The youngest of them all led; after all, he knew best where they were going. In his hand was the old, ratty piece of parchment, a device that he constantly checked to ensure the way was clear. As an added precaution, at his side, padded a black grim, his nose constantly up in the air and swinging from side to side.
His hand snapped out low behind him, his palm straight. Instantly, the group froze.
Intense green eyes stared at the moving black dot before his brows furrowed. A quick look up and around located exactly what was needed. A single hand motion had the group swiftly backtracking a dozen metres before one by one, they slipped in through a door. As the last of them entered, he made sure to close the door behind himself so slowly and carefully that the click of the latch falling into place could only be heard if one strained their ears.
Footsteps sounded loud from the other side of the door. Two pairs, by the sound of it. Gradually, the sound increased in volume before, after being loudest just outside the door, they began to fade.
The youngest waited until long after the footsteps had disappeared before leading the group back out into the corridor and resuming their previous direction.
Twice more they needed to pause for patrolling guards, but neither time were they required to hide – the guards’ route taking them close to but ultimately away from where they were flattened against the wall.
Finally, after a long, circuitous route, the group reached the end of their final corridor, their destination now in sight.
Taking one last look at the parchment, the youngest gave the tiniest of nods before folding it up and slipping it into his back pocket. Then, hunched over to make himself as small as possible, he quickstepped across the open floor. Even knowing that the coast was clear, he couldn’t help but look up past the great staircase to the levels above.
Turning himself sidewards, he slipped in behind the suit of armour, frowning in consternation – he was sure that there’d been more room than this? Unperturbed, he continued, opening the small, all-but-hidden door his hand automatically found there and slipped inside.
One by one, he was followed until the last of the group was in, albeit, squished nearly on top of each other in the cramped space.
With the door shut, it was considered safe to light the tip of a wand, but only a single one and at that, the one farthest from the door.
A hiss, somewhat like a snake, preceded the group disappearing into where none could follow.
Objective Two complete.
Twenty-one hours earlier …
“Assuming that the infiltration team can cross the grounds without being seen, what’s the best way into the castle?” Amelia asked.
From two places over, Minerva reached out a hand and tapped a section of wall in a courtyard not far from the greenhouses.
“Here,” she stated. “There’s a small passage here, not well known or utilised at all. And best of all, it’s so cleverly disguised that one can stand in it and look out through the wall without anyone being the wiser. Magic has made the wall so that it can only be seen through one-way.”
Heads around the table nodded. There were seven of them standing around the small table, the Marauder’s Map open on the table for all to see while they planned.
“Good. Being able to survey the terrain before entering is a tactical advantage,” Mad-Eye Moody grunted. “But what about these secret passageways in the walls that you were talking about, Potter?”
Harry frowned, his eyes not leaving the Map even as they darted all over it. Finally, he sighed and shook his head.
“I know that they’re there, just not exactly where they are,” he grumbled.
“How are they marked, Pup?” Sirius asked.
“Snakes. There’s tiny etchings of a snake in unobtrusive places on the walls to mark the entrances,” Harry replied.
“Do you remember which corridors you saw them in?” Sirius asked.
Once again, Harry frowned at the map.
‘Here and here for sure,” he said, indicating a corridor on the third floor and another on the fifth, before hesitatingly pointing to a spot on the sixth floor. “Here, too, I think.”
“Useless,” Moody grunted. “Getting into the castle’s going to be difficult enough without having to get up three or four floors before you even start looking for the Merlin-be-damned things.”
“There’s no others you remember the location of, Mister Potter? None on the ground floor at all?” Minerva asked.
He started to shake his head before he suddenly froze.
“Actually, there is. Or at least, I think there is. I vaguely remember seeing a snake etching once,” he said. “Here. There’s one in a small cupboard behind a suit of armour directly under the staircase leading to Gryffindor Tower.”
“There’s a cupboard there?” Sirius asked, peering at the spot.
“Yep. I, uh, I spent a bit of time in it back in first year. It was a spot where I could be alone, escape the crowds wanting to stare at my scar,” he explained in a rush.
“Whatever the reason for it, it’ll work,” Moody grunted. “What about the guards? Any patterns showing up?”
Remus nodded. “Actually, yes. Even with the kids locked in their House common rooms and dorms, guards still patrol the corridors, but their movements are fairly predictable. The best time to move would be between midnight and four in the morning, there seems to be less guards at that time.”
“Good. A night time infiltration was always going to be the plan,” Moody nodded. “Keep monitoring; we don’t want there to be any surprises.”
“Will do,” Remus promised.
“Now, once you’re in, what do you have in mind?” Moody asked.
Sirius and Minerva shared a look before, with a gesture, Sirius invited the Headmistress to answer.
“Well, we thought that it’d be best if we …”
Filius centred himself, closed his eyes and channelled his magic. The length of rope in his hands glowed blue for a brief moment before disappearing. With a smile of satisfaction, he opened his eyes and directed his hovering chair across to the table where all of the other ropes that had already been charmed were being placed and dropped the rope on top.
“This is the last of them,” Mike grunted as he upended a box, dumping a slew of skipping ropes on top of the few remaining pieces of rope that had yet to be charmed.
“That should be more than enough,” Filius replied. “Thank you.”
“This’ll work? These’ll bring all those kids and teachers here?” Mike asked.
Filius smiled patiently at the non-magical.
“They will. Whoever is touching the rope when it is activated will be portkeyed directly to the island,” he explained once again.
“Assuming that they’re not marked with one of those foul Dark Marks,” Croaker added from the shadows where he’d been watching over proceedings.
“You know, you could help instead of just standing there,” Filius stated. “Creating portkeys is quite draining.”
The smallest of nods accompanied the Unspeakable moving to cross the room.
“What’ll happen to anyone who is marked if they try to portkey here?” Mike asked.
“They’ll be bounced off the wards,” Croaker stated bluntly. “Could end up anywhere.”
“Hopefully none of the kids have taken that foul magic,” Filius sighed as he picked up the next rope.
“I’m certain you know that none of these can have any other charms applied to them once they’ve been turned into portkeys?” Croaker asked.
“Teach your grandmother,” Filius retorted. “I’ve charmed that pack to hold them. Automatic resizing of the straps of the pack itself and an undetectable extension charm.”
“That’ll do it,” Crocker agreed.
Mike couldn’t help but to pick up the pack in question and open it. His eyes widened as he stuck his hand inside, then his arm, all the way up to his shoulder without feeling the bottom, something that shouldn’t be possible judging by the way the thing looked.
“Magic is really cool,” he grinned.
“Twenty-eight seconds,” Minerva announced, having clicked the button on the round stop watch. She looked up at the teens in front of her, all eager eyed, waiting for her verdict and couldn’t help but allow the corners of her mouth to twitch upwards. “You have all achieved the required speed to be classed as full animagi.”
“Yes!” Harry exclaimed as he rushed forward towards his four beaming friends.
Hermione and Daphne gave identical excited squeals before turning and hugging each other. Luna was bouncing lightly on he feet, happily clapping away. And Neville gave a great sigh of relief before slapping his hand against Harry’s in a high five; he’d been the most worried of them all, having constantly been the slowest, meaning that he was most in danger of not making the cut to go on the mission.
“Congrats, guys!” Sirius beamed as he stepped forward. “You’ve done it; you’re fully fledged animagi. Now there’s just one more thing you need before you’re really ready to go.”
“What’s that?” Hermione asked, sharing a worried look with Harry.
For his part, though, Harry simply grinned back before stepping across to join Minerva, Sirius and Remus.
“A Marauder name,” Sirius stated seriously.
Instantly, the faces of the four morphed in expressions of pure expectation.
“Mister Padfoot requests the honour of naming the first of these new sisters and brother.”
“Mister Moony agrees with the proviso that Mister Padfoot contain himself to the names that have already been decided upon by his fellow Marauders.”
“Mister Tavi wholeheartedly agrees with Mister Moony and requests the honour of going second.”
For a fraction of a second, Minerva closed her eyes in what could be considered a silent prayer before opening them.
“Miss Felicity requests you get on with it.”
Padfoot grinned at her before taking half a step forward.
“Daphne,” he intoned. “In recognition of your achievement and after due consideration and much discussion, you are hereby dubbed: Firebrow.”
Daphne frowned at him. “Firebrow? What sort of name is that?”
“I strongly recommend that you take it, Miss Greengrass,” Moony stated. “You’re a great horned owl. You can’t imagine some of the names that Padfoot here was throwing out for you to be called, all of which, I might add, were highly inappropriate.”
“And it does fit, Daphne,” Tavi added. “Those feathers that look like eyebrows give you the impression of being incredibly angry or intense and very, very fierce.”
Daphne seemed to give it a moment’s thought before dropping her head in a small bow of acknowledgement.
“Miss Firebrow accepts her new name and thanks those with sensible heads for reining in the immaturity of Mister Padfoot.”
“Hey!” an indignant Padfoot protested.
“Can’t argue with Miss Firebrow when she only speaks the truth,” Tavi replied offhandedly before turning to face his girlfriend, his eyes shining brightly as he looked at her.
“Hermione. After due consideration of the attributes of your Animagus form, you shall henceforth be known as: Brushtail.”
“Miss Brushtail thanks Mister Tavi and acknowledges that it could have been worse,” she replied.
The two grinned at each other and were only interrupted when Mister Moony loudly cleared his throat. With a start, Tavi took a quick step back, allowing Mister Moony to take his place.
“There was much discussion between us as to your new name, Neville. A black bear offered many opportunities, some better than others,” here Mister Moony paused to dart a glance at Padfoot. “In the end, in recognition of the fact that your fur is without blemish, you are hereby dubbed: Midnight.”
“Mister Midnght accepts his new name and would like to point out that he intended on sitting on the one who came up with a name that he didn’t like.”
Sirius gave an audible gulp. All had seen how large Neville could become and with that much weight behind him, he was easily the strongest of them all.
When Miss Felicity realised that Messrs Padfoot, Moony and Tavi were all staring at her expectantly, she took her place in front of the teens, and most specifically, in front of the eager Luna who was once again slightly bouncing on the balls of her feet.
“Miss Felicity has the honour of bestowing on you the name of ‘Bill’,” she stated succinctly.
Luna cocked her head to the side as she considered her new name.
“A rather common name for quite an uncommon creature and one that emphasises one of my defining characteristics,” she stated. “Miss Bill accepts her new name with joy.”
And with that, she bounced forward and gave Miss Felicity a great hug before moving on to hug each of the other three as well.
That was the cue for all of the new animagi to rush forward. Laughter and hugs from humans, quickly turned into a slew of different sounds as a fox and mongoose cavorted about each other; a black bear and a grim tussled while a platypus waddled about and a great horned owl and a tabby cat sat high out of the way, peering down at the antics below.
They had only been at play for a short time before the noise brought the curious to the door.
“You know, brother mine,” Fred said from where the two stood near the back of the gathered crowd, using their lanky height to see over shorter heads.
“We really must get a move on,” George agreed.
“Can’t let the young’uns have all that fun without us,” Fred finished.
In front of them, Hannah nudged Susan.
“That’ll be us in a few more months,” she said.
“Maybe a little more than a few,” Susan sighed. “But definitely not too much longer.”
“I wish I had a few Animagus aurors,” Amelia sighed as her eyes followed the animals at play. “It simply doesn’t sit right sending kids off on this mission without some serious backup.”
“Sorry, Boss,” Tonks replied, having heard her. “I’ll get right on that. Might take a couple of years ’til I’m ready though.”
Amelia simply gave the young auror a pat on the shoulder in reply, before stepping forward into the room. She looked around at the various animals, none of whom seemed to have noticed her, although she suspected that the owl and cat probably had and simply hadn’t acknowledged her yet.
“Can I have everyone’s attention, please?” she asked in a raised voice.
Instantly, the menagerie stilled, all heads swivelling towards her.
“If you could return to being human?” she asked.
The scene before her changed as animals turned back into their human counterparts. Minerva, as one would expect, was the most graceful, changing midleap to the ground to come to stand not far away. Neville and Sirius emerged lying next to each other on the ground while Harry and Hermione appeared in a tangle of limbs, a sight that provoked the sound of snickering from the doorway.
“Considering how soon you are to leave,” Amelia began, “it is imperative that you are able to communicate with each other in the event that you become separated and also with us to report on how your mission is going.”
“You all know how to create a patronus,” Remus stated, taking over and switching into professor mode. “As well as being the only known defence against dementors and lethifolds, the patronus charm has one other use: it can be used to convey messages.”
With all eyes on him, Remus strode across to the far side of the room.
“Let me demonstrate,” he stated, before bringing his wand up. “Expecto Patronum.”
Instantly, a glowing silver wolf appeared, leaping from his wand before slinking forward, its head swivelling backward and forward even as it appeared to be sniffing the air, intent on finding danger. Then, having detected nothing, it turned back towards its caster.
“Take his message to Amelia Bones,” Remus instructed it. “‘This is a demonstration messenger patronus’.”
Then, after a short nod of its head, the ghostly wolf leapt across the room to Amelia before stopping in front of her and the message that Remus had just given it was repeated in his voice.
“As you can see and as you heard, the messenger patronus can find the person that you know and deliver a message to them in your voice,” Remus said.
“Is there a distance limitation?” Hermione asked.
“Several hundred kilometres at least, depending on the caster,” Remus replied. “The stronger the magic pumped into the spell, the further it will go.”
“So, we just cast our patronus and then give it the message and off it goes?” Harry asked.
“Not quite. There is an added component when you cast your patronus,” Remus replied. “When you cast, you must be concentrating on the person to whom you wish to send the message and also have in mind that you wish to send that person a message. Being a patronus, though, will mean that the greatest part of the spell is still in the defence against dementors and lethifolds, as you witnessed when I cast a few minutes ago. Your patronus will search for danger against those threats before being ready for your message.
“Keep your messages short,” Amelia added. “The longer the message, the more garbled it can become, especially over long distances.”
Noticing the students in the doorway, Remus gestured them in.
“You might as well learn this, too,” he said. “It’s not an overly hard variation and shouldn’t take too much to learn.”
“Right. Half of you with me,” Amelia stated. “We’ll go to the Astronomy loft. The rest of you will stay here with Professor Lupin and we’ll practice sending messages to each other.”
With that, Amelia strode from the room. After a couple of glances at each other, Fred, Hannah, Luna and Hermione followed.
“Okay, you lot, line up and let’s see your patronuses,” Remus stated to the remaining students.
Harry, Hermione, Daphne and Neville filed into the dining room of Diricawl Academy. Ahead of them, they could see that Minerva and Sirius were standing on one side of a large table. Like the four teens, they were both wearing dark clothing; Sirius even with a black beanie on his head.
Across the table, looking grim, were most of the adults in attendance on the island.
“This is it,” Moody began.
“The big one,” Fred and George instantly supplied making Harry grin.
Moody’s head snapping in their direction with a fierce glower on his face cowered the two.
“This is no time for jokes,” he growled before eyeing the two for another few seconds.
Finally convinced that they were going to control themselves, at least for now, he turned back to the six across the table from him.
“This is it,” he said again. “You’re as ready as we can make you. The moon’s at its darkest tonight, so you’ll have good cover to cross the grounds. And we don’t want to leave it any longer, the longer we do, the longer Riddle’s men have to torture or indoctrinate those kids. You have your equipment? Wands? Knives? Map? Invisibility cloak?”
As he asked after each item, the six of them either nodded or touched the item in question, Harry patting his pocket to indicate where the Marauder’s Map of Hogwarts was safe inside an inside pocket of his jacket.
Filius placed the charmed backpack on the table.
“The portkeys you need to get yourselves and everyone else back to the island are in there,” he stated.
“Along with enough food and water to last you a week,” Emma added.
“We won’t need that much,” Sirius replied. “The plan is to get in, spend a day or two checking things out and then get everyone out the night after that.”
“No plan lasts the first engagement,” Moody growled. “Better to have too much than not enough.”
“Keep in contact with us as best as you can,” Croaker instructed.
In reply, Hermione reached into a pocket and pulled out a small brown leather book and pushed it across to the table to her mother.
“Keep this on you just in case,” Hermione said, and then, seeing the looks of confusion on quite a number of faces, explained. “It’s the journal that Harry gave me a couple of years back. Harry’s got its partner; whatever is written in one, is immediately duplicated in the other.”
“Ingenious,” Croaker stated, sounding impressed. “We’ll need to have a talk about them after you’re back, Potter.”
Harry simply nodded his head.
“If things go south, get out of there,” Amelia stated. “And remember, that if you can’t rescue everyone, that’s just how it goes sometimes. There’ll be some that are marked and if they are, we’ve got wards to deal with them.”
“Greengrass promised to be back by the time you are and he’ll deal with all of our extra mouths for us,” Moody said. “Right then, time for you to go.”
Neville picked up the pack and swung it onto his back moments before his grandmother wrapped him in a great hug.
“Be careful, Neville,” she said.
“I will, Gran,” he replied.
Similar sentiments were being expressed amongst all those going and those being left behind until the crack of Moody’s staff on the floor separated them all.
“Best of luck,” he stated.
With that, the six turned and strode from the room.