Snape stole to his feet, went for the door – only to slam into an invisible wall the consistency of concrete. He fell, closing his eyes in resignation. Harry had obviously not forgotten his presence, and his ungraceful halt had caught the attention of the gathered Death Eaters.
“Now, Professor, one would think you were overly eager to leave us. Do you find my . . . hospitality lacking, then?” Harry purred, standing over the fallen wizard. “Because,” Potter went on, his voice silkier than ever, “I can assure you, your new accommodations will be a great deal less comfortable.”
“Harry . . .”
Lucius drew back one booted foot and kicked Snape in the side so hard the potions professor was absolutely certain he heard his ribs crack ominously. “You will address our Lord with the respect he deserves!”
Snape knew a moment of bone-chilling terror as the Death Eaters closed ranks around him, wands drawn, fire burning in Malfoy’s eyes as he stared down at his former rival. He heard a single murmured “Crucio” as his nerve endings went up in flames, and for several minutes was aware of nothing but the sound of his own screams . . . the murmurs of the men around him. Jackals, he thought in a flash of sudden coherence, too frightened to attack a healthy animal, but more than ready to devour the weak and wounded.
“Enough.” Harry’s voice was scarcely more than a whisper, but somehow it cut through the mob mentality that had taken his men. A single gesture had them moving almost frantically out of his path, scuttling for cover like the rats they were.
“Milord . . he must be punished for his betrayal,” Malfoy whimpered, his posture utterly submissive, but his tone hinting at his reluctance to relinquish his victim so easily.
“He has not yet betrayed me . . . and I care nothing for his crimes against the blood traitor who so recently ruled you.” And Lucius, already on his knees, cowered so low his belly almost touched the floor . . . mimicking, Snape mused, the defeated posture of a canine. The only thing lacking was the doglike whine . . wait, nevermind – complete with whine.
“I appreciate your zealousy,” Harry said, and Snape was sure he heard amusement in the boy’s voice, “but allow me to assure you, it was not needed.” Harry’s eyes locked on Snape’s, and Severus had never been more afraid in his life. The emerald colour of Potter’s eyes seemed still more intense in the darkness, glowing with a devil’s malevolence in the dimly lit chamber. “Leave us.” The simply spoken words released the men, and as one they went for the doors, fleeing their master’s vengeance.
“It was my intention, Snape, to keep you alive for quite some time . . . you have a certain entertainment value. Now, of course, that is no longer an option, as your attempt at escape has made your stand against me clear enough for even Malfoy to note. Because of you, I will be forced to resort to bloodier, less . . . profitable means to regain the utter confidence of my Death Eaters. After tonight, I believe a reward will be in order; a raid upon Hogsmeade will be just the thing to put the morale back in their black hearts.”
Snape glanced up. “Hogsmeade?” he queried, torn between concern for the residents of the town, and his knowledge that Dumbledore would quite likely be present, down from Hogwarts for a meeting.
“You needn’t sound so hopeful, Snape; Dumbledore no longer poses a real threat to my reign,” Harry said lazily. “Of course, you will not live to see that proven, you or Remus.”
“Lupin didn’t have anything to do with this. I wanted him to try to escape with me, but he wouldn’t go.”
Potter raised one black eyebrow in sardonic amusement. “And that is supposed to resurrect some long-dead Marauder loyalty, Snape?” He laughed, but there was something lacking in it, an emptiness of both heart and spirit that foretold only evil. There is nothing more dangerous than a man who believes he has nothing to live for, and doesn’t care. “Chivalry does not become you, Snape. Did you think to spare Remus?” A surface scan of Snape’s most recent thoughts, courtesy of Legilimency, told him the truth of the statement before Severus could think to prevent it. “Then you are more fool than I realized. You would do well to know that I will treat betrayal as cruelly as Voldemort did, and more. You would not betray me as you did Lord Voldemort, and you don’t have it in you to ally yourself with me for real.”
“You know me well enough to disprove that. I was a Death Eater, once. That says something about my character . . . or lack thereof.”
“Your brief foray as a loyal Death Eater shows me nothing more than the depths of your response to pain. I don’t know why you joined him, if only in name these last years, but you are intelligent enough to have known, even when you were first Marked, that he could not win. Why, then, take a vow of loyalty to a master you had no true wish to serve?” And the boy’s eyes were disturbingly acute.
“Because my father was one of the first to pledge his life to the monster,” Snape said slowly. The decades between then and now had taken the sting from the memory, but the regret had yet to fade. “He wished me to join the Dark Lord as soon as I finished Hogwarts – my mother did not. I am not certain which of them killed her, my father or the Dark Lord. But one of them did, and I did as my father asked because he was all the family I had. Eventually, I realized that was not a good enough reason.”
“But to deserve redemption you must first regret. You did. I do not. Don’t try to project your guilt and shame onto me. I learned Occlumency from a harder teacher than you, and I learned not to fail. The only thing I regret, Snape, is that I didn’t do this sooner.” Harry shrugged. “I was too young, I suppose. I fell in with all of Dumbledore’s original plans for me . . . did it for years, and fooled myself into believing he did as he did for my sake – or, if not that, then at least for the greater good. When Sirius was killed, I realized he was not infallible. When he tried to kill me, I began to understand that there is no greater good. There is only evil, and the varying degrees of it. I wonder now much purer of spirit it is to kill under the guise of goodness, than to kill as I do, without excuses.”
“What happened between you?” Snape demanded. “Because I know that he tried to help you, did his best to protect your suicidal mutt of a godfather. I know that the memorial service we held for you was the first time I ever saw him cry.”
“Very well, then. Snape, listen carefully, because in all likelihood you will be the only man alive, but for the two of us, who knows the whole story.”
Severus nodded, and Harry’s voice took on a faintly didactic, lecturing tone.
“I went back to the Dursleys that summer, same as I did every summer. It didn’t matter what they did to me, I couldn’t retaliate, and I couldn’t run . . . Sirius was dead, Remus was off on a mission for Dumbledore, and I had nowhere else to go. I didn’t dare ask to visit Ron; I’d brought his whole family nothing but pain in the years I’d known them. The visions got worse, bad enough that I finally called for Dumbledore. I told him all I knew of Voldemort’s plans, and after he realized the sheer enormity of what I knew, he told me there was really no reason not to induct me into his Order of the Phoenix.
“I said I didn’t want to . . . mostly because I was terrified that if Voldemort did manage to possess me again, he could pick through my memories at will, and I didn’t want to risk the Order’s safety. Of course, I couldn’t tell him that; I’d already proven a disappointment to him. And when I told him I didn’t want to join the Order, he told me it was ‘for my own good’, and attempted to put me under Imperius. I broke it – it was no more difficult than breaking Voldemort’s, really – and he said that I was this world’s last hope. I didn’t want to be responsible for the deaths of thousands, did I?”
Harry snorted in slight disdain. “I was only a boy . . . he’d pricked my temper. And I told him I’d already killed two people, after all; what were a few more?” He sighed. “I suppose I’d frightened him. He attempted to use the Killing Curse on me. Naturally, I dodged, and ran before he could summon assistance. I all but ran straight into Lucius Malfoy when I left the house; I think he was more surprised than I when I told him to take me to Voldemort. Of course, he wasn’t going to waste a golden opportunity, and took me back to Voldemort’s Russian fortress.
“I spent two months in the dungeons, because they didn’t know what else to do with me. Voldemort was away, dealing with the dementors and currying favor with the students at Durmstrang, and they treated me the way they did everyone else – which meant torture. I lived, and when Voldemort returned, Lucius had told him that I hadn’t been captured, exactly – that I’d been willing. I explained what had happened, and the rest, as they say, is history. Voldemort oversaw my education himself. He taught me everything he knew, made me his heir in all ways but blood. He taught me to kill, and very slowly the loyalty of his men shifted from him to me. Last night I made my stand against him public, and the Death Eaters rallied to me. Voldemort rests now in his own dungeons, and if he isn’t already dead, I will see to it personally when I return.
“Of course, Voldemort’s demise has, in the last year, become a mere secondary goal.” Harry’s eyes went cold. “I mean to see Dumbledore and all his Order dead before this year is out, and I will find a way to turn that damn phoenix into ashes forever. After that . . .” Harry shrugged. “I might find out I like being a Dark Lord. It suits me. And with Dumbledore and Riddle gone, there is no one strong enough to stand against me.”
“The Dark Lord has been where you are, Potter . . . it did not make him happy,” Snape cautioned. “It certainly won’t please the general population. You will always face resistance, and any empire you create will certainly fail to survive your death.”
“And that, Severus, is why they invented the Killing Curse . . . to deal with just such resistance. And it is too early to speak of death . . . I have been searching Voldemort’s notes for the past year, attempting to find the failure in his attempts at immortality. I believe I have found it, though it is beyond my ability to correct. That is why you still live . . . to correct it for me.” Harry eyed the Potions master with a hint of displeasure. “You have made that difficult, but I will have your compliance for what little time you have left. You are not indispensable, Snape – you know as well as I do that there are other wizards as capable as you in the field of experimental potions. You are the best, Severus, but you are also the most intractable. If I wish it, you will bend, make no mistake of that.”
“I would not,” Severus snarled, and Harry laughed softly.
“You will, or I will cripple you, and let you live to enjoy the state. You’re very attached to your hands, Severus, and your eyes. Any of my Death Eaters could function as an extra pair of hands or as your seeing-eye dog . . . but it’s really not the same as having your own appendages still functioning, and not pickled in a jar, is it?”
“No,” Snape said faintly. Voldemort had always been careful not to damage him in ways that would inhibit his ability to make the potions the Dark Lord required. Harry had, however, put his finger on the critical distinction – it was Severus’ knowledge that was crucial, his experience with volatile mixtures . . . both in men and cauldrons . . . that made him so valuable.
“I could rip apart your mind and take what I like from it,” Harry said, simply enough. “But while I have become quite accomplished at the mental arts, I don’t do Potions work. You are an Occlumens of unsurpassed strength; while I could break your shields, you would not survive long without them, and I lack sufficent knowledge of the subject to extract the relevant data before you die on me. If it proves necessary, I will maim you – in ways that cannot be undone. Should that fail, I will extract what I need to know by whatever means necessary. I’ll do the research, and I will complete my quest for immortality on my own. But that would be a most inconsiderate waste of my time, and I believe it would be in the best interests of us both if you would acquiesce without putting up a fight.” Harry paused, surveyed Snape’s mutinous expression with a sigh. “If that is your final decision, then so be it. But be certain, Professor. And be prepared to face the consequences.”
Snape nodded. “I assume I could expect a full pardon if I assisted you in making this potion you require?”
“No. You heard what I told Lucius; there is, as yet, nothing to forgive. Whether it stays that way is up to you, but I am, above all things, a man of my word. Now, Severus, I believe I have a village to ransack, and a headmaster to obliterate. Good-day, Professor.”
Harry walked away, his boots making little noise on the stone floor, and Severus could only watch him go.