They ran into a herd of thestrals that they thankfully couldn't see, fed a few bowtruckles, and spied on three centaurs staying at the sky, muttering amongst themselves. They were so immersed in their astronomy that James doubted they would have noticed if they'd formed a conga line. However, the instant he thought that, the image or Sirius dancing with Remus immediately filled his head – like Wags the Dog gone wrong. Sirius sniffed out some manticore tracks, but according to Lily, the manticore couldn't be much more than a few weeks old, which was nowhere near old enough to hunt for itself. Following the tracks backwards, they found a dead adult manticore. A huge loss to the endangered species – they only numbered in triple digits in the wild – but they were glad of it anyway. No one wanted a manticore that near.
Five minutes later, they saw another herd of centaurs, but these ones were hunting. As none of them wanted to be on the receiving end of an arrow, they slunk away. When they'd gone a reasonable distance, far enough to not be afraid, Remus, who now seemed completely in control – they could have gone to Hogsmeade after all – suggested a race, in mime. About halfway through the first stretch, Lily leaned forward on James' back for a moment, looking at the ground. Only for a moment, though; the next second, she was once again urging James on.
They rounded the halfway point, marked by an old tree split by lightning, and Remus took the lead. James was lagging behind. He was saving his burst of speed – which he'd found during the blue moon could reach nearly 100 kilometers per hour – until the end, but just as he was gathering himself for a short burst which could put him in the lead, Lily leaned forward so her mouth was near his ear. "Stop." Puzzled, he came to a halt, and she slid to the ground and jogged about thirty meters to where she'd leaned forward earlier. James trotted over to stand beside her. She was brushing at the ground and starting at something she'd uncovered. "James? Stag vision isn't too good, have a look at this..."
James flickered back to humanity and knelt beside her. "What is it? My glasses are fogged up." Lily backhanded him. He wiped his glasses and immediately saw what she'd spotted from his back. There was a hole in the ground, about six inches deep, as if someone had shoved a pencil into the dirt. A pencil that was an inch thick. "Did you see any more?" he asked.
Lily nodded. "Yeah. All evenly spaced out, too. You know what I think. I think they're tracks." A gleam entered her eye. "Tracks of a creature we haven't found yet. That's a first. Sound like enough of an adventure?" James knew an identical gleam was in his own eyes.
"Yeah, it does." He grinned at how eager his voice sounded, but then he thought of something; the gleam disappeared. "But what creature? Long, thin legs, but no feet. Doesn't look like hooves either. Looks like hooks actually...what kind of creature has hooks on their feet?"
"Look at this," said Lily, pulling an inch-long hair out of the hold. "Bristles on its legs. Now think: what creature can climb anything – hence the hooks – and has hairy legs?" James' eyes widened behind his glasses.
"Spiders? Great, whopping giant spiders?" Lily nodded, her eyes still shining. Suddenly, there was a crackle from behind them.
"Hey, we won! What are you guys doing? And do I even want to know, considering it's you two?" Peter probably thought that quote smart. James almost laughed at him.
"No, you don't, but I'm telling you anyway," James replied, studiously not looking up. He brushed a little leaf mould, trying to look like he knew what he was doing. "And let me put it this way – are you scared of giant spiders?" He made sure his eyes were sparking and his grin mischievous when he raised his head. Peter's face was white; Sirius' eyes were enormous, but a canyon-sized grin was in danger of splitting the top of his head. James continued, "Feel like finding their web?"
* * *
"Oh, for...the tracks are going arboreal again," said Lily. She looked beseechingly in Sirius' general direction. "Wormy?"
If a rat could sigh, that rat would have.
Peter sprang from Sirius' back to the tree Lily was pointing at and sniffed the trunk. He scurried up it and ran along a branch, and a second later, he was lost from sight. The others sat down for a rest. Ten minutes later, he reappeared on the ground. He led them to another tree about five hundred meters away, then jumped back into Sirius' fur, obviously intending to warm back up. No such luck. Sirius sniffed the air, then the tracks, then the air once more. He flicked Peter off his shoulder and, for the first time that night, became human. He winced once at the cut across his nose and said shortly, "It's real close." His eyes were shining through his shoulder-length shaggy mass of hair, as they always did when he was excited. "Real close. This should be fun. But how 'bout not charging in, eh? I mean, spiders are poisonous." He looked a bit green. "And I'd personally like to be there for the end-of-year feast. Got me?"
James nodded – harder than it sound with two trees growing out of your head – and Sirius looked relieved. "Good. Anyway, I reckon these tracks are at most an hour old, so there's definitely something in there. Probably more than one; maybe dozens, I can't tell. The smell could be so strong because three spiders have been here for ages, or it could be because there are a hundred thousand spiders." On that ominous note, he became a shaggy dog once more and began – cautiously – to lead the way, nose quivering in the air. They were approaching a hollow, and there were small spiders everywhere.
"Children!" a voice came suddenly from the hollow. Everyone froze. It was a strange voice; there was a clicking sound with each syllable.
"The time has come! Our time has come! A new era is upon us! By respect for Hagrid, we will not harm the humans, but we may overtake this forest! The pesky centaurs with their bows and arrows are not match for our webs and venom! The thestrals we can disperse – they have no natural defenses! Nothing in this forest can harm us! Not even a manticore may stand against us! This we have proven!"
They all looked at each other; everyone's eyes were wide, but not with excitement. These things could kill manticores? Sirius and Remus snuck forward on their bellies. Deer aren't built for stealth, so James changed to human form and clasped Lily's hand; they crept forward together on the stomachs until they could see into the hollow. In the center was an enormous spider, surrounded by its "children." Venom dripped from its mandibles, and its eyes were beginning to go white and blind. But what caught all ten of their own eyes were the other spiders.
There were at least five hundred of them.
"The dawn of our conquest is nigh!" continued the enormous spider in the middle. "We begin our glorious work at midnight!" James and Lily backed away from the edge of the hollow as an ululating, clicking cheer rose from the spiders. Venom dripped freely to the ground. Sirius and Remus dropped back as well. Peter ran up Sirius' back and leapt into the air from his head, changing in mid-air. It would have been quite impressive had he managed to keep his footing upon landing, but instead he went sprawling on his face. Lily helped him up, and his face was white enough to make house-elf cleaned sheets look like a roll had slept in them for a week.
"Wh-what are w-we g-g-going to do?" he stammered, trembling. His face went, if possible, even paler at the thought of being asked to help in a fight again something that could kill a manticore. Five hundred somethings. Everything looked at James.
Normally this would be the moment where he would come up with a brilliant plan to save humanity. Well actually, it was normally a plan to get out of an irate shopkeeper's basement without him noticing as he was already thundering down the stairs, but the cue line was the same. He'd normally open his mouth, and the plan would come charging down his tongue. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
He shut it again and reconsidered. Then he opened it and said bluntly, "I don't know." It felt like a confession; it felt like failure. He cast his gaze lower, staring at Sirius' and Remus' paws. "Let's head back to the castle," he muttered. "Maybe one of the teachers will have an idea." His head came back up, and he knew his face looked beaten and defeated. But he couldn't change that, because that's what he was. "Come on," he said, still mumbling. "We'd better go fast." He changed to stag and began to canter away from the hollow. None of them moved a step. "What?" he asked as soon as he had a mouth.
They stared at him, and then for the second time in the night, Sirius returned to human form. "James," he said softly, "if we go to a teacher, it'll mean telling them we're unregistered Animagi. We'd be giving up our greatest secret of all time. Do you really want to do that?"
"Sirius," said James, walking over to him, "of course I don't. I thrive on secrecy, on mysteries, on adventure; you know that." He put a hand on Sirius' shoulder. "But I don't think keeping our secret is worth putting Hogwarts at risk, do you? I mean, that big spider said not to hurt humans, but they're going to drive everything out of the forest. What's going to happen then? Hogwarts will be overrun. I don't think it's worth it. Do you?" Sirius looked about to say something but thought better of it.
James began to clap his shoulder, but suddenly something rammed into him, knocking him over. It was Remus. He wasn't fully in control after all, and Sirius was no longer guarding him. "Accidero Cervidae!" James screamed, amazed his wand was still touching skin. Suddenly, the werewolf jaws that had been closing around his head had antlers holding them open, but there was huge power in those jaws. Parts were snapping off his antlers. His antlers!
James tried to kick Remus off him, but he was too heavy. Just as an entire antler snapped off, Sirius cannoned into Remus, knocked him over, and stood on him. After a few moments, Remus stopped fighting, and Sirius let him up. He was back under control. Lily rushed over to James and look at the top of his head. "Okay, you're out of any more fights tonight without your antler, but as a human, you should be fine. Nothing else is hurt?" James shook his head. "And you're fully under control again, Remus?" Remus nodded. Sirius looked abashed, even though she hadn't so much as looked at him. Lily climbed onto James' back once more. "Okay," she sighed, "I guess we'd better get to the castle." James cantered off again, and this time, everyone followed.
Following their own scent, they soon reached the dead manticore and stopped for a short rest. They had been running at top speed the whole way in order to get back in time, and by the moon, they had barely half an hour. As James sank to his knees in exhaustion, Lily slid off his back and walked over to the dead monster. She seemed to be muttering to herself. The attributes of a manticore, obviously, as James heard her say, "Shark teeth, three rows," as she pulled open its mouth. She moved down the animal's body, pausing at each of the numbers weapons, inspecting the leather wings minutely. Five minutes later, she dropped the tail ("venom that kills instantly, shoots spines covered with it") and walked back to the others.