At length, Harry ended his self-excoriation as his thoughts turned to Hermione and Ginny waiting alone in the hall. Urgency rekindled, he put away his self pity while internalizing the lesson he had just learned. As he left the Room of Requirement, he found the girls talking with Francois DePais in the corridor. Conversation ended as Harry joined the group.

"Harry you have friends both dedicated and lovely," said DePais. His words caused both Ginny and Hermione to blush pink. "Miss Granger was just explaining your training. I am impressed by your dedication. Preparing others is a noble calling."

"I don't think of it as a calling," explained Harry. "We started the D.A. to learn things the Ministry had determined we were better off not knowing."

"There is something to be said for restraint," said DePais.

Harry considered DePais' odd tone and came to the conclusion that Hermione had shared the incident with the teachers and their fake Snape. "I am still learning restraint," Harry said, deciding to take the subject head-on. "I learned a lesson today about not letting my temper move me to a rash action. I hope to master that lesson."

"That would be well with most people. Never live on the precipice of revenge driven anger. The fall from such a place can be deadly, both emotionally and spiritually." DePais concluded by reaching into his robes, but then glancing at Hermione, he removed his hand.

Harry recognized the motivation behind the motion, "It's all right. Hermione knows about Capricio."

"I see," said DePais, as he removed the stiffened gold pouch from his robes and handed it to Harry. "Thank you for the time with Capricio. We have become fast friends. The studies I have completed will allow me great advantage in future projects."

"That sounds as if you are leaving," said Ginny.

"I am," responded DePais. "I have visited extensively with Albus and I am satisfied with the materials, magic, and methods that we used to create his Porcrux. It is time for me to return to my other projects."

Harry extended his hand. "Thank you for your help and for the advice."

"I gave you advice?" asked DePais chuckling. "It must be my curse. I've been told that I'm too admonitory. In any case, may we have a private word before I go, Harry?"

"Certainly," replied Harry as he stepped a short way down the hall with DePais.

"Harry," began the artist in a low tone, "I have left you a present in the Headmistress' office. Check the cupboard that conceals my easel. And Harry if you ever decide to work on a Porcrux, please consider contacting me. I would be honored to assist." DePais pulled Harry in to a hug.

"You would be the only one I would trust in such a monumental undertaking. I just feel it's going to be a while before I learn enough patience to put any aside for a Porcrux," explained Harry.

"I understand. I will continue to refine my skills, you do likewise," said DePais as they walked back to the girls. "Remember, each day's actions may not accurately reflect who we are, but in their accumulation, they determine who we become."

DePais patted Harry on the cheek, and kissing both Ginny and Hermione on the back of their hands; he turned to leave the castle.

As they watched DePais leave, Ginny asked, "What was that about?"

"Nothing much," said Harry. "He just offered to paint a portrait of me."

Taking Ginny by the hand, and with Hermione in tow, Harry headed to the hospital wing. "Madam Pomfrey told me to come see her this evening to have my bandages changed," said Harry in explanation for their direction.

When they arrived, Madam Pomfrey went to work on Harry's bandaged hands. Hermione slipped to the opposite end of the ward and spoke in subdued tones to Colin and Dennis Creevey. She returned quite quickly.

Harry was shocked when the bandages were removed. The burns had almost completely healed, but his skin and fingernails still bore marks of Moody's curse. Instead of the burned-black appearance, his skin and nails had taken on a deathly, ice-blue tint.

"I see that there was more than the burns to contend with," said Madam Pomfrey as she carefully turned over Harry's hands. "It appears you have received additional care; Horace Slughorn, if I don't miss my guess."

"Yes, you are exactly correct," said Harry. "Professor Moody took me to see him and they determined there was a curse compounding the burns."

"Be grateful for those with the skill and willingness to help," said Madam Pomfrey. Then smiling, she continued, "Indeed Mr. Potter, I believe you may have set a record of sorts here at Hogwarts. More times in hospital than any other student. We may have to name a bedpan in your honor."

"It may seem so," said Harry, "But I recall a rather extended stay for a friend that, I believe, would eliminate me from a duration record."

Hermione shifted where she stood but said nothing.

"Thank you Madam Pomfrey, for all the care you've given students over the years. Especially the accident-prone ones," said Ginny looking pointedly at Harry and grinning.

"You are welcome," said Madam Pomfrey blushing a bit. "I can summon a teacher if you are ready to return to Gryffindor Tower."

"Thank you," said Harry, surprising his companions. "That would be very kind of you."

Madam Pomfrey seemed as surprised as Ginny and Hermione by Harry's quick acceptance of her offer. She withdrew her wand and made a complicated gesture. She didn't notice the intense interest Harry was paying her actions. Within minutes Professor Slughorn was at the ward door.

"Harry my boy! I hope this is just a visit and not a treatment," said Slughorn cuffing Harry on the back.

"I just needed my bandages changed," explained Harry. "Thanks for coming to escort us to Gryffindor Tower."

"No thanks necessary," said Sludhorn genially. "I was the teacher patrolling closest to the hospital wing when Madam Pomfrey's request went out. I'm beginning to see what you meant when you said you would be extremely busy through the end of term. Even so, tonight seems to be my night to accompany Gryffindors."

"What do you mean?" asked Ginny with a note of suspicion in her voice.

"Why Miss Weasley, it was actually your brother Reginald of whom I was speaking," said Slughorn. "He was the cause of my late arrival for your wonderful D.A. practice. I encountered him as he was coming out of the prefect's bathroom. By the time I had taken him back to Gryffindor Tower, the delay put me to the Room of Requirement barely in time for Harry's explanation of our required fealty. After observing the practice, I feel I was very fortunate to attend."

"Why didn't he just come with you to the D.A. meeting? Or did he even know where you were heading?" asked Harry, ignoring Slughorn's ignorance of Ron's name.

"Oh yes, I told him you had invited me to attend the training, but he said he had something to do in the dormitory. I offered to wait but he refused, saying he wasn't going to be able to attend the meeting. I bid him a good afternoon and went directly to the Room of Requirement. As I said, I was barely in time."

"I'm sure Ronald has his reasons," responded Hermione defensively. "We'll just have to ask him."

Rather than start a fight in front of Slughorn, Harry let the comment pass, but his discomfort was compounded by Capricio needling him with sharp claws.

Slughorn saw the trio through the portrait hole and hurried off to resume his patrol. As they entered the common room, a cheer went up from all the Gryffindors assembled.

"What's all this?" asked Harry in surprise.

"We've been talking," said Dean Thomas, pressing a bowl of crisps into Harry's hands, "and we all agree that we have learned more practical Dark Arts protection from you than from any teacher; with the exception of Lupin and maybe that nutter impersonating Moody. We wanted to throw you a little party to say thank you."

Harry was pleased by the compliment but he did not let it shift his focus as friends shouted agreement with Dean's words.

"Have you seen Ron?" interrupted Hermione before Harry could get the words out.

"Yes...he's up, he's been...maybe you should talk to him," responded Dean, keeping his eyes fixed on a worn spot of carpet in front of Harry. He mumbled an excuse and melted into the celebrating crowd.

The smell of food coming from a heavily laden table reminded Harry that in all the excitement of the evening, they had missed dinner. His stomach growled in demanding acknowledgment. His immediate thought went to Capricio. He took Ginny and Hermione through a press of congratulations, and in the quietest corner, he explained, "I don't see Ron anywhere. He's probably up in our dormitory. I'm not chuffed to go see him until I feed Capricio. You've seen how he is around Ron. I don't want to add hunger to that mix. I'll find a quiet place on the stairs, use the invisibility cloak and feed Capricio. After I've gotten him sorted, I'll find Ron and come back down to you two. You can get a bite while I'm gone."

Not waiting for the expected argument, Harry worked his way across the room, dancing the expected thank-you-and-you're-welcome dance. When he made it too the landing leading upward to the boy's dormitories, he literally fled up the spiral stairs. Wanting to avoid contact with Ron while feeding Capricio, Harry stopped three doors below the door leading to his dormitory. He conjured a small chair and tented the invisibility cloak. As soon as he felt secure, he remove Capricio from his pocket and fed him. As he watched the dragon eat, he formulated a plan in his mind.

When the dragon took the last bit of meat, Harry seized the opportunity, "I know you don't trust Ron. You've made that fact abundantly clear. Even I have to admit he's acting balmy lately, but I propose a truce. Ron's my oldest friend. He's put his life on the line for me. I'm asking you to trust me...enough to trust him. We can both keep an eye on him. Just restrain yourself enough to keep from attacking him. Please"

The dragon cleaned his needle-sharp claws before turning to Harry. Pointedly, he withdrew his claws into their sheaths and growled a reluctant growl at Harry.

"That's all I could ask. Thank you," said Harry.

He started to rise when a door closing on the dormitory one landing up froze him in his tracks. The sound of descending footsteps caused Harry to vanish the chair and shrink against the wall under the invisibility cloak. To his surprise it was Ron who rounded the stair and slouched into view.

Harry held his breath. He didn't think it a good idea to pop into view and startle Ron, so he waited quietly for him to pass. As Ron came closer, Harry could see his face was shining with sweat.

As Ron passed, he tripped over the hem of Harry's invisibility cloak; but seemingly oblivious, he recovered his balance and took no notice of Harry's presence.

Harry silently invoked the sound-deadening spell and watched Ron as he rounded the corner of the curved staircase. Ron didn't look up. He merely wiped his face on his sleeve and headed down to the common room.

Harry let Ron go. Then, heading up to the top of the circular tower, he dropped Capricio off in the dormitory room. As soon as he entered, he knew there was something severely off. Ron's bed hangings were pulled back revealing a bed completely stripped of its linens. His bedside cabinet stood empty. All the outrageously orange posters of the Chudley Cannons were gone.

"Ron moved out!" exclaimed Harry. Stunned he dropped to his own bed. Capricio took to flight and landed on Ron's bed. The dragon snuffed at the bed and the bedside cabinet. Apparently pleased, he shuffled to the back of the cabinet and put his spiky head under his wing.

When Harry regained a semblance of self, he saw where the dragon had taken roost. Not wanting an additional fight on his hands, he spoke to Capricio, "Well if you are comfortable there, so be it. But when I sort this out with Ron he will want his space back."

Capricio ignored him.

Considering the effect that finding a sleeping dragon in their room would have on his dorm-mates; he picked up a discarded textbook and placed it in front of Capricio, effectively blocking him from view from the room. Satisfied with the temporary arrangements, and stuffing the invisibility cloak in his pocket, he tore from the room determined to find out what was going on with Ron.

He stopped at the entrance to the common room and surveyed the sea of heads. Drawing immediately to the fore of his attention was Ginny's vivid red hair. He crossed to where she was standing alone, looking into the embers of the fire.

"Where did Ron get to?" asked Harry. "He came down just ahead of me."

"He grabbed Hermione and headed for the portrait hole. He appeared to be in a hurry. Before we go after him, let's talk just a minute. I never got to tell you but, when we found Ron by the gargoyle, he was distracted. His explanation seemed...forced. I still think something's going on with him." Ginny looked at Harry as if hoping for a contradiction.

Instead Harry agreed, "Something must be of a huge concern to Ron. He's moved out of our dormitory room. Even during our fourth year when we weren't getting along, he at least stayed in the same room. He didn't talk to me, but he didn't abandon me either."

"I think it must be Capricio," reasoned Ginny. "You know how Ron is about spiders, maybe he has a fear of dragons too."

"Don't we all," said Harry pulling back his sleeve to expose the scars, bruises, and burns received from the wyvern. "You may be right, but if that's the problem, I've reached a compromise with Capricio concerning Ron."

"Does Ron know that?" questioned Ginny.

"No, he never gave me the chance to explain," said Harry. "Let's find him and I'll spell it out for him."

"I was hoping you would be willing to make amends with Ron," said Ginny. "Having you two at odds would make my life..."

"...difficult...," finished Harry. "I seem to have that effect on my friend's lives."

As he finished speaking, Ron and Hermione re-entered the common room from the portrait passageway. Ron marched directly to the fireplace with Hermione close behind.

Without apology, Ron drew his wand and went nose-to-nose with Harry. "Do you still have that bloody dragon?" he demanded.

Harry controlled his immediate anger, pushed Slytherin's urgings down, swallowed and began, "No I don't have Capricio with me..."

"And you're lucky he doesn't," interrupted Ginny, drawing her own wand and thrusting it in Ron's face. "That dragon protects Harry. He already told us that. You must be daft to act this way," Ginny shouted in a whisper.

Ron backed away from Ginny's wand as Hermione stepped between them.

"That's enough," said Harry. "Ginny I appreciate you standing up for me but it's O.K., really. Ron I understand how you feel, when I first met Capricio I was scared too, I..."

"I AM NOT SCARED!" shouted Ron in defiance.

The commotion in the common room went silent. The Gryffindor students, deeply immersed in the party atmosphere, had not noticed the drama unfolding in the corner of the room. Ron's shout focused everyone's attention on the confrontation.

Caught in the spotlight of interest, both Ron and Ginny hurriedly put away their wands.

"This isn't over!" spat Ron so low that only Harry could hear. He turned on his heel, swept across the room and up the boy's dormitory stairs. Hermione hesitated, looked from Harry to Ginny and, with tears in her eyes, she hurried after Ron.

Several students closed their mouths as they realized they were gaping in amazement at the hubbub. Glances darted from Harry and Ginny to the stair where Ron and Hermione had disappeared.

An explosive bang caused everyone to flinch. Several people reached instinctively for their wands. Dean Thomas whooped with laughter as confetti settled over the crowd. One laugh, and then another, joined Dean as they noticed the broken cracker in his hand.

"We got you all!" shouted Dean, as he pounded the table in a fit of mirth.

Assuming they were witnesses of an elaborate ruse, the Gryffindors joined in the laughter and resumed the party.

Dean jostled and poked fun at individuals as he made his way across the room to Harry and Ginny. "Well played!" he shouted as he pounded Harry on the back.

Cottoning on, Harry forced, what he hoped was a look of chagrined complicity onto his face. He laughed with Dean, and when the volume had reached din level, he leaned close and whispered to Dean, "Thanks, I owe you one."

"I'm sorry Harry. When I saw that Ron was moving out of our dormitory, I knew it didn't bode well. I should have said something to you. You know I'll do anything I can to help."

With showmanship equate to his words, Dean lobbed the remainder of the shattered cracker into the nearest dustbin.

"You know Ron," said Harry. "He'll come 'round."

"Right," said Dean, and with a fleeting smile he slipped back into the crowd.

"I don't think it will be that easy," said Ginny, concern heavy in her voice. "He has a stubborn streak like..."

"Like a Weasley," Harry finished. He dodged her half-hearted punch. "There's so much to do before term ends. I really need Ron."

"I have to admit to the stubborn Weasley label," said Ginny frankly. "We come by it honestly though. When we Weasleys set our minds and commit to a thing, it's hard to change our course. We do what we say we will do."

"I'm banking on that Weasley commitment to follow through," said Harry vaguely.

"What does that mean?" asked Ginny, her interest piqued.

"Nothing. It's not important now. But as far as Ron goes, I'd better fix this now," said Harry turning toward the stairs.

"No, don't," said Ginny, pulling him back. "Let Hermione have some time with Ron. If he cools off a bit, and Hermione can talk some sense into him, this may end up a tempest in a teapot."

"In the meantime," offered Harry, "I'll look into getting Hagrid to care for Capricio until term ends."

"That might be a start," said Ginny. She took Harry's hand and pulled him closer. "I know Ron couldn't have hurt you. You've become too magically powerful for that. I need you to understand why I stepped in. I'm no hero, not like you. I'm not even looking for a fight with..." and she swallowed hard, "...Voldemort. I just see what his evil has done to my family, and I don't want to lose another brother. Ron is stubborn. This could end badly." Ginny hiccupped.

Harry looked longingly at the stairs. "I remember how it felt my fourth year here when Ron and I were on the outs. I don't want it to go that far either. The four of us need to sit down and talk. When Ron sees where and when I've been, maybe his attitude will modify slightly."

"Tomorrow Harry. We have to find time tomorrow to get together and talk," said Ginny. "How about directly after classes?"

"I've been exempted from classes, " said Harry. "I haven't had a chance to tell you. I'll be taking some one-on-one instruction from several of the teachers."

"That won't make it better with Ron," warned Ginny. "I think it would be better if you stayed in the classes with him. Just don't show him up so thoroughly."

"Let's see what tomorrow brings on that decision," said Harry. I still have loads to tell you, and you haven't yet told me what you have learned. We'll find the time."

Harry kissed Ginny goodnight and as he watched her make her way up the stairs and out of sight, it suddenly hit him...they needed time. Both he and Ginny had said it. "I can see to it that we have all the time we need!" thought Harry. A new optimism burgeoning inside, he headed up the stairs toward his dormitory.

The sound of a stifled sob erased all elation from his heart. Hermione was heading, hurry-scurry down the stair, tears streaming from her eyes. When she saw Harry, she put up a warding hand, "Don't Harry! I can't stand it," she gasped through her sobs and she fled past him and down the stairs.

Confused at what had just transpired, Harry let himself into the empty dormitory room. Ron's abandoned bed stood as a stark reminder of the void in his life. Capricio stirred in Ron's bedside bookcase.

Harry pulled off his clothes and climbed into bed. He slept poorly. His dreams were troubled by visions of the argument with Ron, followed by Ron striking out on his own to fight Voldemort. Harry watched in horror, as Ron was taken captive and tortured by the Voldemort. In the middle of a scream of pain, Ron turned into Hermione, another scream and Hermione was Ginny. The next scream was Harry's own. He sat bolt upright in bed, shaking and sweaty. Slytherin's ever-present magic, pushed at his mind. He looked at Neville, Seamus, and Dean in their beds. They were still fast asleep.

Harry lit his bedside lamp and wasn't the least bit surprised to find Capricio watching him intently.

"The screaming must have been in my head," confided Harry in a whisper to Capricio. "That's one of my biggest fears. Loosing one of my friends."

Capricio looked at him as if to say, "Well what are you going to do about it?"

"I've got to bury the hatchet with Ron and I've got to ramp up the D.A.'s training." Harry paused to watch the wyvern fly to his bedside table and hide behind the water jug. "Thanks for watching out for me. With you on guard, I think I'll try and get a bit more sleep."

Harry rolled back into his covers and was a long time listening to the sounds of the castle. Sleep wouldn't come. At three o'clock, he gave it up as a bad job. He dressed quietly, gathered his father's invisibility cloak and Capricio and slipped silently from the room. Initially just wandering the castle halls, he decided on the spur of the moment, to visit the Headmistress' office and investigate DePais' remark concerning a present. He was brought up short, however, by moonlight reflecting off a mirror on the fourth floor.

"What were the Creevey brothers doing here? I never thought to ask how they got crosswise of this magic. What is the magic hiding anyway? More questions, but this time I get some answers," thought Harry. He left the pier-glass and headed back up through the castle to the seventh floor. He passed the gargoyle and the mirr lock and found himself standing in the centre of the ornate circular room.

He released Capricio, who immediately lit the candles. He crossed to the panel that he knew housed DePais' easel and art supplies. He mimicked what he had seen DePais do, and with a tiny click the panel swung open.

"And just what is Potter up to?" demanded a high nasally voice.

Phineas Nigellus' words had almost caused Harry to jump out of his skin. He turned to the portrait, "Francois DePais left something here for me. I have come to retrieve it."

"Not just something," taunted Nigellus. "A great many things. But why come here at this forsaken hour?"

Harry thought Nigellus had a fair point. Seeking an answer to a vexing question, he turned from the easel, "Headmaster Black, I've wondered, do Porcruxes need food or sleep?"

Nigellus surprised Harry by responding immediately, "In the understood sense of the words...no; but as a Porcrux contains memories of these physical manifestations, we sport a residual, mental craving for these, and other, temporal experiences. If too much focus is placed on such things when selecting memories, one may inadvertently create a Porcrux that does nothing but sleep, crave food, or some other physical pleasure. We don't actually need them. It is more of an intense longing. I can say it would be a drab existence indeed if there were no one with which to banter. That is my weakness, I admit. I need questions and challenges to keep the connections active."

"We..." and Nigellus swept his white-gloved hands to indicate the collection of portraits of Headmasters and Headmistress, "...are fortunate to be here at Hogwarts. We are consulted almost daily. Those interactions keep us sharp."

"I see," said Harry. As Nigellus had explained, the other portraits had awakened and voiced additional affirmation of his words.

"Now, I do like my nighttime rest, so if you would hurry along. I can get back to it," said Nigellus scathingly.

Harry bowed slightly and turned to the easel. He gasped. Gone were the sketched studies of himself and Capricio. In their place were several dozen Chocolate Frog cards. All, save one, were plain black backgrounds, no picture whatsoever. Harry plucked the one standout card and examined it closely. It was a miniature of Albus Dumbledore's Porcrux.

"Incredible detail for such a small painting," said Harry in awe.

Dumbledore smiled up from the small card. Harry tore his attention from the small card and turned to the life-size portrait on the wall. It was a blank black background.

"You are beginning to understand," said Dumbledore from the Chocolate Frog card. "Observe."

Dumbledore walked out of his small frame, and in quick succession, passed through all the other cards on the easel. "Do you recall me telling you that I could provide you with a quick, secure method of communication?"

Harry nodded.

"Francois has gone to great pains to assure that these cards are virtually indistinguishable from the genuine article," said the Porcrux. "Mixed with ordinary Chocolate Frog cards, I believe they would seem innocuous. I can move freely from one card to another carrying messages or warnings. No one, not even the most powerful wizard, could force me to stay in a single card. Nor could they force me to divulge any information. I would always have the recourse of traveling to another card. The only way this method of communication could be thwarted would be the elimination of every card or the destruction of my Porcrux in this office. You see, Francois has made this portrait the master repository."

"It looks like there are enough cards for the original members of the D.A. However, our ranks have swollen. We now have over fifty members. I wouldn't be surprised to see that number rise before the end of term. Even some of the teachers seem interested. They have already taught me my first lesson." Harry blushed at the memory of his failure.

"We can always contact Francois. He is an old friend and he seemed quite taken with you and your pet," said Dumbledore, glancing at the circling dragon.

"More Capricio than me I'd wager," said Harry as he examined the card in his hands. "How do I send a message with the card if you are not in the picture?"

"Excellent question!" said Dumbledore enthusiastically. "Do you see the filigree border?"

Harry looked closely and saw fine scrollwork, like a picture frame, on each card. He nodded.

"Good. That border will activate any card. Once activated, I will be alerted wherever I am and come immediately to the calling card. All we need do is agree on a method of activation," explained Dumbledore.

Harry reached into his pocket and withdrew a galleon. "This is how I notify the D.A. of meetings. I set a date on my galleon, and because it Hermione used a protean charm, all the others change."

"A very good start Harry," said Dumbledore approvingly. "But the coin would be easy to lose and even easier to detect and confiscate."

"What if I made the coin into a ring? I could put the numbers on the inside. We would be less likely to lose a ring, and it would be much easier to tell when it gets hot to notify of a new message," said Harry.

"It is difficult to manipulate gold, and if several members of the D.A. were together, the rings would stand out. A difficult proposition, do you have any other ideas?" asked Dumbledore.

"What if the rings were of varying designs, or better yet, what if they were invisible?" asked Harry.

"As I said, it is very difficult to manipulate gold. It is even more difficult to charm it. You may want to choose an alternate method or material," concluded Dumbledore.

"Before I give up, I'd like to see what I can do," said Harry still fingering his coin.

Without waiting for permission, he crossed to the oak desk and seated himself. With the coin flat on the desk in front of him, he disassembled Hermione's magic. He took a unicorn hair from his backpack and made it into a loop on top of the coin. He levitated the coin and used a Helios charm to make the unicorn hair glow white hot, melting a neat hole through the centre. He formed the remainder into a simple gold band, turning it inside-out to conceal the numbers. Then taking what he had learned from The Invisible Book of Invisibility, he layered several intricate magics. The ring disappeared. Harry touched his glasses with his wand. The ring shimmered softly, like a stream in the moonlight. When he put it on his finger, he could feel its weight, but he could not see it. He replaced the protean charm and looked up to the Porcrux.

Holding his hand out, with his fingers spread, he asked, "How about this?"

There was murmuring as several of the portraits put their heads together in hurried conversations. Dumbledore said nothing. Finally, the portrait of Armando Dippet spoke. "Mr. Potter, we are of an agreement. None of us have ever witnessed magic of the specie you have just performed. We are of a mind to say that it might be entirely unmatched in depth and complexity. Are you confident it is safe?"

"Yes," said Harry in wonder at the compliment. "I've used similar spells to remove fledged masking magic."

"You say remove, not destroy?" interrupted Nigellus. "That is improbable. No one can remove recalcitrant masking magic. It must be met head-on with tremendous force, destroyed before it has opportunity to destroy you."

"I have found an alternative," said Harry. "We are often, too quick to destroy."

"How could you possibly handle the force behind such magic? How could you contain the magic once it was removed? This is not possible!" exclaimed Nigellus unconvinced.

"I use an adamant crucible," stated Harry plainly.

There was silence in the room.

"You have created adamant?" asked an incredulous Dilys Derwent.

"I didn't say I had created adamant," countered Harry. "I said I used it. I have neither the resources nor the knowledge to produce adamant yet."

Harry struggled to keep both pride and anger from his words and his heart. In that instant of struggle, Slytherin's magic assailed him, driving him to his knees. Presently he overcame the onslaught. He saw that Capricio had landed next to him and was eyeing him warily.

"Are you ill?" inquired Dumbledore.

The tone of obvious concern worked on Harry like a drug. He fixed his thoughts and stilled his mind. "That happens when I'm near my endurance," he explained. "I've had trouble sleeping."

"And so you decided to share that malady with us," interrupted Nigellus.

"I was going to say," said Harry patiently, "the Gemynd spell is as close to rest as I have found, although reading does have a similar effect. I was wondering if I could sit here in the safety of this office and order my thoughts for a while."

"By all means," said Dumbledore beaming.

Before entering the Gemynd spell, he fed Capricio and ate an apple himself. He then focused on the upcoming rendezvous with his friends. He let his mind concentrate on what friends had meant in times of need or danger. He emerged from the spell just as the sun was threatening to spill over the mountains in a wash of dawn.

Instead of being refreshed, his heart was racing and he was drenched in sweat.

"I've got to go!" he exclaimed. "I've put a friend in grave danger without a warning. Albus, may I borrow a broom?"

"Certainly," said Dumbledore.

Harry put away DePais' easel and hurried to the hidden broom cupboard. Without hesitation he opened the secret entrance, chose and disillusioned the Firebolt, threw on his father's invisibility cloak, and with Capricio flying next to him, exited the tower.

The pair flew directly to the edge of the forbidden forest. Harry landed and gave a quick explanation to the dragon. "We are going to visit a friend. I'm not sure how you will react to each other. Please don't do anything rash. If I get in trouble, I'll call you. I might mention there are dangers in here." He motioned to the dark tangle of trees. "Keep a sharp eye."

Harry threw his leg over the handle of the Firebolt when a thought occurred to him, "I've never asked you. Can you see me when I'm disillusioned or covered by an invisibility cloak?"

The dragon perched on a nearby sycamore branch and gave Harry a withering look.

"OK, I get it. Even if you can't see me, you can smell me and hear me. I'll be sure to remember that," said Harry a bit embarrassed.

The pair flew into the tree-gathered-gloom in silence. Harry checked several times to make sure Capricio was still with him. The dragon flew a lazy, protective position above and behind him.

At length, Harry reached his destination. Hovering above the forest floor, he tentatively spoke one word...Asgoth."

His voice seemed to boom in the silence. Immediately, at least twenty spiders the size of wolfhounds dropped from the trees around him. They did not sever their silken connections to the branches above, effectively trapping Harry in a cage of sticky silk bars.

He thought of calling Capricio to destroy the webs with a burst of flames, but determined he would wait a moment and see how things played out.

"Slowly, ponderously, belying the quickness Harry knew he possessed, Asgoth emerged. The giant spider stopped at the bottom edge of his web, lifted his ugly, many-eyed head as if to sniff the breeze. Through clicking mandibles, he commanded, "Speak!"

"Asgoth it is I, Fiend of Grirhad. I have come with warning of dire peril. You and your family may be in grave danger."

"Go!" said Asgoth.

Harry wondered how he could comply from within his cage, when all the spiders surrounding him cut their ties to the silken threads. As soon as they were free, they scuttled away into the darkness.

Asgoth lumbered ponderously across the forest floor and turned to where Harry stood, silent and invisible. The spider lifted a mammoth barb-armored leg, and catching the drifting silk threads, agglomerated them and cast them carelessly aside.

Harry shuddered as he saw that the ball of silk had come to rest next to the desiccated form of his pseudo-werewolf near Asgoth's web.

"Fiend of Grirhad," said Asgoth. "Your first words have staved your death. Had you come back for any reason other than warning, you would have been killed immediately. Tell me, Fiend of Grirhad, or should I say more accurately, Friend of Hagrid; what is your warning?"

Harry stood in shock. The spider knew, or had guessed, who he was. He removed his invisibility cloak and the disillusionment charm and faced the acromantula.

"Our last encounter left me with the impression we had met before. Your scent seemed familiar, but to be completely certain, I would have had to taste you. I laid my trap. My younger brothers and sisters..." he waved a ponderous leg in the direction the smaller spiders had fled, "...agreed to help me. You placed me, and my family, at risk through your lie. Explain why I should not kill you now."

Harry shivered involuntarily. "I admit my initial plan was to use you and your family as a ruse, but I have come to the realization that wizards use others thoughtlessly. Your acceptance of friendship gave me a lot to think through. In the end, I came to the conclusion that friendship with you carried a debt of honesty. I have returned with an apology and a warning."

"Give me your apology and your warning," clicked Asgoth. "I will determine if you are worthy to live."

"My apology is for placing you and yours in danger," said Harry. "I knew when I placed the "werewolf," that wizards, dangerous wizards, might come looking for clues. Their type isn't averse to killing. They have no mercy. I am sorry I set things in motion without telling you honestly of the danger. I have since learned respect for other creatures and their challenges."

"Two days is a short time to have learned such a long lesson," said Asgoth skeptically.

"It has been time enough," explained Harry. "I didn't have to come back here, I didn't have to show myself to you. I did these things because...if we are to be friends...that friendship must be based on honesty."

Asgoth considered Harry for several minutes. "I told you we have met before. Do you recall when?"

Harry felt as if his fate might hinge on his answer. He looked at Asgoth and thought back on his encounters with Aragog's family. It finally gelled. "You carried me to meet your father five years ago when the Chamber of Secrets was opened."

"That is correct, but that is not the only time we have met," clicked Asgoth. "Two years ago, Hagrid convinced my father to "lend" him one of his sons. He had specific requirements of one who could curb his appetite for human flesh, one who could obey orders. My father selected me. Do you recall now?"

Harry stared at Asgoth in disbelief. "The Triwizard maze. You were guarding the cup. Cedric and I stunned you!"

"Yes, but not before I had a little nip at you. I bit your leg. Hagrid had sworn me not to kill any of the champions. But he neglected to say I couldn't bite anyone. That is why your scent was so familiar. Another taste of your blood would have assured me of my conclusion. You stunned me that day. I would have kept any single wizard away from the cup. In retrospect, that would have saved the other's life, would it not?"

Harry thought back on Cedric. "Yes. If we hadn't been able to reach the cup, Cedric may well have survived. I find I owe you gratitude as well as an apology. Thank you for trying to keep me safe."

"First humiliated in front of my family at your escape, second stunned by a mere boy, and lastly..." The spider turned on huge spindly legs. "...this injury, which may remove my ability to rule my clan."

Harry gasped. As Asgoth turned, it became obvious that one of his eight legs was badly injured and another was missing entirely.

"Your warning is belated," said Asgoth with wry sarcasm. "I met your "dangerous wizards" yesterday. Several did not survive, but combined, they were a force I could not match."

"May I see your injury?" asked Harry.

"To what end?" inquired Asgoth.

"I may be able to help," countered Harry.

A minute passed. Asgoth considered Harry. "Put your wand away before you approach me," commanded Asgoth.

Above him in the trees, Harry heard Capricio's warning. "If Cap is worried, I certainly should be concerned," thought Harry. He studied the acromantula warily. Conceding the point, he put away his wand.

"You may approach," said Asgoth.

Harry walked forward. His senses buzzed with anticipation as he came within the spider's striking distance. Watching for the tiniest hint of an attack, he passed beneath the huge pincers. He was close enough to see a gluey secretion shimmering on the spider's fangs. Harry was quite alarmed to see that he could stand beneath Asgoth's dull black body. One leg hung limply in its socket. Harry could see where the spider's exoskeleton had been crushed by a blow. A ribbon of tendon was caught in the fracture, disabling the leg.

"I think I can fix this if you stand absolutely still."

Asgoth clicked his pincers. A stringy strand of venom dripped to the forest floor.

Harry mentally consulted the Monster Book of Monsters. He could see a diagram of the spider's nerves and muscles. Not wanting to think about how the illustrator had come to know about these structures, Harry set to work. He carefully opened the crack in the spider's armor. Using his fingers as a guide, he worked the tendon back inside. The spider's leg twitched. Harry silently called up magic to patch the cracked surface and watched as the layered plates of magic sealed the breach. He stepped away.

Asgoth lowered the leg, allowing it to barely touch the forest floor. He put more and more weight on the limb until the end sunk into the hard-packed earth.

"That will do," rumbled Asgoth. "Seven legs give me a fighting chance against challengers.

"I can look at the missing leg if you would like me to," said Harry.

"An injured leg will not heal of its own accord, however a missing leg will grow back," said Asgoth. "One leg is not so much a handicap. Two legs on one side was a death sentence. Even smaller siblings would have challenged me. You saw the puny helpers I enlisted to trap you. They were the only ones I could cow into servitude."

"I am sorry for what I have caused," said Harry honestly.

"No more apologies. Leave this place," said Asgoth. "I will consider what you have said and what you have done."

Capricio dropped from the darkness above and onto Harry's shoulder growling.

The spider recoiled in fear. "You control a dragon?"

"I would not say control," said Harry. "We are friends but he does what he wants."

"I have no quarrel with the dragon," said Asgoth, backing away.

"Nor does he with you," said Harry.

But contrary to Harry's words, Capricio took to flight and pelted straight at Asgoth. The dragon pulled in its wings and dived. The great spider retreated. In its attempt to reach its web, it tangled its own legs and fell to the forest floor. Capricio grew as he dived, quickly becoming more than an equal to Asgoth. As he flew past the spider he loosed a terrific wall of fire. The flames just missed the spider, setting the bracken ablaze. The dragon did not retreat, concentrating wave after wave of intense flame, always seeming to just miss the giant spider.

Harry shouted at the dragon, attempting to stop the attack. He had drawn his wand and had decided to use what he knew of the dragon's weaknesses, when Capricio aborted the attack. The wyvern returned to its diminutive size and landed on a limb above Harry and Asgoth.

Asgoth turned away from the heat as Harry put out the flames with a jet of water from his wand. What he saw when he had extinguished the last of the flames made his heart skip a beat.

The bracken and underbrush had been burned away revealing the smoking body of an obviously dead, giant skrewt.

Asgoth regained himself and retreated into the opening of his web. Hovering at the mouth of his silk tent, he clicked his pincers furiously at the smoldering skrewt. Then he turned to Harry. "That vile thing," (and Harry thought he heard fear in the spider's staccato words) "has killed many of my brothers and sisters. We never discovered its origin or its lair, but it was an effective killer here in the forest...silent...deadly."

Harry, thinking better of volunteering information that might get Hagrid killed, said nothing.

"I find myself in your debt once again." The spider paused considering. "To my knowledge, no one has learned, nor will they learn from me, your true identity. Go in peace Fiend of Grirhad." Asgoth clicked his pincers and disappeared back into the darkness of his home.

« Chapter 27 - Hidden in Plain Sight   Chapter 29 - Friends at Odds »


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