Chapter 95: The Task II

"It's not fair," Tracy grumbled at breakfast. She was showing the strain of seven months without a good night's sleep. She was also glaring at Fleur, who was having a meal with every sign of poise and not a hair out of place. "How come she doesn't look like hell?"

"Veela." Daphne's reply was blunt and to the point.

"She does look like hell," added Viktor from his spot beside Millie. The two of them had shown up a day after the task in Egypt had ended, both of them sporting mild tans and speaking poorly accented French.

Everyone at the table rolled their eyes.

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Despite having a full course-load and still attending a few classes, Hari was making use of Shadow Clones to get around the problems of time. He was nearly certain that he could use his Wood Release, but without more information on how it was to be used, he was still guessing. In retrospect, he should have looked that up when he was raiding Leaf's stockpile of forbidden knowledge. He wasn't sure why they had banned the super-zombie technique, but he put it down to them being squeamish.

The Hari corner had been enlarged (something that everyone privately thought was supposed to be impossible) and there were a pair of projects going along now. Three if they counted to large tree that had put down roots through the stone floor and pushed its way through the ceiling. No one had felt up to questioning Professor Potter about it, though and he hadn't said a word. The cauldron on the Common Room fire bubbled merrily at all hours as Hari tended to it.

Several of the larger dungeon areas were completely barred. One of them had plenty of hazard markings around the only known entrance (Sasori preferred not to be interrupted); the rest were simply impossible to access except by magical transportation. Between them, the two ninja had taken over most of the space in the dungeons, but since they tended to be unused, it wasn't much of an issue.

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The dawn of February Twenty-Fourth was one of the coldest on record, which meant that Dumbledore was grinning broadly as he announced that the entire school was to be out around the lake for the morning. Some of the more cynical students were muttering that this was probably his fault, which he did nothing to dissuade by reminding everyone that magic was forbidden in the tournament area so as not to interfere with the spells used by the champions. It didn't help that he'd shown up to breakfast wearing several layers of ski-gear and what looked like an entire caribou skin. His cackle when he noted that included conjured items was just the icing on the cake.

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The champions gathered on the shore of the Black Lake with Percy, who was also dressed rather warmly. "You all know what the task is," he said, his breath not merely steaming but some of it actually turned to ice and clattered to the frozen ground.

"I don't," chirped Girl-Tobi, steam pouring from around her mask. She was wearing her usual garments and seemed utterly indifferent to the cold.

"Oh." Percy seemed a little flummoxed and then realized he probably should have expected. "You have someone important to you at the bottom of the lake. If you don't rescue them in an hour, they die."

"Huh. So who's mine?"

Percy paused. "I believe it's my youngest brother. And Professor Potter's hostage is my little sister. So I would appreciate it if you please rescue them."

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"What were you talking about, Weasley?" hissed Karkaroff when the young man had returned to the judge-bunker which was a thermal tent around a large fire. "Was it necessary to tell them that they die instead of just never coming back?"

"I taught my students to tell the truth, Igor," chided Dumbledore.

"What?"

"Any hostage still hostage at the end of the hour will be executed." Dumbledore smiled. "I felt it would add a sense of urgency."

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"Aaaand they're off!" Lee Jordan's voice boomed through the megaphone as the four champions each enacted their own plans. "Viktor Krum is—yes, he's taking off his robes. In this weather! I do believe he's just jumped headfirst into the water. Good grief, is he even human? That has to be a miserable experience.

"I do believe that the lovely Mademoiselle Delacour has created a boat and floated her way out to the middle of the lake. Shame she's not stripping down—Sorry, Professor. I think she's conjured a couple of metallic spheres and has begun to do something that involves sitting still.

"Speaking of sitting still, Professor Potter has pulled out what I think is a kukri and is inscribing it with runes. Is he going to even try?" Lee Jordan paused. "Where is Girl-Tobi? Did anyone see her?"

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"Does anyone else think this was a poor spectator event?" called Lee Jordan. "I mean, we can't really see anything but the end. Why not at least wait in the nice, comparatively warm castle while we waited?" He looked at Professor McGonagall, but the woman had a look of anger on her face that made him think she was wondering the same thing. Through gritted teeth, she was growling a series of unkind words about Dumbledore to warm the heart of any dark wizard.

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Half an hour after the start of the task, Tam Riddle dragged herself to the shore, her eyes narrowed as she stalked over to Hari, her magic flaring around her and leaving a trail of steaming water. "Why did you leave me down there?"

"I have every confidence in your abilities," he replied mildly and turned the dagger over to begin working on the other side.

Tam's scream of rage echoed around the grounds.

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Fleur watched the shore. She'd known she wasn't going to win this task. The downside to the increase in her fires was that she was even less comfortable in water, though the cold was barely even noticeable. Instead, she'd focused on taking out some aggression on the Merfolk. To that end, she had two balls of iron which were slowly going from cherry-red to blazing white as their cores were filled with increasingly unstable levels of fire magic.

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McGonagall's grumbles had died down a bit, but she had browbeat several students into cutting down trees and building her a bonfire, as she was unable to wear winter coats and someone had forgotten to expect arctic temperatures when crafting her garb—something she was resolved to mention to their creator at the next . . . she stomped off towards the shore, tail flicking angrily.

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That looked about right. Fleur let the molten ball of iron fall into the water, where it began to hiss as it left behind a trail of cooling metal. She'd done the math a couple of times and was pretty sure she'd gotten it right, but if she ended up being wrong, it wasn't like anyone important was going to be hurt. She clenched her empty hand.

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There was a flash of blinding light from the lake and moments later, a geyser of water burst into the air, boiling into steam as it did so. "What in the hell did she do?" muttered Tam as she relaxed in a winter coat she'd forced one of the younger students to give her while she listened to Minnie unleash a verbal tirade at Hari. So far, she felt that the woman had a good point, though it was a bit hard to pay complete attention when it was causing her to breathe deeply. Eventually, it finally clicked what the woman was saying and she rose, tossed the coat from her shoulders around McGonagall's and fled.

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Fleur pulled a speaking tube from her pocket and shoved it into the water. She knew her accent was horrible, but it would probably do. And besides, after her little demonstration, it shouldn't be hard to understand. Lo and behold, not five minutes later, she had a shivering Gabrielle in her boat, huddled around the other ball of molten iron and was sending the boat scudding along towards the shore.

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Hari nodded and pulled out a notebook. "Alright. I think I can do that when I make the conversion. Adding things is easy enough, it's taking things out that's tricky. I assume you'd prefer 'comfortable temperature' to be a constant?"

"At will temperature control would be better. Maybe able to turn it off. Being warm isn't the same as a nice fire."

"Alright then. Have you picked out a design yet? I already told you the total number of square inches I need. It's up to you how you want them arranged."

"I . . . have been considering some ideas." The woman flushed slightly. "I do not really have any knowledge of the matter. Most magicals do not."

"Interesting. Tell you what: give me the designs you've thought up and I'll get a couple of consultants."

"Consultants?"

"People who care about this sort of thing."

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Viktor Krum grabbed hold of Millie and began to strike out for the surface. It had been easy enough to get his girlfriend; the Merfolk had been distracted by something. He'd had to smack one or two of them a few times, but he'd been prepared for a full-on war. He hadn't expected to win, but it would be nice not to come in last place.

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"And there's Viktor Krum, emerging from the water with Millicent Bulstrode. He's making a good go of coming in third." Lee gave a wolf-whistle as he saw that Fleur had taken off her admittedly light cloak and put it around her sister's shoulders. Then there was the explosion.

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Gabrielle looked at his sister's arms with an expression of disgust and contempt. "Muzzer will be sad to learn she was right," she declared. "Coming to 'angland 'as turned you into a degenerate 'ore."

Fleur's shriek of rage was followed by her leaping at Professor Potter, her hands extended into claws and flames licking from her mouth and eyes. "You bastard!" she snarled as she flew directly through the space he had occupied, caught herself on a taloned hand and turned, coiling her legs and extending them to launch her back the other way as they touched the ground.

"I've offered to fix it," Hari said calmly. He reached out and grabbed a wrist, turning his body to send what had been a controlled pounce into a dive landing in the lake. That was followed by a sound that was less in keeping with a bird and more like a cat which had just been dunked.

When Fleur emerged, her anger had gone from blazing to an inferno as the white dress she wore was only obscuring her body by virtue of the steam curling around her. She stormed over to Gabrielle, sank her claws into the ball of iron which was still glowing and then snarled as she used a hammer throw to toss it into the middle of the lake, watching the hissing as it sank below the surface with a certain degree of satisfaction.

"What is the lovely Dela . . ." Lee Jordan broke off as there was a brilliant flash once again and then a new gush of steam blew upwards as superheated water made contact with cool air. "Well then, all that remains is to wait out the last thirty seconds of the task. Has anyone seen Miss Girl-Tobi?"

The stadium was treated to a girlish scream when the reply came from right beside him. "Right here, Mister Jordan."

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Almost a minute later, Dumbledore and the rest of the judges were in the booth next to Lee Jordan, pointing out to Girl-Tobi that she'd condemned her hostage by not rescuing him.

"What hostage, Professor Headmaster?"

"Ronald Weasley!"

"Why would I rescue him?"

"I was given to understand you're somewhat fond of your battles."

"I am, Professor. I meant that he's over there."

They whirled, spotting the redhead in question in the crowd beside Neville Longbottom, cheering the end of the chilly task and eagerly looking forwards to classes indoors.

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==OMAkE==

Uchiha Sasuke considered the notes in his hand. One was the regular note from Naruto, keeping him up to date on the various forms of hell the acting head of the clan was raising in the name of progress. Reading between the lines, Naruto had begun to hire some of the various missing-nin he encountered on the extended travels to act as replacements for the Leaf's military police force. It was hard to tell if the ANBU were glad to have the workload reduced, or worried that the parties enforcing the law internally and handling some amount of security were all wanted criminals on the payroll of a clan that some still distrusted. That made Sasuke smile, at least. It was the little things that amused him.

The second note was also from Naruto, but was written in code. Even without encryption, it was almost unreadable. Since Naruto had never been one for poetry or classical literature, the only explanation was that it was an extra layer of obfuscation.

Infinite is the help man may yield unto man-again;

Who so servith that morning which steals upon the night and its darkness melts

Creeps upon him a malady on his heart medicine unreaching

Bodily strength serve the conscious thought yet acts as judge for reason

The hour approaches for Janus to pass a torch for Asclepius has no aid for him.

Prepare a lambskin for thyself and sharpen the lupines for a fretted role.

Sasuke shook his head. That was nearly impossible to understand. He wondered how much time Naruto had spent with various scrolls to work out how to make it so oblique that Sasuke wasn't really sure he'd understood the whole thing. He drew his sword and ran a whetstone along its length.


(A/N John)

I wish we had more time to write these days, but we don't. When Spoon got well after the flu, I promptly fell sick myself. That was fun. Spent the whole weekend asleep.

(A/N 2 John)

Hard to say much more than that, really. We've got stuff taking up our time in life, plus Spoon likes to talk my ear off about ideas she's come up with instead of letting me write. That gets in the way, as well.

(A/N 3 John)

As to the chapter . . . I wish the second task could have been longer, but the fact remains that the task just isn't that challenging. And Girl-Tobi is one again doing her thing of ignoring details that most of us consider important. Like reality.