Dealing with the dementors proved difficult. Voldemort knew of no way to destroy them. Simply wading into their midst with the scythe would be suicide. Vi proposed ordering them out one at a time, but Voldemort didn't think his control over them would hold once they realized what was going on, and then there'd be dementors feeding freely all over the country. Willow tried to devise a scythe-powered spell to kill them all at once, but it was slow going. Voldemort offered to help, but not even Willow would trust him with the scythe. Meanwhile, Voldemort kept them contained and away from potential victims.
Many within the council were concerned about having freed so many prisoners. Voldemort provided a list of names, charges, time served, his guess of whether they were guilty, and their current condition. Charges ranged from tax evasion and facilitating acromatula immigration up to murder. Most of the murderers had at least a year of incarceration, and were marked "unlikely to ever recover independence", so the public was not in very much danger.
Many of the lesser criminals had the description too. It seemed that Azkaban was less a prison as modern Britons understood the concept and more of a torture chamber where minds were broken. No one on the list had been charged with torturing someone to the point of insanity. This, Buffy explained, was why she'd agreed to the breakout despite her misgivings about Voldemort. No matter what the prisoners had done, they couldn't possibly deserve that place. She hadn't been willing to leave the prisoners, some of whom were nearly innocent, suffering in that place for an extra day while she worried about long-term consequences that might be nothing.
What to do with the more severe criminals who might recover remained an open question. In the short term, Voldemort kept them away from the public. He was confident he could hold them all indefinitely.
After so many stalls, it was a relief when finding Hogwarts proved comparatively easy. Winter infrared satellite imagery showed a plume of warm air with no apparent source. The council then hired a pilot and a small plane to fly over the region in tightly increasing spirals and take photos. The photos showed nothing, but the GPS recorder showed a large area which the pilot had inexplicably avoided. All four involved field-agents were dispatched.* * *
The four of them found the edge of the Hogwarts wards fairly easily, but were not able to cross them. They were powered by one of the largest ley lines in Scotland -- a level of raw energy Willow couldn't match. Nor could Molly untangle exactly what the wards searched for and pretend to be it.
Together, though, they found a way to sabotage it. The spell that shunted power from the ley line into the ward could be modified. Power could be shifted from the ward component that blocked unsuitable people to the ward component that blocked demons, and then people would be able to walk through. The spell was an old, stubborn thing, though. Willow and Molly sat crosslegged over the ley nexus, eyes closed, awarenesses merged, gently nudging the magic into new courses. Buffy and Vi stood guard, on opposite sides of the witches, facing outward, alert and ready for trouble.
Not alert enough. Neither acted in the split second between the soft pop and the beam of red light that reached out of a nearby bush and struck down Molly. She fell limply to the earth with hardly a sound.
Vi reacted a moment later, sending a throwing knife into that bush. A moment before it hit, there was another pair of soft pops, and the knife went ineffectively into the dirt.
Buffy moved instinctively toward the pop that hadn't come from the bush. She could almost make out the outline of a robed man with a long beard, disguised with some sort of chameleon spell that wasn't quite invisibility. He sent another red light, this time at Willow, but Buffy got her sword up in time. The red light splintered on the sword and reflected in many directions, scorching vegetation. Buffy charged, bringing the sword around in a simple horizontal arc, but the bearded man teleported again.
By that time, Willow got her eyes open. "Marquere
" she whispered, still filled with ley energy. An orange glow enveloped the bearded man in his new location. Vi was closer, so she charged, while Buffy moved to cover Willow.
The bearded man waved his wand at a rock, and fell back. The rock shifted into the form of a gargoyle and met Vi's charge head on. Her thin-bladed dagger was a poor choice of weapon against a creature of rock, but she slammed the pommel into the creature's left claw and was rewarded with a few chips of stone.
Willow felt the wizard cancel her light spell. Either he had sources of his own, or his native power matched what she'd retained from the ley line. Even if they could overcome him, this mission was unworkable with Molly down and that level of opposition.
She rose and stood over Molly. "Abort," she called out, "fall back to me."
Buffy swung back-to-back with her. Vi feigned an opening, grabbed the ensuing claw and worked with its motion to throw the creature to the side, then jumped back across the empty space to Willow. As soon as she was within reach, Willow air-traveled them all five miles in a random direction. It wasn't quite as fast as the true teleportation their enemy had used, but it was virtually untraceable.* * *
Once safely back in Devon, Willow and Althanea slowly brought Molly out of unconsciousness. They probably could have simply wiped the spell away with greater power, but this seemed safer. Also, they got to learn more about this form of magic. So they slowly took the spell apart, concept by concept, and dissolved each only after understanding it fully.
The spell was of astounding complexity. Willow guessed she would need over an hour to duplicate it, and their assailant had done so in under a second. Much of the complexity was safety. There was even an element to cushion the victim's hitting the ground. Whoever devised this spell had very much wanted to avoid permanent injury. Maybe these wizards weren't such bad people after all.* * *
Dumbledore waited until most of the students were eating dessert before he announced what had happened. True, some had already left, but he trusted the Hogwarts gossip network to fill them in, and he hated speaking to hungry people. He rose from the center table and tapped his wine glass, then waited for everyone's attention.
"Some of you may have noticed the wards flicker this afternoon. We were attacked. Two of the attackers matched the photos from Azkaban. There were two others who were unknown to me. They knew techniques for undermining wards that I had thought safely lost to history, but were not prepared for battle. I fought them until they fled --"
"Oh really, headmaster? You fought off four mysterious witches who --"
"Yes, really, Dolores. As I have fought to defend Hogwarts before and will again if I must."
"But surely you exaggerate--"
"I do not exaggerate. Nor do I lie. The world is becoming more dangerous. This is reality, and even you must face it sooner or later."
"And you expect us to believe that you--"
"If you have doubts about my fighting ability, Dolores, perhaps you would care to face me in a duel? Only to disarmament, of course. We could make it a demonstration match in front of the students. They might find it educational."
Dolores Umbridge looked away at that idea, and found herself gazing at the students who were very enthusiastic at the thought of such a duel. "Headmaster, I have been trying to teach the students not
to resort to violence."
"So you have, Dolores, so you have." Then he turned outward to the students, "I urge you all to be careful. I know that some of you have the habit of sneaking into Hogsmeade to buy sweets and butterbeer. This is not the time to do so. The wards are for your protection, please do not try to circumvent them. If you notice anything suspicious, please tell me or your head of house at once. When I know more, I will tell you. Until then, I leave you to the rest of your meals."
There was a moment of silence, and then the hall filled with noise.