Chapter Four: Dragon in a Half-Shell

Abby Michaels set her quill down and waited for the ink to dry. Randal was finally starting to come around; they had to block Lucius's push for Severus Snape to keep his position as headmaster. The man was a world-class Potions Master, to be sure, and had many other admirable qualities, but managing teachers and small children were not among them. In fact, the rumours coming out of that school suggested that, sometimes, his teaching methods were borderline abusive. Minerva was by far the superior choice; being strict but fair, as well as reasonably well-liked among the students (at least, the well-behaved ones), and highly respected by the other teachers. Besides, she was Dumbledore's pick, and that should be enough reason for anyone.

Honestly, Abby couldn't imagine why anyone would want Severus as headmaster. She suspected, in fact, that Lucius's methods for persuading some of the others of the Hogwarts Board of Governors had not been entirely ethical, but obviously had no proof. Regardless, the Board was favouring Minerva heavily on this issue—split 7-5 with Randal on the fence—so she wasn't overly worried.

Just as she was about to tie the letter to the leg of her barn owl, Scratch, there was a knock on the door.

Abby sighed, put the letter down, and hobbled over to the door. The mediwizards at St. Mungo's said she should be walking with a cane, but she didn't see the use in one. She was far too old to start walking with a cane, in any case. She'd gotten by for eighty-eight years without; she didn't see why she should have to change now.

She opened the door.

There was a handsome, earnest boy at the door about the age of her grandson.

"Hello? Mrs. Michaels?" The boy asked, smiling politely. He looked vaguely familiar, though Abby couldn't quite put her finger on where she'd seen him last.

"Yes?" she asked. "How can I help you?"

"Well, it's a bit complicated," the boy said. "Do you mind if I come in and explain it to you?"

Something about the way he said it made it sound like such a reasonable request. Like she should invite him into her house without thinking. After all, it seemed to say, he's only a boy. And he's such an honest, responsible-looking boy. And familiar, too.

What could be the harm in letting him come in to talk for a moment or two?

o—o—o—o

Ron sat across from Harry, enjoying Florean Fortescue's famous Flaming Fudge-flavoured ice cream. They'd been about to get their school books when they'd noticed Fortescue had a buy-one-get-one-free sale, and it was bloody hot, and, well... their decision had been made before they'd even realized there was a decision to make.

Hermione was supposed to meet them, but she was a little late. Besides, she wouldn't approve of them eating ice cream; her parents were some sort of Muggle tooth-related medicine shamans or something.

"Did you have any trouble getting the Muggles to sign the Hogsmeade consent form?" Ron asked. "Can't imagine they fancy the idea of you having, you know, an actual good time."

"Nah," Harry said. "I waved it in their faces and they signed it just to get rid of me. I think Milo really had an impact on them last year. All I have to do is mention I write him every day, and they largely keep out of my hair. I can't imagine how I would have done it, otherwise."

Ron hesitated. "You don't reckon Hermione's right about him, do you?"

"Right about what?" It was Hermione, an oversized, empty book bag hanging from one shoulder, ready to be filled with, judging by the size, half the contents of Flourish and Blott's book store.

"Nothing," Harry said quickly.

"You're talking about Milo again, aren't you?" Hermione said, pulling up a chair. "We've been over this."

"But it feels wrong," Harry said.

"Of course it does," Hermione said. "That's why treachery is so vile—and effective. It doesn't work if you don't trust the person doing it."

"But..."

"If you try to look at the facts objectively," Hermione said, "it all adds up. He appears out of nowhere—summoned by Death Eaters, no less—he exhibits inhuman healing abilities and strange magic, yet nevertheless is enrolled in an elite school and seems to pass completely unnoticed. And as soon as he shows up, look what starts to happen! The Defence Professor was possessed by what he claims to be You-Know-Who, students start being replaced by undercover dark wizards and witches—and don't even get me started on the Chamber of Secrets. The Basilisk was using Milo's secret passages to get around, and almost killed Professor McGonagall because of him. Then we kill the Basilisk, and poof! Milo disappears from the face of the earth."

"You don't seriously think he was working with You-Know-Who, do you?" Ron asked scornfully. "I mean, come on. This is Milo we're talking about here."

"I don't know what his plan was," Hermione said. "But he almost got us all killed. And I don't think he's human. His magic isn't at all like ours. It doesn't work on any of the same principles, and the two don't interact predictably. And you know what that sounds just like?"

"Yes, because you've told us a million—"

"House elves. And centaurs. And leprechauns. There are plenty of magical creatures out there with magic that isn't like ours—just like his."

"If you're so sure he's a traitor, then," Ron said, "how come you're still taking care of his rat?"

"You can hardly blame a pet for the crimes of its master," Hermione said. "And besides, it's only until I find a new home for him. He bites, and my parents don't like him. Anyway, I'm just saying we should be on our guard. We need to look at the facts."

It was no use arguing with her. It was all the more irritating because she had a point, too—a lot of evidence did point to Milo being the one who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

They eventually made their way to the book shop. Rather than the usual, colourful posters advertising the latest hit seller (generally one of Lockhart's memoirs), the glass walls were plastered with wanted posters for Sirius Black.

"Who is this guy, anyway?" Harry asked. "The Muggles are after him, too."

"A murderer," Ron said. "My parents always hush up whenever they notice I'm listening, though. I think he was one of You-Know-Who's nuttiest supporters, back in the war, just after Bellatrix. So they locked him up in Azkaban and threw away the key."

"And be broke out, did he?" Harry asked. "The Muggle news says he's been killing people left and right."

"It looks like he's been after Professor Dumbledore's old supporters," Hermione said. "But I don't think we have anything to worry about. We'll be safe at Hogwarts, even without Dumbledore there."

That was a chilling thought. Dumbledore had been suddenly sacked last year after the Basilisk had rampaged through the school, with McGonagall taking over as Headmistress—for about two minutes, before the Basilisk got her, too. She'd made a full recovery once the Mandrake root had grown up, and Ron couldn't wait for her to come back. She was better than Snape, that was for sure, but she was no Dumbledore.

"Besides," Hermione continued, "they're taking this really seriously. I read the government's launching a nation-wide manhunt for him—both governments. He doesn't stand a chance."

"Well, let's hope they catch him," Ron said, opening the door. "But I don't think it has anything to do with us."

"Hey, Hermione," Harry said as they walked into the store. "How come you have such a big book bag?"

"Because I'm going to get a lot of text books," she said. There was an implied 'obviously' hanging in the air.

"Yeah, sure," he said. "But how come you're going to get a lot of text books?" he asked.

"No reason," she said quickly.

o—o—o—o

"Dark Way!" Milo cast. It had been Thamior's favourite trick. A weightless, unbreakable, shadowy bridge appeared linking the gunwale to the crow's nest on the redundant, sail-less mast, blocking the Dragon Turtle's line of sight to Milo. "Do something!" he shouted at Relkin, who was ducking behind the wheel.

"Inspirational Boost. Working on it!" she called back. Milo could feel a tip-tap-tippity-tap through the floorboards. "Can you see me from there?"

"Yeah. So?" Milo asked, flinching back from another blast of instant-death-steam.

"I'm doing some inspiring tap dancing!"

Milo leaned out from behind his cover temporarily. "Glitterdust!" he cast, blasting the monster full in the face with its blinding, sparkly might.

Not that it seemed to care, ignoring the bright lights altogether.

"It has +9 to Will!" Relkin shouted. "Get your head in the game!"

Milo had almost forgotten that people could make saves against his spells. The people in the other world almost never did; he suspected they didn't really have bonuses to saving throws. He was losing his edge.

"Whirling Blade!" Relkin cast, throwing her crystalline sword over her head at the dragon's face. Propelled forward by magic and vibrating in tune with her (sigh) inspiring tapdancing, the blade struck the dragon across its face, leaving a deep gouge, before returning to her outstretched hand.

It was too windy for a Solid Fog, and the dragon was immune to fire, so Scorching Ray was right out. It was way too big for Evard's Black Tentacles to have any hope against, and any spell that required a save would be weakened by his lack of intelligence-boosting headgear. Thamior worked alone, and didn't have any decent buff spells in his spellbook.

Lacking any half-decent options, Milo fell back on his second-favourite school of magic: Divination.

"Unluck," Milo cast. Just for an instant, he felt like he could almost hear the sound of rolling dice. Other than that, nothing seemed to happen.

The Dragon Turtle roared, and its massive head came right at Milo, treating him to a decidedly unpleasant odour of cooked, rotting fish.

The dragon's bite missed.

By like, ten feet. Milo hadn't even moved. The dragon blinked, confused, as if wondering how it could possibly have missed a stationary target like that. Milo grinned—his spell had clearly worked. The dragon would have to make every die roll twice and take the worse result.

Relkin's sword flew past the dragon's face, again, drawing blood.

The creature roared in pain, and retreated under the water just as Zook and Gerard arrived on deck.

"What's happening?" Zook asked.

"Dragon Turtle," Milo said. "But it just submerged. So we don't need to worry about it for now unless it... wait..." Milo tried to recall what the most recent publications on the monster's abilities had said. Was it the Dragon Turtle that had the savagely effective capsize ability? "It's going to try to flip the ship!" Milo shouted.

Relkin's eyes widened. "The Roll for Initiative is only fifty feet long!" she said. "It gets a..." she frowned for a second, trying to remember exact wording.

"50% chance to knock us into the water," Milo said, "and unless something has changed, the only one here with ranks in Swim is wearing fifty pounds of steel," he said, nodding at Gerard. "Jacks-of-all-trades excluded, of course," he added to Relkin.

"What do we do?" Zook asked. "I don't want to die again!"

Milo's mind raced. They needed to lengthen the ship by at least ten feet to foil the turtle's ability. Probably, anyway. But how would they... Milo looked back up at the mast. It was just sitting there, contributing nothing but drag to the ship.

"We're going to need a lot of mass at the back of the ship in eighteen seconds," Milo said to the party as he ran towards the mast. "Figure it out, I don't care how."

The mast was basically an entire pine tree sticking out of the middle of the boat. Milo had no idea why Relkin had decided to include it on her skeleton-powered ship, but she was going to have to learn to live without it.

Milo sized it up. It was about the right length, give or take five-ish feet. He reminded himself that what he was doing wasn't cutting it down. Not really, anyway.

In the other world, the price of various goods was determined by market forces. Factors like transportation, production, raw materials, taxes, fees, wages, and demand could cause prices to fluctuate unpredictably. This was the basis of Milo's salt trick—advances in mining technology and goods transportation had caused the price of salt to plummet from its historical value.

The value of goods in Milo's world was completely unrelated to the market, but instead dictated, essentially, by the gods. Everything—everything—had a fixed value that the universe ran on. This determined how an item was affected by certain spells, how long it took to craft, how much it cost to buy in a store, and approximately what difficulty of monster might be carrying it.

Depending on the complexity of the item, Milo could craft a certain number of that item, measured by its value in silver pieces, in a given period of time. The cheaper the item, the faster he could make it.

A mast might be big, heavy, and expensive, but a quarterstaff was free, with literally zero value. Ergo, Milo could craft one from a certain amount of raw materials—say, a conveniently located tree trunk—in an instant. Scaling up a weapon increased its value by a percentage based on its size, therefore increasing crafting time as well.

Quick, what's a thousand percent of zero?

Milo tapped the mast with a finger, and it was instantly severed from the ship.

"Feather Fall," he cast, and it gently descended to the deck. "Levitate," he said after it touched down, causing it to lift off slightly. He gave it a gentle push towards the front of the ship, and followed it until just under half of the 'quarterstaff' was sticking out over the water. Milo nudged the base such that it was just touching the deck of the ship. Then he glanced at the rear to see a tree growing from the rear of the ship. Of course Relkin had some Feather Tokens, he thought. She's me. Sort of. Then he grabbed a nearby length of rope—there's always rope nearby when you're on a boat—and tied it to the railing, dismissing his spell.

Boom, instant boat extension.

The boat rocked violently and yawed perilously as the dragon attacked from underneath. Water sprayed onto the deck—but it didn't flip.

Zook ran over to the edge of the boat and looked down.

"Hit him with everything you've got!" Milo shouted at the Cleric. "His saves will be garbage for the next three rounds!"

His holy symbol hanging around his neck flashed as he drew on his divine power to enhance his spells—specifically, to allow him to completely get around all metamagic-based restrictions via the incredibly overpowered Divine Metamagic feat. Milo was impressed; he didn't think the little Cleric had the head for that kind of optimization. It wasn't the most effective way of using the feat, necessarily, but it was a start.

"Empowered Sound Lance!" He called. A barely visible, translucent lance burst forth from his outstretched hands and into the water. As soon as it touched the surface, water exploded high into the air around them.

As Milo was hit full in the face with the fallout of the spell, he realized it wasn't just water that got kicked up by the spell.

"Ewww," he said, wiping dragon blood out of his eyes with his sleeves.

Gerard, meanwhile, had been tying a rope around his waist for no discernible reason. "Hold this," he said, handing one end to Milo.

"Uh, sure," Milo said.

"Thanks!" Gerard said, and, without another word, sprinted to the edge of the boat.

Milo looked at the rope in his hands, then at the 200lb, 6'7" juggernaut running away from him. Then he looked back at the rope. Then up at Gerard, who had disappeared over the edge of the boat, greatsword in hand.

"Oh, sh—"

The rope suddenly snapped tight, yanking Milo from his feet and pulling him bodily across the deck of the ship.

He just had enough time to see the railing moving towards him really, really fast before everything got painful and sort of confusing.

Milo pulled himself together, then tied his end of the rope to a metal hook-thingy that seemed to have no particular purpose beyond being a thing to tie ropes to.

A few seconds later, Gerard came climbing back up the rope, panting and heaving as if carrying something heavy. He swung back over the deck, a huge grin on his face, the head of the Dragon Turtle in his hand. It was significantly larger than he was, and landed on the deck with a meaty thud that rocked the whole ship.

"And that," Gerard said, "is how it's done."

"Are those... are those tears on its cheeks?" Zook asked, peering at the dragon's head.

"Dragons don't have tear ducts," Milo said. "They can't cry."

"This one learned," Gerard said, wiping the blood from his sword.