There wasn't much for Harry, Ron and Hermione do, as far as being boat-tenders went. Remus was doing all the work; Harry guessed that their real role was to act as security guards for the virtually helpless first-years, in case there were Death Eaters nearby.
Each of them had entered a boat filled with first-years, as did Remus and Lucy. Then, after all the boats were filled, Remus, who sat in the bow of the lead boat, called out "Forward!", setting all the boats in motion.
The little boats proceeded silently over the lake, its surface shimmering in the light of a first-quarter moon. The first-years oohed and aaahhed as they got their first sight of Hogwarts, its thousand-year-old turrets rising up from the island cliff that jutted from the mists of the lake.
They reached the ivy-covered gap in the cliff, and at Remus' command, everyone ducked their heads to pass through. Everyone, that is, but a somewhat dreamy-minded first-year girl in Ron's boat. Luckily, she only got a bump on her forehead out of it.
The boats soon landed at the underground, pebble-strewn landing. Remus, his electric-blue robes gleaming in the moonlight, escorted the group up the secret path, and in a very short while they were all standing at the entrance to Hogwarts Castle.
Looking more impressive than Harry had ever yet seen him, Remus then recited his version of the speech with which Professor McGonagall was wont to greet all new first-year students. Harry's mind, however, was on different things.
The Ministry must be hard-pressed if they're letting Remus come back to teach at Hogwarts in spite of his lycanthropy, Harry thought. But, then again, the person likeliest to make a row would be Lucius Malfoy -- and now that his son Draco
had just revealed himself to be a Death Eater, Malfoy's leverage, already quite diminished ever since Fudge and MacNair died, would probably not suffice to undo Remus' appointment.
Harry wondered if Draco's father was over at Azkaban, or if he was part of the attack on the train. Or did he instead try to stay in the background, as usual, and let others do the dirty work? Lucius Malfoy was not noted for his personal courage.
An elbow, jabbing into his ribs, interrupted his thoughts. The elbow belonged to Hermione.
"Earth to Harry," she whispered sarcastically into his ear. "Did you hear a word of what Remus said?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "We're going to walk behind the first-years, along with Lucy," she continued, "while Remus walks in front. Then we'll take our seats before the Sorting starts. Come on!"
They entered the castle and proceeded directly to the Great Hall.
The first thing Harry noticed, after taking his seat, was that none of the tables were as full as they should have been. For starters, a large number of students were missing. The biggest gaps were over at the Slytherin table, but there were some missing from the other tables as well.
Harry stole a glance up at the head table. Acting Headmistress McGonagall was there, as were Professors Sprout, Flitwick, Vector, Sinistra, Binns, and most of the others. Dumbledore was not. Hagrid was not. Snape was not.
Harry's stomach lurched.
At a nod from McGonagall, Professor Lupin commenced the Sorting Ceremony, placing the three-legged stool in front of the assembled first-years, then putting the Sorting Hat, that dusty, worn relic as old as Hogwarts itself, on the stool. He then gave a Sorting speech that was a near-perfect mirror of the one traditionally given by Professor McGonagall, and the Sorting was soon underway.
He would have dearly loved to been able to ask Lucy if she knew where the missing staff members were, but she was up at the staff table. She was sitting next to a blushing Professor Flitwick, who could not take his eyes off of her, much to Professor Sprout's consternation. Harry couldn't help smiling as he saw Lucy, looking as carefree as ever, graciously withstanding the amazed stares of staff and students alike.
"What's Lucy doing up there?" Ron wondered. "Is she joining the staff already?"
"I don't know," replied Harry, watching the Sorting Hat put the girl who had bumped her head, whose name was Emma Barwin, into Ravenclaw. "I don't think so. I think she's just at the staff table as a guest of the school."
"She did a bang-up job on Malfoy and the others," observed Hermione, who was sitting on Harry's right. "Did you see Flint's face when he saw what had happened to them? He looked like someone dropped a piano on him."
"Ah, so you got Malfoy and Flint's carriage, eh?" said Fred Weasley, on Ron's left. "We got the one with Pansy Parkinson and Milicent Bulstrode. Eeeeewwww."
"What did you do to them?", Harry asked, just as the Gryffindor table rose to applaud its first new member for the year, a tall Irish boy named Sean Conway.
"Nothing fancy, unfortunately," frowned Fred as he clapped. "Just the standard stun-and-bind. Though I was tempted to try out my new Itching Jinx -- got the idea from Dr. Reader the last time we were at Offhand Manor."
"Yeah, I remember that," Ron said, grinning. "You guys went through every curse-breaker you knew of before it occurred to you that it was just plain old non-magical itching powder."
The Sorting Ceremony proceeded quickly. Aside from the Gryffindor table, there wasn't much cheering of the new Sortees. Hufflepuff and Slytherin were especially muted; Hufflepuff, because they were still mourning the loss of Cedric Diggory; Slytherin, because they had so few members in attendance.
When the last Sortee had jogged off to the Hufflepuff table, Remus retrieved both hat and stool as Acting Headmistress McGonagall stood to speak.
Harry noticed that she was wearing dark blue robes of a familiar cut; he realized that she must have acquired them, custom-made, from the same Paris couturier that Lucy herself favored. McGonagall had purchased new glasses, too: she wasn't wearing her old square-lensed ones, but stylish gold-rimmed, smoked-lensed spectacles. If as much of her rubbed off on Lucy as Lucy has on her, Harry thought, then Lucy must be one very strong witch already.
Her new look notwithstanding, McGonagall still was every bit as formidable as before, if not more so. Her steely gaze swept the Great Hall, and a sudden hush fell as the students and staff waited for her to speak.
"Welcome to Hogwarts," she said, in her standard stern yet calm teacher's voice. "I am Professor McGonagall, Acting Headmistress on behalf of Headmaster Dumbledore, who is currently away from the school but is expected back shortly."
A large burst of applause rippled over the Great Hall, starting at the Gryffindor table. Professor McGonagall let it subside before continuing.
"As are our Potions Master, Professor Snape --" there was some booing at this point, but it was largely smothered by the cheers from the Slytherin table "-- and our Care of Magical Creatures instructor, Mr. Rubeus Hagrid." Harry, Ron and Hermione were immediately on their feet, cheering and clapping rapturously, at that last bit of news; half of the rest of the school joined them in short order.
"I would also like to welcome to Hogwarts two persons, one whom many of you know already as a teacher, and another about who most of you have heard much over the summer. Professor Lupin is rejoining us in his former capacity as the Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor, and I, for one, am heartily glad to see him here again. Welcome back, Professor Lupin!"
The applause was deafening.
Every single Gryffindor was on his or her feet cheering, and most of the other students were, too. Remus, who by now was seated next to Lucy, was taken quite by surprise; he had to resort to fiddling with his napkin to conceal the fact that his eyes had suddenly gone misty. Lucy patted his arm and whispered something into his ear; whatever it was, it made him laugh out loud. Harry had never before seen him so happy.
"And tonight we have, as an honored guest of the school, Miss Lucy Stellanova, who many of you know as the assistant to Dr. Marcus Reader, who is working at St. Mungo's and has helped many of its patients."
Lucy got nearly as big a hand as did Remus; Neville in particular clapped and shouted, even out-shouting Harry. She smiled and nodded in acknowledgement, her cabochon emerald earrings gleaming in the light of the floating candles, and at that moment half the boys in the room lost their hearts to her.
McGonagall herself was smiling broadly, having abandoned all attempts at keeping a stern exterior. When the noise finally subsided to a dull roar, she spoke again.
"Since I am acting in the Headmaster's place," she said laughingly, "I will endeavor to conduct these proceedings exactly as he would have, were he here tonight. To that end, I command you all to Tuck In!"
And with that, the tables suddenly groaned with delicious food, and everyone did as the Acting Headmistress had bid.
It was the most memorable feast Harry had ever witnessed at Hogwarts. This was partly because of the unusual circumstances, what with McGonagall running things and so many people missing, and partly because he was getting the chance to see a Muggle-born-and-reared person, a person that he knew, sitting at a Hogwarts feast table for the very first time and bathed in the light of thousands of floating candles.
He looked at the person that everyone present but himself knew as "Lucy Stellanova". Former FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling didn't spook easily, and she had had nearly two months' time to adjust to the existence of the wizarding world, and to the fact that she was herself now a part of this world. But there were certain things she had never before seen, one of them being steaming-hot fried chicken with biscuits and gravy magically appearing on the golden dinner plate in front of her. Harry saw her flinch, and saw Professors Flitwick and Lupin smile at her, making her smile bashfully in return as she shook her head.
She really does look almost veela-like, Harry thought as he studied her from the Gryffindor table. Veela-like, except that veela beauty is silvery and cold and fake, and she is golden and warm and real. That might be a problem for her, what with all the girls here who probably already hated her guts because of it. But then, it was a problem for her in the Muggle world, too -- so much so that her immediate supervisor at the FBI did everything he could to get her and her friends killed, simply because she refused to be his mistress. Harry hoped that she wouldn't run into any Krendlers in the wizarding world.
The desserts came and went, and the feast drew to a close. Professor McGonagall rose to her feet, and the hall fell silent.
"I have a few start-of-term announcements to make before the prefects take you to your dormitories for the night.
First-year students should know that the forest on the forest on the school grounds is forbidden to all pupils regardless of year. Also, magic is not to be used in the school corridors between classes. And, due to the need for precautions in light of recent Death Eater activity --" Harry saw a shiver run through everyone in the hall, teachers and students included, but McGonagall was not one to mince words "-- students going to Hogsmeade must do so only in groups of three or larger.
"In closing, I wish you all a very good night. You may go now."
The prefects assembled the members of their respective houses. Everyone was tired and stuffed to the brim with food; despite the events of the day, sleep would probably follow in very short order, even for the first-years in Harry's carriage.
Harry, Ron and Hermione decided to wait a few minutes for the crush to thin out before joining the rest of the Gryffindors. In addition, Harry wanted to say good-bye to Lucy, who would be leaving for London right away.
They were about to approach the head table when Lucy and Remus, whose faces suddenly looked rather grim, signaled to them.
"We just got news from Jack Crawford," Lucy said in a low voice, as Remus drew them all into an out-of-the-way alcove. "All of the Death Eaters we captured are dead."
Harry and his friends were stunned into silence.
And Flint, and Bulstrode, and Parkinson, and all the others.
All persons they had known, albeit hated, for years. Persons with whom they had shared meals and classes. Persons who had been a part of their lives.
When he finally could make himself speak, it was in a whisper.
"How did it happen?"
"They died just as they were about to be given Veritaserum," Lucy replied darkly. Her hands kept clenching and relaxing, as if she wanted to put them around someone's throat. "They apparently were killed in order to keep from giving away their secrets. All of them were under a special sort of charm, a Tenebrae Charm."
"Tenebrae Charm?" whispered Ron.
"It's a two-part charm used by Dark Arts practitioners," answered Remus, his eyes scanning the hall to make sure they were unobserved. "The first part is cast well in advance. If a Dark witch or wizard who has been given the charm is caught and about to be forced to divulge information, he or she -- or anyone else who was present when the first part of the charm was made -- whispers a trigger word, usually 'tenebrae', hence the name. That sets the rest of the spell in motion, which shuts down the user's heart and other vital organs. There's no known counterspell."
"That's horrible," Hermione said in a soft, shocked voice.
"It is," agreed Remus, his face pale with shock. "What makes it worse is that most of the persons who were put under that charm -- and, since this is a charm that takes many years to master, I'll wager that very few of the persons under it were able to put it on themselves -- weren't full-fledged Death Eaters, but only their children."
"Only their children? Even at Azkaban?" Harry was astonished.
"Yes, even there. Voldemort wanted to make a lightning strike, hoping apparently to take us by surprise and to initiate the future generation of Death Eaters at the same time. But he didn't want to send his most seasoned troops, not yet."
"So he forced his devotees to let him send their children to their deaths?"
"Exactly," Remus replied, his soft voice quivering with mingled anger and sorrow. "And his followers were craven enough to acquiesce to such a obscenity."
"It'd be one thing if the kids were doing this of their own free will," whispered Lucy through clenched teeth, "but it looks like they were put under the Imperius Curse first, in order to make them accept the Tenebrae Charm. And as Remus says, once the charm was placed on them, anyone present during the casting could speak the trigger word and perform the spell in case any of the kids got cold feet. That's what happened tonight: When none of the kids would do it, one of the adults did."
"Merlin's beard," said Ron, who looked like he was about to vomit. "Merlin's beard. So that's what we're up against."
"It is indeed," nodded Lucy. "It is indeed."
"Miss Skeeter," said Marcus Reader, escorting his visitor into the study, "this is an unexpected pleasure."
The reporter for the Daily Prophet smiled unpleasantly as she sat in the leather chair opposite his desk. She waited for him to be seated, then she got right to the point:
"Let's hope you still feel that way when I'm through here, Dr. Reader -- or should I say, Dr. Lecter?"
The man known to most of his acquaintances as "Dr. Reader" did not respond immediately. Instead, he let the ensuing silence build, his eyes fixed on Rita Skeeter's own, his finely-boned imperial countenance registering absolute calm.
Her acid smile wavered somewhat; this was not what she had expected. Anger, fear, terror, yes -- but not this magisterial silence.
Could he be a wizard after all? No; no, of course not. He would have blasted her into atoms already, if he were.
That last thought gave her the courage she needed to break the silence.
"I'm surprised, Dr. Lecter. Don't you have anything to say to me?"
"What would you have me say, Miss Skeeter?" Dr. Lecter replied, leaning back a fraction of an inch in his chair.
There was another pause, while Rita Skeeter gathered her wits and her composure. "I'd like to hear you agree to my being allowed to follow Harry Potter around without restraint for as long as I like, Dr. Lecter."
The doctor smiled. "Why do you need to do that, Miss Skeeter? From what I've read of your stories, you tend not to use the unadorned truth very much, if at all. You could write all sorts of stories about my ward without needing to come within ten miles of him."
Rita Skeeter's smugly nasty smile returned. "If you don't let me near Harry, I'll write the unadorned truth about you."
"And what sort of truth would that be, Miss Skeeter? If it's like most of your published statements, it's surely nothing you could ever prove."
"Oh, I have no evidence -- just a few good guesses. I did some reading in the Muggle psychiatric journals, and there's only one man who was as good as the famous 'Dr. Reader' at getting inside of people's heads." Her thin-lipped smile grew even wider. "But that doesn't matter, Dr. Lecter," she continued, her eyes shining with glee. "I don't need any evidence, not any more. My readers trust me and believe me, no matter what I write. I've broken bigger men than you -- and they were wizards, while you are a mere Muggle. A mere helpless, defenseless Muggle," she finished, emphasizing the last words with relish.
With one swift, elegant movement, Dr. Lecter rose to his feet. His dark sleek hair gleamed like an otter's pelt as he slowly moved towards Rita Skeeter.
"A mere Muggle, Miss Skeeter?" Dr. Lecter queried softly.
A knife was visible in his hand; it was Hannibal Lecter's favorite one, the Spyderco Harpy.
A white-faced Rita Skeeter jumped from her chair, her wand out and pointed at the doctor. "Stupefy!" she cried out.
The rush of energy flew from her wand, struck Dr. Lecter full in the chest.
And harmlessly dissipated.
"Oh, no," breathed Rita Skeeter. "No!"
She let out a small, mewling cry, then changed into her beetle form and flew towards the doorway. She had almost cleared it when Dr. Lecter threw his knife at her.
The Harpy, whistling through the air, pinned her straight through her exoskeleton, trapping her writhing against the doorjamb.
"How very thoughtful of you to transform for me, Miss Skeeter," said Dr. Lecter as he carefully removed the Harpy from her dying beetle body, holding an open unused notebook underneath her to catch her as she fell. "It'll be far less bother to dispose of you this way."
He slammed the notebook shut with a wet, crunchy snap.
Then, humming a theme from Monteverdi, he crossed over to the fireplace and threw the notebook into the flames, waiting patiently until its ashes mingled indistinguishably with those from the pine logs burning merrily away.
That job finished, he turned his attention to supper.