Chapter Eleven: Trick or Treat

SKITTERskitterskitterSKITTERskitterskitter.

Hannah awoke with a jolt. She was sitting in the Common Room, having fallen asleep doing History of Magic homework. What the heck was that sound?

SKITTERskitterskitter. It sounded a bit like rain, only heavier and more infrequent—and it was coming from inside the room.

Suspicions growing, Hannah reached for her wand. The fires had long since been reduced to simple glowing embers, but the room was somewhat lit by moonlight streaking through the tall, wide arched windows. She thought she could see movement at the foot of the staircase near the boy's dormitories.

SKITTERskitterskitterSKITTERSKITTERSKITTER

Hannah threw herself from her armchair just before a monster from nightmares (was this a nightmare?) leapt at her, knocking the chair over. A long, thin something almost thirty feet long collided with the red-and-gold armchair like a freight train. She could barely make it out in the darkness, save for occasional glimpses of reflected moonlight.

"St-stube-stupa-Stupefy!" A red bolt flew out of her wand as she sent a Stunner, which collided with the creature dead-on. They'd just learned them in the Duelling Club; the advanced spell was almost beyond her. The beast skittered around awkwardly as its extremities slowly realized their brain was on a lunch break before coming, finally, to a stop. "Lumos." Her glowing wand tip revealed a black-and-red centipede comparable in length to a carriage of the Hogwarts Express with sharp mandibles (or fangs? pincers? Hannah wasn't sure which term applied) to match. They were at least as long as her forearm, and were wickedly serrated. Just as suddenly as it appeared, it promptly vanished.

Hannah sighed, catching her breath, and collapsed back into her seat. A few seconds later, she stood up, and shouted.

"Milo!"

"Well done!" Milo said, suddenly appearing in the middle of the room. "I must admit, I had my doubts when you immediately went for the most powerful spell you knew—clever application of something more reliably cast is often more prudent—but then you pulled it off anyway and your aim was perfect. Awesome."

"What the heck was that thing?" Hannah asked, anger slowly rising.

"A huge monstrous centipede from Hell," Milo shrugged. "Or someplace like it."

"Look—I know I said I was on board with your whole 'training' thing, but the way you described it sounded more like, I don't know, Quidditch practice or studying. You summon a monster and we hit it with spells. I was most decidedly not expecting to spend the next four weeks on my toes against surprise sabre-toothed demon weasels, hippogriffs, gorillas, bats the size of horses, packs of Abyssal octopi in the lake, and humongous monstrous centipedes from Hell! Especially humongous monstrous centipedes from Hell!"

"Real Abyssal octopi hunt in packs of hundreds," Milo said. "Not trios."

"That's your objection—argh! No, okay. Calm. I am calm," Hannah said. "I agreed because I wanted to be more useful in an emergency. I didn't sign on for a life of surprise and paranoia."

"Well, if you were expecting the surprise, it wouldn't be much of a surprise at all, would it?"

"That's exactly my point. I could have had a heart attack, and that's assuming the giant rats didn't eat me alive."

"You were never in any real danger; my summoned monsters were ordered to remain non-lethal. And in the huge monstrous centipede from Hell's case, not to use his venom."

"But why can't the others and I learn to fight in a more controlled environment? Like in the Duelling Club."

"Because if Slytherin's monster—or something sent by You-Know-Who—attacks you, it won't be in a controlled environment," Milo said seriously. "It'll be a surprise attack, and it'll be when you least expect it. And you won't even know what it'll look like when it happens. From what I can tell, and I know it sounds insane, people here actually learn how to do things by doing exactly that thing. I mean, look at the courses. You actually learn how to make potions in Potions class, rather than by killing orcs and giant spiders and saving children and the like. So I'm teaching you how to fight against surprise monsters."

"That... fine, that actually makes sense," Hannah admitted reluctantly. "But you should still ask for permission first. It's the polite thing to do."

"Hmm. Good idea; I wonder why I didn't think of that," Milo said without a trace of irony. "If only so Ron stops glaring at me from across the table. He should learn not to take a few giant bees in his bed quite so personally. Do I have your permission to train you to protect yourself against surprise attacks by launching surprise attacks against you on occasion?" Milo asked.

"Not when I'm sleeping or I'll never close my eyes again—and no more Hellipedes."

"Deal."

Hannah hesitated for a second. "And I think you're wrong," she said. "I think we learn in much the same way. I think you're confusing gaining knowledge and gaining power. People tend not to learn much by killing."

Milo gave her a perplexed look. "But knowledge is power."

"Is it, though?" Hannah asked. "There's more to growing up than getting bigger." She stifled a yawn. "Just something to think about. I'm going to bed."

She climbed the stairs to the girls' dormitories, leaving Milo looking troubled in the Common Room.

o—o—o—o

Draco held the writhing, shrieking mandrake root down with one gloved hand, a cleaver held high in the other.

"Why do they have to look so human?" he muttered to himself. The words fell silently on his muffled ears. He'd been standing for several minutes in the outskirts of the Forbidden Forest in the dead of night.

He supposed it wasn't too late to back out now. He could sneak back into the greenhouse and return the freakish plant—or, for that matter, just toss it in the forest. Plants like forest, right? It would be happy there... he cut off that line of thought before it could go too far. Best not to attribute human emotions and desires to a root.

But it looks so alive...

Father wouldn't be too weak to chop up a plant, he thought to himself coldly. Father would destroy whatever or whoever stood in his way, if it benefitted him.

Besides, they're going to be used for potions, anyway.

Draco led out a deep breath and swallowed, feeling a renewed sense of determination.

With a flash of reflected starlight, the cleaver came down hard, and the shrieking stopped.

o—o—o—o

Snape finished sealing the hardened glass flask for owl transport. The last thing anyone wanted was a month's worth of Polyjuice potion raining from the sky because of a poorly sealed or cracked container.

Once more, he wondered what Lucius could possibly want with so much of the potion. He'd already had to send all that he kept on hand to the elder Malfoy, as Polyjuice took a lunar cycle to brew. Of course, there were thousands of potential uses someone like Lucius, who had his fingers in more pies than you could count, could devise with Polyjuice. Blackmail, spying, and theft, to name a few. And if that was all he was doing, it was none of Snape's business. He frankly didn't care one way or the other if Lucius was committing what were, on the whole, conventional crimes to gain conventional wealth and conventional power.

But if there was something else afoot... well. Lucius Malfoy was rarely a predictable man, but there was one clear and obvious candidate for replacement. Somebody that few knew personally, somebody in a trusted position, somebody few would miss. Everything pointed at one person. In fact, it was practically proverbial: "when in doubt, suspect the Defence Professor."

Snape tied the flask to the legs of the owl and sent it on its way.

The amount of damage one man, whom everybody suspected and who had no allies, could do was limited, even with a disguise as perfect as one created by one of Snape's potions. So Snape would watch Gilderoy Lockhart.

o—o—o—o

"Free sweets!" Draco said, smiling, to a cluster of first-year Hufflepuffs. They turned to look at him, and his tray of handmade sweets, for a long, tense moment.

Then they screamed and fled.

Draco sighed. This was going to be more difficult than he'd anticipated. He'd already tried dosing all the Slytherins in the Common Room with his mandrake-laced treats, but he hadn't made any discoveries except that Marcus Flint had been transfiguring his face to hide his acne.

Hallowe'en was only a few days away. He'd hoped to get to the bottom of the Polyjuice mystery before then, so that he could utilize Crabbe and Goyle in some sort of as-yet unknown Hallowe'en-themed revenge plot against his nemeses in Gryffindor. While it was true that both Crabbe and Goyle had been unaffected by the mandrake root—he'd given it to them disguised as sweets to reward them for expanding their vocabulary—he'd hoped to catch the culprit disguised as them once more. Since he didn't know much beyond the fact that somebody had (probably) used Polyjuice to spy on him, there was no way to know how pervasive the use of the potion was among his enemies.

He'd come to what was, of course, the only reasonable conclusion: that he should secretly drug the student body at random for a prolonged period of time. At some point, one of them was bound to take the bait while in disguise. It was the week leading up to Hallowe'en, so it wasn't as peculiar to be handing out sweets as it might otherwise have been. Unfortunately, students at Hogwarts seemed to have some sort of (completely unfounded) superstition against accepting free food from a member of Slytherin house.

He'd have to alter his plan somewhat if he was to succeed.

o—o—o—o

"Explosive Runes," Milo cast, scratching a curious-looking symbol into the hard bronze of a knut with a chisel before throwing it onto the small pile of similarly-marked coins. "That should do. Mordy?" The tiny rat scurried up the table leg in the dusty abandoned classroom and started slipping knuts into a bandolier he wore across his chest, eyes firmly shut. "Careful with those," Milo said seriously.

"Don't worry so much, boss," Mordy said. "As long as I don't try and read them, we don't have anything to worry about." That much was true—the runes were carved in their secret language, and Milo was immune to his own traps, so theoretically only Mordy could trigger them. Still, it made Milo nervous to carry that volume of arcane high explosive on his person.

But Hallowe'en was tomorrow, and he had to be prepared. Last year a Troll nearly killed him and his friends; what would happen this year? Between his surprise summoned attacks and Lockhart's club, his party members had significantly increased in power since last year—and so had he, for that matter. It stood both to reason and convention that their challenges would scale accordingly.

As Milo tried to predict what would be thrown at him tomorrow, Mordy pulled a pair of tiny, finely-wrought brass-and-crystal goggles over his eyes and tied thin silk bracers around each wrist. In all, the familiar struck a comical image, but it would be a fool who underestimated him—and in all likelihood, a dead fool at that, for these seemingly-innocent items wielded great power. Or, perhaps more precisely, they wielded minor power in a uniquely lethal manner.

o—o—o—o

"I give up," said a boy who looked very much like Dean Thomas in a dark, largely-empty hallway on Hallowe'en morning. "We've been here for a month and we haven't found anything. This is a school; there are hundreds of old black leather diaries floating around. I want to go home."

"We can't give up now; we're just starting to make progress," said someone who looked very much like Seamus Finnigan. "We just need to widen the search. What if he gave it to another student?"

"Nobody could be that stupid."

"Do you have any better ideas?"

"Every idea is a better idea."

As they walked, arguing, they encountered a small class desk in the hallway with a sign:

HALLOWE'EN SWEETS,
COURTESY OF
HARMLESS HUFFLEPUFFS

On the desk next to the sign was a tray of orange-and-black wrapped sweets. Without paying them much attention, the boy who greatly resembled Dean Thomas tossed a few into his robes' pockets.

"What if he never had it to begin with?" he said, eventually.

"Then why would we have been sent—ah. To get rid of us." The one who looked like Seamus frowned. "Let's give it a few more weeks. If nothing turns up in that time, we'll... resort to the contingency plan."

"Sounds good," said the one who looked like Dean before eating a Sherbet Lemon. "Although last time, we got our—argh!" He doubled over, his insides twisting and writhing, his facial features moving, as if made from warm wax. The boy who greatly resembled Seamus cursed in a most un-childlike manner and pulled him into a nearby bathroom, safe from prying eyes. Within a few seconds, a man who had once looked like Dean sat, sagged against a cool tile wall.

"Amycus?" said the boy who looked like Seamus. "Amycus, are you okay? Lumos. Follow my wand." He moved the glowing wand tip slowly back and forth in front of his dazed eyes.

Amycus Carrow groaned uncomfortably, and looked at his hands. They were big and calloused; nothing like the small, dextrous hands he'd gotten used to.

"Mandrake root," he spat. "He's on to us; we must—agh!" he tried to stand, but he misjudged the length of his suddenly-altered legs and tripped.

"Just wait here," said the boy who was increasingly unlikely to be Seamus, "until you feel a bit better."

"No, we need to hide," he protested. "Someone will find us here."

"In this bathroom? Hah! Nobody's coming in here." The boy who looked like Seamus hesitated briefly. "So," he said finally, "Shall we use the contingency plan?"

"Lucius said—"

"Oh, Lucius said," the boy who looked like Seamus said mockingly. "You think we're doing this because of what Lucius said? No, we're here for what happens after. The Dark Lord will honour us above Malfoy—above, even, that mad, dead, Lestrange witch—when we are successful. Drink your Polyjuice and let's move. There's work to do."

o—o—o—o—o—o—o

Author's Notes: See, I'm not dead! I just have writer's block. As an attempted fix, I'm going to publish what I do have, i.e., this short chapter you just read, rather than sit on it until it's up to the usual length. Hopefully, this might bump me out of my current rut.

D&D Tip: This one's for all the optimizers out there. You won't always be in a party of players with the same play style as you, and their opinion can sometimes sour if you steal the show with an overpowered character. For some, it's a simple matter of making a less powerful character. If that works for you, then perfect. But if you're like me, you have a really hard time doing that. Optimization is fun. Trawling through rulebooks for that golden feat or item is very zen. There are two solutions I have discovered to this problem: the first, you start a character handicapped, and optimize to your heart's content from there. You play a lousy class (*cough*CW Samurai*cough*), or a poor class/race combo (half-orc sorc?), or with deliberately poor ability score allocation, and then you hit the ground running with the best feats, gear, etc. that you can find. That way, it's fun for everyone—you get the experience of playing a totally unique character that you've never done before (and it might result in optimization decisions you'd never have previously considered) and you won't generally outstrip the party too much.

The other solution is to play a buffer. Measure your character's success not in enemies you defeat, but in those that you help the party defeat. Try playing a bard and maximizing Inspire Courage, or a Cleric that doesn't use the normal CoDzilla tricks, a Marshal, or another support class. You get to optimize to the maximum, and your allies get to feel like gods of war. Just be careful not to fall into the trap of buffing yourself to turn yourself into an undefeatable killing machine. Also make sure you get a feel of the party's makeup before you invest too much in one buffing method or another. I tried this with a Bard, once, not realizing that the rest of the party would be a Psion, a Wizard, and a Cleric. I wound up being the only one taking advantage of my +5 Inspire Courage and Haste, and, well, overpowered everyone else more than ever.

D&D Tip #2: Shrink Item + Permanency is freaking cool. The possibilities are legion, but here's the first that came to mind: you can make your character a cloak of water that, on command, floods the room