Panda smiled and applauded, when the huge octopus grabbed her friend and held the squat witch aloft in one of its muscular tentacles. "Well done, Oglethorpe! You are, indeed, a very good boy, who has definitely earned an extra whelk for supper."
The witch sitting beside her in the boat - an Auror Sergeant, mm... Brandi Thriftermath, or possibly Bianca - shot her an incredulous look. Panda recognized the expression immediately - people looked like that all the time, when they talked to her.
"You're not, ah... You're not really going to feed it, are you?" Sgt. Thriftermath fingered her wand, watching the flailing tentacles and the squealing witch overhead. The Auror twitched a little, every time either of those things got too close to the small dinghy where they were sitting. The octopus's excitement was adding even more waves to the choppy ocean waters, sloshing up against the sides of the boat.
"Feed it with whelks, I mean." Thriftermath glared up at the squealing witch in the octopus's clutches, and continued in a low murmur. "Wouldn't particularly mind if you tried to make it eat her."
Panda blinked at the odd, nervous woman. "Yes, of course I'm rewarding him with whelks. Why ever not? Do you think he might prefer mussels?" She tilted her head. "You know, my local fishmonger often claims that large mussels make you stronger. I'm concerned that he might think he's being witty, rather than tiresome."
Sgt. Thriftermath thrust a hand at the octopus, waving wildly. "It's just a conjured creature! I watched you cast the spell, myself! You don't need to feed it, just vanish the bloody thing!"
"That's a terribly short-sighted view of the world," Panda chided her fellow traveller. "The fact that he isn't real, is not proof that his feelings are unreal, as well."
Reaching into her robes, Panda rummaged through her Space-Expansion Charmed pockets. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the Auror shaking her head, and muttering under her breath.
"Oh, dear..." Panda murmured. "It appears I'm fresh out of whelks. I suppose poor Oglethorpe will have to settle for limpets, tonight."
She felt a tugging on her sleeve, and looked up. One of the other passengers was studying her anxiously - a large, broad-shouldered Auror Constable called... Turpitus Bumphrey? Bulgaria? Something like that.
"Pardon me for interrupting you, ma'am, but..." He pointed up in the air. "...Shouldn't we help the Undersecretary get down again?"
Panda blinked slowly, studying his fingertip closely. Then, she looked up, following the direction he was pointing. "Oh, yes. Dolores isn't yelling so much, any longer. She's probably finished having fun."
Sticking two fingers in her mouth, Panda ignored the two Aurors whispering to each other ("...She thinks those screams of terror sounded like the Undersecretary was having fun?!"), and let out a piercing whistle.
Oglethorpe lowered his tentacle, gently setting down the witch he'd been carrying. She yelped, and sputtered, and struggled to straighten out her pink robes.
"Hem, hem!" The short Undersecretary shook her finger under Panda's nose. "This sort of behaviour is completely impermissible! If you can't keep your conjurations in check, Unspeakable, I shall personally recommend to Minister Fudge that you should be assigned mandatory bonus duties in the Department of Wizarding Waste and Refuse Disposal! Not to mention a remedial course in basic Transfiguration safety measures! I have never witne-"
"Don't worry, Dolores," said Panda in a soothing tone. "Oglethorpe was just keeping you safe, by making sure you didn't fall overboard."
"Fall overboard?!" Dolores's eyes were bugging out, even more than usual. "I didn't even get a chance to set foot in this... This rickety old bucket of a row boat, before that impertinent creature grabbed me!"
Panda nodded, a pleased smile on her face. "That's right. He knew exactly what you wanted him to do, and he did so."
Dolores took a deep, shuddering breath, and plastered a sickly smile on her face. "Hem-hem," she simpered. "Excuse me? I could have sworn you just said that I wanted a giant tentacle monster to... To violate my person?!"
"You shouldn't swear in front of Oglethorpe, Dolores." Panda frowned. "He's less than five minutes old. He's still a baby."
She reached out her hand, and gave her distraught friend a comforting pat on the shoulder. "But, yes. You did encourage him to pick you up. After all, you were the first to point that there wasn't room for all nine of us in this little boat. He volunteered to help, by carrying you instead."
The squat Undersecretary huffed and spun around, turning away from Panda. She glared out across the dark and unfathomable waters passing them by, as their tiny boat cut across the waves. Dolores studiously avoided looking at Oglethorpe, as well, even though the huge octopus waved at her a couple of times, as it swam alongside the boat.
It sounded like Dolores was muttering something under her breath, about "stark raving madwomen", and "sodding greycloak cretins", and "bleeding thrice-accursed Department of Morons".
Oh, the poor dear. Dolores must have been under a lot of stress, lately, if she was swearing this much. Maybe it would be a good idea to bake her another gwornfrattler pie, to cheer her up?
Her plans for making her friend feel better were interrupted, when Thriftermath jabbed an elbow in her ribs, and leaned closer to whisper in her ear.
"That was brilliant!" Thriftermath sniggered. "I've never seen anyone wind her up like that, before! And she can't really get shirty about it, and go tattling on you to her dear Cornelius, 'coz you were so nice and polite about it!"
Panda tilted her head to the side. "I'm always nice to Dolores. She's my best friend."
The Auror stared at her. "...Are you serious?"
When Panda nodded, Thriftermath shook her head. "You're mental, you are. That woman isn't anyone's friend."
Panda shrugged, and went back to her introspection. She had eight seconds of relative silence - the churning ocean and brisk wind still filled the air with noise, of course - before Thriftermath's elbow reacquainted itself with her ribs.
"Hang on," said the Auror. "Did you just say there were nine of us?"
Panda counted them all on her fingers again, just to make sure she hadn't made an error in her calculations. It was always so annoying when that happened, and - on one highly memorable occasion - potentially very nearly fatal.
"Yes, fellow traveller." Panda held up both her hands in front of the Auror, only one middle finger left extended. "Nine."
The two witches turned to look at the constable, when he suddenly started coughing. Once he noticed them both staring at him, his coughing fit segued into umm'ing and ahh'ing.
"Erm, uh..." He stuttered. "W-well, y'see... I was just thinking that... I guess nine fellow travellers were too many fellows, for this little fellow-ship? Y'know?"
He chuckled awkwardly, glancing back and forth between them, and twirling one of his index fingers in a circular motion. He also mumbled something that might have been "bring", or "wring". When both of them just continued staring at him blankly, he cleared his throat and fell silent, joining Dolores in gazing quietly out across the waves.
Muggleborns could be so odd, sometimes.
Thriftermath rolled her eyes, and went back to scowling at Panda. "Why do you keep going on about this 'nine'? By my count, there's only seven of us!"
Panda shrugged. "In that case, one of us didn't do the math right, and I'm fairly sure I didn't didn't. Perhaps you did didn't, and didn't realize?"
The Auror sighed. "You, me, Turp and the Undersecretary make four in the boat, plus the three others over there." She stabbed a finger in the direction of Oglethorpe. "See? Shack and Abbott are riding on the squid, along with the ferryman..."
"Mr. Salty," said Panda. "He asked for my autograph, you know. I've never been a celebrity before. I do hope it doesn't give me a swelled head."
Thriftermath grimaced, and massaged her temples. "Merlin forbid it should be swollen, as well as empty." She opened her eyes to resume glaring at Panda. "That wasn't an autograph book, he wanted you to sign a liability waiver, so the Ministry can't sue him if your bloody squid sinks the boat, and... You know what? Never mind."
Thriftermath poked Panda's collarbone with a callused finger, and growled. "Look, this ain't Arithmancy, just common sense! Unless you're counting the squid as two people, there's no way that four Aurors, an Undersecretary, an Unspeakable, and a wrinkly old Squib ferryman can add up and make seven."
Panda looked down, and started searching through her pockets again. "Mmm... No, I'm not counting Oglethorpe. He's technically a transport-er, and not a transport-ee. Although, you're correct in assuming that one of the seven people you mentioned, is currently counting for more than one."
A pair of strong, but slim hands gripped Panda by the shoulders. She looked up, and saw that Thriftermath was eyeing her intently.
"So," said the Auror. "Did your oh-so-friendly octopus knock up Umbridge, and now she's carrying twins?"
"No...?" Panda sat back, wide-eyed.
The constable started making choking noises.
"Darn!" Thriftermath snapped her fingers with a grimace of disappointment. "That would have been great gossip material for the next blether session, back at the Auror bullpen."
She leaned against the small boat's railing, hands folded behind her head, closed her eyes, and sighed. "Oh, well."
After a few moment's silence, the broad-shouldered constable reached out to tap the sergeant on the shoulder. He stopped himself before he made contact, finger hesitating in the air for a second. Then, he shifted his pose, and coughed into his fist.
"What is it, Turp?" Thriftermath answered without opening her eyes.
The constable's uncertain tone seemed at odds with his deep voice. "...Aren't you going to ask the Unspeakable what she meant, when she said that the seven people here count as nine? The staff in the Department of Mysteries have access to detection spells and rituals that the rest of us don't, so maybe..."
"Nope." Thriftermath yawned, and adjusted the way she sat to make herself comfortable - or as comfortable as she could get, at least, when she was jostled around in a tiny dinghy, tossed from wave to cresting wave by its magical propulsion. "She's being cryptic. I ain't in the mood to deal with that kind of nonsense, when I know there's gonna be even worse nonsense waiting at the end of the trip."
The constable opened his mouth with a rebuttal, but before he could say anything, another voice butted in on their debate.
"...Excuse me? Are you done arguing about that whole 'seven or nine' business, now?"
Three heads turned, following the sound of the voice.
Next to the boat, riding on the back of Oglethorpe, the wizened old ferryman known simply as Salty (or, if you were as polite as Panda was: 'Mr. Salty') was cupping one hand around his mouth. His other hand kept a desperate grip on the huge red octopus, struggling not to be swept over-squid into the frothing ocean, while he shouted to be heard over the noise of the elements.
"Only, I'd quite like to ride in the boat, again, if'n that's a'ight with you!" His frantic eyes darted down, shooting the huge octopus underneath him a worried glance. "N-not that there's aught wrong with yer squiddy! Ver' nice, ver'... Uh, friendly-like! But, eh.. Mebbe one a' you lot would wanna swap seats, or summat?"
Panda looked up from the occultoscope she'd been fine-tuning, and crammed the arcane device back into in one of her pockets. She shot an uncharacteristically stern glare in Mr. Salty's direction. "Absolutely not! Out of the question!"
The old ferryman looked crestfallen. "Wha'?! Why not? There's room for one more in the boat, easy!"
Thriftermath opened one eye a crack, looking between the bickering people. "He's got a point, you know. That bloke is skinnier than a broom handle, he could fit in here, no problem."
Panda folded her arms under her chest, and shook her head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Salty, but you get to ride this boat all the time. These two Aurors do not make this trip every day..."
"Only every other day," muttered Thriftermath, rolling her eyes.
"...And I never get to try it, so it would be unfair of you to force one of us to swap with you." As an afterthought, Panda added: "Besides, it's your fault that there's nine of us making this trip, rather than seven."
Both of the two Aurors in the boat were now staring at her incredulously. So was Mr. Salty, and the other pair of Aurors who were riding on the huge octopus alongside the ferryman - Abbott and Shacklebolt, was it?
Even Oglethorpe was giving her a funny look. At least Dolores was showing her support for Panda by gazing out over the sea, ignoring the silly argument entirely.
"Seriously?!" Thriftermath cried, sitting up straight. "You think this... Stick figure is the one who's causing our seating difficulties?"
An offended squawk was heard from the back of the squid. "Oi! I ain't Sticky! I's Salty!"
"Again: Broom handle." Thriftermath held up one hand, index finger and thumb curled in a circle. "Ferryman's wrists." She raised her other hand, making a similar circular gesture.
Waving a dismissive hand, Panda tutted her travelling companions. "If this had been a Muggle vessel, spiritual possession might not affect the maximum carrying capacity, but this boat is enchanted. Both real, unreal, surreal, and incorporeal passengers need to be taken into account."
Thriftermath slapped a hand over her forehead, and dragged it down over her face. "That's what you were babbling about? Salty's a Ministry employee working at a high-security facility, for Morgana's sake! We scan him for thirteen different types of magical tampering and influence, every time we go on patrol here!"
"Thas's right! I ain't had the influenza in decades!" Salty shouted proudly. "It's on account of all the fresh, cold air and sea spray, washing the sickness away!"
Panda frowned. "Are you sure?"
"What, you think I skipped one of the thirteen bleedin' detection charms, last time I checked him? You think I did didn't do the math right?" Thriftermath's face twisted into a savage grin. "I've earned my surname, thank you very much."
Panda gave her an apologetic smile, and a small wink. "So have I, according to my husband."
She dug around in her pockets, and fished out a thaumometer. She waved the vaguely cube-shaped device in Salty's direction, studying the readings. The device emitted several odd noises while it went to work, making the other passengers wince: A long crackling scritchety-scritch-scratch, a triple mwah-wah, two gurgling shhlunks, and a plonggg.
My apologies, sergeant." Panda jotted down a few numbers on a battered notepad from her pocket. "Looks like you were right about Mr. Salty... But I'm sure that someone I encountered recently gave a highly anomalous reading..."
Her eyes narrowed. She glanced sidelong at the others, and then raised the thaumometer again.
"Congratulations, Salty!" Thriftermath shouted, while Panda surreptitiously swept the hand-held device in a short arc behind the back of the Auror's head. The Unspeakable's attempt at stealth was rendered somewhat of a moot point by the cube's plonggg-ing and shhlunk-ing. "The Department of Mysteries has given you a clean bill of health! Would you like to join us in your boat, now?"
The old ferryman stared at Panda, as she leaned out over the boat's railing to aim the mwah-wah'ing thaumometer at Shacklebolt. "Eh... On second thought, mebbe later."
Thriftermath laughed. "Oh, come on! You're not actually worried that there's some sort of undetectable, evil, magic-immune phantasm floating around possessing people, when you've got four trained Aurors here to keep you safe, are you? That's almost as daft as Dumbledore telling anyone who's willing to stand still for thirty seconds that You-Know-Who's come back from the dead!"
The constable pretended not to notice the krrrk-krik-krik-krukkk noise coming from the cube being held under his nose. "Professor Dumbledore is a very wise and learned wizard, sarge. If he thinks that You-Know-Who might have found a way to cheat death, then perhaps..."
"Oh, that's not all!" Thriftermath giggled. "Haven't you heard his latest outlandish tale? Alright, here it comes: Dumbledore thinks that You-Know-Who is not only back from the dead, but he's also learned how to fly without a broomstick!"
She cackled, slapping her knee. "Can you imagine? Dumbledore wanders outside, sees a murky cloud on the sky that's getting a little too close, and goes: 'Oh, no! It looks like a short shower of Dark Lords!'"
Panda tilted her head as she considered this scenario for a moment. "Hmm... That does sound rather unlikely. Although..."
Her gaze started tracking upwards, until she was staring at the gloomy cloud cover overhead. She aimed her thaumometer at the most ominous-looking cloud, and took a reading with a loud bloorp.
Thriftermath shook her head ruefully. "Y'know, I reckon the old barmpot must be going senile. Shame, really."
"Hem-hem." Dolores spoke for the first time since she dismounted Oglethorpe's tentacle. "If you're quite finished slandering the Wizengamot's Mugwump, you should prepare to disembark."
She pointed forward, past the stern of the small boat. "We have arrived."
The craggy island that jutted out of the crashing waves ahead of them wasn't large to begin with, and most of its barren surface was trapped beneath the dour weight - figurative and literal - of the crude stone fortress hunkered down atop its back. The structure was primitive in its design, scoffing at such quaint, modern notions as "Brutalism" or "architecture", and went straight for plain, old "brutal".
With Oglethorpe's long tentacles lashing out to drag the octopus's bulk up onto the island's jagged beach, the Cyclopean tower took on an even more bestial cast. It loomed above the waves like the ebon head of a vast, primordial sea monster - the kind that native tribes might worship as a pagan god. Fitting, really; the place already had its own cemetery, a collection of human sacrifices made to feed its endless hunger.
"Welcome to Azkaban," shouted Salty the ferryman. "Second-worst holiday resort in the world!"
Creaks and thumps accompanied the cramped boat's arrival at the island's solitary jetty. The enchanted dinghy pulled itself up alongside the dock, followed by a length of rope unspooling itself and creeping sinuously up to a dilapidated wooden pole. The rope coiled around a tarnished metal ring attached to the pole, tying itself into a knot and mooring the boat.
Once Panda and the two Aurors had clambered out of the boat and onto the jetty, Panda pointed her wand at the Undersecretary still left in the dinghy, and levitated her ashore.
"This is no way for dignified witches and wizards to enter a Ministry facility," grumbled Dolores, floating slowly up onto dry land.
"Well, we can't exactly Apparate straight to the front door, Ma'am." Thriftermath drawled. "Security reasons, y'see. Wards would get in the way, and we'd just bounce off and land in the North Sea - if we're lucky."
Dolores narrowed her eyes and smiled at the pony-tailed witch. "I am well aware of the prison's Anti-Apparition wards, Auror Sergeant. Security concerns are hardly a valid reason not to install a simple flight of stairs."
Oglethorpe's passengers had already climbed off the octopus's back - Salty with an air of enthusiasm and relief, Abbott and Shacklebolt with a little more restraint and decorum. Salty hurried over to his dinghy, all but hugging and kissing it as he checked the boat over, cooing soft reassurances to it.
When he noticed the others giving him odd looks, he blushed and stood up a little straighter. "Ach, well... I'll just, eh... Wait 'ere by the boat, and make sure it's ready to sail when ye get back, aye?"
"You be sure and do that," sniffed Dolores. "I have a very busy schedule, and the Minister would be most displeased if I were delayed for our meeting this afternoon, for any reason."
Salty offered her an arthritic salute, and hobbled back aboard his boat.
"Well done, Oglethorpe," said Panda, patting one of the conjured animal's tentacles. "You've been a very satisfactory octopus. Wouldn't you agree, Auror Constable?"
The broad-shouldered wizard next to her frowned. "Erm..."
"In fact, I believe there is a Muggle saying that would fit an occasion like this," Panda smiled. "After Oglethorpe tried so hard to help Dolores, he deserves... Oh, what's that word...? Ah, right: Hentai."
The tall Auror stared at her. In the midst of the fierce North Sea winds, a faint gurgling whimper could just barely be heard. "...Pardon?"
Panda raised both hands, fingers splayed. "You know, hentai? When you help someone applaud themselves, as a show of approval?" She pursed her lips. "...Mm, I suppose it might be called 'ten high', since you hold ten fingers in the air."
The Auror Constable awkwardly raised one hand, and slapped his large palm gently against one of Panda's delicate hands. "Um... I believe you mean: 'High five'."
Nodding politely, Panda clapped her hands repeatedly against the Auror's hand and Oglethorpe's tentacle, applauding them both.
"Hem-hem," said Dolores, gesturing at the fortress looming ahead. "If you're quite finished...?"
It was a short walk from the beach to the gates of Azkaban proper. The delegation's members - now down to six, no matter how you counted them - made their way along the rough, narrow trail in silence.
A/N: If you're wondering what Panda's surname might turn out to be... Let's just say that Oglethorpe is a reference to Faery Heroes.
Salty the Azkaban Ferryman has appeared in so many fanfics by now, it's getting hard to tell where the fanon started. He could be one of robst's creations, he could be even older than that.
A curious readership divide became apparent, after the last two chapters: FFN readers universally commented on the contents, while the readers on SB went utterly Librarian-poo over accents. Thankfully, that linguistics debacle also had a silver lining; it inspired people to experiment with putting their own accents down in writing, and discuss the diverse nationalities represented amongst the readers - including such exotic locations as Norway and the Philippines. Fun stuff! Either way, thanks for all the reviews and comments, keep 'em coming!
xbox432: A Worm/Twilight story could be amazing, though. Imagine what Cauldron would be willing to do, if they could get their mitts on shape-shifting tribal protectors with anti-precog auras that could render the Simurgh blind and deaf... Or vials of vampire venom that could grant people a decent Brute/Mover rating, through a transformation process so excruciatingly painful it might cause a Trigger event, and is known to dramatically enhance any pre-existing "gifts" (potentially including parahuman powers)...
yobbin2000: Cheers! Glad to hear that somebody's having fun with winkling out the details.
mackon: Perfect! Come to think of it, Winchester III might be (a lot) stockier than Danny Hebert, but they both have some male pattern baldness going, and rather... robust temperaments. Material for a Worm/MASH cross-over, perhaps?
TerraBull: Hmm... If some Dementors don't enjoy being controlled, and others do enjoy it, they could be Dom-entors and Submentors.
twocubes: Yes, Taylor's actions may very well have been attempted suicide-by-Dementor. Good thing her soul never left her body, or who knows what her Shard might have gotten up to in her absence! ;-)
All_Seeing_Eye: Thank you, Lisa. Now, go to bed. It's long past your bedtime.
Ducats: Magical beasts perform magical feats all the time, in HP canon, whether they're as intelligent as animals or people. Fire-breathing, fiery flatulence, trauma-selective invisibility, high-mobility flight from a standing take-off despite having the body of a horse...
DustyMind: Oh, the story has been doing its title justice since the second chapter. In fact, people keep complaining about how much the story is living up to its premise. ;-)
osterreicher97: Thank you for another humongous review! Good to hear that people liked the indirect Dementor-control trick that Taylor worked out; I thought it'd be more interesting than plain Dementor-mastery, and it also allowed me to set up a reference (in a later chapter) to one of the best HP fics out there.
Grimmauld Place might not be a great hiding place, yet. Setting aside Sirius's aversion to the place, it probably wasn't protected by a Fidelius until (in canon) some time around the summer of '95, when Dumbledore revived the Order of the Phoenix and needed a suitable HQ.
Lockhart wouldn't necessarily be a representative example of how Obliviation victims behave - he tried to Obliviate Harry and Ron, but used a broken, Spellotaped wand that he'd stolen from Ron. Since the spell backfired, he may have scrambled his brains more than a properly performed Obliviation would.