Once the news about the opposition for the first challenge had made the rounds of the Hogwarts grapevine, the dragons had turned into giants, centaurs, Dementors and Chimaeras. Unknown to the gossipers, though, the last creatures had been brought in as well.
When the Champions met for the pre-task round-up, the situation was explained fully.
“Each of the teams must locate and retrieve a replica of the Sword of Gryffindor,” Professor McGonagall waved at a plan of the arena. “You will face one Chimaera and one Hungarian Horntail dragon.
“While some of you may remember the tournament from several years ago, do not think for one moment that you can be complacent.” Her Scottish accent rose to the fore. “The dragons are out-of-season, but hungry. The Chimaeras will devour anything. So, be on your guard. We will see you tomorrow at three sharp outside of the gamekeepers hut. Until then, you are to research and come up with your own plans of attack.”
* * * * *
Harry and Ginny spent the next three hours following the meeting in the Room of Requirement with Gabrielle and Michel. Now they knew what they were going to face they used the library to look up weaknesses of Chimaeras. The two teams had agreed early on that one of the best ways to deal with the Horntail threat would be to out-fly it. As they were all allowed their wands the relatively simple matter of learning the summoning charm was required.
Simple, however, was somewhat of an exaggeration. Gabrielle got to grips with the magic quickly enough; her partner, unfortunately, lacked sufficient confidence to even make the object he was supposed to have been summoning twitch.
Now, with only an hour to go, Gabrielle looked ready to hex the poor boy into next year, even with Fleur beside her trying to calm her.
“If the Champions would follow me please.” Professor Flitwick turned away from the gathering of the three pairings.
Looking back hesitantly, Gabrielle followed the teacher along the corridors to the Entrance Hall. Ginny and Harry looked on as the younger student gazed in awe at the stadium where the first challenge would take place.
Perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Black Lake, the wooden structure seemed to be balanced precariously. A flight of steps led the group up into the caves beneath the arena, ending in a tapestry featuring the coats-of-arms of the three schools. Behind this were several alcoves where the Champions were supposed to relax.
Ginny strolled over to the cots with the Hogwarts crest emblazoned on them, sitting down on one, testing how springy the mattress was. The look on her face showed that it had the same feel as one of the hospital beds in the castle. She’d seen enough of those through the years.
Harry sat down beside her, wrapping her up in his arms. His attention was drawn to the American pairing, Marcus and Carel. They seemed to be having a quiet argument. About what, Harry could not make out. Ginny pulled out her wand and wrapped her sleeve around it, polishing off fingerprints that had accumulated over the past few months since she last polished it. Harry chuckled as he drew his attention back to her, planting a kiss on the top of her hair.
“Ready?” An unnecessary question really, but it never hurt to ask.
He looked into her face. It showed determination. Her eyes betrayed her concern, for them both. She twitched her wand, sending red sparks flying over the sheets of the bed. She waved her free hand over the smouldering embers, instantly putting the fire out before it got started.
“Gather round, if you will,” Headmistress Umbridge slipped between the exit curtains into the enclosure, followed by Olympe Maxime and Minerva McGonagall.
“She looks worse than yesterday,” Ginny smirked.
“She’s got a familiar air about her, but I can’t put my finger on it,” Harry whispered into her ear before standing with her and approaching the judges.
“Before you go out and face the challenge,” the usually girlish tones were replaced by a more deeper, less confident tone, similar to the one she used when Dumbledore retrieved her from the centaurs. “You all know what creatures you will be up against. You have no doubt been preparing to confront the beasts by splitting up and taking them on separately. However, in the interest of preserving the spirit of the Tournament, you will not be able to split up.”
The three judges stood behind the pairings, conjuring ropes around the left arms of the males and the right arms of the females, running from the wrists up to the elbows.
“Now I know you may feel slightly uncomfortable about this arrangement,” Umbridge glanced over at Gabrielle and Michel. “This is your chance to show that you can work together and obtain your goal.”
“You will be going out into the arena in the order that you were drawn out of the Goblet of Fire,” Minerva McGonagall rounded her students, looking into their eyes, hoping they understood. “The Salem Institute Champions will go first, then the Beauxbatons Academy Champions, and lastly the Hogwarts Champions.”
“I don’t suppose we’ll be allowed to watch the action, then?” Michel looked pale as he fully realised what was possibly at stake now.
Harry felt for the young man. ‘People have been killed in the Tournament before’. Haunting words from so many years ago. The panic-stricken look on the Frenchmans face confirmed Harry’s fears. Not only were he and Ginny unwilling participants alongside Gabrielle, but so too was her partner. The Americans, to all intents, appeared to be the only ones who had themselves put their names into the Goblet of Fire.
So much for not putting a guard on the artefact. Hindsight is a wonderful thing to have, but foresight would have been so much better. Maybe, if they’d paid attention in Trelawneys lessons, either he or Ron would have seen this turn of events and tried to do something to avoid them.
“When Mr Filch sounds the cannon, you may proceed,” Headmistress McGonagall informed Carel and Marcus.
Ten seconds later, the loud boom of the school cannon sounded across the stadium. The American pair stood, and headed for the exit tapestry. Before they left, Carel turned her head slightly to view the others. A flicker of trepidation crossed her otherwise calm expression, causing Ginny to sit up straighter, and they were gone.
Almost immediately, the roar of the waiting dragon was heard, drowning out the screams of the crowd. Thankfully, with the lack of commentary from outside, the atmosphere in the Champions enclosure was only just calm. The occasional collective intake of breath from the crowd, usually punctuated by the roar of the dragon, served as sharp reminders as to why they were there.
Gabrielle’s heritage served to provide a calming action over the two pairings, her Veela side showing through to diffuse the tension they felt, but could not show. However, this was not the only effect of the action. Being thrown into the Tournament had reawakened the young girl’s adoration of Harry. A fact not lost on Ginny, as she constantly caught her sneaking looks across, almost always when she thought Harry was looking at her and not Ginny.
When the cannon sounded for the second time, Michel jumped out of his skin; his face white and clammy, with sweat pouring down his forehead and cheeks. Gabrielle gave his hand a reassuring squeeze and stood them up from the bed they had been assigned.
With a weak smile to the pair of them, the young part-Veela turned away from the Hogwarts Champions and pulled her partner through the tapestry. Almost immediately, the noise of the crowd changed from welcoming applause to imploring screams.
Ginny twitched at Harry’s side, her wand whirling in her fingers.
“There’s nothing that we can do, love,” Harry reached around with his free arm and pulled her into a hug. “All we can do is wait for our entrance.”
“Are the brooms ready?”
“Both of them are next to our window. Which one did you intend on risking?” He had a mischievous look about him, in spite of their situation.
“Call the Firebird.” Ginnys face was set with determination. “I’ll fly, you shoot.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Harry quipped, and pressed his lips to hers.
The sound of the cannon caused the pair to jump apart. Trembling slightly, they stood as one and made their way out into the arena.
The sight before them left a bitter taste in their mouths. The reason for the cannon being sounded so soon was all too apparent.
The arena was an out-and-out mess. The obstacles hewn from the natural rock were smashed and scorched. The French pairing were trapped against the far side of the area by a Chimaera. The Hungarian Horntail they were supposed to be facing also was just lying down, seemingly bored by the whole thing.
At least, it was until it smelled the new challengers. With a deafening roar, it took to the air, flailing its tail along the ground, throwing up debris. Momentarily distracted, the Chimaera turned to follow the progress of the other creature.
With a sickening jolt to her stomach, Ginny realised why the French pairing had not progressed further. Gabrielle Delacour was unconscious, Michel Vincent was barely keeping up a shield charm to prevent the advance of the fiery animal. When the beast turned away from them, the Frenchman dropped the charm long enough to rest slightly.
Seizing the moment, Ginny yelled loudly, distracting the pair of fiery animals further. Casting as powerful a shield charm as she could muster, she protected herself and Harry from the first wave of fire.
“Great plan,” Harry’s bout of sarcasm was not entirely without merit. “Keep it up, Michels nearly got her out.”
“A hand might be good, I’m tiring too quickly,” Ginny looked at her partner. “Kiss me.”
“What...” Harry was shocked about her forwardness.
“Dammit, Harry. Kiss me.”
Looking curiously at her, he saw the determination. He heard her voice in his mind. He understood the ‘why’. He pulled her close in, making sure her wand stayed out before the pair of them, and planted the fullest kiss he could on her lips. The power to the charm increased dramatically. The shield increased in size, glowing with a golden light that lit up the darkest corners of the arena. Without thinking, Ginny gripped Harry’s left hand with her right, producing another shield charm with his ring. She deepened the kiss, trying to drawn as much power from their love for each other as she could.
Subconsciously, Harry could ‘see’ their situation. He pictured the dragon concentrating on trying to incinerate them, as the Chimaera circled them, looking for an opening from their rear. Shaking his head to clear the images, Harry brought his wand up, pointing it straight at the circling beast and started firing stunning spells.
“Accio Firebird.” Ginny summoned her broomstick, looking at the French pairing as they made good their escape. “Come on, Harry.”
She twisted the pair of them out of the fiery onslaught from the dragon. They ran for the cover of a large boulder to their right. The spiked tail of the dragon attempted to intercept them, sending shards of stone into their sides, but otherwise missing them physically.
“Bugger,” Harry swore, throwing himself protectively over Ginny. She on the other hand pitched them both into a gulley behind the boulder she was heading for.
“Don’t do that ever again.” She was fuming. “Your damn nobility is going to get you killed here, and I can’t carry your deadweight.”
Harry couldn’t help himself, he burst out laughing. The fire he loved so much about her was clear in the expression on her face.
“Where’s the sword?” He glanced out of the gulley just long enough to spot the Chimaera advancing on them.
“Behind the dragon,” Ginny gazed into the distance, as though picturing the arena from afar.
“I don’t know how, just trust me on this.” She crouched down again, bringing her legs beneath her, getting ready to spring into action. “Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
“Good.” She smirked. “Now!”
They leapt out of the hollow just as the dragon swung its tail in, missing them, but hitting the advancing Chimaera instead. The fiery beasts faced each other, preparing to fight, neither one noticing the wizards now streaking for the replica sword.