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Sirius dodged between trees, his blood pounding in his ears, as a burst of high-pitched barking joined the human shouts and the purposeful snarling from up ahead. Either the two kids he'd seen were being attacked by some of the four-legged inhabitants of the Forest, or—

He shoved through the last set of bushes and growled a curse under his breath as he took in the scene in one appalled look.

Or the four-foots are siding with them, against the ones with eight bloody legs.

The acromantula, its obscenely jointed legs as tall as Sirius himself at their highest point, seemed momentarily baffled by the yapping, fluff-furred wolf cub facing it down. To one side, a larger cub was crouching in preparation for an attack on one of the enormous spider's legs, while a pale-blond human boy in robes was just sitting up, rubbing the side of his head as though dazed. To the other, a girl in Muggle clothing with a mass of bushy brown hair had a hefty rock clutched in one hand. Sirius could hear her breath coming in short and terrified spurts, but the stone-punctured eye on the acromantula testified that her fear hadn't affected her aim.

Too bad the damn thing has seven other eyes it can use. And shakes off most curses like Stunners or Impediments—but wait, eyes—

"Conjunctivitis Occuli," he hissed under his breath, snapping his wand towards the thing, just as it shook off its shock and snapped its mandibles towards the tiny wolf cub below it, who dodged back with a yip. The larger cub snarled and lunged for the nearest chitin-covered joint, the girl shrieked and hurled her rock, and the boy shoved himself off the ground and stumbled forward, bent almost double—

The acromantula screamed, a thin and piercing sound, as Sirius's spell, the girl's stone, and the wolf cub's teeth all struck simultaneously. Its flick of the injured leg sent the larger cub flying, but he twisted in midair with an agility Sirius could only envy and landed on his feet. The poison-tipped mandibles clashed together in empty air above the heads of the smaller cub and the human boy, who had scooped her into his arms and, wisely in Sirius's view, was continuing to move in the same direction, towards the spider's rear—

Except that's one place the damn thing can still see!

A leg lashed out before Sirius could turn this thought into a spell, aiming for the back of the boy's head, but glanced off a barely-visible protective shield which sparked momentarily into life around him, sending him tumbling forward into the bushes. The boy yelped, and the little cub he'd been carrying squalled, but both sounds indicated surprise to Sirius's ear rather than hurt.

All right, there's two of them out of harm's way. Sirius took the opportunity to beckon the Muggleborn girl towards him, and after a trembling second she obeyed at a run, as did the wolf cub from another edge of the clearing. Shooing both of them behind him, he aimed and fired off the Conjunctivitis Curse once more, and nodded in satisfaction as the massive spider began to pivot back and forth, clawing at its now-useless eyes. Make that all of them, and one blind monster. Now all I need is a vulnerable spot—

A strange hiss-thock sounded from somewhere nearby, and the acromantula squealed again. An arrow, neatly fletched in white, was buried almost to the feathers on the interior of one of its enormous legs, which was starting to teeter. A moment later, a second arrow joined its mate, and the acromantula's leg collapsed, making it stagger sideways.

Of course, that's where! You just can't usually get at that spot, because they move so damn fast and they can see you from any direction—but this one's blind and crippled, so here goes nothing—

Sirius barely had time to abort his spell as twin streaks of gray fur shot out of the underbrush, snarling in harmony. The darker of the two bolted under the spider, turned on a Knut, and leapt straight up into the air, fastening her teeth onto another vulnerable tendon, opposite the one which sported arrows, and using her body weight to tear it loose. The brighter, whose coat shimmered in the afternoon sunlight like silver, pounced on the juncture between abdomen and thorax, ripping at it with teeth and claws.

On the clearing's other side, the bushes parted to reveal a palomino centaur woman with her bow in her hands (Sirius wasn't sure whether to be grateful or sorry for the support-halter she wore across her chest, crafted from the same material as her quiver strap), the robed boy and the smaller cub beside her, both staring avidly at the battle between wolves and spider.

The tendon the female wolf had been attacking snapped under her weight. She bounded aside, escaping the spider's collapsing bulk with a speed Sirius might not have believed if he hadn't spent so much time watching what Remus could do on full moon nights, and the male wolf growled in approval and tore loose another portion of acromantula armor, exposing the spider's soft innards—but one of its undamaged legs was rising, getting ready to strike—

"Get clear!" Sirius bellowed, and the bright-furred wolf dived off the spider's back an instant ahead of the heavy, blunt claw coming down.

Sirius's Blasting Curse and the centaur's gleaming arrow struck the weak spot in perfect unison.

With one final, horrible howl, the acromantula tumbled onto its side, its legs twitching randomly as various parts of its body fought vainly against the fact that it was dead.

The girl beside Sirius seemed to be having a hard time breathing. He wasn't sure if he should attribute that to her crying, or to her needing to be sick. A downward glance told him it was some of both.

"Here," he said, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket. "Need this?"

"Yes." The girl's hand was freezing cold when it touched Sirius's, and shaking so hard she had trouble accepting the small square of cloth. Sirius went to one knee and took her hands in his, rubbing them to warm them. "What was that thing?"

"It's called an acromantula. You'll learn about them sometime your, oh, third or fourth year. Assuming you're here for the Muggleborn tour?"

The girl nodded, pulling one hand free to blot at her tear-stained cheeks with Sirius's handkerchief. "I'm Hermione," she said shakily. "Hermione Granger." She glanced over at the boy, who had sat down on the ground, his skin even paler than usual. The smaller wolf cub was standing on her hind legs, enthusiastically licking his face. "He said his name was—"

"I know who he is," Sirius interrupted, recognizing a familiar and much-loathed set of features in this new, smaller version. "Assuming his looks don't lie. Surname of Malfoy, perchance?"

Hermione nodded, twisting the handkerchief between her hands. "I thought he was just trying to scare me," she said, looking past Sirius to the still-shuddering corpse of the acromantula. "About the Forest being forbidden. He said there were things in here, things like werewolves and monsters, and I didn't believe him, but—"

A sniffling sob cut her off, and Sirius took one instant to lay a virulent (if silent) curse on Lucius Malfoy and his progeny before going to work to repair the damage done. "Well, now you know he was right about that part," he said, rotating his legs so that he was sitting more comfortably, glancing as he did so at the third party to this conversation, the young wolf on his other side. His earlier impression of masculinity was borne out by the cub's scent, and his certainty that this was no ordinary wolf was bolstered by the vibrant curiosity in the green eyes with the spectacle-markings around them, like those of Professor McGonagall in her Animagus form.

Or like Prongs's…

Cutting off this train of thought before it could become a runaway, Sirius got back to the task at hand. "But that doesn't mean he was right about the other things he was saying. Assuming he said other things?"

Hermione nodded again, staring up at Sirius with a strange blend of defiance and misery in her eyes. "I'm not dirty or stupid," she said, anger and pleading mingling in her tone as in her expression. "He panicked and didn't do anything to save himself—I tried to warn him, and then I threw the rocks—"

"Which was good thinking, though I wish you'd stayed with your tour guide to begin with." Sirius crossed his fingers behind his back that he'd successfully walked the line of sympathy and adult firmness, and chalked up another mark for the cub belonging to the pack of wise wolves which inhabited the Forest when the youngster snickered into the inside of his paw.

Idly, Sirius pressed his fingers and thumb together, then moved them in a horizontal line, one of the hand signals the Marauders had worked out among themselves, this one meaning 'Oh, shut up.' He won't understand it, not organically, but he might get it from context, or even from my scent…

The young wolf lowered his head to his paws, looking abashed.

Attaboy. Sirius offered his fingers for sniffing, and rubbed gently along the underside of the cub's jaw when this important rite was complete. "And you're definitely not dirty or stupid," he said to Hermione, holding out his other hand to her, both for comfort and to check on how well she was recovering from her shock. "No more stupid than anyone who comes visiting the Forbidden Forest, at any rate."

Hermione gave a weak little giggle into the handkerchief. "I should have known better, shouldn't I?" she said, looking around her wistfully. "But he was being so rude, and acting like he knew everything, and I just couldn't take it any longer."

A wicked urge came to Sirius. "So why don't we see how much he really knows?" he suggested mildly.

"What do you mean?" Hermione looked perplexed, and the young wolf pricked up his ears.

Sirius explained.

By the end of his third sentence, the wolf's jaw had dropped in a grin, and Hermione was giggling in good earnest.


Alcyone unstrung her bow and leaned it against a nearby tree, then removed her quiver and set it down as well, scuffing the rune of polite request in the dirt beside them with a hoof. The forest-elves, by the bargain which held all intelligent and honorable life forms in the Forest accountable to one another, would return her weapons safely to her sleeping-place in the camp, and bring them to her again when she might call out for them, as she had done only a few moments before.

But just now, my only 'weapons' must be voice and face, and careful knowledge.

She knelt, then settled onto all fours, tapping the cub Ashtail on the top of the head. "Are you hurt, little one?" she asked.

{No.} Ashtail sniffed herself all over, turning in three rapid circles to do so. {That was scary. Is the manyleg dead?}

"Yes, it is dead." Alcyone glanced over the people, human and otherwise, remaining in the clearing, and frowned over the dark-haired adult wizard whose spell had aided her in killing the acromantula. The centaurs might choose to remain deep in the Forest, but they were not ignorant of the everyday matters of human society, and she knew this man's face.

It surprised her not at all that Moonfur had vanished the instant he was sure the acromantula was dead. For that matter, she was quite sure that he would greatly have preferred his elder cub to be lying anywhere but at Sirius Black's side, ears on the prick and tail slowly thumping the ground.

But we cannot always have what we prefer, and he could not hope to remain hidden forever.

Still, that is not my concern. She looked down at the human boy beside her, who sat with his face in his hands, his shoulders heaving suspiciously. This, though, just may be.

"Go to your mother, little one," she said to Ashtail, nodding towards Smokepaw, who was pacing a slow circle around the corpse of the acromantula, part of the wolves' ritual for declaring the death of one of their most hated enemies. "I have work to do here."

The most central tenet of centaur philosophy held that the person who was first to discover a problem was, by definition, the person who knew most about it, and therefore the person best suited to fix it. In the course of her scrying over the last few months, Alcyone had discerned a great trouble looming over both her own people and the humans, one which would cause terrible and avoidable suffering.

One of the brightest nodes of that trouble had persistently shown itself to her as, she had thought, a young centaur colt, his coloring as fair as her own.

And I, foolishly, assumed that this meant he was my own, and that therefore the trouble I must avert was still many years in the future, as I have no mate and no plans to take one. Whereas now I realize that I have seen only the child's face and shoulders, his hands and arms, or occasionally a moment of his moving swiftly through the woods. Never his full body, and never his rearing or galloping or any other motion that only we may make. He is not a centaur after all, but a young wizard.

But still, in some senses of the words, he may yet be 'my own'.

Gently, she reached out to touch the boy on the shoulder.

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Author Notes:

And so, readers, I need your help. This is a crucial moment in the story. Where, in terms of the newest characters introduced and their interaction with the rest, would you like to see it go? I can't promise that I will do what you recommend, but I'll certainly think about it!

For anyone who does not follow my Facebook page or blog, I will share my news briefly here. Early Christmas morning, on my way to my parents' house, I crashed the car I was driving. Although I was injured only a little bit, the car was totaled, and my cats Poppy and Sesame, who were traveling with me, ran away from the crash and have not been seen since. Please pray for them, or send good thoughts into the universe, or whatever you may happen to do.

Thanks, as always, and more of this and more Surpassing Danger are both on the way!

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