AUTHOR'S NOTE: Ladies and gentlemen, a crisis! This may be a comedy, but not all is fun and game when Barty Crouch Junior, the Crimson Heir of Voldemort, is on the loose! Be sure to tell me what you think of this chapter in a review, or otherwise show your support if you like the story by using the Favorite or Follow buttons. Many thanks to all who have already done so. And now…
CHAPTER LI: The Azkaban Crisis
If there was one way in which the Order of the Phoenix was superior to the Ministry of Magic, it was its efficiency. Within ten minutes, most of the Knights had gathered in an improvised meeting room. Harry and Snape sat on opposite sides of the table, giving each other markedly awkward looks. Hermione was on Harry's right, and she would have loved to ask her friend just what Lily had told the both of them to get them in such a state; but she had someone else to direct her attention to — Cornelius Fudge.
Cornelius Fudge was not, of course, a member of the Order, but he was definitely someone felt Hermione should be there, if only so they could keep an eye on him and make sure he didn't panic and surrender the country.
For the time being, Fudge wasn't being too bothersome, simply looking down and whimpering softly.
"My friends…" Dumbledore began once all had sat down.
"No," Hermione cut him off. "Albus, no time for a speech. Emergency. Moody?"
"Atta-girl, Granger" said the half-dead ex-Auror, flashing a toothless smile. "So I was on the trail o'Crouch Jr.…"
"You found him then?" Emmeline Vance said breathlessly. "Mad-Eye! Why didn't you tell us?!"
"D'you think I'm mad?!" Moody shouted back, his one good eye widening comically. "Any of ya might've been Polyjuiced impostors! He was always good with the Potion, Crouch, I checked his records—"
"Then how can you tell that's not the case right now?" Hermione asked snidely.
"I can't," said Moody. "But there are enough of you here that even with a Time-Turner, Crouch couldn't be all of you."
"But…" Harry thought aloud, "didn't Crouch just break a lot of his accomplices from Azkaban?"
"Harry, you're not helping," an irate Hermione whispered at Harry.
"-AAAAAARH!" shouted Moody, suddenly jumping off his chair and climbing on it. "Stay back, you Death Eater scum!"
"Mad-Eye, you're not making sense," Emmeline Vance tried to calm him down. "If we were Death Eaters, why would we go through all this trouble just so you could tell us the details of 'our' escape — something we already know?"
"Shut up, Lestrange!" roared Moody, his wand shaking.
"T-that's right!" said the bald little man, Fletcher. "I know a thing or two 'bout criminal mentality. Lemme tell you, once you're bust outta jail, you don't go around tryin' to bring a big bad Auror to you. You skip town pronto!"
"Easy for you to say, Wilkes!" replied Moody, whose Eye was swiveling around at great speed. "You may sound all smart and rational but you won't get me, you wont! Hah! Old Mad-Eye got a few tricks up his sleeves!"
"Alright, desperate times call for desperate measures," Jester G. White whispered to Harry.
White threw himself to the floor and crawled to Moody's feet:
"Mad-Eye! It's really me, but you're right! They've replaced everyone else!" he sobbed. "And we're next if we don't act!… Here—"
From one of his pockets Jester drew a small flask.
"—drink this, Mad-Eye, it's the antidote, to Polyjuice, they can't copy you while this is in your system—"
The panicked Moody's eye narrowed; he snatched the bottle out of Jester's hand and downed it, immediately, falling back on his seat.
Smiling like an idiot.
"There," Jester announced to the rest of them. "Pity, I'd been meaning to save it for you, Snape. But good to know the Marauder Herbal Tea of Utter Calmness still works wonders."
Snape gave a quick glare towards his old nemesis, but, to his credit, shook it off and moved towards Mad-Eye.
"Moody," said Snape, "I know how you're feeling — indeed, I'm probably the only wizard on Earth who knows what you're feeling — but never mind that, it's annoying but it will wear off. Now l—"
"Y'know…" Moody answered in an inebriated voice, a goofy smile plastered on his face, "y'know, you… could still… be lying to me… be a Death Eater… heh! Yeah, but somehow I… don't care…"
"Yes yes yes," Snape snapped, impatient. "Now tell us what happened, with Azkaban."
He told them.
He had to do so through a sea of inappropriate giggles and inopportune smiles and inexplicable humming to himself, but he told them.
After weeks of searching, buying and breaking and recrafting every Dark Detector in the black market, and hounding every criminal he had dirt on, Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody had finally caught the scent of Barty Crouch Junior. That scent had taken the form of a peculiar magical trail, that of a vehicle, one no one but the most paranoid of Aurors had thought to test for, because this was Britain, not India, dash it all. It was how Barty Crouch had moved around, escaping every magical detector the Order threw at him.
A magic carpet.
A magic carpet enchanted with layered invisibility and untraceability charms, of course — Crouch was clever — but none of this was enough so to fool Moody on a mission. Using magics that even under the effect of the Herbal Tea, he would not disclose, the cantankerous crimefighter had followed the Death Eater from Knockturn Alley, hoping to follow him to his accomplices, if he had any, or else to a location more appropriate than Knockturn Alley to duel and arrest the man.
Only upon the Disillusioned Crouch's arrival at a cold and black shore he knew all too well did Moody realize what was happening.
Invisibility fooled not the blind. The Dark Wizard and the concealed Auror soon found a crowd of Dementors advancing towards them, some already lifting their hood as they preemptively savored the feast of the escapee's soul.
And Moody saw something that no Dark Wizard had ever been brave enough, mad enough, brazen enough to try in the face of a crowd of advancing Dementors.
Barty Crouch Junior cancelled his Disillusion, revealing dark crimson robes, charged at the Guardians of Azkaban, and laughed.
He ran forwards with a mad look in his eye and a twitch in the corner of his lips and the very Devil in his cackle, and as he laughed and ran and laugh, his demented laughter changed and warped, and suddenly he was speaking words — old and terrible words, words that never must be uttered — foul words of hatred and destruction and aberration.
And from the madman's wand there burst forth a demon more ancient, more powerful , more terrible than the Dementors themselves, than old Lord Ekrizdis who had raised Azkaban from the cold Black Sea.
Mad-Eye Moody feared many thing; some said he feared everything indiscriminately, but that was not true. He feared a rabbit more than any living human, but there was still a sense of proportion to it. He feared the rabbit, but knew to fear the tiger even more.
His heart nearly stopped — it would have, if not for a certain amulet he had wrenched from the withered hands of an Aztec mummy in 1957.
A tidal wave of Fiendfyre had spread its scalding wings over Azkaban.
"Hang on," Hermione said, interrupting Moody's story. "This 'Fiendfyre' can kill Dementors? …Not that I'm advocating genocide here, though by Merlin I don't like Dementors, but… why all the complicated Azkaban set-up to keep the Dementors around and docile if you could just wipe them out?"
"That's not how it works, idiot," Snape growled. "Fiendfyre is some of the darkest magic in the world — not the hardest to master, which, in a way, makes it worse, any fool with a sufficiently unhinged conscience can create it, though they can't control it — but darkest, ooh yes. The cagey bureaucrats," he snorted in the direction of Fudge, who shrunk back behind his bowler, "who populate our government would never authorize its use."
"Not now, but when Dementors first… appeared," Hermione proposed. "I know the history. The Dementors were thought extinct, and good riddance at that, when they became Wizarding Britain's problem when they found Azkaban and all the foul things Ekrizdis had done there. Including bringing the Dementor race back from the dead, it seems. Now all of his other creations, the ice golems and the Stranglers and the Raven Shades and all the things too awful for the books to talk about, they were wiped out within months, the greatest team of Aurors and Curse-Breakers in centuries was there — they could've done anything as long as it was for the greater good — why didn't they use it then?"
"Because," Professor Snape said, "you are missing something about the very nature of Fiendfyre. Fiendfyre is alive, and it is immortal. As long as it is in contact with any physical matter — even the tiniest atom — then, Lady Macbrains, the Fiendfyre will cling to life and it will keep burning."
"To-to life," Hermione repeated, stuttering under the weight of the idea she feared she was beginning to see.
"Yes," stressed the Potioneer. "Fiendfyre is no mere curse, Granger. It creates true life, of the most horrid sort. It births a veritable demon, and one even more indestructible than the Dementor you would slay through it. Fiendfyre cannot be unmade, it cannot be repealed, it cannot be reasoned with."
"I… that… it… I…"
"At a loss for words at last," Snape noted with a bitter grin. "Yes, I thought you might be. Hmf. At least you have the decency to see the horror of Fiendfyre for what it is… even if, somehow, I fear your horror comes from sympathizing with the wrong… individual."
Hermione forced a quick guilty smile. He wasn't entirely wrong. Fiendfyre, from how they described it, had all the horrors of a nuclear weapon, but to make it even worse — and what Muggle would have thought it could possibly be worse? — it was a sentient nuclear weapon. A nuclear blast with a mind, and all it knew from inception was a craving for survival and destruction…
"No, no, please," said Snape with conspicuous forced politeness. "Don't. We're on a schedule. Let's take advantage of your temporary speechlessness and let Mr Moody finish his tale, hm? Mad-Eye?"
"Why yes… yes!…" Moody hiccoughed, still with his silly smile. "Very kind of you… now then, what happened…"
As soon as he could jolt himself from his terror-induced paralysis, Moody had cast a Bubble-Head Charm on himself and splashed into the sea — the noise thankfully disguised by the crackling, whooshing sound of the Fiendfyre. And he'd kept watch.
Crouch, the gaunt scarlet silhouette against the backdrop of the flames, had Transfigured a slab of stone into a high pedestal from which he could control the Fiendfyre, ordering it about, using his wand like a conductor's baton and raving orders. And the titan of fire obeyed. Tendrils of flames shot out and struck down the fleeing Dementors, battering rams of concentrated inferno melted the ancient gates of Azkaban — and not a spark touched Crouch or the vile prisoners he had set about to free.
Powerless and aghast, Mad-Eye Moody watched as Jugson and Dolohov and the Lestranges and Rookwood and Mulciber, all the blackguards he had worked so hard and given so much to see behind bars, ran out of the burning castle, crooked smiles and crazed eyes illuminated by the reddish light of the Fiendfyre.
"FREE!" Crouch yelled to them in his delirium, "you are free, my companions! Our Lord's Will is accomplished! Follow me, brothers and sisters of Darkness, and we shall rain down terror upon Britain like never before! The world will tremble and fall!"
Most accepted this, and rose in a victorious clamor. One Death Eater, though, still addled by the Dementors' aura, did not seem so enthusiastic.
"Crouch, you good-for-nothin' lazeabout wacko!" he said — or so Moody paraphrased. "And what good is blowing up the frackin' island? We got no wands, no brooms, we sure as hell can't Apparate. We're stranded. And it's the Dementors who have our food! The Dementors you're destroying or drivin' away!"
To this Barty Crouch, halting the Fiendfyre, smiled and said:
"Driving away! Hahah! Very good, Mr Jugson, how very observant. And how do you suppose your warden are planning to flee? You don't think they'll swim!…"
Those prisoners who were sane enough to process his words stopped their clamoring and running about and looked around, trying to see where the fleeing Dementors were headed.
It took a solid minute for the freezing escapees to see it, but at last someone yelled:
"There's a ship! By Merlin! There's a ship!"
"Yesss!" howled Crouch. "You couldn't see it, you fools, the Dementors are mind-mumblers, remember? They don't want anyone to know just what their resources are, so they erase your memory the moment you notice it, but now, a-hah! Now!… Now that I'm killing them one-by-one, the miserable wretches, we're starting to see it… quickly! Quickly, Death Eaters! Climb aboard, and we'll set sail!"
Moody, of course, had always known about the boat. He was far too paranoid for something as feeble as the Dementors' amnesia prevent him from knowing everything there was to know about the one place he felt safe enough to drop off those he captured. Indeed, he had clamored to the Ministry that the Dementors should not be allowed control of that boat, because if they ever turned traitor again, as they had during the War, they could allow prisoners its use — a situation worryingly close to what had jist happened. But of course, every time he brought up the issue, the clerks and bureaucrats of the Azkaban Security Officials and Very Important Wizards' department told them they had no recollection of any ship stationed at Azkaban, and credited his demands to his supposed "insanity".
The Dementors of Azkaban had little in the way of possessions. There were over six hundred on the island, but a ship the size of a small yacht — though considerably more creepy-looking — was all that was needed for their evacuation, and a single black leather suitcase was all they needed to pack. Thus, once the suitcase had been retrieved and placed within the care of one of the oldest and wisest Dementors on the island, the dark entities had begun to board the ship.
Crouch, however, did quick work of directing a pillar of fire towards the vessel, aiming it just right, barely singing the hull but obliterating most of the boarded Dementors and knocking the rest overboard.
"Gentlemen… to the mainland!" the leader announced.
Moody had barely had the time to attach a tracking spell to the ghoulish boat before it set sail with impressive speed and vanished into the fog, leaving the Fiendfyre, burning fiercer than ever, to continue ravaging the island unbidden.
Ruling that he would achieve nothing by confronting an entire horde of Death Eaters, all but wandless though they may be, Moody had Reillusioned himself, de-shrunken the emergency broomstick he kept inside his left ear, and flown to Hogwarts to warn them.
Hermione was drumming her mauve fingers on the oaken table in annoyance. It had been bad enough when Cornelius Fudge was whimpering, but once he had learned the exact details, the Minister of Magic had begun howling outright, and it was getting on everyone's nerves. Unfortunately, she was the only one who could stop it, as the only person with enough experience of Fudge diplomacy to calm him down without letting him take her as a scape-goat — his primary defence mechanism.
Thus, she was stuck with the noise until she found a way to reassure the poor man. Most inconvenient, when there were far more urgent matters to be thought about.
"…Minister Fudge," she tried, doing her best sympathetic voice. "I know it sounds very scary, but you mustn't listen to everything Mad-Eye says."
"…N…no?…" he sniffled.
"No," she said with a motherly smile. "He is a very good wizard, but you know how he is, always worried about everything. He used to think I was dangerous. Me!"
"Oh… really?… You - you must be right,… such a charming, harmless child…" said Fudge with a small smile piercing through his sobs.
Hermione was fuming inside, but never mind.
"This is a serious situation, fine," she granted, continuing her argument, "but it's nothing we can't solve. The Death Eaters are a wandless band with nowhere to go and no You-Know-Who to fall back to."
"That is true…" Fudge nodded, and he put his bowler hat back on, which was a very good sign indeed, "…this is true. But what of… of Crouch Junior? He does seem like a dangerous wizard… oh, my stars and little comets, Fiendfyre! A master of Fiendfyre!…"
"We already knew about Crouch Junior," she reminded the politician. "If the additional Death Eaters are more or less negligible, then we're more or less in the same situation we've been for months."
"Good point, good point," said Fudge, who had taken out a green silk handkerchief from his pocket and was wiping away the last of his tears.
"Besides," Hermione finished, "they lot are currently stuck somewhere in the North Sea, trying to sail a boat that was designed for creatures who don't give a damn about cold, or lack of food supplies, or drowning if it really comes down to it. They're not exactly in what you'd call a winning position. It's not the Death Eaters we should worry about right now. It's the Fiendfyre and… and…"
Her eyes widened.
"Oh God," she breathed.
"What is it, Hermione?" Dumbledore asked. "Your expression has frozen into one of ghastly discovery. It's very disconcerting. What have you thought of?"
"Professor," she said, "the Dementors. The Dementors can't drown. I believe Fiendfyre can't reach underwater, nor fly?"
"No, thankfully not," said Snape, "or else, believe me, Earth would long be nothing more than a pile of ash."
"Well," she continued her reasoning, growing more and more certain that she was right, "the Dementors would know this, wouldn't they. That's why they tried to flee by boat. And… why would they give this idea up just because they lost the boat? Dementors — Dementors can't drown. We saw that when they attacked the Express before coming to Hogwarts, remember? If they fall into a body of water they'll just keep walking at the bottom until they reach land, they don't like it because they're so cold they end up covered in frost when they get out, but they can do it, they definitely would if their… well, their unlife was on the line…"
"Oh! Oh," Fudge nodded in understand. "They're not dead then. Well. That's… I can't say I would have mourned them, but that's not such bad news at all. They serve the Ministry, after all."
"Yes, but they're not going to the Ministry," said Hermione. "Why would they report to the Ministry?"
"Well, why ever shouldn't th—"
"If Gringotts fell apart, Minister," she interrupted the imbecile, "would you expect the Goblins to seek help at the Ministry?"
"Ah, I see," he backtracked. "But then… but then, where are they going?"
"Oh, I'm afraid I know just where they're going," Hermione faltered. "Albus, what is something you have always said, always reinstated, words of hope that you must have told every inmate of Azkaban at some point in their life? Beautiful, unforgettable words of pure hope, delicacies the Dementors would have been sure to absorb from the prisoners' minds?"
Dumbledore gasped audibly.
"What? What is it?!" Fudge demanded.
"Help…" Dumbledore quoted, choked, "help will… always be… given at Hogwarts… to those who… who ask for it…"