Some time before 7 AM, the villagers of Hogsmeade were surprised to find a dirty, bloodied, half-dead (or rather, four-thirteenths, to be precise, since you asked) young boy stumble into their village.
But, today, the boy didn't look exhausted. He didn't look lost, or confused, or afraid, or even hungry (making him practically unique among eleven-year-olds everywhere).
He just looked determined.
"Someone tell Dumbledore," he said to a random NPC. "I need help."
"I'm right here in front of you," the NPC replied sullenly.
The boy blinked, and, his mask of determination briefly broken, evidently decided to reconcile the apparent impossibility in front of him by ignoring it. Just as quickly as he appeared, the NPC, as far as the boy was concerned, was deleted from existence, as was all non-plot-relevant information in the town. Shops, taverns, and potential bolt-holes were taken in with a glance and carefully categorized and noted for future use. Houses, paving stones, magical streetlights, owls, and trashbins were summarily dismissed as irrelevant, never even making it to his conscious brain.
"Well," the boy said aloud. "I suppose there's nothing else for it." Without a glance backwards, as if Hogsmeade had no further use for him, the boy strode out of the town and towards the castle.
"Nobody ever wants to send for me," Aberforth said, sounding slightly disappointed.
Harry was surprised to find Professor Quirrell tapping his feet impatiently by the Fat Lady when he stumbled through the portal, bleary-eyed and ready for breakfast. He'd hardly gotten any sleep the night before; he, Ron, and Hermione had stayed awake worrying about Milo. The only thing that held him back from charging off to rescue his friend headfirst was the simple fact that none of them had any idea where the Death Eaters had apparated to. Hannah had vanished into the girls' dormitories early in the evening to be by herself.
"Professor?" Harry asked, bouncing with anticipation. "Have you found him?" There was no need to mention who he was talking about.
"Y-yes," Quirrell said grimly, then softened slightly. "I-I'm s-sorry, H-Harry. I know he was a friend of yours."
Icy tendrils gripped Harry's heart.
"You don't—you can't mean—he isn't..." he trailed off lamely.
"N-not yet," the Professor said. "B-but at this p-point, it's really only a matter of t-time. He was hit by a powerful curse. I'm s-sorry, Harry."
He couldn't believe it. It was impossible. The strange boy had, despite his oddities, quickly become one of Harry's best friends. Milo had once faced down a Troll and very nearly not gotten thrown out a window. He couldn't believe it would end like this; it felt wrong. Unfair. Like he'd been cheated out of something.
"Isn't there anything that can be done?" Harry insisted. "We have all this weird, wondrous, crazy magic. There must be something—have you taken him to Madam Pomfrey? Or Saint Mungo's? Where is he—can I see him?"
"He's at Saint M-M-Mungo's," Quirrell explained. "But he's unconscious; their b-b-best healers are w-w-working on him. Unfortunately, they d-d-don't know where to b-b-begin, his physiology is s-so different from ours. He's slipping f-fast. I'm s-sorry to be the one to t-t-tell you."
No. Harry refused to let this happen.
"We can save him," Harry insisted.
"I know y-you're d-distraught—" Quirrell began, but Harry was in no mood for condescension. He didn't feel distraught, oddly—he just felt determined. There was something that had to be done, and he would do it.
"There's something in this castle that can cure any illness," Harry said slowly. "It can save him. I'm sure of it."
Quirrell looked stunned.
"Surely, you d-d-don't mean..."
"Yes. We need the Philosopher's Stone."
Milo Amastacia-Liadon slammed open the Hogwarts front gates, casting an embarrassingly short shadow (an eleven-year-old's stature does not generally lend itself to appropriate levels of drama) down the front hallway; the rising sun blazing a brilliant orange behind him.
"Oh, has the ickle-wickle firstie snuck out again?" came a taunting, mocking voice from the air above him. Casually sidestepping a dropped bucket of whitewash—honestly, warning him before attacking? Fastest way to waste a Surprise Round against Flat-Footed AC he knew of—Milo glanced at the poltergeist. Just glanced. It had taken him the better part of a day to walk to Hogsmeade from the Malfoy Manor—again—not including the night he spent in the wilderness to regain his spells. He'd come too far, there was too much at stake, for him to be distracted by an undead clown with poor fashion sense. He couldn't see his own expression, of course, but whatever it was made Peeves's pale (to the extent that a poltergeist is able to, that is) and bolt clear through the wall.
Striding up the stairs to Dumbledore's secret office—Hermione thought having the Headmaster's office password-protected and isolated from the students contributed to an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, but Milo thought it was simply practical—even though he knew the headmaster wouldn't be there. He didn't know where Dumbledore would be, or what the Headmaster was doing, but one thing was for sure: the Otyugh was about to hit the Blade Barrier, and, for that to happen, all powerful, friendly NPCs must go.
That said, Milo's Plot-sense had been wrong before, so he at least had to go through the motions.
"Sherbet Lemon," he said, and the gargoyle corkscrewed upwards.
Cautiously—Quirrell must know Milo would drop by Dumbledore's office before heading for him; there was always the possibility of a trap—he climbed the stairs and peered into the perennially buzzing, clicking, and whirring room.
No Dumbledore. No Fawkes, even.
"Nerull's knees!" Milo cursed. Sometimes, he hated being right. Milo turned around, intending to head to the fateful third-floor corridor. He always knew it would come to this.
"Wait!" It was Mordy's voice. He stopped reflexively; the familiar hadn't yet led him astray.
"Why?" Milo asked. "For all we know, he's already got the Stone and is halfway to his master."
"Remember what we decided about going alone?" The rat, sitting on Milo's shoulder, asked. "And, for example, what a terrible idea it is? No Class is a Party."
"They're not ready," Milo objected. "They could die." Hannah could die.
"Then we'll tip the Cleric. Worse things have happened, and can we really afford to pick and choose? We'll need them. Can't you feel it?"
The worst part of it was that he could. Just as he knew he had to first go to Dumbledore, he knew, in his heart of hearts, that he'd need backup—even low-level backup.
Milo had to force himself not to sprint down the winding, ever-shifting corridors to the Gryffindor Common Room—any time gained by running would likely be lost being harassed by Filch, who viewed any student running as an excuse to chase. He was assuming they were in the Common Room. He hoped they were. He could use magic to find them, of course, but he needed to save his spells for what was to come next.
"Well, well, well," a particularly grating voice taunted. "What have we here? Little freak, all by himself?"
"Draco," Milo said to the pale, blonde-haired boy with false cheerfulness. Crabbe and Goyle were flanking him, standing exactly half a step behind him like the rear wheels of a tricycle. They probably drilled the formation. "I met your dad last night. Kicked his ass, too."
"Why, you lit—" Milo didn't even wait for the Slytherin to finish his trite, clichéd comeback. With a smooth motion, he pulled his darkwood quarterstaff from his belt and gave Draco a good, solid whack to the stomach. The expression of surprise on the spoiled boy's face was worth a fortune—okay, well, maybe a few hundred gp, tops. Milo wasn't willing to invest a significant amount of his allotted Wealth-By-Level in anything involving what amounted to a schoolyard bully. Of course, the WBL system had been shot to Pandemonium by Harry's massive inheritance. The sentiment still stands.
Crabbe and Goyle, torn between wanting to help their master and take vengeance from Milo's hide, hesitated one crucial second.
Milo's combat skills, especially his Base Attack Bonus, were pitiful—by the standards of another Class of equivalent Level. However, from what he could tell, the local wizards (inexplicably) didn't seem to improve in hand-to-hand combat at all unless they deliberately trained in it. While this made no sense to Milo—everyone knew that sufficient practice in anything that grants Experience Points improves all aspects of one's Character—he had no qualms taking advantage of it. Crabbe and Goyle were moderately competent fighters (for eleven-year-olds), but Milo had them lying on their backs in twelve seconds, flat.
With a needlessly showy twirl, he sheathed his quarterstaff back into his extradimensional space and continued on toward his destination, not bothering to look back.
Malfoy and his cronies would be back later, Milo was sure. Recurring villains were like pimples on a teenager in that sense. The harder you tried to finish them off, the more likely they were to show up the night of the Hallowe'en dance when you're trying to impress Lisa Sanders from Home Ec. One day, with a few more Levels under their belts, they'd likely be a genuine threat. But until that day... they could talk to the stick.
Milo left them, shocked and gasping for breath, on the hallway floor. A few minutes later, he rounded the final corner and arrived at a familiar portrait.
"Password?" asked the Fat Lady.
"Squeak," Milo answered impatiently, and the portrait obligingly swung open.
"Milo!" Hermione and Ron, who were (conveniently, Milo noted) evidently just about to leave Gryffindor Tower for breakfast and class, stared at him in surprise.
"How did you escape?" Ron was stunned. "The last we saw of you, you were being carried away by—"
"Hold up," Hermione said, cutting him off. "How do we know you're really you this time? For all we know, you're another doppelganger."
"Another Doppelganger?" Milo gasped. "I didn't realize you had those here, as well. And I won't be able to cast True Seeing for, like, five levels!"
"Okay, nevermind," Hermione said with relief. "It's really you. How'd you get away?"
"No time," Milo said. He'd tell them later, in the Post-Adventure Between-Session Downtime Assumed Debrief. Nobody ever had time to waste telling people what happened when they weren't there for adventures for one reason or another. Instead, they'd handle it in the time between scenes, like sleeping or item crafting.
"Where's Harry?" Milo asked. The plot here clearly revolved around the Boy-Who-Lived, and Milo wasn't about to embark on a potentially campaign-changing adventure without him. Besides, Milo had seen his Expelliarmus in action (and been on the receiving end on more than one occasion).
"No idea," Ron said. "He left ages ago to get breakfast; haven't seen him since."
Milo sighed. "And you didn't think to check up on that? No, I know, it's not your fault, you didn't know. By the way, Quirrell's our guy. He's been evil all along."
"No time, I'll explain along the way. Let's move."
"Where are we going?" Hermione asked curiously.
"Where else?" Milo asked. "The forbidden third-floor corridor. It was always going to end there, one way or another."
"So, about Quirrell. I can't believe he's really—" Hermione began skeptically.
"—he's really evil. I can't believe it," she said, stunned, as they approached the forbidden door and Milo finished his boring, off-screen exposition. "We should tell Dumbledore."
"Can't," Milo said. "Believe it or not, I tried that already—"
"—You did what? I mean, Quirrell was surprising enough, but you? Going to a legitimate authority figure in a time of crisis? I mean, what is the world coming to?"
"—and he wasn't in his office, obviously."
"What do you mean, obviously?" Ron asked, his forehead wrinkled.
Milo was about to launch into an explanation of how the powerful NPC ally had to be out of the way to move the plot forward—Milo suspected an explanation would be forthcoming eventually about how he had important paperwork to do in East Nowhere or something—but, surprisingly, Hermione beat him to it.
"No, it makes perfect sense. I mean, think about it," she said. "Quirrell wouldn't make his move for the Stone if Dumbledore was actually in the castle. That would be like trying to, I don't know, hold up a police station or kidnap an auror: suicide. So he waited this long to make his move."
"...Right," Milo added. "What she said. Excellent deduction, grasshopper."
"Grass—" she sputtered indignantly.
"Team! Focus! Big wooden door to get past, boy wizard to save," Ron said with exasperation.
"Oh, right," Hermione said. "Aloho—"
"—Wait!" Milo cried.
"What?" she asked testily. "I was just about to unlock it."
"No, you weren't. Do you think they'd lock the Philosopher's Stone behind a door that could be opened by a first-year student—even a brilliant first-year student—in a school for magic? The door is likely trapped. Dumbles even warned us: 'the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds for anyone who does not want to die a horrible and painful death.' It's trapped with something gnarly. Probably the wanded wizard equivalent of a Fire Trap or something."
"Good point," Hermione said, looking somewhat pale.
"How did you remember his exact wording like that?" Ron asked. "You can't remember anything. Remember the Cuddly Cannons?"
"No, I don't. I just used Autohypnosis to memorize the Plot last time I had a chance to see it. Took a while with, er..." he was going to say 'with my low Wisdom,' but at the last minute changed it to "the primordial forces Arcane being as they were. The ley lines were all a-flux," Milo had once heard a Bard futilely try to make a Spellcraft check, and quoted him mercilessly, "and there was a fae disturbance in the realms of spirit, beyond the veil."
"So, what do you suggest we do, exactly?" Hermione asked.
Milo shrugged. His usual plan was to send the Rogue in, tied to a rope (thus making it easier to retrieve the body, and all her ill-gotten loot). "Torch the door."
"What?" Hermione looked at him as if he had just suggested she sell her mother to Goblin slavers. "Why?"
"We know this isn't the only layer of defence—there used to be a giant three-headed dog on the other side of this wall, and presumably there's more beyond. This door is to keep out thieves, not a frontal assault. That comes later. Dumbledore probably assumed that anyone crazy enough to try to destroy a door in the middle of a public hallway would be caught by passerbys."
"Passersby," Hermione corrected idly, obviously thinking hard. "And I think you're wrong. Dumbledore doesn't think nearly as twisty as you do, and he wouldn't put a trapped door in the middle of what was, as you pointed out, a public hallway. He's more the type to say the door led to certain death, but, really, still give the person sneaking through more than one chance to escape with their life. That dog you mentioned was chained down—out of reach of the doorway. So someone accidentally breaking in could see the dog and, if they have any sense, which by the way we seem not to have, flee. The door is only locked."
"You might be right," Milo conceded, "except on one point. Dumledore's mind is twistier than mine could ever be."
"Alohomora," Hermione cast as Milo discreetly moved to stand behind Ron, just in case.
The lock clicked open.
"Right," Milo said. "We have no idea what's on the other side of this door. Quirrell killed the dog already, passing it off as necessary to save Hermione. He could have replaced it with anything. Trolls, Giants," he glanced at Ron and grinned, "Giant Trolls, Dragons, whatever."
"What's your point?" Ron asked. "We're going in anyway. We both know it."
"What I'm saying is: be ready for anything." Milo calmly drew his staff and traded his knife from his extradimensional Belt pocket to a more-easily-reached sheath, then checked his Magic Items to be certain. Robe, Belt, Amulet, Gloves, Headband, check. He took a deep breath. "All right, party. It's taken us long enough. Let's do this thing," and pushed the door open with his gloved hand.
Author's Notes: I'm Back.
AKA "We now return you to your regularly-scheduled fantastic fan fiction."
AAKA If you don't get the reference in the chapter title, go read anything by David (and Leigh) Eddings. You won't regret it.
AAAKA Merry Christmas, Internet.
(But seriously, short updates suck – but better short than never. I decided to stop being a perfectionist and just release it, warts and all. Fixing of typos and whatnot will come later. If this keeps up, I'll have your next update Thursday or Friday of next week.)