A Very Long Night
Liam spun around and found himself staring into the cold haughty eyes of Gordon Sumner. "What do you want?" asked Liam, angrily.
"I want you to wait," said Gordon.
"Well, if you didn't know, I've got detention this evening with your Head of House, and I really need to get going."
"You'll get there on time," said Gordon, "if you come with us."
"What do you mean, 'us?' There's only one of you." But, around the corner from the bathrooms came Umberto and Vanessa.
"Ah, there you are, Wren," said Umberto. "There was something I wanted to speak to Professor Gregor about. Do you mind if we walk with you?"
"We wouldn't want you to get lost," added Gordon.
Liam looked suspiciously from one boy to the other. "So, you're just going to help me out of the goodness of your hearts?"
Vanessa laughed, a loud, harsh cackle. "Liam please," she said, "we're Slytherins. We don't do anything out of the goodness of our hearts."
"Nevertheless," said Umberto, "it is in our best interest to see that you get to detention on time. Let's go, shall we?"
Umberto walked a few steps up the stairs, then turned around. Liam had yet to move. Gordon gave him a little shove. "On you go," he said.
"Lay off," said Liam crossly. To Umberto, he added, "You better not be leading me into some kind of trap."
Umberto smiled. "You're right to be suspicious of us, Wren, but I truly do not mean you any harm. As I said, this is in our best interest. And, as for what waits for us up there," he turned and gazed up the stairs a moment, "it's best, when entering uncertain circumstances, to travel in groups."
Vanessa eased beside Liam and set her hand on his arm. On her lips was a smile that Mike Bendrix would have done anything to have shine on him. "Come on," she said. "I'll walk with you."
Reluctantly, Liam climbed the stairs after Umberto. Vanessa walked beside him and Gordon took up the rear. Liam called up to Umberto, "Oi, Calais! Tell your friend Morwena to stay away from Sadie Thompson."
Umberto turned and looked back at him. "So you heard about that, did you? An unfortunate incident, I must say. Not at all the way I would have handled things. Believe me when I say this: I consider Sadie to be a friend. I have already scolded Morwena for attacking her."
"Morrie got a tongue-lashing from our prefect, too," said Vanessa. "But, Umberto's rebuke was much more effective, from what I hear."
"Still studying dragons in your spare time, Wren?" asked Gordon.
"Who says I am?" asked Liam.
"You asked Cy about them once," prompted Vanessa.
"Does that make it your business?" asked Liam.
"We were just curious," said Vanessa, gently. "Umberto and I both grew up in Magical Families. We might be able to help you. We'd be a lot more helpful to you than Cyrus would be."
"I don't need any help, thanks."
They let the matter drop. Gordon said, "Did you see the welt on Cy, Nessa? Big as a Sickle, and oozing this grey puss that reeks to high heaven."
"Couldn't have happened to a nicer boy," answered Vanessa, and she let out another loud cackle.
As they reached the fifth floor, Umberto turned his head and gave his cohorts a serious look. There was no chit-chatting after that. All three of them were tense, as if waiting for something to happen.
If they're leading me into a trap, thought Liam, they're going to regret it. I'll show them what Kane was crying about today.
But, even as he thought this, he doubted that he could cast the stinging spell on Vanessa. Mike, for one, would never forgive him. Not that he'd forgive me if he finds out she was hanging on my arm tonight.
Up ahead of them, the hallway had gone dark. It appeared that one of the torches had gone out. "Wands out," whispered Umberto.
"Done," whispered Gordon. Liam did not draw a wand, but his left hand was free and ready. Vanessa, rather than drawing a wand, clung to Liam's right arm and nestled her head against his shoulder.
"Lumos!" shouted Umberto, and the tip of his wand lit, shining a beam of white light into the shadows before him. The shape of a boy was briefly visible.
"It's just Stainton," said Gordon. He brushed past Liam and stood beside Umberto.
Out from the shadows came the tall, chubby third year that had been with Cyrus the day Cyrus had challenged Liam and his friends in the train compartment back in September. "Out of my way, boys," said Stainton, "I've got to teach this one a lesson."
"Sorry Magnus," said Umberto, "but Professor Gregor asked us to escort Wren safely to detention, and that's what we're going to do."
"Step aside!" demanded Stainton. Umberto and Gordon, however, moved closer together, blocking Stainton's view of Liam. "Where's your House loyalty?" Stainton called out, accusingly.
This was too much for Gordon. "When has Cyrus Kane showed any loyalty to us? Do you know how many Mudblood jokes I've heard since I got here? How many times he's put me down, acted like I was mental? He looks down on Berto, too, for being part Swiss. Not even Nessa's good enough for him."
"Shut up, Mudblood!" Stainton charged and shoved Gordon aside.
Liam had his left hand ready, but Stainton didn't strike. Vanessa wrapped her arms around Liam and put her head over his heart. "No," she said coldly.
The gesture shocked Liam as much as it did the older boy. Stainton had swung his arm up over his head, ready cast a spell, when he came to an abrupt stop. He made a great scowl and then shoved his wand roughly back into his belt. "Is that how it is, is it?"
"That's how it is," said Umberto coldly. "Though I think Nessa just saved you as much as she saved Wren."
"Treacherous wench! I knew you went in for that sort."
"Watch your mouth!" said Gordon, and gave Stainton a shove from behind.
"You watch it, Mudblood!"
"Professor Gregor better not hear you using language like that, Magnus," said Umberto.
Stainton looked around frantically for Gregor. Vanessa laughed, and Umberto added, "He's not here, but we could get him."
Stainton scowled. He pointed at Liam and said, "This isn't done!" Then, he stormed off. Vanessa's ugly cackle followed him down the hallway.
"I'm sorry Wren," said Umberto, finally cracking a smile. "You could have handled Stainton on your own. But, I couldn't be sure how many Cyrus would be able to rally to his cause. When I place a bet, I like to win.
"Vanessa was my ace in the hole. Magnus couldn't risk casting a spell with her hanging all over you."
Vanessa had eased up beside Gordon, and he had put his arm around her. Liam realized she was acting on orders from Umberto, not out of any genuine feelings for him. "You see Wren," she said, "it's absolutely forbidden for Slyttherins to cast a spell that harms a Little Sister!"
Umberto checked his watch. "It's getting late. Let's not keep the Professor waiting."
Umberto cast a spell which re-lit the torch. Then, the four students hurried down the hallway to the office door of Professor Gregor. Umberto knocked on the door. Gregor called out, "Enter!" Umberto held open the door and beckoned for Wren to enter first.
Directly in front of Liam was an empty chair and desk. He set his bag on the desk as if it were a classroom. Professor Gregor sat behind a large oak antique desk. Behind him was the window which looked out onto the night-black lake.
"Got him here on time, Professor," said Umberto, "just like you asked."
"Thank you, Calais. Did you encounter any difficulties?"
"No," said Umberto, a smug grin on his face.
"Excellent," said Gregor. "Is there anything that I can do for the three of you?"
Umberto looked to his companions, who both shook their heads. "I think we're fine, sir. Is there anything else that we can do for you?"
And people say I suck up to DeVere, thought Wren.
"No thank you, Calais. That will be all."
"Good night, sir. Good night, Wren."
Liam nodded. He got another dazzling smile from Vanessa, then the three Slytherins slipped quietly away.
Professor Gregor stood up and came around to the front of his desk. "You have an intriguing suite of custom spells, Wren. I warned Cyrus repeatedly not to challenge you, because I guessed that you were holding something back. Like any good duelist, you hadn't lead off with your strongest spell.
"Your abilities are unique, even among the Muggle-borns of your year. But, you should not have the impression that you are unique within the broader history of Hogwarts. Many students have come here with a strong command of their juvenile magic. Some of them went on to become pillars of our society, while others faded quickly into anonymity.
"I wish to acquaint you with a particularly terrible example - a student who came to Hogwarts with a powerful intellect, a commanding presence and a well-developed suite of juvenile spells. He would go on to be Prefect, Head Boy, and the greatest tyrant of our time.
"His name was Tom Riddle. I did not know him personally, nor have I studied his history in any great detail. I have spent much of my adult life working against him while he was alive, and, now that he is dead, undoing the damage that he caused.
"There is someone on campus, however, who does know Riddle's history. I have asked him to come to my office tonight, to provide you with a personal lecture. I expect you to be attentive, and to take notes. Should I detect that your attention is waning, I shall, at the end of the lecture, give you a quiz on the material, and count the score, for good or ill, towards your grade in Defense Against the Dark Arts.
"Wren, may I present to you, The Baron!"
Through the wall glided one of the Hogwarts ghosts. Liam saw the Hufflepuff ghost, the Fat Friar, regularly, and found him quite friendly. Twice a week, he had classes with Binns, who was boring but not particularly scary.
The Baron was different; he was scary. He had blank, staring eyes, and a perpetual look of pain and anguish on his face. His robes shimmered with silver blotches. His voice was low and seemed to echo, as if it came from a great distance. It chilled Liam's blood to listen.
"The students of Hogwarts flow like water beneath us," he intoned. "Few ever come to our attention. Tom Riddle was different. He was distinctive, even as a First Year . . . ."
So, for two hours, Liam sat at the desk in Gregor's office and dutifully took notes on all that the Baron said about the boy, Tom Riddle, who would become Lord Voldemort. He wrote far passed the time that his hand hurt, and his neck began to ache, until he had filled all the sheets of parchment that he had brought with him.
The Baron started with what was known of Riddle's childhood, and went through his entire career at Hogwarts. At quarter after nine, as they were wrapping up Riddle's Seventh Year, and Professor Gregor decided that Liam had done enough.
"Thank you, Baron. That was most instructive."
"But Franz," protested the ghost, "I was just getting started!"
Liam looked pleadingly at Professor Gregor, who smiled indulgently back at him. "If I feel that Wren here needs further instruction, I will be sure to bring you back to continue the lecture."
"Very well," said the ghost, and he glided through the wall.
Liam rubbed his neck and stretched out his hand before gathering up his things. "I shall walk you back down," said Gregor.
They walked for a time in silence. Liam's sense of gratitude, for being released from what promised to be an interminable lecture, was quickly replaced by a feeling of indignation. Yes, he had gotten into a couple of fights, and maybe this last duel he had used too potent a curse. But, he wasn't about to dig into the dark secrets of the school or frame anyone for murder. "I'm really not a bad kid, sir," he said, finally.
"Whether you are or not," said the Professor, "is entirely up to you. I was prepared to give you a quiz tonight, but you were attentive to the lesson. Let's see how well it sticks with you."
When they were at the empty hallway leading to the Hufflepuff common room, they parted. "Get some sleep," said the Professor. "You've had a very long night."
Liam opened the door of the Badger's Den and slipped quietly passed the group of older students hanging out by the fire. He entered the dormitory and threw his bag down on top of his trunk. As he was drawing closed his curtains, Michael came over to him, dressed in striped pajamas. "Oi, what did Gregor make you do?"
"I got a lecture from one of the ghosts."
"The Slytherin ghost? The Bloody Baron?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"What about? What did he lecture you on?"
"Some mental bloke named Tom Riddle."
"Seriously? Tom Riddle? That's the guy that became Lord Voldemort. What did the ghost tell you about him?"
"Well, I apparently got the short version - the Baron was prepared to keep going all night. Gregor made me take notes."
"Can I read 'em?"
"If you can read my handwriting, you can read 'em," said Liam with a grin.
Randal came around the corner. "All right, you two. Bendrix, get in bed! You too, Wren. I know you had detention, but it's time for bed, now. You've got classes tomorrow."
Liam got into bed, and was quickly asleep. He was too tired even to be frightened by all that the Bloody Baron had told him. But, an hour later, he was sitting up, wide awake. For a moment, he had been on the ship again, and the red dragon was in the air, coming ever closer.
Occasionally, over the last few months, he had dreamed of the dragon, but those dreams had been vague, indistinct. She had stared at him, silent and curious. Those dreams were not like the first two he had experienced, when he was on the boat with her and she spoke to him.
This dream felt real. He could almost taste the salt air.
Why is this happening now! When I'm tired and I could really use the sleep! Deep down, he knew it had something to do with Cyrus' wand. He hadn't touched it, physically, but he had felt it, connected with it, magically. Even though it was attacking him, he felt a connection to the hot core of the Dragon Wand.
Liam didn't understand what was happening or why. He just knew, his long night wasn't over yet.