From 2 to 6 Challenge

DARK MORNING

A scream rent the silent night air, startling the young lady in the Head Girl's room awake. Eyes rapidly scanning the room, she searched for the source of the banshee howl. Seeing nothing moving within the room, she gently nudged her companion. Screams in the night were not unusual at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—what with the large population of ghosts and other fantastical beings, but something about this one made her tremble with fear. The one sharing her bed was still sound asleep. He made a sound very much like a sigh and shifted position, but other than that showed no signs of stirring.

"Wake up!" Hermione Granger said, poking more firmly.

His eyes finally opened, and he opened his mouth as if to speak, but then the cold, horrific feminine screech pierced the air again, closer this time, shocking him to silence. His black eyes went wide in panic.

"Stay here," he told her, flinging back the covers. Quickly retrieving his robes from where he'd slung them over the back of a chair, he threw them on to cover his black silk boxers.

"Is it Peeves?" she asked.

"I don't believe so." He picked up his wand.

"Severus…"

"No. Stay here." He shot her a firm look. Whatever this was, it was serious… no point in her getting involved. He cracked the door and peered out into the corridor, which was dark, cold and empty. He cast a silencing charm on the door, in case further screaming gave her cause to disregard his harsh request and go in search of the source by herself.

He stepped lightly on the stone floor, careful not to make a sound. Something was there, this he knew, he had an unnatural sense of things that were not quite right. And this was definitely not right… it was quiet… too quiet…

A torch blew out beyond the corner of his corridor. In the smoke left by dying embers, he made out several shadows stretching slowly taller in the fading moonlight.

They definitely didn't belong in the school… and they would be rounding the corner soon. Very soon.

A raspy breathing sounded behind him. Directly behind him. Snape's entire body went cold. He knew exactly what was standing behind him before he turned round.

A Dementor.

Turning his head ever so slowly, he confirmed the worst. The scab-infested, soul-sucking creature towered over him. Intimidation froze Severus to the spot. The beast brought its scaly hands to Snape's shoulders, drawing him toward its vacuum of a mouth.

This is it, he thought, trying frantically to make his body defrost so that when he could muster a proper pleasant thought, his body might cooperate and allow him to cast an appropriate counter to the imminent assault on his self.

"Expecto Patronum!" shouted a voice from behind the creature. It whirled to face a great, luminescent marlin swimming directly toward it through the air. It impaled the being's chest with it's sword-like nose, sending the creature fleeing toward its co-conspirators, who had approached from the burnt-out torch.

But instead of attempting escape together, the cult of dark creatures once again advanced on Snape and his rescuer.

"Severus," Albus Dumbledore shook him out of his frigid daze. "Strength in numbers, my friend."

"Expecto Patronum!" they shouted in unison. A pair of shining protectors burst forth from the two wizards' wands. One fish and one great cat charged the ever-growing mass of Dementors that crept hauntingly toward them.

Twelve, at least… Snape thought back to the door to the Head Girl's room, just meters behind him at the foot of Gryffindor Tower. I can't let them get to Hermione… she's all I have. He fought that much harder, pushing his Patronus into the wall of Dementors who had slowed considerably, but were no doubt still advancing.

And from behind them, another unit of dark creatures made their appearance. Snape's silvery doe saw them and swung around to charge at them, but to little effect.

"We're screwed," Snape whispered furiously to the Headmaster beside him, and he saw his Patronus diminish at the thought.

"Wait, just wait… there."

A wall of light erupted from behind the Dementors, and another joined the fight on their side. More species than he could count joined his striped cat and Albus' marlin, and a handful of their colleagues ran to their side, wielding their wands and driving the foul figures past the struggling Headmaster and his Potions Master, who flattened themselves against the stone wall as the creatures passed.

"Sorry we're late," Madam Hooch said quickly. "Cheering charms were necessary."

The Dementors, being trapped between walls of conjured animals large and small, were slowly melting and withering into one another, their rotten flesh pulling away from their bones. It was the only way to kill a Dementor, to inflict a Patronus on one over an extended period. It took hours, in most cases, to finish the horrifyingly disgusting process.

And so they waited, watching flesh and bone rot and burn before them inside a swarm of radiant light. It was a considerable time before Dumbledore signaled his staff to stand down. The remains of the Dementors was a vile, murky hill piling between the walls of the corridor. The stench was tremendous.

The great heap suddenly convulsed in rage.

"Praeluceo." Albus stated the word calmly, but definitely, and all at once, the windows on the north side of the passage swung open of their own accord, and the Dementors' remains went instantly to dust and swept out the window and were carried away on the early morning air.

The Headmaster nodded in seeming satisfaction. He turned and moved back down the corridor toward the entrance to Gryffindor Tower. The rest of the staff followed silently. He stopped at the Fat Lady's portrait. And there, lying beneath the frame, was the body of Lavender Brown.

Several gasps and words of remorse went round as Dumbledore took his own cloak and lay it over the girl's body.

"I thought Dementors could only strip a person's soul, not kill them entirely," noted a tired Professor Flitwick.

Albus nodded again. "It seems," he said, not taking his eyes from the body of his student, "that Voldemort has asked much worse of them. I fear that our students are no longer safe from him, whether inside the walls of this school, or in hiding elsewhere." He motioned to Madam Pomfrey, and the older woman levitated the body away from the scene.

"Expect that I will be speaking to each of you shortly. In the meantime, thoroughly search the school, and Minerva, please see your Gryffindors safely back to bed. I'm sure they've had a rough night. Severus, come with me, please."

Five-thirty found Severus slowly circling the round office, terribly numb inside with the exception of the sharp awareness of his lack of clothing underneath his outer robe.

They had already discussed the usual; Voldemort's possible strategy and the security of the school. No new ideas had presented themselves. It was certain they would be needed if they hoped to survive the next few months.

"So much has happened this year," Albus went on. "I sincerely believe there is little left for the students to be happy about. And without that, I doubt Hogwarts could survive another Dementor attack." He shrugged, looking weary.

Severus nodded in surrendered agreement. Then it dawned on him. "Headmaster, if I may… what is the thought that creates your Patronus?"

"My thought?" Dumbledore thought for a moment. "It was the time Minerva gave me thirty pairs of wool socks for Christmas." He took a step toward the Potions Master. "And yours, my friend?"

Severus had not yet told Albus of his relationship with Hermione. Though the old man probably knew, the meddling old codger that he was. "I… don't remember," he covered.

"I see." Dumbledore eyed him carefully. "Well then, I suppose you should get some rest. There will be much to arrange in the morning."

Slipping off his robe once again, he pulled back the covers, careful not to wake the sleeping angel in the bed. He softly pulled her to him, grateful she was still here, and unaffected. He heard her moan softly and shift onto her other side to face him. With eyes still closed, she whispered to him.

"So what was it?"

"Nothing for you to worry about right now, love. Go back to sleep."

"But I want to know…" her voice trailed off.

Severus lightly brushed a stray tendril of curls from her cheek and kissed her softly. She had a right to know; one of her friends had been lost that night. But he'd spare her the pain until morning, he had to do that much. "I'll tell you tomorrow," he whispered back, allowing his eyes to close, pushing the early morning's events out of his mind. Within seconds, sleep overtook the two in the bed.