Chapter V- The Cup
The next morning, Severus woke Harry up early, transfigured the sofa back into its old shape and sent Harry back to his bedroom. They met again after breakfast, in Harry's bedroom, for their joint magic practice. As soon as Severus closed the door, Harry embraced him.
Severus held his shoulders firmly and pushed him away. "Harry, this is serious. We're here to practice."
"Oh, just a little kiss..."
"When we finish practice."
"Okay," Harry grumbled.
After many weeks of practice, there wasn't anything they couldn't do together, and seeing their magic flowing naturally from both their wands and combining was a very pleasant experience for Severus. They had achieved a high level of communication through Legilimency and could even cast non-verbal spells together. Now they just had to perfect their action, adjusting their timing, focus and technique.
Occlumency was a completely different matter. Harry could counterattack and read Severus's mind while Severus was trying to read his, but he seldom could block Severus. Perhaps that happened because Harry was comfortable with his own emotions; or perhaps it was due to their bond: Harry didn't want to sever it. Whatever the explanation was, Severus was worried about it, and didn't know how to help Harry to overcome what Severus considered a weakness.
"There's an elm tree in Bellatrix's back garden. When I was a child, I used to play there with Bella and her sisters - she inherited her father's house, you know. And there used to be a treasure chest buried under the elm tree," Sirius told Harry.
"Do you think she hid the cup there?" asked Harry.
"If I know Bellatrix, that was exactly what she did."Sirius had spent the day planning every detail of what they would have to do and giving instructions to Remus and Harry.
In the evening, when Snape grabbed his left arm with his right hand, Sirius looked at Remus.
"I have to go," said Snape, looking at Sirius and Remus, and then staring longer at Harry. "Be careful."
"You too, Severus," said Harry just before Snape disappeared.
"Remus, count ten minutes on your watch, please," said Sirius.
"Do you think that will be enough? What if she's late?" asked Remus.
"Bellatrix would never be late for a meeting with her beloved Master. Never," said Sirius. "Are you ready?"
"We're going to Apparate straight into the back garden. We don't want to enter Bellatrix's mansion. That house is not only haunted, it's full of traps," Sirius warned. "Harry, we're going to Side-Along-Apparate, because you still don't have your licence to Apparate."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I know. And you've already told me all that ten times, Sirius."
When Remus announced that ten minutes had already elapsed, Sirius offered his arm to Harry, then nodded at Remus, and they Apparated.
As soon as his feet touched solid ground again, Sirius looked at Harry and saw that he was all there. He exhalled deeply from relief. Then he looked around and was surprised by what he saw.
The grass in Bellatrix's back garden had turned into a field of asphodels. With their narrow leaves and white flowers, the asphodels extended like a green and white carpet over the earth. But suddenly the carpet was torn, and the earth began to give way under their feet.
"Sirius," Harry screamed, but Sirius couldn't do anything: they were already being swallowed by the earth and falling at vertiginous speed into an abyss. Harry's scream echoed while they fell and fell.
Sirius gradually recovered consciousness. He felt pain and itching all over his body. When he was able to open his eyes, a shiver ran down his spine: rats and all kinds of bugs were covering him, encircling him. He sat up quickly, shaking and thrashing and slapping his own body. He looked around, searching for Harry and Remus. They were on the ground, near him, also encircled by rats, cockroaches and even spiders. Bats were flying around them. Seeing one of them swooping down to attack Harry, Sirius ran to drive it off. Sirius chased out all the bugs and insects he could. Meanwhile, Remus was standing up, looking safe and sound as if he hadn't just fallen for miles.
Remus ran to them and helped Harry to sit up. Sirius took out his wand and started to repel the vermin with jets of fire. When Sirius managed to drive them off from Harry and Remus, he created a circle of fire around the three of them.
"Are you all right?"
"Ready for the next round," Remus replied.
"I'm okay," said Harry.
Keeping the circle of fire burning, Sirius scanned his surroundings. They were in a very ample cave - he couldn't even see its limits. The earth that had opened to swallow them had probably closed again above them. Sirius turned to Harry and saw the eyes of his godson widening. Harry was looking upwards, as if something were approaching from behind Sirius. Sirius spun, his wand raised, and his heart stopped for many seconds.
"My God, Sirius, it's an Ukrainian Ironbelly!" Remus exclaimed in a low voice.
Sirius saw a grainy, pebbled foot with horribly long talons; he looked higher, mesmerised, and his eyes met a thick body covered by metallic grey scales and then a huge head, where deep red eyes glowed with demonic rage. The big animal rolled its head and roared, snorting a torrent of fire from its fanged mouth in their direction.
"Run!" Sirius screamed, taking off in a fast run and entering deeper into the cave. Unfortunately, he didn't know if the cave had an exit...
The Ironbelly shot another jet of fire, almost hitting Harry, who was running less than one foot ahead of Sirius, at his right. Luckily, the dragon was too heavy and slow, and soon they had put some distance between themselves and the beast, which couldn't hit them with its flames any more.
Sirius forced himself to relax. Then he saw it: the enormous, gloomy elm tree, its ancient branches stretched in all directions. It was a strange image, the elm tree inside the cave. It didn't match. But Sirius had no time for this kind of reflection. "Harry, Remus, we found it. Why don't you Apparate out of here while I dig for the chest?"
"No way," said Harry, determined.
Sirius knew that tone: he had heard it many times in James's voice. James never flinched at any challenge, and Harry had inherited this trait from him and Lily. And the look on Remus's face also didn't leave room for doubt: Moony wouldn't leave them alone.
"Very well. Then you both will give me cover," said Sirius.
The Ironbelly was slowly approaching. Without thinking any further, Sirius pointed his wand at the ground beneath the elm tree and tried the obvious: "Accio chest!"
Monstrous beasts started to appear from all sides: Chimaeras, Graphorns, Runespoors, Quintapeds... Sirius began to attack them frantically.
Suddenly, he felt Remus's hand in his shoulder. "Padfoot, they aren't real. They're ghosts."
Only then Sirius noticed their ethereal, transparent quality. Remus sat on the ground and started to dig, and Sirius imitated him. The ghosts of monsters kept walking through them, making them shiver with cold.
"Wouldn't it be easier if we levitated the earth or..." Sirius started to say.
Remus interrupted him. "Bellatrix must have cast a protection against all kinds of magic. Let's keep digging with our hands."
A flame licked Sirius's hand. Lifting his face, Sirius saw the dragon was very close and Harry was pointing his wand at it.
The jet of fire the Ironbelly shot turned against the dragon itself.
"Bravo, Harry!" Sirius shouted.
"Keep digging, I'll take care of the beast," Harry answered.
Sirius went back to digging. He wondered if he would be able to dig faster in his Animagus form, but dismissed the idea when he realised that as Padfoot he wouldn't be able to defend himself and his companions effectively. The hideous roars of the dragon shook the earth every time Harry repelled its attacks. Leeches jumped out of the earth and glued themselves to their flesh, but Sirius didn't even blink. Finally, he felt something hard and rough under his nails. A few seconds later, Remus and Sirius were pulling a heavy wooden chest, its wood rotten and eaten by insects, out of the earth.
"Cistem Aperio!" Remus screamed, and the chest opened up.
Sirius could barely believe his eyes. There it was, the cup, in resplendent gold, intact and untainted in spite of the rotten chest where it was kept. "Don't touch it, Moony. I have to cast the Horcrux extraction spell first." Sirius aimed his wand at the cup. "Expellianimula!"
The cup emitted a green light. The dragon howled, its body consumed by flames. It teetered on its back legs and fell. Several tons of sinewy flesh hit the ground with a thud, making the earth quake.
"It's dead!" Harry exclaimed, turning to Sirius. "Did you manage to extract the Horcrux?"
"Then let's go home!"
"No," said Remus. "Let's put everything back in place. This way, Bellatrix might take some time to notice we've been here."
Remus had already put the cup back into the chest and closed its heavy lid. Sirius helped him to put the chest back into the hole they had dug, and the three of them covered it with earth again.
Sirius stood up and flicked his wand at the dead dragon. "Evanesco!"
"Well, if Bellatrix is an observant witch she will notice her pet has disappeared," said Remus. "But the more we complicate things for her, the better."
"Er... where are we?" Harry asked.
"I suppose we're in a trap armed by Bellatrix; I believe the field of asphodels is a well-disguised pitfall, which is probably as neat and flowery up there as always," Remus pointed upwards. "And I think there is a secret passage somewhere in Bellatrix's house that she uses to come here, if she so desires."
Harry still looked puzzled. "But how come the elm tree is down here now?"
Remus shrugged. "Oh, it's a magical tree and a magical place."
"Very well, gentlemen, we can continue this conference at a more suitable time and place. Are you ready to Apparate?" asked Sirius, offering his arm to Harry and bracing himself for the unpleasant feeling he had never got used to.
Severus was tired of the Dark Lord's arrogant speech. Enraged by the fact that he had had to give up his plans to attack Hogwarts, and informed by Severus that Dumbledore had retired into the Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, the Dark Lord had continuously repeated his tired threats and demands to his minions. When the meeting ended and Severus thought he would be able to go "home" and see if his "flat-mates" had found Hufflepuff's cup and if Harry had returned safe and sound, the Dark Lord called to him and asked him to remain behind.
Those private conversations were never a good omen.
"Severus, I would like to keep you informed about certain... developments."
"Of course, my Lord. I feel honoured by your trust."
"We shall see if you prove yourself worthy of it!"
"You will not be disappointed in me."
"As I have said, we shall see." The Dark Lord's eyes were so red that they seemed to drip blood. "As you can imagine, Malfoy's blunder in the Department of Mysteries, a year ago, displeased me immensely."
"With much reason, I dare say."
"As I cannot tolerate such behaviour, I have assigned his son a mission. I have ordered him to kill Dumbledore."
Severus felt suddenly dizzy. "But... my Lord... he's just a child! He would not be able to defeat a wizard as powerful as Dumbledore!"
The Dark Lord sneered. "I know that, Severus. This is just my revenge against Lucius Malfoy."
"I see. And... is there anything I can do to help you with this... plan?"
"Not for now. But keep an eye both on the boy and Dumbledore, and keep me informed on the developments."
Severus bowed to the Dark Lord and Apparated back to Cornwall with yet another heavy weight upon his shoulders.
Ptyx, November 2005