Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Journal Entry, Part One

25 Monkey, 31 Dragon, Hour of the Octopus

I take pen in hand this turning of the year to record my thoughts once more.  I have been slack in my duties to keep this for those who may come after me, and the only feeble excuse I can find is that it has been a busy year. 

The leather spines of my predecessors mock me from their neat rows, some stained with sand and sweat from places I have never seen and can only imagine when I turn the brittle browned pages, some of parchment, some of paper.  What can you know of busy, they grumble, you who have not been used in war for a century or more, you who have a soft position, watching over a little heir to the throne?  A female heir, at that?  What, she beats you at cards?  Serves you imaginary tea with her dolls?

And all I can reply is that this post, it is not like any other that I have known in my long years of service to the Family.  I would rather be out on the ice where the sun blinds and fails to warm, rather be in jungles that drip with hallucinogenically colored poisonous animals and plants, rather fight the sands that leap on the wind and strip flesh to bone.  In some ways, it would be safer. 

It would certainly be clearer, the enemy known, their weaknesses assessable, and plans to be laid athwart theirs.

Where to begin? 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Meet the Doctor (Conclusion)

His offices looked nothing like what she had pictured.  No bubbling chemicals (like Professor Snape's workbench), no stacks of papers and obscure clutter (like the Headmistress's office), no gloom and soot.  Well lit and gleaming white, as if the walls had just been washed down.  No torches, no candles, light pouring down from the ceiling as if the sun had been bleached to snowy white and hung to light his work.

He offered her tea, with a pat of butter floating in it, and she accepted, sipping at the salty bitter brew.  "It's the OWL I plan to sit for next term," she said, and then filled him in on the OWL examinations, the different requirements, and her plans.  He nodded, asking careful dissecting questions at intervals.  Spike was surprised to find out how much there was to know, and where the holes in her knowledge were.  She ended with an explanation of her plans to construct a chimera of her own, and he sat back, beaming.  The cherubic smile never rose above his rosy cheeks.

"Hands-on experience is always . . . preferable to pure theory," he started, "and hybrid vigor is often encouraging."  She head something rustle from behind the closed laboratory door.  He'd walked her down a hallway of doors, leaving the Hounds in the vestibule.  She hadn't seen a thing he didn't want seen.  "Have you considered how you're going to get the insect parts to blend with the dragon?" 

Spike began to answer, but was interrupted as something began to sob softly.  His expression didn't change as he snapped his fingers for Tick to go and attend it.  Spike realized why her Hounds always arranged themselves so someone was on either side of a door; so you always knew who was there. "I'm not certain," she admitted.  "Shouldn't the rule of similarity apply, scales are scales are scales?"

"It's a matter of, you should pardon the expression, scale." And they went on for an hour plotting, with the scherblocken sketching diagrams on scraps of parchment, with Spike asking the probing questions, circling sections of the sketch, drawing arrows and underlining parts for her own edification and research. 

Near the end, Spike stood and stretched.  "One more question, sir.  I'm thinking about a special History of Magic OWL for the term after . . ."

"Planning ahead, are we?  That's your father in you.  Good to see that trait bred true."

"So . . . what can you tell me about re-creating someone who has gone on before?  Like an Inferii, but not so . . ."

"Evil?  You want to animate the actual corpus, or are you looking to bring back a ghost?"

"Well  . . . neither, more like . . ." and she started to explain. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Meet the Doctor, Part Four

The door swung wide before she could ask what the worst way of homecoming was, and the bonecutter stood there in front of them.  He was rounder than before, if anything, and Spike was surprised to see that rather than looming above like an airship, he was actually quite small, only a little taller than she was.  His moon face was still pink as if freshly scrubbed; his hands dainty, pudgy, soft paws.  He had a fringe of wispy silver hair ringing an otherwise bald pate, and his blue eyes were watery behind the lenses of his glasses. 

A genial appearance, harmless to the point of bumbling, until you looked into his eyes, saw the grim lines of his mouth in the goatee.  No smile lines crinkling from the corners of eyes or mouth, just three grim slashes between his eyebrows where his will had raked its claws over and over again. From the corners of her eyes, Spike could see Sascha grimly concentrating on the floor, Tontenberg's  clenched fists.  At her back, Dmitri was a wall of obsidian, still radiating the heat that had made him, and fragile, struggling not to crack.  She took a deep breath, offered a hand to the man.  "Scherblocken--"

He took her hand in both his own, bowed over it.  Precisely the degree owed to the heir of the manor, the person who would inherit the lands and his office, the one who would have power over him one day.  The one whom he would serve by tending the riding bears, keeping them healthy and tame so that they would serve the rider's will.  A careful pavane of power, of checks and balances.  Blood on the snow, she thought, and pawprints leading away.  She met his gaze as he stood back erect, and saw that they understood one another perfectly. 

"I've come for advice," she started, and gained some satisfaction in seeing him blink, surprised.  A pawn to me, only a pawn.  But a piece nonetheless.

"Well, then.  Do come in, and let us see how I can provide some assistance."  His voice was a dry and tidy tenor.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Meet the Doctor, Part Three

Looking around at the hall inside, it was just as she remembered it from her rare visits with her father.  Grey stone, rough-worked to provide traction for boot soles.  Nothing breaking the endless grey but the seams of the rock, no tapestries, no paintings -- no distractions.  A piece of carpet had been laid down at the entrance to catch mud and snowmelt, but the color, if any, had faded into the dull no-color of dirt, blending into the stone.  Lights came from boxes in the ceiling, a chilly winter light, as if lit by the sun buried deep in cloud cover.  The shadows cast by the light were surprisingly faint and fuzzed out.  It's as if I'm somehow less solid, here.  Less real.

Tock waved them ahead, taking up the rear.  They walked down the narrow hall, passing metal doors with gray paint that blended them into the walls.  The handles were brass, as were the number plates on each door.  Metal doors, wondered Spike.  What goes on here that oak isn't enough?  Then she thought about it again, and shivered. Maybe this was a mistake . . .  But she couldn't turn around, not with her Hounds around her, flanking her and bringing up the rear, not with Tock behind them.  Stopping would cause a pileup, and explaining that she had-- What?  Simply lost her nerve? Over nothing more than fantods brought on by closed doors?  And what about her plans for next term?  She bit her lip.  No.  Tough it out.

The hall ended in a vestibule before a door with a metal wheel in place of a simple latch, and Tock glided through the crowd like a shark through water.  He spun the wheel this way and that, and when a heavy clack sounded, he pulled the door open.  He held up a single finger for them to wait, then slipped in, a piece of paper vanishing through the crack.

Spike folded her arms, tucking her hands into her armpits.  She was cold in more than flesh.  Totenberg laid a hand on her shoulder. "Is it . . . what you remembered?  Is it coming home for you?"

He bared his teeth, half-sneer, half-snarl, but made no reply.  Sascha answered for him. 

"In a way."  He was whispering, as if afraid of being overheard.  "In the worst way.  Wouldn't be here but for you."

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Meet the Doctor, Part Two

A long moment in the gloom and silence passed.  Funny how snow has its own form of hush. Like it makes some kind of anti-sound, a textured silence that doesn't just drown out sound, but overrides them.

The Hounds cocked their heads, crouching and wary.  Not afraid, per se, but it was clear they had bad memories of the place, memories of blood, pain, and restraints.  Of helplessness and fear.  "Maybe there's no one here," ventured Spike.  Her toes were cold, cold in the way that presaged burning prickles when they started to thaw once more. 

Totenberg cocked his head.  "Nah, just . . . Tock is limping.  Slow." 

The good doctor had two assistants, nearly identical.  Perhaps he'd made them, perhaps he'd found them, perhaps some of both.  Tick and Tock, mirror images of one another.  She wondered how he could tell them apart through the door.  Considered asking, but before she'd decided, the door swung slowly, silently open.  A door like that should creak, Spike thought, creak and groan on its rusty, squealing hinges.  It was creepier that it opened without a sound, smoothly and easily. 

It was Tock who stood there, head cocked to the left, slender and fragile as a bird in close-fitting black.  A scarecrow of a man, his hair was sliced in an assymmetric cut, long on the left, shaved to stubble on the right, tapering towards the back.  He peered down his long, blade-thin nose at the trio, lips pressed together in a seam, one long-fingered spidery hand on the doorframe. 

Spike took a deep breath.  You are the heir to the throne of skulls. You own the clothes on his back, the food on his table, the very breath in his body.  If he breathes. She blinked hard at that, telling herself it was against the sting of the cold dry air. *You will be the mistress of his master one day, he has no authority to tell you where you may or may not go.  So own it, be it.  Tell him what you want.  "We're here to see . . ."

He cut her off with a wave of one arm, thin as knotted string, sweeping through the icy air.  He swung the door open, gliding smoothly out of the way.  He and Tick were graceful in their movements, smooth, oiled, and precise.  Even with the slight limp, he moved as if he were mounted on casters.  As if the doctor couldn't bear to have anything truly ugly around him, but could not quite manage beauty, either.

They knocked the worst of the snow off against the stoop, and entered the hallway. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Meet the Doctor, Part One

They didn't really sleep, not like the lowland grizzlies that would shut down into a torpid state to survive, but they slept more than usual, like huge lazy cats dreaming away twelve to fourteen hours of each day.  Spring would find them lean but not haggard, and ready for action

Past the stables but before the barracks was where the Scherblocken kept his offices.  They were always cold, even in the summer, built of stone that hoarded the frost and chill of winter in their bones.  "Easy to clean," he'd said, the one time Spike had mustered the courage to ask him a direct question.  His eyes had twinkled like icicles in the sun; no warmth and nothing thicker than water.  Certainly nothing as tangible as humor or even sharp as malice, just emptiness.

He was a round man, nearly as broad as he was tall, with a fringe of white hair thick around his ears and a matching handlebar mustache and tightly groomed beard where the point of his chin would be.  Small wire-rimmed spectacles gave him the same squinting down his nose aspect as the bears he tended. 

Spike wasn't looking forward to the interview; she'd had second thoughts in her room, and her ambivalence had only grown while they walked through the snow.  But, if I want to do Care of Magical Creatures next term, and I want to create my own hybrid, then who better to discuss the matter with than the man who gave us the Hounds?  Even though the Hounds had been a part of the family's retained beasts for generations, the Scherblocken had been the same man all along.  Perhaps he repaired his won body the same way that he fixed the Hounds when they were injured and cared for the bears, extending their lives and usefulness.  He'd be a Ravenclaw, thought Spike, but a dark sort of Ravenclaw, someone who doesn't think much about whether a thing that could be done ought to be done.  A Slytherclaw, maybe.  Brilliant and amoral.

They were at the door.  Spike took hold of the ring and knocked.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Awake at Last (Part Three)

They didn't really sleep, not like the lowland grizzlies that would shut down into a torpid state to survive, but they slept more than usual, like huge lazy cats dreaming away twelve to fourteen hours of each day.  Spring would find them lean but not haggard, and ready for action

Past the stables but before the barracks was where the Scherblocken kept his offices.  They were always cold, even in the summer, built of stone that hoarded the frost and chill of winter in their bones.  "Easy to clean," he'd said, the one time Spike had mustered the courage to ask him a direct question.  His eyes had twinkled like icicles in the sun; no warmth and nothing thicker than water.  Certainly nothing as tangible as humor or even sharp as malice, just emptiness.

He was a round man, nearly as broad as he was tall, with a fringe of white hair thick around his ears and a matching handlebar mustache and tightly groomed beard where the point of his chin would be.  Small wire-rimmed spectacles gave him the same squinting down his nose aspect as the bears he tended. 

Spike wasn't looking forward to the interview; she'd had second thoughts in her room, and her ambivalence had only grown while they walked through the snow.  But, if I want to do Care of Magical Creatures next term, and I want to create my own hybrid, then who better to discuss the matter with than the man who gave us the Hounds?  Even though the Hounds had been a part of the family's retained beasts for generations, the Scherblocken had been the same man all along.  Perhaps he repaired his won body the same way that he fixed the Hounds when they were injured and cared for the bears, extending their lives and usefulness.  He'd be a Ravenclaw, thought Spike, but a dark sort of Ravenclaw, someone who doesn't think much about whether a thing that could be done ought to be done.  A Slytherclaw, maybe.  Brilliant and amoral.

They were at the door.  Spike took hold of the ring and knocked.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Awake at Last (Part Two)

Spike dressed for the winter weather behind her screen next to the fire. It was still dark, even though it was well past eight o'clock in the morning.  She missed the summer, with the long lazy twilight hours that stretched around the clock.  Back for winter break, she thought.  Too bad it couldn't be summer holidays.  She was looking forward to returning to Hogwarts in the south, with its earlier dawn and later sunset. 

Two pairs of warm wool socks in her fur-lined boots (Always take care of you feet, she could hear Totenberg insisting as he dressed blisters on her heels one day.  She had forgotten to break in a new pair of boots gently, instead choosing to go running over the hills in spring, drunk on the season like a young rabbit.)  Fur-lined mittens over fingerless muffatees over half-fingered gloves.  Surplice over the gown over the alepine next to her skin.  A cloak over it all, and she was ready to go.

They walked quietly through the castle, the Hounds padding at her heels and sides in a watchful wedge.   Even in her own halls, careful watch was kept over the heir to the Throne of Skulls (Although they hadn't actually used that throne in generations, Spike mused as the passed the audience chamber, turning to the left, and going down the stairs that would lead them out through the kitchens. 

Once outside, the cold was a slap in the face, making Spike gasp for air, finding very little but the cold, dry, thinness, like breathing the stars themselves.  She pulled the cloak tighter around herself.  My blood's thinned, she thought, down in Scotland, down in the warmth and wet. 

Totenberg took point to break the path, with Sascha behind him to trample it smoother.  Spike in the middle where she could walk in their steps, and Dmitri behind her if she started to fall.  They made their way over the grounds, through the gardens wreathed in ice, branches black and spare in the eerie half-light reflecting from the snow. 

She knew where the stables were, of course, even though she didn't ride the bears, not yet. She was still too young and small to control them, Matya said, and Atyets agreed, although each year, he was slower and slower to come to Matya's point of view.  One day, maybe even next year, she would be allowed up on one of the older, mellower steeds who had been allowed to age out of his teeth for just such training purposes.  Claws blunted, saddled and bridled, tamed as much as anything with a wild heart could be. 

They passed through the gate that separated the stables from the grounds, close but not too close.  The stables were quiet under their icing of snow; she could almost hear ursine snoring as they slept for the winter. 

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Awake at Last (Part One)

Spike sat straight up in her bed, shaking off the dregs of the dream.  Sorting.  Sorted every term.  She shuddered.  It made sense, of a kind; hadn't Dumbledore himself expressed doubts about the system, said they Sorted too soon?  Perhaps unearthing other drives produced a more well-rounded witch or wizard in the end.   But to lose my place in Slytherin . . .

She could still smell bacon and coffee.  Sascha stirred at her feet, where he usually spent the night, curled up like a dog.  Totenberg opened the door from his usual post, and Dmitri came in with a pot and platter.  Spike put on a robe and fuzzy slippers, sitting at the small table by the window where she always had breakfast at home, from the time when her feet didn't quite reach the floor.  We're not morning people, that's for sure. The custom had been established generations before, when one of her ancestors had realized it was easier to keep staff if you didn't have to interact with them before your first cup of coffee. 

Totenberg let the first cup sink in, and then asked, "Gots plan for the day?"

Spike thought about her OWL, and the rest of the disastrous term, and her vow to earn a thousand points for Slytherin.  "I think I'll plan for the upcoming term," she said slowly.  "I think I have an idea for next term's OWL."

"What you gonna do?"

"Care of Magical Creatures."

"Don' have a gamekeeper, not as such . . ."  Any wildlife on the estate was expected to fend for itself, frankly, and most of it could, evolving toxins, fangs, and opposable thumbs at a healthy clip. 

"Nooooo  . . .  but we do have someone I could talk to.  And you could introduce me."  She pointed at him with half a strip of bacon, chewing slowly.

"You mean -- de bonecutter?"  Totenberg paled a little under his fur.  None of the Hounds had anything but unflinching respect for the man who kept putting them back together when they were hurt, but it didn't mean they loved him.

"The very one."

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Prophetic Dream?

It was the smells that woke her that morning, waffles and coffee and bacon and strawberries.  Spike sniffed, eyes still half-welded shut with sleep, Nutella.  Nutella and whipped cream, too.  First day  breakfast.  Totenberg insisted that a good breakfast was essential to a good start, and Spike had gradually convinced him that a few extra minutes of sleep before the first day was a good idea as well.  They'd compromised on breakfast in bed on the first day of each month during term. 

She rolled over in bed . . . and kept rolling until she hit the edge.  That was odd; usually one of her guards was there keeping watch like a living teddy bear.  The near-fall woke her up enough to open her eyes all the way, and she squinted against the bright light, so unlike the usual green-shaded gloom of the Pit.  Did they have to drain the Lake again? she wondered.   The squid can't be happy about that.

Something else was wrong with her room, too, and she struggled muzzily to put a finger on it.  So much light . . .  But before she could quite place it, the door swung open, and Totenberg, Dmitri, and Sacha appeared, carrying a plate of waffles piled high with strawberries, whipped cream and the food of the gods, chocolate hazelnut butter, a platter of bacon, and an enormous mug of coffee.  Spike stretched out her hands, and the coffee mug was promptly deposited into them.  She took a long pull gratefully, feeling the cobwebs melt away.  She opened her eyes again after finishing half the cup . . . and nearly spit out the half a mouthful.  Yellow The room was yellow, a bright sunshiny cheerful yellow, trimmed with shiny black. 

She closed her eyes tightly.  Still half asleep.  Still half-dreaming.  Must be.  Going to finish dreaming I'm drinking the coffee, then I'll dream I'm awake, so I'll actually be awake then, and then I can see what's going on.  She drained it to the bitter dregs, then opened her eyes again.  Still yellow.  Still black. Not a trace of green or silver.  Muffins, not skulls.  Badgers, not snakes.  I'm in  . . . HUFFLEPUFF???

There has to be an explanation.  She handed the empty mug back to Totenberg, suppressing a double-take.  "What are you wearing?  You're out of uniform!"

It was true.  Instead of their usual livery of mix and mismatch ("Wearing uniforms is lazy -- you stop looking at faces.  Anyone can find a uniform that will more or less fit," Totenberg had explained one day, and Spike had agreed, seeing some wisdom in that.  At the same time, she always harbored a sneaking suspicion that the Hounds just liked uniforms, and refused to commit to one particular standard.) the trio was wearing -- "You look like house elves," Spike blurted out.  "Explain."

Totenberg bowed, then scrambled to keep the tea towel around his waist as one knot came undone.  Those tea towels are really . . . scanty, thought Spike.  "Is simple, meestress.  I em you minion--I mean, house elf.  Hotty."

"And I'm Naughty," added Sascha, who was wearing a long, pointed, and patently false nose to go with his ear hat.  They did look a little like house-elf ears, thought Spike, or would have if the hat wasn't precariously tipped on Sascha's head like a batwinged fascinator.

"I'm Loverboi," finished Dmitri sourly.  The three were clearly striving for the distinctive squeaky voices of the house elves, but only managing a light baritone growl.  Dmitri had at least managed to find a king-sized pillowcase, which rode him like a minidress. 

"How . . . what?  when?"

"Was the Het.  The Het done it.  Decide you needs to be--"

"To be round."  Sascha beamed.  "Tol' you de gym vas bad idea."

"To be vell-rounded," corrected Totenberg, adjusting the ear hat, and only managing to switch it from starboard to port.  "You needs to spend zum time in anodder House, he said."

Spike had her face in her hands as they explained, by the time they reached the end, she had made up her mind.  She lowered her hands, feeling an old familiar grin spreading on her lips.  A rattlesnake grin, with a dark light in her eyes.  Well-rounded, eh?  Spend some time in another House?  She'd show them what she was made of.  She threw back the coverlet, reaching for her robes trimmed in yellow.  "Well," she said, emerging from the sleeves and hood, "badgers have fangs, too."

Sunday, October 21, 2012

One Thousand Points

In the Dungeon that night all was quiet, though no one was sleeping.   The students packed their robes, books, and personal effects in silence, with only an occasional hushed aside to a hottie or fellow Slytherin.  On the mantle, where the House Cup had rested so proudly each term, was a vacant space.  Spike, her arms full of parchments gathered from the House Potions lab, stopped and stared at the spot.  The Cup had not Apparated from the Ravenclaw Aerie back to the Snake Pit.  It was gone.

Back in her room, she began sorting and folding the parchment neatly.  One stack to keep, one stack to erase--waste not, want not.  Totenberg came by and silently took the "keep" stack, stowing it tidily in her trunk.  Looking over her notes from the classes, her draft charts of her OWL, Spike's eyes itched, then a tear fell onto the parchment she was reviewing.  She Vanished it savagely, nearly blasting a hole in the scroll.

Totenberg took her wand wrist in one hand.  "Wanna talk 'bout it?"

Yes, and no.  It was still bitter and painful.  I tried so hard.  We all tried so hard. Even though second place is just first in a pack of losers, it wouldn't have been so bad.  She took a deep breath and began to explain.

"We were all assembled in the Great Hall, and the banners had just changed from green to purple, for Hogwarts."  And then the Headmistress had begun to announce the final scores for the Houses, starting with the lowest total first.

"In fourth place, with thirty-five thousand, nine hundred and forty-two points, I give you . . . the noble House of Salazar Slytherin!"  Everyone had clapped, but Spike sat with her hands in her lap.  Fourth place?  Fourth place? She couldn't have heard that right.  There had to be a mistake somehow. 

"In third place, with thirty-seven thousand, two hundred and eighty-six points, the charming and gracious House of Helga Hufflepuff!"  A few of the Puffs stood up and hugged each other, waving to the rest of the Hall.  Behind Hufflepuff?  Slytheirn had lost to Hufflepuff?  That couldn't be.  Wroxton must be planning something special, something like what Dumbledore had done for Gryffindor during the years of the Second Wizarding War, where, by the powers vested in him as Headmaster, he had whipped a deus ex machina out of his hip pocket and pulled out a win for the House of the Boy Who Lived.  "That must be it; that has to be it."  She clenched her fists in her lap.  Please let that be it -- I don't even have to be one of the golden ones who receives bonus points for her hard work, just so long as we win.

Gryffindor was third, with thirty-eight thousand, six hundred and eighty-four points, which left  . . . "Ravenclaw has won the House Cup!" as the banners all turned indigo, then blue, with the screaming eagle picked out in bronze.  Blue hoods took flight on voiceless wingardium leviosa charms, hovering above the Ravenclaw table as they cheered, then turned and toasted their Head of House with iced goblets of pumpkin juice.  The House Cup was taken from the Head Table and ceremoniously handed over to the winning House, and the feast began.

Now.  Surely now, Wroxton would hold up her hands for silence, and distribute those vital points that would make a world of difference.  But the food merely appeared on the tables, the upperclassmen shrugged and tucked into their dinner as if nothing had changed.  As if the world hadn't come crashing down. 

Spike ate mechanically, picking out bits of whatever looked nourishing.  Favorites didn't enter into it, not now.  She was eating because being hungry and wretched was far worse than just being wretched.  Chicken, vegetables, salad -- a small helping of each; it all tasted like sand anyway.

Totenberg frowned as she wound down at last.  “So.  You lost.”

How simple he made that sound.  As if losing wasn’t something that happened to other, worthless people, as if losing was just what happened when you didn’t win.  She nodded, unable to speak past the lump in her throat, the weight on her chest.

"You didn't like it."  Wry understatement with a twist of a grin playing around the corners of his mouth, fangs glinting for a second.

"No.  And Atyets is going to be so mad."

He took her hand.  "What, that you learn what he sent you away for?"

She stared at him.  Has he been sipping mercury again?  It was hard keeping the Hounds out of anything that might be intoxicating, and their theory seemed to be that anything was worth a try -- or two, if it didn't kill you the first time.  The Potions storeroom had needed several additional locks over this last term.

"Look-- you lost.  Is a bad thing, not what you wanted but . . . anybody die?"

"No . . ."

"Anybody hurt real bad?  Castle blow up?"

"No . . . not exactly."

"Then you learn.  You learn that it hurt to lose.  Gonna do that again?"

"Not by choice!"

"Gonna make other choices, then, yes?  Gonna work harder, maybe smarter, maybe plan a leetle better for next term?  See about maximizing the work you do, make different priorities.  Change strategy."

"Yes . . . I can sit for an OWL again, and if I  . . ."  she trailed off, pondering how she would make next term work, how she could leverage her efforts for Slytherin.  Her fingers twitched in Totenberg's hand, and he quickly slid a piece of parchment and a quill into her hand as she began planning next term.

Next term, and a thousand points for Slytherin.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Feast Begins

Spike left the castle in a glowing daze, passing by students excitedly recounting their own adventures with the OWL examinations, some gleefully punching the air, eyes flashing; some quietly reciting, shoulder hunched, surrounded by friends who suggested things like "There's always next term, you'll do it next term."  She touched the badge pinned to her left shoulder over and over; each time for the first time.  I did it.  I took my first OWL -- and I passed it!  Slytherin's going to win the house cup during my first term here, and we will celebrate in the dungeons all night tonight.  In the morning, we'll board the train, trunks haphazardly packed, green sparkles in our hair, and every student will know that we've won.

She was through the Western gates, wandering through the grounds behind the castle.  The Forest loomed to her left, dense and impenetrable looking, but she knew it to be a deep glowing green place once you found your way inside. A dark place, to be sure, but it had its glades of light among the twists and gnarls of the old trees that jealously clutched at the sun and choked out any saplings that dared raise their heads.  It should be the bald knoll past the oak, she thought, with the wide path cut through the trees to where you can see the sun go down.  She picked one of the season's first bluebells sprouting, placed it in her hair.  The way grew steep, and she leaned into the hill,

When she reached the top, she looked around.  There was the solitary pine she remembered, a sole softwood in a forest of hard.  Some Herbology student, maybe.  Or professor Snape or whoever taught Potions before him, planning ahead for the rare occasion when they'd need a few needles, or some sap.  But this was indeed the place, and the first stars were twinkling low in the sky.

She held the corner of her chart in front of her, used it to start to orient herself to the sky.  So many hours staring into the heavens, I think I know all the stars by the names they sing to one another by now.  She was watching them come out as the sun faded, when an hand fell on her shoulder.

"Been looking for you," growled Dmitri.  "Whole House gone in to dinner.  Sent me to go find you.  End of Term Feast starting, you gonna wanna be there."

Spike gasped.  The Feast!  When they announced Slytherin's victory, and the House Cup changed hands, and the party afterwards!  She had forgotten, flushed with victory over winning her first OWL.  She ran back down the hills with only a brief parting glance at the sky. 

She was just barely in time to slip into a place at the table before Headmistress Wroxton took the podium.  She peered over half-moon spectacles at the shifting students at Slytheirn, narrow mouth folded tightly, but the tiniest glimmer of a smile pleated into the severe corners.  Wroxton had sorted Slytherin herself, Spike suddenly remembered.  Surely she'll do what she can to ensure the right House wins.

"Before we begin dinner, I would like to thank all of you for a most excellent term.  The scores between the Houses were close, very close indeed.  All of you should give yourselves a most hearty round of applause."  She paused, and when the students continued to wait, she began slowly clapping herself.  Gradually, Hufflepuff joined in, and soon the rafters of the Hall rang.  A few whistled or cheered, and the smile finally slipped its reins and Wroxton beamed down at her charges, finally motioning for silence.

“As I said, well played, all of you.  And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for.”  The green hangings from last term’s Slytherin victory shimmered, then turned violet, the color of Hogwarts unity.  All the staff’s robes were trimmed in purple, with the heads of house having their crest on the right breast.  Spike shifted uneasily at the loss of the familiar emerald and silver banners, but they’ll be back soon enough, she consoled herself.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

An OWL, Finally (Conclusion)

The waiting was nearly physically painful as the four staff members put their heads together, whispering.  Spike studied the skies overhead, trying to determine just how many silver stars there were among the green.  Some of the greens were brighter -- was that green, or silver?  Some were dimmer -- was that green, or just imagination?  How many points off for each one?  How many to failure?  She wished she knew more about the process.  Maybe I shouldn't have left my first OWL to chance.  I should have studied the requirements more thoroughly, made an informed and thoughtful choice based on my strengths.  I should have planned better.  She resolved to think it through in the future, not heedlessly rushing into an OWL with too many variables. 

The professors resumed their places in the semicircle.  Spike looked at their faces, but everyone had fixed their features in masks of firm neutrality.  Professor Gorre bent, and handed Spike back her star chart.  "We are pleased to announce," she paused, flicked her wand.  A table, resting on four impressively clawed feet appeared near the door.  On it rested a velvet cushion, and something that sparkled in the dim light, growing brighter as the scene vanished and the empty classroom surrounded them once more.  "That you have passed your OWL, Spike.  Well played.  Your first OWL, and we know the trouble you ran in to at mid-term.  But you found a way around it, and your chart is acceptable.  Please pick up your badge on the way out."  Gorre extended her wandless hand, and after a moment, Spike shook hands with her Head of House. 

The Gryffindor professor gave her a firm nod of approval with his handshake, Professor Randall swept her into an enveloping hug.  Professor Wildsmythe put her other hand on Spike's shoulder, giving it a squeeze.  "Nicely researched," she said.  "And you really do know how to throw a party."

"Thank you, Professors," she said, voice shaking a little.  One hundred and fifty points for Slytherin!  All my doing!  She could see the end of term feast, the pride in Gorre's eyes as she accepted the House Cup, Spike applauding her teammates, knowing that she had a hand in their victory, the envious glances of the rest of the Houses as Slytherin carried the Cup into the Pit to drink mojitos and Midori margueritas, and other green-tinted, exotic Muggle beverages from the Cup until dawn lit the waters of the lake above. 

She pinned the new badge to her robes (diamonds and emeralds, she noted, spinning slowly widdershins) and walked out of the hall, the doors opening easily to the touch now that the Examination was over. Treading her way back through the crowds, she made her way back to the Dungeon.

Totenberg looked up from the game of arima'a he was playing against Dmitri.  "Zo?"

She jumped into his lap, careful not to disturb the pieces.  "I did it!  I did it I did it I did it!!  I got my OWL!!"  She sat back just far enough to display the new brooch on her left shoulder.  "I got my OWL, and we're going to win for sure, and I can hardly wait for the feast to be called!  And to tell Atyets and Matya all about it, and I can hardly wait to come back and do it all over again! Next term!"

Totenberg laid a finger across her lips.  "Think you need to take a nice long walk," he suggested in his thick accent.  Spike blushed as she heard the echo of her words.  That was a longer speech than she'd heard Atyets make in meetings of state, where there was certainly more at stake than a trophy and a party. 

"You're right."  She got up, wrapped the star chart around her shoulders for a little extra warmth, and went out for a long walk on the moors to see if she could find the exact hilltop she had just spent a lifetime on a few minutes before. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

An OWL, Finally (Part Four)

The doors slammed shut behind Spike, and she looked around the empty hall.  It looked just like any anonymous classroom -- wood floors, stone walls -- but utterly, utterly bare.  No desks, not even a lectern for the professor.  Nothing on the walls, it could have been History of Magic, or Charms, or Muggle Studies -- anything at all.  And there was no OWL board of Examiners waiting, either.  A big empty box.

"Hello?  Is there anyone there?"  Her voice echoed slightly from the naked walls. I must be in the wrong room, somehow.  She turned back to the doors, pulled on the handle, but they were locked tight.  "Hey!!"  She pounded on the door.  "Hey!  I'm stuck in here!"  If the assistant was on the other side, she couldn't or didn't hear, because no one opened the door.

"I'm supposed to be defending my OWL!  How can I defend it if there's no board?  Let me out, or send them in, or . . ."  She stamped her foot, vexed,  Tendrils of hair began snaking their way out of her bun, and she shoved them back in place, even more irritated.  The wood in front of her began turning reddish, and she stopped in her tracks.  Touched it.  Oh, not fire, not this time.  Her temper, she really had to get a hold on it.  Ahtyets had been telling her that for ages, and she knew it, but still.  So not fire, then . . .  She turned around.

At the front of the hall, the light was changing, shifting to sunset, through pink and red and orange and the other mixtures of colors that had no real equivalents in language.  It wasn't like the ceiling of the Great Hall, which showed the actual sky above, she could still see the walls quite clearly.  But as she watched, and the lights above flickered into violet, they became insubstantial, misty, and then dissolving as darkness began eating the room.  Overhead, the ceiling vanished into might, and in the dying twilight, she saw four professors appear as if they were walking up one of the hills behind Hogwarts to meet her there. 

She recognized Professors Wildsmythe, Gorre, and Randall.  Professor Wildsmythe winked at her from behind her colleagues’ backs.  Spike’s hand went cold and damp.  Right, the party.  Oh, boy, I hope that doesn’t lead her to expect more from me than I can provide. 

Professor Gorre gave her a dry sort of nod, and a lump grew in Spike’s throat. The Head of my House?  Oh, no.  She’ll have to be really tough in order to preserve the whole “fair” approach and avoid showing favoritism.

Professor Randall smiled sunnily, but she’s a Hufflepuff, she’d smile sunnily to someone climbing the gallows, and wish them a nice day, completely without irony.  Oh, it’s bad when your best hope is the Gryffindor professor, whom you’ve never met before.

The four took their places in a semi circle in front of her, and Professor Gorre handed Spike her star chart, neatly folded.  “Show us what you can do,” she said, waving her wand, and the skies above swirled into glowing ribbons of stars above, completely disordered.

Spike laid her chart out on the ground between them, looking carefully at the beads showing her direction, giving her grounding and landmarks in the sky.  “Okay.  This one here belongs there,” she said, tapping the bead with her wand, slowly picking order out of the chaos the stars had been cast into. 

One at a time, the stars took their places as ordained by her chart, one tiny glowing light at a time.  It could have been hours, it could have been weeks until finally he thought she had them all back in their proper places.  “That’s it,” she said, looking up at the sky and the portion she had charted. “They’re all where they ought to be.”

“Are you sure, then?” asked Professor Wildsmythe, in her cool and slightly distant way.  “Everything is where it belongs?  All the celestial bodies back in their proper places?”

Spike thought it over.  Were they?  The stars matched her chart, but how accurate was that chart?  Had she gotten it right?  Had she maybe rushed too fast in her efforts to get it done my the end of the term, had she missed something vital?  “I think so . . . yes.  Yes, I’m sure.”

Revelatio celestii!” The Gryffindor professor cast the spell, and most of the stars stayed where they were, turning slowly emerald green. A few, but only a few, changed places, winking silver.  Randall frowned up at the sky, tapping her wand on her chin, counting under her breath.

She’s counting the silver ones, Spike realized.  The ones I got wrong.  Were there too many?  She held her breath.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

An OWL, Finally (Part Three)

She followed the moving staircases carefully to the third floor, down the halls, walking past crowds of students each anxiously peering at lists posted in front of huge iron banded doors.  Arithmancy, Divination, Defense Against the Dark Arts, Potions--a sudden clap sounded and the doors actually shuddered in their frames, opening to let a whiff of evil-smelling smoke drift into the hallway.  Some of the upper-classmen snickered and fanned their hands elaborately.  "Told Stibbins he'd never be able to recreate that one," a Ravenclaw announced smugly to a brace of his friends.

"He'd been going on and on about how he was some kind of natural Potions genius," another agreed, pushing her glasses up further on her nose.  "He'd have to sort Slytherin next term in order to get all the Potions help he really needs."

"Maybe even Hufflepuff -- kitchen chemistry.  You have to start where you really are, right?"  They all laughed, whistling past the gallows while their own examinations were pending. 

"So . . . you really do sort fresh each term?" Spike said, standing near the edge.  The others looked down at her, taking in the green trim on her robes.

"Yeah.  We each sit down with the Hat every term and get Sorted again.  Some students tour the Houses, spending a term in Ravenclaw, a term in Gryffindor. I think your Head of House spent some time in Hufflepuff, learning management skills."  He smirked.  "Coals to Newcastle there, I would think.  I don’t believe Slytherin's heirs distinguish between management and manipulation."

Spike smiled, just half a smile, looking carefully at the faces of the older students as they snickered.  One day, not so very long from now, one day we will meet and have a discussion about management, manipulation, and coals.  "Thank you for your insight," she said, coolly, dropping a precise curtsey, and continuing down the hall.

Care of Magic Creatures, Herbology, Ancient Runes, Charms . . . Sorting every term?  She shivered a little, pulled the collar of her robes a little higher around her neck.  How was this accomplished; did they all file into the hall ahead of the firsties and sit under the Hat once more?  Did they decide who went where by how well they did?  What if she failed her OWL at the last minute, would she be Sorted to Hufflepuff?  One last chance before being shown the door?  Had she taken enough classes, won enough points to get her a seat in Slytherin?  Should have taken Divination this term, she thought ruefully, squeezing through the crowd.  It would be nice to know for sure.

The crowds were getting thinner, clustered around the last few doors.  History of Magic, Muggle Studies, Transfiguration--here it is, Astronomy.  She found her name on the list and informed the assistant that she was here, waiting. 

The doors swung open, and a dazedly grinning Hufflepuff came out,  Spike tried to peek inside, but all she saw was a large, empty hall with wooden floors, just like any of the classrooms with the desks taken out.  There's not even a chair for the Examiner to sit on, she thought.  How am I supposed to--  The other student grabbed her, whirling giddily.

"I did it, I did it, I did it!"  she was chanting.  "Oh, I didn't think I could, but I made it!  I got my OWL!!"  In one hand she held a chart, and on her robes was an elaborate pin of diamonds in a galaxy, spinning slowly, winking between topaz and brilliant white.

"Well played," Spike said automatically, trying to gracefully disentangle herself from the Badger. 

"Hufflehugs!!  Hufflehugs for everyone!!"

"Have we, er, met?"

The other peered at her closely.  She had sandy blonde hair, a round moon face, and a gap in her front teeth when she grinned.  Her grin was infectious, Spike found herself smiling back.  Really smiling, not baring her teeth with another layer beyond it.  "Appolline Hopkins," she said, letting go enough to pull one arm loose and proffer her hand between them.  "Pleased to meet you--"

"Nikolevnischka von Schaedelthron.  But everyone calls me Spike," she added as the other's eyes widened at the string of syllables. 

"I see why they would!  Oh, it's a great day!  I passed my OWL, and I made a new friend!"  She squeezed Spike one last time before letting go.  "I can tell we're going to have lots of fun together!  But right now, I have to get back to the Den to let everyone else know the good news!"  And down the hall she went, robes askew, boots clattering.

Spike watched her, re-arranging her garments and hair, picking up her book bag.  Friends with a Hufflepuff.  Well, maybe.  They were always talking about House Unity, after all.  "Perhaps," she said, fiddling with the hairstick holding her bun in place.  "Perhaps this sorting thing . . ."

But the assistant was calling her in now, and it was her turn to step up and defend her work of the term.  Spike took a deep breath, and walked into the empty hall. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

An OWL, Finally (Part Two)

Spike was playing a game of exploding snap in the Common Room, but her heart wasn't in it. She was waiting to find out if her OWL had been approved. Every time an owl flew in, everyone would watch out of the corner of their eyes to see if it carried a purple-bordered message from an Examiner, informing the student that their OWL did not meet the required qualifications.

Was it really kinder this way, to cull the herd first, to clear out anyone whose work didn't measure up privately, and then to invite the remaining students in for the oral part, where they would defend their OWLs to the board of Examiners? She wasn't sure.

On the one hand, how awful would it be to go in, thinking you might just squeak past with a brilliant defense, only to be rejected at the eleventh hour and sent right back out to face the gauntlet, with everyone knowing you hadn't even had a chance to start. On the other -- a barn owl flew uncomfortably close, executing a barrel roll on silent wings -- on the other, the tension was driving her absolutely mad. "Every owl a harbinger," she muttered, as three cards in her hand blew into confetti.  This deck was over-used, the explosions were hardly more than poofs; the hearts were shading from crimson into black, while the clubs had taken on a reddish tint.  The cards reassembled slowly, like an old man getting out of bed in the morning to face a long and empty day.

Munificent took three cards from the pot. "No news is good news, think of it that way."

"I wish I could be so complacent."

"But by midnight tomorrow, if you haven't got notification that you failed your OWL outright, then you get to go to the Hall and defend your work."

"That's what I'm afraid of." Spike explained about the parchment that she'd been working diligently on, that suddenly bore no relation to what was in the skies. How she'd had to start from scratch just before mid-terms, picking a whole other swath of stars to plot from the very beginning. "I'm not sure I'd know where to begin explaining my work, never mind defending it."

The game ended when the deck disintegrated one last time, leaving shred of confetti swirling in the air.  Spike looked at them in dismay.  “That was the last deck!  And it’s lights-out; there’s no way to leave the dungeon to fetch a fresh pack.  The game ended when the deck disintegrated one last time, leaving shred of confetti swirling in the air.  Spike looked at them in dismay.  “That was the last deck!  And it’s lights-out; there’s no way to leave the dungeon to fetch a fresh pack. How are we going to kill the hours until--"  The chiming of the clock cut her off, and Munificent stood up and stretched.  

"It's midnight.  There's no more time to kill; we've neither of us failed outright.  So I am going to bed, where I can finally sleep, and that's how I'm going to pass the hours until dawn.  I suggest you do the same."  She turned at the head of the stairs that led down into the bedrooms.  "You'll need it, what with that OWL of yours."

Spike occupied herself for a little while levitating and vanishing the shreds of playing card, but when the house elves' night shift came in, the sidelong dirty looks put her off her game, and so she went to bed.  Lying there, wide awake in the dark, she was certain that she would spend the entire time tossing and turning . . . until she was awakened by the tapping on the ceiling that was the giant squid alerting the house that it was time to get up and make ready to face the day.

She grimaced at the mirror as she brushed her hair and fought to contain it in its customary bun.  Her green-tinted mane was sensitive to magic, attempting to climb the currents like a morning glory vine climbing strings.  At home it wasn't so bad, but in a school devoted to learning magic, the temptation was apparently too much for the locks.  And this being OWL day, there was more in the air than usual.

She finally got it all tied down out of her face, and followed at the tail of the line as they trooped up to the Great Hall for breakfast.  Oatmeal, toast, and fruit, a mellow bland breakfast for nervous stomachs.  Spike toyed with her bowl of porridge gloomily, then deigned to nibble some toast and fruit.  She'd celebrate or drown her sorrows at lunch.