    Kind of a weird thing to think about, really.

    Gaining control of those instincts was going to take a lot of work, if he could manage it at all. They seemed to be in-built — he certainly hadn’t fought enough trained such reflexes through practice — but humans trained themselves to do all sorts of difficult things, so he ought to be able to do the same, if he worked at it hard enough.

    He would have to try it and see.

    But that begged the question — what other things had he been doing instinctively? Were there issues there which would come back to bite him later like this one had?

    That was something he didn’t have an answer for. Automatic instinctive responses were by their nature kind of hard to recognize. He’d have to keep an eye on things.

    Harry sighed, but that was something for the future. For now, Harry was going to enjoy the company of his damsels and rest after his trying ordeal, assured of the knowledge that he had some truly amazing friends.

    And he was going to try keep his mind off his inevitably approaching baldness. At least it would be temporary.

    3.1.9 Recovery and resolutions

    Harry had broached the topic of instruction on the animated memo spell with his friend, Mr. Snape, the next morning, and shortly thereafter his days became filled with small gouts of flame as he set paper after paper on fire, accidentally packing them far too full of magic. It was a rather discouraging process for the young dragon, yet he remained resolute.

    Abigail would get that note if it was the last thing he did! She deserved at least that much.

    While minor explosions filled Harry’s summer days, the turmoil in his other relationships started to subside. Suze and Hermione slowly adjusted to the idea that Harry was back and unlikely to disappear, and their desperate attempts to keep him in sight fell back to a healthier level.

    After two days, Hermione had calmed enough to return to sleeping in her apartment in the Lair, and with that norm reestablished, her parents returned home to catch up with their somewhat-neglected dental practice. After a week, Suze finally returned to some of her personal projects, no longer insisting on being in physical contact with her dragon at all times.

    All the while, golden scales fell like oddly-shaped hail.

    Harry remained under close observation for the better part of another week before Poppy pronounced him ‘probably stable’ and cut his checkup schedule back to his previous biweekly visit. With that, the various helpers who had come to look after the sick dragon began preparing to leave, and at that point Harry hit on an idea.

    His talks with Flame-Eye, Grindbone, and Griphook — the Color Sergeant who had been looking after the security of his Lair for him while he was indisposed — had at one point touched on Sergeant-Major Hooktalon’s inspirational speech regarding looking out for Harry in his time of need.

    And with that had come the idea of a celebratory spider-barbecue.

    3.1.10 Barbecue

    Atop the outcropping housing Harry’s Lair was a patch of essentially untouched scrubland which Harry had chosen to use to host his celebratory barbecue. To that end, Harry had prepared three large cooking fires in a large clearing he had stomped out of the vegetation. The result was a scene from a bygone era. Sunset over the Highlands saw an eclectic group gather about three crudely constructed bonfires set in a rough clearing in the middle of what appeared to be otherwise virgin wilderness.

    The young dragon had invited everyone who had participated in the efforts to fix him up and a few more besides. Goblins were far and away the most heavily-represented in the gathering, including everyone from Grindbone and Flame-Eye to Sergeant-Major Hooktalon and all his men, well, at least the ones who had been involved in the Hogwarts defense.

    The service-goblins made for a fun, if rather rowdy, crowd, and the bawdy singing and drinking had begun among the group before the sun even properly set.

    Even Vice Director Slackhammer had made the time to come, cutting a very dapper figure who looked quite out of place among the primitive décor. He had brought with him, at Harry’s request, some of the surviving family of Corporal Mantrap in order to honor Harry’s dead friend.

    Harry’s friends from Hogwarts comprised the next largest group. Of course, Madame Pomfrey and Mr. Snape made the time to come, and they were joined by the rest of the usual suspects working on the ley-line nexus devices. Even Sybil Trelawney had managed to fish herself out of her sherry long enough to put in a token appearance. Albus had come, and he had also brought along two more guests that Harry had invited but not yet had the opportunity to meet.

    Obviously, Harry was there as were his damsels, along with several of Suze’s family. Harry had carried Magorian and Bane up personally. Sadly, his human damsel’s parents had begged off, claiming appointments at the practice had backed up too much for them to get away.

    Suze’s family had each brought along a freshly-killed deer as a token of their regard for Hooktalon’s assistance in fending off the few remaining acromantula during Harry’s convalescence, and Professor Sprout had eagerly provided mead — this time a long-time favorite variety, which her family produced in bulk, rather than a novelty brew.

    Harry had, of course, obtained a fair amount of food via his usual means of asking Hagrid for it, but the unquestionable crowning glory of the cookout was provided by the hosting dragon personally — three massive acromantula, the largest Harry had left after his snacking over the past two years. Each was about the size of a large van.

    It seemed to Harry that presenting them to the group would be a great way to start off the party — even if the young dragon was, for once, a little embarrassed about his appearance. He still had patches of golden scales on him, but most of his skin was now… well, kind of polka-dotted, with tiny silvery new scales growing in on the backdrop of his jet-black bare skin. Honestly, Harry thought he looked more than a little silly.

    Silly looking or not, he was nonetheless determined to approach his first public-speaking engagement gamely.

    Focusing on the task at hand rather than worrying about speaking in front of a crowd while essentially naked, the currently rather mangy-looking dragon alighted at the edge of the group of partygoers, carrying with him the three spider carcasses which, taken together, bulked nearly as large as his own torso.

    He hoped he had enough food for everyone.

    As every eye on the plateau turned to Harry, the dragon raised his voice slightly, “Um, thanks everyone for coming! I… well, I really appreciate everybody looking out for me while I was sick, and I’m sorry to have worried everybody. Anyway, I wanted to thank everybody, so I decided to throw a party! Um… I brought some acromantula,” he gestured with one foreclaw to the bus-sized pile of freshly-killed spiders. “They’re really tasty!”

    Harry’s voice turned a bit uncertain, “Well… um… anyway, I usually eat them raw, but Mr. Snape got sick before when we didn’t cook ‘em enough, and Sergeant-Major Hooktalon had mentioned having a barbecue and how he knew how to cook bugs really well, so I was kinda hoping I could get some help getting them cooked…”

    A bout of raucous laughter rang out from the goblin contingent as the Sergeant-Major so mentioned gaped in momentary disbelief before shaking it off and stepping gamely up to the task. “Right you are, and help you’ll have, Mr. Potter! You lot! Set about dressing those carcasses so we can get them to a good size for roasting! The young gent was kind enough to provide us with a good spread, we just need to get it on the table! Hop to!”

    “But Sarge,” came a loud voice from a goblin somewhere in the middle of the crowd, “what about the brown sauce?”

    That prompted another round of laughter from his troops. The ‘I love bugs — or snakes, or rats, or whatever the problematic wildlife on any given deployment — they make for a splendid grill roast! Tasty with brown sauce!’ was one of the Sergeant-Major’s favorite lines, and his troops had heard it enough times to know exactly where the young dragon had gotten the idea, even if they weren’t there to hear it personally. That someone had finally called him on it, especially someone so innocently serious in the way only young children can be, had the entire platoon tickled pink — well, not really ‘pink’ but ‘tickled a sort of greenish khaki color’ didn’t have nearly the same ring to it.

    The fact that they were going to get some good grub out of it only made the whole thing better.

    Taking some pity on the goblin officer with whom they had become well-acquainted over the past few weeks, Bane and his father ambled over to offer their expertise in acromantula butchery and, not incidentally, to drop off the deer they had brought before the blood stains on their festival-best got any bigger.

    As the area around the cooking fires devolved into the chaotic-yet-purposeful mess inherent in the task of butchering and roasting three animals which massed more than most of the guests combined, Harry smoothly shifted into his human form for the first time in several weeks in order to make his rounds as the host, his damsels in tow. Safely navigating the crowd in his native form would have been nerve-wracking. With most of the goblins caught up in the serious business of a good barbecue, the young dragon’s path took him first to his wizarding friends, and a few greetings and thanks were exchanged in the usual way of such things.

    As Harry neared the area where Albus was chatting with a much younger-looking couple, the elderly wizard called him over, sounding rather jovial after a few tankards of Sprout’s mead.

    “Harry, my boy, come over here! I would like to introduce you to someone.”

    “Uhm, hello?” the small boy-shaped dragon said as he jogged over to the trio.

    “This is my mentor, Nicholas Flamel and his wife, Perenelle,” Dumbledore introduced his companions. “Nicholas was kind enough to aid in your treatment after your unfortunate ingestion of his stone.”

    Harry’s eyes lit up. “Oh, I wanted to meet you! Um, thanks for helping,” he said earnestly.

    “Think nothing of it, Mr. Potter,” the young-looking man said. “Yours was a fascinating case! I’ll have research material for the next three centuries out of this!”

    “Okay, and… um, I’m sorry about eating your stone, too,” the currently human-shaped dragon apologized. “I mean I didn’t know the guy was carrying it, so I didn’t mean to eat it, but I still did, so sorry about that.”

    “Oh, it’s quite all right, no great loss; they’re easy enough to reproduce when you know how,” Nicholas said, waving it off. “That said, I do believe you owe me five-hundred and twelve galleons, six sickles, and a knut to pay for the ingredients for a replacement.”

    Harry thought about that for a moment, a little nonplussed. “That seems reasonable.”

    “Normally, I would have objected to my husband’s miserly behavior,” the alchemist’s wife spoke up for the first time, elbowing said husband when he made to object to her description, “…oh hush, Nicholas! You paved the pathways in my vegetable garden with solid gold gravel! We hardly need quibble over a few hundred galleons!” The young-looking woman turned back to Harry. “However, I felt that it would be a good reminder for you to watch what you put in your mouth in the future, young man. My Nicholas tells me you almost paid dearly for that this time, and if this helps you remember to avoid such issues in the future, then it is money well spent!”

    Harry nodded at her reasoning, and then the conversation turned to some of Mr. Dumbledore’s more esoteric political efforts which soon had Harry wandering off to talk to other people. He learned from Miss Vector that Mr. Snape had gone off on a run to his local grocer to pick up ingredients for Hooktalon’s famous brown sauce, which had Harry feeling kind of bad.

    He should have asked the Sergeant Major about it before putting him on the spot like that; not having the ingredients on hand must have been really embarrassing!

    The spiders had been properly butchered, and they were now sitting in a large number of relatively small pieces — the largest of which were about the size of a smallish pig — on jury-rigged racks above and around the large fires Harry had built earlier with his damsels’ help. With that accomplished, most of the goblins left the meat to cook and began to enjoy the party.

    A few groups broke out instruments, ranging from several harmonicas to mouth-harps to one well-traveled fellow who broke out a knife and hunted down a hollow branch to make a didgeridoo which made for an interesting sort of effect with the droning buzz echoing off the surrounding cliffsides.

    Not to be outdone, Harry’s friends from the school broke out their own instruments, Minerva with her bagpipes and Flitwick with his low-pipe in particular for a rather eclectic impromptu performance. As the mead continued to flow, the music only got more involved, traditional Or’zet drinking songs rang off across the hilltop followed by Scottish folk music in a cheerful sort of competition.

    Harry sat enjoying the spontaneous concert for some time before eventually moving on, eventually coming to Mr. Slackhammer and a pair of goblins he didn’t know who smelled a little like Corporal Mantrap.

    “Ah, Mr. Potter! Your gathering has thus far been quite splendid, a true delight to attend!” the portly goblin greeted his business associate. “I am greatly looking forward to sampling your roast acromantula; Mr. Snape’s account of his past experience has set a high bar, indeed.”

    “Thanks for coming! It’s nice to be able to have a party for once,” Harry replied. “I mean, Mrs. McGonagall helped me have that Burns Night one, but that was only about five people.” The young dragon turned to the dapper goblin’s companions. “Are these…”

    “Ah, yes,” Slackhammer’s mood turned more serious, “allow me to introduce to you Shatterclaw, honorable mate of the late Corporal Mantrap, and Clawhammer, their eldest daughter.” The two goblin females nodded to the dragon in human form.

    “Um, well, thanks for coming,” Harry began. “When I found out Corporal Mantrap died, I wanted to do something, ‘cause he was my friend, and well, I thought inviting some of his family to the party would be a good way of remembering him. I mean, he was going to look in on me to check on my marksmanship progress after this deployment, and he didn’t get to do that, so I thought having you guys come would be almost like having him come over, and I thought you might like it, too? You know, knowing that I miss him too.”

    “Your invitation was well received, Mr. Potter,” Shatterclaw assured him. “And you are correct, it is good to know that Mantrap will be missed by others outside the family. Even aside from that, it is good to meet you, as well.”

    “Well, thanks!” Harry said. “I’m glad it was well received. Wish I could have done something for him, though.”

    “At least you managed to kill the one responsible for my father’s death, Mr. Potter,” Clawhammer spoke for the first time. “That counts for a great deal.”

    Harry grimaced. “Well, I thought I did, but Mr. Dumbledore said it was more complicated than that. Something about ‘mental domination’ and spiritual possession. It was really confusing, and Mr. Snape hasn’t had the chance to explain to me like he said he would…”

    “I see,” the young goblin said in a dangerous sort of voice. “The killer is still alive, then?”

    “Maybe?” Harry frowned uncertainly. “It was really hard to follow. I know the guy I ate said he was that Voldemort guy, but I’m not so sure he was telling the truth about that, and after I ate him, he came out as some sort of screaming ghost-fart-thingy. You might want to ask Mr. Dumbledore; he could probably explain better,” the young dragon pointed across the crowd. “He’s over there talking with Mr. and Mrs. Flamel, if you want to talk with him.”

    “I believe we will do so,” Shatterclaw said, her eyes glinting darkly. “Information is key for properly dealing with such things. Thank you for your invitation… and for the advice.” With that, the goblin stalked off purposefully, followed closely by her eldest child.

    The young dragon turned to his business partner. “I hope I handled that right,” Harry remarked. “I mean, I knew I should do something, but I’ve never had to try to help people after they lost somebody before.”

    “You did very well, Mr. Potter,” Slackhammer assured him. “I believe their clan was rather disappointed that the culprit had died so quickly. This will give them something to occupy themselves with while they grieve, and it gives the opportunity for potentially gaining closure.”

    That… didn’t seem quite right to Harry, but he supposed he was pretty young yet, and they were goblins. The human-shaped dragon nodded slowly; it was probably best to defer to the experience of his elder business partner on the subject.

    “So, Mr. Slackhammer, I’ve been thinking,” Harry changed the subject. “I wanted to thank you for all the help when I was sick, what with the medical help and the food and the security and all. That was way more than you had to do, so thanks!”

    “Not at all, Mr. Potter, not at all,” the rotund goblin replied. “Our association has been spectacularly profitable for all involved and well worth the costs incurred in providing assistance.”

    “Well, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t thank you, so thanks again,” Harry said. “And, um, I was wondering, well, you probably noticed I’m kinda not gonna have my scales for a while until the next set grows in after the philosopher’s stone thing, and I’m feeling kinda well, like I’m not…”

    “You are feeling somewhat vulnerable at the idea of being temporarily deprived of one of your chief defenses?” Slackhammer offered.

    “Yeah,” Harry hung his head. “I was wondering if I could maybe hire Griphook’s squad to look after the Lair? You know, just ‘til my scales grow back?”

    The dapper goblin turned thoughtful. “Well, Mr. Potter, I do believe something could be arranged in that regard…”

    With that the pair fell into a discussion of pay rates and details during which Harry learned a great deal about both the logistics of small modern military groups and the ancient art of haggling. Even after the deal was reached, Slackhammer took it upon himself to explain to Harry how he could do better at negotiations in the future.

    The pair continued in that vein until the strident voice of the Sergeant Major called out that the barbecue was ready.

    The spread was massive, mountains of roasted acromantula took center stage; though it was no longer in recognizable spider-shape, thankfully for peace of mind of most of the participants in the feast. The meat ended up tasting a great deal like a cross between shrimp and lobster, and most found it to be good eating, particularly when accompanied by the Sergeant Major’s brown sauce. For those who couldn’t handle the idea of eating giant spider meat, there was a still very impressive array of more traditional fare, and everyone in attendance ate their fill — except for the host of course.

    Harry’s appetite left no survivors.

    As the celebration wound down, the buffet dwindled, and Mrs. Sprout’s barrels of mead emptied, Harry looked out over the crowd of his friends enjoying themselves on the roof of his home. As more of the guests ate their fill, more mouths became unoccupied, and the earlier instruments were joined by voices. As the evening was wrapping up, the contented dragon was currently listening appreciatively to Mrs. McGonagall’s final rendition of The Parting Glass as she prepared to retire for the evening.

    As far as ways to celebrate recovering from an illness went, this was a pretty good one, in Harry’s considered opinion — he just wished he could have invited Abigail too. But that aside, Harry was certain of at least one thing.

    The barbecue had definitely been a good idea.
     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2020
  11. Threadmarks: Section 3.2 - Unpleasant truths
    Dunkelzahn

    Dunkelzahn No one of consequence

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    3.2 Unpleasant truths


    3.2.1 Business trips

    A week after his guests had gone home well-sated from an evening of good food and better companionship under the summer night sky, Harry had rid himself of the last of his golden mange, and his new scales had grown to the point that they now formed more of a houndstooth pattern than polka-dot. It was a significant improvement in the young dragon’s considered opinion.

    Harry had stacked the shed scales neatly in one of the deeper chambers in the Lair in case he wanted to do something with them later; waste not, want not, and all that. If nothing else, he figured he’d probably melt them down for bullion; they probably contained more gold than the rest of his bullion stash, though it was a bit hard to be sure without actually melting them down.

    He’d been meaning to expand his workshop anyway, and that would be as good an excuse as any. He had a couple of large pieces of equipment on order, but they’d be a while yet; right now, it was basically a room with a sturdy table and good lighting. A small-scale foundry seemed like a good next step while he waited for some of the other equipment he had on order. Gold melted easily, and he was sure it’d be pretty fun to cobble something together for that purpose. It was something to consider, in any event.

    That said, his new scales might be growing in well, but boy did they make him itch while they did! Harry had thought it was bad when he was little, but at least then it had only been spots where he had grown a little too fast for the scales to keep up. This time it was everywhere, and he couldn’t even scratch! While his scales would easily turn his talons, his bare skin was not so durable.

    In a futile attempt to distract himself from the blasted itching, the dragon’s attempts at mastering Snape’s message spell redoubled, and while it did little for the itch, it did wonders for his proficiency with the spell. Over the course of a few days, Harry went from exploding parchment to a serviceable animated crane, and with that breakthrough, the young dragon finally managed to send off his long-delayed letter to his friend, Abigail. The messenger crane might have been a little quirky due to the spell still being overcharged, but he figured it would get there okay.

    With that issue finally resolved, Harry had just gotten to the point of resigning himself to endure the long, itchy process of letting his new scales grow to full size when his professor friends reminded him that they had planned to take him on a field trip to several of the stone rings in order to get his view on how the devices were structured, and Harry seized onto that new and welcome distraction with all six limbs.

    So it was that Harry found himself charging a portkey to carry himself, his damsels, and three of his professor friends to Avebury on a lazy summer afternoon in early July.

    3.2.2 Avebury

    Hermione silently cursed herself for her curiosity as she leaned against her friend’s not-quite-as-scaly-as-normal side. Why had she agreed to come along on this trip, again?

    When Harry had asked if she wanted to join him for a trip to see several of the famous stone circles, the girl had jumped at the chance. She had always wanted to go visit the great archaeological sites, but with her parents’ schedule at the practice, she’d never had the chance. Now her friend was offering to take her, not just to one such site, but to three in one afternoon?

    Of course, she had agreed! How could she not?

    Well, when they arrived in Avebury via portkey, she had quickly learned how. She had been immediately drenched to the skin by a soaking rain pouring out of a flat grey sky, a rain that showed not the slightest hint of letting up any time soon. The circle was large, and it housed an entire community, so the portkey had brought them down in the middle of a copse of trees to the northwest of the ring proper — just north of the local museum, according to her tourist guide.

    Unfortunately, while they were ideal for blocking line of sight, the trees did nothing to block the rain.

    Luckily, Professor Flitwick had quickly cast a notice-me-not, and then Harry had transformed, providing the entire group an instant, mobile pavilion by extending a helpful wing to keep the rain off them from above. A quick round of drying charms later, and the group was ready to get started. Accordingly, they had their somewhat awkward way through the tree-studded lawn and up onto the outer earthwork of the ring, Harry’s wing providing the equivalent of a shared umbrella.

    The view was not nearly as impressive as Hermione had hoped.

    She knew from her reading that the outer ring was the largest Neolithic stone circle in Britain. Over a kilometer in circumference, the outer ring of standing stones was surrounded by a ditch which was itself encompassed by the ring-shaped earthen mound on which she was currently standing. Two smaller non-concentric stone rings stood within the outer ring, and two stone-lined avenues marked out paths to the center. She imagined it would have made for an impressive sight, were it not for the rain-limited visibility.

    Before her stretched a ditch following the curve of the ridge, and beyond that stood the line of stones, again following the same curve. As it was, Hermione could barely make out the sheep grazing fifty yards past the line of stones gently curving off into the gray downpour to either side, much less the far side of the ring. If she squinted, she could just make out a low hedgerow to the right of the sheep, marking — she supposed — the edge of the town built inside the ring.

    As far as Hermione could see, there wasn’t much to look at, but she seemed to be alone in that regard. Within moments of settling in on top of the earthwork, the expedition immediately devolved into Harry describing some arcane vision only he could see, and Flitwick, Vector, or sometimes Babbling asking for clarification of something Hermione didn’t even know enough about to imagine.

    By the time Hermione had puzzled through the abstruse dialogue and formulated a reasonable question, the conversation had already moved on through four different topics, leaving her hopelessly behind. The bushy-haired girl’s fingers itched for something to write with, so she could at least attempt record what was going on to make sense of it later, but she had unfortunately not thought to bring anything along.

    It was tremendously frustrating.

    As the time passed, the group would periodically shuffle around to different vantage points in order to get a different perspective on whatever invisible thing Harry was looking at. The dragon-shaped boy seemed to be able to see all the way to the other side of the ring without difficulty, despite the intervening rain — and buildings, as she discovered on some of the later shuffling transits — but apparently the magical device had a great deal of three-dimensional structure, necessitating the shifts in viewpoint. It must have been a fascinating sight…

    …which left her even more exasperated at her inability to see it.

    She had expected… well Hermione wasn’t quite sure what she had expected, except that it would have been more exciting than this. Dodging traps while sprinting through a collapsing ancient temple, it was not.

    All those movies had lied to her!

    Her lack of expertise left her unable to follow the conversation; her lack of writing tools left her unable to write down notes for later review; and the weather left her unable to go exploring on her own: all of which combined to force Hermione to count the time leaning impatiently against Harry’s side and watching the rain roll off his wing-sail as the damp slowly and uncomfortably wicked through her leather shoes, reduced to fending off the occasional suicidally stupid sheep. After a quarter hour, the bored girl was very much regretting her choice to leave her reading material behind.

    They stayed for nearly three hours.

    3.2.3 Stonehenge

    From Avebury, another portkey took the group a little less than twenty miles south to the famous Stonehenge, another of those historical sites that Hermione had so wanted to visit. Again, the rain showed no sign of abatement; though Hermione held high hopes for the last site on the list, it was far enough north that it had to be outside this weather system.

    Once again, the soaking rain had them all huddling under Harry’s wing; however, the conversation was a little more relatable — at least for a time.

    “Ouch!” Harry winced. “Ah, man that’s bright!”

    “That stands to reason, I suppose,” Vector chimed in. “This device has yet to be discharged, after all.”

    “What can you tell us about the structure?” Flitwick asked.

    “I dunno,” Harry said, squinting at the ground below the standing stones. “It’s all one big bright thing, can’t really see any detail.”

    The professors fell silent for a moment as they considered what to do before Flitwick spoke up once again. “Mr. Potter, I have an idea, please allow this charm through your defenses.”

    At the dragon’s nod, he cast. “Whoa! Who turned out the lights?” Harry asked. He held one of his claws up in front of his face. “I can barely see my hand!”

    “It is a dueling spell I learned some time ago, essentially the inverse of the supersensory charm,” the diminutive professor explained. “Most confuse its effects with those of the blinding curse, and thus they use the wrong counter. Please tell us what you can see of the device now, Mr. Potter.”

    “Oh, right,” Harry turned back to the circle. “Oh, wow, that’s really clear now! Right, so it’s got the rings we talked about before…”

    From there, Hermione was once again lost to the discussion as the professors asked for clarification and busily sketched diagrams and made theories. Once again, the rain kept Hermione from going and exploring the ring on her own, taking in the atmosphere of ancient history.

    The bushy-haired girl was beginning to despise rain.

    After another four hours, the rain was just beginning to let up, and Hermione was greatly looking forward to finally getting to walk over and touch the stones…

    …just in time for the portkey to the last site.

    3.2.4 Stenness

    This time, they appeared under a clear sky, though after her repeated drenchings, Hermione was feeling a bit chilly in the cool summer afternoon on the southeastern shore of the Loch of Stenness. The bushy-haired girl was happy to count her blessings, though; she’d take a chilly breeze over a chilly downpour any day of the week. Hermione’s relief was quickly overshadowed with concern, though, when her friend let out a sharp exclamation of pain.

    “Ouch!” Harry snapped flinching away from the ring. “Oh, man! That’s even bright through my eyelids!”

    Flitwick quickly offered, and the same charm was cast — and then cast again, before Harry could make out any detail. As the adults settled down into another question-and-answer session with the mostly blind dragon playing the part of an oracle, Suze took it upon herself to stand guard over the partially-incapacitated Harry, rifle in hand.

    Hermione, on the other hand, took the opportunity to explore a bit. The stones stood in the middle of a fenced field separated from the adjacent loch by a narrow two-lane road. As she approached the stones, standing majestic under the late afternoon sun with their weathered gray surfaces contrasting sharply with the lush green summer grass of the surrounding pasture, the girl began to get a feel for the place.

    Hermione knew from her reading that these stones were believed to be more than five thousand years old, but she had not realized just what that meant until that very moment, looking up at a foot-thick slab of stone nearly three times taller than herself, brightly lit by the late-afternoon sun.

    That stone had been set in place more than five-thousand years ago by people just like her. There had been people on this spot, growing up, raising children, building things, living out their lives — with all the joys and sorrows, trials and triumphs that that implied — for all that time.

    When the Magna Carta was signed, that stone had already been standing for more than four thousand years. When Arthur reigned in Camelot, that stone had been standing for more than thirty-five hundred years. When Jesus was nailed to the cross in Jerusalem, that stone had been standing for more than three thousand years.

    When Rome, the so-called Eternal City, was founded, that stone had already been standing for longer than Christianity had existed in modern times.

    People, people just like her, had been living and loving, dying and grieving for all that time. With that realization came a sense of continuity the young girl had never felt before. Five thousand years of human history; five thousand years of stories, all played out while that stone stood its vigil…

    It was hard to wrap her head around.

    The real kicker, though, came when she turned to look back over the loch and leaned back against that stone to watch the setting sun, and she saw the dark bulk of her currently dragon-shaped friend silhouetted against the reddening sky. Her friend, Harry, was helping their professors learn about a device — of which the stone she was leaning against was but a small part — which was still in perfect working order after five thousand years of continuous operation.

    She was leaning against a piece of machinery which had not been merely standing in mute endurance for five thousand years but rather had been operating as designed uninterrupted for five millennia, and it was one of hundreds like it spread across the world. She was leaning against a stone which was perhaps the most impressive piece of engineering the world had ever known, and with that startling realization came another.

    Engineering takes practice.

    To create a piece of machinery, magical or otherwise, as enduring as the one she was leaning against took practice and repetition, planning and prototyping, iteration after iteration of slowly improving designs. She might have accepted a single such device just happening to stay functional for all that time on the first try — maybe — but for hundreds of them to do so?

    Modern historians were fond of measuring the progress of history through the progress of technology. The space age succeeded the atomic age which succeeded the industrial age and so on and so forth back to the iron age, the bronze age, and finally the stone age. Everything that came before, from the first time a proto-hominid picked up a rock and used it as an improvised hammer up to the superbly engineered device currently at her back, had been lumped under that single heading.

    Just how much history had been lost to the sands of time — just how much had been forgotten — that that sort of range was collapsed into a single category? Primitive societies didn’t produce technological wonders like the stone she leaned against. That was the product of centuries, or more likely millennia, worth of coordinated research and development.

    How far back did her heritage stretch?

    The sun dipped below the horizon, and the vivid sunset dulled to the muted colors of twilight, prompting the young girl made her way back across the field. Hermione nodded affably to a watchful Suze as she approached, settled in comfortably next to her scaly friend, and smiled as she came to a pleased conclusion.

    She was glad she had come on this trip after all.

    Rain or no rain.

    3.2.5 The Devil’s toolbox

    “Um, Mr. Snape?” a familiar voice sounded as Severus Snape passed the main castle entrance on his way to the kitchens.

    During the summer break, the potions master preferred to take his meals in the closer quarters of the old servant’s dining hall near the kitchens. The Great Hall always seemed rather depressingly empty without the dull roar of the student body. Severus Snape had had more than enough depression in his life without courting more through his choice of dining venues.

    “What do you want, Mr. Potter?” he asked without turning to face the voice. The potions master did, however, moderate his stride slightly to accommodate the shorter strides of the dragon’s human form.

    There was a quick shuffle as the young Potter scrambled to catch up. “Um, if you’ve got the time, you mentioned before that you’d explain more about compulsions and their ramifications…”

    Snape sighed, there went his chance for a pleasant lunch.

    “Very well, you may join me for lunch where I will explain.” In fact, speaking of joining — “If I may ask, Mr. Potter, where have you left your usual entourage?”

    “Hmm?”

    “Since your illness, Miss Granger and Miss Suze have been effectively grafted to your side,” the potions master elaborated. “Yet they are not present now. Where are they?”

    “Oh, well, Hermione found something in my collection of books which got her all excited. I’m not sure why, they were all books I had other copies of that I know she had seen before,” the dragon answered, “and since we were in the castle, Suze decided to go check on something in the library for her project with her uncle, Ronan. They’re trying to find a local substitute for one of the ingredients in a wood-strengthening potion to use for his pulley axles.”

    That caught Snape’s professional interest. “What ingredient are they attempting to replace?”

    “Some sort of lacquer made from the wings of a magical beetle native to the Congo,” Harry replied. “I offered to just buy them a big supply, but since they’re trying to produce weapons for themselves, they want to make sure they have reliable sources for all the ingredients.”

    “Understandable,” Snape mused as they continued to walk. “I must admit wood strengthening potions have not been a major study of mine, though I am familiar with the beetle in question. As I recall, the exoskeleton of the common cockroach can be substituted in most situations, though the distillation of the lacquer in that case requires the use of a specially-prepared cauldron — a faceted granite basin with runic inlays of mica on the inner surface as I recall.”

    “That sounds hard to make,” Harry commented.

    “Quite so,” the potions master acknowledged. “Even though the Congolese beetles are nearly twenty-thousand times as expensive as the cockroaches, the cauldron is still the less economical choice — even in volume brewing — as the cauldron would wear out before the initial investment was recovered. It was a case study on brewing economics I reviewed during my mastery studies.”

    With that, the pair arrived at a large dining hall — three doors down on the less-used side of the hallway housing the Hufflepuff dorm entrance.

    “Wow! I’ve never seen this room before,” the excitable dragon said. “What is it for?”

    “It is the dining hall for the servants’ quarters,” Snape explained. “Prior to the incorporation of house elves into the castle, it was, like most others, operated by human labor. Helga Hufflepuff was said to have insisted on her House being placed in close proximity to the servants’ quarters to remind her students of the value of good, hard, work.”

    “That makes sense,” Harry said before frowning. “Wait, I thought the house elves were contracted back in the six-hundreds and Hogwarts wasn’t founded until 997; why didn’t the castle employ them from the start?”

    “That actually ties into our proposed topic of discussion,” Snape sighed as he and the young human-shaped dragon took a seat at one of the simple tables. “Brownies, the minor fae that were the — ancestors, for lack of a better term — of our current house elves,” the sallow-skinned man nodded in acknowledgement to the house elf currently serving his lunch and Harry’s much larger light snack, “chose to serve in family homes. Brownies liked to work, but they preferred serving individual families where they could become a valued part of that family. While the differences in mindset implicit in their nature as fae made for certain, sometimes deadly, complications, family was always the end goal, and the introduction of the contract simply laid out behavioral expectations. The new house elves still wanted to be part of families.”

    The dragon nodded in between bites of his food; attention raptly focused on his teacher.

    “For that reason, public institutions, places like the Ministry or Hogwarts, were not sought-after posts,” Snape continued. “A school such as Hogwarts houses no close-knit family with which to integrate, thus house elves were not interested. That changed with the use of compulsion spells.”

    “So, the house elves are only here because they’re being forced to be?” Harry asked, frowning. “That doesn’t sound like something Mr. Dumbledore would let happen — I mean, I could see it happening somewhere else where he’s not in charge, but at his own school? There must be something else going on.”

    Snape nodded, “Well-reasoned, Mr. Potter; were it simply a case of breaking compulsions, I am sure Albus would already have done so. The crux of the matter is the nature of the spells used and their interaction with the nature of the fae. While mental spells cast on a human or human-like person only affect the behavior of the targeted person, creatures of the fae are affected differently. The fae are more spirit than flesh, and thus they are more magically realized ideas than they are biological creatures. Mental magics attack those ideas and twist them, which is both why the brownies became house elves when they went under contract and why house elves have remained under compulsion generations after the last such spell was cast; the effects of the spell are passed down through the fae methods of reproduction.”

    At the dragon’s puzzled look, Snape sighed, “Perhaps I should begin more generally so that you might better understand the nature of such magics. What do we mean when we speak of control?” The potions master paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “When one considers the possible means of controlling the actions of another free individual, there are many avenues to consider. For example, one could simply ask. If I were to ask you to pass the salt, you would most likely do so, and I would have successfully controlled your actions. That sort of control is a voluntary one, you freely chose to do what I wanted you to do for your own reasons.”

    As Harry nodded with a thoughtful expression, Snape continued, “Were I significantly stronger than you, I might have the option of bodily forcing you to take certain actions. For instance, your Miss Granger used such methods at several points to prevent Mr. Longbottom from adding ingredients in the wrong order in my class. That is another means of controlling another person, an involuntary one. Miss Granger forced Mr. Longbottom to stop his actions rather than allowing him to choose to stop.”

    “Neither of those seem too bad,” the young dragon commented. “I mean, the one is just being polite, and the other was to help Neville.”

    “The two examples I presented are moral uses of control,” Snape agreed. “There are, however, immoral ways to control others using the same methods. If, for instance, someone were to ask you to use your great strength to raze Hogwarts to the ground, killing all within, you would, in all likelihood, refuse because you would not freely choose to do such a thing.”

    “Of course not!” Harry exclaimed, horrified.

    Snape nodded. “However, if the same person were to ask you the same thing, but this time the request were accompanied by a threat to kill Miss Granger in a horribly grisly manner should you refuse, then would you make the same choice?”

    “What?” the human-shaped dragon hissed in a horrified whisper which quickly shifted to an angry basso-profundo growl. “No way, I’d eat the guy! No one threatens my damsels!”

    “And you would be in the right to do so, in all likelihood,” Snape allowed. “But what if you were not so powerful that you could prevent the threat from being carried out? At that point, the choice becomes less clear, and you must weigh the outcomes against one another: do you care more about Miss Granger or your friends at the castle?”

    “People really do that kind of thing?” Harry asked.

    “Mr. Potter, that form of forcing behavior is common enough to have a variety of names depending on the nature of threats made and the actions demanded. Threatening the release of privileged or even falsified information is usually called blackmail; threatening economic consequences is usually called extortion or racketeering; and threatening physical violence is often simply called a threat or coercion, though there are a wide variety of other terms used in various circumstances.”

    That revelation had Harry looking rather like he had smelled something unpleasant.

    “Another option would be to control the information that a person uses to make decisions,” the potions master continued. “If, instead of threatening Miss Granger to force you to raze the castle, our hypothetical dastardly fellow managed to simply kill her and then lie to you convincingly enough to have you believing that the inhabitants of the castle had done so instead, then you might choose to destroy the castle on the basis of that information. By controlling your knowledge of the situation, your actions would have been controlled.”

    Harry grumbled at that for a few moments before he asked, “What about the physical one, where you actually force someone to take an action they don’t ultimately choose to do?”

    Snape grimaced. This was not going to be a pleasant part of the conversation, given Harry’s age. “Without magic — and I have been saving the inclusion of magic in the mix for later in the conversation — that is a somewhat more limited subject, as the line between physical coercion and physical violence is somewhat blurred. There are only so many actions a human body can be unwillingly forced into performing in any meaningful way.”

    “What do you mean by a ‘meaningful way’?” Harry asked.

    Snape thought for a moment. “For example, going back to the salt-shaker, if I were to grab your hand with my own, move it over to the salt shaker, squeeze your hand shut with my own, move it in front of myself, then force your hand back open and take the shaker from you, would you say that I had forced you to pass me the salt shaker, or would you say that I had grabbed the salt shaker myself in an unnecessarily invasive and irritating way?”

    “Oh, I think I get it now,” the human-shaped dragon said. “It’s ‘cause it’s really obvious that the other person is doing it, right?”

    “Exactly. Without magic — because a great deal about this discussion changes when magic is considered — meaningful direct physical coercion is, in my experience, usually limited to forced sexual acts,” Snape said with a disgusted grimace.

    “Oh,” Harry said, looking puzzled. “That’s more of that kissy-face, making-babies stuff? ‘Cause I don’t really get that yet.”

    Snape snorted at that, his sizeable proboscis lending the sound a certain gravitas. “Yes, it is related to that, and I am grateful that you do not yet understand. As a child you should not be forced into such things too early, rather you should come into such knowledge as your body becomes ready to make use of it. Forcing such things to progress too quickly promotes misunderstanding, and, particularly in such a deeply rooted and emotionally charged facet of the human experience, misunderstanding promulgates suffering. With that in mind, I will simply inform you that the act of forcing an unwilling person to engage in such actions is called ‘rape’, and it is a grave and terrible act of evil. To return to our topic of discussion, though such things can be forced using threats, they are also some of the few actions which can be meaningfully forced on someone by main strength as well.”

    “Okay,” Harry said uncertainly. “But what about when you bring magic into the picture? You said a lot of stuff changes, but how does it change things?”

    “It does indeed,” Snape said. “Perhaps the most obvious change is that many more actions can be meaningfully forced through the use of magic than without. To revisit the salt shaker once more, if this time, I were to use a charm to animate your arm, or worse yet, one to stimulate your muscles in such a way that your arm moved, apparently on its own, to pick up the salt shaker and pass it to me, would you then say that I had forced you to pass me the salt shaker?“

    “Oh, I think I see the difference,” Harry said thoughtfully, imagining the situation. “Yeah, that does have a really different feel to it.”

    “To all appearances, including your own perception of events, you would have taken an action at my behest without deciding to do it yourself,” Snape elaborated. “That subtle difference can have a great deal of impact on the person being controlled. Such spells exist, and their existence means that main force can be used to meaningfully force an entire range of actions through magic.”

    “There is also the standard use of threats to coerce behavior. In this realm, magic mostly makes such threats more easily enforced, opening new mechanisms for carrying out the threats issued and, more cogently, providing means of enforcing such coerced decisions once made,” Snape explained. “Magical contracts are particularly notorious in that regard. There is one aspect, though, which magic changes greatly, and that is in making your inner thoughts available to others. How often have you heard someone say something to the effect of, ‘If you even think of doing that, you’ll be sorry!’? With magic, such threats become possible to enforce, and if you make someone unable to even consider a course of action, how could they possibly follow it?”

    Harry nodded slowly.

    “A similarly insidious use of controlling magic is in the use of compulsions. As I am certain you have encountered in your reading, compulsions are a class of spell which induce a desire to take a certain action in the target.” Snape grimaced, “Such spells essentially force a choice on the target by manufacturing a seemingly internal impulse to take a certain action. It is often difficult for victims to discern between such compulsions and their own unforced choices, causing them to question their own will.”

    “For reference,” the potions master continued, “based on the evidence I have seen, I believe a combination of these methods — compulsions and direct mental control — was used to force Quirrel’s actions which led to your extended convalescence.”

    Harry again nodded thoughtfully, a little more appreciative of why Professor Quirrel had been unable to shrug off the magic. That sounded pretty tough — if it managed to connect.

    “Perhaps the subtlest tool in the devil’s toolbox, however, lies in the realm of information control. A skilled user of mental magics can, using the obliviate charm, control a person’s very memory, rewriting their knowledge of the past at will.” Snape sneered. “While a person is not completely a product of their experiences, those experiences inform their convictions, and alterations to their memory can cast a person adrift without the hard-earned knowledge and experience that would normally guide them home, making them far more vulnerable to other mental magics — or even to basic suggestion for that matter. A skilled obliviator can convince almost anyone of almost anything, and even an unskilled one can reduce a breathing, thinking person into a docile unthinking puppet with a single spell.”

    “These are the tools which have built the festering cesspit that is the modern wizarding world,” the potions master concluded. “They are tools from which you have little to fear, Mr. Potter. Due to your nature, non-magical threats are for the most part irrelevant to you, and magical threats slough off your scales like a light rain from the castle roof. The only real threat such things can impose on you comes through attacks using your friends as proxies.”

    “Anyone who tries that is gonna get eaten,” Harry said as darkly as he had ever said anything before, his native ultra-deep bass leaking through in his agitation.

    “An eminently appropriate response, I would venture,” Snape concurred. “The problem, however, lies in the vulnerability of your friends. The monsters currently in power for the most part gained their position through the skillful use of these tools of manipulation in combination with a firm understanding of human psychology and a complete absence of any semblance of basic human decency.”

    “Using those three things, a sufficiently skilled wizard can take an unwilling victim and wipe their minds to the point that they remember no other life but captivity over the course of a single hour. Given another few days, they can be broken of any semblance of disobedience, and within a week, they will be not only obedient but in fact eager to serve in any capacity, no matter how dangerous or degrading,” the dark man growled. “It is a toolbox designed to turn the magnificent and sacred marvel of the human person into an undignified and broken commodity to be sold to the highest bidder and discarded on a whim.”

    Harry was silent for a moment as he tried to digest that horrifying idea. In the end, he could only conclude, “That is really, really bad.”

    Snape’s dark eyes seemed to burn with an almost religious fervor, “That is the horror of the wizarding world, Mr. Potter. That is the ultimate reason for our plans to overthrow the wizarding government, and that is the reason I will see this wretched wizarding world torn down at any cost.”

    3.2.6 Vengeance delayed

    “Lucius, what do you have to say for yourself?”

    Narcissa had just come from a meeting with one of her factors — the one she usually had looking over her husband’s actions to ensure he wasn’t getting away with lying to her. Not that Narcissa minded a little lying — in fact she expected it; she didn’t want her marriage to be too boring, after all — but she couldn’t have him getting away with it. It would set a bad precedent. This time, her spy had relayed a troubling bit of news.

    “Regarding the Weasley operation?” Lucius confirmed.

    “Have you botched anything else that badly recently?” his wife asked archly.

    “The job is still on,” the blond man assured his wife, “it has simply suffered a slight delay.”

    “Lucius, we cannot allow our execution to be so lackadaisical,” Narcissa insisted. “Vengeance delayed is vengeance that loses its impact!”

    “I do apologize, dear, but the men are working as fast as they can,” Lucius said. “They will take the mudblood on the next available opportunity. Unfortunately, she has yet to return to her residence, and there are no other leads on her location.”

    Narcissa’s foreboding expression told Lucius all he needed to know about her opinion on his excuses, prompting him to offer, “I do, however, have another lead on our other target.”

    “The Weasley daughter?” Narcissa confirmed. At her husband’s nod, she continued, “I had expected her to be the more difficult target of the two.”

    “It is more of an unexpected windfall than a cunning plan, I am afraid,” Lucius averred. “Our benefactor entrusted to me a certain artifact which was to be released into the possession of a likely victim on a certain signal. That signal just arrived…”

    “…and who better to offer up than the youngest of the Weasley brats?” Narcissa finished. “Perhaps you are still worth keeping around,” she allowed. “What is your method of delivery, not another group of footpads, I hope?”

    “No, I would not presume to rely on such for the execution of our benefactor’s request,” Lucius agreed.

    “Then what is your plan, Lucius?”

    “I will be planting the device personally. I will even have the opportunity to strike the Weasley patriarch in the process! It should be a grand time.”

    Narcissa sighed, “I shall have the elves obtain bruise ointment in preparation.”

    “Narcissa! Where is your confidence in your husband?” Lucius demanded in an exaggeratedly scandalized tone.

    “Where it generally is, husband. I am confident that you will succeed in your scheme, and I am equally confident that you will not come out of a fist-fight with Arthur Weasley unscathed,” Narcissa said. “I am supportive, but I am also a realist.”

    “Fair enough.”

    3.2.7 Welcome messages and awkward conversations

    Abigail was worried.

    When the end of the school year had come, she had been forced to leave despite Harry’s condition, and not knowing what was going on with her friend had been eating at her ever since. Abigail was not one to leave a job half-done, nor was she the sort to leave her friends in the lurch. In fact, had it not been for her ambition to do something about the state of the wizarding world and her place in it, the Hat likely would have insisted on placing her in the Sett.

    Regardless of her anxiety, there was little Abigail could do about it now. Her parents would hardly allow her to run off to some boy’s house during the summer — not without at least meeting him first, and Harry was hardly in a condition to make a good first impression! In any case, when she had floated the idea to her mother, Abigail had been met with the eminently reasonable argument that Harry was already being cared for by an impressive collection of very professional and competent adults, and that Abigail shouldn’t worry so much.

    She could see the point. Harry was strong, and he did have an amazingly skilled group doing their level best to fix him up, and while Abigail was confident in her abilities, she was also realistic about them. There was a reason she had only been able to help by keeping watch over the boy and feeding him — healing was well outside of her skill set.

    Without any way to help, she tried to keep herself occupied and bury her worries under a bustle of activity. Unfortunately, she had finished her summer homework within a week, and she was left with the choice between starting her review for her NEWTs — the horribly unpleasant exit testing she was due to take during the next year — and finding something else to do. Abigail couldn’t quite muster up the masochism necessary to voluntarily start a review for those things quite this early, so she was left with the second alternative.

    To that end, she was walking through the gardens outside her family home. Just as she rounded the old sprawling oak tree she had so loved climbing when she was little, she was treated to an odd sight.

    Sylvester — one of the many near-wild cats which called the property home after her paternal grandmother’s pet had proven to be a tad indiscriminate — was stalking a water-stained and somewhat tattered paper crane. The folded paper crane — the animated type she had seen her Head of House use for messages from time to time — had alighted on one of the garden benches and was visibly searching this way and that for something.

    As the girl watched in bemusement, Sylvester pounced, knocking the paper crane off the bench where it skidded through the dirt and gravel garden path. Now covered in smudges, the animated crane climbed back to its… well it didn’t properly have feet, but back to an upright position before it turned its paper head and gave the impression of squinting as it settled firmly into its position. The two wings came up in a boxing guard, and the thing’s entire posture screamed challenge.

    It was an offer that Sylvester was eager to take up, and he pounced again — this time with the height of the bench to his advantage — only for his target to dodge to the side of his forepaw and strike the inside of said appendage with an absurd amount of force for a piece of folded paper, eliciting a pained yowl as Sylvester scrambled for distance.

    As the cat collected itself — hissing feline imprecations at the indignity — Abigail came to a realization that had her stepping in to interfere in the miniature grudge match. The animated memorandum was familiar, but the absurdly lifelike personality and strength to handily fight off a tomcat were not. She knew for a fact that the original spell was capable of neither of those things, and they smacked of a spell overpowered nearly to the point of failure.

    And that… that had Harry written all over it. It had to be him… otherwise it would mean there were two of him!

    Abigail was fairly certain her sanity would not survive that sort of revelation.

    As she stepped into the fray, Sylvester took the opportunity to flee in search of easier prey, and the paper crane… well, for lack of a better word, craned its head back to take in its new challenger. On seeing her face, the construct flinched in surprise before one of its wings mimed reaching into a pocket for something. The wing came up as if it were holding a picture to compare with Abigail’s appearance. The construct then nodded firmly, fluttered up to land in her outstretched hand, and unfolded itself, leaving a smudged, tattered, but still quite readable note in the girl’s hand.

    It was from Harry! She read eagerly.

    Apparently, he had awoken just a few days after the end of the term, and the note went on to say — before she could even work up a proper case of outrage over how long it had taken him to contact her — that he had started learning how to cast the memorandum animation the next day, finishing it only a day ago. He’d found the detail work to be quite difficult to pull off, as his notes had kept exploding.

    Abigail looked up from the note, frowning as she considered that — why hadn’t he just asked someone else to contact her? That was the obvious solution. Instead Harry had focused with a single-minded intensity on learning a new spell to send a message to her, stubbornly refusing to consider giving up and pursuing any other…

    Oh. Abigail reached up to massage her temples with her free hand as she groaned in exasperation.

    It was Harry! Stubbornly pursuing the first solution he hit on, no matter how difficult it was, well, that was just what Harry did. He’d change his mind if given a good reason — and she’d make a point to bring it up when they next met for precisely that purpose — but ‘it’s hard’ wasn’t an excuse as far as Harry was concerned. That stubborn refusal to back down was part of what made Harry, Harry. In any case, the letter sounded like he had tried his best to do right by her. There was no reason to get upset over him falling short despite that effort.

    Teasing him about it later, though, Abigail thought with a mischievous smile, that was certainly fair game… just to make sure the lesson stuck, of course.

    Though come to think of it, why didn’t Professor Snape let her know Harry had recovered? He could have contacted her at any time, and he knew how concerned she was! She frowned again; didn’t he care enough to bother…

    Oh, right. Abigail chuckled ruefully and she shook her head. She had answered her own question again. Expecting empathy from her Head of House was like expecting blood from a stone.

    Putting such speculations out of her mind for the moment, Abigail turned back to Harry’s letter.

    Harry went on to thank her for all that she had done to help while he was sick, explaining that Professor Snape had told him about it, and he really appreciated her for being such a good friend. That line had her blushing hotly for a moment before she whirled around as she heard her mother’s warmly amused voice from just over her shoulder.

    “I see that your young beau has awakened, Abby. Congratulations!”

    “Mother!” she protested, embarrassed.

    “Daughter!” she mimicked teasingly. “He is something special then? You’re not usually one to be this flustered over an invitation to meet at Fortescue’s.”

    “Fortescue’s?” Abigail hadn’t read that! She turned quickly back to the note.

    “You mean you hadn’t gotten to that part yet?” her mother asked, surprised. “What on earth were you blushing about, then?”

    Abigail blushed again, this time in embarrassment. “The part about him appreciating me for being such a good friend,” she muttered reluctantly, knowing her mother was going to get that answer out of her one way or another.

    “I see,” her mother’s tone softened, losing its teasing edge. “I suppose he is special then, if our little Abby is over the moon about his friendship alone. Is this the one you had been hoping for?”

    “Maybe?” Abigail said uncertainly. “I mean, I really like him, but he is still pretty young…”

    Her mother’s gaze sharpened, “How young are we talking here?”

    Abigail flushed again as she squeaked, “This was his first year…”

    “A first-year!” her mother exclaimed, “Abigail Agatha Abercrombie, what possessed you to pursue an eleven-year-old boy? Your father and I raised you better than that!”

    “I wasn’t planning on doing anything about it right now!” Abigail protested. “And by the time I’m thirty it wouldn’t make a difference!”

    “And that’s almost twice your age now! How are you going to maintain your self-control that long, young lady?” her mother admonished, “If the boy is enough to attract your attention so firmly at the age of eleven, you’re going to have a real time of it, I’ll tell you! How hard do you think it will be for you in a few years when he actually hits puberty?”

    “It’s not that… well, not entirely that, it’s just… look, let me explain?” Abigail pleaded.

    At her mother’s nod, Abigail explained, starting with her encounter on the train and Snape’s explanation and going on through the troll incident when Harry saved her life and then his subsequent apology. She touched on the time they spent together and the study sessions and a heavily edited version of their discussion in the spring term.

    “You are not telling me everything, Abigail,” her mother admonished. “I thought you were going to explain?”

    “Harry told me a lot of things in confidence, mother, and I will not break my friend’s trust,” Abigail said firmly. “Nothing revealed in that conversation has anything to do with a potential relationship in the future aside from the trust he showed by telling me about it. It was all about his future business plans and how he thought I might fit into them.”

    “He offered you a job?” the elder Abercrombie asked. “I’m not sure how I feel about that…”

    “You think I wouldn’t do good work?” Abigail said in a brittle sort of voice.

    “No, not that,” came the reply. “I’m just not sure about the idea of you eventually dating your employer — it is rather inappropriate.”

    “Oh,” her daughter said. “I hadn’t actually considered that.”

    She truly hadn’t made the connection between the tentative job offer and Harry being her boss. That would be inappropriate, wouldn’t it? It was something to keep in mind.

    Though — an older version of Harry with those green eyes of his, wearing dress robes? No, too bulky, perhaps a suit and tie, definitely a green tie to match those eyes, and a nice, sturdy desk in a private office — hmm, something to consider from more than one perspective, she supposed. She shook her head clear before her mother noticed her distraction.

    Her mother most assuredly had noticed but decided to forgo the teasing opportunity for once in favor of keeping the conversation on track. “I suppose there is time yet before it would become an issue. What would this job have you doing?”

    “The details were pretty light, we were at the very beginning of planning when he got sick, but basically, I’d be helping with the expansion of a freight business that he wants to push into new markets. He thinks I’d be pretty good at the organization and managing necessary to do so.”

    “A senior management position for a girl right out of school?” her mother asked doubtfully.

    “Probably not, I’d guess it’d be a management-track job working for whoever he ends up hiring to run the thing.” Abigail explained. “Plus, he wants someone he can trust who is in on his plans to be able to offer input on what to do from a strategic point of view.”

    “And what sort of things could he have you know that he couldn’t trust his primary manager for?” her mother asked skeptically.

    Her daughter fell silent for a moment considering her response. “Do you remember what happened to Alice?” Abigail asked. “From back after my first year?”

    Her mother winced; Abigail never talked about Alice anymore, not since the incident. Alice had been one of her daughter’s childhood friends, a muggle-born witch who had once lived two blocks over. During the summer between Abigail’s first and second year, she had disappeared and her family home had burned to the ground. The official investigation never went anywhere, but everyone knew how that sort of thing went.

    Among those who didn’t outright shun the non-magical world, well… everyone had at least one such story.

    Everyone who was decent hated those stories.

    “We’re going to make sure that stops happening,” Abigail said firmly.

    But everyone also knew what happened to people who objected to such things too strongly, and almost everyone made the decision, conscious or not, that they didn’t hate those stories enough to risk their own necks and those of their families to stop them from happening. It was an ugly and brutish moral calculus.

    Apparently, something about this Harry had changed that calculus for her daughter.

    The concerned mother watched her daughter carefully for a long moment more before she sighed and gave her daughter a hug.

    “Just be careful, Abby.”

    3.2.8 Requiem and future plans

    For the first time in months, the staff conference room once again played host to another discussion furthering the ongoing project to deal with the ancient magical battery apocalypse. Once again Sprout had broken out one of her newest attempts for the occasion, a faintly glowing blue liquor which induced a mild floating sensation in the drinker for a few moments after each sip. Once again, Filius had been tapped to serve the drinks, though he seemed distracted this time around, a distraction that was likely centered around the massive sheaf of notes the diminutive man had brought along to the meeting.

    “I suppose it falls to me once again to begin our meeting.” And once again, Albus led off. “It has been an eventful time since our last gathering — events which were largely driven by the actions of our late defense professor, Quirinus Quirrel. Everyone here is familiar with the aftermath of those actions, Mr. Potter’s illness and subsequent recovery, yet the sequence of events leading up to those unfortunate circumstances has not yet been shared.”

    The elderly wizard sank heavily back into his chair only to perk up as he took a sip of his electric blue drink, “Ah — that is quite an interesting drink, Pomona. Thank you for sharing.” He sighed, “After we managed to stabilize Mr. Potter’s condition, I contacted Madame Bones to report Quirinus’ death, and she investigated the situation, She has recently shared her preliminary findings with me. They cover only those actions taking place up to the theft of the stone, as from that point, the events come under Nicholas’ purview.”

    “That was fast,” Septima Vector commented. “Normally that sort of investigation takes months, not weeks. Particularly when there are no witnesses to question, and the only living witnesses are excluded by the timing.”

    “That would normally be correct, Septima,” Albus acknowledged. “In this case, however, it seems Quirinus left a note sitting atop a pile of answer keys prepared for his end of term testing.”

    “Answer keys? He had everything ready that far ahead?” Babbling asked. “Odd, I hadn’t thought him the type.”

    Albus explained, “Per the note, Quirinus was perfectly aware he was about to die, and he attempted to carry out his responsibilities as a professor to the best of his limited ability, which in this case led him to preparing his tests for the end of term ahead of time. Unfortunately, the delays associated with Mr. Potter’s illness prevented us from receiving them in time to use.”

    The Headmaster’s fist tightened around his glass. “In his letter, our colleague confirmed he was unwillingly possessed by an entity, left unnamed in Quirinus’ writing because of compulsions placed on the man. It forced him into the actions he undertook with the intent of taking full possession of our friend’s body upon his acquisition of the philosopher’s stone…”

    “…an intent which was fulfilled on that fateful night.”

    “Dear God!”

    It was an exclamation that only Severus failed to echo, having already suspected. Mental domination of various flavors — of which possession was the most irremediable — was an unpleasant fact of life in the wizarding world, used for various purposes ranging from the supposedly-noble pursuit of maintaining the secrecy of the wizarding world all the way down to corrupting the political process and coercing children into the flesh trades.

    Although they were a fact of life, actually encountering such heinous uses of the magics tended to touch a deep atavistic chord. Mental dominance magics were insidious, powerful, and profound, striking at the very bedrock which made up one’s identity. Not only did that sort of magic force one to act according to the will of the caster, but all too often it did so by masquerading as one’s own will. In skillful hands, the magic was could be nearly indistinguishable from the target’s own will and choices.

    In such cases, not only was the victim only forced to take actions they found utterly abhorrent while still finding them utterly abhorrent, but they had to deal with the self-loathing and horror associated with doing such things by all appearances willingly. All too often the cognitive dissonance was too much to handle, plunging the victim into a fugue state in which they simply went along with the compulsions without further resistance.

    The spells were monstrous manifestations of evil, yet they were an inescapable fact of life in the wizarding world; everyone was at risk from them, yet few had any means of defense.

    To hear that one of their long-time coworkers had been struck down by such hit just a little too close to home.

    Albus paused for another fortifying sip as the conference room lapsed into silence, and then he continued, “Quirinus detailed, to the best of his ability, his efforts to first resist his Master — a term which was apparently forced by the possessing spirit — and when that proved to be beyond his abilities, he attempted to find a way to kill himself and thereby thwart the spirit’s plans.”

    His audience remained dead silent.

    Another pause, and another sip later, “The identity of the possessing spirit remains uncertain. It identified itself as ‘Lord Voldemort’ to Mr. Potter, though our resident dragon has his doubts. I must admit it is possible that the spirit was lying; there are many reasons for such an entity to assume a false name, particularly one as steeped in fear as that of the most recent pretender to the title of Dark Lord. We are also certain that it escaped, passing through Mr. Potter’s digestive tract traumatized but mostly whole.”

    “We must be vigilant for future incursions, but that is a problem for the future. For now, we must mourn our lost comrade and regroup,” Albus raised his glass. “On that note, I salute our recently fallen colleague, Quirinus Quirrel. In the end, our fellow was unsuccessful in his fight against the darkness, but he fought with everything he had left to him, willing to sacrifice even his own life, and despite the ultimate failure of his efforts, his struggle was nonetheless noble. To fallen friends!”

    The rest of the room raised their glasses in tribute to their fallen compatriot. It was a moving story, even with this sparse level of detail, and it would become more so when Albus made Quirrel’s final letter available for them to read… after the investigation was closed, of course.

    In the silence following that toast, Severus was the first to speak. “Albus, have you passed that information on to the goblins? I suspect that they would be keen to know the true nature of the creature which indirectly killed five of their own.”

    “As it happens, Amelia already has,” Albus chuckled at the potions master’s surprised look. “Quirinus was quite clever in finding a roundabout means of posthumous revenge. It seems that he incorporated a request for the disposition of his remaining worldly goods within the letter; thus, Amelia was required to turn over the relevant portions of the letter to Gringotts for processing, per Ministry regulation. He left his remaining assets to, and I quote, ‘the families of the victims of the recent violence at my place of work in hopes that they will make use of them to attain proper closure’. A rather neat way to get a message through any attempt at a bureaucratic coverup, I’d wager. Amelia was thoroughly amused.”

    At that, Filius let out a harsh laugh. “Oh, that got a message through, alright! I had wondered why the Brethren were becoming so curious about what was happening here, but a message like that would explain a great deal.”

    “I see,” Albus said. “Well, Filius, be sure to keep them well-informed. On that note, I suspect from the pile of notes you have brought with you that you have something to tell us yourself, Filius,” the elderly wizard prompted.

    “Ah, yes,” the half-goblin said as he managed to contain his mirth. “As most of you are aware, Septima, Bathsheda, and I recently traveled with Mr. Potter and his damsels to three of the ley-line nexuses in order to examine the devices there. First was Avebury, chosen to illustrate a discharged device, then Stonehenge, then Stenness up in Orkney.”

    He paused to shuffle through his notes for a moment. “There was some difficulty in observing the still-active ones at first, Mr. Potter’s vision seems to find them blindingly bright, but we were able to use an old dueling charm to remedy the issue — two of them stacked in the case of Stenness.”

    “Which charm?” Albus asked.

    “Sensory attenuation.”

    “Two of them?” Albus confirmed, surprised. He was familiar with the charm in question. “I take it the Stenness node is a powerful one, then?”

    “Tremendously so,” the half-goblin confirmed gravely. “It actually seems to be a union of seven different nodes in the area which are linked in a tiered structure. Only one of the others is unburied, known as the Ring of Brodgar, but Mr. Potter was able to pick out the overarching — or ‘underarching’ I suppose, as the linkages are formed within the bedrock — structure quite easily.”

    “Fascinating…”

    “We do have excellent news to report, however,” Filius continued. “The structures, though unique in their particulars, share certain easily-recognized design elements, including that which we believe Mr. Potter triggered back in ’88!”

    “So that means…” Snape prompted.

    “We are confident that we can safely initiate a similar draining procedure on the rest of the nodes!” Filius said enthusiastically.

    Septima cut in, “We believe our first attempt should be made using a relatively small node in order to limit the severity of any unexpected mishaps. I would lean towards Stonehenge, myself. We chose it this time because it represented the lowest extreme on the spectrum of nodes within the Isles; Stenness was at the other end. We are only waiting on Mr. Potter to be available for the attempt.”

    “While I understand the enthusiasm, I would suggest waiting some time before going through with the plan,” the school healer spoke up on behalf of her most interesting patient. “Mr. Potter has just undergone a major shock to his system, and I recommend that we wait at least until his scales have grown back before pursuing such a course. His capacity to absorb magical energy seems to have increased greatly since the incident, but I wish to confirm it is a permanent effect before we go packing him full of enough magical energy to annihilate Great Britain.”

    “I would add the additional caveat that we wait until a reasonably lengthy break,” Snape interjected. “In the event that the wretched lizard experiences difficulties with the process, it would be preferable for him to have a clear schedule to deal with them.”

    “Winter break, then?” Filius proposed.

    “Presuming that Mr. Potter has fully recovered by then, yes,” Poppy agreed.

    From there the conversation drifted back to their tragically fallen compatriot they spent the rest of the night in remembrance. Before his odd behavior over the last year, Quirrel had been well-liked among the staff, and his changes had been rather poorly received as a result. Now that the reasons were known… well, that sort of struggle demanded recognition, even if it had been ultimately futile.

    Quirinus Quirrel fought it to the bitter end, and in that end, he had paid the ultimate price. He had fought the good fight, and his story was a good reminder of why it needed to be fought.
     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2020
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  12. Jordisk

    Jordisk Versed in the lewd.

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    And with that, we are caught up I think. Prepare for new content?
     
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  13. Dunkelzahn

    Dunkelzahn No one of consequence

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    CaerAzkaban actually has up through 3.4 posted, so a couple more yet. Currently writing 3.7, for reference.
     
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  14. Threadmarks: Section 3.3 - Nervous encounters
    Dunkelzahn

    Dunkelzahn No one of consequence

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    3.3 Nervous encounters


    3.3.1 Tentative reunion

    Harry walked alone from the portkey arrival point in Diagon Alley towards Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor. Abigail had owled a reply to his note by way of Mr. Snape, and its arrival had prompted the young dragon’s trip to the Alley to meet with his friend.

    Suze had opted to stay home for this trip. While the centaur maiden was still somewhat clingy after his illness, she had reluctantly concluded that Harry was less likely to have trouble in the Alley if she stayed out of it, judging from past experience.

    Well, that had been one reason, but there was also the fact that Harry was planning to meet with Abigail for an unspecified but probably significant length of time, during which the centaur maiden would have been stuck loitering awkwardly outside the shop. Even among those Alley concerns willing to do business with a centaur, few of the tightly-packed shops had the physical facilities to accommodate one.

    As for Hermione… well, as he had mentioned to Mr. Snape the previous day, Hermione had become quite preoccupied of late with a large collection of very dusty and tattered books which Harry had managed to pick up from a rather disreputable bookseller in Knockturn Alley a little over a year previous.

    At the time the young dragon had been unable to personally explore the Alleys — he had been waiting out the aftermath of his encounter with that toad woman in the Alley — but he had not yet discovered the public library system. As a result, he had been searching for new reading material by the rather clunky means of floo calls to various magical bookshops. At one point, his search had led him to contact the Knockturn bookseller in hopes that despite its rather poor reputation it might have something worth his time. On the recommendation of the, admittedly rather shady, salesperson, he had ended up buying, sight unseen, a large box from the used section.

    As it happened, the box had been full of dusty, non-magical titles which the proprietor’s grandfather had picked up from an estate sale some two centuries previous. Such things sold very poorly in Knockturn, so they’d been sitting in the shop picking up dust and occupying shelf space ever since, and the clerk had been so happy to finally find a buyer that Harry picked up the whole lot for a song.

    When he got them back to the Lair, the young dragon had been rather disappointed with the poor physical condition of the books; magical titles of similar age tended to be protected with preservation enchantments, but these were not. He had set them aside for a time, and by the time he finally got around to doing a proper accounting of them, Harry found that he had already purchased — and read — newer editions of almost all of them, so he put them in a box and proceeded to forget about the whole lot, writing off the purchase as a loss and the box as a disappointment

    On the other hand, when Hermione had discovered the box and had read the title of the manuscript on the top of the stack — featuring the words ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Shakespeare’ with a publication date in 1603 — she had been rendered speechless for nearly a minute before she managed to properly process what she was seeing.

    At that point she had let out such a shrill scream of excitement that both Harry and Suze came running to see what was wrong.

    In any case, Hermione was now tied up in her self-appointed task of adding a rare books section — with appropriate preservation measures and everything — to Harry’s library. As a result, she didn’t have time for ice cream, not if it meant interrupting her rare book time. Ice cream was a far lesser concern.

    For that matter, so was sleep, as shown by the bushy-haired girl’s bed, which had lain untouched for nearly thirty-six hours.

    So it was that the young dragon made his way alone to see his friend — his friend who had made such an effort to take care of him before she was forced to leave, his friend to whom he had taken so long to get a proper note letting her know he was okay. He’d tried to explain why in that note, but, well…

    He really hoped Abigail wasn’t mad at him.

    3.3.2 Joyful reunion, heavy conversation

    Abigail waited by the entrance to Fortescue’s, anxiously scanning the Alley for Harry. It was mid-morning, after the rush getting to work and before the lunchtime crowd, and the shopping district was mostly empty, so she figured her boisterous friend would be easy to spot. But as the minutes ticked by and she failed to catch sight of his unruly mop of black hair, Abigail started to wonder if something had happened.

    It certainly wasn’t like Harry to miss a meeting with a friend?

    Come to think of it, Abigail thought with a frown, his scales had been black before the incident when they turned gold. Her eyes widened as she gasped at the thought. Had his hair changed color too? God, she hoped not! She liked Harry’s hair; blond would not look good on the boy. Well, aesthetically, she supposed blond would work with his eyes — but that was hardly worth mentioning.

    Those eyes would go with anything!

    Though, as far as combinations went, Abigail was rather partial to how they would look with her own deep chestnut. Her lips curved into a gentle smile as she imagined such a combination looking up at her as it was cradled in her own arms, then her eyes glazed over as her thoughts drifted to the mechanics of how such a combination might arise. A long moment passed before she snapped back to the present and shook off the images… and the rosy blush that had accompanied them.

    There was a place and a time for that sort of thing, and it was neither here nor now!

    In any case, Abigail didn’t like her men blond. It was a recently discovered aversion, formulated after having to deal with Draco Malfoy in Slytherin House for the last year. Admittedly, the little brat was only a single example of an irritating blond male, but he was a stupendously irritating example. Sometimes one bad experience was more than enough to put you off for life.

    Just as Abigail looked up to give the Alley another once-over, this time looking for similarly shaggy blond hair, she was interrupted by a familiar voice.

    “Hi, Abigail!” Harry greeted her cheerfully.

    “Harry!” Abigail exclaimed, whirling to face her friend.

    There he was, right beside her… and he still had his same black hair!

    “Oh, thank God!” she said, wrapping Harry into a firm, relieved hug.

    Whether it was relief at seeing her friend awake again or at seeing his still-black hair was something even Abigail couldn’t say; though she figured it was probably some combination of the two. Whatever her reasons, her embrace was quite happily and enthusiastically returned.

    Harry’s hug was gentle and firm, but it had not the slightest hint of give to it. It was a hug that made it perfectly obvious to Abigail that he was far, far stronger than she was, while at the same time making it equally obvious that he was being very, very careful not to hurt her by hugging too hard. It made for a rather heady cocktail, as far as Abigail was concerned, one that most certainly suited her tastes.

    Again, not the time, Abigail!

    “Um… so, did you want to get some ice cream?” Harry offered. “My treat!”

    With that, the reunion moved inside, and the pair soon found themselves seated at a small table to one side of the mostly empty shop, ice cream in hand.

    “So, I know I already said in the letter,” Harry began, “but I wanted to apologize for taking so long to let you know I got better. I would’ve sent something right away, but… well, you know how animals always run away from me, right?”

    Abigail nodded.

    “Well, owls do that too, and I didn’t know where you lived, so I couldn’t take it myself, and I wanted to tell you personally, so I didn’t want to have someone else tell you — it just didn’t seem right. So, I had to figure out how to get you a letter, and then I thought of Mr. Snape’s message spell — with the paper cranes and everything — and I thought it didn’t look too hard to do, but it still took me a couple weeks to get it down. Paper can hardly hold any magic at all! I think I wrote you about four or five hundred notes before I managed to get the one that didn’t explode when I tried to animate it, and that one was still…”

    Abigail smiled as she reached out to her friend, laying a gentle hand on his wrist and snapping him out of his blathering. It seemed Harry was back to normal.

    “It’s fine, Harry, I’m just glad you’re okay,” she assured him. “Though I do have to wonder — why didn’t you write a note and have someone else owl it for you?”

    The older girl nearly lost her struggle to avoid giggling at her friend’s flabbergasted expression.

    “Oh, man! I hadn’t thought of that!” Harry exclaimed, palming his forehead in embarrassment and narrowly avoiding smearing himself with his ice cream. “That would have let me invite you to the barbecue, too! Aww! I feel really silly about that now.”

    “What barbecue was this?” Abigail asked as she took another lick at her own frozen dessert.

    “Well, after I got better, I wanted to thank everybody, and Sergeant Major Hooktalon had brought up the idea of roasting an acromantula to celebrate, so I hosted a cookout on top of the Lair. We had bonfires and singing and everything! I wanted to invite you, but I hadn’t figured out the spell yet, and I didn’t think of asking somebody else to post it,” Harry finished on an apologetic note.

    “Roasting an acromantula?” she echoed in a sickly tone.

    That sounded… unpleasant.

    “Yep! I brought three of them, ‘cause I wasn’t sure one would be enough for everyone; there were a lot of people, and I know I can eat one or two of the big ones in a sitting,” the human-shaped dragon elaborated. “I mean, I know I eat more than other people, but I wasn’t sure just how much more, and I didn’t want to be a poor host…” Harry trailed off before his eyes lit, and he offered, “Maybe I could cook one up for you sometime?”

    “I see,” Abigail said neutrally.

    Odd as the fear of running out of roasted spider was, she could follow his reasoning. The standards of good hospitality were… not quite universal, but certainly widespread. Although she wasn’t sure how she would react to being served a roasted spider as large as her bedroom. It wasn’t something she had ever had reason to imagine before.

    Abigail saw no reason to imagine it now, either.

    “How about we just treat this as our own private celebration and call it even?” she proposed.

    “Are you sure?” her friend asked searchingly.

    “Yes,” she nodded emphatically. “There’s no reason to go to the trouble of roasting up another of your spiders just for me; I certainly couldn’t eat enough of it on my own to be worth the effort. Wasting food is a terrible shame after all.”

    “Well, okay,” Harry allowed reluctantly. “Still seems like you’re missing out, though. I mean, the ice cream is tasty and all, but it’s barely a snack.”

    “That’s fine,” she assured him hurriedly, “I like ice cream!”

    The young dragon nodded dubiously. “Um, well, I guess we oughtta talk about some of what we were discussing before I got sick then, Mr. Slackhammer said…”

    That sounded like a segue into something that shouldn’t be discussed in public just yet, best to make sure it wasn’t.

    “Wait, Harry,” Abigail interrupted firmly, “let me do something first.”

    Her friend looked a little puzzled but nonetheless nodded agreeably. As he watched her intently to see what she was going to do, Abigail quietly drew her wand and waved it subtly at the table.

    “There,” she said, satisfied, as she slipped her wand back into its holster on her wrist, “I put up a privacy charm. Now we should be able to talk about business stuff without anyone overhearing.”

    Harry looked interested. “What kind of charm?”

    “It’s one that Professor Snape teaches to some of his House members when he thinks they did something worth rewarding,” Abigail explained.

    It was nice to find something that she could explain to her much younger friend — the boy was entirely too well-read for her peace of mind at times.

    “I think he made it himself, because it’s a fair bit better than the standard silencing charms. Basically, it works by scrambling the sound coming from the area rather than silencing it. That way you have unintelligible buzz coming from the conversation rather than silence.”

    “Why is that better than silencing it?” Harry asked curiously. “I mean, either one would be impossible to snoop on, right?”

    “That’s because of human nature,” Abigail explained. “People are curious, and if they see a conversation going on, but they can’t hear it, they’ll be curious about what is being discussed, because obviously, if someone went to the trouble to silence their conversation, then there’s something worth listening to.”

    At her friend’s understanding nod, she continued, “On the other hand, we block out unimportant stuff all the time from our senses because otherwise we could never focus enough to get anything done, so most conversations we’re not actively involved in are an unintelligible buzz anyway. When someone overhears a conversation obscured by the charm, they tend to just figure it was too unimportant for them to care about, because if it was interesting they would have paid closer attention. The deception breaks down if someone is actively trying to eavesdrop, because then they’d realize that something had been done to obscure the sound, but unless they really work at it, Snape’s charm is a lot subtler.”

    “Neat!” her younger friend said. “I never would have thought of that!”

    Abigail perked up at that admission, feeling unreasonably pleased to play the role the knowledgeable and experienced older woman for once in her relationship with Harry. She had five years on the young dragon — five years of extra magical education — and yet she had been consistently asking him for help on her schoolwork after her illness in the fall term. Explaining something that Harry hadn’t known beforehand had just about made her day!

    She hadn’t realized just how much that had been getting to her.

    “Anyway, you were saying something about a Mr. Slackhammer?” she prompted.

    “Right,” Harry visibly collected himself, “Mr. Slackhammer is one of my business partners, and he’s the Vice Director of the Diagon Alley branch of Gringotts. Anyway, aside from that stuff, he also helps me out with other business decisions and that kind of thing. So, he’s been the one helping manage buying out the rest of Hogs Haulage. Anyway, he was saying that he expects the buyout to finish sometime around the beginning of September. I already have majority ownership, but by then it should be full ownership; some of the other stockholders are really hard to get ahold of apparently.”

    “Congratulations!”

    “Thanks!” the currently boy-shaped dragon positively beamed for a moment. “Anyway, back before I got sick, we were talking before about a job for you in Hogs Haulage working on expanding the business,” Harry continued. “Mr. Slackhammer is working on finding me a management staff for the business, one that will be sympathetic to the other stuff we’re trying to do, but like I said when we first talked about this, we want to keep the details… well, not secret, ‘cause Mr. Slackhammer is making sure to pick people who feel like we do about this stuff, but we want to make sure the senior management can truthfully say they didn’t know about the secondary reasons we’re doing some of the stuff, you know, if they get called to testify under truth serum or something…”

    “You mean ‘to maintain plausible deniability’?” Abigail asked.

    “Is that the word for it?” Harry asked in return.

    “It means something similar to what you were describing,” she confirmed. “So, the idea would be to have me take on a low- to mid-level position in the company, something high enough to be involved in the decision-making process so I could offer input on your behalf but low enough not to be under public scrutiny, and then act as your voice in the company?”

    Abigail wasn’t sure how much she liked that idea. It was a valid tactic, but simply being the hidden mouthpiece seemed like a bit of a waste — she could do more than that.

    “Well, there’s that, but I thought you’d also be good at a lot of the organization and planning we’ll need to expand rail services into new areas, you know, sorta like how you got everything organized when the professors went after the troll back on Halloween,” Harry said, unknowingly echoing her own thoughts. “We’ve got a lot of that coming, and I figure it’ll be enough to keep you pretty busy for a long time.”

    Internally, Abigail sighed in relief. That was good to hear, she could handle doing the covert communications thing as a side duty, but she wanted something with a little more substance for a career.

    “That sounds like a good idea,” she continued aloud. “I know we talked about it a little, but what sorts of expansions are you considering?”

    “Well, I figure its best to look at what we want to get out of it first,” the boyish dragon began, “that way if you have better ideas you can bring them up. I’ve got a few different reasons for buying the train company, and a couple of them are personal. One was that I think trains are cool, and the way I see it, it’d be even cooler if they were my trains.”

    Abigail snorted at that.

    “The second one was that it makes sense to secure your own supply lines, Sergeant Major Hooktalon was explaining that to me a few months ago, so having a freight company capable of supplying my Lair made a lot of sense — you know, so I can eat and stuff. Otherwise, if you’re relying on someone else to supply your food, they can starve you if they want to, and I eat enough I wanted to make sure that wasn’t an issue.”

    At that, Harry blushed for a reason Abigail wasn’t certain of, prompting her to ask, “What are you thinking about that has you so embarrassed?”

    The young dragon looked mightily uncomfortable before he sheepishly explained, “Well, you know how hungry I got back early last school year? You know, when I was eating everything at the table and Mr. Snape had to levitate me out of the Great Hall?”

    “Oh, I remember that,” she said. “What was that about anyway?”

    “Um, well, I was hitting a growth spurt, and I get really hungry when that happens,” Harry explained. “I just couldn’t think about anything but eating! Anyway, afterwards I was thinking about something Uncle Vernon said before I came to Hogwarts when I was eight. He was worried he wouldn’t be able to afford to keep me fed and I’d go on a rampage and eat half the neighborhood…”

    “Why would he say that?” Abigail protested, aghast. “You’d never do such a thing!”

    “I know! I said the same thing,” Harry acknowledged, “but Uncle Vernon pointed out that hunger does funny things to people, so it was better just to make sure I stayed fed and avoid the issue entirely. And… well, that time in the Great Hall really made me wonder how it would go if I really did get really hungry and I didn’t have enough to eat. I mean, when Mr. Snape was levitating me down the hallway, I was trying to grab the gargoyles and eat them on the way, for goodness’ sake! Back in fall term, Hagrid and Madame Pomfrey had set up a room with a bunch of food for me ‘cause we were kinda expecting something like that to happen eventually, but if we hadn’t, I don’t really know if I’d have been able to stop, and I don’t like that — that not bein’ able to say for sure I’d never do something that bad,” Harry trailed off for a moment.

    “Anyway, so one of my reasons for buying Hogs Haulage is to make sure I can keep my pantry full and avoid having to learn the hard way whether or not I can control myself in that situation.”

    That had gotten dark quickly.

    Abigail had to admit, her younger friend had painted a chilling picture. The image of her nigh-unstoppable juggernaut of a friend rampaging about in his natural form, devouring everything in sight in a futile attempt to satisfy his ravenous appetite was one that would probably haunt her nightmares for quite some time; though it was a mark in Harry’s favor that it obviously haunted his nightmares too. Abigail wasn’t sure exactly what she could say to that, so the silence stretched for a few moments.

    Still, she realized as she watched her friend’s expression become more and more distressed, she had to say something.

    “It’s good that you’re taking steps to address the problem,” Abigail said, trying to put her thoughts into encouraging words. “That’s really all you can do, I’d think. I mean, yes, the idea of what you could do is pretty scary” — really closer to spine-chillingly terrifying, but saying that wouldn’t benefit anyone — “but everyone is capable of doing bad things.”

    As her friend listened attentively, the older girl continued, “I mean, we’ve talked before about the state of the wizarding world and some of the bad things people do in it. I’m a witch, and there’s nothing they do that I’m categorically incapable of doing. I just happen to believe that supplanting someone else’s will with my own or selling other people like cattle is a bad thing to do, so I don’t do it. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you will.”

    That sounded trite even to her own ears.

    Seeing her friend’s still troubled expression, Abigail tried another tack. Though this one was a little more difficult for her to talk about, as it touched on parts of herself she wasn’t really comfortable acknowledging to herself, much less admitting aloud.

    “Or… well, for something a little closer in nature, when we talked about my future employment prospects — you know the conversation which led to all this —” at Harry’s nod she continued, “I mentioned how I was reluctant to go into the Ministry or the Prophet because I didn’t think I could do anything there, but also because of the sorts of unsavory things that might be demanded of me if I did, as I would be a young, vulnerable woman in a bad situation.”

    Harry nodded again, eyes hard. “Yeah, that’s a big part of what got me started on the train thing — or at least what pushed me to do it now rather than in a few years.”

    Abigail smiled weakly — Harry’s concern for her was sweet, but it made what she was about to say even harder to admit.

    “Well, part of the reason I was so concerned was that when I imagine myself in that situation… I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t do it.” At her friend’s shocked gasp, she hastened to explain. “I know using my body that way is wrong. I know it’s demeaning and an affront to my dignity as a person and a terrible thing to do to myself. I know all of that!”

    Her voice fell to a quiet whisper, “I know all that, but if the price on offer was important enough. If it were for my family’s safety — and that’s certainly not off the table for the sorts of people I’d have been working with — or maybe even if it were for support on a particularly important cause, something I really believed in, I can’t say for certain I would never do such a thing. And just like you said, Harry, I don’t like that uncertainty — I don’t like the part of me that says, ‘Well, maybe I might do that horrible thing if the circumstances were important enough, even though I know it’s horrible.’”

    I don’t think you’d ever do something like that, Abigail,” Harry said with conviction.

    “Thank you, Harry,” she said warmly. “But my mother told me something similar to what your uncle told you. Just like hunger, there are other circumstances that do funny things to people. Everyone has limits, prices they’re not willing to pay, and I don’t know what mine are.”

    “And like you said, if I can, it’s better to avoid putting myself in a position to find out the hard way,” Abigail finished quietly.

    The pair had long since finished their ice cream, and Harry was currently looking down at his hands while crushing the paper napkin which had been wrapped around his ice cream cone into an already tiny and still ever-shrinking pellet. He was obviously lost in thought, which prompted Abigail to end on a more upbeat note.

    “And so, when my wonderful friend offered me a chance at working in a place where I could be a part of something great, where I could make a good living, and where such things were far less likely to occur, I jumped at the chance.” The older girl reached out to lay a comforting hand on her friend’s shoulder. When he looked up, she continued, “You’re trying to do the right thing, Harry, and you’re being careful about hurting anyone else along the way. That’s all you can do — that’s all anyone can do, really.”

    As Harry smiled at her, Abigail breathed an internal sigh of relief — that had been hard!

    How did her mother always make that sort of thing look so easy? Abigail had admitted something to Harry — to her kind-of-maybe-eventually crush — that she had never wanted to acknowledge to herself, much less anyone else, but it was the only thing she could think of that was in roughly the same vein as her friend’s concerns and had enough impact to be effective.

    Regardless, she was happy to have helped Harry — though, with that accomplished, she was also quite eager to move on to a different, hopefully less embarrassing, topic.

    “So, Harry, what other reasons did you have for buying Hogs Haulage?” Abigail prompted in a blatant request to change the subject.

    It was a blatant request that Harry was happy to seize on himself. “Right! Um, well, one is that I think there’s a lot of potential for the company to grow. There’s a lot more places where magical people live than just London and Hogsmeade. I mean, Liverpool and Glasgow each have more magical people in them than all of Hogsmeade, so I figure there’d be good money in sending magical trains there too. Plus, they’re building a new rail connection to France, too, so that’ll open up all of Europe that didn’t used to be Russian, ‘cause they used a different rail gauge…”

    “That seems pretty reasonable,” Abigail mused. “Why didn’t Hogs Haulage do that already? I mean the rails are already in place, right?”

    “I’m not sure, but Hogs Haulage hasn’t really done much of anything to expand the business since the original founder died back in the mid-1920’s,” Harry said, sounding puzzled. “I’m not sure why, but they’ve just been sitting on the one route and sending more trains as demand increases.”

    “What year did he die?” Abigail asked. After her conversation with Harry, she had started doing some research on their potential competitors, including the Malfoy’s Happy Elf Trucking Group, which had been founded in…

    “1924,” Harry supplied.

    “I think I can guess what happened then,” the older girl said, sounding disgusted. It fit far too well. “Abraxas Malfoy founded the Happy Elf Trucking Group during that year. Since he was a Malfoy, I’d bet he had the Hogs Haulage founder assassinated and then killed or threatened everyone that tried to do something with the company since to protect his trucking company. It fits with the family’s reputation. We’ll have to be cautious going forward with this.”

    “What do you think we should do?” Harry asked, concerned. “I mean, they’re not going to be able to do anything to me, but what about you and anyone else I hire?”

    “I’m not sure,” Abigail didn’t have any prior experience with this sort of thing. Slytherin dorm politics could be rough, but not that rough. “I mean, long term, finding a way to neutralize the Malfoys would probably be our best bet, but I don’t know about short term. Maybe Professor Snape or your Mr. Slackhammer would have a better idea?”

    “Right, I’ll ask them about it,” Harry promised. “Um… but that kinda brings up the last couple of reasons. One is to try to undercut Malfoy in the logistics business and deny him funding and resources. It’s cheaper to send stuff by train than by lorry, so if we can go cheaper, his customers will stop doing business with him and start doing business with us. I figure that’s a good step.”

    “It is,” Abigail agreed.

    “And there’s one more thing that Mr. Slackhammer brought up,” Harry paused for a moment. “Um, how good is that privacy spell, I mean, I know it’s subtle, but how hard is it to break?”

    “I’m not sure, but I know it can be done,” she thought back. “I remember back in my second year, one of the seventh years got caught for something he had been planning with his friends under the charm. I’d bet Snape at least has a way through it…”

    “…and if Mr. Snape knows a way through it, then other people probably do too,” Harry finished for her with an understanding nod. “Well, there’s another reason, but it’ll have to wait for better security. Maybe next time you visit at the Lair?”

    “That sounds good!” Abigail had been pleased with Harry’s planning so far, and she could wait for a little longer to be informed of the rest — particularly when the wait said good things about his good sense. She was also pleased at the implied future invitation to his home; though she now had to find something else to talk about. “Um, until then, have you been working on anything else since you woke up?”

    “Oh, yeah!” Harry said. “After I figured out the message spell, we went on a bit of a trip to check out some of the stone circles; that was pretty neat, though the things were bright enough it was like staring into the sun.”

    “That’s for that project you’ve been working on with the professors, right?” she confirmed.

    “Yep,” her friend nodded. “We think we’ve figured out how to drain the things now, so we can really get started on them. We’re going to try the first one over Christmas break!”

    “Huh, that sounds kind of interesting — do you think I could tag along for that?”

    “I don’t see why not,” Harry said. “If you’d like, we can ask Mr. Flitwick — he’s organizing the trip, so he’d probably know. Anyway, I’ve also been working on that one project I’ve had going for a while…”

    “That’s the one you were engraving all those silver spheres for, right?” She couldn’t think of any other major projects Harry had going — not that she knew of anyway.

    “Yeah,” the boy-shaped dragon confirmed. “I was working through the fifth revision, but the runic system’s now got a forty-seven-fold symmetry, and the engraving is just getting way too tedious to do by hand, so I ordered a CNC lathe with a milling arm to do it for me! It’s going to be so cool!”

    “A what now?”

    As her enthusiastic friend launched into an explanation of just what he meant by that term — apparently it was some sort of non-magical contraption specifically designed to shape round-ish things very precisely according to a supplied plan — Abigail thought back on her recent conversation with good cheer. Harry was healthy, they were back together, at least for a little while — and she’d have a chance to say a proper goodbye this time, so that was a plus — and they had a solid plan on where to go next.

    As far as Abigail was concerned, it was a wonderful way to spend a summer morning.

    3.3.3 Literature search

    As he walked away from the ice cream parlor, Harry had a happy bounce to his step. His meeting with Abigail had gone very well indeed in his estimation. She hadn’t been mad at his delay in contacting her — though she had given him a bit of friendly ribbing. Harry wasn’t too bothered about that. He could deal with some teasing, but it would have been far worse if he’d disappointed his friend.

    The rest of the discussion had been really nice too! The hunger thing had been bothering him — not enough to be debilitating or anything, but a sort of niggling doubt in the back of his mind — ever since that time back in the fall. He’d known it was something he had to deal with. He’d known intellectually that he was doing the right thing — it was a pretty clear extension of Mr. Snape’s reasoning from back when he first killed that deer — but it was nice to have Abigail actually state her approval of the precautions he was taking.

    And, as shocking as it had been to hear her say it, it was nice to know that he wasn’t the only one who faced similar problems; though the idea of his friend being put in a position such as she had hinted at still made him feel really weird. It was a mix of several things he couldn’t quite identify, but he was certain it was an unpleasant weird feeling. Harry shook his head.

    Maybe he’d understand better when he got older? Madame Pomfrey had sort of implied that before when they’d talked about what to offer Hermione when he carried her off. Well, that was something for the future. For now, Harry was going to take advantage of his trip to try to pick up information on his recently discovered nemesis.

    Alchemy.

    After he had become a dragon, Harry had fallen into a trap in his thinking. It had seemed, reasonably so at the time, that he was effectively invulnerable. As a dragon, Harry was bigger than most everything, stronger than most everything, and more magic resistant than even several wizards working in concert could actually overcome. He routinely snacked on some of the most dangerous magical creatures known to the wizarding world. It had seemed to Harry that the only threats he had to worry about were threats to his friends, or, worse yet, the threat he might accidentally pose to his friends.

    Harry had assumed that would continue, but his encounter with Mr. Flamel’s stone demonstrated otherwise. That stupid rock had come closer to killing him than anything else he could remember, and it had done so while he was in dragon form. It meant that alchemy was capable of threatening Harry.

    It meant that alchemy was a potential enemy.

    Sergeant Major Hooktalon had told him that it was best to know as much about your enemies as you could, because then you could prepare for facing them, and then they’d be less of a threat. It was that sage advice that had Harry entering Diagon Alley’s premier bookshop with a determined expression on his currently human face.

    As the door opened, a bell sounded alerting the shopkeeper to his newest customer.

    “Hello, and welcome to Flourish and Blotts! How can I help… Mr. Potter?” the store manager, handling the floor while his staff caught an early lunch, sounded rather startled at his customer’s identity. “What brings you back so soon, my young friend? I’m afraid we haven’t acquired anything new since your last visit — the publishers don’t work that fast.”

    The shopkeeper chuckled a bit at that. Harry had essentially bought out his stock of anything that looked interesting to the young dragon over the past few years, and the two had a good working relationship, even though Harry still had yet to catch the man’s name. “Or is it that you’ve developed a new interest, hmm?”

    “Well, I was kinda interested to see if you had anything on alchemy,” Harry said.

    That wiped the smile right off the manager’s face and replaced it with a very grave sort of expression. “Alchemy, you say?”

    Harry nodded earnestly.

    “I’m sorry, Mr. Potter, but alchemy is a restricted topic,” came the very serious reply.

    “It is?” Harry asked, surprised.

    “Yes. Restricted by both the Ministry and the Alchemists’ Guild,” the manager explained, “and with good reason, I understand.”

    “I didn’t know that,” the young dragon said. “Do you know why it’s restricted?”

    “Only that alchemy is very dangerous and should not be dabbled in without proper instruction,” the man said firmly. “I am not permitted to sell from the restricted list to anyone without a member-in-good-standing of the Alchemists’ Guild vouching for the buyer in-person at the time of purchase and a law-enforcement representative present as a witness. There are even security measures on the books themselves that prevent anyone from directly handling them without those conditions being met.”

    “Oh, wow! That’s some heavy security.”

    The man smiled apologetically, “It is indeed, Mr. Potter. I am sorry I can’t do more for you, but now that I’ve explained that, I actually need to report this conversation to law enforcement.”

    “Really?” Harry said, worriedly. “Am I in trouble?”

    “Not at all,” the manager assured him. “They never pay much attention to the first occurrence, but they do start to take notice when people try more than once because of how dangerous alchemical experimentation is.”

    “Oh. Um, well, thanks for telling me,” the dragon called after the man who had retreated to a back room, presumably to use the floo.

    Huh. That had gone off in an odd direction.

    3.3.4 Consulting primary sources

    It was only the middle of July, and it had already been an eventful summer.

    Safely ensconced in the peaceful and productive sanctum of his private laboratory, Severus Snape sighed, having trouble remembering the last time he had been embroiled in so many major events in such a short period of time.

    June had seen Quirrel’s final gasp, the likely rebirth and immediate re-disembodiment of the Dark Lord, and the sickness and recovery of Lily’s infuriatingly reckless son which had lasted until early July. His recovery had thrown even more work Severus’ way in the form of a tremendous number of assays aimed at determining the dratted dragon’s new baseline composition and metabolism, a task which had necessitated dusting off Snape’s old and neglected skills at alchemy of all things due to the irksome lizard’s incorporation of the philosopher’s stone into his new metaphysical anatomy.

    While the term ‘alchemy’ was commonly used as an umbrella for the entire magical branch of chemistry, in practice most such things came under the heading of ‘potions’. What people generally meant when they spoke of alchemy as a field of study was active alchemy, or the direct use of magic to catalyze transmutation reactions.

    The risks of potions were very grave and very real, as he had made a particular point to explain to his classes the previous year, but the risks of alchemy were orders of magnitude worse. Snape had taken up the study during the darkest hour of his life. Late in his school years, his relationship with his best friend had collapsed due to his own stupidity, and he had thrown himself into the subject with abandon, holding the vague hope that an ill-conceived experiment would end it all. Later, when he had recovered his equilibrium — and his sanity, for that matter — Snape had given up on furthering his alchemical studies as not worth the risk, and he had just been forced to revisit them.

    All in all, it had been a very nervous few weeks.

    At least the blasted beast knew how to throw a good barbecue. Snape never would have thought to pair a brown sauce with acromantula — given the similarity to lobster, it had always seemed like more of a lemon-butter dish to him — but the end result had been surprisingly delectable.

    In any event, the assays were done — he had survived them all; Lily’s boy was off pursuing his own activities; and Severus Snape had settled into the welcome, relaxing routine of brewing potions in his laboratory when, once again, he heard a knock at the door. That the potions master could identify the visitor by the sound of the knock told him in no uncertain terms that he had been getting too many visitors recently.

    “What do you require so urgently that you have seen fit to interrupt my work during the summer recess, Mr. Potter?” the potions master snapped through the still-closed door.

    “Um, I had a question about something I found out at Flourish and Blotts,” the dragon said through the door.

    “That was singularly unenlightening, Mr. Potter. We both know you can do better,” Snape replied sharply, still through the closed door.

    “Um, the store manager told me it was a restricted topic, so I’m not sure if I should be too loud about it,” Harry temporized.

    That narrowed down the possibilities. Snape ran through the list of Ministry-restricted topics he knew of, and then compared it to the list of things the dragon had encountered recently that he might be curious about, and he came up with a singular match.

    It would be alchemy, wouldn’t it?

    “Come in then, Mr. Potter,” Snape said tiredly, wand flicking into his had to unlock the door.

    As the currently human-shaped dragon leaned against the still-useless wood paneling of his laboratory wall, Snape began, “I believe I know the thrust of your inquiry, Mr. Potter, but on the off chance that I have incorrectly deduced your purpose, please enlighten me.”

    “Right, well, I was thinking about what happened with Mr. Flamel’s stone, and how it almost killed me, and I figured it would make sense for me to know more about how it worked, so I could avoid that sort of thing in the future. So, I wanted to learn more about alchemy, but when I went looking for books…”

    “You learned that the topic is heavily restricted,” Snape finished for the young dragon. “I see. Unfortunately, while I have some experience with matters alchemical, I am not qualified to instruct on the matter.”

    “Really?” Harry asked, sounding very disappointed.

    “Yes. Fortunately for your curiosity however, we do have a qualified alchemist on staff in the person of your Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore,” Snape continued.

    “Really?” Harry said. “Do you think he’d be willing to talk about it?”

    “I am certain that he would be so,” the potions master said, sending off one of his ubiquitous memo-cranes even as he spoke. Grudging fondness for the dragon aside, Snape was looking forward to getting back to his down-time, and the sooner he could fob this explanation off onto someone else, the better. “He should be available now, but I have sent off an inquiry about such. If you will wait quietly, I will pass on Albus’ reply when it comes in.”

    “Okay, Mr. Snape,” came the usual irrepressibly cheerful reply.

    With that, the room fell silent for several minutes aside from the crackle of flame and the bubbling of his cauldrons. There was nothing unusual in these batches, simply routine supplies for Poppy; it was probably the only reason he was spared the dratted dragon’s usual string of questions.

    Shortly thereafter, a ghostly phoenix showed up to deliver the message, “Send him up.”

    “It seems the Headmaster is ready to see you, Mr. Potter,” Snape said.

    “Thanks, Mr. Snape!” came the cheerful acknowledgement as the wretched lizard left the room to Snape’s brusque nod of acknowledgement.

    And with that, the potions master returned to his work.

    3.3.5 Office visit

    “I understand that you have questions regarding alchemy, Mr. Potter,” Albus began as the currently boy-shaped dragon entered his office for the first time since the previous September. He smiled as Fawkes trilled a greeting to the newcomer and the boy took the time to wave in return. “Please take a seat, such explanations can take a fair amount of time.”

    Harry took the offered seat. “Um, yeah. So after the philosopher’s stone thing, I figured it would be a good idea to learn more about alchemy and how it works, since it almost killed me and all, but when I went to see if I could get a book on it, they said it was restricted, and then I asked Mr. Snape, and he directed me to you,” the dragon summarized.

    “I see — an eminently sensible train of inquiry, though I do warn you that the study of alchemy is a long and dangerous undertaking,” the elderly wizard warned.

    “That’s what the manager at the book shop said,” Harry replied. “Why is it so dangerous? I mean, isn’t it about changing one thing into another thing? Transfiguration does that too, right? And even though it can be dangerous, it’s not a restricted topic.”

    “The danger of alchemy lies in the nature of the forces and energies it manipulates. Transfiguration, though it might outwardly resemble alchemy, is a completely different phenomenon,” Albus explained. “I assume, having been taught self-transfiguration by Minerva, you are aware of the alternate formulation of transfiguration?”

    “The one where you can look at transfiguration as casting a compulsion charm on reality, right?”

    “That is the one, Mr. Potter,” the man confirmed. “That alternate formulation reveals a central truth of transfiguration in all its myriad incarnations — the magical discipline of transfiguration, despite its misleading name, does not actually change the underlying nature of the target of the spell. Rather, a transfiguration changes the way in which the target interacts with the world around it without changing the object itself.”

    At Harry’s rapt expression, Dumbledore continued with the lecture.

    “For instance, were I to transfigure this brass paperweight,” he gestured at a brass disk on his desk, “into lead, it would change color. It would feel heavier. If you were to bend it, it would bend more easily. But all of these changes are facilitated by the magic of the transfiguration actively imitating lead. Magic interacts with the light to change the color; magic interacts with gravity to increase its influence; and magic cooperates with you to bend the real brass with the ease of pure lead. Nothing of the basic physical nature of the paperweight is changed by the transfiguration, and magic is used to make up the difference. It is also for this reason that every transfiguration can be reversed — at least in principle.”

    “Okay,” Harry said, nodding to indicate his understanding so far.

    “For alchemy, none of that is the case,” Albus said with a sharply dismissive gesture. “Alchemy does change the underlying nature of the target. Were I to transmute this paperweight into lead, it would actually become lead. It would look like lead because it would interact with light in the same way that lead does. It would be easier to bend because lead is easier to bend. It would even weigh more than the equivalent volume of brass because lead is denser than brass — and it is in that final change where the inherent danger of alchemy lies.”

    At the dragon’s puzzled look, the former apprentice to Nicholas Flamel elaborated, “Were I to attempt to transmute that paperweight into an equal volume of lead, despite my strength, I would surely die of exhaustion before completing it.”

    As his student reared back in shock, the elderly man continued, “On the other hand, were I to transmute this same paperweight to an equal volume of ice, I would die just as surely in a massive release of magical energy more than sufficient to level this castle despite its protections. This danger has been known for millennia, though the underlying reasons remained unclear until a rather remarkable insight was published by a young Jewish man in the first few years of this century. Mass and energy are interchangeable, and a very small amount of the former is equivalent to a very large amount of the latter.”

    “You’re talking about Albert Einstein, right?” Harry asked. “The Jewish man you mentioned, I mean.”

    “That is correct, though I am surprised you have heard of him,” the elderly wizard said.

    “They taught about him in primary… well, not much more than him being a really smart guy who came up with really important ideas, but I knew the name, so I started reading more when I got the chance,” the dragon said. “The mass-energy equivalence is in one of his 1905 papers — they were really interesting reading! So, alchemy is restricted because if you’re not careful you can blow everybody up, right?”

    “That is correct, my young friend.”

    “So how do you avoid doing that, then?” Harry asked. “I mean, you’re an alchemist, and Mr. Flamel is an alchemist; you both do alchemy, and you’re both still alive, so how does that work?”

    “A great deal of practice, calculation, and control,” came the headmaster’s answer. “To go back to the paperweight example, if I were to transmute the paperweight safely, I would need to alter both its composition and volume smoothly to maintain equivalent mass. However, as you know from your control exercises, your magic will follow your will and your visualization. If you err in either of these, your magic will attempt to make up the mass difference from your own reserves. Too large an error in one direction — for myself, the margin is slightly less than a tenth of an ounce if I am fully rested — will drain the caster dry, killing him in the process. Too large an error in the other direction will release the excess energy into the world, to even more catastrophic results.”

    “But how do you practice safely?” the dragon asked, thinking back on his own misadventures in magical control. “I mean, if you’ve got that small a margin, no one would ever live long enough to become an alchemist!”

    Albus laughed, “You are quite correct, Mr. Potter. Well considered! There are a pair of special cases, one reaction which will not pull more energy than the caster has available and another which will shut itself down if it proceeds too quickly rather than catastrophically releasing energy to the environment. Nicholas developed them early in his life, which he tells me is a large part of why he managed to survive long enough to produce the philosopher’s stone. Admittedly, the reactions are useful for little other than practice, as the products involved are water and an inert and otherwise useless sludge, but within the scope of the exercise, they are invaluable!”

    The boy-shaped dragon thought about that for a time, “Do you think I could learn those?”

    “You are interested in learning more even after hearing of the dangers?” the elderly wizard asked, surprised.

    “Yeah,” Harry said in a determined tone. “Even if I don’t end up doing anything with it, I still need to know how it works.”

    Albus Dumbledore met his young student’s earnest gaze for a long moment before nodding his head. “Very well,” he acquiesced. “We will begin your instruction as soon as I manage to free time in my schedule. Do not attempt any practical exercises without my express permission and do not even consider attempting any new ideas you have before consulting me. If you attempt either of those things, your tuition will cease immediately, and — assuming we survive the experience — I will be thoroughly cross with you! Do you understand?”

    “Yes, Mr. Dumbledore,” Harry said as he nodded gravely himself.

    As the young, boy-shaped dragon left his office, the room fell silent for a time, interrupted only by the occasional tick or whirr from the myriad of strange devices littering the headmaster’s office, as the elderly wizard stared after the long-since departed youth while lost in thought. Eventually Albus Dumbledore sat back in his chair and let out a sigh.

    “Fawkes, did I do the right thing? Young Harry was so intent on learning, and I certainly want to encourage that, but… alchemy is dangerous, after all.”

    The fire-bird trilled reassuringly in response.

    “I hope so, old friend. I hope so.”
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2020
  15. PyroTechno

    PyroTechno "Author"

    Joined:
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    "Can I please please please learn alchemy?"

    "It's ridiculously dangerous."

    "I'm a literal fusion reactor. Don't talk to me about dangers, especially in this field."

    "..."
     
  16. Ovid

    Ovid I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    I'm calling it now, the "useless and inert" sludge is going to end up being useful and/or a plot device.

    Either that, or harry gets really good at using failed-alchemy reactions at turning things into bombs.

    Or both.
     
  17. Threadmarks: Section 3.4 - Conspiracies
    Dunkelzahn

    Dunkelzahn No one of consequence

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    3.4 Conspiracies


    3.4.1 Sibling rivalry

    Nearly five hundred miles south of Hogwarts, the early morning sun smiled down on rural Devonshire. Pastures of rich green waved under a gentle breeze hemmed in by neatly laid hedgerows. Deep within one of those hedgerows lay the small magical hamlet of Ottery-St. Catchpole, hidden within an expanded space. At one end of the hamlet sat an oddly-constructed home, known to the locals as the Burrow.

    The residence had perhaps three right-angles to its name — at least two of which were accidental — yet it still managed to tower some four stories over the surrounding gardens while sitting on a narrow base and canted off to one side in stark defiance of gravity.

    Magic could cover for a multitude of architectural sins.

    Despite the precarious construction, the house glowed with warmth, welcome, and security. The Burrow was the Weasley family home. It had sheltered and comforted six generations of the red-haired clan, and that history positively echoed through the structure and the magic woven into it.

    Today the current matron of the family, Molly Weasley, had made the most of the weather by sending her children outside for chores. Indoor tasks could wait for a rainy day. The chores ran the usual gamut for a country home, ranging from drying the laundry and watering the flowers to the far less pleasant task of de-gnoming the vegetable garden. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the mischief-prone twins of the family had been assigned the latter.

    “Brother, I’ve been thinking,” George Weasley said to his twin as he tossed a gnome over the garden wall.

    “A dangerous activity, to be certain; your mind is a treacherous place,” his twin brother replied in a mock-serious tone even as he snatched up another of the potato-shaped menaces to all things vegetable. “What has captured your thoughts on this fine day, brother mine?”

    “Our younger brother’s recent exploits,” the first twin explained. “Specifically, I am concerned about this six-month detention.”

    “Ah, yes,” Fred acknowledged. “He’s grown up so fast!”

    “Indubitably!” George gushed. “I am ever so proud of little Ronniekins, though not so proud as to stop calling him by that nickname.”

    “Certainly not!” Fred exclaimed. “Little Ronniekins is our only younger brother; we can’t give up our nicknaming privileges over something as trivial as six months of detention! It would have to be over something truly praiseworthy.”

    “Like what?” his twin asked.

    “I don’t know,” Fred admitted. “Saving a bunch of children from a burning orphanage?”

    “That might buy a week, at most,” George scoffed, grunting as he tossed another gnome over the fence. “He’s a wizard!”

    “Scoring with one of the Harpies?” Fred offered.

    “Scoring with the starting lineup of the Harpies,” George clarified.

    “Why George, how scandalous! We wouldn’t want to corrupt our little brother,” Fred objected sententiously. “He’ll have to make honest women out of them or nothing at all.”

    “All of them?” George asked.

    “At the same time,” Fred confirmed.

    “So, he’s always going to be ‘little Ronniekins’?”

    “Probably,” Fred shrugged. “So, what were you thinking about our youngest brother’s exploits? Aside from being proud as punch, I mean.”

    “Well, it occurs to me, brother, that little Ronniekins is not cut of the same cloth as us,” George explained. “Sadly, our little brother seems to see his punishment as an onerous burden rather than the badge of honor it truly is.”

    “Alas, I do believe you are correct, my dear twin!” Fred agreed. “Whatever shall we do?”

    “As I see it, as older brothers it is our solemn duty to join our younger sibling in his punishment as a grand show of brotherly solidarity!” came the exaggeratedly pompous reply.

    “Of course, that would require us to engage in mischief sufficient to guarantee at least two months of detention, so that we might honestly join him in his endeavors,” Fred mused.

    “Ah, but if we truly wish to walk a mile in his shoes, as it were, we must aim high!”

    “Six months then?”

    “Such things are difficult to plan for; it is difficult to know just how the professors will react,” George countered. “We should aim even higher, lest our teachers feel unaccountably lenient.”

    “Plus, we would reclaim our titles as the true troublemakers of the family,” Fred pointed out.

    “A welcome bonus,” his brother allowed. “But what should we do?”

    “Well, we do have an example of behavior that has proven to net six months of detention,” Fred offered, “and Malfoy does have a testicle left…”

    “But that would most likely see us expelled rather than detained,” George pointed out. “There’s no guarantee that Malfoy would give us an opportunity, and there’s even less of one that the professors would believe it unintentional.”

    “Not to mention that it would be terribly derivative,” Fred agreed.

    For a time, the two brothers fell into a silence punctuated by the startled cries of the gnomes they were throwing out of the garden. They needed something serious enough to warrant major punishment, but lighthearted enough to avoid expulsion. It couldn’t target a single individual, the severity required would make it too mean-spirited, and that would see them expelled. Perhaps a different target, relatively minor mischief in a more serious venue, perhaps…

    Giving another gnome the heave, Fred’s eyes lit up. “I have it!”

    “Oh? And what do you propose, dear brother?” George asked curiously.

    Fred told him, and George’s grin grew to disturbing proportions.

    “Brilliant!”

    3.4.2 Arguments and lessons

    It had taken Albus nearly a week and a half to arrange time in his schedule for the young dragon’s first alchemy lesson, during which time July passed into August along with the boy’s twelfth birthday. Late in the first week of the month, Albus Dumbledore finally found himself touching down on the lip of Harry’s Lair.

    Leaning his broom up against the wall, he nodded in acknowledgement to the goblin security team still on duty at the Lair entrance.

    “Has there been anything of interest, Corporal?” the elderly wizard asked with a conversational tenor, passing time as the security team went about their business confirming his identity and his reason to visit the Lair.

    “Nothing at all, sir. Been a quiet deployment since the barbecue,” the goblin, one of Griphook’s squad if he recalled, replied. “The young gent’s almost grown his scales back in, and we figure we’ll be headin’ out along about the time your students head back to their classes.”

    “Ah, that is a balm to the soul,” Albus sighed. “I had hoped the boy would heal properly. You have my gratitude for looking out for him.”

    The goblin laughed aloud, “And we’re happy to do so! Even aside from the business relationship, he’s paying us handsomely for our time, and he’s a good lad. Brightens your day, talkin’ to him does!” Another goblin came from deeper inside the entrance and signaled the one Albus was speaking to. “Well, looks like you check out, and Mr. Potter was expecting you. Head on in.”

    The elderly wizard entered the Lair proper to an interesting scene.

    “I’m just saying you’ve spent way too much time in the library, Hermione,” the young dragon was saying. It looked like his scales were nearly grown back in; only the barest tracery of black skin remained visible between the dark silver of his new scales.

    “I have not!” a young feminine voice protested from among the neat rows of shelves up on the mezzanine to the side of the main cavern. “I just need to get these books properly preserved and displayed. I’ll be done soon enough.”

    Albus nodded to Suze as he drew even with the centaur, who was near the Lair entrance working methodically on her spinning and studiously ignoring the argument echoing through the Lair around her.

    “But I don’t think you’ve been sleeping enough,” Harry countered, concern in his voice. “I promised your dad I’d take care of you, and you were falling asleep over your food today…”

    “I’m fine!” Hermione insisted.

    “…and you were only eating today ‘cause I made you,” the dragon continued without acknowledging her protest. “You forgot to eat yesterday! You forgot to eat, Hermione! That means there’s somethin’ wrong, right there.”

    “I’ll be done soon enough!” came the irritated reply.

    “You’ve been working on that for four weeks!” Harry protested. “It’s just a box of old books! They’ve sat for centuries already, letting them sit for a few more hours so you can take proper care of yourself isn’t gonna hurt anything. Heck, I’ve even got newer editions of most of ‘em!”

    That brought the bushy-haired twelve-year-old storming out into the open to plant her hands aggressively on the carved railing serving as the edge of the library mezzanine.

    “Just a box of old books? Old books!” she screeched indignantly. “You had first-edition printings of the complete set of Shakespeare’s works! Including all the unauthorized quarto printings! You had printings of the lost plays! You even had handwritten original scripts! That’s not a box of old books — that’s history! Do you know how many collections like that exist in this world? Do you, Harry? One! And it’s sitting right here!” The irate girl jabbed her finger back in the direction she had come from.

    “And it’s not going to go anywhere if you take a few hours to sleep, Hermione,” the dragon explained calmly.

    “Why aren’t you more excited about this?” Hermione shouted, clutching at her bushy hair in frustration. “It’s the Bard! In his own handwriting!”

    “What? They’re good plays and stuff, sure,” Harry said. “But I like reading the newer versions ‘cause the paper’s nicer and the wording ‘s a bit more polished and they don’t do those annoying typesetting things where they use ‘f’ when they really mean ‘s’. Those things are so old, I’m afraid they’d fall apart if I tried to handle them! Don’t really see what the appeal is anyway.”

    “Well, it is a big deal, you… you scaly philistine!” Hermione huffed in frustration, folding her arms across her chest. “Take my word for it.”

    “Hey! Just ‘cause I want my friends to be healthy and I like reading legible books don’t mean I don’t like art!” the dragon said defensively. “Heck, I don’t know why you’re getting’ on my case for that when you ain’t even touched the pensieve recordings of the plays that were in the next box over. Those were worth lookin’ at, and they don’t crumble when you so much as look at ‘em funny.”

    Albus noted that the girl turned a rather alarming shade of white.

    “The what?” she squeaked.

    “The pensieve recordings of Shakespeare’s plays,” Harry said matter-of-factly as his human damsel’s mouth worked soundlessly, trying to form a response that wouldn’t come. “They were in with the books, but when I went through it the first time, I moved ‘em to another box so they weren’t scattered all through everything. I watched ‘em after Christmas last year when you were off visiting your family.”

    “Oh, is that why you borrowed my pensieve, Mr. Potter?” Albus interjected, alerting the young dragon his presence.

    “Yeah, thanks for that, Mr. Dumbledore,” Harry nodded to his new visitor. “I didn’t really know what they were until we had that one meeting where I had to check out Uncle Vernon’s memories. I knew they didn’t smell like mercury, even if they looked like it, so I held off on eating ‘em. Glad I did!”

    “You almost ate…” Hermione still hadn’t noticed the newcomer. “I can’t believe you! You almost ate the only surviving recordings of the Bard’s original plays, and then you watched them without even telling me about it!”

    “I would’ve asked you, but you weren’t around!” Harry said defensively. “I mean, Suze watched ‘em with me, and there would have been plenty of room for one more!”

    “Suze watched them too? And you didn’t think to offer again when I got back?” Hermione accused, sounding rather thoroughly betrayed. “I’m named after the queen in The Winter’s Tale, you know! I’d have thought it would have been obvious I’d be interested!”

    “Well, it didn’t come up!” Harry tried to defend himself. “I mean I was gonna offer, but you were tired when you got back, and then you seemed kinda off for the first week or so, and I was waiting for you to feel better, and then we had that meeting where we found out about Krakatoa, and then I had to return Mr. Dumbledore’s pensieve, and things just seemed to keep happening…”

    “Don’t you try to pin your thoughtlessness on me, mister!” Hermione admonished.

    “Sorry?” Harry offered uncertainly.

    The bushy-haired girl glared at the young dragon for a long moment before letting out an inarticulate scream of frustration and storming back into the stacks.

    “Are you okay?” Harry worriedly called after her.

    “Don’t talk to me right now!” Hermione’s voice snapped from out of sight.

    Harry stared after her for a time looking rather crestfallen before Albus decided to interrupt again. “Did I come at a bad time, Mr. Potter?”

    “Maybe?” he offered. “I’m not really sure what I should do about Hermione.”

    Albus chuckled, “I suspect that waiting is your best option at this point. If Miss Granger has been sleeping as little as you implied, her behavior may be due in large part to fatigue. She will likely be more agreeable when she is rested.”

    “Really?” Harry asked hopefully. “I was trying to get her to sleep, but she wouldn’t listen.”

    “Of course, I cannot say with certainty, but it is the course I would take, given what I have seen of the situation,” Albus averred. “Although, I might suggest asking around about purchasing a pensieve of your own. She will likely insist on watching those memories soon after she rests.”

    “Can’t I just borrow yours again?” the dragon asked.

    “I would be willing to lend it to you, were I able; however, I am afraid Nicholas has borrowed my pensieve for the foreseeable future,” Albus apologized with a rueful chuckle. “My old Master has an unfortunate tendency to borrow equipment and then forget he has it — a consequence of his advanced age, no doubt. It will likely take some doing — or possibly a major crisis requiring its use — to retrieve it from his clutches.”

    “Oh,” came the disappointed reply. “I guess I’ll have to start looking then.”

    “In any case, pensieves, though fascinating, are not the reason I have called upon you this afternoon,” the elderly wizard began in a chipper tone. “I am here to give you your first lesson in the ancient and dangerous field of alchemy.”

    That got the dragon to perk right up, “Oh, yeah! I’d almost forgotten. So, do you want to do that here, or should we go to one of the labs?”

    “You have laboratories now?” Albus asked, intrigued.

    “Well, it’s more that I’ve got my workshop plus a couple new rooms dug out for new projects when they come up,” the dragon said bashfully.

    Albus chuckled. “Alas, I am afraid that our tour will have to wait in that case. Most of the first lesson will be a retelling of our first discussion in more detail, and the only practical exercise I will be teaching you today requires the use of water as a starting point,” the elderly wizard gestured to the stream flowing through the center of the room. “Real water not conjured. Thus, remaining near your source for such makes sense.”

    “Fair enough,” the dragon allowed before gesturing to the sitting area below the library. “Would you like to take a seat?”

    And with that, the white-bearded alchemist took the offered seat and began to speak, “In our first discussion we addressed the nature of the forces governing alchemy and the energy implicit in them. We will, of course, discuss these in greater detail in the future, but for now, I feel it is appropriate to cover the various tools of alchemical transmutation and their different uses. The examples we discussed previously dealt with the direct casting approach, in which the caster directly controls the reaction. This is the first method I will be teaching you, and it is considered the least hazardous.”

    “That’s the least hazardous?” Harry asked, with a frown.

    Albus nodded. “From an outside perspective, yes. From a personal perspective, all are equally dangerous, but caster-controlled processes will generally stop after killing their originator, limiting the damage to the surrounding environment,” the elderly wizard explained. “The other methods, involving runic control systems in the one case and potions-assisted runic control systems in the other, have a tendency to be much more persistent and thus affect a much larger area.”

    “Oh.”

    “To continue, runic systems are conceptually quite simple, though their execution is anything but. In essence, the runic system is a physically embodied version of the caster-controlled spell. The runic systems run into difficulty in that they generally cannot be adjusted mid-use; thus the design must account for the precise nature of the target as well as the transmutation desired. As I am certain you have learned — from your potions studies if nothing else — absolutely pure anything is nearly impossible to acquire, a happenstance which reduces the general utility of the runic system significantly when used in isolation.”

    At the dragon’s understanding nod, the wizard went on, “Potions present a method of getting around such difficulties by breaking up the target into extremely small pieces using a solvent and preparatory reactions to create a particular species of the target, and then performing a direct casting or runic transmutation specifically targeting that form. That is actually the preferred method for most alchemical experimentation, as it is perhaps the most reliable option for the vast majority of useful transmutations. It is for this reason that alchemy is often used as a more inclusive synonym for potions, as well as being tied closely to the non-magical study of chemistry. A successful alchemist must be supremely skilled in both fields as well as his own.”

    “How does that work?” Harry asked. “I mean, potions are really messy mixtures of lots of stuff. Wouldn’t that make everything even more complicated?”

    “It might seem so at first glance,” Albus acknowledged, “but breaking the target down in a potion happens in a predictable manner, and each piece is both nearly identical and easily identified through magic. For instance, in the alchemical preparation of lead, it is normally converted to white lead, which is a carbonate of lead. In this form, a transmutation can be targeted at those bits of lead attached to a carbonate group, which is much easier to specify via runic languages than metallic lead.”

    “Oh! So the extra bits act sorta like a flag to show the magic where to go?” Harry asked.

    “Exactly!” Albus congratulated his student on his insight. “The more information available, the more precisely the target of magic can be identified. Many fields of magical endeavor make excellent use of this property.”

    Harry thought for a moment before venturing, “Isn’t that how a pensieve works? The memory provides a ton of information, and then the pensieve uses that to pick a time and place to scry, right?”

    “Precisely, Mr. Potter! Precisely,” Albus confirmed with a quick smile. “However, now that we have touched on the general structure of the field, I am afraid we must return to the basics, and that means another safety lecture, followed by your first exercise.”

    “I get to do an exercise already?”

    “Indeed, Mr. Potter,” Albus confirmed. “And it will be a boring and exhausting one.”

    Harry gulped apprehensively as the old wizard launched off into a detailed description of his new exercise, including a more involved rehash of his first talk on the dangers of alchemy.

    ‘Boring’ and ‘exhausting’ didn’t sound like very much fun.

    3.4.3 Homework

    Two days had passed since Harry’s first alchemy lesson, and the Lair was quiet.

    Suze was absorbed in her spinning, a perennial activity for the young centaur maiden. It seemed to Harry that his first damsel spent perhaps half her time preparing nettle fiber for her weaving.

    Before he’d carried Suze off, Harry had never realized just how much effort went into the production of cloth. Back when he was little, it was just one of those things that was in the store, and his perception of that had not changed when he started buying his own clothing after he learned to transform back into a human. Seeing Suze make her own shirts from scratch was an eye opener.

    Honestly, it was kind of cool seeing his damsel take a great pile of stinging nettles and turn them into the soft woven cloth she made her shirts out of. She’d even made one for him once, and it was awesome! It felt so soft! It was also a whole lot of work, stripping the stems, soaking them for a couple weeks in the stream below the Lair, combing out the fibers, spinning them into yarn as she was now, then eventually weaving the whole lot into cloth then sewing a shirt out of it. The whole process took months, occupied tremendous amounts of time, and parts of it stank to high heaven, but the end result was so unlike the original plants that it was almost like magic!

    His damsel was awesome.

    Speaking of damsels, Hermione was sleeping again. True to Mr. Dumbledore’s prediction, his human damsel had gone to bed on the evening of their argument, slept until noon, and then apologized for her behavior. Also true to the headmaster’s prediction, she had been mightily irritated that she couldn’t watch those plays right away. Harry was relieved he had already put out inquiries about purchasing a pensieve through Gringotts. He was fairly sure that had been a large part of Hermione’s decision to forgive him.

    Harry himself lounged in his native form, a comparatively miniscule bowl full of water sitting innocuously in front of him. The water contained within had been absorbing both his complete attention and a tremendous amount of magic for the last few hours.

    Mr. Dumbledore had given him some homework.

    The first of a pair of complementary training exercises originally developed by Nicholas Flamel, the task had Harry attempting to transmute an arbitrarily chosen fraction of the water into an inert, oily, pearlescent sludge which was significantly denser than the original water. The more of the water Harry converted, the more energy the process consumed.

    Unlike most other transmutations, this particular reaction was self-limiting; it would not progress without positive thaumic pressure from the alchemist. Thus when the caster ran out of available energy and stopped pushing — a point which would be reached significantly earlier than the level of drain which would cause permanent harm — the reaction would stop on its own, rather than sucking energy out of the caster in an attempt to run to completion. Effectively, the exercise served as a relatively safe way for a student to build their control in preparation for other endothermic transmutations, which was a fancy way of saying transmutations that absorbed energy according to Mr. Dumbledore.

    It was really, really hard!

    At the outset Harry’s control in this exercise had been no better than it was in others; nevertheless, the young dragon persevered. Dumbledore would be testing his progress in the next lesson, and if he had improved sufficiently, Harry would be allowed to work on the next exercise. That one was supposed to develop control of the transmutations that released energy — the fancy term for which was ‘exothermic’.

    But for now, it was best not to get ahead of himself. In the present, Harry was going to do his homework because he didn’t want to disappoint his teacher at their next lesson. With that in mind, a flex of will brought his magic to bear once again; his intent was focused; the water was targeted… and once again, Harry’s head fell onto his front paws when a wave of exhaustion overcame him as a little over half the volume of water turned to sludge.

    He had been aiming for a tenth. Harry had a lot of work to do yet.

    At least it was a novel exercise for the young dragon, though the repeated waves of exhaustion were a new and uncomfortable experience. He recovered quickly, but for a few minutes at a time, Harry was more tired than he ever remembered being since those dull, vaguely remembered times before his transformation. In sharp contrast to every other control exercise Harry had tried to this point, this one was fully capable of taking everything Harry could throw at it. He’d not accidentally transmuted the entire bowl of water even once!

    During one of his exhaustion-enforced breaks, Harry had given some thought to precisely why the exercise could consume so much energy, and it hadn’t been all that difficult to figure out.

    One of the books Harry had picked up along the way had dealt with the basics of nuclear power, and a particular comparison had stuck in his young mind. No discussion of matters nuclear would ever be complete without at least touching on nuclear weaponry, and this one had been no different, making the offhand claim that the bomb dropped on Nagasaki had converted only about a gram of mass into energy.

    He was working with a mixing bowl that held about a gallon of water, converting it to the same volume of sludge would increase the mass by about twenty percent. A quick check using the Nagasaki figure as a baseline had told him the energy embodied by changing a bowl full of water into a bowl full of that sludge would be equivalent to a bit less than a sixteen-megaton yield.

    As the dragon tiredly sloshed the excess water out of the bowl and poured the sludge off into a steel drum he was keeping nearby for that purpose — Mr. Dumbledore had told him to keep it so he wouldn’t have to make more for the second exercise — Harry took a good look at the half-full drum as he rested for a moment. The contents of that drum represented the result of about four hours’ worth of practice.

    Per the descriptions in that same book, they also represented the energy equivalent of a moderately-sized strategic nuclear arsenal, more than enough to kill an entire nation if it could be released quickly enough. The dragon closed his eyes thoughtfully.

    Magic was always a hard thing to get a quantitative handle on, and doing so was a bit of an eye-opener for the young dragon. So far, his largest control error had amounted to about an eight megaton yield, a bit less than four hundred times the yield of that bomb in Japan. The revelation left Harry quite relieved that he now had an ideal exercise for safely learning proper magical control.

    Harry had enough problems with controlling his physical strength without worrying about accidentally annihilating London if he got startled on a shopping trip — not that his magic had ever shown a tendency to flare up like that, but still… Even if he never did anything else with alchemy, the effort would have been well spent just for that!

    Feeling his strength returning, Harry refilled the bowl from the stream and got back to work. Mr. Dumbledore had been good enough to teach him, and the young dragon refused to disappoint.

    3.4.4 Diagon revisited

    The Hogwarts letters arrived less than a week later — still well before Harry’s next alchemy lesson — hand-carried by an uncharacteristically flustered Minerva McGonagall. The normally stern Scotswoman had forgotten about Harry’s awkward owl situation when she was sending out the letters for the year, hence the somewhat-delayed and apologetic hand-delivery after her earlier owls returned, feathers ruffled and messages undelivered.

    Thus it was that Harry, Suze, and Hermione set out for Diagon Alley, not on a quiet day when they could avoid the back-to-school crowds and spend all the time they wanted browsing through the bookstore, but rather on one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

    “I never knew it got this crowded,” Hermione remarked as she walked at her friend’s side through the congested street. It was almost shoulder to shoulder throughout the Alley. “I mean, there’s got to be ten thousand people here. I didn’t even know there were that many wizards!”

    “Mr. Slackhammer says there are maybe five or six hundred thousand in Europe, and probably two-thirds of them are in the UK,” Harry offered. “No one’s got an accurate count, though.”

    On his other side, Suze watched the crowd in wary silence. She was done up in her usual Diagon Alley attire, including that ridiculous bridle. She had little to contribute to the discussion, having even less knowledge of wizarding demographics than Harry. Fortunately for them all, she did contribute by helping the pair of children to negotiate the crowd of adults safely. The wizards still had no idea how to react to a centaur in their shopping district, and so they usually defaulted to getting a bit of distance to gawk at the unusual sight, allowing the trio to move freely through a crowd that parted almost automatically before them.

    “How can hundreds of thousands of wizards hide in a country the size of the United Kingdom?” Hermione boggled. “I mean, we don’t have that much space!”

    “I think it’s because of how much wizards tend to clump together,” the currently human-shaped dragon said. “I mean, take the Alley here, for example — how much space do you think Diagon Alley takes up in London?”

    The bushy-haired girl’s face screwed up in thought. Space expansion charms made that a tricky question to answer. “I don’t know, maybe as much as a department store?” she guessed.

    The young dragon shook his head. “The entire thing fits into the space between the brick façade and the inner wall of the Leaky Cauldron,” he explained. “Found out about that when I was talking with Corporal Hookknife about magical architecture. If you actually work it out, the Alley houses about three hundred permanent wizard residents, and Gringotts worked out that it averages about five-hundred customers, guests, and other transient people at any given time, so Diagon Alley averages a population density of about eight hundred per square foot of real space.”

    “All of this fits in one square foot?” Hermione gasped looking around at the stores with renewed wonder.

    “Well, most of it,” Harry qualified. “A few places, like Gringotts, are just storefronts with portals to other places. The eight-hundred people figure though is just the Alley proper.”

    “But at that density…” Hermione trailed off, doing some math in her head, “all of wizarding Britain would fit inside my parents’ kitchen!”

    “Yep!” Harry chirped. “I mean there are some big spaces like the Black Woods, places that are so magical that they had to be hidden away if you want to maintain secrecy, and some people buy real houses in the non-magical world, but overall, it’s still pretty small.”

    “…I knew there was some of that,” Hermione said thoughtfully. “I mean, while you were sick, Abigail was telling me about one of her friends whose family lives in a shoe, but I didn’t know that was normal!”

    With that, the trio drifted off into silence. Lunch time approached, and they had already handled most of their shopping already. Braving one of the Alley restaurants in this crowd would have been unpleasant even for Harry and Hermione alone, and Suze’ presence made it a near impossibility, so they made their slow way towards Flourish and Blotts, intending to finish off their last errand quickly before returning to the Lair for their meal. They would likely have skipped the bookstore entirely were it not for the Defense class reading list which surprisingly contained several titles which were missing from the dragon’s extensive library.

    The queue extending out the front door of the establishment put down any notion of a quick last stop. Hard.

    “Oh, man,” Harry whined. “That’s gonna take forever, and I’m getting hungry! Maybe we should come back later?”

    “That sounds good,” Suze offered her opinion. She had no desire to wait outside and be gawked at for as long as it took to get through that line.

    “Maybe it’s just some event going on?” Hermione proposed, “Let’s get closer so we can at least see what’s going on. We might just be able to bypass the whole thing.”

    As the group drew closer, they finally caught site of a sign.

    “’Meet the gallant Gilderoy Lockhart, Hero, Adventurer, and Bestselling Author’,” Hermione read. “Oh, it’s a book signing, and he’s the author of all the books we’re supposed to get!”

    Harry’s eyes lit up. “Oh, good! The line is probably just for meeting the guy, so the counter should be free! We’ll be in and out in a minute.”

    “What kind of thinking is that?” Hermione objected. “The author is right here; we ought to get our new books signed!”

    “But why?” Harry complained. “The line’s really long, and it’s not like some guy’s signature is going to change anything important about the book. You read a book for what it says, not for a name some guy scribbled in it after the fact.”

    “But they’d be signed by the author!” the bushy-haired bibliophile insisted. “That’s important!”

    “Why?” her friend asked. “The books would say the same thing, signature or no signature.”

    “Because… well,” Hermione struggled to find a way to put the concept into words, only to settle for, “signed copies are worth more when you sell them?”

    “Really? That sounds like a good reason,” Harry perked up, only to turn thoughtful for a moment, “but I’m also really hungry...” He paused for a moment, presumably to consider the tradeoffs. “Really hungry. Um, how much more are books usually worth if you get them signed?”

    “I’m not sure,” Hermione said. “Maybe ten or twenty times more?”

    Harry’s expression turned thoughtful as he worked through those numbers in his head before shaking his head in the negative. “Nah, not worth it. The books aren’t so expensive that I’d risk being hungry for too long around so many people.”

    With that odd statement, he set off for the second door to the shop — the one which wasn’t packed full of hopeful wizards and witches out to meet a celebrity — dragging Hermione along like an anchor behind a storm-driven ship. A relieved Suze followed before peeling off to wait outside the door.

    “Harry!” his bushy-haired boat anchor protested. They had just gotten to the door when Hermione managed to find her voice fully. “Harry James Potter! You didn’t need to drag me into the store!”

    “What?” Harry looked back at his friend, then down at their joined hands. “Oh, sorry Hermione, I didn’t realize I was dragging you.”

    Hermione shook her head in exasperation and was about to respond when she was interrupted by a loud voice.

    “It can’t be… Harry Potter?” the voice, a male one, said from a table not far away.

    The pair turned to face the new voice, finding a blond wizard in his late twenties. He was dressed in flamboyant baby-blue silk, and he had a beaming, artificially wide smile plastered across his face, teeth glinting unnaturally in the store’s low light. The women on the scene were practically swooning in his presence.

    Harry thought he looked kind of shifty.

    “Yeah,” Harry responded carefully. “Who’re you?”

    The dandy seemed more than a little taken aback at not being recognized, though he recovered gamely. “Why, I am the person you’ve come to see, Gilderoy Lockhart! I suppose it is understandable for you to be overwhelmed enough to forget why you came here in the face of my august presence,” he allowed magnanimously, while motioning to another man carrying a bulky wizarding camera. “Quite alright, my boy, no offense taken.”

    Harry frowned. “No, I just came to get my schoolbooks for next year.” As the photographer attempted to grab his arm and hustle him over to stand with the foppish author — an attempt that yielded the man nothing but a mildly strained shoulder — the young dragon continued unphased. “It’s why I came in through the other door,” Harry gestured to the door behind him, incidentally breaking the photographer’s grip without noticing, “rather than waiting in line with the people who wanted to see you.”

    Seeing that his photographer was not making any progress, Gilderoy stepped up his game, announcing loudly, “Well, never mind that, intentional or not, you’ve had the good fortune to meet me nonetheless! And in commemoration of our meeting,” the man continued his frantic hidden gesturing to the photographer, “I will gift you, and your lovely companion of course,” he nodded absently to Hermione who blushed rosily at the attention from the handsome author, “with a complete collection of my books each, signed personally!”

    “Um, thanks, I guess,” Harry said frowning in puzzlement as to why the strange man was suddenly giving him things. He was still frowning when the preening author handed him a bag containing a massive pile of books while smiling to the camera off to the side. The distracted frown made for an interesting contrast with Gilderoy’s gilded smile when the camera finally flashed.

    With that the encounter was over, and Harry walked off toward the counter with his and Hermione’s new books as Lockhart turned back to his adoring public. Hermione followed along with her friend, almost hyperventilating at the excitement of it all.

    “Hello to you, Mr. Potter,” the manager greeted the young dragon at the counter. “You’ve picked an exciting day to go shopping.”

    “I guess,” came the noncommittal reply. “Um, we needed to get a few new books for our school reading lists. We thought we had them all, but there were a bunch of last-minute additions…”

    The man chuckled, “I do believe you have two copies of each those in your bag, Mr. Potter.”

    “Really?” Harry asked skeptically, giving the things another look. “They don’t look like textbook sorts of books.”

    “They are, indeed,” the manager confirmed.

    “Oh, well, I guess we’re done then,” Harry said. “Thanks!”

    As the pair turned to walk back out the door, the manager smiled and shook his head. The young Potter’s encounter with Mr. Lockhart had been hilarious. That kid was always fun to talk to — well, at least when he wasn’t required to report the conversation to law enforcement; that tended to put a damper on such things.

    Outside the crowded bookshop, the lumpy bag was quickly transferred to Suze’s saddle horn, and the trio set out for the portkey transit point. In passing, Hermione noted a minor scuffle off on the other side of the street between a man with familiar red hair and another man with blond hair of his own coiffed in a similarly familiar slicked-down style. Her mind wandered back to a certain incident that had happened months previous — the scene seemed like an odd sort of echo of the earlier incident, just with older boys.

    Hermione wondered for a moment whether the two men were related to the two boys who had so irritated her during the previous schoolyear, but she quickly shook her head in dismissal and moved on to more important things, like trying to keep up with her sometimes-dragon-shaped friend’s hurried pace towards the portkey transit point.

    Harry’s stomach waited for no man.

    3.4.5 The red tide

    Meanwhile, back in the Alley, Arthur Weasley was busy being fussed over by his wife, Molly. A short, plump, rather dowdy sort of woman, Molly’s nurturing personality and rock-solid devotion to her family more than made up for any shortcomings in appearance as far as her husband was concerned. There were nice things, like appearances, and then there were important things, like loyalty and love, and in Arthur’s estimation, knowing the difference between the two was the key to fulfillment in life.

    Molly also sported a head of red hair not dissimilar to Arthur’s own, a circumstance which was entirely coincidental, no matter what his detractors tried to say — the inbred twits. Speaking of inbred twits, Molly was current fussing over him in the aftermath of his recent tussle with just such an inbred twit. Lucius Malfoy, current head of the Malfoy family, had accosted Arthur’s family as they left Flourish and Blotts and made disparaging remarks about his wife and daughter, to which the protective family man had responded quite predictably — removing the sneer from Lucius’ face with his fist.

    “Really, Arthur,” his wife was saying as she neatened her husband’s hair with her fingers. “You simply cannot allow that man rile you up like this!”

    “Molly! I couldn’t let him spout off about that sort of thing!” Arthur protested. “He implied that you…”

    “Arthur,” Molly interrupted firmly, raising her voice just enough to carry to the surrounding crowd without being obvious about it, “we both know that I have engaged in no such behavior, and nothing Lucius Malfoy or anyone else can say will change that. But you must account for Mr. Malfoy’s situation!”

    At her husband’s puzzled look, she forged on quickly. “His accusations were both completely baseless and horrifically inappropriate — terribly uncouth, really, ill-fitting for a man of his station — but the poor unfortunate sees our wonderful family, the bountiful fruits of our marriage — six strong, talented sons and our beautiful daughter — and... well, I’m sure he can’t help but compare them to his own rather pathetic showing.”

    The redheaded woman fussed entirely unnecessarily over Arthur’s collar as she elaborated, “Lucius Malfoy simply cannot bring himself to acknowledge your plainly evident superiority as a man, so he lashes out! It’s quite obvious if you care to look,” she said matter-of-factly. “The poor fellow struggled so much and for so long bring himself to provide his wife with even a single, rather unhealthy-looking child — a feat which he has been unable to repeat in the dozen years since, I might add!”

    “Projecting your own shameful inadequacy onto others is a perfectly understandable thing for someone to do in his situation, dear,” she continued with almost angelic sweetness. “It’s wrong, certainly, but we must treat the poor unfortunate with compassion and understanding. Dear, just imagine how the man must feel, afflicted with that sort of… deficiency!”

    Molly leaned closer to hide a wicked smile completely at odds with her saccharine tone of voice as the surrounding crowd tittered with laughter at Lucius’ expense. At least a few of them had caught on to the subtext, and that would ensure the rumors spread.

    Molly’s chosen weapon was subtler than her husband’s fist, but in many ways it was even more vicious.

    “Now then, dear, let’s go, we’ve got shopping to take care of,” she said, having finally finished with straightening out the imaginary wrinkles in her husband’s attire.

    With that, the red-headed family set off to finish their shopping.

    In a quiet voice, Arthur spoke to Molly, “Love, you did hear what Malfoy implied about our little Ginny, didn’t you?”

    “Of course, dear,” Molly assured him in a similar tone, hard eyes glinting protectively. “Why did you think I waited to interrupt until after you’d beaten him bloody?”

    She squeezed her husband’s hand. “I know you want to do more, Arthur, but be patient — and keep up on your dueling skills. I just publicly cast aspersions on Lucius’s manhood and implied his heir was illegitimate. With any luck, he’ll feel it necessary to call you out for the insult, you will kill him in due course, and then the issue will be resolved in the open without waiting for the usual Malfoy trickery.”

    “That would be the ideal outcome, Molly, but I fear you overestimate the Malfoy sense of honor and fair play,” Arthur sighed. “But thank you for your efforts, in any case.”

    “Any time, dear,” his wife assured him.

    In a louder voice, she addressed their children, “Dears, we have a great deal to do yet today, and I’m afraid that we have significantly less time to do it in than I would like. Percy, would you mind taking your brothers with you to handle the rest of your shopping while your father and I take Ginny to get her wand?”

    “Of course, Mother,” Percy acknowledged.

    “Um, Mum, Dad?” Fred interrupted. “George and I were hoping to take a bit of time to look into things for the business we’re hoping to start after we graduate. Do you mind if we take care of that?”

    “What business is this, boys?” Molly asked skeptically.

    “A joke shop,” George stated proudly. “We figure it makes sense to scout out the competition now —”

    “—and to build a reputation,” Fred continued, “so people know to come to us for the finest of joking ideas and pranking paraphernalia —”

    “That’s why we have put so much effort into building our pranking skills during our school years,” George took up the conversation.

    Molly shook her head skeptically, “Boys, do you really think…”

    “Molly, I think I know how to handle this,” Arthur interjected. Seeing the sly look on her husband’s face, Molly held her peace for the moment as her husband puffed up with theatrical pomposity. “Now boys, I know you are eager to do this, but you must realize that building a successful business is a great undertaking, demanding hard work and sacrifice. It’s not something to which just anyone is suited…”

    “We know that Dad!” George protested, sounding mildly outraged at being talked down to in such a way.

    Which was precisely the response his father had been hoping for, “…so, if you want to do this, I’m afraid I must insist that you and your brother write up a detailed business plan before the end of the summer.” That outrage would ensure the boys would be eager to meet his challenge and prove him wrong.

    “But Dad, there’s only a week left…” Fred protested weakly.

    “Well, if you’re not up to the challenge, I suppose you won’t be able to…”

    “We’ll do it!” George interrupted firmly.

    Arthur smiled as he looked over to the eldest of his sons currently present, “I believe Percy would be happy to assist you with the accounting details, as he has made a study of such things.”

    Percy, catching on to the thrust of his father’s gambit, perked up. “Oh, certainly, Father, I would be delighted.” He turned to the twins; whose expressions reflected a rapidly growing horror. “It is wonderful to see you two taking an interest in the practicalities of business, excruciatingly boring as they can be, and I would be more than pleased to assist you in your endeavors.”

    And Percy would indeed be pleased to assist, they were his brothers after all. That it would also present a prime opportunity to get back at the twins for their antics over his prefect badge the previous year was simply icing on the cake.

    The twin expressions of dawning horror as they realized that they had been had were reward enough, but Percy felt the need to twist the metaphorical knife. “Though I also must insist that we review your proposed product line to explore their appropriateness. I know you two have had a regrettable tendency to exceed the bounds of good taste in your pranks in the past, and doing so when trying to build a good name for your business… well, that might well be devastating to your future success, don’t you agree?”

    “Right,” George squeaked, sounding more than a little sick at the prospect. “Thanks, Percy.”

    “We’ll be going now,” Fred said hurriedly, dragging his twin off into the crowd.

    “Meet back at Fortescue’s in two hours, dears!” Molly called after the pair, receiving a shouted acknowledgement.

    As the rest of the family split up into two groups to go about their business, Ron asked his brother, “What just happened? Why did you agree to help them with a prank business? I thought you hated the twins’ pranking!”

    Percy just laughed before he motioned to his youngest brother, “Come along, Ronald, I’ll explain while we shop.”

    3.4.6 Clandestine mission

    As the twins made their way through the crowd, the sickly expressions fell off their faces to be replaced with mischievous grins.

    “How do you think Percy will react when he finds out we’ve already got a detailed business plan?” Fred asked his brother.

    “I don’t know, brother,” George offered with a sly grin, “but I bet it won’t be as funny as his expression when we give him our product notebooks.”

    “True,” Fred laughed, “he’s going to regret that proviso when he’s stuck reading through that stack!”

    Both brothers fell silent for a time as they pushed through the knot of shoppers clogging the entrance to the Alley.

    “You know, brother, I feel kind of bad about lying to Mum and Dad,” George remarked as they finally approached the sealed portal to the Leaky Cauldron.

    “Whatever do you mean, brother?” Fred asked innocently. “We are going to work on the business.”

    “But we implied we were going to check out Zonko’s,” George countered.

    “We said both checking out the competition and building our reputation,” Fred insisted as they waited for the bricks to shuffle out of the way revealing the Leaky Cauldron exit. “This is going to build our reputation.”

    “I know it’s technically what we said,” George allowed, “but you know perfectly well it’s not what we implied.”

    As the pair made their way north along Charing Cross, Fred considered that. “I know, George, but you have to make some sacrifices in the name of adventure and progress!”

    George considered that for a quite a while as Fred navigated northeast along Shaftesbury using the street map they’d picked up in Flourish and Blotts. Local maps of the surrounding city were among the few non-magical publications the shop carried. He spoke up again just as they turned north onto Bloomsbury Street.

    “Fred.”

    “Yes, George?”

    “I know we’ve got to be ready to sacrifice things for adventure and progress,” he continued. “But are you sure our family’s trust is the right thing to be sacrificing?”

    “Stop worrying, brother, it’s not going to be that bad,” Fred protested. “It’s not that big a thing we’re doing, they’ll get over it. I mean, we even told them what we were going to do. We’ll just get grounded or something.”

    “Yeah, I guess,” George allowed. “Mum’s going to go spare, though.”

    Fred had to nod at that, “Yeah. What’s with that anyway? I mean, she’s going to know we got back safely, since she’s not going to find out until after we’re at school. How does she manage to worry retroactively, anyway?”

    “I don’t know,” his brother admitted, before his voice turned more optimistic, “but we’re going to get a howler, for sure.”

    Both boys smiled at that — those howlers always seemed to be the finishing touch on their mischievous escapades — but the smiles melted off their faces as they passed in front of the British Museum.

    “Blimey, that place feels creepy,” George commented, rubbing at his upper arms as he looked suspiciously through the black iron fence at the columned building. “It feels like that one time when Peeves went on a tear — you know, until the Bloody Baron smacked him down — but loads worse.”

    “Back in first year? Yeah,” his twin nodded, peering at the carved name to the right of the gate as they hurried by. “The British Museum — huh, I remember Dad talking about that place before when his department got called out to handle it a couple years back. He said the building felt like it had tons of poltergeists there, but no one could find anything. I think he said they decided it must have been some artifact or other back in the storerooms, but there’s tons of stuff in there. Dad said if it wasn’t bothering any of the muggles, there wasn’t any point in trying to find it in that mess.”

    “Must be some bloody artifact,” George remarked, shivering as they turned the corner. “You mind if we cut over a few blocks on the way back to avoid this place?”

    “Fine by me, brother,” Fred said fervently. “Fine by me.”

    By unspoken agreement, the twins picked up the pace to just short of a jog until they were halfway across Russel Square, at which point they slowed to a brisk walk. Exiting the green space onto another street, they took in the sights as they walked through the rows and rows of four-story brick buildings.

    “What do you think these are, George?” Fred asked, gesturing to the buildings. “Houses?”

    “Way too big for that, I’d think, brother,” his twin remarked, thinking back on the various wizarding houses he had seen. “The Burrow is maybe an eighth that size, and we’re a big family!”

    “I don’t know,” Fred said. “If you didn’t have expansion charms, you might build that big.”

    “Huh, maybe,” George looked at another building speculatively. “Do you think…”

    The two brothers were still chatting about the differences in housing between the nonmagical world and the magical one when they finally spied some familiar scenery in the form of the dingy-looking yellowish front of King’s Cross station with its twin glassed-in arches.

    “A fine job, navigator,” George said to Fred.

    “Thank you, brother mine,” his brother allowed. “Now, on to the platform.”

    The two brothers made their way into the station, coming to a certain innocuous-looking pillar between platforms nine and ten. Leaning against the side without the portal, Fred surreptitiously drew his wand, using George’s body to block it from view, and activated an invention of theirs from the last year, an enchanted piece of parchment which stored a notice-me-not, which he then proceeded to clip prominently to his brother’s hair.

    What little attention passers-by had been paying the twins fell away at the sight, and George posed for a moment, batting his eyelashes.

    “What do you think, brother? Does it make me look pretty?”

    “You forget, twin-of-mine, that I am scheduled to be the pretty one for the day,” Fred proclaimed, pompously.

    “Well, fudge,” George groused. “At least no one can see me, then.”

    “Too right,” his twin replied. “Let’s get to work.”

    With that, the two boys drew a pair of bright orange wax crayons — conjured while they were still back home and the magic would be attributed to their parents by the ministry sensors — from their pockets. Armed with the crayons, the two brothers proceeded to rub around the edges of the portal, highlighting the physical edge which was covered by the illusion and providing a protective layer for the brick to contain the results of their next step.

    Fred then withdrew a vial of an electric purple potion along with two red hairs. He uncorked the vial and added the hairs, causing the potion to bubble briefly and start to glow. When the bubbling stopped, the redhead splashed it onto the illusory wall. The boys held their breath as the purple liquid glowed faintly, spreading along the semi-corporeal wall seemingly of its own accord and seeping into the fabric of the spells as it went. The creeping purple glow stopped neatly at the conjured wax from the crayons.

    “Phew, I am glad that worked,” George said with an explosive sigh. “That was a tough one to work out!”

    “Too bloody right,” Fred agreed with a sigh, “those lunar calculations were a pain in the arse. Now we’ve just got to wait ‘til the glowing stops.”

    “Right,” George said settling down into silence for a moment. “Hey Fred?”

    “Yeah, George?”

    “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, brother?”

    “I think so, George.”

    “Right,” George nodded before beginning. “I spy with my little eye something — yellow!”

    The two brothers played their childish game for nearly six minutes before the portal finally stopped glowing.

    “Do you think it’s a problem that it took six minutes instead of five?” George asked.

    “It shouldn’t be,” Fred said doubtfully. “No help for it now, anyway.”

    Pushing a little magic to his fingertips — a trick their eldest brother had taught the pair on one of his visits home after he began his cursebreaking career — the redhead snapped the two conjured crayons in half, breaking the conjuration and causing both the crayons and the wax they had left on the wall to dissipate in a puff of dispersing magic. The two brothers walked back into the crowd before removing George’s headgear and hiding it in a pocket.

    As Fred and George exited the station back onto the sidewalk, they both grinned at the execution of a most excellent prank.

    “Fred,” George said to his brother, “the opening feast will be a night to remember!”

    3.4.7 Night visitor

    Two nights after the trip to Diagon Alley and just a few days before the beginning of his second year in Hogwarts, Harry rested quietly in his Lair. Both his damsels had been asleep for hours; Suze safely by his side, and Hermione tucked away in her room.

    As a dragon, Harry slept deeply, but he also remained aware of his surroundings to a certain extent in much the same fashion that many other large predators do. Thus, when a small, muddy-colored figure with disproportionately large, pointy ears and bulging round eyes appeared in the darkened Lair with a quiet pop of displaced air, muttering something about a ‘bad master’ and ‘needing to protect Harry Potter’, that small figure was immediately confronted by an open green eye that seemed to be bigger than it was, an eye that was bright, aware, and looking at him curiously.

    Unsurprisingly, this prompted the small figure to freeze immediately in shock.

    “Who are you?” the owner of that large eye asked curiously. “I didn’t think any of the castle elves would come this far out on their own.” When the small figure remained frozen in shock, he prompted, “Um, hello? Are you okay?”

    “Dobby is Dobby,” the small figure introduced himself as he finally recovered enough to speak in anything other than a near-inaudible squeak, “and Dobby is not a Hogwarts elf. No, Dobby is not.”

    “Oh! Sorry for the mistake,” the dragon apologized. “The castle elves usually don’t like visiting me, so I don’t know too many of them. So where are you from?” Harry paused a moment as he looked down at the now fully awakened centaur damsel seated nervously at his side motioning frantically at him while she groped around in the dark for something near her side. “Oh, and what are you doing here?”

    “Dobby cannot say where Dobby is from because Dobby’s bad master has commanded that Dobby not say. Dobby is sorry, Great Dragon, sir,” the house elf replied. “And Dobby is here to protect Harry Potter from the bad master’s plots, Great Dragon, sir.”

    “You’re here to protect me from something?” the dragon asked as his damsel finally managed to find what she was groping for and brought her rifle up into her grip, finger on the trigger and safety off. Since the intruder had not yet proven hostile, she had the business end of the gun pointed not-quite at Dobby, rather than squarely at his face.

    “No,” Dobby said, puzzled, as he quickly tried to clarify, “Dobby said Dobby is here to protect Harry Potter. Harry Potter is a great wizard who defeated He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named when Harry Potter was very small, and Great Dragon sir is a Great Dragon, Great Dragon, sir, not a great wizard.”

    “But I am Harry Potter,” Harry said. “That’s my name.”

    “But Harry Potter is a wizard. Was the Great Dragon Harry Potter sir named after the great wizard Harry Potter sir?” Dobby ventured.

    “No, I used to be a wizard,” Harry explained, “but then I had a bit of an accident at Avebury, and I sorta misplaced the whole ‘being a human’ thing. You know how that goes.”

    “Oh, yes,” Dobby nodded knowingly, “bad master forgets all the time and does things humans is not supposed to be doing to other humans, but Dobby does not remember bad master ever changing shape before when he did, just changing clothes. Great wizard Harry Potter sir must have been a truly great wizard to have done so to become Great Dragon Wizard Harry Potter sir.”

    “Thanks!” Harry said. “Um, what was that you said earlier about protecting me from something?”

    “Dobby said Dobby is here to protect Harry Potter sir from Dobby’s bad master’s plans. Bad master plans to set a great danger on the school. Harry Potter sir cannot return to Hogwarts!”

    “What kind of danger is it?” Harry asked, utterly unphased at the idea of another danger at school.

    “Dobby cannot say, Great Dragon Wizard Harry Potter sir,” the house elf answered. “Dobby is sorry.”

    Harry was starting to warm to the discussion at this point as he shook off the last vestiges of sleep. “Do you know what the danger is, but you’re bound not to say, or are you unable to say because you don’t know in the first place?”

    “Dobby is bound to protect the bad master’s secrets, Great Dragon Wizard Harry Potter sir,” Dobby answered.

    “So, you’re bound by compulsion and dominance magics? Mr. Snape told me about those,” the youthful dragon mused. “I take it you’re working within the bounds your master placed, so you’ve got a lot of restrictions, right?”

    “Yes, Great Dragon Wizard Harry Potter sir, Dobby is bound by many magics and commands,” the elf confirmed.

    “Are there any particularly relevant to your visit today?” Harry asked. “That might give me a better idea of how to phrase questions to get around them.”

    “Dobby must protect the bad master’s secrets; bad master’s plans are secret; Dobby must not talk to bad master’s enemies; Dobby must iron his hands each time Dobby does not serve bad master’s best interests; and Dobby must shut his ears in the oven door every time Dobby insults bad master.”

    “So trying to figure out specifically what the danger is would make you interfere, then?” At Dobby’s nod, Harry continued. “How are you getting around the command about talking to your master’s enemies?”

    “Bad master named wizard Harry Potter as enemy,” Dobby explained slyly. “Dobby has learned wizard Harry Potter does not exist. Great Dragon Wizard Harry Potter was not named enemy.”

    At this the dragon smiled, that reminded him of something Mr. Slackhammer had told him about contracts and negotiating during their conversation at the barbecue. People would always find the loopholes in a deal if you didn’t find them first.

    “I see, and by setting punishments for not serving his best interests and insulting him, your master effectively gave you free reign to work against his interests and insult him at the cost of those punishments. That’s very clever!” As the house elf beamed at the praise, the dragon thought for a moment more. “Um, before I start asking about the danger at Hogwarts ‘cause I know you might need to leave if I ask the wrong question, why do you keep insulting your master all the time if you have to punish yourself for it? I can see why you’d work against his interests and take the punishment, but why the insults when he can’t even hear them?”

    “Dobby insults bad master to force Dobby to remember, and Dobby uses punishments to keep Dobby’s focus,” the elf explained. “Bad master is bad, and by saying bad master is bad, Dobby remembers even though Dobby enjoys work. Punishments remind Dobby of why bad master is bad. They keep Dobby from thinking bad master is not-so-bad.”

    The small creature’s bulging eyes glittered darkly, “Bad master is bad; slavery is bad. Without pain, Dobby might forget. Dobby’s father’s father’s father remembered before the magics were placed, when house elves were free. Dobby remembers stories. House elves love work, but house elves are not slaves!”

    “Pain helps Dobby focus; helps Dobby remember that bad master is enemy.”

    Despite the simplistic diction, the combination of manic dedication and sheer malice the small creature managed to pack into that one word was chilling. Suze recoiled from it; that sort of enmity and commitment were a terrifying combination, even when directed elsewhere. Her dragon, being made of somewhat sterner stuff — largely iron — remained focused on the puzzle of how to get more information from his impromptu visitor without triggering the compulsions to defend his master’s secrets.

    “I guess that makes sense,” the dragon allowed. “Um, about this danger, is it actually a threat to me? You know, now that you know I’m a dragon and not a wizard?”

    Dobby eyed his host appraisingly, “Maybe? Dobby is not sure. Danger is great, but Great Dragon Wizard Harry Potter sir is also great.”

    “Would it help to know I’m made of iron?” Harry offered.

    Dobby’s already bulging eyes bulged even more. “Great Dragon Wizard Harry Potter is made of iron? Dobby does not think danger is a threat to Great Dragon Wizard Harry Potter sir. Dobby is not sure what can be threat to great dragon made of iron!”

    “Right! Then I’ll have to keep an eye on the castle to make sure my friends are safe from whatever it is,” Harry concluded. “Is there anything else you can tell me, Dobby?”

    “Dobby does not think so,” the house elf’s face screwed up in an exaggeratedly intense frown of concentration. “There is much Dobby would like to say, but Dobby is bound not to say it.”

    “Well, thanks for letting me know what you could,” Harry said kindly. “Would you like some tea or something before you go?”

    “Great Dragon Wizard Harry Potter sir thanks Dobby and offers Dobby tea?” Dobby exclaimed incredulously before his voice dropped to a breathless whisper, “Like he would offer a proper guest?”

    “Of course,” Harry said, puzzled, “why wouldn’t I? You’ve been friendly, and you’ve been mostly polite aside from the sneaking in in the middle of the night thing — and I can understand why you did that, given the ‘talking to enemies’ rule, since you thought I was still covered by it. There’s no reason for me to be rude, and I’m not going to be rude without a reason!”

    “Oh, Dobby is honored! So very honored that Great Dragon Wizard Harry Potter would treat him with such respect! As an equal!” Dobby seemed to be shivering in excitement, but then he stilled, “But Dobby cannot stay longer. Dobby must return to do some housework poorly so that bad master will not get suspicious of Dobby’s ironed hands. Bad master is arrogant and gullible, but bad master is also observant.”

    “I see,” the dragon replied, “thanks again for the warning, and try to stay safe.”

    With that, the diminutive intruder disappeared from the Lair with a soft pop, leaving the cave in silent darkness once more. After a few moments passed, Suze felt comfortable enough to reset the safety on her rifle with a soft click and ask, “Harry, what manner of creature was that? It looked like a house elf, but the feeling it gave off… I have rarely felt such a thing.”

    “He was a house elf,” Harry reassured her as she put her gun back where it had been. “I think he’s just one that remembers what house elves were before they were enslaved. I did some reading on them after I met Frizzy — she’s the castle elf that delivers our food and stuff out here — and Mr. Snape filled in a bit more. House elves were originally minor fae,” at that word, Suze gasped, “that were called brownies around Scotland. They were called other things in other places. Anyway, back before they were enslaved, brownies liked to help people around the house in exchange for a bit of food and being a valued part of the household, but if they were mistreated they could be really dangerous.”

    “Of course, they could be dangerous! They are fae!” Suze hissed. “Why on earth were wizards foolish enough to invite fae into their homes?”

    “Um, I kinda gather they didn’t really have a choice,” Harry said. “The brownies just kinda moved in without asking. Anyway, ‘cause they’re fae, and they can be kinda spotty about what they consider mistreatment…”

    Suze snorted, “That is an understatement.”

    “…wizards got the idea that they really oughtta put some guidelines on the interactions between wizards and brownies, so they put a contract in place which laid out what was okay and what wasn’t. That’s what turned them into house elves. I gather that worked pretty well for a long time, but later some wizards decided it wasn’t enough and they started putting on more and more compulsions and control magics and stuff, and well… Mr. Snape told me that kind of thing works kinda weird with fae. Frizzy tells me that most elves are pretty happy with their lives, because most people don’t go out of their way to mistreat them and they like their work. The ones that are actually treated like family are the happiest, but some wizards do mistreat them, and when they do, well… I guess they eventually get Dobby.”

    “Indeed,” his damsel agreed. “What insanity possessed wizards to not only bind a fae, but then whip it into a frothing rage? What happens when the leash slips?”

    “I kinda get the impression that it might be a habit,” Harry said, sounding puzzled himself. “A lot of the wizarding world seems to be built on being jerks to everyone just because they can, from what Mr. Snape tells me. It’s a big part of what we’re trying to fix.”

    The centaur maiden shuddered with a chill at the idea of a fae with a grudge, despite snuggling into her dragon’s warm side. “Harry, you know, that is the second time in the last two seasons that we have had an uninvited guest in the Lair. This one proved friendly, but the one before…”

    “Huh, you’re right,” Harry frowned. “I probably oughtta look into wards or something, then.”
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2020
  18. darthdavid

    darthdavid That Guy

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    Was wondering when he'd decide to put some wards up...
     
  19. Threadmarks: Section 3.5 - Train rides
    Dunkelzahn

    Dunkelzahn No one of consequence

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    3.5 Train rides


    3.5.1 Mending fences

    The remainder of August passed quickly, and with its passing came the day for students to board to Hogwarts Express once more. The bright noon-time sunlight cheerily shone down on the street just south of King’s Cross Station where a light blue Ford Anglia with a white roof had just pulled into an un-metered parking space and disgorged a family of seven redheads dragging five large trunks among them.

    Oddly, not a single pedestrian on the busy street looked twice at the sight of five trunks — which when taken together would have occupied slightly more volume than the entire passenger compartment of the thirty-odd-year-old two-tone saloon — being casually removed one after another from the decidedly too-small boot of the vehicle. That inattention was a mute testament to the effectiveness of the enchantments on the family car. Now properly equipped, the odd procession trooped off in the direction of King’s Cross Station a couple blocks to the north.

    “Do you think I’ll be able to meet Harry Potter on the train?” the baby of the Weasley family — a girl recently turned eleven — asked plaintively as they walked. “I really want to meet him!”

    “He will most likely be on the train, Ginevra,” her older brother, Percy answered her automatically before frowning thoughtfully. “Though he does live close to the castle, so he might not be, come to think of it.”

    “Really?” his sister gasped. “But I wanted to meet him!”

    “You’ll be able to meet him when you get to the castle,” Ron assured her, as gently as Ron was ever able to manage. “Blimey, it’s just another couple hours; be patient, Ginny!”

    Which was to say, ‘not very’.

    “That’s easy for you to say!” Ginny snapped as they passed through the doors into the station. “You’ve been around him for a whole year already!” The girl pouted, “You must have had lots of adventures and stuff with him by now, and you won’t even tell me stories.”

    At this her brother winced slightly, “Ah, umm… not quite…”

    The youngest Weasley brother was saved from what promised to be an uncomfortable retelling of how much he had stuffed up his interactions with his little sister’s hero by his older brother, Percy.

    “Hey, there he is now!” Percy said, motioning to a small boy some distance away wearing Hogwarts robes in Hufflepuff colors standing next to a brown-haired girl who looked to be about Ron’s age. “And he’s got Miss Granger with him, too.”

    As his sister squeaked, Percy turned to his parents, “Mother, Father, might we go speak with them for a moment? I’m afraid I have some air to clear with Mr. Potter’s companion from last year.” At his mother’s gimlet stare, the sixth-year student hastened to explain, “It was an honest misunderstanding, Mother! I handled something without properly thinking through how she would interpret it, and it would also give Ginevra a chance to meet Mr. Potter.”

    As Molly nodded to her son’s request and the family made their way across the crowded platform towards the two second-years, Fred spoke up for the first time, “George and I’ll go on ahead.” Without waiting for permission, both twins set off and disappeared into the crowd.

    “Boys!” Their mother called after them to no avail. “Straight to the train! No side trips!” she tried anyway. “Those boys! What ever will we do with them?” she muttered to her husband.

    “We’ll just have to keep loving them, keep trying, and hope for the best,” Arthur reassured her. “They’ll come around eventually.”

    “And my hair will have gone white by the time they do,” Molly complained wryly before turning her attention to the pair of children they were here to meet standing close together on the grungy but brightly lit platform.

    “Mr. Potter, Miss Granger,” Percy greeted the two, “it is a pleasure to see you both again. Particularly to see you back in good health, Mr. Potter.” At Harry’s slightly suspicious nod, Percy turned his attention fully to the girl at Harry’s side. “Miss Granger, I am afraid I did not have a chance to properly apologize last term for my poor handling of the situation between you and my youngest brother, and I wished to do so now.”

    “It’s alright,” the bushy-haired girl said slowly, “Abigail explained what you were doing afterwards, and when Ron apologized, I figured it out.”

    The older boy nodded, “I have Miss Abercrombie to thank for explaining your interpretation to me as well. Nonetheless, I must apologize. As a prefect, I should have realized how my approach could have been interpreted, and I did not, therefore I offer my sincerest apologies for any distress I inadvertently caused you.”

    “Apology accepted,” Hermione said, at which point Harry’s suspicious expression died away to be replaced with his usual affable one.

    With that, the tone of the encounter shifted as Percy breathed a sigh of relief. “In that case, might I introduce you to the rest of my family? You already know Ronald,” he gestured to his youngest brother who raised a sheepish hand, “and this is Ginevra, our little sister,” again he gestured to the appropriate sibling. The girl squeaked at the introduction and quickly hid behind her mother’s skirts, peering out shyly with a rosy blush on her face as she looked for the first time at her hero.

    “Hi!” came the friendly greeting from Harry, followed quickly by a “Pleased to meet you!” from his female companion.

    “And, of course, these are our parents,” the officious sixth-year continued.

    “Good morning, dears!” Molly greeted as her husband’s greeting echoed her own. The young Potter looked terribly small to Molly’s experienced eye. She’d have to have a word with Minerva next time she had the chance — it wouldn’t do for one of the poor dears to go hungry. Harry and Hermione echoed their earlier greetings as Molly considered how to handle the situation.

    For now, it was probably best to get them all to the train and the snack cart there. The motherly woman nodded firmly. “Well, it was a pleasure to meet you both, but the train won’t wait for us, we’re not the ones setting the schedule. We’d best get you all loaded up. Move along, children!”

    As the gaggle of schoolchildren moved along towards the third column between platforms nine and ten, Molly could have sworn she saw the young Potter smile as if he had heard an inside joke. After growing up with her prankster brothers, Gideon and Fabian, and then raising her prankster twins, Molly was sensitive to such things.

    Of course, the question remained — what had she said that the small boy found so amusing?

    3.5.2 Grand theft auto

    When the twins had pulled away from their parents and siblings on the platform area and lost themselves in the crowd, they most assuredly had not gone straight to the train with no side trips. Instead, they made a beeline for a news stand they had noted on their clandestine trip to the station nearly a week earlier. There had been some noteworthy publications to catch the adolescent eye — a certain stack of magazines had been slightly off kilter, and tantalizing portions of a cover that normally would have been blocked by a black plastic divider were visible to all and sundry.

    At the time, Fred and George had been equipped with neither appropriate currency nor an appropriately aged identification card to secure their prize, but they had made sure to remedy that lack in the intervening week. Fred now carried approximately twenty quid and a blank piece of cardboard charmed similarly to the notice-me-not paper they had used so effectively on their previous trip. Where the previous paper had compelled onlookers to find something else to pay attention to, however, this one projected a feeling of ‘all’s well here, nothing out of order at all’ which the pair hoped would get them through any problems.

    As it happened, their hopes were fulfilled by a lackadaisical clerk rather than their charms work. The preoccupied salesman didn’t even look at their faces when he rang them up, much less ask for identification. The man was much more interested in his own copy of the same magazine he kept under the counter.

    Illicit booty stowed in their school trunks — furtively buried under piles of clothes — the twins walked towards the portal to the hidden platform, ducking aside just in time to avoid the gaze of their parents as the couple walked towards the station exit.

    “That was a close one, brother,” George said to his twin in relief as their parents cleared the front doors.

    “Indubitably, dear brother,” Fred agreed. “Mum probably would have smelled those magazines on us, hidden or not.”

    With that, the pair made their way over to the portal, wheeling their trunks behind them, only for Fred to smack face first into an indisputably solid wall, falling back into his brother with a clatter. That finally managed to draw attention, with a good fraction of passersby looking over at the fallen boys, curious to see what all the commotion was.

    That was a problem.

    Pranks were one thing but drawing attention to the portal and potentially endangering the secrecy of the wizarding world in the process was an entirely different kettle of fish. Thinking fast, George said in a stage-whisper pitched to be heard by everyone nearby, “Fred, watch where you’re going! I know she was gorgeous, but that is no excuse to walk into a wall!”

    Suspicions averted, the onlookers chuckled and turned away — or in the case of several youngish women smiled smugly as they very deliberately straightened their posture and adjusted their clothing — otherwise leaving the flustered boys to their own devices.

    “What happened, Fred,” George said to his brother — in a real whisper this time. “We didn’t count off to the wrong wall, did we?”

    “No, it’s definitely the right wall,” his brother began. Fred was leaning against the wall in question and covertly pushing at where the portal should have been. “Solid as a rock.”

    From his slightly removed perspective, George noticed something his brother had missed. The outline of his brother’s hand against the brick was limned in a familiar electric purple light which brightened the harder it was pressed. “Oh, hell.”

    “What is it, George?”

    “I think it’s from the prank,” George theorized.

    Fred looked closer and saw the purple light. “Oh.”

    With that realization, the two boys walked away from the portal out of well-ingrained reflex to avoid getting caught at the scene of a prank gone wrong.

    “What do we do now?” Fred asked sotto-voiced. “We can’t get to the bloody Express!”

    “Maybe we can just wait, and someone will fix it?” George ventured uncertainly. “I mean, if it’s blocking everyone, then…”

    “Mum and Dad already left! Alone!” Fred hissed. “They’d never have done that if Percy and the rest hadn’t gotten through to the platform.”

    His point was emphasized as another student passed through the portal with no trouble.

    “So it’s just us,” George said unnecessarily. “You think it’s because the potion was keyed to us?”

    “Has to be,” Fred said. “What do we do? If we tell anybody, the prank will be over before it even starts!”

    “We could floo to Hogsmeade,” George proposed. “I mean, go to the Leaky and floo from there.”

    Fred frowned thoughtfully, “That’s a long way to go with the trunks when we can’t use magic to shrink them…”

    “Well, we can’t do anything about it here!” came the exasperated reminder.

    “Right.”

    The two brothers set out in the same direction their parents had left in a few minutes earlier, wheeling their trunks behind them as they went. As they stumped their way along the same southerly route they had taken a week before — it had been a decidedly more pleasant walk without the heavy school trunks weighing them down — they came upon a curious sight.

    The family car was still parked.

    “Where do you think Mum and Dad went?” George asked. “They left a long time before we did.”

    “I dunno,” Fred said absently, his mind on other possibilities. Then his eyes lit with mischief, “Brother — are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Fred looked from the car to his brother with a slowly growing smile.

    George looked puzzled for a moment before his own smile began to grow. “I think I am, Fred — I think I am.”

    3.5.3 Parental trials

    Arthur had taken advantage of the opportunity to treat his wife to a lovely lunch at a café close to the station. With their youngest off to her first year at Hogwarts, the nest was empty for the first time in more than two decades. It was the first opportunity he had had to spend time alone with his wife without worrying about the children since the birth of their eldest son. Arthur was sure they would both start to miss the little ones soon, but for now — well he and Molly had plans for the next few days — very private plans.

    “How long has it been, love?” he asked his wife taking a sip from his wine glass.

    “Since what, Arthur?”

    “Since we last had a night out without worrying about who was looking after the children,” he clarified.

    Molly sighed, “The last time had to have been back before Bill was born — I think it would have been that Warbeck concert we attended the day before I went into labor — has it really been twenty years already?”

    “Twenty-two, actually, my love,” Arthur clarified.

    “Oh, my! That long?” At her husband’s nod, she said, “Well, I suppose time flies and all that. I surely don’t regret it one bit!”

    “Neither do I, Molly,” Arthur assured his wife, “but I am certainly going to make the most of having my lovely wife all to myself again!”

    Molly giggled, “Oh, really, Arthur?” Her voice turned coy, “And what are you planning, hmm?” She looked up only to find her husband looking distractedly down the street. “Arthur? What’s wrong?”

    Her husband collapsed back into the café chair, “I could have sworn I just saw Fred and George driving the car down the street and turning in to the alley down the way,” he paused for a moment, noting the cloud of pigeons taking flight from the rooftops near the alley in question, almost as if they had been startled by the passage of something large.

    Arthur sighed. “I did.”

    “The boys stole the car?” Molly said with a dry chuckle and a rueful shake of her head. “So much for not having to worry about who is looking after the children.”

    Both Weasley parents caught each other’s eye for a long moment before taking a final swig of wine; nothing more needed to be said. As Arthur arranged to pay for the meal, Molly was already planning their course. They’d head home as soon as he finished; the family clock — a neat bit of sympathetic magic which sported a hand attuned to the wellbeing of each of their family members — would be their best bet for looking after their prodigal sons from a distance without attempting to track an invisible flying car across the kingdom.

    It would also place them close to the Burrow fireplace where they would be available by floo when the twin’s troublemaking finally came home to roost.

    So much for a romantic night on the town.

    3.5.4 A poor reception

    Percy and the two youngest Weasleys had broken off to find their own compartment shortly after passing through the portal to the magical platform, and after the circus that was the previous year’s train ride, Suze had declined to ride the Express this year — opting instead to wait back at the Lair and relying on Hermione to keep their dragon out of trouble in her place. As a result, Harry and his human damsel managed to board the train without incident. Neither he nor Hermione had brought trunks this year, though Harry was carrying his current research notebook — at present full of scribbled runic schema and circuit diagrams — and Hermione was carrying no fewer than five shrunken books in her various pockets.

    Some things never changed.

    After a quick detour to the front of the train to say hello to Abigail, the pair settled into the fourth passenger coach without incident, choosing an otherwise empty compartment in hopes that their older friend might have time to join them later; though given her duties, that was unfortunately unlikely. The seventh-year had not been chosen as Head Girl, but Abigail had been chosen as the seventh-year girls’ prefect for her House.

    After a few minutes spent in relative quiet, interrupted only by the regular clack of the bogeys on the rail joints and the shuffling of paper as Harry wrote and Hermione read, there came a knock on the door of their compartment.

    A puzzled glance passed between the young dragon and his damsel before Hermione answered, “Come in.”

    The door slid open to reveal a blonde girl wearing the unmarked robes of an incoming student. She was of a slight build, and her slightly protuberant silvery eyes gave her a perpetually-surprised look. After opening the door, the newcomer spent several long, silent moments staring unblinkingly at Harry with those bulging silvery eyes while Harry intently stared back at her in return.

    The scene was quite strange from Hermione’s point of view.

    “Who are you?” Hermione eventually felt uncomfortable enough to ask.

    The girl turned from her impromptu staring contest to answer, “I am Luna Lovegood, and he is Harry Potter. Unfortunately, I am afraid I do not know your name.”

    “Hermione Granger,” Hermione responded reflexively. “It’s a pleasure.”

    “Likewise,” the strange girl responded before turning back to Harry, whose expression had hardened with suspicion at the name ‘Lovegood’. “Daddy suggested I be very polite when I met you, Harry Potter, and he said that I should make a request.”

    “What request?” Harry asked gruffly.

    “He said I should politely ask you not to devour me,” the odd blonde girl stated calmly as Hermione choked on air in the background. “So, please don’t devour me, Harry Potter.”

    “Well, I don’t eat anything that asks me politely not to eat them, so I won’t eat you,” Harry replied automatically before his mind caught up with him and his eyes narrowed. “Are you related to Xenophilius Lovegood?”

    “Yes, that’s Daddy’s name,” Luna confirmed. “He’s the chief editor for the Quibbler!” she said proudly.

    “The Quibbler?” Hermione’s eyes lit up. “Isn’t that a magical newspaper? Do you think you could tell me more about magical publishing?”

    The blonde girl nodded enthusiastically at meeting a kindred spirit and began, “I’d love…” before catching sight of the forbidding expression on Harry’s face. She paled a little and continued in a much quieter voice, “Um, on second thought, maybe I should go. It was nice meeting you both.” With one last doleful look towards a confused Hermione, the small blonde girl slid the door shut and left, dragging her trunk along with her.

    For her part, Hermione looked at the now-closed door with a puzzled frown. What had scared the girl off? Then she turned and caught sight of Harry’s still-dark expression.

    That would explain it.

    “Harry James Potter!” the bushy-haired girl exclaimed. “What was that all about?”

    “What do you mean?” the young dragon asked, puzzled.

    “Why did you scare that poor girl off like that, you great lummox?” the girl demanded. “She was a little odd, but she seemed nice enough; there was certainly no reason to be so hostile to the poor thing!”

    “I don’t trust her,” Harry said emphatically with a scowl.

    “Why ever not?”

    “’Cause her Dad’s a lying jerk!” Harry groused. At his damsel’s questioning look, he elaborated, “Back a couple years ago, me and Suze were hanging around on top of the cliff across from the Lair, and we saw someone up on one of the other cliffs, so I went to talk to him and it was Luna’s dad. He said he was a zoologist, and we talked, and he promised not to tell anyone my name, but it turned out he was actually a journalist and he wrote my name out into the article even though he promised not to! So, he’s a lying jerk!” the young dragon finished with an emphatic nod.

    Hermione sat for a moment as she puzzled her way through her friend’s rant. “So, Mr. Lovegood lied to you about being a zoologist rather than a journalist, and then he published your name after he promised not to?” Harry nodded. “Well, I can see why you wouldn’t trust Mr. Lovegood, but how does distrusting Luna follow from that?”

    “Well… she’s his daughter!” her friend said matter-of-factly.

    “Harry! You can’t blame her for her father’s actions, that’s wrong!” Hermione protested, scandalized. “You don’t blame people for things other people did just because they’re related to them!”

    “But I wasn’t blaming her for her Dad’s actions,” Harry countered reasonably, unmoved. “I was thinking she’d do the same sort of stuff. Wouldn’t her Dad have taught her stuff, so she’d behave the same way?”

    “It’s a possibility, I suppose,” Hermione allowed, “but you can’t just assume that! You need to judge people on their own actions, not the actions of people around them. How would you like it if your Dad did something bad and then people blamed you for it?”

    “But I never even knew my Dad! He died before I can even remember,” the boy-shaped dragon protested. “How would that make sense?”

    “And I’d bet that Luna never knew about her father breaking his promise to you!” the bushy-haired girl countered. “So how does your behavior make sense?”

    Harry’s face fell as he gave that a bit of thought. “Oh.”

    His damsel’s argument made a fair bit of sense, and she was pretty smart too, so that meant he’d probably been wrong at least a little bit, which in turn meant he’d have to address his handling of the situation differently — after all, he didn’t want to come off as a willfully-ignorant blundering pillock as Mr. Snape had put it many months previous.

    He fell silent for a moment before coming to a conclusion, “I stuffed that up, didn’t I? I’d better go apologize to her. Thanks, Hermione.”

    With that the Harry abruptly stood up and walked out into the hallway, sniffing the air as he closed the door behind him. Hermione looked after him for a moment before she sighed and turned back to her book.

    Harry was a pain to manage sometimes.

    3.5.5 A Railman’s musings

    Locomotive number 5972 Olton Hall, a GWR 4900-Class 4-6-0, was barely idling as she pounded down the hill from Glenfinnan towards Loch Eilt, less than half an hour from the hidden Hogsmeade junction.

    Although painted a most unprototypical maroon, she was unmistakable for any fan of the GWR; there was a certain cast to any locomotive of the Great Western Railway, a cast matched by none, and if you know what to look for you can tell a Great Western Railway locomotive at a glance, no matter how horribly improper a paint job has been applied to her.

    That is not to say the 5972 looked bad in maroon, she was a handsome locomotive and she’d have looked good in any color, but a Great Western locomotive should, by all rights, be Brunswick green — and if you thought the detractors had complained about a Black Five being painted red, they had nothing on the horrified howls from those fans of the Great Western Railway who had seen the 5972’s Hogs Haulage livery.

    After all, to those few she wasn’t just a big old lump of metal; she was a carefully-preserved half-century-and-change-year-old piece of history — and to the people who knew to appreciate her for what she was, one might as well respray the Mona Lisa.

    Slinging a load of mixed traffic on the back of her was exactly what she was meant for. From the day back in 1937 she’d first rolled out of the Swindon Works, she’d hauled a mix of freight and passengers, and today was no exception. Behind her tender, 5972 was pulling a string of seven passenger coaches filled with eager young students trailed by a further four freight wagons: the first the usual refrigerated van for the school, the second a tank wagon full of fuel oil, the third a cargo van full of heavy parcel freight, and the fourth a flatbed carrying a single massive crate covered with a tarp. The last three were done up in the now-familiar Gringotts green and gold livery and were marked for Harry Potter on the manifest.

    Up in her cab, Jim Coates was once again at the regulator keeping a sharp eye on the track ahead and an ear on 5972, ensuring she was treated the way she deserved — as he always was for the school runs. The company wouldn’t put anyone but their best in charge of carrying the students, and Jim had been the senior locomotive engineer at Hog’s Haulage since old Olaf had retired back in seventy-one. His fireman, Mac, who didn’t have much to do for the next few minutes as they coasted down the long slope, was absently keeping Smaugey calm with a bit of attention paid to his scaly head.

    It was a state of affairs which gave them both time for a little idle speculation.

    “’ey, Jim,” Mac began, “wotcher think o’ wot’s been goin’ on at the office?”

    “Been busy,” Jim acknowledged, all the while keeping a sharp eye on his work. “Yer think somthin’s comin’?”

    “Yeah,” Mac said, “summit big. Tha wife’s been tellin’ me it’s goin’ through tha whole bloomin’ company. Big changes ahead, she says — all o’ tha wives agree. Nah wahn’s sure wot, though. I figger ‘s got summit ter do wif them goblins, though — ‘s bin green and gold aw over the past few months.”

    Jim grunted noncommittally, not sure what exactly to make of it all, despite his senior position. “Not sure m’self, but I figger it ain’t goin’ ta be sorry. Feels ter me like we’re getting’ ready for summit more — nuffin’ ter worry ya, Mac.” The cab fell silent for a few moments before Jim spoke up again, “The slope’s goin’ ter bottom out soon, get back on yer shovelin’ — we’ll need a good ‘ead o’ steam ready fer the next ‘ill.”

    Mac nodded as he straightened up and grabbed his shovel, “Back ter work ya get, Smaugey!” The drake-dog let out an enthusiastic gronk as he practically vibrated with excitement at the prospect.

    That was right, Mac thought as he opened the firebox and gave it a practiced look before he shoveled in more coal, so long as there was freight to move, it didn’t really matter what the higher-ups did. There’s always be work for the likes of him whether they were hauling for Hogs Haulage or whatever grew to take its place. He paused long enough for Smaugey to let loose with a blue-white blast to get things properly equalized.

    And if ol’ Jimmy’s idea was right, and they really were looking at expanding for the first time in decades…

    Well, his dear old Mum, bless her soul, had always told him, “A good thing ain’t complete ‘til it’s shared,” and it’d been far too long since they’d been able to introduce anyone new to the trade. It’d be grand to see some new faces as they learned about the joy of tending a beauty like 5972 as she pounded down the iron road, doing God’s own work keeping good people fed, supplied, and taking them where they needed to go.

    And maybe, just maybe, in a few years when his youngest said he wanted to grow up to be just like his Daddy, Mac wouldn’t have to find a way to let him down gently like he’d had to with the lad’s older brothers because there just wouldn’t be a job for him if he tried. Maybe he’d be able to tell the boy, “Son, ya just pay attention ter yer old man, an’ ‘e’ll teach ya everythin’ ya need ter know.” The fireman’s eye’s misted over in a way that had nothing at all to do with the heat of the blazing firebox he was tending.

    That’d be a glorious day.

    3.5.6 Apology

    Harry sniffed the air periodically as he walked down the corridor, shifting his weight slightly to maintain his balance as the car went over a change in grade on the track and following the blonde girl’s scent. It had only been minutes since she had passed through the mostly empty hallway, so the dragon could follow the trail with little effort.

    The uneventful walk had given him some time to think.

    Looking back on his handling of the girl, Hermione’s argument had made a lot of sense. He had been wrong to just lump Luna in with her father. The blonde girl had done nothing but introduce herself and politely ask him not to eat her, neither of which was in any way objectively offensive. She, personally, had given him no evidence that she was just as untrustworthy as her father, and consequently, there was no justification for being hostile right from the get-go. He had been wrong, and that warranted an apology.

    So, now that he had established that an apology was warranted, the question became — what exactly was he apologizing for?

    He’d been mean to a young girl for no valid reason, so he ought to apologize for that, sure — but he had also assumed she was as untrustworthy as her father without evidence. Was that something to apologize for as well? The currently human-shaped dragon frowned as he passed through into another carriage.

    That… didn’t seem quite so clear-cut.

    Yeah assuming someone was guilty without evidence was bad, but was that really what he did? As Harry thought about it more, a realization dawned on him — in the same way that there was no reason for him to assume Luna would prove untrustworthy, there was also no reason for him to assume she would prove trustworthy either. Distrusting the girl was a perfectly reasonable thing to do — he didn’t know her yet, and, for that matter, he had some decent circumstantial evidence that she might not be worthy of his trust!

    Kids usually learned how to act from their parents, after all.

    As the young dragon passed to the next car, the scent trail was growing steadily stronger, so he figured he must be catching up. Closing the door behind him, he thought further. Really, the caution was warranted. What wasn’t warranted was the hostility. He’d treated her as if she was her father, rather than treating her as if she was her father’s daughter.

    So that’s what he’d apologize for. Harry nodded with resolution.

    As he walked down the corridor, Harry heard Luna’s voice in the third compartment. She seemed to be in the middle of a rather animated conversation with another girl. Harry wasn’t sure who the other occupant was — it was a voice he didn’t recognize — but the tone seemed friendly with perhaps a bit of commiseration. Harry winced at that, his recent ponderings having left him more attentive than usual to the effect his actions could have on other people.

    Was his treatment of the small girl the reason she had sought such sympathy from a friend?

    After a bare moment’s hesitation as he considered the question, Harry knocked anyway. There was really no help for it, he supposed, the apology needed to be made regardless.

    “Come in,” called the voice he didn’t recognize, before that same voice dissolved into a much more familiar squeak as he complied.

    “Oh, hi… Ginny, I think it was?” Harry amiably greeted the squeaky redhead he had met for the first time back on the platform. “Um, sorry to interrupt, but I needed to talk with Luna for a minute. I was rude earlier, and I wanted to apologize for it.”

    “…” Ginny squeaked unintelligibly with a vaguely positive nod in his direction as she folded in on herself in embarrassed self-consciousness at Harry’s presence. Harry wasn’t sure if it was intended to be permission, but he took it as such anyway.

    “Um, so Luna,” he turned to the blond girl who was looking at him intently — or perhaps staring at something behind his head, it was difficult to say. The girl’s protuberant eyes and odd manner made such determinations difficult. “Hermione pointed out that I’d been mean without having a good reason for it, and when I thought about it, she was right. That sort of thing is pretty rude, and I try not to be rude, so I’m sorry for that.” The human-shaped dragon finished his apology with an emphatic nod.

    “Thank you,” the odd blonde accepted graciously before going on, “If it is not too much to ask, why were you angry?”

    Harry thought that a reasonable request, so he explained, “You know I met your dad before, right?”

    The blonde girl nodded, so Harry continued, “Well, we talked for a bit, and he asked some questions and I agreed to answer them as long as he didn’t say where I was or what my name was, right?”

    “So you gave an interview on the condition of anonymity?” Luna asked intently.

    “Yeah,” the dragon-in-human-form nodded affirmatively. “Anyway, after he did that, he wrote up the article, and Mr. Snape and Mr. Dumbledore found it, and he’d said what my name was even after I asked him not to!” at this, Harry scowled. “So, I was pretty angry at him for lying, and that kinda spilled over onto you when I found out who you were. I still don’t know if I should trust you or not, ‘cause, you know, your dad would have taught you how to behave and stuff, and if he’s willing to do that… well, anyway, I shouldn’t have been so rude to you just because I don’t like your dad, so sorry for being rude.”

    “Well, if that’s true, I can understand why you were angry,” Luna allowed before continuing decisively, “but that doesn’t sound like Daddy! Daddy always told me how important it was to protect your sources as a reporter, and I don’t think he’d do that.”

    “Well, he did,” Harry insisted.

    The blonde shook her head emphatically, “No he didn’t! Not my Daddy.”

    “But I’m telling you, he did,” Harry insisted, growing somewhat irritated at having his honesty impugned.

    “Maybe you misunderstood?” Luna offered. “What did Daddy actually say?”

    Harry calmed as he thought back to the conversation. “Well, he asked me to answer some questions, and I said I would so long as he promised not to tell anyone where I was or what my name was’, and he said he’d keep where I was secret and that he didn’t know my name so he couldn’t tell anyone anyway, and then I said my name was Harry Potter, and then we talked for a long time,” Harry explained.

    “And that’s all?” Harry nodded, and the blonde girl thought about that for a few moments before she giggled, “Well, Daddy never said he wouldn’t print your name then!”

    “What do you mean by that?” Harry demanded, his tone edging its way back towards cross.

    “From what you said, Daddy promised not to tell anyone where you were, and then he said he couldn’t tell anyone your name because he didn’t know it, then you told him your name. He never said he wouldn’t tell anyone your name!” the girl finished triumphantly, faith in her father reaffirmed.

    Harry parsed that argument for a moment before his face fell as he was forced to come to the same conclusion.

    He’d been had!

    “But he knew what I meant!” Harry protested weakly. Mr. Slackhammer’s lessons about contracts and loopholes that had been so amusing during his encounter with Dobby now echoed accusingly through his head. “That wasn’t very honest.”

    “But Daddy didn’t break a promise,” Luna doggedly insisted. “You just assumed he made a promise when he didn’t.”

    “Yeah, yeah,” Harry groused, grudgingly acknowledging the point. “Still doesn’t mean it wasn’t rude and sneaky.”

    “Daddy is the best investigative reporter in wizarding Britain!” Luna said smugly, clearly enormously proud of her father. “Rude and sneaky comes with the territory.”

    “Well, it doesn’t make me like him very much,” Harry concluded sourly, biting back some choice remarks about not liking her very much either as he turned back to the door to go on his way. “Anyway, that’s all I had to say — ‘bye, Ginny, Luna.”

    There was a squeak and a “Goodbye” respectively from the two occupants of the compartment as he slid the door shut.

    Leaving the compartment behind as he retraced his steps on the way to rejoin his damsel, Harry was not pleased with the results of his trip. He’d apologized for being rude — and he didn’t regret that — but he also didn’t think he’d ever get along well with the girl or her rude, sneaky father.

    In the aftermath of his earlier run-in with Odd Lovegood, Mr. Snape had made an offhand comment during one of their planning sessions which had stuck in Harry’s mind.

    “The press is a necessary evil,” the potions master had said, “sometimes causing significant inconvenience for decent people, yet critical to maintaining a properly informed populace and keeping the power of the government in check.”

    They had gone on to have discussion Harry had found rather fascinating at the time on the role of a free press in maintaining a properly functioning society. Harry had learned a lot, but after his recent encounter with Luna, what really stuck in his mind was Snape’s next comment.

    “However, there exist few groups more uniformly vexing than reporters and their ilk.”

    3.5.7 Pulling into the station

    The rest of the train ride passed uneventfully for Harry and his damsel until they eventually coasted to a stop at the station and disembarked. After a brief ‘hello’ to Hagrid where he was collecting first years — they had just seen him that morning, after all, so there was no need to interrupt — the pair made their way over to the carriages that were used to carry the older students to the castle, only for Harry to stop, stock-still, at the sight.

    “What’s wrong, Harry?” Hermione asked, concerned. It wasn’t like her friend to be startled by… well, anything in her experience.

    “The carriages are drawn by thestrals?” Harry moaned in exasperation. “I thought Cedric said last year when you asked about them that they were enchanted to not need anything to pull them!”

    Hermione frowned and looked at the carriages again, “I don’t see anything, Harry. What are thestrals?”

    “They’re these flying winged horse-things, except they don’t have fur, and they eat meat.” Harry explained, to Hermione’s mounting unease. Noticing his damsel’s distress, Harry assured her, “They’re supposed to be pretty friendly, and they’re scavengers, so you don’t have anything to worry about, Hermione.”

    “Okay,” the bushy-haired girl said slowly, “but why can’t I see them?”

    “Oh! I’ve always been able to see them, so I kinda forgot some people couldn’t,” Harry explained, “but they’re supposed to be invisible unless you’ve seen and understood death, according to Hagrid. Come to think of it, I could see them a lot better after that thing with the deer a few years back,” Harry continued thoughtfully, “so maybe there’s something to that? Huh.”

    “If there’s nothing to worry about, then why did you stop?” Hermione asked reasonably.

    “Huh?” Harry shook his head as he came back to the conversation, “Right, it’s not that the thestrals will do anything on their own, it’s just that they panic whenever I get close to them,” Harry said glumly. “Just about every animal does, even when I’m not planning on eating them. I don’t want anyone to get hurt because of me, so when I saw them, I made sure to stay away.”

    “Oh,” Hermione said softly. “Um, so how do we get to the castle?”

    “I guess I’m gonna go into the woods and circle around like I usually do when I come from the Lair,” Harry said. “That won’t take too long after I get out of sight.” The currently boy-shaped dragon looked at his human damsel’s disappointed expression, sighed, and reluctantly offered, “Um, I know you like doing things the traditional way, Hermione, so if you want, you can take the carriage over there and I’ll meet you at the feast.”

    Hermione was seriously considering her options when they were interrupted by a familiar voice.

    “Hey there you two! Why are you waiting so far back from the carriages?” Abigail jogged up after finishing her final check of the train for any stragglers. “I appreciate you two waiting for me to catch up, but you could have sat down.”

    “We were just trying to figure out what to do, actually?” Hermione began. “You see, Harry…” she trailed off, uncertain how to explain.

    “You remember how it was with the owls?” Harry asked as his damsel broke off. “Thestrals do the same thing, and I didn’t want to cause a panic and hurt somebody.”

    “Oh,” Abigail said in understanding. So, that was what pulled the carriages. While she still couldn’t see the things, they had been covered in her fifth-year Care of Magical Creatures class. “So, what’s the plan?”

    “Well, I’m gonna circle around and come in my usual way from the woods,” Harry said, “and Hermione was just trying to decide whether she wanted to go on the carriage or come with me.”

    “Do you mind if I join you, Harry?” Abigail asked without any hesitation whatsoever. “I missed you on the train, and I don’t technically need to take the carriage.”

    “Sure, Abigail!” Harry said happily, beaming at the older girl. “I missed you, too.”

    On seeing her friend getting along so well with the attractive older girl, Hermione felt a slight frisson of an unfamiliar sort of feeling, prompting her to impulsively declare, “I’m coming too!”

    Whatever it was, it was a new sort of feeling for the bookish girl who was now nearing her thirteenth birthday, a feeling she would have to examine in more detail later, but for now, she just knew she didn’t want to leave Harry alone with Abigail.

    With that, the trio of friends walked deliberately off into the Black Woods, leaving the last cart and its hitched thestrals standing at attention with no one to carry. They would eventually amble off on their own back to the stable where they would await Hagrid’s attention to be released and put back to pasture.
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2020
    udkudk, kelpsie, Karion and 167 others like this.
  20. EternitynChaos

    EternitynChaos Once there was a Maiden...

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    Nice to see new stuff for this ^^
     
  21. Asheram

    Asheram Know what you're doing yet?

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    Ignore this man. Update as you please. Your work is awesome and we need more of it!
     
  22. Dunkelzahn

    Dunkelzahn No one of consequence

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    Don't worry, the backlog is essentially gone now. I'm currently writing in 3.7, and I usually keep at least one section ahead so I can go back and edit for flow without having to update online copies.
     
  23. naarn

    naarn Not too sore, are you?

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    She's a ~16yo girl, been a prefect over a house of... ~70 Slytherins for ~2 years now, and one ~11yo Slytherin for 1 year was annoying enough make it that high on her shit list? Draco is quite an overachiever.
     
  24. Jordisk

    Jordisk Versed in the lewd.

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    Draco is always an overachiever when it comes to annoying non-blood purists who don't fall down at the threat of Lucius. What with all the "Filthy Mudbloods"s and "My father"s he throws about.
     
    TheBleakVader and Ame like this.
  25. mental_shifter

    mental_shifter Not too sore, are you?

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  26. MudkipSage

    MudkipSage I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    PRAISE THE BIG D!
     
  27. megamiaouh

    megamiaouh Know what you're doing yet?

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    Pretty sure he got assassinated actually.
     
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  28. hyperspacewizard

    hyperspacewizard Versed in the lewd.

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    Woot looks very nice.

    This is is a very fun story
     
  29. CoilingThoughts

    CoilingThoughts Know what you're doing yet?

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    TheGrumpiest likes this.
  30. Dunkelzahn

    Dunkelzahn No one of consequence

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    He is, indeed.

    He was already irritating people in general and Abigail in particular back at the beginning of the first year with his obvious and incompetent planning to accost Harry after being specifically ordered not to (which Abigail had to report to Snape, triggering her discussion about Harry). Later, Draco attempted to murder Hermione --- an event which got buried in the hullabaloo surrounding Ron's emphatic response to said attempt (Hermione didn't talk about it and Lucius ensured Draco evaded expulsion), otherwise Abigail would be more than just annoyed with the boy.

    In any event, Draco got partially castrated by Ron's boot, threatening his entire purpose in life as he understood it. Since then, Draco has been trying to reassure himself of his place in life by publicly asserting that he is, in fact, an important person --- basically lording his position over all and sundry and horribly overplaying his hand in the process --- and annoying everyone around him horribly.

    Abigail is far enough removed by her age and position to simply be irritated at the sight of blond hair. The younger Slytherins that suffer more exposure may be seriously contemplating murder in a few years.

    Draco's situation is a bit of intrigue I will not likely be exploring much in the story as I've already got way too many balls in the air and his role in the story requires little more in the way of character development than has already been established.

    Draco's ultimate purpose in the story simply requires that he be established as Lucius Malfoy's only son and heir, and that he be obnoxious enough to believably steal something from a much younger student in his seventh year. Along the way, he will be used as a convenient instigator of small things when appropriate, but there's nothing that requires much more depth to his character --- he's more scenery than villain. I'm not yet decided on whether Harry will ever acknowledge him as anything more than 'that annoying blond kid'.
     
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