The Futile Façade:
She finished the fourth task angry and sick with a kind of incomplete vertigo, as though she'd swung too far in one direction and was waiting for the world to pull her back to equilibrium. A perfect score, she thought with no small amount of disgust. Did Riddle want people to realize it was all a farce? Perhaps he didn't care, or perhaps he wanted to make it so overwhelmingly clear who the 'best' competitor was that he didn't mind being brash and heavy-handed about it. Rigel watched the politician climb down from the judges' box with a sneer she could not quite contain. Draco made no comment on her dark expression as they left the pitch together.
Arranging her face into something less disgruntled, Rigel swung around to face Lugo Bagman as he waved her down on her way through the stadium's exit. "Mr. Bagman," she said. "I suppose you want all this back?" She gestured to the collection of jewelry she still wore from the lake, as well as her headband and tracking bracelet.
He laughed at her words, but the sound was tinged with condescension, as though she was a particularly precocious child. "Just so! I'll take your monitoring band and, yes, the wrist tracker. The golden ring next, if you please. No, the locket you keep."
Her hand paused over the clunky necklace chain and she frowned. "Keep?"
Bagman's broad grin was entirely too anticipatory. "That, Mr. Black, is your clue for the next task."
"Clue?" Draco peered down at the ugly locket. "There haven't been clues for the other tasks."
"Adds an element of intrigue, doesn't it?" Bagman said. "It'll give you something to do until mid-April, too. Each of the champions had a clue hidden in one of their miscellaneous items today. If you uncover the secrets of the item, you'll have an edge in the fifth task."
Rigel's eyes narrowed. "Delacour didn't collect her other items."
Bagman waggled his eyebrows. "Pity for her, but lucky for you, Mr. Black. Now, don't forget your effects—they've been moved to the healers' tent." He clapped her on the shoulder and added, "Great showing today! Keep it up, and you'll make a good many people happy."
She let a scowl bleed over her face as the man walked off. "What's that supposed to mean?" Rigel muttered. Was Bagman a member of Riddle's party too? She hadn't thought so.
"He probably bet on you," Draco said quietly. His nose wrinkled as though he'd smelled something unpleasant. "Father says Ludo Bagman's gambling problem means he's always in someone's debt."
Rigel blinked. It hadn't occurred to her that people other than the Ministry and Riddle could be making money off her competing in the tournament. The thought made an already tiresome undertaking feel dirty as well. Wanting nothing more than to shower the residual slime from her skin, she made a bee-line for the medic tent and found Pansy being escorted out under the combined glowers of Rookwood and Rosier.
"Pan, are you all right?" she asked at once. "I'm sorry about all this." She'd never dreamed that her friends would be directly endangered by the tournament, but it seemed Riddle knew no boundaries when it came to the show he sought.
The blonde girl nodded with a weak smile. She looked nearly mummified by the number of towels that were wrapped around her. "Of course. Thank you for returning me to shore." Before Rigel could do more than nod, Pansy was walking toward the castle. "Forgive me, but I'm going to lie down for a while. Well done today, Rigel."
Draco and Rigel exchanged a look. "Maybe you should go with her," Rigel suggested. "She doesn't really seem all right." It riled her blood all over again to see her normally composed friend shivering like a kitten. Draco's mouth twisted. He gave her a look that said he didn't want to leave her, but Rigel gave him an insistent nudge. "Give Millie a heads up, too, if Pansy would rather be shut in her room."
Unable to argue with good sense, Draco sighed. "Come find me in the common room after you've changed. We can break another deck of Theo's Exploding Snap cards or something."
She felt her mouth hitch up on one side. "Sounds fun."
They parted, and Rigel continued alone into the healers' tent. It wasn't empty. Owens stood to one side, shirtless, next to a small table stacked with clothes. The taller boy glanced over as she ducked inside, and as she made to turn around with a mumbled apology, he barked out a laugh.
"Modest? I didn't expect that from someone like you."
Rigel hesitated, then gave a casual shrug. "As long as you're not bothered." She affected disinterest and strode past him to pick her clothes out of the pile. The over-robe she shrugged on over her swimming attire and the rest she gathered up to carry with her. Her pocket watch tumbled out of her shirt and fell to the earth with a muffled thump. She bent over to retrieve it, but Owens got there first.
He'd shucked his swimming trunks and pulled on a pair of sweats, but hadn't yet reclaimed his shirt. She averted her eyes as she held out a hand to take the watch, but when he didn't immediately relinquish it, she was forced to look up with a frown. There was fire in his gaze, again, and she felt her hackles raise automatically to meet the silent threat.
"My watch, please."
The American boy's fingers clenched over the rounded edge so tightly she saw his knuckles go white, but then he fairly shoved it at her. "Just dripping in Slytherin heirlooms, aren't you, Black?" His eyes lingered on the ugly locket still around her neck.
She let her face go slack with genuine surprise as she slipped the watch back into her robe pocket with careful fingers. "I'm not sure what you mean by that, Owens. Not everything with snakes on it is related to Salazar Slytherin."
Owens' face washed from dark anger to something more snide, and his voice was laced in irritation as he said, "Who do you think you're kidding?"
If he was going to demand answers from her, then she could do the same. "Where did you get the Liberespirare potion?" she asked, eyes watching his annoyed expression closely.
"Maybe I made it," Owens said, his sneer shifting closer to a smirk.
"It takes two people to brew," she told him. "I can't think of many here at Hogwarts who have the skill to help you, much less the inclination."
Owens laughed, but there was no humor in it. "I have more friends around here than you'd think. What's it to you?"
"Just professional curiosity," she said, turning away with a lift of her shoulders that was stiffer than she'd intended.
"Well, keep it to yourself. You should know better than to ask such questions at this stage in the game. We can't afford any hiccups now."
Rigel whirled back at the implication behind that statement, but Owens had left the tent. She shoved her feet into her shoes with more force than necessary. What in Merlin's name was Owens trying to convey? 'We', he'd said, as though they were on the same side. Rigel replayed everything she'd noticed about Jacob Owens and had to wonder how much of his performance in the tournament might have been just that—an act. He had some impressive connections to come up with a Liberespirare on short notice, and to imply that he was playing the same game she was…if taken out of context of the literal game they were playing, it sounded as though he was playing for higher stakes than advertised, too.
Lord Riddle does not gamble unless all the odds are stacked in his favor.
Rosier's words came back to her, as they had numerous times over the course of the tournament. A number of the candidates had been hand-picked, that much she knew already. It was not a stretch to think that others beside herself might have made additional deals on the side. As Bagman had so helpfully pointed out, more interests than just the Ministry's and Riddle's were at play in a spectacle this big.
The feeling of vertigo hadn't gone away. If anything, her sense of unbalance was growing stronger.
Rather than probe the locket in the common room where someone could get hurt, Rigel took it to her Head of House's office that evening. If Snape was surprised to see her so soon after the fourth task, he didn't show it. He merely conjured her a comfortable armchair before his desk and gestured for her to sit.
She sank into the chair, acutely aware of every ache in her muscles now that they had a chance to relax, and pulled the golden necklace from her robe pocket. Sliding it across the desk toward him, she said, "This is supposedly my clue for the next task. Considering the source, I thought I should get it checked for traps before I try to open it."
"That's unusually prudent of you," Snape commented, taking out his wand and leaning closer to peer at the locket without touching it.
Rigel acknowledged that truth with a tilt of her head, which sent drops of water from her freshly-showered hair down her neck. She shivered. "Owens suggested it was a Slytherin heirloom. It seemed preposterous that the Ministry would send such a valuable museum piece to the bottom of the Black Lake, but the gems on the front could be an 'S,' I suppose. I reckoned you would know either way."
Snape levitated the locket to his eye-level with an economic flick of his wand, an intent but closed expression on his face. "Slytherin did have a locket—he wears it in his portrait in the Great Hall. This could merely be a convincing replica, however."
That made more sense than risking the damage of something so precious. "Symbolic, then. I wonder if the objects the other champions collected had any greater significance."
"As Delacour never collected hers, that would be difficult to confirm," Snape murmured. His eyes narrowed. "Owens did have a golden cup, in addition to a ring similar to the one you collected. Assuming the cup was Hufflepuff's famed Chalice of Truth, Delacour's clue could be either something of Ravenclaw's or Gryffindor's." He sneered, adding, "That great hulking sword would be difficult to swim with, but Ravenclaw's diadem would be the right size. It has long been thought lost or part of a private collection, however." The Potions Master tapped his long fingers on the desk. After a considerable pause, he gathered his thoughts and tucked them away where Rigel couldn't see them. "Regardless, while this necklace is undeniably enchanted, it does not appear to be cursed."
He plucked it from the air and turned it over in his palm a few times. The clasp didn't open at his touch, but Snape wasn't surprised. "Locked with Parseltongue, no doubt," he said with a nod. "If you'd like to open it now, I'll ensure nothing nasty escapes."
Rigel stared at the innocuous-looking piece of jewelry as Snape set it back on the desk between them. "Can you tell how it is enchanted?"
Her professor shook his head slowly. "Slytherin's original locket was purported to have a number of powers. Clear-sightedness, for one, as well as the ability to forewarn its owner of threats or ill-intentions. If this is that locket, it would explain the exceptionally strong magical signature buried deep within it. I doubt it would be possible to access the locket's true power without being a direct blood descendent of Slytherin's line, however. My examination did reveal a rather tacky illusion spell that has been clumsily attached to the locket very recently, but that magic is not malicious. Likely, it is the clue you seek."
She cast her own awareness out toward the locket, to see if she could sense what he meant. There was something clinging to it in her mind's eye, a thin, glittering strand of magic that felt like tinsel and moved with a fluttering ripple. Rigel tried to mentally filter through it, to sense what lay beneath, but all she got was the slow, undulating presence of something before it twisted away from her grasp. She eyed the piece of jewelry with new respect; whatever magic lay not-quite-dormant within, it had to be seriously subtle to curl away from a direct probe.
The tinsel-strand of magic seemed to wave frantically as she pulled back her awareness, desperate to be activated. With a nod to Snape, Rigel focused her gaze on the emerald 'S' and hissed, "Open."
With a snick that sounded too contrived to be real, the locket creaked slowly open. She caught a glimpse of a bright eye blinking out from one of the doors before smoke obscured anything about the inside of the locket. Thick and grey, it poured up from the gaudy neckpiece to hover in the air between them, churning in a way that reminded her of something. Before she could place the memory, the smoke coalesced into a sphere and a ghostly voice emerged, dripping ominous verse in cadence.
"A fortnight past the equinox,
three heroes will ascend.
Their path is clear; their way is not,
confusion through them wends.
If hearts are hale and minds robust,
their bodies strive for height,
But all ascension to be made
relies on clearest sight."
They listened to it twice in silence before Rigel shut the locket. "I hate riddles," she said with an annoyed sigh.
"Certain you aren't biased?" Snape drawled. He gestured to the necklace dismissively, adding, "In any case, this is a clue, not a true riddle. 'Riddle' implies an answer that may be deduced by an average listener solely from its own content. This drivel relies on specific context."
She clenched her toes in her boots slowly, turning the words of the poem over in her head. "It's definitely not a prophecy…right?"
"It matches no known prophetic structure," Snape said at once. He sounded absolutely certain, though Rigel hadn't thought he had any interest in the study of Divination.
Rigel was grateful for his sureness, whatever the source. She moved on to dissecting the clue itself. "When it says 'clearest sight,' do you think that means we're going to be blindfolded? It would explain 'their path is clear; their way is not.'"
"Possible, though a simple blindfold lacks the element of macabre drama we've come to expect." Her Head of House turned his gaze back to the gaudy necklace. "Don't forget that the item itself is part of the clue. Slytherin's locket was known to lend its wearer clear-sightedness."
"I can't access the locket's powers if I'm not an heir. If I'm not meant to literally use it, then it must have symbolic significance," she said. "The other Founders' items are similar in theme, right?" She cast about in her mind, trying to remember her history lessons. "Hufflepuff's cup lets the possessor read the true intentions of those around them, and Ravenclaw's diadem gives wisdom, which is a sort of clear-mindedness, I suppose. What about Gryffindor's sword?"
Snape's mouth twisted unpleasantly, but he admitted, "It imbibes only that which strengthens it."
"Clarity of body!" she exclaimed. "Together with the others, that's clarity of mind, heart, and eyes, all of which are mentioned in the clue. The task must contain an element that is designed to trick us."
"'Confusion through them wends'…" Snape murmured. After a moment, his eyes widened and a smirk drew itself across his face in a slash. "A potion."
Rigel blinked, a surprised smile curling at her lips. "I'm an idiot," she breathed. A potion could easily devastate a person's clarity of mind, body, heart, or sight. Which would be affected, though? It could be any potion, and they hadn't been told what items would be allowed in the fifth task yet. She could carry a bezoar, but it might not be a poison. A thought pulled her up short and she frowned at Snape. "Has Riddle asked you to brew for this task?"
His smirk dropped away like a stone falling from a cliff face. "He has not. There is more than a month until the task, however. When the request comes, I will inform you."
She nodded in agreement, wondering when the idea of pursuing underhanded means to win the tasks had stopped bothering her. It was as though the closer she drew to the finish line, the faster her periphery shrank until, some moments, the tournament was all she could see.
The first Saturday after the fourth task was a Hogsmeade weekend, and Rigel's friends wouldn't let her spend it cooped up in the castle. She had endured their pointed comments in regards to the healthy need for relaxation through dinner the night before, and by the time the post arrived the next morning, she was close to giving in.
"It's been so long since we all went together, hasn't it?" Pansy said idly, stirring her tea in precise circles.
"Usually Theo has a date and Rigel has some project that keeps him from coming," Millicent agreed.
Theo swallowed his mouthful of scone and said, "I'm free this time."
All eyes turned to Rigel and an expectant silence descended. She opened her mouth to give an impenetrable excuse, but an owl's insistent beak at her elbow distracted her. She took a letter from its leg, noting Archie's writing on the front of the envelope. Draco cleared his throat from beside her and she looked up to see her friends still waiting. She sighed. "I should be preparing for the next task."
"Which you haven't explained to us yet," Millie muttered.
"You just want to brew some more," Draco accused, half amused, half exasperated. "You know we can tell when you come to breakfast smelling like a sewer, right?"
Tahiil's eyes widened. "That smell is you? I thought perhaps this table sat over an open drain."
Several people nearby snorted into their pumpkin juice, and Rigel's eyebrows rose in her own defense. "I can't imagine why you'd want a smelly fellow like myself to accompany you in a closed carriage to Hogsmeade," she said with dignity. Her composure was somewhat undermined when the same owl flapped up to her head and raked her short hair in its talons. With a hiss, she extracted herself and relieved it of its second letter before it could do further damage. She eyed the owl mistrustfully. "Did he tell you to do that?"
The owl gave her an affronted glare and appropriated one of her potato skins in revenge for the insinuation. Rigel frowned down at the two envelopes she'd liberated. The first was thick, as though a great deal of parchment was stuffed inside, and the second was considerably lighter, though it had 'Rigel Black' in red ink on the outside. Not for opening at the table, then. Her curiosity eating at her, she didn't hear Blaise's question until he repeated it.
"I said, at the rate you've been brewing, you're bound to need replacement supplies soon."
She nodded slowly. "That's true, but I have a fairly regular owl order from the apothecary in town. I won't run out of anything."
"Isn't it better when you can pick out the ingredients yourself and ensure the quality?" Millicent tried.
"If I received inferior ingredients, I would simply send them back." After a pause, she added, "Or donate them to the student storeroom."
"Oi! Is that why our potions never work in class?" Theo said, outraged.
"That's like asking if the reason Pan can't bake a pie is because she's not using top-shelf flour," Rigel said musingly.
Pansy sniffed at her from across the table. "You won't dissuade us by being rude, Rigel."
"We only have a couple Hogsmeade weekends left this year," Draco reminded her.
"You've been brewing so much in your lab we hardly see you," Millicent added.
"It's only one afternoon—"
"You're more than prepared for whatever they throw at you next task—"
"Think of your poor, lonely friends—"
"All right! Okay. You all win." Rigel blew out an amused breath. "I'll take the day off from brewing and task prep."
A localized cheer went up from their section of the table, and Rigel resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Her friends certainly thought they were amusing. She stood, brandishing the letters. "I'm going to go sort through my post before we leave, then. See you all at the carriages."
She took the letters to her lab, thinking she might as well pick up her list of ingredients that were running low while she was at it. It really was more satisfying to pick them out for herself at the apothecary.
Treeslider lifted his head as she unlocked the door. "Ssspeaker isss back with food?"
She pulled a wrapped mouse from Binny out of her pocket and smiled at the snake's pleased hiss of approval. Knowing he didn't like moving from the stone she kept hot with a Warming Charm, she set the mouse where he could reach it and turned to the letters.
The thicker packet turned out to be less like a letter and more like a roughly-drafted Mastery thesis. Hermione had evidently asked Archie to pass on her notes on the Fade. Rigel had been anticipating something substantial, having enough experience with the formidable Miss Granger to expect nothing less than strictly organized brilliance. Still, she had underestimated the girl.
Dozens of pages, meticulously numbered and organized into chapters, were bound by string and accompanied by a neat title page with a note requesting that Rigel check the information for discrepancies. Rigel could honestly say she'd never seen a sheaf of notes so large it required its own table of contents. She set the packet carefully aside for later reading and moved onto the next envelope, which contained two separate letters. She saw immediately why Archie had forwarded them in red. Both were addressed to Harry Potter, one in Leo's easily recognizable handwriting and the other in a vaguely familiar script that took her a moment to place.
She started with Leo's, a smile on her lips that faded as she absorbed his news.
How are you? Probably buried in schoolwork and brewing too much for Krait besides. I hope you don't exhaust yourself this term. I worry when you're away, probably because whenever you come back you look like you've climbed through hell to get here. I know, I know—you resent it when I fuss. I sound like an old grandma, but it seems as though the world is growing less predictable every day.
The Ministry raided the Lower Alley shops near Diagon, again. No mention of what they were looking for this time, beyond a vague 'suspicious persons.' Any person could act suspicious when you invade their homes and businesses on a whim. I shouldn't complain about the Aurors to you, but I hate to let the others see how helpless I feel. Some things I can control; so many more I can't.
I'm dancing around what I really wrote to tell you. I'm sorry to bear nothing but bad news, Harry. The Carpathian Clan snapped last night. No one knows what set them off—maybe the raids, so close to their coven, maybe something else—but the Carpathian vampires moved in force against the Shrouds sometime just after dusk. The damage was localized to the Lamia Lodge, for what consolation that's worth. Half of it burned, and the Strigoi Shrouds lost several of their coven to the fire. Gavril was caught in the fighting and injured by a queer device. He's still alive—undead, that is—but considerably weakened. I know you are on friendly terms with him and thought you ought to hear it from me. I don't know when he may recover. Count Aurel believes his second to be affected by a strange sort of poison, though he has not ever encountered a substance able to lay a vampire low in such a way. When there is more news, I will send it straight away.
Until then, please take care of yourself. Just come home to the alleys, whatever it takes. I'll feel better when I see you safe for myself.
She read the letter twice, wringing it for every drop of information. A raid in the alley wasn't unusual, but the Carpathians breaking the code to attack their rival coven unprovoked? The vampire covens wouldn't fight unless tensions were ratcheted sky high—they prized their immortal lives too preciously to be wasted over anything less than grave insult or violent desperation. It was difficult to believe that one Ministry raid could push them over the edge so quickly.
Conscious of the group of Slytherins waiting for her in the Entrance Hall, Rigel sped through the second letter with only a hint of the usual amusement that came when she imagined Caelum Lestrange deigning to write his halfblood pen pal a letter.
I don't doubt you're languishing in some underfunded American laboratory at this very moment. Never fear, I am here to provide word of the civilized world to you. I have, you will find, completely mastered your Shaped Imbuing method. I daresay I have improved it slightly, in fact. I may be able to find time this summer, in between preparing for my Mastery exam and writing my thesis, to give you a few pointers.
Master Whitaker has more than prepared me for Mastery, of course, but he advises that it does not do to ascend the ranks too quickly. It gives the wrong idea about one's priorities. Thus, I shall wait the traditional length of an apprenticeship before getting the formalities of Mastery out of the way. I suppose there is always some small improvement to be made, though I fear I shall soon surpass what my Master can hope to teach me. It is not surprising; true talent always rings through the noise. Just think of how quickly I was able to master your quaint brewing trick—even my father was impressed. He has a colleague with an idle curiosity regarding the strange process who had mentioned it to him, and you should have seen his face when I told him I could replicate it flawlessly. He should expect no less from the Lestrange Heir, of course, but you understand that outsiders to the art often underestimate even its most gifted practitioners.
One day, potioneers will get the recognition we deserve. When the world sees the true power of my brews, my genius will be undeniable. Don't fall into your own cauldron before I have a chance to show you my improvements.
She tucked the letter away with the others, a mixture of feelings in her stomach that wasn't easy to sort through. He hadn't said anything about the Liberespirare potion, though she couldn't imagine why Caelum of all people would have reason to give a rare and expensive potion to a muggleborn American. Where would they even have met? It was exceedingly unlikely, but Rigel was starting to suspect conspiracy behind every coincidence.
On the other hand, there was an undeniable warmth at what Lestrange had not said—he hadn't said thank you, but she could tell that's what he meant. The part of her that had bullied the arse into dinner at their student showcase was glad that his parents were finally recognizing his talents, and that the Shaped Imbuing training had helped him claim some of the respect he felt he was missing in their eyes.
She did wonder whom Lestrange Sr. had heard about the process from. As the inventor, she'd expect that anyone with questions would come to her, but there was every chance that certain members of society would be too proud to approach a halfblood, no matter their academic interest in the subject. Probably it was someone else in Riddle's Party, though if that was the case, Professor Snape could have answered their questions, too.
Rigel double-checked her shopping list against her existing stores, bid a sleepy and full Treeslider farewell, and left for the Entrance Hall. Despite Caelum's odious manner of attempting to impress her, she was curious to know how he had 'improved' the Shaped Imbuing process. A wicked grin crossed her lips as she imagined him writing his Master's thesis about her new brewing process. She would never let him live it down.
They had to split into two carriages, and Rigel automatically turned to follow Draco and Pansy, but Millicent forestalled her with a touch to her elbow. Blaise held open the other carriage's door with a small smile, and Rigel climbed in, bemused.
When the thestrals lurched into motion, Millie pulled a green orb from her pocket. "I did it," she said, just a little smug.
Rigel brightened, academic enthusiasm pricked like a the ears of a werewolf by the call of its own kind. "That was fast, Millie. Great job. Hang on—" She took her bag from the floor of the carriage and rummaged through it until she found her own imbued medi-mini. "Take this, and mix the two up behind your back."
Millicent took the green orb from Rigel with a small frown. "Is that the same one from before? How long ago did you imbue this? Mine don't stay green for more than a couple of days."
Rigel blinked at her. "I…don't remember. Mine just stay that way."
"Indefinitely?" Blaise leaned forward to catch Rigel's surprised gaze. "That is quite unusual, I think. Mine will fade eventually, too, as the magic slowly breaks up and disperses back into the air."
"I thought the medi-minis were designed to trap the magic in the orb." That was the whole point, after all.
"Yes, for a time, but the runes that trap imbued magic into these training tools aren't particularly potent," Blaise told her. He took out a small notebook and jotted down a sequence. "See? It's just these five, plus a few to make the imbued magic non-reactive."
Rigel wasn't on Blaise's level with runes, but she knew enough to agree with his assessment. Magic had a natural half-life once it was separated from a wizard's core. Just as potions had expiration dates, no spell lasted forever. Structure, commonly provided by runes, patterns, or other ingredients, helped—the more complex, the better, which was why big, long-lasting magical projects were so incredibly difficult to engineer. Even wards designed to last centuries had to be renewed with fresh magic after a time—as Blaise said, it eventually would escape its structure and merge with the atmosphere, released back into the world, as some put it.
She'd simply thought the medi-minis had a complex enough magical structure to trap her magic for several years. Rigel turned the problem over in her mind. If Blaise and Millicent were using the same type of medi-minis, and theirs only lasted a few days…
"Either you are imbuing significantly more magic into your orbs or your magic has an additional source of structure that ours does not," Blaise said succinctly.
Rigel pressed her lips together. "I stop when it turns green." That left only the latter explanation. "My magic has always been…different."
"You used to talk about it as though it was sentient," Millicent recalled slowly.
"It is," she said. At the look Blaise and Millicent exchanged, she sighed. "I know how that sounds. I've gone deeper than most people in my Occlumency study, though, and I've seen it. I've interacted with it, and it interacts back with me."
Blaise spoke as though he was choosing his words carefully. "A reaction to stimuli is not necessarily sentience."
"And if I said I've witnessed it acting independent of my conscious will?"
"Some people would say that sounds like possession," Millicent said quietly. "I'm not saying that," she added quickly. The dark-haired girl wet her lips and took a slow breath. "But some people might. If they heard about it."
Rigel grimaced. "I don't tell people, generally. This might affect our experiment, though." The unspoken –and I trust you both was heavy in the close space between them.
"I thought you merely wanted to know whether you could recognize your magic after it was separated from your core," Blaise said.
"That's step one," Rigel said distractedly. She didn't know if the experiment would be useful at all if her magic was going to be such a skewed variable. "What I really want to know is whether I can reabsorb magic after it's been separated from my core."
Millicent spluttered. "What, call a spell back into your wand?"
Blaise hummed in interest. "That would have astounding applications. I've never heard of such a practice—a kind of reverse-imbuing?"
"Something like that," Rigel said. "I know it's not normally possible—once your magic takes on a foreign structure, it changes the signature too much to be readily identifiable as yours. At that point, once it's been shaped into a spell or a potion, it definitely can't be reabsorbed. The medi-minis don't shape your magic, exactly, though. They just trap it, so its signature stays pretty much the same, until it breaks up over time, I suppose. What I want to know is whether that means that as long as it hasn't broken up yet, it can be reintegrated into a person's core."
"To do that, you'd have to not only be able to identify it as yours, but be able to manipulate it when it's already outside of your body, too," Blaise said quickly.
"That's step two," Rigel shot back, a grin tucked into her cheek. It turned a little sour as she added, "It's going to be more difficult to determine general limits to the theory if my magic is freakishly keeping its signature structure longer than other people's, though."
Millicent shook her head, looking a little overwhelmed. "How did you come up with such a thing?" she asked faintly.
"With Occlumency," Rigel explained. "I can separate parts of my magic from the majority of my core in my mindscape, and whenever I go to re-merge them, they sort of snap together, like a smaller magnet meeting a larger one. I started wondering how far I could carry that phenomena from the physical core."
"That's quite a leap," Blaise said. "It's brilliant. Can you imagine being able to store magic, even for a short period of time, and reabsorb it on demand—say, right before a duel? Anyone could become more powerful."
"I don't know that it's possible for a person's core to hold more than its normal level of magic," Rigel said apologetically. The natural storage limits of a core could not be significantly stretched, according to most scholars. "It might be useful to replenish your magic quickly if you were very tired, though."
"Is that what you're thinking of using it for?" Millicent asked. "If it works, that is."
Rigel tilted her head. How much should she say? "Sort of. I've also been reading about different rituals for transferring magic. In most cases, once magic is moved from one person to another, the original person loses their affinity for it and can no longer sense it."
Blaise nodded easily. "Because the core of the recipient converts the magic according to their own core's mechanics. It takes on the signature of whoever's core it resides within."
"What if it didn't, though?" Rigel said. "I read about a case where the original magic retained just enough characteristics from its original owner to cause resonance-like symptoms whenever the donor and recipient were in physical contact."
The dark-skinned boy narrowed his eyes sharply. He whipped a quill and ink out of his pockets and began jotting into his notebook. "Do you have a reference for that?"
Rigel nodded. "I got it from Dumbledore. I'll get you a copy of what I have, if you're interested."
"I'm fascinated," Blaise murmured. "There are so many implications…I see now why you'd take the time from the tournament to continue looking into this. It's amazing that no one else is studying this."
"Maybe they are," Millicent said. "It's not as though the international wizarding community is known for its stellar cross-border academic cooperation."
Rigel made a noise of agreement. "Most archives are poorly organized, too. Even the library here is difficult to navigate for any but the most basic of school-level assignments. There's every chance that someone has stumbled across this phenomenon before and simply didn't do a good job of promoting their findings."
Blaise shrugged with equanimity. "Then you're still the first discoverer, as far as the general public is concerned."
"I'd rather not re-invent the wheel just to claim the copyright," Rigel said dryly.
Millicent patted her knee sadly. "Our Rigel is a hopeless academic purest. He probably wants the knowledge for its own sake or something."
She made a face. "I'm not a Ravenclaw. I want the knowledge so I can do something with it."
"What will you do, then? You still haven't said," Millicent pointed out.
"This is just a stepping stone. If I can confirm what circumstances exactly allow a person to absorb—or reabsorb—magic, then maybe I can unlock the mystery behind why some people can't." She saw Millicent's eyes go wide, then shutter with a grief that was intensely private. Rigel lowered her voice to something gentler. "If we can analyze the way magic is integrated in and out of a core to the extent of being able to manipulate it, maybe…we could give it back to those who've lost it."
"You think you can cure the Fade?" Millicent's question was bitter, but not entirely dismissive.
"Not alone. And not just the Fade. There are a number of conditions that involve a disorder of the magical core. Seifer's Syndrome. Squibhood. The truth is, we don't fully understand what our healthy cores are doing right, so how can we know how to fix it when it goes wrong? I want to help solve this aspect of the problem, if I can." Rigel didn't want to give her friend unfounded hope, but she did think there was a connection there that hadn't been drawn yet. In all the research on the subject, she didn't think anyone was currently approaching the question from the angle that puzzled her the most.
Infants with the Fade lost magic somehow and weren't able to produce enough to counteract it. What if there was a way for them to reabsorb it? If the magic could be trapped before it lost its signature, or if it was possible to artificially mimic that signature…well, it was several jumps in logic from where she currently stood, but the only way to know for sure was to leap and see where she landed.
Blaise put his notebook away and cleared his throat. "It's a tall order, and it isn't going to fill itself," he said. "Let's see if this experiment works, to start."
Millicent put the medi-minis behind her back and juggled them randomly for a moment before presenting them to Rigel in closed fists.
Rigel flexed her magical awareness across the carriage, feeling and dismissing the bright return off her friends' magical cores in favor of focusing on the much smaller distillations of magic that sparked in Millie's hands.
Both fire-formed spheres were restless and warm. With the basic information the first few returns carried back to her, she couldn't definitely differentiate them. She needed a more detailed look, so Rigel brought her focus fully to bear on the two balls, blocking out the movement of the carriage, the hoofbeats on the ground outside, even the soft sound of her own breath. She let it all fade away, her magical awareness the sole lens through which she refracted every mental beam of attention at her disposal.
Hey, what are you—
Not now, Dom.
She needed absolute concentration to understand in minutia what her magical awareness had to tell her. Faster and faster she pulsed her magic toward the balls, getting quicker and stronger returns as she reached the peak of her rhythm. Gradually, with increasingly nuanced returns, the two spheres began to sharpen in her mind's eye.
The one on the left held a simmering sort of heat, like oil bubbling in a cauldron. In the ball on the right, she found the familiar warmth of a full-throated sun and smiled. Buoyed by success in the first stage, she transitioned from passively perceiving the signatures to attempting to fling her will itself toward the medi-mini, as an arrow was flung toward a target.
It was nothing like controlling the magic in her veins. She could feel the magic in the ball, but exerting the force of her will on it felt like trying to move a boulder with only her mind. There was nothing directly connecting her to the imbued magic, no pathway through which she could channel her resolve.
With only a burgeoning headache to show for her mental effort, Rigel flared her magic toward the ball again in frustration. As before when she used her magical awareness, a portion of it bounced off the sphere and beamed back to her, but this time, the ball twitched—the barest of movements that was nevertheless so surprising that Rigel snapped out of her meditative trance with a gasp.
"—bloody nonresponsive—Rigel! Are you all right?"
She blinked spots away from her vision, and felt a hand move away from her shoulder. Blaise retreated from her personal space, a worried look in his eyes, and Millicent snapped at her from across the seat.
"Rigel, what in Salazar's name was that?" Millie demanded, her usual calm tone an octave higher.
Rigel made to speak, and her jaw creaked as it unclenched. With a wince, she massaged it as she panted, "Did you see it move?"
"It? The medi-mini? Rigel, you were so deep in that trance you stopped breathing. Forget the experiment; are you all right?"
"Where did you go?" Blaise asked quietly, his eyes intent.
Belatedly, she realized she was breathing heavily and dizziness had hold of her vision. Rigel caught her breath and shook her head in confusion. "I've meditated for hours at a stretch before and never stopped breathing. I—I'm not sure why this time would be different. I was just focusing my attention on the medi-minis." A smile crossed her face as she recalled, "I did it, though. I can recognize my own magic. When I get enough details, it's easy to tell the difference, even though on the surface, with a hazier picture, they seem fairly similar. I'm sure I felt it move, at the end," she added excitedly. "Are you sure you didn't see anything?"
Millicent's face was set into a deep scowl. "Is this the kind of shite you make Pansy and Draco deal with all the time? No wonder they want to strangle you so often."
Rigel sat back against the seat. "I don't think I've ever stopped breathing in front of them before," she defended. "I suppose…I did suppress the sound of my breathing so I could focus better."
"That's a scary level of mental control," Blaise said, almost curiously. "You must be very good at Occlumency indeed, if your unconscious mind took the re-prioritization of your conscious attention as a direct suggestion."
As though on cue, Dom's voice came roaring back into her head. —imbecilic, self-destructing fleshbag! Do you think I want to perish in this magic forsaken—
Rigel grimaced and nudged a silent apology his way. She'd have to explain later, when he'd calmed down. "Sorry if I alarmed you," she offered her friends. "I will have to think about how to avoid that next time, but—"
"—I definitely think I felt the medi-mini move. If I can expand on that, then it may be possible to manipulate magic with an in-tact magical signature after it has lost its initial connection with a wizard's core." Rigel looked between the two of them with satisfaction. They didn't immediately return her enthusiasm, but she supposed it was hard for them to understand; experimentation was always dangerous. This was less scary than almost blowing up a cauldron of unstable ingredients, and that happened nearly once a session in her free-brewing lessons. She thought the realization that wizards might be able to exert control over their magic long after it had lost a direct connection with one's core was certainly worth being a little out of breath.
The carriage pulled to a stop, and for an awkward moment, no one spoke. Finally, Millicent said, "You can have this back." She handed over the medi-mini that contained Rigel's magic. "If it really does retain your magical signature, you should probably be more careful about who you hand those to. And Rigel—don't ever ask me to be part of your experiments again. I'm glad you're trying to research this aspect of—of the problem." Her voice hitched briefly, but she pressed on. "I don't think I want to watch you go any further, however. Please be more careful in the future."
Millie held Rigel's gaze until she offered, "I will."
Millicent's mouth hitched ruefully and she exited the carriage. Blaise paused a moment to say, "You aren't a very good liar, Rigel," before following after her.
Rigel took a moment to examine her conscience. She felt mildly guilty for worrying her friends, but it was muted by the thought that she couldn't possibly have anticipated that particular experiment being dangerous. Meditation wasn't intrinsically dangerous—how could she have known to be careful of drawing her mental faculties away from vital functions when it had never happened before? Now she knew. Now, she could be more careful in the future.
With a nod to cement that intention, Rigel climbed out of the carriage to find Pansy waiting for her. "The others went on to Honeydukes," Pansy told her. "I thought you and I could go to the apothecary while they brave those hideous crowds."
Rigel raised an eyebrow. "I can pick up whatever supplies you need, Pan; I know you detest the preservative smell."
Her blonde friend sniffed and looped her hand through Rigel's arm in subtle rebuke. They began to walk slowly up the street. "I certainly do not shop for my potions supplies in person, Rigel. I would like to accompany you because I miss you." Pansy looked seriously into Rigel's face for a long moment. "You've been so busy this year. I can't help but feel that…we are drifting apart."
Rigel's forehead creased. Had she been distant? She hadn't felt any more removed than usual from her friends' lives. Her every waking moment was occupied with a task or activity, but in four years that had usually been the case—Rigel filled her free hours intentionally, where most of her peers were content to see where the day's schedule took them.
"We still exercise most mornings," she said slowly. "And there's Draco's dueling club."
Pansy inclined her head, but said, "Lately, in the mornings, you're so focused, Rigel. It's hard to even banter, much less have a meaningful conversation. The other times I see you—meals and the like—are in group settings. I suppose I just wanted a little one-on-one time, to see how you've really been doing."
Attempting to lighten the mood, Rigel put a hand to her heart, "Our hour in the Black Lake together meant so little?"
The shorter girl narrowed her eyes. "You'll be devastated to know how many potential suitors that little escapade has apparently cost me."
"Devastated," Rigel repeated, hiding a smile. "It must be intimidating for your trail of hopefuls to try competing with the great Rigel Black."
"Perhaps this tournament has been too easy for you, if you can joke about it," Pansy shot back, equally deadpan.
Rigel's face fell into more serious lines. "I wouldn't say that."
Pansy nudged her apologetically. "I didn't mean it, Rye. I know it's been awful for you. Anyone else would have buckled under the pressure, but you still maintain one of the highest academic averages in our grade, not to mention your numerous side projects and bursts of 'philanthropic energy.' From the outside, it does seem as though you've got it all under control. That's why I wanted to speak privately with you, however." Pansy tugged them off the main path toward a window display of anthropomorphized hats. Her voice low, Pansy continued. "I flatter myself that I can see the strain others don't. You've been skipping evening study hour, and you miss more meals than you show up for. When you do come around, your eyes are far away, your attention fractured."
"I'm sorry—" she began.
"I don't want an apology, Rigel. I want to help you." Pansy's gaze was imploring. "Is there anything I can take off your plate? Millicent and I have been trying all year to help in our own way, but it occurred to me that what I see as important does not align with your priorities, and therefore is less helpful than I assumed. What do you want help with?"
Rigel stared for an embarrassingly long moment before clearing her throat. "I—er, I'll have to think about it." A brief survey of her highest-priority projects had her discarding most of them out of hand. Pansy couldn't exactly help her with freebrewing, poison study, animagus training, or the potion recipe she was working on for Fred and George. Hermione was already spearheading the Fade research, Archie was there to help with the ruse, and Professor Snape was available for anything tournament-related that came up.
"Well, take your time," Pansy said firmly. "I don't mean to add more to the list of things you're thinking about, just the opposite, but—"
"Hang on," Rigel interrupted. The word 'time' had reminded her of a curiosity she'd put aside for later investigation. She dug into her pocket and pulled out the silver watch Archie had given her what felt like a lifetime ago. "What do you think of this watch?"
"The—what?" Pansy blinked at the watch and then looked at Rigel in confusion. "That's your watch, Rigel. You've had it since your cousin gave it to you two years ago, right?"
"Yes, but I can't open it," she said, prying at the edge to demonstrate. "It never bothered me before, since the watch face is on the outside, but recently someone suggested it might be much older than I thought."
Pansy took the bright silver and turned it over in her hand, but ultimately shook her head. "Have you tried all the basic opening charms?"
Rigel nodded. "I even tried Parseltongue," she said, half-hoping for some sort of recognition or reaction. If it had been an heirloom of Slytherin well-known enough for Owens to recognize it, then surely Pansy, steeped in such history and tradition since the cradle, would notice it, too.
Her friend only laughed, however, and handed the watch back. "Parseltongue? That would be a heady coincidence. There aren't so many Parselmouths in the world that their artifacts crop up at random, I'm afraid."
Rigel smiled back, replacing the watch with relief. If Pansy didn't recognize it, Owens must have been trying to unsettle her somehow. "Suppose you're right. Maybe I should make some. I'll discreetly distribute gaudy things with snakes on them to pawn shops worldwide and make it look as though there is an entire underground society of Parselmouths with terrible taste."
"To what end?" Pansy asked, amused.
"It would be an invisible congregation," Rigel said, taking Pansy's arm again to resume their walk. "Soon talk of 'The Parselmouths' and 'The Order of Snakes' would spread, until everyone was simmering with curiosity about this group. Who are they? What do they want?"
Pansy laughed. "You could be your own political movement of one. Start an anonymous Parselmouth letter campaign to the Prophet."
"And no one would come out to contradict me, because the only other Speaker in England is—" she choked her sentence before she could complete it, a fission of warning strumming through her magic. She had almost violated the oath she'd taken to keep what she'd learned from the basilisk incident a secret.
Fortunately, the oath didn't care if others drew the correct conclusion, and Pansy already had second-hand knowledge of Riddle's talent. She completed the thought without finding Rigel's discretion unusual. "Him, yes." The amusement was gone again, like a wisp of cloud that refused to stay and provide proper shade from the glaring seriousness of reality.
They had reached the apothecary, and Rigel held the door open for Pansy to enter first, not missing the way the girl's nose wrinkled as she crossed the threshold.
Seeing it from Pansy's eyes, Rigel supposed the apothecary was not the most inviting of shops. It was dimly-lit, the aisles cramped and overcrowded, with labels scribbled in hard-to-read slant on small slates that were never fully cleaned of the previous price's chalk residue. If you didn't understand it, the organization system was a nightmare to navigate and, objectively, probably designed to put customers at a disadvantage.
Still, it put a smile on Rigel's face to pick up a deep wicker basket and thread her way toward the dried herbs. As Pansy fingered a stalk of lavender, Rigel swiftly plucked bundles off the shelves. A customer in the next row sighed loudly, and Rigel felt a brief stir of pity for the no-doubt bewildered citizen before the shockingly low price listed for autumn crocus extract caught her eye.
She tried to remember the prices she'd seen over winter break for the dried flowers in bulk, mentally calculating the labor involved in exploiting the stigmas and wondering how on earth they could afford to sell the distilled extract at such a low rate. Someone coughed as they passed behind her, and Rigel automatically moved closer to the shelf to give them room.
"Rigel…" Pansy said quietly.
She hummed in acknowledgement, most of her attention on profit-per-ounce differentials. A shoulder bumped her from behind and she murmured an apology without looking away from the crocus extract. There had to be something wrong with it, didn't there? An expired batch, maybe?
"Rigel," Pansy said, putting a hand on her arm and tugging insistently.
She broke away from peering at the vial's smudged label with a frown. "What is it?" Pansy was starting intently over Rigel's shoulder, so Rigel followed her gaze to the customer sharing their aisle. The tall young man, who was wearing an exceedingly large trench coat over his robes, must have been the one who'd bumped into her. His brimmed hat was pulled low over his eyes. He coughed loudly into his fist again.
Rigel looked back at Pansy and asked, "Do you think he's sick?"
Pansy shook her head with an exasperated expression. "Rigel, that's Sousa."
The bloke turned fully to face them, a look of exaggerated shock on his face, and Rigel finally recognized him. "Ah! I am so surprised to see you, Rigel Black, here in this store."
"Matheus?" Rigel shook her head, confused. "What are you doing in Scotland still?" She hadn't expected to ever see the Brazilian wizard again.
"Nothing." Sousa said, straight-faced. "It is not related with the fifth task."
"I didn't say it was." Rigel frowned at him. "Shouldn't you be back at school?"
That got a grin from him. "My school would rather I not." He made a show of looking both ways up and down the aisle and then leaned closer to say, "You should pretend you do not see me."
Pansy let out a strangled groan from beside her. Rigel tilted her head, considering Sousa. Snape still hadn't been approached about brewing anything for the next task, but they were certain there would be a potion of some sort involved. "Matheus, did one of the tournament organizers ask you to help by brewing a potion for the next task, by chance?"
The dark-haired boy smiled, sly and slow, but didn't answer. Rigel felt her stomach sink a little at that ominous reaction. She remembered all too well what Matheus did to himself in the first task. What was he going to do to them? Finally realizing he was there to give her a heads up on the next task, she said quietly, "Thank you."
"No thanks. I am only here for ingredients." He winked at her as he added, "I have no more of your 'super-sage.'" When she didn't laugh, his face shifted into something more earnest. "Be careful. It will be…bad." Sousa nodded to himself, turned, and skulked into a different aisle.
Pansy sighed. "It's a good thing you make friends easily, Rigel, because your situational awareness could use some work."
"What does that mean?" Rigel asked, still staring after the Castelobruxo wizard. She knew what she would classify as 'bad,' but how bad was bad when someone else said it?
"He was standing there for five minutes. He bumped into you."
"People spend a lot of time browsing in apothecaries, and the aisles are narrow," Rigel said weakly. Recalling her earlier fascination, she added, "Besides, just look at this price listed for autumn crocus—there's no way, right?"
Pansy stared at her for a beat, then said, "I'm going to wait outside. Please be more sensitive to shady characters seeking clandestine meetings while I'm gone."
Rigel felt that was a bit unfair. Who walked around life just waiting for dramatic things to happen to them? That was asking for trouble. Rigel simply wanted to mind her own business and get to the bottom of this saffron pricing mystery.
She was distracted for the rest of her shopping and suspected she overpaid slightly for a jar of bat spleens. By the time she joined Pansy outside, she had determined one thing, however: she couldn't mind her own business any longer. With Matheus' example fresh in her mind, she realized there was someone she needed to see.
"I realized what I need help with, Pan. I need to talk to Delacour," she said. "Can you help me find her?" She and Millie had been keeping tabs on the competitors, so it was a fair guess that Pansy would know exactly where the French girl was staying.
Pansy nodded slowly. "I can take you to her current apartment. It changes regularly," she added in answer to Rigel's curious look. "The girl has a prodigious number of admirers—more even than you, I daresay."
Rigel snorted. "Impossible," she said with a snooty lift to her nose. "The great Rigel Black is unrivaled."
"If you keep calling yourself that, I'll have it engraved on your dormitory door."
"As long as Draco's name is in smaller print," Rigel agreed.
They kept up a light banter through town, until Pansy turned down a small street and led her to the very end. "Up those stairs, number two," Pansy said. "I'll go and join the others. Meet us for lunch at the Three Broomsticks?"
She agreed, and Pansy gave her one long, parting look before adding, "Don't do anything Gryffindor."
Rigel looked up the wrought iron staircase and sighed, hoping she wasn't about to go knocking on trouble's door. She climbed steadily, each step echoing like the beat of her heart. The Vow was shivering in her veins, trying to discern her intentions. Would helping a competitor set it off? Not as long as there's an advantage in it for me, she told herself firmly. Anyway, who would I be if I didn't try? This is the right thing to do.
She rapped on the plain door to number two, but there was no answer. Rigel didn't hear anything inside the apartment, but a hunch made her flare her magical awareness through the door. A very still pocket of energy gave off a return too large to be anything but a magical being. "Delacour, I know you're in there," she called. "It's Rigel Black. We need to talk."
Low French curses accompanied the sound of a bolt being drawn back, and Rigel felt the faint shudder of protective wards falling before the door unsealed slightly. Fleur peered out at her, eyes darting in narrow appraisal about the walkway. Once satisfied that Rigel was alone, Delacour jerked open the door and pinned Rigel in place with her wand.
"To prove you are not lying: 'oo was ze first champion you met in ze tournament?"
Rigel cast her mind back to Halloween, when the preliminary candidates had met for a brief socializing event before the official announcement. Seafoam eyes flashed beneath a blunt red haircut and she remembered. "Antiope. Then you."
The lovely French witch lowered her wand and backed away from the door. Rigel stepped into the small apartment and sneezed. Every surface overflowed with flowers—vases crowded the tables, bouquets languished on chairs, and a pile of what appeared to be rose petals littered one corner.
Delacour began to reset the wards, and Rigel felt her stomach clench. "Would you mind leaving them down for now?" she asked.
The older girl tossed her silver hair. "Zey scramble ze locating charms. Ozerwise, more of zis will come." She gestured to the stockpile of cut flowers.
"You could just vanish them," Rigel suggested hopefully. "I'm sorry, but wards make me uncomfortable."
"You live under ze most powerful wards in Europe," Delacour reminded her, tapping her wand restlessly on her leg. She didn't respond to the suggestion that she vanish her admirers' gifts, and Rigel wondered if she didn't really mind them as much as she claimed to. Then again, there was a real paranoia in the way the other champion had answered the door.
"Are you all right?" Rigel asked, concerned by the girl's nervous demeanor. Fleur Delacour clung to her composure with pride; it would take more than flowers to ruffle her to this extent. "Has someone been bothering you?" It wasn't hard to imagine that a young woman as charming as Delacour could attract admirers that took their appreciation too far.
Fleur avoided her eyes as she cleared a space on the sofa. "Zere are some 'oo feel zat one such as I ought not to win zis tournament. Flowers are not all zat comes."
Rigel felt a flare of indignation on her behalf. "Anyone who thinks that is stupid. You should reverse the tracking spell and send their nastiness right back to them."
Delacour's eyebrows rose as she sat down and gestured for Rigel to do the same. "You do not 'ave experience wiz hate, I zink. Engaging zese people will only encourage zeir madness."
She made a face, unable to refute that observation. "Let someone know if you need any help, then," she said as she sank into the sofa.
"Ze 'Ogwarts staff has been very 'elpful," the girl said stiffly. "Zey set up ze wards and find me new accommodation when eet is needed. Now. Why are you 'ere?"
Recalled to her original purpose, Rigel asked, "Did they tell you that one of the items we recovered in the lake was a clue for the fifth task?"
Her lips twisted. "Zey did."
"Was one of your items a silver diadem—a circlet?" Rigel asked.
Fleur's eyes lit with suspicion. "Why would I tell you?"
She shrugged. "You don't have to. It was only a guess. Mine was a replica of Salazar Slytherin's locket. I think Owens had Hufflepuff's Chalice of Truth, too. I don't know whether the founders themselves are part of the clue or merely symbolic, but I do think that the function of the items is a clue for what is going to be tested in the next task."
The older girl frowned, shaking her head in a way that caused her star-lit hair to slide like water over her shoulders. "Why have you come to tell me zis? You should not be helping me. Perhaps you are here to trick me, instead." At the last, she barred her perfect teeth in a fierce smile.
Rigel paused to reassess how best to explain. "I…want to win the tournament. I don't expect you to believe that it is for reasons other than personal glory, but it is. That said, I don't like the way the tournament is being run. I think the tasks are too brutal, too cruel. They ask too much of us, and I think if they keep pushing this way, one of us is going to get seriously injured or die."
Surprise flittered through Fleur's eyes briefly, but almost at once, it settled into grim agreement. "Yes. I 'ave also seen zis."
Relieved that this, at least, they could agree on, Rigel pressed on. "Today, I saw Matheus Sousa in the apothecary."
Delacour reared back, true astonishment on her face. "Ze Amazonian wizard? 'e ees still 'ere?"
"He came to warn me. The tournament organizers recruited him to brew a potion for the fifth task. He seemed reluctant to say too much, but he told me it's bad."
"Bad? What ees bad?"
"I don't know exactly, but I also have the clue from the lake. I want to give it to you, so that you can properly prepare." Rigel held Fleur's gaze so the other witch could read her honest concern. "I think it's going to be very dangerous, and I'm afraid of what will happen if you walk into it blind."
"Zen tell me," Fleur demanded, eyes flashing a challenge.
Rigel paused delicately. "I want to. I also want to win. You understand?"
"You want an alliance. Or…a deal?" Delacour held her chin firm. "I do not want to owe you anyzing. But tell me: 'ave you offered Owens ze same?"
"I haven't, actually," Rigel said quietly. "There's—I don't know why, but I don't entirely trust him."
"Good. 'e eez a snake. No offense meant," Fleur offered after glancing at the crest on Rigel's scarf.
Rigel narrowed her eyes curiously. "You don't like him either?"
"Non. 'e sends ze ugliest flowers to mock me." Fleur gestured to a bouquet discarded on an end table. The plants inside looked more like a collection of thick, green tubers than flowers. There were no visible petals, almost as though the stems had been cut before they could bloom. She tried to recall what type of flower had such thick stalks. There were three of them, wrinkly and twisted, with a bulb-like thickening at the tip. "Also, I zink 'e means you ill. Sometimes, when you are not zere, he says ze most—"
"Delacour, how long have you had these?" Rigel interrupted, her eyes riveted on the ugly bouquet. She recognized the plant now: Amorphophallus. It brought the tremor of disgust back to her stomach. Rigel hoped Fleur was unaware of how the plant got its name, and the vulgar implications therein.
Fleur broke off and thought for a moment. "I zink two days, no more. I was going to give zem back when I saw 'im next. Zey are 'ideous."
Rigel stood and circled around to peer closer at the offending bouquet. There was a tightly coiled root ball at the base, wrapped in damp sackcloth. To keep it alive, she guessed, her irritation with Owens growing stronger. "This is Snake Lily, did you know? Looks ready to bloom."
Delacour's eyebrows rose, unimpressed. "A snake. 'ow fitting. Zen it will 'ave flowers?"
"Enormous ones," Rigel confirmed. With a wrinkled nose, she added, "They'll smell like a corpse."
With a screech, Fleur sprung to her feet and vanished the flowers. "Zat boy ees a—" She broke into French too fast for Rigel to completely follow, though she got the gist. "A pox on zis tournament." Her hair hovered almost menacingly about her face, and Rigel thought she could see a bit of orange burning deep in the girl's striking eyes. "Tell me what you want for ze information. I am not dying for zis."
She had understood the threat, then, in the flower. Rigel felt ambiguous about accepting help even tangentially from Owens, but if it pressed Delacour into helping them both by accepting her deal, then she wouldn't complain.
"I will tell you everything I know and help you come up with a strategy for surviving the next task. In return, I'm asking for a promise: if it comes down to you or me, in the end, you'll let me win." Rigel held her breath as Fleur silently considered it. She knew it was an extraordinary demand—the tournament was what they were both there for, after all. She also knew that Fleur had no clue as to what the next task would entail.
"A verbal agreement?" Fleur clarified slowly. "On my 'onor, wiz no magic to enforce it?"
Rigel examined what she knew of Fleur. The older girl was not above fighting dirty, but she was also proud. "That's right," she agreed after a moment. "I'm not asking you to throw the tasks, either. If you outperform me to a clear victory, I won't stand in your way. If, however, the outcome is close enough to question…"
"Zen I will defer," Fleur said, voice flat. "I understand."
Rigel got out a sheet of parchment and began to copy down the clue from her memory, explaining as she went. At the end of their discussion, Fleur had three book titles on filtering poison from the body, and a written introduction to Madam Pomfrey, for rudimentary Healing lessons.
"The equinox is next week, so you have three weeks until the task," Rigel concluded. "If you need help with any aspect of this, please don't hesitate to ask."
Fleur fingered the piece of parchment with the clue stanzas scribbled down it and muttered, "I did not sign up for zis. I 'ope you do win, Black. I want to go 'ome and never see zese people again."
So did Rigel, though she was already in too deep to back out now. She left Delacour's apartment feeling more drained than satisfied. It wasn't blackmail, she told herself. The Vow wouldn't let her help for nothing, and they were direct competitors—not like how it was with Hermione in the preliminaries. She could have died walking into the next task blind. It was the right thing to do. Right?
She had chalk on her hands, in her hair, and across her nose, but she grinned in triumph when the last rune was etched into the array.
"I think my hand at Chinese runes has really improved," she said, pleased with the gracefulness of her lines.
"Shall we see whether that increases the efficiency of the transmutation?" Dumbledore smiled genially down at her work, all the while perfectly aware that handwriting, no matter how neat, would effect no such change.
"I'd rather see this 'interesting effect' you mentioned," Rigel said, her eyes running over the patterns again, curious. It was a moderately tricky array, designed to turn sand to glass through the pairing of two slightly tangential signifying runes, rather than the use of a single, clear signifying rune.
Dumbledore gestured magnanimously for her to activate the array, and Rigel touched her finger to the input circle. Usually, when she imbued an array with magic, she could feel it building steadily in potential energy, like a pitcher being filled with water. This time, however, the magic she poured into the array began to…shiver, almost. It trembled, as though that same pitcher was in the midst of a localized earthquake. With a glance at the Headmaster's serene expression, Rigel persevered, forcing the magic to stabilize with an effort of will and continuing to imbue until the activation threshold had been met.
The normal flash of light occurred, but with it came a physical tremor in the worktable. Chalk rolled onto the floor and Rigel took a quick step backwards, instinctively throwing up a shield as the array shuddered. For a few moments, she felt it attempting to do its work, to follow the patterns as they were laid down, but there was something unquestionably wrong. After an agonizing, jarring struggle, the array went dark. She dropped the shield and examined the materials left. Part of the sand was twisted and half-melted, while the rest of it remained untouched. Black marks ran raggedly through her carefully chalked runes—they would not be able to try it again without erasing and redrawing the entire thing.
"What did I do wrong?" she asked, familiar enough with Dumbledore's style of teaching to wait for the other shoe to drop.
"Nothing," Dumbledore said, a bit too cheerful at the results of the choked array. "Or perhaps it is better to say nothing that you could have done otherwise."
Rigel parsed through that sentence for a moment. "So it was something intrinsic to me that caused this?"
"Your magic, to be precise," Dumbledore revealed.
Rigel flinched, but sense caught up with her a moment later. "It—it does not act out of my control anymore."
The old wizard inclined his head apologetically. "Forgive my alacrity. It was not your magic's boisterous nature, but rather its natural affinity that reacted negatively with the array."
Rigel's eyes widened with understanding. "This is a signature-sensitive array?" She had read about them, but they had yet to have a practical lesson with one. "It is Light-aligned, then?"
"Neutral, actually," Dumbledore corrected her.
She frowned. "My magic is mostly Neutral, though." Most halfbloods had a mix of Neutral wild magic from their muggleborn ancestor and either Dark or Light depending on their magical family history. Hers was a little too wild to be considered truly Light, despite the Potter influence, so she described it as 'mostly Neutral' when pressed. It was not too far a stretch for the scion of a Dark family to have wound up with recessive magic that produced mixed results, and Archie's magic truly was a Neutral-Dark mix that owed something to Diana's family, she thought.
"The strict balance in this array is maintained only delicately. Any slight shift on the affinity scale from exact Neutral will upset it."
Rigel's eyebrows rose. "That would narrow the potential users significantly. Why design an array this way?"
Dumbledore chuckled. "It is said to have been developed by scholars of an ancient order who specialized in the aligning of individual affinities. Admittedly, that may be mere legend, but I find there is often more truth in old stories than contemporary minds would credence." He fell into a thoughtful silence for a moment, then came back to himself to add, "How it came about isn't the purpose of the lesson, however. I wanted to show you the effects of a misaligned array, so that you may recognize one if you come across it in your future studies."
"I'd rather know how to recognize such an array before it scars my worktable," Rigel said dryly.
"We can never eliminate all the unexpected occurrences from the world," Dumbledore advised.
"So there isn't a way to recognize a signature-sensitive array before it explodes?"
"I did not say that." A smile twitched under his long beard. "Consider the array clockwise, beginning with the rune of lowest numeric value."
She scanned the runes. "There are two in the sequence that stand for 'one' in Numerology," she pointed out.
"Use the northmost one to start," Dumbledore said.
Rigel pointed to the simple roman numeral I, which was often used in sequences to represent magic, looking as it did like a wizard's wand. "The wizard is the first card in the Tarot deck." She moved her finger clockwise to the next symbol in the array. "Then fehu, the initiating rune, is first in the Nordic system. Next is kun, the receptacle of the initiating force, defining the field of the array. Kun is the second hexagram, so that would be a two in Numerology." She looked up at Dumbledore questioningly, and he nodded encouragingly. She continued in a puzzled tone, "The next one is the Egyptian hieroglyph for grains of sand. It doesn't really have a number associated—oh, there are three grains of sand! One, one, two, three…wait, but the next two break the sequence."
"Those two are paired," Dumbledore reminded her.
"Ah. I can add them. Thurisaz is the third Norse rune, and it's been paired with huo for fire." Together, Thor's rune and fire were supposed to signify lightning. Rigel thought it was a rather clumsy expression, as there were other, better runes for lightning. Still, Dumbledore never taught her anything that wasn't important, even if she couldn't always see it right away. "Huo is the…second element in the Wu Elemental system, so if it's paired with three it makes five. Then lemniscate to cycle the energy back through the array—it is a Fibonacci sequence!" Rigel grinned with satisfied intellectual pride.
"And never forget that circular arrays can always be considered a 'zero' as well," Dumbledore said. "Well done, Rigel. Have you ever seen a perfect Fibonacci sequence in a circular array before?"
She shook her head. "I don't think so, although I'm not sure I would have noticed if I didn't look at the numeric associations in sequence."
"You would have noticed when the array didn't work for you," Dumbledore told her. "Fibonacci arrays are always perfectly Neutral—in this way, they mimic exactly the natural, wild magic of the world."
"So if I notice that an array follows the Fibonacci sequence, then it must be signature-sensitive," she concluded. "But that's only for perfectly Neutral arrays. There are other arrays that are sensitive in different ways, aren't there?"
"Quite so," Dumbledore agreed. "You'll find that the next chapter of your self-paced reading will describe common patterns found in such arrays. It is not exhaustive, of course, as there are a great many arrays and rituals in the world, not all of which conform to typical forms. Still, I hope you find it useful enough to be worth the effort of memorizing. I have certainly found it to be so."
Rigel nodded. It would definitely be helpful if she ever wanted to try a new array unsupervised. She had a question that had been building in the back of her mind since the array had malfunctioned, however. "You mentioned that some think this array was designed by wizards who specialized in 'aligning their affinities' with nature. Does that mean that it may be possible to alter your own magical signature to be more or less Dark or Light over time?"
Dumbledore's wizened face took on a troubled expression. "Our signatures do not reflect any intrinsic quality in ourselves, only in the magic we happen to be blessed with."
She blinked. "I understand, Sir. I'm not interested in the moral implications, but the practical ones. If I could change my magical signature to be more Neutral, for instance, I could use this array."
"Ah, yes. In theory, that is."
"Aside from that, though: if the input signature needs to be Neutral, there should be a way of making that happen without having to change the signature of the one imbuing the array," Rigel said, her mind leaping from one stone to the next easily. "It's just like in Potions, when you have to alter the reactivity of a brew before you add certain ingredients. Sometimes the base needs to be more acidic, other times more basic, and it can move back and forth along the scale depending on what you add to it regardless of how acidic or basic the original ingredients were."
Dumbledore peered at her with a curious expression. "Can you expand on that analogy? How would you apply it to Alchemy?"
Rigel's train of thought moved from Potions to Shaped Imbuing to the ways in which magic could lose its natural signature. "If the magic that goes into the array needs to be at a certain place on the affinity scale, then maybe it needs to be severed from the direct influence of the wizard whose affinity isn't Neutral. When you cast a spell, your magic usually loses its own natural signature as it takes on the shape imposed by the spell. What if it were possible to sort of filter the signature from the magic before it encountered the array?"
"I believe that once his magic is changed sufficiently, a wizard can no longer direct it," Dumbledore said idly.
"That's true," Rigel said, nodding quickly, "but it can be directed externally, can't it? By runes, in the case of Alchemy. Perhaps a separate array could be added before the magic encountered the main array that you wanted it to enact—a sort of pre-array component that would, using runic equations dedicated to the conversion, adjust the signature of the magic that was imbued before it reached the second array, which is signature-sensitive?"
A surprised noise was startled from Dumbledore's throat. He cleared it and said, "My boy, I think you are on to something. The idea is sound, yes, quite elegant. The execution…it bears looking into."
Rigel beamed. "Of course, it would be difficult. Reactions in Alchemy happen so much faster than in Potions. Everything would have to be drawn out and defined ahead of time."
"Not to mention discovering the language necessary to describe precise differences in magical signatures. I'm not certain the same expressions could be used for adjusting the affinity of a Light wizard as were appropriate for a Dark wizard, for instance." Dumbledore gestured to the air and it produced an oversized peacock quill and parchment for him. Under her astonished stare, he jotted something down and slipped the piece of parchment into his pocket. Never, in all of their sessions together, had she ever seen Albus Dumbledore make a note. "If you don't mind, Rigel, I would like to pose your question to my old friend, Nicholas."
Her eyes widened. "I don't mind at all, Sir. I'd be very interested in what he has to say." Another thought occurred to her and she added, "You may consider reaching out to my aunt, too."
"Lady Potter?" Dumbledore smiled. "I have not had the pleasure of her conversation in several months. I would be delighted to write her on any pretext, but do you think she will have a particular insight into this matter?"
She nodded, reaching into her sweater to pull out the necklace she wore underneath. "Aunt Lily gave me this pendant when I started the tournament. She calls it a Dark Defense Disk. There are sequences embedded in it so long I had to consult another, more gifted student to decipher it even in part. Aunt Lily says they describe Dark magic, though, as the disk is specifically designed to defend against Dark Arts and not Light. If there is a good way to express magical affinity with runes, Aunt Lily can help."
Dumbledore bent closer to the obsidian disk. "May I?" he inquired politely. At her nod, the Headmaster cast a wordless revealing charm and hummed with interest as the block of runes materialized in the air between them. He read the sequences with a practiced eye, nodding here and there with a particularly pleased noise. "It seems I am suddenly behind the curve in magical advancements," he said, looking happier than the utterance suggested. "Lily Potter has just thrust the field of Defense Against the Dark Arts into uncharted waters. I daresay these expressions will soon be under patent, if they are not already," he added seriously. "I thank you for allowing an old man to slate his intellectual curiosity, but you might be more protective of the mechanics of your disk in the future."
Rigel flushed. "Yes, Sir. I will be." She supposed she ought to ask Blaise whether he'd kept a copy of the runes he'd transposed for her. He probably had—Blaise liked nothing so much as to know things no one else did. She was certain he would honor a request that he keep the information proprietary, if she asked. "I have another question," she ventured after a few minutes of uninterrupted thought.
Dumbledore raised his eyebrows. "I'm not sure the academic world can withstand two questions from Rigel Black in a day. Shall we find out?"
She laughed. "It's just—I've been researching magical transference on my own, you know, and when Hermione Granger came to Hogwarts for the tournament last term, she shared her research concerning the Fade."
"Yes, Madam Pince mentioned the young American girl with rather ferocious reading habits."
"Hermione swallows books whole before they can fight back," Rigel confirmed. "In dovetailing our research, we noticed that attempts to transfer magic of an adult wizard to an infant suffering from the Fade are not successful in stopping the illness from draining the child of life. The magic doesn't stick in that way to an infant's core, and I wondered if that was because the magical signature of the parent wasn't close enough to the infant's natural signature to mesh properly. My question is: if it were possible to alter a magical signature, even temporarily, to match another's, could that altered magic fuse with the core of the one it was given to?"
Dumbledore let out a long breath. "I don't know the answer to that. It depends on a deep understanding of the way our magical cores create and store magic, which, I am sorry to say, currently escapes even our brightest minds. Have you looked into the case of ritual transference we discussed last term?"
"I have," Rigel said. "My conclusion is that it demonstrates that magic sometimes retains its magical signature when it is transferred and remains mixed with but independent from the magic of the recipient's core, causing the resonance described. This is the unusual instance, however, as most magic does not retain its own signature long after it has been severed from the original core." This she had confirmed with extensive research after Millicent and Blaise pointed out the strange case of her own Medi-minis persisting for so long. "For most people, the same ritual would result in a temporary resonance that dissipated over time entirely, as the donated magic eventually rejoined the wild magic of the world." She paused to gather her thoughts before adding firmly, "I don't think that such shallow transference ever actually gives magic to the recipient. The recipient holds it for a time, provided their core has room, but the magic isn't theirs. Either it dissipates eventually, or it sits there, unable to be used by them because it doesn't match their own signature."
"That would mean that any ritual claiming to confer magical power upon the recipient is false," Dumbledore pointed out. Rather than disagreeing, he seemed to patiently await her judgement on the matter.
"I think most of them are," Rigel said slowly. "The ones that really have been demonstrated to transfer power—the conference of a magical gift, for instance—all involve more than mere magic being donated. It isn't as easy as moving a bit of magic from here to there, the way the lady in our example tried to. Real transference rituals require an exchange of blood, and after the ritual, accounts always describe the recipient's magic as significantly altered. A Neutral wizard is suddenly Light-natured, or a fire core becomes an earth core. There is a fundamental change, almost as though the core itself has been transplanted. At that point, it's not a question of assimilating foreign magic into a core, but of altering the core itself so that it can receive the foreign magic." She shuddered. "There's a reason those rituals are considered in most cases Dark or at least intensely intrusive. I don't think it provides a good solution for the Fade. Forcing an infant's core to mutate to become exactly like the parent's…that sort of thing would stifle all variation in a bloodline, not to mention it seems a perversion of the baby's natural expression of magic."
"It is a distasteful solution, but not as pitiable as an infant perishing," Dumbledore put forth.
Rigel grimaced. "Hermione said the same thing when she suggested amputating the infant's core before the baby could become dependent on magic. It would stop the Fade, if it could be done, but the cost…I don't see many parents agreeing to it. I want to find a better way. There's just so much we don't understand about how magical cores really work." She sighed. "I suppose it was a far-fetched question. The research just isn't there yet."
"More research does need to be done on the subject," Dumbledore mused. "Have you considered doing it yourself?"
"Doing…the research? I'm nowhere near qualified—I'm not even halfway through the Healing program here, much less at the level of a Master trusted to engage in human research." Rigel was astonished that he'd suggested it—even she wasn't audacious enough to attempt experiments on anyone other than herself, and she'd already established that her own magic was not a good benchmark for 'normal.'
"And yet you possess an ability that none of those qualified Masters can boast," Dumbledore said. "Even Mind Healers cannot go into the magical cores of their patients. You, Rigel, can walk right through them."
She gaped at him. "I…I could see for myself what was happening in the core," she repeated dumbly. Why hadn't she thought of that before? She'd spent most of the last three years pretending she didn't have a unique and strange ability instead of considering what she might learn from it. Resolve solidified in her stomach, like a rock that she'd held up for too long dropping to the earth at last. "That's what I need to do, then. That's my contribution."
Dumbledore clapped his hands together, the sound bringing her out of her reverie. "Wonderful. It is so inspiring to see today's youth collaborating across international borders to tackle the pressing challenges of the moment. Reminds me a bit of myself, if it is not too brash to say."
Rigel gave a wry smile. "Perhaps some good will come from this tournament after all. If nothing else, it brought Hermione Granger to England."
The Headmaster chortled appreciatively. "Your greatest strength will always be the friends you make, Rigel. One day, you will certainly appreciate the connections you have forged in so many corners of the globe."
She genuinely hoped that one day she would look back with such equanimity on the year. At the moment, it was a very thin silver lining on a thundercloud of trouble.
"Speaking of making friends," the Headmaster said, seemingly unaware of the entirely obvious nature of his segue. "There is a little soiree I throw every spring, and this year, a number of people have asked whether you would be amenable to attending."
Thrown for a loop, Rigel prevaricated. "Isn't it during the school year?" She had heard of Dumbledore's Soiree, of course—it was as emblematic of Light Society as the Malfoys' Garden Party was of the Dark. It was held around Easter, usually, though she hadn't cause to pay it much mind before.
"Over the long weekend holiday," Dumbledore assured her. Sensing her hesitation, he added, "Some of your current friends, including Mr. Weasley and Mr. Longbottom, will be in attendance. In the current political climate, it never hurts to make a few more."
"That's true," she said slowly. The last thing she wanted to do was be paraded at another event as the Hogwarts champion, but Dumbledore had a point. She was in a political position, and if she attended a prominent Light gathering and made nice… perhaps she could create a little more leverage against Riddle's legislation. She had promised herself she would try, at least, with what little notoriety was now afforded to her. "All right. I'll be glad to attend; thank you."
Dumbledore led her back through the 'secret' passage to his office with a cheerful twinkle. "Not at all, Rigel. With you in attendance, it will be the talk of the town."
For once, she hoped that was true.
That evening, she managed to find Blaise at his own table in the common room. Rigel took a seat across from him, intending to ask him to be careful with the runic sequence he'd copied from her mother's Dark Detection Disk. Before she could say anything, however, the boy held up a slim hand to forestall her and said, "One moment. I'm in the middle of a calculation."
Ever-respectful of the titanic grip of true academic pensée, Rigel waited patiently for him to bring his train of thought to its intended station. When he had put down his quill, she smiled politely. "Is that the same project you've been working on all term?"
He nodded ruefully. "It's a little above my current abilities, but Mother wanted to challenge me."
"Is it just an exercise or will it have a real-world application?" she asked, distracted from her original purpose.
Blaise shrugged. "I don't know. Probably it's a variation on something she's already working on; every now and then she gets an interesting commission and lets me try my hand at it for practice."
"Could I see?" Rigel peered interestedly at the sheaf of parchment splayed out before him. Blaise hesitated palpably, a reserved expression concealing his emotions. Rigel raised an eyebrow, surprised at his reticence. "I won't steal the design or tell anyone," she said gently. "I showed you Aunt Lily's work, remember?" It felt cheap to invoke the principle of reciprocity, but trust was a two-way street, at least in Slytherin House.
Acknowledgement flickered in his serious gaze as he inclined his head. "That's true. I trust you will be as discrete with this as I will be with your Aunt's sequences."
Pleased that they had reached an understanding so easily, Rigel bent her attention to the parchment Blaise pushed across the table. At once, she could tell it was a ward of some kind. Her interest in wards had taken a sharp dip after the previous year, though she had devoured several tomes on breaking them, which in retrospect had probably been a bit compulsive. At least they aren't goblin runes, she thought as she traced the general structure with her finger.
Blaise appeared to be almost finished with the project. The sequences were elegant and balanced, mostly in the western systems of runes, so that they worked together with a synergy that was hard to replicate when you mixed too many different systems. Catching on an inverted barrier rune, Rigel's eyes narrowed.
"This is a cage," she said flatly.
Blaise winced. "It isn't, actually."
"I think I know a containment ward when I see one," she said sharply. "What is it for?"
"Rigel, take a breath," Blaise said firmly. When she had visibly deflated from the defensiveness that gripped her, he continued calmly. "It is an enclosure, but it's cast from the inside, see? It will keep things inside from leaving, but its primary purpose is to keep those outside from entering. It's designed to be taken down from the inside, too—see the inverted cornerstone?"
She nodded slowly, but still had to know. "What will it be used for?"
"Dueling wards, I think," he said carefully. "I can't confirm it, but I believe Mother already has a buyer in mind. Likely Regulus Black, as he is often involved in large event wards, and these would work well for something like the tournament or the World Cup, don't you think?"
She studied them for a few more minutes, inwardly relieved that the purpose was so innocuous. She could even confirm that Regulus had used something similar to facilitate the Lower Alley tournament. Rigel had thought Regulus designed his own wards, but perhaps the extra business he'd been getting lately had saturated his time. "So if the caster would be inside with the event participants, he would have to access all four cornerstones at once to put the ward up," she said slowly. "It seems as though you'd need more than one caster, if the ward was really big enough to encompass a whole dueling arena."
"That's right," Blaise said with a nod. "Four casters are needed from the inside, but only one is necessary to take it down. This chain of runes will destabilize it from any of the cornerstones."
Rigel smiled weakly. "That's good. In case one of the casters is incapacitated when it needs to come down."
Blaise returned the smile, albeit grimly. "It's a lesson learned from the World Cup. It took too many people working in tandem to get the wards down once they were set. These wards will fall all at once, as long as at least one person can get to a cornerstone."
She thought of her father and said, "That means extra security around the cornerstones, but it's probably worth it to have a quicker exit strategy. That's an impressive addition, Blaise. Did you come up with it?"
He flushed slightly. "I did. The only trouble is, the simple chain holding them together makes the wards a little too weak. I'm trying to figure out how to keep them easy to disassemble from the inside while making it harder for the ward to be penetrated from without. At the moment, this ward is no stronger than your average house wards. A group of determined wizards could probably take them down by force."
Rigel saw what he meant. More runes added to stabilizing the ward against attack would inevitably complicate the sequence needed to take it down from within. "You need more power without using more runes," she said.
Blaise gaped at her for a moment. "That's…exactly what Mother said when I asked her for a hint. She didn't elaborate, though. How do I increase the power without adding any more runes? I can't add more casters without adding more cornerstones, and the structure is already at optimum stability with four."
"Perhaps a source of power that isn't the casters themselves?" Rigel suggested.
He smacked the table with sudden elation. "A ley line. Rigel, you're a genius." He grabbed the parchment back from her hands and began to scribble in the margins excitedly.
"You're the one who came up with the answer," she said, amused to see Blaise so worked up over something. He was so rarely ruffled in any way. "Are you going to add an amplification chain so it can be set up on a ley line to boost the power, then?"
"Just going to work in general tie points so it's optional," he muttered distractedly, still writing. "Then whoever casts it can tie the ward to whatever is closest—ley line, other wards, it won't matter. It can borrow that power to support itself, while staying simple enough to be unraveled by a single wizard." With a grin, Blaise cast sand over his notes and sat up straight once more. "I'll send it off to Mother for grading this week, but I think this is the answer, Rigel. Thanks for your help. It's been driving me spare."
She shook her head. "I think you just needed to talk it out with someone. I make a lot of breakthroughs when I voice my problem out loud."
"There you nerds are!" Theo slammed his Transfiguration book onto the table. He was echoed a moment later by the thuds of Pansy's, Millicent's, and Draco's books joining the spread. "We were waiting like idiots at our usual table by the fire, only to find you bookworms have started without us."
Blaise extracted his designs from beneath the corner of Theo's heavy book with a long-suffering expression. "Rigel and I had some real thinking to do before our more passive academic peers distracted us with the monotony of their prescribed homework assignments."
"Oi! You're the one who asked me to explain the difference between British and European Gobbledegook dialects tonight," Theo shot back.
"I'm sure Millicent or Draco could do just as well," Blaise drawled, deliberately provoking the other boy.
"Somehow I doubt goblins are included in International Relations," Theo sneered.
Pansy shot him a reproachful look. "Goblins aren't covered in Care of Magical Creatures; they're beings, Blaise. You of all people shouldn't make a joke like that."
He shrugged one shoulder, his face blank. "These days, who knows what's considered a being?"
Pansy's face softened. "Is your Mother still annoyed with Riddle about the tournament definitions of blood purity? We missed her at the Yule Ball."
"She declined her invitation," Blaise confirmed. With a sigh, he added, "Honestly, none of those in the shifter community are pleased."
Millicent muttered, "This tournament has been a disaster for magical relations on a number of fronts. The Centaurs are still upset about the first task, and the Merfolk didn't exactly enjoy being cast as the villains during the fourth."
"Wonder which group of magical beings we'll manage to piss off in the fifth task," Theo said cheerfully. "Rigel, any guesses?"
She shook her head. "I think we're going to be drugged or something, actually."
Draco whipped his head around to stare at her. "What does that mean? And why are you so calm about it?"
Rigel tilted her head. "Nothing I can do about it, if that's what the task is."
"Should you be telling us this?" Pansy asked, looking casually around the common room.
She realized she hadn't told them about the necklace yet; Pansy must be worried Rigel was admitting to a mysterious source. "We got a clue at the end of the last task," she explained, smiling apologetically at their exasperated faces. "Professor Snape helped me work it out. It basically says we're going to have our clarity clouded and then be asked to do something while in that confused state. Sounds fun." The joke fell flat.
"If you know, can't you just take a bezoar?" Millicent asked.
"I will, if we're allowed to have any items for this one," she said. "Riddle hasn't told us yet. Anyway, bezoars only work against poisons. They might dose us with something that isn't technically poisonous."
"Such as a drug," Pansy repeated, her eyes flashing. She looked as though she wanted to be angry but didn't have anyone present to direct the feeling toward.
Draco patted her shoulder, murmuring, "Only two more tasks," in a low voice that seems to calm the blonde girl somewhat.
"Two more tasks," Rigel agreed. "It'll be over before we know it." She didn't know who she was trying to convince.
In preparation for the fifth task, some of her lessons with Snape had necessitated a rather dubious turn. Snape didn't like it, and Rigel hated to ask it of him, but she needed practice filtering foreign substances from her blood. After considering the potential consequences of miscalculating her ability, she admitted it was safer to do with supervision.
Her Head of House stood with arms crossed in disapproval as she slowly injected herself with concentrated essence of Aconite. She knew what to expect—texts described the dizziness and fluttering heartbeat in laconic terms. She also knew she could begin filtering immediately and stave off the worse effects, but that wasn't the point. Rigel needed to be able to climb out of the worst of it, for Snape suspected she would not be allowed to combat the effects of whatever they imposed on the champions right away.
From her experience dueling Ralph over the summer, Rigel was familiar with the treacherous tingling that crept through her limbs, heralding the coming incapacitation with sweeping softness. Sweat beaded on her forehead, and she struggled to control her breathing until Snape said, "Now." There was a clock ticking away the seconds as she turned her attention inward and attempted to channel her magic without diverting it first to her wand.
This was the second part of their strategy. If Rigel could battle the effects of the substance from within, it would keep her hands—and wand—free to deal with whatever came at her from without. The poison was swift. Her limbs were weak, but she couldn't undo the damage there until she won the battle in her bloodstream. In most danger was her heart, so it was into her veins that Rigel sent her Healing magic first, shaped by the strength of her will alone.
She heard Snape's voice as though from a tunnel. Her blood was almost clear. The rest was only flushing out the poison from where trace amounts had already been deposited. Rigel swept each system carefully, all the while trying to ignore the strange purple color crawling from the edges of her vision.
"Done." Rigel stretched her neck and stood. She wobbled slightly, but shook it off with impatience.
"You've adequate speed, but it still requires all of your concentration," Snape commented.
She nodded. "It's tricky, because Aconite might actually kill if left unattended. I have to be fast when dealing with it. Whatever they give us in the tournament probably won't be as bad at that. I'll be able to split my attention."
"You don't know that," Snape argued. "You ought to practice with a lower risk substance and attempt to multitask."
"I've done that already," she told him. At his scowl, she smiled. "You don't really want to know where I got the Firewhiskey, do you?" She was kidding, but Snape did not seem to appreciate the jest.
He crossed to the wall and took her apron from its hook, tossing it to her with impatient force. "If you aren't going to take the tournament seriously, you can at least spend the evening improving your brewing."
Rigel brightened. "I had a recipe I wanted to try, actually. The specifics came to me after our last session—remember the deathcaps you had to throw out because the preservation charms had worn off the jars?"
Snape's mouth lifted in a sneer. "I had words with Burke. It won't happen again."
"That's great, but it got me thinking," Rigel said. "Not about ingredients, really, but about the potions themselves. How many do you think people throw out every year because they bought them for emergencies and haven't used them before the expiration date?"
"That necessity keeps us in business," Snape said drolly.
She made a face at him. "As if you don't resent every replacement batch of Pain Relief you brew for the Hospital Wing. What if you could increase the shelf-life of potions like that without having to alter the recipes?"
Snape lifted one eyebrow slowly. "I'm listening."
"It's annoying that most potions can't be exposed to a lot of direct magic without destabilizing, right? It makes preservation charms on potions themselves unreliable at best. I want to create something that is like a stasis charm, which is less reactive than a preservation charm. Stasis spells can't be maintained for more than a few days at most, though, and what I'm thinking would last years if done right." Rigel pulled a piece of scrap parchment from her pocket. "This is just a start, but I think with a little tweaking I can get it to work. It'll be a base—kind of like the neutral base you created for my cousin Harry—but built around raw amber. When it's mixed with other neutral potions—I wouldn't recommend volatile ones, unless we test them specifically—it should act as a sort of liquid medi-mini, encasing and trapping the magic in the existing brew, so it doesn't dissipate as quickly. The hard part is making sure the amber base doesn't interact with the potion itself—I don't want to indiscriminately increase the effectiveness or longevity of the potion once ingested." She imagined a Blood Replenisher that kept producing blood indefinitely and shuddered. "So, what do you think? Will it work?"
"Amber is an inspired choice," Snape said after a long moment of thought. "To ensure it doesn't incorporate with the potion in question, this base must be perfectly balanced. Its ingredients should be bonded and sealed completely to one another before it is added to the recipient brew."
She nodded, understanding the danger if one or more ingredients from the amber base separated and reacted with ingredients in the potion it was meant to preserve. "I was also thinking it should be more oil than liquid base, you know? That way, you could just coat a bottle with the amber base before adding the potion you want to preserve."
Her professor nodded once. "Sound theory. Let's see it."
Rigel grinned. "Thanks, Professor. I really want to get this finished in time for the twins' birthday."
He stiffened. "I forbid you to supply the Weasley terrorists."
She widened her eyes earnestly. "Please, Professor. I don't often ask for favors, do I?"
"I will not be party to it."
"They've been really good friends to me," she argued. "They saved my life in the first task by giving me those fireworks." As Snape's jaw clenched, she pressed home the point. "They've also single-handedly run a public relations campaign for me."
"A prank campaign."
They stared at one another, both stubbornly refusing to blink.
"Don't you think it's a creative application of Zygmunt Budge's principle of amplification without interaction—"
"Do not insult me."
Rigel groped for another argument and settled on, "It's important that I not be in anyone's debt, isn't it?"
Snape scowled fiercely. Even he could not argue with one of the tenants of Salazar Slytherin, however. "Do what you will, then."
Rigel resisted the urge to hug him. "Thank you! Uh, if it works, would you also be able to submit it to the Guild for testing? Nothing extensive, just to make sure it's safe for human consumption."
"Don't push your luck."
"That's okay, I can have Harry submit it," she said. Master Thompson would help, though he would grumble almost as much as Snape.
"You will not give her credit for your invention," Snape snapped. "I will take care of it. Just get to the cauldron and brew."
Rigel grinned and did as she was told.
She was grinning again a week later, when she sidled up to the Gryffindor table and edged through the throng of admirers around where the twins were holding court.
"Puppy! You came!"
"How honored we are to have the Hogwarts Champion, Romantic Rigel himself, at our birthday celebration!"
"I eat breakfast here every morning, same as the rest of the school," Rigel said.
They pulled her onto the bench between them. "As long as you're here, you can watch us open presents," Fred suggested cheerfully.
She applauded politely through three boxes of Bertie Bots and a bag of hastily hidden stink bombs. As the pile of gifts dwindled, the crowd around the twins diminished, until finally it was just their usual friends left at the table. Rigel couldn't contain her impatience any longer. "Don't you want to know what I got you?"
The twins froze and exchanged a skeptical look over her head.
"The last time Puppy got us a gift, we melted into piles of glittery goo," George said.
"This time, I can't remember what we've done to annoy him," Fred added, looking vaguely worried.
"On my honor as a trickster, it isn't a prank," Rigel said, laughing. She pulled out two plainly wrapped boxes, each no bigger than her palm. "Happy Birthday!"
They waited a beat, as though to be sure the boxes wouldn't reach out and bite them, before apparently deciding she was sincere. Rigel supposed it was difficult to know who to trust when your birthday was April 1st and you were a pair of notorious pranksters.
George opened his first. They had learned something from last time, then. He plucked a grey, unpolished stone from within and turned it over in his hand. "Pretty?" he said, questioning.
Fred leaned across Rigel to peer at it. His eyes widened. "George, look at the aura."
George narrowed his eyes in concentration and a moment later yelped and nearly dropped it. "Rigel, what—"
"Read the card," she prompted helpfully.
He dove into the box and came up with a square card and a small roll of parchment. Upon scanning the short message in the card, his eyes widened and his face lost a little color, making his freckles stand out in alarm. "Rigel, this is…"
He passed the card to Fred, who read it quickly. "No kidding…" His voice sounded faint and a little awestruck.
Rigel frowned at their reactions. "It's just a little magic," she huffed. "For your experiments. I know sometimes all an inventor needs is a little extra stabilizing power." Extra magic could make the experimental process safer and smoother, and thus faster, too. "Anyway, that's only half the gift. The scroll is a recipe. I think you'll find it useful when you start stockpiling an inventory for your shop."
George was still staring at the stone. "Rigel, how do we even use this?"
She made a noise of understanding. "Ah, I forgot to explain. The runes in gold are reversible, see?" She pointed to a line of golden runes etched between dozens of lines of red. "Red means don't adjust, okay? I used an attractant array so the stone would suck in the magic I imbued and keep it as long as the array is active—you'll know if it starts to fail, because the runes will flicker. When you reverse these runes, it becomes a repellant array, instead, and the magic will start to leak out."
"And this equation?" Fred said weakly, pointing to the alchemic expression she'd included in the card.
"That describes the relationship between the number of seconds the stone leaks and the associated decrease in the coefficient of whatever brew, ritual, or array you're trying to imbue," Rigel said, pretty proud of the calculations. "You just plop the stone into the potion or field of magic for whatever you're working on, count the seconds you need, then levitate it back out and reverse the runes again. It can be used an indefinite number of times, until the magic inside is spent. Cool, huh?"
"Rigel…" George let out a strangled laugh. "Yeah, this is cool. Maybe the coolest thing anyone's ever given us," he added lowly.
"I'm a little afraid to ask what the recipe is for, but I also really want to know," Fred said. A wide smile was winning out over the earlier surprise. "Is it for a prank?"
She shook her head. "I'll leave that sort of invention to you two. It's a little boring, but very practical," she said. "Professor Snape helped me come up with it." She ignored the twin choking noises that statement produced. "He'll probably deny it if you ask."
"This has to be a prank," Fred muttered, opening his own box to dig out his copy of the recipe from under the matching stone within and unroll it. "It's…a preservation oil?"
"Exactly! For when you start making big batches of product to sell one day. If you coat a container in this before adding the potion you'll store in it, the oil will help extend the shelf life of the potion. I haven't done exhaustive calculations, yet, but I think for an average potion it'll be between two and three times the shelf life." She could hear herself rambling, but she couldn't help it. The recipe had been an immensely satisfying short-term project. "Professor Snape was the one who suggested the color-change component. When the oil turns brown, it's lost the magic that sustains it. At that point, the potion inside will only have its normal shelf-life remaining."
"Professor Snape gave us birthday presents," George whispered, horror in his tone.
She elbowed him. "Don't let him hear you say that. He helped with the recipe out of academic interest only."
"This is most surreal, Rigel," Fred confided, rolling up the recipe. "Somehow, your shockingly unique gifts feel like their own sort of prank. We're grateful! Thank you, I mean, but…"
"Yes, thank you!" George exclaimed from her other side. They both appeared overwhelmed.
"It's the least I could do," she said quietly. "I haven't forgotten all the things you've done for me over the years. From splinting my wrist in first year to literally saving my skin with your handy firework display. You went so far above and beyond casual friendship when you helped me recover from the unfortunate blood magic incident in the third task." She looked between the two of them and shrugged a bit helplessly. "I'm not the best at expressing gratitude on a regular basis, but I wanted to help you both with your ambitions, the way you've helped me with mine."
She thought she saw tears welling in Fred's eyes, but before she could be sure, Rigel was enveloped in twin hugs that pinned her to the bench. She held very still, careful not to breathe too deeply, until Fred and George gathered themselves and pulled back with matching sighs.
"Rigel, I don't know what we'll do with this yet," George said as he clutched the stone in his palm. "I do know that one day there will be a truly epic prank product named in your honor."
"What more could I ask for?" Rigel said, a glad grin stretched across her face.
"Seriously, thank you," Fred said fervently. "This recipe—it's gold, Rigel. You could patent it and sell it to manufacturing companies for—I don't even know. What in Godric's name you're giving it to us for, I don't know either, but we're sure as spit going to use it."
"Use it well," Rigel said, still smiling. She stood, waving farewell to the other Gryffindor sixth years, who gaped at her in silent reproach.
"Sure, arm the agents of chaos and walk away," Angelina Johnson muttered.
Rigel resisted the urge to cackle maniacally, but it was a near thing.
In such a good mood, she decided to try again at a task that had been frustrating her for months. Animagus transformation, she had found, was unlike any other form of magic she'd studied before. Her own magic was apparently next to useless until she discovered the 'inner enlightenment' that would solidify her connection to the raven.
She settled into her lab to meditate, struggling to find the animal within her even as the animal in her care slithered from his rock to her lap and coiled in peaceful repose. Dom, on the other hand, was less than helpful. He had finally finished filtering Riddle's magic out of her core and now had decidedly too much free time on his hands. That he spent that extra time blowing raspberries at random intervals in her mind should not have surprised her.
Rigel broke her meditation with a huff, not giving the construct the satisfaction of an admonition, and hissed an apology to Treeslider for disturbing him as she stretched her legs. She'd been at it several hours, and when she checked the time, she realized Archie would be waking up soon. Feeling mildly vindictive after her own peaceful moment was interrupted, Rigel dug out the mirror and shouted into it. "Harry! Haaaaarrryyyy—"
"Damn it all, cousin, what?" Archie's face appeared in the surface of the mirror, his eyes bleary with sleep.
"Morning, cuz," she chirped, good humor restored at the sight of his disgruntlement. She wondered vaguely whether her emotions were a zero-sum game, but shrugged off the suspicion in favor of watching Archie yawn.
"If you tell me you didn't wake me on purpose, I won't believe you," he grumbled. The view shifted as her cousin sat up in bed and shook his head back and forth sharply. His hair was getting long, she noted. She supposed he'd been shrinking it up with his Metamorphmagus ability rather than bothering to actually cut it.
"Early bird gets the worm," she said.
"You'd know." He yawned again.
"Actually, that's sort of the problem," she admitted, stroking Treeslider absently. "I can't get this Animagus thing to work, so I thought I'd commiserate with you to make myself feel better."
Archie's expression perked visibly. "Well, I hate to disappoint you," he said slyly.
She gaped at him. "You…already?"
Her cousin moved the mirror against something solid and let go of it. A moment later, there was a handsome red fox perched atop his rumpled bedcovers.
Treeslider hissed at the image. "Interloper! Ssseize it, Ssspeaker."
Rigel moaned in defeat as Archie turned back into himself, startling her snake into another fit of hissing. As Treeslider slid off her lap and left the lab in a disgruntled snit, her cousin laughed at her. "Pretty impressive, huh? Start to finish in a year, no less. Dad'll be plussed when I tell him."
"How did you do it?" she begged. "I'm getting nowhere, no matter how long I meditate on the 'qualities of the raven.'"
Archie scratched his chin, where the faintest hint of stubble was visible, and said, "It wasn't about defining the qualities of my fox so much as it was admitting to myself that those were my qualities, too."
"That's what Tahiil said. I still don't really understand."
Archie was quiet for a long moment, but then he began to explain. "I didn't get it either at first. I had to admit, really accept, that the fox is me. I am cunning and sneaky. I am also loyal and protective. It's okay to be all those things." His voice dropped lower as he went on. "It was more than just the Animagus thing that clicked when I accepted that, you know? I actually feel much better about the ruse, now, too. It's been weighing on me—well, I've told you some of it. I thought I was turning into a bad person, with all the lying and trickery, but I've reached a sort of rapport with that now. I accept who I am. As long as I am sneaky for a reason I agree with, then I haven't lost myself at all. In fact, the fox enhances me and my goals. It reminded me that it was because of loyalty to my family that I wanted to be a Healer in the first place. Because of Mum. And it was that same familial protectiveness that drove me to agree to the ruse. It was for your dreams, too."
"Archie…" She didn't know what to say, but her heart ached with his.
"I can also admit I'm not fully happy with the way things have turned out," he said, speaking over her gently. "It asked more of me than I knew. Going forward, I'm going to try to be truer to myself, until we find a path through all of this. And Harry—I just want you to know that whatever the raven represents to you, whatever you're scared to admit to yourself, that's okay, too. When you accept that part of yourself, you'll be more at peace. It won't happen meditating or combing through arcane magic, either," he added with a self-deprecating smile. "I figured it out in the middle of a tuna sandwich. Just be patient, and when the voice inside you tells you things you don't want to hear…try listening."
I think I like this kid.
She shoved Dom back to the recesses of her mind. He is not talking about you!
"Thanks, Arch. I know things haven't turned out the way we planned." She ran a hand through her fringe, feeling helpless to comfort him so far away. It was obvious he was going through something profound, and she hated that she couldn't be there in person to help. "I know I've been distant this year, too. Busy. After this tournament, it won't be so crazy."
Archie smiled, but it didn't have his usual shine. "I know. I don't blame you. I'm all right, anyway. Coming to terms with some things, but that's part of growing up. Don't worry about me, okay? Just come home safe. We'll sort it all out this summer."
"Okay." She swallowed the rest of her apologies and offered, "How's Hermione?"
His expression sharpened. "That's right! She's been asking me if you read through her notes. The woman is obsessed with the Fade, Harry. She's not even doing extra credit assignments for her classes anymore." His wide eyes told her that this was, indeed, a large deviation from character.
"I did read them," Rigel said. "Twice. I'm not sure I completely understand her conclusions; she thinks the common understanding of the way cores produce magic is flawed? She postulates that there is little evidence other than assumption supporting the idea that magic is created by a wizard's core alone, from scratch. While I agree the process isn't well-understood, I'm not sure there's no evidence. Then there are notes about a potential experiment to test her theory, but they aren't complete."
Archie nodded. "She's having a hard time coming up with a way to control all the variables she wants to. I hope you figure out what she's talking about and explain it to me before this summer, because she's expecting to meet up with 'Rigel' at some point to discuss the experiment face to face."
"I'll write her back after the next task," she promised. "Knowing Hermione, she's probably onto something shocking."
"Maybe you two can talk it over using the mirror," Archie suggested. "Letters take forever, and I don't mind letting her borrow it whenever." Rigel agreed to set a date when the fifth task was finished. Her cousin caught her gaze in the mirror and said, "Good luck in the next task, cuz. If you need anything, ask."
"I will. Thanks, Arch."
They disconnected the mirrors, and Rigel found herself alone in her lab with restless energy coursing through her. The next task couldn't come fast enough. The sooner this tournament was done with, the sooner life could get back to normal.
They could see it being constructed for a week before the task. Oliver Wood was frequently caught staring toward the Quidditch pitch, misty-eyed and solemn. Rigel tried not to look, but the monstrosity was hard to miss. It grew in twisting spirals, like Jack's proverbial beanstalk, only instead of green life stretching high into the clouds, it was metal, black and silver, cobbled together with only the barest allowance made for structural integrity.
From the base of the stadium gates, some of the more curious students said, you could see the top swaying in the wind. No one was allowed close enough to study the structure in detail, but Rigel could sometimes hear the ghostly voice from the locket mocking her.
"A fortnight past the equinox, three heroes will ascend."
The tower seemed to follow her for days, just visible through the open doors of the Entrance Hall, hovering over her shoulder during their morning runs. Rigel had taken to averting her face when she passed a window, which was probably why she ran smack into Auror Dawlish on her way up a set of stairs on the third floor.
He righted her with perfunctory efficiency, then adjusted his own olive trench coat. "Black. You appear distracted." Disapproval was heavily implied.
"What's your excuse, Professor?" she quipped. At his unimpressed look, she quelled. "Sorry for running into you. I have a lot on my mind."
"That much has never been in question." His sharp eyes took in the slump in her shoulders, the bags under her eyes. "Why don't you join me for a counseling session in my office?"
"I have a…" she trailed off, aware that she couldn't exactly explain she was on her way to a dueling club that didn't exist. "Never mind. Sure, Professor."
She'd apologize to Draco, but she honestly didn't think he'd mind too much. The club tended to run smoother when she wasn't there to distract the others, who inevitably had questions about some trick she'd pulled in the tournament.
Dawlish left the door to his office propped open but set up a silencing ward so that their conversation couldn't carry. He snapped his fingers twice and a set of steaming teacups appeared on the otherwise empty surface. Rigel took a cup with murmured thanks, looking around the office with muted curiosity. It looked like the space of a man who didn't intend to stay long.
"Your uncle is worried about you," Dawlish said bluntly. "He thinks the tournament is too much strain." The blank expression on his face suggested he didn't care either way, but was obliged to ask.
"Tell him I'm fine."
"I don't lie to my boss."
She straightened in her seat and scowled over her teacup. "Then tell him I will be when this is all over."
Dawlish tapped a finger on the desk next to his untouched tea. "You've been holding back in class."
Rigel blinked at the non sequitur. "I get a lot of Defense practice outside of lessons," she said dryly. "I don't think my peers would appreciate my treating the classroom the way I treat a dueling arena, Sir."
"It isn't just my class." Dawlish's gaze seemed to pierce right through her. "The other professors talk about you, did you know?"
She shook her head, eyes widening in mild alarm.
The Auror ticked them off his fingers. "From what he's seen in the tournament, Flitwick suspects you know every Charm in the textbook for at least two grades above your own. Sprout says she ran out of things to teach you about plants in third year. Potions doesn't need to be touched upon, as you already know where you stand with Snape, but McGonagall… she thinks you might be a prodigy." Even as Rigel continued to shake her head slowly, Dawlish inclined his own. "Yes, she says you continuously imply an understanding of topics not covered until well into NEWT-level Transfigurations, and that's without adding in the Alchemic principles you dovetail into her field from the Headmaster's personal tutelage."
"I just study ahead. I'm not some kind of genius."
Ignoring her, Dawlish went on, "Now for my part, the Defense class as it currently exists seems to be a complete waste of your time. Barring a slight improvement in your reflexes, I cannot claim to have effected any significant improvement in you through my instruction. Don't deny it," he added sternly. "I watched the first four tasks, same as anyone. Your demonstrative ability in handling dangerous magical creatures, spell-defense, and high-stakes dueling is beyond contestation. I'd give you an NEWT right now, if that was in my power. It's not. Don't be surprised if your post fills up with pamphlets from the Auror Corps in a few years, though."
She grimaced. "No offense to Uncle James, but I'm not interested in being an Auror. I'm going to be a Healer."
He stared at her, blinked long and hard, then barked out a laugh. "A Healer? Magic does love her little jokes. A Healer. Boy, you could be the most lethal thing to come out of the Auror's Officer in a decade. Moody is itching to get his hands on you. A Healer." He laughed again, shaking his head.
Rigel sighed. "Sorry to disappoint, but I wasn't trying to get recruited for anything. I'm just trying to survive this tournament and get back to my studies." Reminded of something, she reached into her bookbag and pulled out the worn copy of the Auror's Field Guide he'd given her the previous term. "Here. It was very helpful, but I've finished with it."
"It's your uncle's," Dawlish told her.
"I figured. I'm sure you'll see him before I do," she said, shrugging. "Thank you for the tea, Professor, and the information. Was there anything else?"
He shook his head, but belied that by adding, "You can't play dumb forever."
"I'd have to be pretty stupid to think I could," she muttered, standing. As she turned to go, she heard the Auror take up the book and flip it open. A bark of laughter cut off as she stepped through the silencing wards. Her mouth lifted in a small smile. The notes in the margins had been intended for James, but perhaps Dawlish would appreciate the suggestions, too.
Putting on what she had mentally dubbed her 'tournament uniform' for the fifth time was almost anti-climactic. Risking her life for the sport of others had, impossibly, become almost routine. She moved through the familiar scenes easily: accepting jubilant well-wishes from her housemates, giving solemn assurances to her friends, avoiding the worried gazes of her professors in the Great Hall. Rigel even had her standard 'last meal' down to an art—just enough that she would be energized without risking lethargy or nausea.
She had to be down at the pitch earlier than usual, at least half an hour before the advertised starting time for the fifth task. Draco and Pansy walked her down to the champion's tent, neither saying much. She knew they, too, were worn thin by the constant string of tasks, the never-ending cycle of preparation and recovery. Rigel felt even more awkward than usual, naked as she was without her potions kit, but Riddle had finally told them they weren't allowed any items except their wands this time. Despite this, she summoned a smile for them at the entrance to the champion's tent and said, "I'll be okay. This time, I have a good idea of what to expect going in."
That what she expected was going to be decidedly unpleasant went unvoiced.
She ducked into the tent and paused for a moment to get her bearings. Rather than the usual open space with scattered chairs, there were three cots set up around the center pole. Owens was stretched out in one as though he were only there to take a nap, and Delacour sat primly on another. Rigel climbed onto the third and said, "Any idea what they're dosing us with yet?"
"Sousa was 'ere already," Delacour said, her face set in an unhappy scowl. "'e went to find ze official 'oo was to 'old ze substance."
"So you both figured it out, too?" Owens said, sounding surprised. "This'll be fun, then. I was worried about you, Delacour."
"Not worried enough to tell me ze clue," the French girl spat.
"Hey, I sent flowers," Owens protested, a mean grin on his face.
"Corpse flowers," Delacour muttered, eyes flashing orange for a moment. "Pray our wands do not cross before zis eez over."
Owens appeared more amused at the threat than intimidated. Before he could goad her further, Matheus came back into the tent, three vials in hand.
"Good. You all are here." He held up the vials with a grin that was just a little too strained to be truly believable. "This is your task—most of it. The hard part. The rest is climbing."
"Now, Mr. Sousa, don't give away too much just yet," Bagman admonished jovially as he pushed his way into the tent ahead of Crouch and the other organizers.
Riddle swept them with his gaze as he entered, Lucius Malfoy and Crouch Jr. at his heels. The sight of the twitchy man put Rigel's hackles up, but Riddle caught her gaze briefly and sternly, and she supposed she was meant to interpret Barty Crouch's continued presence of evidence that Riddle had handled the situation. Lucius gave her a slow nod when she flicked her gaze to him, and Rigel sent him a small smile. He didn't return it. There was a warning in his eyes that sent a bare chill down her spine.
"This test will not be like the others," Riddle told them after a moment of quiet expectation circled the room. "In some of the tasks you have been limited on the items you bring or the actions you take, but in this task, you will be limited in the faculties you can bring to bear on the challenge ahead. In many ancient wizarding cultures around the globe, the youth were set to similar trials—sent to face the unknown in an altered frame of mind—and they returned enlightened and vindicated, adults in the eyes of the world."
Rigel thought that was putting a rather thick layer of icing on a cake that was, at best, mildly culturally appropriative and, at worst, objectively offensive to those very cultures, many of whom still practiced a variation of such coming-of-age rights. She glanced around to see if anyone else was embarrassed to be party to this particular aesthetic choice, but most of those in the tent hung on Riddle's words as though he might accidentally utter the secrets of magic at any moment. In exceptions, there were only two—Delacour and Owens. Her fellow champions were more interested in what exactly they'd have to do than the symbolic reasons behind it.
"Matheus Sousa has generously agreed to collaborate with the committee on this task." Riddle put a hand on the young Brazilian boy's shoulder. "His unique talents have been applied in preparing the draught that each of you will drink before attempting the main portion of the task."
"The draught has, of course, been screened by several Mediwizards," Bagman hastened to add. "Not to worry. It's designed to make the task difficult, but not impossible."
"Will we each be given an equal dose?" Rigel asked, cognizant of the fact that Owens was bigger than both her and Delacour.
Matheus shot her a dramatic pout. "I am insulted. Of course, I calibrate the correct dose for each."
Crouch nodded sharply. "Indeed. Your heights, weights, and genders have been taken into account when considering the optimum dose. Not to worry, Mr. Black. Each champion will receive a dose suited to his or her own biological limits."
She felt herself blanch, but put on a polite smile and nodded as though relieved. Inwardly, she cursed her luck. If the brew was metabolized differently according to sex, then she would be getting a dose suited for a boy of her size. Rigel hoped the practice she put in with Snape would pay dividends—it would certainly be problematic to be knocked unconscious by a dose of a drug she ought to have been able to handle.
"After ingestion, you will be monitored for twenty minutes. During that time, no circumvention or mitigation via physical or magical means is permitted." Bagman clapped his hands together as though this were an exciting twist. Certainly, Rigel could feel something twisting in her stomach. Twenty minutes? Their systems would be completely saturated by the time they were allowed to fight it off.
"Once the twenty minutes is up, the task begins," Crouch continued. He looked at them one after another with a stern eye. "You will all attempt the task at the same time. It is a race to the top of the tower that has been built in the arena. Unlike the other tasks, there are no subjective scoring categories. The first to the top will receive top score. Understood?"
Rigel nodded with the other two, at once amazed by the straightforward nature of the task and disgusted by its convolutions. To force them to attempt such a thing while mentally and physically compromised was—well, she had expected it, but that somehow didn't make it any more palatable.
"Will zere be safeguards in place around ze tower?" Delacour asked softly. "In case we fall."
Riddle's lip curled in what he probably meant to be a reassuring smile. It looked more like a sneer. "I would advise against falling, Miss Delacour, if you wish to complete the task. In the event that it becomes unavoidable… you won't physically perish."
He managed to convey clearly that any such embarrassing display was discouraged and would result in a very different perishment—that of their chances in the tournament. Rigel sneered back at him. Did he think anyone was planning to fall on purpose?
Owens fell back onto the pillow. "Let's get this going, then. I want to know what the fuss is all about." He offered his arm toward Sousa, tapping his vein with a teasing wink.
Matheus smiled slowly. "You must drink it. It is not delicious."
That was an understatement. Rigel got a waft of the brew as Sousa passed her the vial with her name on it. Even held at arm's length, it was enough to cause her stomach to clamp down in protest.
Bagman fished a headband out from his robe pocket and put it on, giving them a thumbs up to indicate it was transmitting before saying, "Welcome, one and all, to the New Triwizard Tournament fifth task! If you haven't taken your seats yet, not to worry; this is only being broadcast for transparency. The task will start in twenty minutes, but at this very moment our three remaining competitors have been given…a Draught of Delirium! They will drink it, and in twenty minutes, take up the challenge of the tower under the auspices of one of the most potent combinations of mind- and magic-altering substances known to the Wizarding World!" Bagman paused, presumably for the cheers he imagined would follow his pronouncement. He gestured urgently from beyond the viewpoint of the transmitting headband, and the three of them clenched their vials tighter. "Now, the champions will imbibe their potions!"
Rigel held her breath and downed her vial in one go. She did not release her breath until she was certain the liquid had made it all the way into her stomach, and even then, the smell of what was left in the vial almost brought it back up.
Delacour covered her mouth with a hand, eyes wide in disgust, and Owens choked and spluttered for an agonizing moment before deciding to keep the brew down.
Bagman let out a staged chuckle, though his eyes winced in sympathy for them. "There you have it! Get comfortable, folks. In twenty minutes exactly, the fifth task will begin!" He took off the headband and added, "You lot all right there?"
"It's disgusting," Owens gritted out.
Delacour nodded, tears in the corners of her eyes.
They both looked at Rigel, who grimaced. "I've actually had worse."
Madam Pomfrey bustled into the tent with flared nostrils and a glare that could keel over a hippogriff. "I should have been here from the moment they took it. Why did no one summon me?"
Crouch lifted a placating arm. "The tournament organizers are going to monitor—"
"Like hell they will." Pomfrey brandished her wand at Delacour. "Lay down this instant. I need to check your blood pressure. You're going to feel the effects first, I'm afraid. Black, you'd best lay down as well. Try not to move."
She did as she was told, rather grateful to have the strong-willed Mediwitch there as the poison began coursing through her veins. It would be doubly uncomfortable to slowly lose her senses in a space without anyone she could count on to have her back.
"The rest of you can go, unless you take some amusement from the slow torture of three helpless young people," Madam Pomfrey added with a sniff.
"Torture? No, Poppy, don't be so dramatic," Bagman said, looking uncomfortable. "It's only part of the task."
"Vertigo, dizziness, shortness of breath, sweating, vomiting, palpitations, paranoia, confusion, fear, loss of muscle control, involuntary stimulus to the visual cortex—shall I go on? Does this not sound torturous to you, Ludo?" Pomfrey's sarcastic indignation seemed hot enough to burn down the entire stadium with the right spark. "Or perhaps you'd like to take a vial for your own entertainment? I'm sure Mr. Sousa can scrounge up another dose."
Bagman was not quite foolish enough to press the witch any further. "Well, perhaps it is for the best that a trained professional take over the monitoring." He checked his watch. "Right then. Bring them to the pitch in fifteen minutes, if you please. Gentlemen? We'd best get up to the Judges' Box."
All eyes moved to Riddle, who inclined his head gracefully. "Best of luck to you three. Do make the most of your last chance for advantage before the finals."
The men left—all except Sousa, who hovered uncertainly by the entrance. When it was clear no one was going to come back in, he slouched closer to their beds and said, "I try to dial it down. Riddle has no mercy."
"What's in it?" Rigel asked. She couldn't feel it yet, but wanted to plan what she would do while her head was still clear.
"Yohimbe bark and Ayahuasca, mostly," he said quietly.
Delacour frowned. "Are you allowed to tell us zis?"
Matheus shrugged. "No one is here to stop me."
He glanced at the Mediwitch, who very pointedly did not say anything other than, "I disagreed with the concept of this task from the start. They didn't listen when I told them that twenty minutes was too long to wait in counteracting this sort of concoction—at least if they want you to be able to move your limbs."
Owens half-rose in alarm. "Is it that strong? What the f— is Yohimbe bark?"
Matheus glanced at Rigel, who answered, "It's an alkaloid commonly taken as a stimulant. It's not meant to be mixed with Ayahuasca, however, which is a brew that combines DMT with a monoamine oxidase inhibitor."
"What language are you speaking, Black? I thought this was going to be like LSD or some crap." Owens ran his fingers up and down his arm restlessly.
"This is faster and longer," Matheus said helpfully.
"The MAOI stops your digestive track from metabolizing the drug as it normally would. Instead, it will cross the blood-brain barrier and severely impair many primary functions for several hours," Madam Pomfrey added with a sniff.
"When will it start?" Delacour asked.
"Soon. Expect severe nausea, tremors, and dizziness first," Madam Pomfrey said gently. "Then it will move into unpredictable visual and audio stimulus, loss of motor control, confusion, and fear. You may think about purging prematurely if possible."
The French girl frowned. "I zought we are not allowed."
The Mediwitch raised her eyebrows and looked pointedly around the tent. She conjured a bucket and set it on the floor beside the girl before moving to the entrance to 'check the weather.'
The moment Pomfrey had ducked out of the tent, Fleur dove for the bucket. Rigel looked away as the girl held back her own hair and turned her wand on her throat. Retching noises followed, coupled with a quick vanishing charm. Rigel glanced over at Owens, curious to know whether he would say anything about the deviation from tournament rules, and caught him sliding a slim vial back into his sleeve. The pained look on his face as he averted his eyes from the sunlight coming through the slits in the tent told her what he'd taken: Sobering Draught.
She was impressed by his sneakiness, but doubted a brew designed to tackle the effects of alcohol would be very effective against the powerful psychedelic created by the vines of the Amazon basin.
Delacour performed a breath-freshening charm wordlessly and offered Rigel the bucket. She declined. "I'm all right, thank you." She'd been monitoring the draught internally, and knew that it had been absorbed too quickly for regurgitation to help much at this point. She could feel real nausea setting in, and cold sweat on her forehead.
Madam Pomfrey came back in and moved to Rigel's bedside. "I'm going to perform a basic diagnostic—"
"No, thank you. I refuse," Rigel said calmly, swallowing against her churning stomach.
Madam Pomfrey scowled at her. In a low voice, the woman said, "I'm not allowed to heal you. They'll be checking my wand, no doubt, but I can tell you what I see."
She smiled in gratitude, but shook her head. "I can diagnose myself. It is already in my bloodstream and beginning to permeate my general nervous system. I'll do what I can," she promised, already having begun directing her magic toward metabolizing the poison one area at a time.
The nurse gave her an unhappy nod and moved to Owens' bed.
"Five minutes," Matheus said.
Vertigo was beginning to set in. Rigel focused her magic toward her digestive system first, clearing the rest of the draught from her stomach and intestines before it could be absorbed further. After that, the long, slow process of sweeping her other systems began. "The heart is the most vulnerable," she said out loud, in case the others were wondering where to start. "Once we begin physical exertion, the palpitations will be dangerous."
She heard Owens curse and Delacour murmur, "Zank you." Rigel hoped the girl had managed enough practice filtering blood in the last two weeks to at least spare her heart long-term damage. This task was really too much.
Barty Crouch came in to collect them when it was time. "Figured you may need an extra pair of hands to get them out there," he said with a rather nasty smirk.
Delacour tried to stand and immediately buckled on trembling knees. She caught herself on her cot and snapped, "Do not touch me," when it seemed as though Barty would attempt to lend her his support.
Madam Pomfrey stepped in, letting the French girl lean on her as they slowly made their way out of the tent. Owens put a hand out to Matheus impatiently and said, "A little help, man? This is your fault, anyway. Least you could do, really."
Sousa sighed, but obligingly swung Owens' arm over his shoulder. He glanced at Rigel and Crouch Jr., clearly not willing to leave them. Rigel forced magic into her limbs to stabilize them and slowly swung her feet over the edge of the cot. Her vision swam away from her for a moment and she swayed, but regained her balance before toppling, at least. With a sharp jerk of her head, she said, "Let's go."
Barty crossed his arms as Rigel slowly made her way toward the entrance under her own power. "You're faring well, Black." He leaned closer and she had to suppress the urge to flinch as his tongue darted out to lick his lips. "Almost as though you didn't get a full dose."
She raised an eyebrow at him, not sure what he was trying to imply. She'd drunk the full vial, in front of the whole world, no less. "I've swallowed a lot of poison in my life," she said sweetly. "I guess it doesn't bother me so much anymore."
They moved slowly, more like a string of wounded soldiers limping toward a casualty camp than three young heroes marching into battle.
Rigel could feel her pulse in her stomach and see it in her elbow when she pulled back her green jersey sleeve. She was sweeping her cardiovascular and respiratory systems as quickly as she could, trying to target the areas that kept her body alive first and worry about what it was doing in her mind second. Her magic was slower to respond than usual, though. It wasn't like fighting off a poison such as Aconite, which affected only her body. As the draught began to affect her mind more keenly, the connection between her will and her magic felt strangely dampened, clogged like a gunk-filled pipe.
Every step was an exercise in complete concentration, and she had no idea how she was supposed to complete a task in that state. Delacour could barely stand upright, and Owens had begun to mutter quietly to himself, eyes darting here and there uneasily.
They finally reached the pitch, the din of applause and stamping cheers enough to cause Owens, still suffering the after-effects of his Sobering Draught, to double over and purge violently. Barty Crouch led Rigel to her starting point at the base of the metal tower.
"Look up, boy," he said conversationally. "See the top?" She squinted up the steep incline, her eyes crossing briefly without her impetus. The tip of the spire doubled and swayed in her confused vision, and she shut her eyes with a low groan. "There are no traps along the way," Barty went on brightly. "Not a single curse or beastie to stop you until you get to the very end. All you have to do is climb. You can even use magic—whatever magic you want. If you can, that is." He slapped the black metal of the tower fondly and laughed. "You're in for it this time, Black."
Rigel knew she was having trouble parsing through his words. Her brain felt heavy and slow in a way it hadn't since those feverish days in Pettigrew's pit. She hated it, but found it difficult to sustain the energy required to be angry. Bagman was shouting something, his magnified voice ringing all around the stadium, going on and on and on and—
Kid, what's going on!?
Dom? Disoriented, Rigel tried to concentrate. "Dom, what are you doing out here?" she murmured, looking around the pitch.
I'm still in here, idiot! You need to come see this—it's everywhere. It's going to burn down the whole mindscape at this rate—
That jolted something inside her, some residual panic that had been squatting in her chest for a rainy day, perhaps. Rigel took a deep breath and clutched her dizzy head. She reached for her magic to continue filtering the draught from her nervous system—when had she stopped?—but it twisted away, just beyond her grasp. My magic, she thought with deliberate force. My magic…I can't—!
I know. Stop panicking. You're making it worse. He pushed a wave of calm across her mind, and for a moment, there was clarity.
Dom! Rigel thought as fast as she could. It's the fifth task. We were drugged, and I have to climb a… The thought was so close. A tower! I have to climb a tower.
She struggled against the tide of chemicals in her system that just wanted her to lie down and stop moving. After a moment, Dom answered. All right, you can't come in here right now, then. You've got to win that tournament. I will take care of things in here.
Yes. She could have sobbed in relief. The confusion crept back at the edges of her mind. Handle it. Protect my mind. Use whatever magic you need.
The was a short, almost horrified pause. Then Dom's voice came again. When you have control of your magic back, I'll let you know, but until then, you have to keep going on your own.
"Keep going?" She said it slowly, testing the words. Where was she going?
Climb, kid! Climb the tower!
Rigel blinked, noticing the monstrous tower in front of her nose. There were people all around, screaming at her, something…something. Climb! The voice in her head insisted. Rigel reached for the first rung and started to climb. Her limbs were wooden, but they worked to a degree. One step, two. She reached a small platform. It was big enough to stretch out on. Maybe if she—
Right. She was climbing. Her hand reached up and found the next handhold.
It was an invasion of burning spores. Dom perceived them as they drifted into the mindscape, accompanied by a sourceless fog, and climbed to his perch atop the mountain to better see. They appeared at first glance to be fireflies, faintly twinkling spots of light that wafted aimlessly in the breeze. Where one landed on the mountain, the flowers caught fire. Dom leapt to stamp it out; his foot was aflame in moments. With a howl of annoyance, he flicked the small amount of magic he had saved from his last 'allowance' at the fire and doused it. As he lifted his head, a sea of burning embers met his gaze, each a fiery snowflake floating gently toward an unsuspecting landscape.
His urgent cry to the girl rang through the mindscape, and her resulting panic sent the spores into a flurry. They landed in his hair, his clothes, and everything they touched turned to ash. Within minutes, it was chaos.
Protect my mind.
The command called to the runic arrays etched into his construct. Protection was the construct's primary directive. Purpose swelled in his breast.
Use whatever magic you need.
A well of bottomless hunger opened up in his gullet. Whatever he needed to protect her mind. A joyful shout bubbled up inside him, even as he swatted a spore away from his face with a whip of sheer magic. Dom folded his way through the mindscape faster than a blink, materializing before the unassuming door to his Mistress' ever-sacred Space Room. The seat of her inner self. She never let him come here unsupervised, but he knew the password well from her many visits. Silly girl; she thought if she only thought the password and didn't say it, he couldn't hear it.
He murmured the phrase with an ironic lift to his voice, and the door opened. Her magic awaited, warm, sweet waves of it that rolled over him. Bliss, pure and welcoming. He didn't have time to bask in it, however. With an outstretched hand, he called to the sun. Her magic resisted at first, wary of him—as it should be—and already trembling under the force of the attack on the girl's mind. Despite her magic being too unsettled to respond readily, the will she had attached to her edict was unshakable, whether she had the attention to enforce it at the moment or not.
Use whatever magic you need.
The truth of it was undeniable, and the magic acquiesced with a shudder. He drank it in until he was swollen with power. Not all of it—not even most. Just enough to send these impudent, infidelic spores back into oblivion.
He barred the door to the Space Room with a wall of fire and swept through the corridors like an ancient plague, sucking the life from every spore, crashing up into the study on a tidal wave of power. The scrolls with carefully constructed decoy memories were on fire, and the carpet that concealed the trapdoor was nothing but ash. None of that worried him—mental objects could be recreated on a whim. What drew his immediate notice was the open cabinet door swinging freely from its broken hinge.
That man's magic was loose. Whether the spores had somehow damaged the lock or the foreign magic had sensed the inattention of its keeper, it was gone from its prison, only an empty vial remaining.
With a roar, Dom vaporized the spores in view and went hunting. The little vial of collected magic lacked true autonomy, so removed from its owner—it could not have gone far. He stepped out of the mountain and drew on the fresh magic in his stomach. On a great breath, his form stretched and grew, until he more resembled a colossal cheetah, claws like knifes and teeth enough to rip through anything in his path. In a skin befitting his magnificence, Dom tore across the mountainscape in a streak of menace, consuming the spores in his way. The whole world was fire, but his was the hotter flame.
Time was ephemeral, but he had spent nearly all the magic he'd taken by the time the last of the spores had been snuffed. Dom regained his humanoid form with a faint scowl. He had not found the foreign magic.
With the immediate enemy defeated, Dom closed his eyes and took stock of the whole of his domain, one piece at a time, soothing the worst of the damage, until he found it. With a smirk, he stepped from the mountainside to the pyramid. The ball of magic had managed to shift between the layers in the girl's mind. It struggled and squirmed, caught in the claw of a curious Sphinx. Dom shook a finger at it. "Naughty, naughty. You shouldn't wander. Thank you, lovely." He gave the lion-bodied guard a measured stroke and relieved her of her prize.
He transported them back to the mountain layer in a flash, a frown of contemplation on his face. What to do with the enterprising little ball of snot? His host had enough to worry about without wondering if her enemy's magic was gamboling about whenever his back was turned.
Dom sat heavily in his chair by the fire, patting his belly, full for the first time in ages, with regret. He shuddered, clenched his construct's muscles, and let the magic go. It climbed out of his throat, scalding as it went, and scurried back to join with its larger part in the Space Room. Dom watched it flee, breathing heavily. When the warmth of the sun had faded from his system, he turned his gaze to the magic captive in his fist. It was better not to risk re-mixing them, he knew, but it didn't make his next meal any more appetizing.
With a decisive lunge, he swallowed it. The magic struggled all the way down, but it, as all magic before it, bent to his will in the end.
"This is not on." Ron's voice was flat with righteous indignation. Neville didn't have to ask what he meant; it was everything. All of it.
They were in the highest section of the Southwest stands, with a clear view of Rigel's side of the tower. As its near-vertical face twisted around the corner, they could barely make out Owens' form, too. Delacour wasn't visible, but they could see her progress on the large mirrors, which transitioned smoothly between transmission runes set at various angles around the tower and stadium.
"He's halfway through," Neville said quietly. It was cold reassurance, and they both knew it. This task had seemed cruel from the start; now, it was beginning to look impossible. Rigel had stopped again, shaking his head slowly back and forth, a confused frown on his sweaty face whenever the mirrors reflected it up close. This was the dozenth or so time he'd stopped, and each time it took longer before the Slytherin started moving again.
"Owens is catching up."
Neville wasn't sure which of the Gryffindors around them had said it, but they were quickly shushed. He eyed Owens' jerky progress in relation to Rigel's. The American wizard kept twitching to look behind him, and there was a wild, unsteady look in his eyes that the mirror magnified a hundredfold. Whatever they'd had to drink, it had almost completely compromised their higher thought processes.
Rigel started to move again, but it was slow—so slow it was painful to watch. The boy's head suddenly whipped around in confusion, and a moment later, Neville heard what had caught his attention—a scream. The mirror flashed over to Fleur, who lay crumpled in a heap, her foot twisted at an unnatural angle.
"Bloody hell," Ron croaked. "I think she fell to a lower platform."
The French witch's limbs trembled visibly in the mirror and tears fell freely down to her chin, where they caught for a moment before dripping to the metal plate under her hands. Neville looked to the Mediwizards standing below on the pitch, but none of them moved to rescue the girl. One of them appeared to be physically restraining Madam Pomfrey, whose shouts were carried away by the wind.
His voice caught in his chest a little as he said, "They aren't going to help her."
Ron cursed colorfully, his face beginning to turn red. Neville understood his frustration. This wasn't entertainment; it was pure, unbridled torture. What were they supposed to be proving—how much absolute misery they could handle before giving up?
"How long do you think it would take to prank Riddle?"
Neville craned his neck around to see Fred and George in the row behind them, red heads bent together. George had his eyes fixed on Rigel's slowly climbing form, but Fred's gaze was lasered in on the Top Box.
"At least a year," George answered. When Neville realized they were serious, he winced. The twins were scary when they dropped the joker act.
"Lotta surveillance, probably," Fred agreed. "Might have to turn someone on the inside."
"I reckon we could—"
Ron sucked in a breath and Neville whirled back around to face the pitch. Rigel's foot had slipped, the only thing keeping him from a nasty fall the fingers of his left hand, which were stuck fast to the metal rung. "Thank Godric for those gloves of his," Ron said with a sigh of relief. "Blimey, this is gonna give me grey hairs"
Neville watched Rigel shake his head sharply and haul himself up to the next rung. He was high enough now that the wind buffeted him violently, his hair and jersey in constant motion. Neville felt his stomach turn over as the mirror zoomed in on Rigel's scared, confused features one more. It didn't seem right that a nice bloke like Rigel should have to go through this. Neville had watched the first task in sheer terror, but comforted himself with the thought that Rigel had probably known what he was getting into. The second and third tasks had been rough, but his friend got through them well enough. He hadn't known what to make of the fourth task—it seemed as though someone had been trying to make a point, but he wasn't sure what it was. This, though…it was just mean. Whoever reached the top first wouldn't be the best wizard. They'd just be the one who fumbled their way to the finish with the least accidents.
Rigel groped for the next rung. George whispered from over Neville's shoulder. "Come on, Pup."
"Keep going, Rigel." Ron stared at the boy as though the fervency of his gaze alone could sustain him.
Neville added his own murmur to the hundreds of others that were no doubt going up around the stadium. "You can do it, Rigel. Don't give up."
It was hard to believe it helped. With a series of cringe-worthy lurches, Rigel finally topped the last of the platforms. Neville's knees felt weak with relief and he watched the boy approach the flag that represented the finish line. His heart rose—then froze, as Rigel's hand came up against an invisible barrier.
"That's cheap!" Ron's snarl of outrage drowned out his own weak protest.
It wasn't fair. It wasn't—he made it to the top. What kind of sick game were they playing? Rigel beat against the barrier weakly, the most pathetic look of hopeless denial on his face.
"What do they expect him to do in that state?" Ron snapped. "He's barely upright."
"It's not enough to get to the end of the task. He's got to beat the draught, too." George said it with a resigned sort of realization. "This won't end until one of them fully fights through the drug."
Neville felt his shoulders slump. Who knew how long that would take? Delacour hadn't moved from where she landed, all the fight seeming to have gone out of her. Owens had his wand out and his back against the tower. He brandished the stick wildly in every direction, seeming to see something no one else could. And Rigel—Rigel was staring dumbly at the invisible barrier, a frozen denial on his face.
The sky tilted on its axis, spilling blue all over, and the sun rolled above her. She shut her eyes and rested her head on a wall that wasn't there. She was so tired. So lost. How did she get here?
That voice had been echoing for what felt like hours, but there was nowhere left to climb. A sob bubbled up in her chest. Where was she supposed to go now?
Behind her eyelids, people and places swam together in a sea of sound and color that had been swirled all out of order. She could smell fish and goat cheese and taste fairy wine. There was a trick there…somewhere. Archie was whispering her name—why was Archie there? He pressed a knife into her hand. She didn't understand. There was a trick here. Somewhere.
Kid, what are you doing?
Her ears pricked, she tried to decide whether the words were real. She opened her eyes but didn't see anyone beside her. "I don't know," she told the voice, just in case.
Did you finish?
"I finished…climbing," she decided, looking around the barren platform. "No more—nowhere left."
That doesn't…never mind. I got things under control in here. You should be able to use your magic again.
Magic. She liked her magic. She opened and closed her hands, then frowned. That wasn't right. How to reach—there. It was inside her, warm and comforting. Strangely, it made her want to cry. She was so tired.
That's it, girl. Use the magic. I can help, but you've got to be the one deciding. You want to flush the confusion out, don't you?
She nodded slowly. She wanted the fog to blow away. Then she could see the trick.
Will it. I'll guide it to start—just wish as hard as you can.
She closed her eyes and put a hand to her heart. Please, please, please, take the confusion away. Wash it off, blow it out, scrape it, squash it, please, please.
Got it. Hang in there.
The warm magic was wrestled gently from her grasp, and she almost cried out, but immediately she felt the trembling confusion recede the tiniest of bits. This was good. She wanted this. Strand by strand, she felt the tapestry of her conscious mind delicately woven back into place. When she remembered what she was supposed to be doing, she stiffened and her eyes snapped open.
The tournament. The task. The tower.
The stands were just above her—she was at the top. Students screamed down at her, some pointing. Rigel shook her head, her vision swimming as she caught a glimpse of the ground, so far below her.
She felt the shimmering magic of an active ward a few inches from her nose—could recognize it now, and Rigel realized there was something else she had to do before she could rest. Dom was making swift work of the chemicals in her nervous system. She could feel motor control returning to her muscles, along with an ache as they protested their recent treatment. Rigel didn't want to think about how she had no clear memory of climbing the tower at all.
She flexed her control, grasped the reigns of her magic and pushed Dom firmly aside with a mental wave of gratitude. It had been his voice, she knew now, urging her over and over to keep climbing. She knew she didn't have time to completely flush her system of the draught, but she could mitigate its effects on her mind with sheer magic for a relatively short period of time, the same way she'd forced her limbs to cooperate with magic until they were properly under her control again.
Rigel held her faculties as steady as she could, determined to finish this task quickly. First, she had to know what kind of ward she was dealing with. She flared her magical awareness and flinched—there was a core right behind her. She spun on her knees to see Owens towering over her, his footing unsteady and his eyes wide. There was something wild in his gaze, something glazed that told her he wasn't seeing her in that moment.
"Owens…" she said, her voice croaking. She held up a placating hand, even as the other one groped for her wand. "We don't have to fight. We'll both get top marks if we get through together."
"You're not…supposed to be here," he snarled between deep, unsteady breaths. "I left you…there. I left you."
"The draught is making you see things, Owens—Jacob," she pleaded as he lurched forward a step. "Listen to me. Do you understand?"
He swayed in the wind, trying to step toward her. "I understand everything. You don't under—"
He tripped, and Rigel stunned him. The bolt of light was weak and wobbling as it left her wand, but Owens was in no condition to dodge. She caught him, lowering the boy to the precarious platform with trembling arms, and panted for a moment to regain her strength.
The ward. She had to take down the ward. The drug pulsed against her magic, so many compromised synapses firing out of turn. Archie. The knife. What—
With a heave of mental effort, she put her train of thought back on track and flared her magic at the ward again. Rigel whimpered as she recognized it—a blood ward. A bloody blood ward.
Whose blood did she need? Her brain was in physical pain from the strain of forcing it to fire along the pathways she needed it to. They didn't have her blood. It shouldn't matter… Rigel eyed Owens for a long moment. She could use his…a tiny cut, just a baby one, an Addy little…
She shook her head sharply. Tested the ward again. Groaned. "Willing, has to be willing." Okay. That was fine. Why was it fine? She had a… trick! There was a trick. It was hers.
Quickly, Rigel took off her fingerless gauntlet and glove, feeling the skin on her left wrist as it pulsed with the force of her blood pressure. Her fingers grasped for the smallest of edges… there. Visibly concealed, but perceivable with a careful touch, was evidence of the skin graft performed months ago.
Willing… yes, Archie had been willing to give it.
Her wand, sharpened with a shaky whisper, sliced carefully through the graft to the flat pouch of blood behind it. The barest of trickles as liquid was released, her wrist against the barrier, and she was falling forward. She caught herself raggedly on the flagpole and buried her face in the white folds for a long moment. The noise in the stadium was unbearably loud. Someone was shouting something—Bagman, she thought—but her energy was flagging rapidly.
She couldn't keep control of the magic any longer. As the bulwark fell, the tide of chemicals advanced once more, and she felt her consciousness falter, flicker, and sink.
She was floating, rocking, cradled by the soft hands of magic herself. Content to drift, she let the gentle motion take her deeper, pulling her under like a riptide until its abrupt cessation startled her awake once more.
Madam Pomfrey stood above her. Rigel was back in the tent, staring up from her cot, and for a long, suspended moment, she wondered if the entire thing had been a dream. The thought that she might not have even started the fifth task yet was so upsetting she forced herself upright, straining against gravity to sit up and stare about her.
"Lie down this instant, Mr. Black. You have been through quite an ordeal and I must heal you—"
"No." The word was torn from her lips at once. "No, I will heal myself."
She was not quite as bad off as she had been before. Some things were still confusing—how had she gotten back to the tent? How long ago had the task ended?—but others Rigel was perfectly clear on. No one would treat her. She and Dom would work through it in their own time.
"The others," she said through dry lips.
"They are here," Pomfrey assured her, gesturing to the other cots.
Rigel blinked. So they were. Had she missed them coming in? Owens was unconscious—her doing, she dimly recalled. Fleur was awake, but wracked with convulsions, her eyes straining up toward the ceiling. Two Mediwizards stood over her, wands out, murmuring diagnostic spells.
"See to Owens," Rigel insisted, laying back down slowly. "I can handle the rest of it." She hoped she could, at least.
As Pomfrey moved over to Owens' cot, or maybe much later—it was difficult to know—Sousa ducked into the tent. His expressive eyes went to Delacour, still trembling, now unconscious, and he said, "I come to apologize. It should not… the dose should not have done this."
One of the Mediwizards looked over with a dark scowl. "The amount in her system is out of order. She could have died."
Matheus shook his head helplessly. "I calculate it right. I don't know… the dose must be tampered with." The boy ran a hand through his beautiful hair. "But if they are switched, one of you should be only weakly affected." As Owens was still unconscious, he turned to Rigel. "Were you pretending?"
She blinked at him, having only followed most of the conversation.
He sighed. "No, I see. These British ingredients are unreliable, or her creature blood messed up the dose." He apologized again, eyes lingering on the pale French witch, before retreating from the tent.
Rigel drifted in and out of the world, and slowly her mind turned the problem over. She wondered about the doses. If the wrong dose almost killed Delacour, then a double dose should have killed Rigel. If it didn't, then she couldn't have taken a double dose. Which meant… she grasped at the answer for a long time. Finally, it solidified in her stomach. The doses were switched. If she drank Fleur's, and Fleur drank Rigel's…then Rigel had only had the regular dose intended for a female, and Delacour had been double-dosed.
The conclusion satisfied her, until the implications crept up over her shoulder. Someone had switched the doses. To make sure Fleur lost… or, more likely, to make sure Rigel won. Not knowing she was a girl, someone must have assumed she'd perform significantly better under what should have been a half-dose for a boy.
"Bastard," she muttered to no one in particular.
One moment, she was glaring at the tent ceiling, the next, someone was nudging her awake. Rigel jerked violently and blinked her vision back into a single picture. It was Owens, standing over her again, only this time, his eyes were sane.
"Just checking to see if you're still alive," he said casually.
The American looked as though he'd never drank the Delirium Draught, and Rigel thought enviously that she could be as put together, too, if she allowed Madam Pomfrey to heal her. The temptation was brief; there were far too many reasons why that was a bad idea. She had never wanted someone else combing through her mind less.
With a groan of annoyance, she waved the boy away, rolling over to put her back to him pointedly. Rigel would deal with him later, if she had to deal with him at all.
Owens laughed softly and said, "Suit yourself. Sousa says this stuff might wear off on its own in another hour or two."
The thought was a bleak one, but it kindled her resolve. She had to stay awake. Had to start flushing the toxins in earnest, again. Her rest was over.
When she heard Owens' voice again, her first thought was that he hadn't left, after all. When she rolled back over, she realized he had left the tent, but was standing just to the side of the entrance, speaking low—but not lowly enough that she couldn't hear him.
"Don't bother. He's still out of it."
"I thought you were going to—"
"I did. It's not my fault the draught knocked him on his ass."
"You speak as though you fared any better." Rigel knew that voice. She cursed the confused neurons in her brain. She knew she knew it.
Owens let out a hiss of annoyance. "What's so special about him, anyway? You've held his hand through this entire tournament. Every task was geared toward him or fixed for him. Every clue. Every test. I should be your apprentice, not some half-reluctant, hostile little—"
"That. Is. Enough. Now is not the time or place to brandish your insecurities."
Her mind produced images without context: The Chamber of Secrets, Tom the teenager, insecurities fresh on the surface, the locket from the lake, the article about Morfin and Marvolo—Riddle! She held tight to the understanding. Riddle's voice had been the one she recognized, though there was something weird about it, soft and subtle…
Rigel shook herself back to reality and looked around. Owens was gone. She didn't see or hear either him or Riddle. She looked over to the lone Mediwizard who was still standing over Fleur's bed, a troubled frown on his face.
"Did you hear that?" she asked.
He looked over at her, surprised to see her awake, perhaps. "Hear what?"
The Mediwizard gave her a pitying look. "You're going to hear things and see things that aren't real until the drugs wear off."
Rigel nodded, slumping back to her cot once more. Everything was so confusing. She just wanted to sleep. Before she could summon the willpower to either fight through the rest of the draught or let herself slip back into unconsciousness, the decision was made for her.
"Rigel! Thank Merlin."
Pansy's arms were around her shoulders; Draco's palm was on her head.
"Pomfrey says you won't let them heal you, so we're taking you back to the common room," he said.
Rigel looked between them, not entirely sure whether they were real or whether her mind had conjured the most comforting image it could come up with. "Really?" she asked, hope threading her voice. "Are you really here?"
"Oh, Rigel." Pansy squeezed her gently and stood. "Nothing could keep us from you."
"Nothing and no one," Draco confirmed. "If we have to carry you, levitate you, or smuggle you transfigured as a rock, we're getting you out of here one way or another."
"We're taking you home."
[end of chapter twelve].
A/N: Thanks to everyone for reading! This one was rough, huh? Approaching the end of the book, now. Expect two more chapters, I think. If you're impatient for a new chapter and need something to chew on in the meantime, there are a lot of beautifully imagined and crafted spin-off fics on FFN and AO3, with an entire slew of short stories about to be released in association with the Rigel Black Chronicles Exchange organized on the Discord server.
For everyone who was wondering, I've finished my cross-country move and am settled in safe at my new place. I hope all you readers are safe at home, either teleworking or just hunkering down to wait this pandemic out. If you're out there providing a service in these difficult times, thank you from the bottom of my heart and stay safe!
I promised to answer more questions. No spoilers or vital information ahead, so don't worry about reading on if you aren't interested.
1. How do you come up with and keep straight the world building and laws of magic?
I will be the first to say I am not great at keeping everything perfectly straight and not contradicting myself. I try, but the series has grown to the point that I don't pretend to remember everything I've written. Not good author practice, but it's true. I keep a running document of important details I reference often, but other than that I tend to make it up as I go and hope it meshes with what has come before. Sorry it isn't more consistent. One of my favorite things to do is to incorporate real science and facts into the magical world, to ground it a bit in terms that people from our world might be familiar with. I use chemistry and medicine, math and physics, to try and inject as much realism into the unrealistic as possible. Basing it to some extent on real laws of the universe helps keep it consistent, I hope. Sometimes, I get carried away researching things that don't even make it into the story—I recently spent an embarrassing amount of time reading about deathcaps, which had nothing to do with the last chapter—but I love to learn new things, so the research aspect of story-writing is always fun for me.
2. How is your Original Fic coming along?
I've finished the first draft, and am now in the happy stages of insecurity where an author must decide whether it is good enough to expose to other eyes. I've been procrastinating calling it 'finished' because that means I have to find an editor, agent, or self-publishing vehicle, so I'm calling it 'drafted' and embarrassedly avoiding the next step. I'm hoping to spend a little time polishing it this month, but my work is sort of hard to predict right now.
3. When do you think you will complete the series and how many books will there be?
I am hoping to finish the series before I publish my Original Fic. Ideally, the conclusion of this story and the publishing of an original world take on the concept would be near-simultaneous. I know that isn't a timeline, but I'm honestly not sure if that will take a year or three years. I have five books solidly planned, with room for a sixth if I think it's necessary to the overarching narrative. So far, I haven't been planning too far advanced of where I am in writing, so thinking beyond book five is hard, but I'm willing to play it by ear and see how the story evolves.
4. Are there any plans to move the series to AO3?
I think I made an account there once, but I haven't moved the story over nor do I have immediate plans to. Part of it is I like to read all the reviews and messages I get (albeit very time-late, usually), and I thought originally it would be harder to juggle two platforms at once. I do think I would be amenable to moving the story over when it is finished, or perhaps each book one at a time as I find the time to go back and edit. The first couple of books especially are rather embarrassing for me to revisit, in terms of editing cleanliness.
5. Do you have references for what certain characters look like?
I really don't. I have little to no artistic imagination, actually. When coming up with a character, I generally get as far as the hair color and sometimes eye color and then my imagination gives up on the visual and dives into their mannerisms, intonation, and motives. In my head, the characters are flat little stick figures with HUGE personalities haha. I leave it to the artistically minded readers to come up with their interpretation of what the characters really look like, and I deeply enjoy seeing what people come up with. Shout out to all the artists in the Discord 'Harry get some sleep,' on tumblr, and beyond who make this story visually come alive. Another shout out to the readers of the Soundcloud podfic version of Rigel's story, who are giving it a true voice for the first time.
As always, thank you all for your support and feedback!
Best wishes. -Violet