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Chapter 11 — Crux of Evil

Kali flapped as best she could inside her cage and stuck her nose through the wires to the point where the thin bars pressed her ears back. Her tongue almost reached the fringe of Snape's hair when she flicked it to full length out over the dining room table where Snape sat with his head bent, resting on hands tangled in his hair. Kali's cage had been kept in reach for the last day and a half so he could keep a close eye on the creature. The sunlight streaming in the window mocked the household's distress with its glorious happiness.

A burst of ash ejected from the hearth as the Floo network flared and Tonks stepped out of it. Snape raised his head slowly, fearing hope, keeping it at bay until he could read her eyes. Her frown justified his caution.

She sat across from him with a sigh and without invitation. "I checked Transportation's records like you asked. They have no record of him Apparating out or using a Portkey and the atrium desk has no record of him leaving through the gateway. BUT, they aren't always a hundred percent there when it gets busy. AND, Transportation has been sloppy of late as well. But it is odd." She gathered her weathered, dim-haired self together and peered at Snape with curiosity. "Why did you ask me to check? What are you thinking happened?"

Snape had already made up an excuse. "I was wondering if for some reason he used his invisibility cloak."

"Yeah, but why would he do that?" At his shrug, she more stridently said, "He wanted to talk to me, was waiting, hanging around the office and doing filing for Kingsley." She glanced up as Candide slipped into the room in the attitude of one at a wake. She laid a hand on Snape's shoulder and trailed it around to the other as she took the seat beside him, keeping her chair facing his rather than tucking it in as though eating. Kali, head still through the bars, twisted to peer at her, but quickly returned her tiny gaze to Snape.

Snape studied the Chimrian in return. "She is calm, but far too attached to me."

Everyone stared at the bat-like animal, but Kali did not take note of this and continued to try to press herself through the bars in Snape's direction.

Tonks, eyes on the pet, said, "Candide, I know we've been over this already, but have you thought of anything new from Wednesday morning that might give us any clue?"

Snape stood and reached for the Floo powder. "I'll fetch my pensieve."

In his absence Candide replied, "No, I haven't. You spoke with Belinda, right?"

Tonks nodded, glancing away as if to imply that topic line was not a welcome one. Snape returned to a silent room and set the pensieve down. To Candide he said, "You do not mind . . . I assume?"

"Severus, I'll do anything I can to help."

"Think of that morning," He commanded her, and touched his wand to her temple, drawing out a glowing blue-silver cord that he fed into the otherwise empty stone bowl.

Tonks stood to bend over the bowl as well and watched the events of that morning as Harry was shown the newspaper. When Harry said, "I'm not being very careful," Tonks grunted, and when they all stood straight after the memory ended, her eyes remained dark.

"Any help?" Candide asked, and Snape shook his head, face grim. He turned to face the hearth, away from the women.

Tonks said, "Maybe I should pay another visit to Belinda."

Candide said, "If you think Harry was cheating on you, you are sadly mistaken."

Tonk's hair remained brown, but it bobbed out straight before settling down again. "You never want to think that about someone, do you?" She huffed and said, "We have everyone out looking and the Ministry's offered a reward. That probably won't decrease the number of reporters outside your gate, so owl if you need help handling them."

Snape, in a tone that indicated he would be pleased to have something to take his frustration out on, stated with certainty, "I won't need assistance with that."

"Well, then, stay out of trouble if you would; we can't spare anyone." Her voice cracked as she closed that statement. "If you think of anything at all, let us know." With that, she turned to the Floo and disappeared.

Candide said, "I assume you didn't bother to tell her about the spell you and Headmistress McGonagall tried last night because it failed."

Snape strolled over to stand before the framed photographs of Harry and his friends propped on the sideboard, pushed to one end by the piles of Candide's folders. "I actually believe now that it did work."

"But it didn't flare red like you said it would. It didn't find him."

"He is out of reach of the spell. Out of reach of . . ." Snape, who had been standing with his head bowed low, raised it with a snap and grabbed up quill and paper from Candide's work pile on the sideboard. He scratched out a note quickly and folded it. "I'll return shortly," he said to Candide.

"Where are you going?"

"Owl Office. I need to send something as speedily as possible."

She opened her mouth to protest his thinking of something and not taking the information to the Aurors but he had already disappeared in the Floo.

He returned shortly as promised and began to pace. Candide looked up from her work and said, "Severus, please sit down."

He stopped pacing at least, but stood staring through her, thinking. She said with no little strain, "I'm sorry I can't be more help."

He faltered over the words, but managed to say, "You are more help than you know."

She bent back to the large grid sheet before her and said, "I figured I wouldn't get sent away this time." When he did not respond to this, she looked up with a softer expression and added, "You were feeling guilty last time Harry went missing . . . I think."

An empty gap stretched wide before Snape responded. "He is still my responsibility."

"He's nineteen."

"That does not change anything. He will need an eye kept on him as long as I have strength to do so."

She held up her hand, ring first. The scarlet stone echoed the square sunlight from the window in its core.

"Perhaps it will come to that," Snape said to the offer. He settled at the table across from her and sat with fingers perched before him, deep in thought.

"You don't want to join the search?" she asked after a while.

"I do not know what happened and must assume that this household is in danger."

She blinked at him. "Oh. One never knows around here, I suppose."

- 888 -


When Snape answered the knock upon his dungeon office door, Harry could see he had a student with him. Harry grunted, “You said you had a spill?”

“In the classroom,” Snape said, snapping the door closed again.

Harry shuffled down there and took a seat at one of the familiar tables. He took the cup out of his pocket and dropped it into the bucket under a rag. This gave him a bit of relief from it. A noise at the door latch made Harry leap for the mop to pretend to be cleaning, but it was only Snape.

“You were quicker than I thought,” Snape said.

“I-”

Snape held up a hand and gestured with a sideways nod towards his office. Harry picked up the bucket and followed him out. Safely back in Snape’s chambers Harry pulled the cup out and placed it on the chess board.

“And what would that be?” Snape asked with no confidence that it may be important.

“A Crux Horridus,” Harry replied.

Snape straightened and put his clasped hands to his chin, eyes glued to the object. He fetched the valet chair from beside the wardrobe and joined Harry in staring at the cup more closely. Eventually, Snape said, “That explains quite a bit. I don’t know why I did not think of it.”

“Have a Caeruleus fire handy?” Harry asked.

“Even in the Potions classroom, such a thing would not go un-noticed.”

“Do you know how to destroy it, then?” Harry asked.

“Albus did not instruct you in that?”

Harry shook his head. “Got any good books on the topic?”

“Not in the library, certainly.” He stood suddenly. “But I have a few that may have something . . .” He went to the shelf tucked behind the bed and with a tap of his wand the apparently built-in stone shelves slid aside to reveal another bookcase behind the first. Snape perused these and ten minutes later returned with four heavy old books, the kind that squirmed or nipped at you when you tried to thumb through them too fast.

The two of them set to reading until Snape had to teach. By the time he returned after lunch, Harry had learned a lot about spells involving human and animal lifeforces, far more than he ever wished to know.

Snape, after five minutes browsing Veil Avoidance, one of the books Harry had given up on, he said, “Here it is.” He turned the book toward Harry, who read where indicated:

The soule risepticol is best maed from metele or jewel, or the soule with-in culd prove fraggile. An eccepxionale wizzard can crush the soule within wile forsing it to esscape too small an opening. The heete of esscape will bern up the soule, but bewaer if it doez not bern up, the soule will force a new home in whome'r is closest.

Harry took a deep breath and then another while considering the cup, shining there in the firelight. Tiny scratches marred its polished surface. He could do this, he was certain. Mind clear, he picked it up and pressed the bowl between his palms while imagining trapping what it contained. He knew what Voldemort's power and soul felt like, having once gathered part of it up to toss it away. The thin metal bent but what was inside resisted. Harry concentrated for a minute, but could not quite work out how to follow the instructions.

Harry straightened the cup to an approximation of round and set it back down to stare at it. “I can do this,” he insisted when Snape shifted to cross his arms and peer down his nose. "Give me some time. And step back," he added, thinking he did not want to battle a possessed Snape.

It required an hour and uncountable tries but Harry finally got a feel for what was trapped inside and pressing hard enough to almost collapse the bowl, he imagined a tiny crack in his mental crushing and with an explosion, the cup jumped from his hands and clattered on the floor along with an unearthly cry of despair and a gurgle.

Harry shook his burned hand and examined the soot that coated it. He scooped up the cup from where it had rolled to a stop before the fire and used a spell to straighten it again. It looked and felt perfectly ordinary now. “That worked,” Harry said, accepting a relievingly cold, wet cloth from Snape. “There must be more of them. I wonder how many.” He thought back to the evidence lists from Merton’s hideout, trying to remember how many Horcruxes were supposedly found. “Let’s say there are six,” Harry mused, assuming the number would be the same. “Nagini is one, the cup, another . . . I better go out hunting around again. Nagini I can kill when the time comes.”

“I may know where one is,” Snape said softly.

“Can you fetch it?” Harry asked eagerly.

- 888 -


In the dining room in Shrewsthorpe nothing much moved until a glittering pigeon came to the window. Snape leapt up and opened the sash and then growled as he removed from the bird's leg the very letter he had written. The bird took off again, flying at a blur.

"You rented a Silver Pigeon?" Candide asked in surprise.

"The cost was no issue."

"I'm just surprised they had one. It's always rented when we need it."

"But it did not find the recipient. I may no longer have the correct address and the man has a habit, Harry said, of keeping an anti-post charm around himself." He tossed the message aside into the Floo and burned it up with a wave of his wand.

"Whom were you trying to reach?" Candide asked, watching the last of the flames flutter out as the paper curled completely black.

"The Shaman in Finland," Snape stood, thinking, and then without warning reached for the Floo powder again. "Come with me this time. You need to visit your office, correct?"

Snape left Candide at the accountancy and strolled to the Apothecary. Inside before a tall stand of glittering empty bottles, he waited for the current customer to leave and the proprietor, clearly aware of Snape's presence, hurried the customer along.

"Jigger," Snape said when they were alone. "I understand that you have a certain standard of secrecy toward your customers . . . indeed, I have much appreciated that over the years, but I am dearly in need of information."

The old man behind the counter frowned. "You are certainly one of my better customers, Professor, but like you said . . ."

Snape spoke quickly, "I wish only to hire this person that I need to locate, nothing more."

Jigger's face relaxed and he put aside some stray bottles on the counter while asking, "And exactly whom are you looking for?"

"I'm not entirely certain; that is why I have come to you. I need to locate a vampire, and given their usual dietary requirements as well as your expertise in procuring almost anything, regulated or not, I am guessing that they not infrequent customers."

Jigger stopped filing bottles and said stiffly, "There's a registry at the Ministry. Why not start there?"

"I want an unregistered vampire, if possible, one I can trust to keep a secret. We go back a long way, Jigger. I promise you the vampire will not know where I learned of his or her existence."

"Only for you, Sev," Jigger said, picking up a rag and wiping down the counter. The rag began to smoke, so he shook it out and hung it up. "There's an unregistered one of 'em moved in just a week ago on Knockturn. Number Twenty-Six. He's one of several who have moved in recently, I'm not sure why that's happenin', but the rest are registered. I know, because they bring in their blood ration coupons from the Ministry. This bloke's appetite runs beyond bovine and porcine blood, so do be careful."

"What's his name?"

Jiggers shook his head that he did not know. "I wish I knew why the neighborhood is suddenly so attractive ta them."

Snape stood thinking and said, "I believe it is because the most dominant of their number was recently removed to prison, leaving a vacuum. But that is only a guess."

"Ah," Jiggers muttered. "Good to know it isna something more worrisome than that."

Snape thanked him and stepped along a few doors and upstairs to the accountancy. Someone was letting an owl gripping a large package out of the window. More owls waited in a cage mounted directly in the largest window. When the woman turned, Snape recognized Roberta, who gave a small start at seeing him there. He knew Candide had invited her to the wedding and that she had refused to attend. He cared not at all beyond any impact on Candide's happiness with her work.

They stared at each other and for the first time Snape remembered her from Hogwarts, one of many students, nameless to him, who kept their head down inside a book most of the time except when an opportunity arose to glare with disapproval at a Slytherin. Roberta looked away first to return to her desk. Snape heard Candide's voice then, emanating from the smaller office off to the right. It pulled him out of memories not worth revisiting, for which he was grateful given that he had no thoughts to spare for anything beyond suppositioning on what may have happened to Harry.

As she stepped out of the side office, Snape noticed for the first time that her belly had begun to swell. A strange numbness suffused him as he considered a second son in his life. He had months to prepare, so he pushed it aside out of a mind too crowded with worry to take on even a remote conception of caring for an infant.

"Severus," she said, smiling in pleasure at his standing there. "Let me get some papers and we can go . . ."

Later that night, Snape's watching the clock caught Candide's attention.

"Expecting something?" she asked. There had been no communication from the Ministry, but several owls from Hogwarts asking for information and offering help. "Is Tonks supposed to call again?"

"No, I have to see someone, and it would be best to show up immediately at sunset."

"Whom do you need to see?"

Snape stood, thinking to get ready to depart. "You should go to the Burrow whilst I am gone. It will give you a chance to catch up on news of the search."

She put down her quill and followed him to the entry hall to collect her cloak. She did not ask anything more as Snape saw her off in the Floo. He immediately took himself to the Leaky Cauldron and out into the dewy air of Diagon Alley. He strode with focused purpose to Twenty-Six Knockturn Alley and inside a dusty staircase, knocked on the door. After many minutes, a metal plate slide aside with a clack and red-flecked eyes peered out. "What is it?"

"I have a proposition for you," Snape said.

The man on the other side of the door laughed harshly. "Why would I talk to you? I don't even know who you are." He started to slide the plate closed, but Snape hexed it back open again.

Vampires were a dark bunch, untrusting, but Snape had a significant past connection he could use. "I am Voldemort's last free servant; that is why you should hear me out."

The eyes in the slot attempted to Legilimize him, but failed. The door clicked open.

"No garlic," the man said as he stepped back from the door. Snape stepped inside, taking in the copiously candlelit room with strategic eyes. The vampire asked, "You aren't one of us, are you?"

"Hardly," Snape snapped back, insulted.

"Hmf," the vampire snorted. He was tall and blonde with aquamarine eyes that glittered red at certain angles of the many flickering candles. "You don't wish to live forever?"

"No, one life is quite sufficient."

He posed faintly. "I get to be beautiful and thirty forever, what more could one want?"

"To be eighteen forever?" Snape offered, immediately disliking the man.

"Eighteen is a foolish age," the vampire said.

Snape could not disagree with that given that he was hunting an errant nineteen-year old.

The vampire pulled the sole chair—an antique with lion-claw feet and a ghoulish face on the backrest—to the center of the room and left it there to lean casually against the closed coffin that sat on a stone pedestal off to one side. "Have a seat," he said. "If we were at my castle I could offer you an entire wing of it for your comfort, but this is what I have at the moment. "So, what is this proposition? Realize before you waste your limited breath that an immortal has little interest in most things mortals value."

Snape took the chair only because he needed to stay on the man's good side. "I need you to look for someone."

"Really? A hunt?" The vampire tossed his wavy hair, displaying that it was brown underneath, which implied the improbable notion of sun-bleaching. "Few would hire a vampire for such a task, although we are quite good at it."

"I seek someone who has gone where only your kind and other beasts of darkness can venture."

He had caught the vampire by surprise with that. If Harry had not told him, Snape would not have known vampires were able to use the Dark Plane.

The vampire stood silent, calculating, before saying, "Say I were interested in this task. Whom am I seeking?"

"My son. I expect he will be easy to spot, being the only human there."

"He is not human if he is there," the vampire said with a hint of disgust.

"He is human," Snape insisted. "This is an easy task for you, surely you must need something. I can pay handsomely in gold or whatever currency is most convenient for you."

The vampire pushed away from the coffin and began a slow circling of Snape. "I don't need gold or rupees or florins or whatever is circulating these days." He came around the chair back where he had started, velvet robes dragging on the floor. Snape wished he were not sitting, but given his lesser height he would still be at a disadvantage if he were not.

The vampire turned his pale face Snape's way and it had lost the teenage blasé it had displayed before. "The task you request is indeed easy, and fortunately the payment will be equally easy for you." He stepped closer as he spoke and reached out his index finger and slowly dragged it along below Snape's jaw. "Trivially easy."

Snape froze, torn between revulsion and dear need for this creature's help.

The vampire went on, "You see, it is possible to purchase human blood, from the Muggles if you can imagine that. But it has been processed, filtered, treated, and chilled. You cannot imagine what an utter waste that is." He circled around the back of the chair, pulling Snape's hair back so that it no longer hid his neck. He dragged a finger the other direction, stopping and pressing at the jugular with a light touch. His voice was disconcertingly close to Snape's ear as it hypnotically said, "Biting an unwilling mortal is grounds for banishment and I am intending to repossess my castle here in your less than sunny country so I do not wish that to happen. But I am also acutely hungry for fresh blood." His breath brushed Snape's ear as he added, "It has been a very long time . . . my teeth ache for the pressure of hot flesh."

Snape twitched. It was a jump held back with iron will.

The silky voice at his ear laughed. "A barely willing victim would be even better."

Snape swallowed. "Nothing else you might want?" The presence at his neck lifted and Snape nearly closed his eyes in relief.

The vampire came around to stand before him again. "At some point, yes, an interior decorator capable of rescuing a castle that has been hideously converted into a museum, but frankly you don't look qualified for that position." He licked his lips which shone with saliva. "No, there is just one thing I would take in payment or you have no deal."

"You will not make me one of your kind?" Snape asked, gut urging him to make a run for it, but his rational mind seeing no alternatives.

"Traditionally, we dislike competition, to put it mildly."

Snape imagined Harry learning of this. He would not be pleased to say the least, but Snape had no options and he could not sit by and do nothing. "All right," Snape agreed. The vampire's eyes flared red and he bared his long incisors. Snape cut him off with: "But after you have succeeded. Bring me back my son or at least proof that you have found him."

"And how would I prove that. Shall I bring you his head?"

Snape sat unbaited by that. "Get me the answer to the question: what present did his father first give him?"

The vampire considered that. "Agreed. I will look for him tonight. Where shall I find you when I have found him?"

Snape did not want this creature anywhere near his house. "I will return here . . . a half hour before sunrise."

"Clever man. Make it an hour." He stepped forward again with a catlike grace and hunting manner. Whispering while leaning in close, he said, "I want sufficient time to enjoy my payment." He licked his lips faintly, drawing in the saliva pooling there.

Snape stood. "Yes, I'm sure you do," he stated brusquely, barely masking his violent disgust.

At the Burrow the worn, brightly mismatched couches and tablecloth calmed Snape given how far removed they were from black velvet drapes and wrought iron candelabras. Candide stood from the table where several Weasley's had gathered, drooping slightly. "Any luck?" Candide asked.

Snape shook his head, not wishing to discuss what he had been doing. Ron and Bill frowned and returned to clutching the large mugs of tea before them.

"I appreciate your assistance," Snape said to them.

"Anything for Harry," Ron said into his mug.

"Indeed," Snape agreed with vehemence.

The next morning, under cover of darkness, Snape escorted a sleepy and somewhat irritable Candide to the twin's laboratory where a light burned in the window unlike the darkened offices on the first floors up and down the alley, including the accountancy.

"I don't understand why you don't want company?" Candide asked for the second time.

Fred, the twin who was not sleeping on the rug using a giant marshmellow as a pillow, came to the rescue of Snape's thin patience. "Don't ask something like that of Professor Snape," he told her in mock horror. "The mind boggles at the answer might be. Come on in. I'll make you some tea."

At Twenty-Six Knockturn Alley, Snape found the vampire pacing.

"Well?" Snape asked.

After a pause, the creature said snippily, "I didn't find him. I found evidence of him, in the form of a pentagram I'm quite certain none of the creatures would have left behind. Plus a lot of trainer footprints, already covered by other tracks. But no sign of the boy human himself."

"What would it cost me to have you look again? Or bring me there."

The vampire considered his nails before replying. "Nothing extra. Believe me, I thought I had my first real meal in a year coming to me. Waltzing in like a proverbial lamb, even." He threw down his hand, making the nearby candles flicker. "I know he is not there. I set my pets off to hunt for him as well as looking myself. He is not in the Dark Plane as the few mortals who know it refer to it."

Snape exhaled. He had not expected this answer and found himself lacking a plan for what to do next. He was slow gathering himself to leave. When he reached the door, the vampire joked in clear disappointment, "Stop in for a bite anytime."

Snape merely raised a brow at him as he tugged the door closed behind him.

- 888 -


The next day during Hogwarts breakfast hour when Voldemort would be out of the tower, Snape returned with four items in a small box and paced nervously while Harry examined them as they sat on the chessboard, which had become Harry’s worktable.

Snape uttered, “Hurry with that, I must return them before they are missed.”

“He must be overconfident,” Harry observed as he lifted out each item from the box: a locket, a watch, and a pair of cufflinks. Each felt all right but afterward he still had a sense of advanced decomposition. Harry stared at the chessboard before him in puzzlement.

“What it is?” Snape asked impatiently.

Harry lifted the box to look for a hidden compartment and said, “It’s the little box itself, even though it's wooden.”

The box did not want to deform while closed. Harry opened the lid and pressed hard on the frame of the box. After many tense minutes and a few droplets of sweat, the brass-strapped wood creaked and a ball of fire consumed the velvet lining, emitting a scream. Harry made himself hold onto it so he could quickly quench the flames. The lining and part of the wood inside were ruined.

“That will not be easily repaired,” Snape observed grimly.

“Same dark green velvet as the curtains around your bed,” Harry pointed out, half-teasing.

“Do you know how to sew?” Snape asked.

Harry, who as a child had tried to lengthen the life span of any clothing, nodded. “Well enough for this.”

“But not fast enough, I suspect. Breakfast ends in ten minutes.”

“Cut me a piece and let’s see.”

“You are not the one who must work their way past all of the barriers to return the box,” Snape harshly pointed out.

“Return it as it is, then,” Harry said. “Or don’t return it at all; let it go missing.”

Snape tossed the trinkets into the box where they clinked harshly, saying, “You have no idea how badly that would go over.” He departed hurriedly. Harry dearly hoped he returned quickly and did not run into trouble. He reminded himself that he could leave anytime. He was certainly being desperately missed back home. Leaving and returning would be complicated; explanations would be required and Harry did not believe he could argue successfully that he should come back to complete the prophecy here. As he stood there, before the fire, it felt like his prophecy now and he could not resist it.

Snape returned presently, seeming distracted.

“Go all right?” Harry asked.

Snape took this as an invitation to get directly in his face. “Finish this quickly or we are all doomed.”

“I plan to,” Harry said. “I’ll go out right now looking for the remaining ones.”

Minutes later he re-emerged from the toilet, passable as Argus Filch. Snape stood in the center of the room, arms crossed, looking smug. “You don’t require a distraction?”

“No,” Harry said.

“No?” Snape echoed doubtfully.

“No,” Harry insisted, “I have this.” He pulled out the Marauder’s Map and snapped it open with one hand.

“What is that?”

“Something I picked up from Filch’s office last trip out.”

“I’ve seen that before,” Snape breathed, sounding suspicious.

“Yes,” Harry said, activating it and waiting for the decorative and infamous printing listing the designers to die away and the Hogwarts corridors to appear. “It was my father’s.”

Snape’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I should just turn you in now, shouldn’t I?”

“Right,” Harry said tiredly. “After all you’ve already done, for one thing.” Snape did not reply, just continued to glower. Harry lowered the map and said, “Look, I’m sorry my dad was cruel to you, but there’s nothing I can do about it now.” He wanted to say more, about Snape keeping his priorities straight, but did not wish to risk arguing about that. Snape continued to glare as though thinking things through. “Come on,” Harry said. “Hasn’t your dad done things you didn’t agree with?” Harry returned to studying the map. “I bet he has.”

Harry folded the map away. Filch was on the far end of the fourth floor and Harry wanted to take a look around on the lawn anyway. “I really am sorry,” Harry insisted, although he was understanding a little better right then his father’s animosity towards this man. “What more do you want from me?”

“That you don’t get me killed, I suppose.”

Harry departed with, “I’ll try.”

The Entrance Hall was full of students, so Harry did not pause to investigate the aversion he felt there. It was one more of the Crux Horridii, most likely, which meant there was still another to find. Harry wandered out into the cloudy day. Shouts drew him toward the Quidditch pitch where one of the Houses was practicing. Harry stood and watched, wondering that things could go on so normally with someone like Voldemort in charge. Perhaps most momentum was too strong even for a powerful evil wizard to stop. Harry wandered past the gameskeeper’s cabin where a small woman with a shiny bald head and wispy hair over her ears was tending to the pumpkin patch. Harry wondered where Hagrid was with a feeling of deep worry. Farther around the castle, just beside the rose garden he encountered a row of fancy cages set up like a miniature zoo or a menagerie. A pair of unicorns sat forlornly in the first cage, eyeing Harry anxiously, moving their tiny hooves spasmodically in lieu of running away. The next cage held a giant spider that snatched at Harry through the bars as he past, using a leg that clearly had taken a beating already. Harry looked down the row and hurried on to the largest one which had a kind of dirt hovel near the back of it.

“Hagrid,” Harry breathed.

The large man inside stirred. The half giant resembled a towering pile of untanned skins thrown together. Harry backed up a step. Hagrid could not be trusted to keep news to himself. Before Hagrid could rise, Harry quickly moved on, slowing only when he passed a cage with a brass sign reading Werewolf. This cage also had a hovel in the center, this one made of wood. The figure curled inside the hut did not stir when Harry called out, “Hey there!”

Harry could do nothing at all for them if he was caught here. Severely pained, he walked on, entering the bailey through the rear gate. Harry paced once around the fountain, forced to fish leaves out of it when a group of Slytherins came meandering through. His mind was moving too fast to be of use. Tossing a handful of rotted, slippery leaves aside, Harry strode to the door and into the castle.

The Entrance Hall was quieter now. Harry stood beneath the great hourglasses that recorded the house points and craned his neck to study them. He was feeling desperate and even knowing that would make him insufficiently careful, he waited for the hall to empty, lifted his wand, and said, “Accio Crux Horridus.” The jewels shifted and the glass of the Slytherin hourglass cracked in a spider-web pattern.

“Now you’ve done it,” Harry muttered to himself. He glanced around the hall. A few students were coming down the stairs but they ignored him in favor of their gossip and entered the Great Hall. Harry decided that fixing this would be Filch’s job, so he fetched a ladder from the nearest cupboard and climbed up to decorative wooden rack holding the row of glasses.

Harry assumed the emerald lodged at the center of the web of cracks was the one he wanted. It was near the bottom of the top conical section. Fortunately the Slytherins were far ahead and not many emeralds remained in the top portion. Just that moment ten blue sapphires flew upward in the next hourglass, putting Slytherin even farther ahead.

Harry adjusted the ladder to better reach the top and with some unlock spell attempts, finally got the glass cylinder to open. He had to wait for students to pass between attempts with his wand, and soon chilly sweat was dripping down his ribs under his robes. The ladder wasn’t high enough for him to reach inside or even aim his wand inside and he did not want to risk climbing up on the rack itself to do so, picturing in his mind the whole thing crashing to the floor. He also had to keep an eye on the Marauder’s Map to be certain the real Filch kept dallying in the attics.

Harry used a Hoover Hex to remove the emeralds above the one he wanted. The sucked up ones weighted down his robe pockets until they overflowed. He then used a whip charm to snag individual gems, feeling like his cousin Dudley must have when he tried to win a prize in one of those Muggle machines with a claw on the end of a crane.

Finally Harry snagged the correct one, feeling only relief, not joy at doing so. He slipped it into his jeans pocket and quickly hovered the remaining emeralds back inside. He then used a repair spell on the crack and retreated down the ladder on legs almost too shaky to stand, let alone climb. Keeping his head down, he properly snarled at some students while putting the ladder away.

He was back safely in the dungeon just a minute later, trying to get his breathing slowed to normal. He had taken the risk in the middle of the day because he had been angry about the menagerie, but he knew it had been foolhardy and that kept his heart pumping long afterward.

Snape strolled in as Harry was studying the gem in the firelight, pondering how he was going to deform a crystal to crush the soul inside of it.

“Another one?” Snape asked. “Ah,” he said. “A student complained that the total house points may be wrong, now I know why.”

“As if Slytherin could ever lose,” Harry mocked.

Snape grinned with no cheer. “I had a thought as to where another might be,” he said, raising Harry’s spirits. Snape went on to explain, “The Dark Lord was not always so sanguine regarding his position. He spent a month of the first year working in the lower dungeons on some project and did not let anyone down there for several years after.”

“Filch survived going down there, so it should be safe to take a look,” Harry said. “That would be the last one.”

Snape derisively corrected, “I thought you said six. You have the cup, the box, the emerald, and Nagini. Add to that the one in the lower dungeons and that still leaves one.”

“That would be me,” Harry said softly. “I’m the last one.”

Snape straightened and stared at him. “And do you plan to dispense with yourself using the same method you intend for Nagini?”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Harry admitted in all honesty. This was a topic he had been ignoring for lack of any hope for a solution. “I don’t plan to stay around here. I’ll take myself far enough away that it won’t matter.”

Snape dropped into the overstuffed chair, saying, “I think I am going to regret helping you at all.”

“Why?” Harry asked. “You like living like this?”

“The living is fine,” Snape said, sounding vaguely spoiled.

“You’re lying,” Harry accused. He put the emerald down, intact, in the center of the empty chess board and asked, “Why was V- the Dark Lord allowed to continue as headmaster?”

“Why was he allowed?” Snape echoed derisively. “No one had any choice, Potter! What a ridiculous suggestion. Fudge believed it would keep him busy, and he was correct about that. Turns out he never lived down Albus refusing him a job.”

“Blimey,” Harry muttered. “It’s a wonder any students come.”

“Most Slytherins still send their children, even more families from the continent than before, and some still don’t sort into Slytherin, so we still have four houses. The castle spells have been reinforced and he has the Dementors and the Giants patrolling the forest. There is no chance to overcome him by force. Even a large force, should they wish to risk the children.”

“Hm.”

Snape scoffed at Harry’s doubtful noise. “You will be dead before this is finished.”

“Neither can live while the other survives,” Harry quoted. “Or hadn’t you ever heard the ending of it?” he added mockingly. It was clear from Snape’s expression that he had not. “I can take care of myself; keep an eye on yourself.”

The hearth flared green and Harry barely had time to leap aside to press his back to the wall beside the mantelpiece before the dreaded slit-eyed, noseless, face moved into view in the flames.

“My Lord,” Snape greeted calmly. So calmly that Harry thought he deserved some kind of medal for it.

“Come to my tower, Snape, I would speak with you.”

Snape bowed and the awful face pulled back and the green flames flickered back to yellow. Snape glanced at Harry on his way to the door.

“What does he want?” Harry asked, whispering unnecessarily.

“I don’t know.”

Still pressed against the wall, chair-rail under his hands, Harry asked, “Does he summon you up like that often?”

“No.”

Harry sucked in a deep, worried breath. Despite or because he still felt shaky, Harry said, “I’m going to look in the lower dungeon. But I may need your help.”

Snape’s brow lifted. He departed without replying.

Motivated heartily by fear of his safe haven being at risk, Harry checked the corridor in the wake of Snape’s departing and dashed around to the door to the lower dungeon and slipped through after hitting the rust-red hinges with a quick oiling charm. The smell of crypt and the sound of lapping water wafted up as he descended the long curved staircase carved directly out of the foundation stone. With a wave, Harry lit the torches at the bottom so he could see more than the faintly lit arched opening that led to the quay.

Meanwhile, Severus Snape strode up and around to the gargoyles with his normal purposeful speed. He had grown immune to fear, which was fortunate, since he had no room to spare for it right then if he was to survive the next ten minutes.

On the second floor staircase he encountered Minerva McGonagall, one of the few remaining professors from Dumbledore’s era. Originally, she had remained because MacNair, the Care of Magical Creatures instructor had her under an Imperio, but later after it weakened, she seemed to believe she could do more good remaining. A naïve notion, but one that events never seemed to shake, especially given how lost many of the students felt when they failed to sort into Slytherin.

McGonagall, held up two fingers as though to slow him down and he shook his head and pointed upward. She pulled her fingers back into her sleeve and appeared to shrink into herself as she let him pass.

The headmaster’s tower no longer had a turning staircase, but instead had a slide, and visitors were required to utilize a magic carpet to rise to the office. Snape stepped off the carpet at the top and it snapped its fringe at him before rolling up and storing itself against the wall to wait. An unwelcome guest would be unceremoniously rolled down beyond the second floor and into the bowels of the castle where it was rumored a basilisk awaited. Snape was not certain he believed that such a creature lived beneath the castle, but he certainly had seen his displeased master dispose of people utilizing the slide and its victims were never heard of again.

The snake-headed door knocker hissed and clacked on its own upon Snape’s arrival and the door creaked open. Sunlight stabbed in slashes around the thick curtains valiantly blocking it out. Voldemort sat at the broad desk, pondering a long scroll. A basket of scrolls sat on the desk edge, awaiting review. Snape saw the scene with fresh eyes borrowed from Harry’s ignorant questions and he almost laughed. But he held it in, not wishing to die so early in the conversation.

Voldemort said, “Two of your House’s students were caught off school grounds. In the Forest no less.”

Idiots, Snape thought to himself. Aloud, he said, “Do you wish me to punish them?”

“That failed to change them last time, so I have turned them over to Filch.”

Snape withheld a shudder. “Until what time, may I inquire? I may wish to add onto their tasks.” In reality, he wished to warn the Mediwizard so that he would be certain to be sober at that time.

Voldemort carefully re-rolled the parchment before him with his oddly knobbly hands. It was a if they were the hands of a elderly person with severe arthritis, but with smooth young skin. “I did not give him a limit, so it will be ten, when he must clear the corridors preceding the Dementors’ patrol.” His factual tone was most likely designed to lull Snape into letting his guard down.

Time passed as Voldemort continued reading the long scroll. He finished, rolled it up, tied it closed and turned to toss it into the hearth, burning heartily despite the September warmth of the tower. Snape waited without moving or speaking.

Finally, Voldemort said, “You sent Filch down to the lower dungeons. Why?” The question was flatter even than normal, setting Snape’s nerves on alert.

Using a tone carefully crafted to contain a hint of boredom and an underlying current of annoyance, Snape replied, “He crossed me too many times last week. Broke several rare potions open while cleaning up. I thought a pointless task would make a point, so to speak. The floor has undoubtedly re-flooded already.”

Voldemort did not look up from the wand he rolled between his fingertips. Snape had not seen him take it out, but he showed no reaction. His explanation may have been too long-winded, but there was no withdrawing it.

“The lower dungeons continue to be off-limits, Snape.”

Snape bowed as though mere acknowledgment was all that the situation required. “My mistake, my Lord. I certainly recall that used to be true, but . . . much time had passed since a reminder.” Snape feared that he was losing his touch at this game, having not practiced it in years for anything more than protecting the occasional student. That meant he was relying rather heavily on hopes that Potter, by some inconceivable chance, could actually complete the prophecy. The fact that the boy was alive at all made the odds something greater than zero, but not high enough to survive sloppiness.

Voldemort lifted one brow the way he did when annoyed with the likes of Crabbe or someone equally incompetent.

“The dungeon is your domain, Snape; I expect you to enforce the rules there that no one enter the lower dungeons or the cave leading to the lake.” He waved his hand dismissively as though wanting Snape out of his sight.

As the flying carpet unrolled and hovered and the office door slammed closed and the bolts thundered into place, Snape pondered that his shaky performance may have in fact lowered the Dark Lord’s guard and saved him from suspicion.

Shaking his head and trying to see hope while fearing its poison, he stepped onto the carpet and let it carry him downward.

In the lowest dungeon of the castle, Harry stood with the toes of his trainers hanging over the water of the small quay which was clearly now unused. No boats rested here but if he leaned far over, he could see two battered ones resting belly-up on the larger docking area used in the past by the First-Years. A bulky, rusty gate was closed across the entrance to the cave and the only other boats were sunken and sprouting plantlife.

Harry waited for his eyes to readjust to the darkness after staring outside at the lake, glaringly bright in comparison to the cave, even on a cloudy day. He examined the cave walls and then squinted, glasses pushed hard to his face to see across to the far side. A niche, perhaps just a natural indentation in the rock, kept catching his eye. Wand raised, Harry considered his options. He spelled a Lumos and shielded his own eyes from it. Something lay in the niche, weakly reflecting the blue light. Harry wasn’t watching thoroughly enough or he may have noticed eyes opening beneath his toes, peering up through the cold depths.

Grumbling to himself, Harry shook the Lumos out of his wand and paced. He could take a boat over and look. So, leaning dangerously around the corner of the wall, he hovered one of the rickety old boats around from the other entrance and gently down on the quayside at his feet. He manually rolled the badly peeled white hull over and hovered it into the water. A chill went through him as he held the boat against the rock edge, and considered that he should get help before going further. The oars were narrowed with rot, but serviceable. Harry set these into the boat; the thunk of them hitting the bottom echoed around the cave and he held his breath and waited to see if anyone heard. A minute passed before he breathed normally again.

Harry crouched at the quay edge, one hand holding the bow steady, while he considered whether to get help or just get moving. Snape may not even return, Harry considered. This may be the only chance.

Harry awkwardly stepped into the rocky boat and shoved off. He struggled to mount the oars into the rusty locks and began rowing across. His sense of cursedness increased as he approached the other side, giving him a joyous lift even as it made him cringe.

It was difficult to hold the boat against the rock wall while standing up to see into the niche, but Harry managed long enough to see that there was a metal ring on a chiseled hatch in the bottom face of the niche. Harry tugged upward on the ring, nearly sending the boat out from under himself. He had to shove with his hands against the rock and jump for the boat to catch it and prevent himself from tumbling into the water. The boat sailed back out to the middle of the cave before coasting to a stop with him in the murky, smelly bottom of it.

Harry’s sense of alarm increased and he looked around the cave repeatedly for danger, but failed to look down into the water. He gazed instead at his trouser knees, which were soaked with green, slippery water. At the bottom of the lake more things were rousing, dead eyes snapping open to stare distantly upward.

Using the oars, Harry paddled back to the cave wall below the niche. He cast his mind back to Ravenclaw’s book and used a demolition spell around the metal ring. Loose stone spattered into the water and into the boat, thundering, until Harry pushed with his feet to keep the boat away from the rock wall and apply some Silencing Charms.

The door at the top of the steps opened and footsteps sounded, just as Harry, perched to look into the demolished niche, finally looked down into the dark water. Harry’s grip on the rock became tenacious with panic as he stared down into an army of dead white faces rising dreamlike toward the surface.

“Potter, you could perhaps make enough noise to be heard in the Entrance Hall if you worked at it—” Snape’s voice criticized in a hiss.

“Get a broomstick!” Harry insisted, fingertips clinging to the rock as the boat inextricably drifted again away from the cave wall, taking his feet with it. “Hurry!”

Snape raised his wand and used a weak blasting curse to shove the boat back under Harry's legs, knocking the head of the dead man just clearing the water. Harry leapt for the disintegrating niche and grabbed up the only thing that did not feel like rock, liberating a small golden box from the debris. More figures were rising. Harry tossed the box into the boat and heaved on the oars, but they had arms and hands clinging to them, so he moved no where. A hand came over the gunwale, tipping the boat dangerously toward the water. Harry lifted the oar to beat the hand off and then shoved against the cave wall with the oar, moving the boat a little. The other oar was tugged overboard and thrashing ensued as it disappeared beneath the choppy surface.

Harry glanced back at the quay, needing help. Snape stood, wand extended, gaping in chilled alarm at the figures rising out of the water. Harry took another swing with the oar at someone he tried not to recognize despite how familiar they looked. He was not certain what spell to use that would not risk upsetting the boat and he did not want to lose the last oar if he let go to use his wand.

The boat suddenly surged toward the quay, sending Harry into the wet belly of it beside the golden box. The surge also shed the worst of the clawing hands. The boat ran hard into the stone edge and a fiercely gripping hand hauled Harry up onto the quay.

“You did not exaggerate when you said you required help,” Snape muttered before issuing a stunning curse from his wand that slowed the figures from clambering up onto the ledge after them; their bleached and torn clothing dragging on their limbs, dripping. “Inferi,” Snape breathed. “Of all the horrific things.”

Harry joined him in casting spells to keep them at bay as they backed up to the staircase. “So, you did not know about this?” Harry asked, knocking a white-haired heavy figure back, which took down his companions as well.

At the top of the stairs Snape held Harry back from the door and opened it to check that the corridor was clear. He gestured abruptly for Harry to follow, and Harry gratefully did so.

“Keep your head down,” Snape hissed.

Harry leaned on the door to press it closed, keeping his face ducked and averted. Something thumped into the door from the other side and water sloshed under it.

Snape sneered to someone, apparently a student, “Mr. Callow, fetch a mop, will you? The rest of you clear out or you will all be assisting.” Harry was extremely relieved right then that Snape could wield that dreadful tone that even now, made him grateful it was not aimed his way. The door thumped again. Snape hit it with an Impervious Charm, a Silencing Charm and several more things since Harry was using one hand to hold the door and the other to hold the golden box. The door fell silent and still. Harry released his hand from the damp wood slowly.

The student returned at a run and Snape set him to mopping with strict orders not to open or touch the door itself. Harry snuck off while the hapless Slytherin had his head down, mopping inexpertly at the fluid slipping in under the door. After Harry turned the corner, Snape snapped his fingers at the boy and ordered, “Enough. Leave it.”

“Army of the flippin’ dead,” Harry muttered as he tried to shake off chills by settling before the fire. The golden box joined the emerald on the chess board. Harry rubbed his hair back and calmed himself. “Let’s hope they can’t get out of there,” Harry said as Snape approached.

“The cave is barred to the lake and the path to the Entrance Hall bricked in long ago.”

“Still, let’s finish this quickly, just in case.” Harry held the emerald to the firelight as he spoke.

Snape crossed his arms and said, “Just like that? Just finish it? You think it so easy?”

Harry did not want the questions that would follow his pointing out that he had done it before, more than once. “I’ll manage. Watch yourself, ‘cause I can’t do both," Harry said garnering a disbelieving glare. Harry turned to contemplate the box. It had the seal of a cross on it. “Ah, a traditionalist,” Harry observed.

“What do you mean by that?”

Harry opened the box. Inside was a carefully preserved digit. “Its an old reliquary. Fitting.” Harry dusted off the plaque inside. “Hey, it’s St. Mungo’s finger.” Feeling punchy from too much stress, Harry said, “Should be grateful it isn't some other part of him . . .”

He carefully lifted the leathery thing from its setting, forced to overcome both curse discomfort and general dislike of the task. He squeezed the finger in his hand with great concentration, then jerked as it burst into flame and let out a wail. He tossed it on the fire and brushed his hand on his robe. “Sorry Mungo.”

Harry set the box aside and turned back to the emerald, saying, “I assume you don’t want to return this box . . . ?”

Snape shook his stringy veil of hair, eyes fixed on the jewel.

Harry pressed the emerald between his fingers to no effect. He returned to staring at it, unsure how to proceed. In the end he knelt on the hearthstone, gem against the slate, held between his index finger and thumb, the fireplace poker point aimed at the flattest side of the jewel. He crushed with his mind before bringing the poker down hard. If he were to hit his fingers, his concentration would be broken and he was not certain what would happen then. To be possessed by Voldemort did not appeal, but the path home led through this task. His aim was true. The flare burst from the emerald as it was crushed and a thousand tinny cries of despair drifted around the room before dying out. Harry barely pulled his fingers away from the flame in time and had to suck on his fingers to relieve the sting of the burn. When the hearth cooled, he collected the green salt-like gem fragments into his robe pocket and sat back in the overstuffed chair to think.

“One left,” Snape reminded him helpfully, needling Harry with an accuracy only he could manage.

“Don’t I know it,” Harry returned, fingers rubbing his chin as he contemplated what he was going to do next. His thoughts came around nicely with a glance at the clock showing half past four. “I’ll finish it tonight, at dinner.”

“Will you then?” Snape asked sarcastically.

“Just don’t give it away.”

“YOU just don’t give me away,” Snape countered. “You are going to fail and I don’t wish by any means to go down with you.”

With a small smile, Harry said, “Such confidence.” He stood then and with a quick check of the Marauder's Map, said, “I have to something to do before the Dark Lord Death Day Ball this evening.” He smiled more broadly. He wanted to go home and he could taste the freedom to do so, it was so close. “I’ll come in after the plates are cleared but before pudding is served. It will be over soon.”

Snape glared at him as though questioning Harry’s sanity.

“This is my destiny, Severus,” Harry said, stepping to the toilet to don his disguise.

“Did I give you permission to use my first name?” Snape snarled lowly.

Harry turned and gave a small bow, still smiling. “Professor.”

Dinner in the Great Hall progressed much the same as all the others the last five years. The castle felt colder than it should. The sky reflected in the magic ceiling slid by more brooding than the one outside as though the accumulated soot stained the magic. The students kept their heads down as a few owls swept in and down in a spiral.

Snape had by far the toughest job of any Head of House. His House table was full and even overflowed into the half-empty Ravenclaw one beside it. Only the Slytherins would dare make trouble during a meal. Snape wanted none this evening.

With a foreboding that made his stomach rebel against eating, Snape watched the main course appear. He had to eat, had to behave normally. He was more grateful than most nights to be on the very end of the staff table, overlooking his own table. MacNair and Umbridge sat on either side of the headmaster, pandering to him nonstop.

Snape served himself beans and potatoes with casual uncaring to hide what otherwise would be an utterly unacceptable shaking in his hands. He gave two students, Yuba and Oppeum, sharp looks when they furtively glanced his way. They looked to be plotting something out of a black velvet sack and clearly were checking if he had noticed. After seeing they were observed they placed whatever it was on the floor and bent their heads together.

Snape lifted his fork and tried to eat. He very nearly could not swallow even the thinnest runny edge of the lumpy mashed potatoes. What was bothering him so? He certainly should hold no concern for that miserably annoying son of his worst enemy. And at one level he did not. It was not concern for Potter that closed his throat and made his heart race beneath his carefully crafted calm exterior; it was hope. Hope had slipped in despite no conscious room for it in his soul. His fingers trembled in fear at losing that hope again.

Damn you Potter
.

Snape made a show of eating. No one paid the least attention to him; certainly the headmaster did not appear to, but often that meant he would later recount your every move back to you, expecting an explanation for each small thing. Snape thought he could handle that, if necessary. Certainly he could insist that he hated Potter to his very core. Yes, he could honestly state, even under Veritaserum, that he hated the boy . . . after Voldemort defeated him in just ten minutes time; hopefully the Dark Lord did not inquire if Snape also hated what the boy stood for.



Author's Note: I see you are all rubbing your eyes and waking back up after Deathly Hallows. Welcome back everyone!

Yeah a cliff-hanger. I so love them.

Next Chapter: 12

Harry reached the point halfway down the hall and he tapped his hand on his wand and pointed at the banners, snapping consecutively the Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor out to the same size as the Slytherin ones. "All houses are equal here," Harry boomed as best he could. He wished he had a deeper voice. Fervent whispers rustled through the hall as though blown through by a breeze.

As Harry approached the end of the long House tables, Voldemort derisively asked, "Who dares challenge me?"

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