It was autumn at the Malkin Academy for the Magical Arts. The days were cooler and shorter. The leaves on the trees had erupted into a rainbow of yellows, oranges, reds, and browns before at last falling in mountainous heaps all over campus. Following the brief Thanksgiving break, most teachers gave up any hope for serious schoolwork until after Christmas—yet another reason to be thankful this time of year!

Will Proctor wrapped his cloak around him as he left his dormitory and trudged across the damp grass toward the Quodpot stadium. It was a cloudy, windy day. The slightest drizzle of cold rain stung the faces of expectant fans as they climbed into the bleachers, many carrying banners of Proudfeather black or Strongfoot yellow. As usual, even some of the villagers from nearby Malkinville attended the game, proudly sporting the colors of their former houses.

The Saturday before Christmas break was the date of the second Quodpot game of the season. Earlier in December, Quickfang house, the defending school champions, trounced Fairgarland eight to three. Everyone assumed today's match-up between Strongfoot and Proudfeather would reveal which of those two teams stood the best chance of dethroning Quickfang, which had won the Malkin Academy Quodpot trophy for four years running.

Near the center of the Proudfeather cheering section, Will took his seat beside fellow Proudfeather Kate Burroughs. On the other side of Kate was their mutual friend, Dana Good. Dana was in Fairgarland house, but usually rooted for Proudfeather whenever her own house wasn't playing.

"Think it will be a good game?" the blonde Fairgarland girl asked.

"I hope so," Will offered. "But I'm not getting my hopes up." Will enjoyed Quodpot as much as any thirteen-year-old wizard, but that didn't mean he had any desire to play the game. To tell the truth, he thought it was crazy to fly around on broomsticks fifty feet above the ground passing around a ball that could explode at any second!

Strongfoot had most of last year's team back. Proudfeather had lost four of last year's eleven players to graduation, but some of the new players showed potential, not least Will and Kate's friend Felicia Hyatt. Gus Burlington, the team captain, had promised to cap his seventh year with a Quodpot trophy for Proudfeather. While some were hopeful, most Proudfeathers accepted that this would be a rebuilding season. They did not, however, express this opinion where Gus could hear them.

"Don't be so negative," Kate scolded, her curly red hair blowing in the wind. "Felicia says we're going to be better than a lot of people think we will."

"That's what Phinehas says, too," Will said. Phinehas Buzzard was one of Will's roommates. "I'm not sure the only two third-years on the team can tell how good they'll be. Those Strongfoot Blockers were awfully good last year."

Kate began to say something when the Proudfeather team flew out of the locker rooms on their broomsticks and circled the stadium. They wore black robes trimmed in white, with white numbers on their sleeves and their names across their backs. Beneath their robes they wore shiny black dragon-skin armor: a tunic, fingerless gauntlets, and lightweight flexible helmets with white leather wings attached to the sides. Half the fans whooped and cheered.

Someone performed a charm that cast the shadow of a giant eagle on the field fifty feet below. In the Strongfoot section of the stands Steve Dortch, a notoriously rabid Quodpot fan, created a puff of yellow smoke that took the form of a charging buffalo and stormed through the stadium. Apparently he meant to charge it into the Proudfeather fans, but a sudden wind blew it off course. It hit a clutch of late-arriving Quickfangs instead, who all glared at the boy as they coughed and gagged from the smoke. Steve sheepishly shrugged an apology and sat back down.

The object of Quodpot was to get the Quod, a red leather ball about the size of a basketball, into a cauldron at the top of a fifty-foot-high pole. The players had to move fast, however, because the Quod could explode without warning, and whoever had possession of the Quod when it did explode was removed from the game.

There were eleven players on each team. The smallest and fastest were the three Harriers, whose job was to break up the opposing team's defense by flying at them quickly and erratically, hopefully creating openings their teammates could exploit. Today was Felicia's first game as a Harrier for Proudfeather, and her friends cheered more for her than anyone else.

In addition to the Harriers, there were four Forwards, like Phinehas. Forwards were the players most responsible for advancing the Quod to the opposing cauldron—and therefore they were often the first players removed from the game by exploding Quods.

Three Blockers, the largest and often the slowest players, were the defensive specialists. They spent most of the game circling their team's cauldron seeking to prevent their opponents from scoring. Will's older brother, Tom, was a Proudfeather Blocker.

Finally, there was the Center, who was responsible for tipping the Quod into play and generally directing the team's offense. Gus Burlington had been Proudfeather's Center since his fourth year and the team captain since his sixth.

The Proudfeather team landed near the center of the field just as the Strongfoots appeared from their locker rooms. They wore yellow robes trimmed in black and the same black dragon-skin armor as their opponents. Instead of wings, however, the Strongfoots had yellow horns attached to the sides of their helmets. All eleven of them flew in tight formation, led by their Harriers—two girls and a tiny fifth-year boy who was the smallest of the three. Now the other half of the stands erupted in thunderous applause.

"Those guys are huge!" Will gulped, his eyes glued to the three broad-shouldered Blockers taking up the rear as the Strongfoot team flew another lap around the field.

"They're not any bigger than they were last year," Dana said. "Come on, let's just enjoy the game." Will loosened his black and white scarf. The press of the fans kept the stands warm despite the wind and the drizzle.

"Welcome to the second Quodpot game of the season: Strongfoot versus Proudfeather!" boomed a magically enhanced voice. At a long table in the front row of the stands, an older Fairgarland student had begun to announce the game.

The two teams met at midfield and Gus shook hands with the opposing captain, Daniel Kilmeade, the tallest and most imposing of the three Strongfoot Blockers. The referees for this game were Mr. Reddit, the flying instructor and assistant librarian, and Ms. Ruiz, the Charms teacher. Mr. Reddit said a few words to the two captains, then with a nod of his head both teams took flight once again with Ms. Ruiz close behind. Mr. Reddit used a Summoning Charm to cause a Quod to fly into his hand from a rack of nearly two dozen at the edge of the field. He tapped the Quod with his wand and heaved it high into the air.

"And the first Quod has been activated!" the announcer shouted as Mr. Reddit mounted his own broom to join the players in the air. "Proudfeather wins the toss as Burlington tips the Quod to Buzzard. Buzzard advances on the Strongfoot cauldron behind Hyatt and Dunwoody, passing off to Burlington. Burlington passes to Van Meter—ooh! Harrier Sheridan took a hard block from Kilmeade, trying to open up a lane for Van Meter. Now Van Meter passes to Buzzard—and the Quod is stripped away by Livingston. Strongfoot is now in possession. Livingston makes a long pass to Robles, Robles to González. The Strongfoot Harriers are honing in on Gill, no, now they're veering toward Proctor. The Proudfeather Blockers are drifting out of position…and it's a score by Neandro Robles. Strongfoot goes ahead one to nothing."

The Proudfeather fans groaned. Ms. Ruiz performed a Hover Charm to remove the Quod from the Proudfeather cauldron. It was dripping with the translucent yellow potion that would keep it from exploding until its charms could be reapplied.

Gesturing fiercely, Gus Burlington zipped over to where Tom Proctor and Reggie Gill hovered. Will and his friends couldn't make out what he was saying, but they were sure he wasn't complimenting them on their sportsmanship.

Mr. Reddit landed, summoned a fresh Quod from the rack, tapped it with his wand, and heaved it up into play.

This time Strongfoot won the toss, but the Proudfeather Blockers were ready for them. They defended their cauldron until Phinehas Buzzard intercepted a pass and zoomed down the field. Will, Kate, and Dana jumped to their feet, screaming and cheering. The three Harriers zigged and zagged while Phinehas and fellow Forward Liza Dunwoody passed the Quod back and forth, advancing on the Strongfoot cauldron.

Liza Dunwoody slipped through the opening the Harriers provided her and was almost to the cauldron when suddenly there was a flash of brilliant light and a noise like fireworks going off. Soot and tattered scraps of red leather rained down upon the field. The Quod had exploded.

Momentarily stunned, Liza descended to the field where Nurse Cotton gave her a quick examination. The young wizard nodded reassuringly and motioned for her to leave the field. Meanwhile, Mr. Reddit prepared to throw another Quod into play.

"Proudfeather Forward Liza Dunwoody is removed from play," the announcer said. "Let's give her a hand."

Everyone clapped in appreciation, but not for long: the game was still going on. Now, however, the Proudfeathers had a further disadvantage since they only had ten players on the field against Strongfoot's eleven.

"We need a quick goal," Will said. "Even things up."

But it was not to be. Strongfoot racked up two more goals before Proudfeather even got close to scoring. When Sarah Van Meter took a shot from twenty feet out, one of the Strongfoot Blockers knocked it away on its downward arc. The Proudfeather fans roared.

"That's cauldron-tending!" Kate bellowed. But Ms. Ruiz had already blown her whistle to award Proudfeather the goal because of Strongfoot interference. A second later the Quod, which by this time had been in play for nearly five minutes, exploded in the hands of a Strongfoot Forward.

In Quodpot, you don't just have to keep track of the score. You also have to pay attention to how many players each team has left. Over the next half hour, Strongfoot scored two more goals, but lost five more players to exploding Quods while Proudfeather only lost three. This meant that, after forty-five minutes of play, Strongfoot was ahead on goals five to two but Proudfeather still had seven players against Strongfoot's five. Knowledgeable fans knew that this phase of the game revealed a team's true talent, as players had to cover for each other and even play the positions of teammates who had been eliminated.

Unfortunately for Proudfeather, the Strongfoot team was just as good as everyone remembered from last year, and Gus Burlington's promise to bring home the Quodpot trophy seemed like an idle dream.

Phinehas Buzzard scored his second goal of the game, but was eliminated on his next possession. His broomstick jerked and wobbled as he made his way to the ground, and Nurse Cotton sent him off to the infirmary with another student to help him stay balanced on his feet. Proudfeather had now lost three of its four Forwards, so Felicia Hyatt had to play Forward along with Ji Park, a fifth-year girl who flew rather well, but was not a great passer.

After another twenty minutes, it was clear that Proudfeather was on the ropes. The score was six to three, and both teams were down to their last four players. Gus Burlington, who had caught an exploding Quod in the stomach shortly after Phinehas was eliminated, shouted instructions from below—but no one seemed able to hear him. Above, Tom Proctor tried to rally his dwindling team. Now taking over as Center on offense and still playing Blocker on defense, he zipped through the sky, his face a picture of grim determination.

"Nothing against Gus," Dana commented in the stands below, "but I think you guys play better with Tom in charge."

"I bet he's team captain next year," said an older Proudfeather boy named Tony Segola. "He's a natural leader."

"Yeah," Will said. Everyone said that about Tom, and sometimes it got under Will's skin to hear it. Truth be told, he envied his older brother's self-assurance.

"Oh!" Kate gasped.

Felicia had made an exceptional cross-field pass to Tom, who muscled his way through Strongfoot's remaining Blockers to score. Once again, the Proudfeather fans jumped to their feet, but it turned out that was the last goal their team managed to score. Strongfoot scored one more goal and forced the elimination of three more Proudfeathers by isolating them and preventing them from getting off a pass to their teammates.

The last Proudfeather in the air was Blocker Reggie Gill. Three points down and outmanned, the fourth-year tossed the Quod high in the air: the universal symbol of concession. High in the air, the final Quod exploded sending tufts of burnt leather into the stands. The announcer said, "And that's the game. The final score is Strongfoot seven, Proudfeather four. Thanks for coming everybody! The next game will be Fairgarland versus Proudfeather on the twenty-first of January."

Will, Kate, and Dana fell in line with the other disheartened Proudfeathers exiting the stadium. The rain, which had never been more than a light drizzle throughout the game, was becoming a gentle shower. Students donned hats or pulled up the hoods of their cloaks as they filed out of the bleachers and across the lawn toward their dormitories.

"Will, where's your scarf?" Kate asked.

Will felt around his neck. "It must have slipped off," he said. "You two go on or you'll get soaked. I'll catch up with you."

Climbing back up through the press of students leaving the stadium was a lot like swimming upstream, but eventually Will made it back to where he was sitting. He scanned the area and at last spied his scarf blowing in the wind underneath the bleachers. It must have fallen through and gotten snagged on the metal supports. Will pulled his hood more tightly around his face as he reached down and stretched his long, slender arm toward the scarf.

As he grabbed it he gasped. Someone was on the ground under the bleachers, doubled over.

"Hey!" he shouted. The person below didn't seem to hear him, but Will spied someone else moving below. He (at least Will thought it was a "he") was ten feet or more away from whoever was hurt and was putting away a wand. At Will's shout, the person looked up. Will whispered a curse when he saw the person's face. Though in every other way the apparent attacker looked perfectly normal, he had the snarling face of a dog!

Will jumped back and nearly landed flat on his back on the cold wooden bleachers. He sprung to his feet. He was one of the last people in the stands now. Underneath the bleachers the dog-headed stranger had disappeared. Will bolted over the benches as quickly as he dared. At the bottom of the bleachers, where everyone else turned left to go to the dorms, Will turned right. Ahead of him was the person he had seen from above, now pale-faced and grimacing in terrible pain.

"Somebody find Nurse Cotton!" he called. When no one seemed to hear, he pulled out his wand and fired a wave of red and blue sparks into the air. A couple of Strongfoots ceased celebrating to turn in Will's direction. One of them immediately took off at a run, calling for help. The other sprinted toward Will. It was a third-year girl Will recognized as Becky Loew.

"What's the matter?" she called.

"He looks hurt," Will said. Indeed, the boy continued to cringe as Will helped steady him on his feet. His light brown hair was heavy with sweat.

"S-stomachache," the boy muttered, half delirious with pain.

"Is that Steve Dortch?" Becky asked. Only then did Will recognize the boy who had produced the yellow smoke-buffalo before the start of the game.

"I don't see any injuries," Will said. "He must be sick."

"He was fine at lunch."

"He's not fine now."

At last Nurse Cotton rounded the corner, wand in hand, along with the Strongfoot boy who had gone to fetch him.

"Nurse Cotton!" Will cried. "It's Steve Dortch. He doesn't look good. He says his stomach hurts."

The healer hurried to Will's side. He ran his wand over Steve's body from head to foot. It glowed green as it passed Steve's stomach.

"G-gotta…gotta…." Steve bent over and heaved, but didn't spit anything up.

"Let's get you to the Infirmary," Nurse Cotton said. He performed a Calming Charm, then levitated Steve's body and directed it forward with a flick of his wand.

Will and Becky followed behind.

Once they had escorted Steve to the infirmary, there didn't seem to be any point in hanging around. Becky ran off to let her fellow Strongfoots know what happened.

The rain had stopped, and the clouds were beginning to clear. Will headed back to the Proudfeather dorm. In front of the library, he bumped into someone.

"Watch where you're going!" the other student griped.

"Sorry," Will said, "I wasn't paying att—"

He suddenly realized he had run into Kevin Guinfort, one of the Quickfang boys who had given Steve such an evil look before the game.

The other boy beamed a look of pure hatred toward Will as he marched up the steps to the library.

What's his problem? Will thought.

Author's note: This story begins shortly after the events in "Malkin Academy: The Cup of Kings." Although this story stands on its own, there are a few inconsequential references to that previous story. Like "Cup of Kings," this story is a gift for my daughter, who suggested several plot elements along the way. Obviously, anything you recognize belongs to J. K. Rowling. The original characters, spells, and settings are my own.