A/N: The reason this chapter took so long was because I couldn't decide where to end it, but the good news is that a good bit of the next chapter is already written. Also, I have put the year at the beginning of each section. To avoid confusing the timelines.
CloudySky: No, Mordecai did not get a magical lobotomy, and he did notice the form of Sultzey's shield. If he hadn't, it wouldn't have been mention because I was writing from his perspective. As to whether you are right about the clues, that would depend on whether the clues you are talking about are the clues I left.
Sentrosi: I DO LIVE!
PSTurner: Where do you get the idea that Sultzey is Potter? There are two James': James Sultzey and James Potter. From now on (READ THIS EVERYONE!) James Potter will be referred to by last name, except in some people's speech, and James Sultzey will be referred to by first name, except in some people's speech.
SaWa-San: Yes, very typical of Mordecai.
Disclaimer: I really should not need to tell you this, but I do not own Harry Potter.
Over the next two weeks, Mordecai improved his transfiguration and potions skills substantially with James Sultzey's help and miraculously kept up with his schoolwork. James' answers, whether to questions in class or on quizzes invariably contradicted the textbooks, but were much better than whatever 'useless babble' (James' words) was the 'correct' answer; most teachers graded him rather harshly, except Slughorn, who caught on quickly and was quite impressed with his theories (but not as impressed as with Snape's).
The Marauders were arrogant pranksters, Barone was a brutal menace in Defense classes, no one tried to recruit Mordecai to join the Death Eaters, Mordecai restrained himself from shouting at Malfoy in the middle of the common room to stop calling people mudbloods, Gryffindors and Slytherins regularly ambushed each other in the corridors at Barone's behest and Mordecai began to fit in with the other students. James did not come anywhere close to fitting in with anybody; he seemed to greatly enjoy performing impossible feats of transfiguration, passing them off as 'nothing, really,' and answering people's question before they asked (courtesy of his legilimency talents), with the result that most students stayed as far from him as they possibly could.
Unfortunately, there was not nearly enough time for preparing for the duel with Potter, planned for Saturday after the third week of classes on top of the Astronomy Tower; James wasn't nearly as concerned as Mordecai would have expected and spent most of the day doing… well, no one had any idea what he did, but he definitely had more free time than anyone else. It was over breakfast two weeks after the start of classes that his free time was explained.
"Merlin, do you have to work on whatever research project that is during breakfast?" Mordecai asked in disbelief as James pushed his plate aside in favor of his ever-present pen and notepad.
"Yes, actually, as this essay is due today."
Mordecai choked on his roll as James began writing at the top of the blank parchment, and Daren asked, "Do you mean that you haven't even started McGonagall's essay? As in, the one due second period today??"
Mordecai suspected that Daren Nott was planning on recruiting James, because he was extremely helpful to the legilimens and never showed any fear of resentment of his abilities. James made a sound that was something like 'hm-hm' and mumbled something about concentration as his pen practically raced across the parchment.
"So what do you think Barone has in store for us?" Mordecai asked.
"I hope to Morgana it's not any worse than he is," Mafalda Hopkirk moaned; somehow Mordecai hadn't been surprised to learn that the annoying Ministry person who kept sending him owls about underage magic was a Slytherin. He also seriously doubted that her wishes would come true, as Barone had proven to be even more vicious–the professor called it 'demanding what you're capable of'–than Moody. The most worrisome part was that he had advised the members of the Gryffindor and Slytherin sixth-year class to 'be prepared' for the next class, but has made no such declaration to any other class.
"Do you think he was being nice and warning us after what he pulled in the first class?" Daren suggested optimistically.
"No, he had to know the warning would get to everyone," Mordecai disagreed, "he either wants to laugh at us while we puzzle it out, has something special planned for our class, or both."
"Any way you look at it, he's got it in for us. Maybe he doesn't like Evans for some reason?"
Which reminded Mordecai he hadn't spoken to his mother since their chance meeting at Fortesque's, he'd have to do that soon…
"No," Mafalda thought, "it must be Potter. Evans only got stunned, but Potter had to watch her get hit by a killing curse look-alike."
The debate continued in ever more paranoid circles as every remotely reasonable theory was exhausted and the discussion turned to the unreasonable; Barone was a Russian spy, Potter was the spy and Barone was a Death Eater sent to stop him, Barone was an unspeakable here to test spells on unsuspecting students, Barone was a Death Eater sent to prepare the way for the glorious triumph the Dark Lord's mighty legions…
"Whatever is going on, keep your wands close to hand and a shield ready," James advised, reentering the discussion as he twisted around to put his essay in his bag.
"You're finished already?!" Daren spluttered as Mordecai grabbed for the essay.
Mordecai's jaw fell open as he saw that James did indeed have fourteen inches on the theory of gas-to-solid transfigurations. But his shock wore off as he noticed… "You're writing's bigger than mine! And that's not how you spell 'inanimate!'"
"The point," James snapped, taking his essay back, "is that you spent all Sunday afternoon working on yours and I finished mine in fifteen minutes." The wily legilimens then began to stuff pancakes and bacon into his mouth as quickly as possible, no doubt hoping to fortify himself with a full breakfast before the impending Defense class.
"Still," Daren mused, "I can't wait to see what grade you get on that."
Tom Riddle wondered whether he would ever be free from his prison… he no longer had the power to rescue himself from what had once been a fortress to be proud of. Now, after Harry Potter killed him, his clever plan was an inescapable prison, and his only hope was that someone would rescue him from the dark and silence…
The sixth-year Slytherins heard voices coming from defense classroom as they approached, indicating that someone had already sprung whatever trap Barone may have placed; they were very glad of this when they heard Sirius Black's voice rise above the others:
"GET ME DOWN FROM HERE OR I SWEAR I'LL TRANSFIGURE YOU'RE ROBE INTO A BRA!"
"In a real defense situation," the voice of Barone lectured calmly, "you would not get down."
The Slytherins snickered as they approached the open door, each muttering a shield charm as they crossed the threshold, as was rapidly becoming habit among the students; a disarming spell ricocheted off Mordecai's shield, striking Sirius Black who–
Barone was by his desk and not casting anything lethal-looking. Whew!
The Slytherin sniggers now blossomed into raucous laughter as they saw three Marauders suspended from the ceiling, apparently by the sole of their shoes. It was difficult to tell, because the hems of their robes were also stuck to the ceiling, obscuring their feet; Remus Lupin's robes were several inches short and had had torn around his shoulders to reach the ceiling, Black had been hit by the reflected disarming spell and was swinging and flailing crazily while yelling insults and profanities at Barone and Potter was reaching for one of the Marauders' scattered wands which remained inches from his grasp.
Snape stepped forward and banished the wand away and aimed his own toward Potter. "Weren't you just bragging yesterday that you were quite talented in hez deflection? Perhaps you would like to prove that?" Snape sneered with a look of unholy glee. Potter's eyes widened and he paled slightly.
"I meant with a wand. Deflecting spells generally requires a wand." A little color returned to Potter's face as he got some confidence back and continued, "Since I understand you're not the most intelligent fellow, I'm willing to be reasonable and overlook the mistake if you give me my wand."
"Any competent hex deflector would still have his wand, Potter. Two points for every one you block!"
While Mordecai was not on the best of terms with his father at the moment, he still didn't want to stand around and watch Snape curse him to little pieces, so he did the only logical thing: cheer for Snape. "Bravo!" he called clapping loudly, "our dear Severus is learning a new skill today: cursing unarmed people! It's the first step on the road to beating a gnat in a duel, a goal which our illustrious Slytherin may someday–protego!" Mordecai's lightning reflexes saved him from Snape's silent jinx, but Potter was not so lucky as the bolt of red ricocheted into him and he swung crazily, nearly laying flat on his back on the ceiling before falling back down. Snape used Potter swinging toward him as an excuse to hit him with a banishing charm, and Barone chose that exact moment to release the Marauders from the ceiling; Black and Lupin fell to the floor in a tangle of robes and Potter sailed across the room.
Now that the excitement was over, Snape sneered at everyone in turn before taking a seat in the back corner while Mordecai and James made for the other back corner. The moment it became apparent where James was sitting, the less courageous of the class stampeded to the front while those eager to earn a few points sat as close to him as possible; James had a habit of muttering all the answers too quietly for the teachers to hear, so that anyone near enough to him could earn a great many points by repeating what he said with a little volume. Sitting next to James in classes and at meals was probably not the best way to keep a low profile as Mordecai had planned on, but what was he supposed to do? He and James where the only people who didn't already have a great many friends, and half the upper year Slytherins were Death Eaters, a few having chased Mordecai and his friends around the Department of Mysteries last June; it wasn't as if he could spend all his time with Ron and Hermione.
Mordecai shoved his thoughts aside and turned his attention back to the lesson, deciding that losing himself in his thoughts was not worth a stinging hex. It was a good thing too…
"–will be going in teams of two." Mordecai really wished he knew where he would be going, but it probably wasn't anywhere pleasant; the only times he had gone anywhere for defense classes where during some of Lupin's practical lessons and final exam, maybe this was where he had gotten the idea? "I will call each pair and you will leave immediately. You will be able to leave the area at the end of the period, when you reach the center or when you fail, whichever comes first." Everyone else seemed to know what he was talking about, so Mordecai used his legilimency to peer beyond the defenses of his mind, and sent a message to James:
Did you hear what he was talking about?
Yes, James answered, We're going into some sort of challenge course. The entrance appeared in that wall a moment ago without you noticing a thing. The exit will supposedly appear the same way.
The slight emphasis on 'supposedly' made Mordecai very nervous.
"Bellatrix Black and James Sultzey," Barone announced to a great many sniggers. James muttered something including the words 'brainless' and 'fashion-obsessed' at the same time as Black yelped 'the mudblood?!'
"Yes," Barone said, plainly enjoying every second of it, "the mudblood."
James scowled and walked over to the door; Black stormed up to Barone's desk and snarled, "I am not pairing with a mudblood! Change the pairs!"
Barone looked back at her with a look that said 'I would say 'no' if I didn't already know you are much too stupid to understand it. Now leave so I can do something important.' Black stared back with a look that said–no, snarled–'I would kill you where you stand if you weren't able to throw me around like a quaffle.'
"Are you done ogling the professor, or can we get started?" James snapped at her; Black huffed and they both stormed out through the door.
"Sirius Black and James Potter!"
These two were much more satisfied with the arrangements and high-fived each other and Lupin before strutting out the door. Why in the name of Merlin did Snape have to be right about his father strutting?
Just as the door was about to close, Barone grinned like a Cheshire cat before announcing, "Lily Evans and Mordecai Saunders!"
"WHAT?!" Potter exploded, throwing the door back open.
"Hey, mate, it's not like she's paired with Snape," Black attempted to calm him.
"Stay away from her!" Potter demanded, glaring at Mordecai, "and you better not let anything happen to her."
Mordecai considered pointing out that those two would be mutually exclusive for the next ninety minutes, but instead settled on, "Of course not. I'm a sucker for damsels in distress," hoping Potter caught the jibe.
"GET IN HERE AND COVER MY BACK!" Sirius bellowed, and Potter gave Mordecai one last intimidating glare before going back through the door to help Sirius. The entire class broke into nervous whispers and clutched their wands a little more tightly.
"Err… I guess we should go. To the Hospital Wing. I have a headache. I think Lily does too," Mordecai invented hastily.
"Excellent!" Barone chirped, "You can learn defense with distractions."
"Nice try," Lily said the moment the door (the one to the challenge, not to relative safety) closed behind them, "but how did you get in Slytherin if you can't lie any better than that?"
"I dunno," Mordecai answered, having wondered the same thing himself. "Do you think Black and Potter actually saw anything or just made it up? It looks like we were taken to a different place than them, though."
"A different place? What makes you say that?"
"The walls," Mordecai replied, "these are old and cracked, but the section I saw while Potter was so nicely holding the door open was much newer. I suggest we take a good look around before moving anywhere," Mordecai then began to follow his own advice. The area they were standing in was made completely from ancient, crumbling stone, and illuminated by torches in plentiful sconces on the walls; the chamber was massive and elliptical, with a domed ceiling that stretched out of sight, and a very large pit across the middle; the door they had entered through had disappeared and the only other door was on the other side of the pit. On closer inspection, the pit was about thirty feet deep, fifteen feet across and stretched from one side to the other.
"I guess we have to cross it. Just hover each other across?" Lily suggested.
The last time he had been in something like this was in first year, when the challenges had been straightforward and simple, but Mordecai seriously doubted Barone would make it this easy. He would have thought the idea of just staying in the cavern and talking to Lily would have appealed to him, but he suddenly had no idea what he would say. Especially when Potter demanded afterward if they did exactly that. "It can't be that easy…"
"Why not? Maybe it's to build trust or something."
"Well, if one levitates the other across, then we're separated. If we try to levitate each other at the same time, then our wands are tied up and we can't shield."
"Okaaaaay," Lily said, with the air of humoring someone who was just a little paranoid, "we'll do this." She conjured a sheet of plywood and stepped on, inviting Mordecai to do the same; when they were both on, she levitated it and floated it across the pit and set them down on the other side. The moment they touched the ground, the bottom three feet of the wall the entire way around the room crumbled to dust, leaving behind several stout pillars that supported the walls and ceiling and kept them from falling, and a great many gaps.
A mass of black surged through the new spaces and raced across the floor toward them; Lily and Mordecai both cast hover charms on the plywood at the same time and rocketed toward the ceiling. Mordecai released his, and Lily struggled to get the sheet back under control; when she finally succeeded, both were spread-eagled on it, with their fingers clutching the edges.
"Next time, we need handles," Mordecai decided, getting to his hands and knees rather shakily and peering over the edge, now very keenly aware that he could fall off into–"spiders?!"
"Merlin's bloody eyeballs… I'm not going to doubt you again," Lily laughed nervously, "you don't think they'd really hurt us, do you?"
"Knowing Barone, I'm going to say we'd be almost hurt enough for him to go to Azkaban. How do you reckon we're getting through that door?" Much as he would like to spend a morning chatting with his mother on an aerial platform, the spiders were making him a bit nervous.
"Um…" Lily began, levitating them closer to the exit, "well… oh no, that's crazy."
"I'm not saying; you might get ideas," Lily told him and refused to say anything further.
"Okay, here's the plan: you send us flying at the floor in front of the door at the same time as I magically open it, then I clear the spiders away with a blast of fire right before we land and we rush through and close it," Mordecai felt his palms begin to sweat as his breathing quickened. Pull yourself together! They're only two feet tall!
"That's about what I came up with!" Lily sounded more than a little scared.
"Come on, they're only two feet tall," Mordecai wasn't sure whether he was reassuring Lily or himself, but it vaguely bothered him that they had both come up with the same plan: it might be too obvious. "Have you got a better plan?"
"Maybe we'll just wait here until class ends; someone's sure to get us." Lily apparently had a little too much confidence in Barone
"I'm not floating above that many spiders all morning!"
"And I'm not crash landing in the middle of them!"
"Then I'll go myself!" Mordecai exclaimed, getting ready to conjure his own platform and hoping Lily's Gryffindor courage kicked in.
"No you won't!" Lily sounded like she was starting to panic, which became very apparent as her concentration slipped and their platform dropped several feet before she regained control.
"Apparently we won't either one be floating all afternoon, one way or another."
"Oh no, oh no, I'm not going anywhere near those things…"
"You're going to have to," Mordecai said in frustration. It was one thing to have to deal with a petrified girl, but it was somehow a great deal more annoying when said girl was your mother; Lily was not meeting his expectations.
"I am not!"
Mordecai was beginning to really wish he'd had James show him the elemental shields yesterday, rather than the modified summoning charms; he wasn't completely sure, but Mordecai was willing to bet that the spiders were afraid enough of fire for a fire shield to keep them at bay. He tried asking Lily, but she didn't know the spell, either.
"Can't we open the door from a distance and levitate each other through?"
"Sure," Mordecai allowed his frustration to show through, "leaving the door open that long is a great idea for getting a bunch of those spiders in the other room."
"Well, have you got a better idea?" Lily snapped back.
"Yes, I just told you all about it."
"It's crazy, and we don't even know the fire charm will repel them from the door," she objected.
"Then let's find out. Incendio!" A flame rose from the floor where Mordecai aimed his wand, and several spiders scuttled aside; Mordecai concentrated and the flame rose to several feet and a small circle cleared around it. "Alright, Gryffindor, we're rushing the door!"
Lily nodded nervously, but she didn't seem quite as afraid as before; maybe seeing the spiders running from Mordecai's fire had encouraged her. "Don't worry," Mordecai reassured her, "I'm sure Dumbledore wouldn't allow this if it could get us killed or something;" Mordecai believed his own words, but they wouldn't do a lot of good unless Dumbledore knew what was going on, which he may well not.
Lily nodded again, gulping nervously. "Ready?" Mordecai asked (ordered, more like). "Three–" he could already feel his blood racing in anticipation and fear, even if the spiders were no taller than two feet, "–two–" eep! Was Mordecai's most coherent thought, "–one–" Mordecai was now firmly in the grip of that terrified, exciting feeling that you experience when you know you're doing whatever you're doing, now matter how afraid you are. Why am I even afraid of two-foot-tall spiders? Why in the name of Merlin am I going to fly into all those spiders? Oh well… "NOW!"
Mordecai felt the bottom drop out from beneath him–literally. Lily sent them flying at the floor, Mordecai raised his wand and roared, "Alohomora! INCENDIO!" and had just enough time to see the door burst open before the entire area in front of him exploded into flame. Lily screamed and veered them aside as Mordecai cried out in shock and broke his spell; Mordecai slid across the plywood and scrabbled for purchase while it swung crazily away from the door, but Lily swerved back towards it at the last minute and Mordecai kept his hold until they crash-landed and both were thrown into the doorframe; Lily, who landed half in the doorway, dragged Mordecai through and closed the door with an extremely zealous locking charm.
Then they both realized they were standing in a completely dark room, and the only way out was guarded a horde of giant spiders.