"Why, hello there, Perfessor Deveroux," the half-giant greeted warmly. However, his smile and cordial welcome did nothing to disguise the worry that flickered in his beetle-black eyes. It had been nearly two weeks since Snape had disappeared, and Hagrid did not like what he saw before him.
Aurellia had grown pale, and there were dark circles under her eyes. Her smoky blue eyes were haunted and her golden curls were tangled and unkempt.
"May I come in, Hagrid?" Aurellia asked.
"Why, of course," Hagrid replied, as he held the door open so the elf could come in. "Would yeh like a spot of tea? I was jes’ about to make a cup or two for meself."
"No ... no thank you, Hagrid," Aurellia replied absently.
That was the other thing Hagrid didn't like. Aurellia always seemed lost in another place, deep in her own thoughts. Blimey, but she's going to snuff herself out like a candle if she keeps this up, he thought.
"I was wondering," Aurellia continued softly, "if Venator was still ... oh yes, there he is."
Venator was napping in his cage, which was hanging from a crude wrought iron stand. He sleepily half-opened one yellow eye to look at this latest intruder on his slumber, then closed his eye and turned his head away.
"Yeah, he's still here," Hagrid said as he scratched the back of his hand, which was bandaged. "Nasty li'l bugger he is. Took a bite outta me the other day."
"I need to have a word with him," Aurellia said softly.
Hagrid looked at her quizzically, but she offered no explanation.
In truth, Aurellia didn't know exactly what she was doing. She was following ... something. Some instinct? Responding to some call from the Watcher's Vow?
Grasping at straws?
Whatever the reason, something told her that Snape's familiar might be able to help her find him, now that she knew where to tell the owl to search.
Aurellia walked over to the cage and extended a large owl treat between the bars of the cage.
"Nhaliruh, Venator," she whispered. "Do you miss Snape, too?"
Venator opened a yellow eye again and looked at Aurellia as if to say, “Are you kidding me?” But he eyed the owl treat greedily, and after a moment's hesitation almost gingerly took it in his beak and started to eat it.
Aurellia smiled slightly. "So, you are in a good mood today, oh fearless hunter... Good, I need to ask a great favor of you. I need for you to use all of your formidable hunting skills to find the ultimate game."
Both of Venator's eyes flew wide open in alarm, and the owl treat dropped unheeded to the floor of the cage. The gray owl eyed the elf with open hostility now.
"Zhun'hnee ehre fhendem," Aurellia chanted softly. Find your master.
Venator hissed in fury and turned his gray-feathered back to the elf. “How dare you ask this of me?” he seemed to be saying.
"Don't you dare turn your back to me, Venator!" Aurellia scolded in equal parts pleading and anger. "Don't you care? Don't you want to know if he's all right?"
Venator hissed sharply and puffed out his feathers threateningly. He fanned out his tail to show his annoyance.
"Venator, he is your master! How can you act like this?" Aurellia shouted in frustration.
The owl made no sound in return. He remained stock still with his feathers puffed out, his tail fanned, and his back to Aurellia, as if to say, “I'll act however I please.”
"Aurellia, don't push him," Hagrid interrupted gently. "Venator, he's been awfully touchy lately, even for him. Don't be too angry with him; I think he misses Snape more than he wants to admit, and I think he blames you and I for what happened to him."
Aurellia said nothing for several minutes. She closed her eyes, and tears trickled down her face. But when she composed herself, opened her eyes, and looked up, there was a faint white aura around her.
"Venator," Aurellia said, her voice taking on an uncharacteristic, strident tone. "Venator, Suhkene'meh!" I do not want to do this, but I have no choice, she thought. I need to find him. "Suhkene'meh, Venator! Suhken khenne'mihn lisis." Look at me Venator! Look into my eyes.
Slowly, as if he were trying his hardest to resist, Venator turned his head as only an owl can do, a full one hundred and eighty degrees, and his large yellow eyes locked onto Aurellia’s smoky blue ones.
"Suhkhene!" Aurellia whispered, but her voice seemed to fill the room. "Eahner'meh. Eh zhun'hnee ehre fenhdem. Ehre'neh." Listen to me! You must find your master. Find him.
Aurellia placed a hand before the bars of the cage, inches from the owl's gray-feathered face. The entranced bird did not attempt to bite her through the bars of the cage the way he once had done with Snape. A bluish-white light radiated from the elf’s hand and from the blue stone in her Guardian Charm.
"Quihlia ha, quihlia zooan," she said. Soar high, soar wide. "En'te huruhl, eh ehre'neh." Be the hunter and find him. "Ehre'neh eh goneeri meh." Find him and return to me.
Aurellia let out a shuddering half-sob as she Mindcast an Alohomora and the door of the cage flew open. But the owl continued to sit motionless on his perch, his eyes fastened onto hers.
"Seh ... seh keh u'munt teineru seh nik ehre'neh, ghentri, eh'hebre neh, Venator. Obsulia!" If in a month's time you cannot find him, return, and I will release you, Venator. This I solemnly swear.
Venator lashed out with his bill and tore at the hand in front of him. Immediately, silvery blood flowed down Aurellia's palm. Tears came to Aurellia's eyes, but it was not from the pain of the bite. In spite of his trance, Venator was infuriated at the burden that had been placed on him, at the bond which had been forced upon him.
"Venator! How could you...?" Hagrid started to protest when he saw the ugly wound on Aurellia's hand, but one silencing look from Aurellia's smoky blue eyes froze whatever else Hagrid had been about to say.
Aurellia turned back to the owl and lowered her hand.
"I'm sorry, proud Venator," she whispered. "I know you don't want to do this. But you left me no choice."
She withdrew the small lock of oily black hair from her guardian charm, separated one strand from the rest, and tied it around the owl's right leg. Venator hissed angrily, but permitted the elf to complete the task. Indeed, he had no choice, now that he was in Aurellia's power.
Aurellia put her uninjured hand to the owl's back and stroked his soft gray feathers.
"Ahl feeha -- quili suuhne eh akhtent." Now go -- fly south and east. "Eh'gonorashu, meh'miinu. Eeah'en suhkune viteerah eah'en fen looi eh luk'lei." Goodbye, my friend. May your search be successful and your path clear and light.
"Feeha!" Aurellia cried out as she Mindcast another Alohomora to open the nearest window. Go!
Venator gave a strange, sad, guttural cry as he spread his great gray wings and launched himself from the cage toward the window. A primary feather fell from his right wing and landed in Aurellia's outstretched hands.
"Eh'gonarashu, Venator," Aurellia whispered softly. "May the light go before you. May the light be between you and harm. May you find a way through the darkness to your master. May you find your way safely home, no matter how dangerous your journey. Eh'gonarashu, I will watch for your return. Eh'gonarashu, Venator."
Aurellia clutched the feather as she watched the owl disappear into the overcast March sky.
"Miss Deveroux?" Hagrid queried uneasily as he went to shut the window. "What was that all about? What did yeh tell 'im to do?"
"I'm not sure what I just did," Aurellia whispered. "I only hope that I haven't made another terrible mistake."
Harry walked into the Great Hall for breakfast, a little later than usual. One of the staircases had picked an inopportune time to move, adding about 10 minutes to his walk. He sat between Neville and Dean and grabbed a piece of French toast and a couple of sausage links.
“All right, Harry?” Colin asked brightly.
“Yeah, I’m all right,” Harry replied absently as he heard a familiar soft whir of wings above them. The morning owl post.
Hedwig had no letters, but was still able to coax a scrap of French toast out of Harry. Harry noticed Hermione got a letter from a bedraggled-looking barred owl. He watched her open the course-looking envelope and read the letter inside. Her face paled. Ron, who was sitting next to her, whispered something and she showed the note to him. Ron read over the letter, blanched, and mutely handed the letter back.
Harry’s earlier feelings of resentment towards his friends started to dissolve as he began to wonder what news Hermione had just received. Was it bad news from home?
McGonagall tapped the side of her goblet, and Harry turned his attention to the dais. He saw the grim looks on the professor’s faces and knew some bad news was forthcoming. He also noticed that Professor Deveroux wasn’t there.
Professor Dumbledore rose from his seat, his expression sad and weary.
“I have an announcement to make that will grieve you all,” Dumbledore said quietly. “We just received confirmation that Viktor Krum, one of the students who participated in last year’s Triwizard Tournament, was killed, along with his family. Authorities …,” And here Dumbledore’s face darkened. “… are still investigating. They and a score of other Bulgarians were found dead in the wee hours this morning.”
Harry felt his heart sink. So what his godfather had said was true. A stunned silence, then horrified whispers filled the Great Hall. Harry looked over at Ron and Hermione. Hermione’s mouth opened in a silent scream, and tears were streaming down her face. Ron had his arm around her, trying to console her. Worry got the upper hand over his anger with them, as Harry left his place at the table and ran over.
“Hermione,” he whispered, his voice filled with pity. “I’m so sorry, my … Snuffles told me the news last night, had said that he suspected … I’m sorry, are you going to be all right?”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Ron said thickly as Hermione pulled out the note she had read earlier. Harry read it, and felt his stomach tie into a knot.
"I must write in haste, I do not have much time. My mother, brother and sister, we are fleeing Bulgaria tonight. My father is dead. The Death Eaters, they set a trap for him and his friends when they tried to rescue someone, I don't know who. Durmstrang is now completely under the control of He-Who-Is-Not-Named, although this news, it is not widely known. Most of Bulgaria is under His control now, and it is not safe for those not wishing to be marked with his terrible sign.
"We are going to safe haven, and if the fates are willing, I will see you very soon. If not, it means I have probably been killed.
"Do not owl me back, my dear Hermony, it is too dangerous. Alas, I was forced to destroy your last note, because I did not want it found by the wrong people. But I enjoyed the receiving of it. It lifted my spirits in these sad, dark days.
My hopes that I will see you soon, my brave, beautiful Hermony.
Harry looked back up in horror.
“Due to this and a series of other events abroad, the staff and I have met and decided it would be prudent to cancel the end of the year ball that had been planned,” Harry vaguely heard Dumbledore say.
The ball. In all their plotting and scheming, and the three attacks a week ago, Harry had forgotten about the ball. From the muted reaction of others, Harry suspected he wasn’t the only one to forget, or at least not to care.
Ohgodohgodohgod, he thought as he mutely handed the letter back to Hermione, who was weeping loudly at this point. Harry turned away and stared grimly at his hands which were pressed palm down against the top of the table. He remembered, as if among the threads of an almost-forgotten nightmare, the conversation he had had with Sirius last night.
You mean...Voldemort used Snape as bait?
Almost certainly. Dumbledore tried to warn them, but we fear the warning came too late.
This is our fault, he thought bleakly. They are dead because of us, because of what we did ….what we did!
But Hermione and Ron didn’t know. They didn’t know what Sirius had told him last night about the Krums. Harry hadn’t told them.
“Ron, Hermione,” he said numbly in a voice far removed from his normal speaking tone. “Do you realize who they were trying to rescue?”
Hermione’s head shot up, and she glared angrily at Harry while wiping tears from her eyes. “Don’t say it, Harry! I know what you’re thinking. Don’t you dare say it! It might have been anyone!”
Ron shot clueless looks at Harry and Hermione in turn, but neither enlightened him. After a moment he said, “Say what? Who are we talking about?”
“Snape,” Harry hissed as Hermione shot him a look that could have frozen a fire salamander. “Who else would I be talking about?”
Ron stared for a moment, blinking, then stated, “That’s awfully bloody far-fetched, Harry. Just because…”
“Listen!” Harry interrupted sharply, smacking the table for emphasis and causing his silverware to jump. “It was him! I know!” Without giving the others a chance to object, he continued fiercely, “I know because last night I talked to Si…Snuffles!”
“Oh, Harry,” Hermione interrupted in a worried tone, “you really shouldn’t have…”
“It was his idea. And it doesn’t go against Dumbledore’s orders because he already knows the whole story. Dumbledore told him.”
“And… er… Snuffles told you that’s who they were trying to rescue?” Ron queried in disbelief.
“Yes,” Harry replied miserably, “but he told me not to say anything to anyone about it because the news about the Krums hadn’t been confirmed yet,” he paused, took a deep breath and collected himself. “Hermione… I’m sorry. I’m sorry about Viktor and his family.”
“What were they thinking?” Ron muttered. “Trying to save that….”
“Button it, Ron!” Harry said sharply. “They were trying to fix our mistake!”
“Your mistake! Why did I ever listen to you two? I should have gone straight to Dumbledore!” Hermione crumpled the letter in trembling fingers and dissolved into tears again.
“They wasted their lives,” Ron whispered savagely. “He wasn’t worth it! You heard what he said about the things he did. He wasn’t worth it!”
Harry shot Ron a look of pure disgust, then abruptly left the table. He heard Ron mutter, “What’s his problem?” behind his back as he stalked out of the Great Hall.
The door slammed shut behind him as Snape fell headlong into the hollow darkness. Carlotta's shrieking, unnatural laughter danced all around him off the blank, black walls of the cell, while Louis peered as silently as a specter through the small barred window in the door.
"Let's see how well you fly without your feathers, Phoenix! Aww, I don't think 'e likes 'is cage, love!" Carlotta's voice grated nastily, followed by more insane laughter. Louis declined to comment, and frankly, Snape didn't blame him. Really, the only thing the Lestranges had in common was their devotion to Voldemort and the Dark Arts, and their enjoyment of sadistic pastimes. When it came to matters of refinement, sophistication, and bearing, they could not have been more antithetical.
Whatever did he see in her?
Carlotta's laughter changed pitch, grew foggier. It now seemed to be coming from the other end of a long tunnel. Shadows gathered in the darkness around him.
Snape shook his head, tried to stand, and found that he could barely keep his balance. The darkness and the drug were disorienting. He was no longer sure which way was up. Perhaps he was falling... falling into a pit. Where was the sun, he wondered? Why couldn't he sense it? He used to always know where it was, even when he couldn't see it...
Snape stumbled backward until his back hit a wall. "Sssstupid fool!" hissed Voldemort's voice. "What did you think you were going to accomplish, anyway? I told you that I am immortal now. I cannot be defeated..."
This is not happening! Voldemort has gone off to tend to his war! I am imagining this!
The laughter grew, multiplied, spread. Now it no longer seemed to come from far away, or from a single source, but instead surrounded him. Out of the shadows came thousands of grasping white claws, hundreds of hateful fiery red eyes...
Vixaltenek, also called Mortgona's Wrath after its inventor, thought Snape. That's what this is. It stimulates the fear center of the brain. I know what it is. I can fight it.
But he could feel his pulse quickening with terror nonetheless.
Yew bark, root of elecampane harvested at the new moon, greater armored night turtle hearts, honey made from the poisonous pollen of the Rhetaga starflower, crushed scales of the Lorelei, ground runespoor fang, web of an acromantula...
Snape closed his eyes, tried to will away the hallucinations by concentrating on the contents and preparation of the potion, but the eyes and the claws pursued him through his closed eyelids.
"You're not real!" he whispered defiantly. "I know you're only my imagination. You're not..." Out of the darkness, something with a thousand pairs of legs crawled up his leg, or perhaps it was a snake. As he tried to brush it away, he felt the grasping claws rake through his hair, grab hold of his left arm. The slithering and hissing of a million serpents sounded in the darkness around him. The fiery eyes were their eyes, jewel-bright, and glittering with hunger.
Voldemort's voice whispered in Parseltongue, "Shhhhai heshhha'khaaarrr, Nagini!"
A great snake slithered out of the darkness toward him, its jaws wide, venom dripping from its fangs.
"You're not real!" Snape shrieked, as he tried to pull his arm free from phantom forces and fell over.
Voldemort's laughter resounded in the darkness around him as he hit the floor and scuttled backwards along the wall like a spider.
Nagini slithered closer... closer...
Snape searched frantically for his wand, but to his frustration, he could not find it, nor could he stop shaking long enough to conjure an Inferno Wall...
Not that his best Inferno Wall would do more than annoy Voldemort's familiar anyway...
Backed into a corner with nowhere else to flee, Snape held up both hands in a futile attempt to ward off the towering snake's predatory gaze as it prepared to strike.
Aurellia awoke shaking and screaming and soaked with sweat. Whatever she had been dreaming about, she could not remember now as the faint light of early morning dimly filtered through the mullioned windows of her bedroom. But she was sure that it had been a nightmare to end all nightmares.
And it had had something to do with Snape.
The Defense teacher threw off her covers, sat up, and thumbed the blue stone of her guardian charm, but as usual, there was no response. Not even the faintest glimmer of sensation. Tears of frustration gathered in her eyes as Aurellia let the guardian charm fall from her hand and dangle uselessly from its chain.
Whether he was dead or still alive, she did not know. And not knowing was the worst part...
As it had been with Kiro.
The Gryffindor Quidditch team straggled into the locker room, their usually bright red and gold robes mud-spattered and drenched. Outside, the rain started falling in sheets across the windows and shook the wooden walls. It was about 4 p.m., but anyone looking at the leaden skies would have thought it closer to 8.
“That has got to be the most wretched weather I’ve played in since that Hufflepuff game we played two years ago,” said Katie Bell as she tried to wring the excess water from the hem of her robe.
“Yeah, I don’t think I’ll ever get dry,” Fred grumped as he sat on a rickety wooden bench.
“That was a close game, too,” George said, and he tried to wipe some of the grime from his face with his robe sleeve with little result.
“Yeah, too close,” Alicia said as she stood next to Angelina Johnson. “We bloody near lost to Slytherin.” She turned a stern gaze to Harry and Ron, who were in their lockers retrieving their school items. “Weasley, an untrained first year could have blocked more shots than you did, today! Did you actually prevent any Quaffles from getting through?”
“Of course I did,” Ron replied, and his ears turned bright red. He turned away sullenly from the Quidditch captain’s piercing gaze.
“I must have missed it,” Alicia said sharply. “You allowed at least 80 points that I saw!”
“It was bloody impossible to see out there,” Ron grumped as he tried to shake the excess water and mud off his robe. “I couldn’t see to block anything.”
“The Slytherins seemed to see well enough to get the Quaffle through the hoop,” Alicia shot back. “And Harry ….” She turned her focus from Ron to the black-haired teen, who was trying to clean his glasses with little success. “What were you thinking, fouling Malfoy like that?”
“He came after me!” Harry said. “I was trying to defend myself….”
“Not those last three times,” Alicia said sternly. “That cost us 30 points right there! And had it not been for a timely Bludger, Malfoy would have caught the Snitch and put us completely out of the running for both the Quidditch and House Cups! What happened to you two out there? Did you fall asleep on your brooms?”
“We won the game, all right?” Ron muttered. “That’s all that matters.”
Alicia sighed in exasperation. “You don’t get it, do you? We nearly lost today, mostly due to stupid mistakes from you two! It was only by dumb luck that we won, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t like trusting dumb luck. You both need to concentrate out there! I know you can both do better! You two were brilliant in the match against Hufflepuff! Now, we’ll probably play Slytherin again for the Quidditch Cup in a few weeks after they wipe the pitch with Hufflepuff, but we have a lot of work to do in the meantime.
“That’s all. The rest of you did pretty well, all things considered. Let’s grab our things and go back to the castle and change, before we all catch cold and have to take Pomfrey’s Pepperup potion.” She gave an exaggerated grimace and everyone but Harry and Ron laughed appreciatively.
“Why don’t we just change here?” Harry wondered as he looked at his wet robes and shoes with a grimace. “Filch will have us all in detention if we come in dripping wet like this!”
“Because if we change here, our regular clothes will be soaked clear through before we make it across the pitch on the way back to the castle,” Angelina said. “But I think we should go now, and hurry back to the castle; I think the rain is coming down even harder. And don’t you two have detention soon?” Angelina asked the twins.
Fred’s eyebrows arched. “Actually, no. We don’t. We are done with detentions.”
“WHAT???” the others chorused in amazement.
“Yeah, we are pretty baffled ourselves,” George said. “But yesterday when we went down, before we had even crossed the threshold into the office, Professor Deveroux told us that she had nothing for us to do and wasn’t going to give us any more detentions. She said we didn’t have to come back.”
Everyone stared at the twins in amazement, except Harry, who was trying to catch Ron’s eye. Ron, however, had focused his attention on packing his regular clothes into a battered blue duffle bag.
“Wow,” Angelina said, “I never thought I’d see a professor grant you two shock probation like that, especially not Miss Deveroux, and especially not after what you two did to her flowers. She’s nearly as strict as McGonagall…wonder what happened to make her…? Wait a minute; you two haven’t been putting any charms on her, have you? Because if you have…”
“No way!” said Fred with feigned innocence.
“Actually, we thought about it,” admitted George. “But we didn’t dare try it.”
“And why not?” Angelina demanded.
“Well, if we tried it and it did work then no problem. But if it didn’t work…well, we were already this close to being expelled.” And Fred illustrated a feather width with his right thumb and forefinger.
“And we figured it wouldn’t work, because even Snape couldn’t put a charm on her.” George said with a snicker. “We heard from a very reliable source that he tried putting the Obsequious on her, but it didn’t work. She only tricked him.” And with that, the twins shot a pair of grins in Ron’s direction. But Ron missed it because his head was half-hidden in his locker.
“I know. I heard,” Angelina said, and her brow furrowed.
“Not that I’m complaining about the end of our detentions, mind you,” said Fred, “But Professor Deveroux has been acting weird lately, like she’s not quite here. Have you noticed?”
Harry could feel his face go hot, and he concentrated on packing his own things into a scarlet backpack.
“Yes, I’ve noticed,” Alicia agreed. “She hasn’t been the same since Snape disappeared. I think she feels bad about what happened to him. And that’s the thing I don’t get. I always thought they hated each other.”
Harry nearly dropped his Flying with the Cannons book on top of his foot, and he heard Ron slam his locker door.
“Maybe she feels bad about the grudge match or something,” Katie speculated. “Or maybe it’s not about Snape at all, and she had some bad news from home.”
Harry looked up at Ron, but Ron’s back was to him, and the red-haired teen was struggling with the zipper of his duffel bag.
“Everyone about ready?” Alicia asked. “If we don’t hurry, we’re going to need boats to get back to the castle.”
“Boats? I think an ark would be more appropriate,” Fred quipped as everyone grabbed their bags and raced out into the torrential rain.
They went back to the common room to find it was crowded with their housemates.
“All right, Harry?” Colin Creevy called out. “That was one exciting game, today!”
Harry merely nodded.
“You guys sure kept us on the edge of our seats,” Dean Thomas said.
“I thought I’d have no fingernails left after that game,” said Lavender Brown, as she held up her pretty hands with well-manicured nails. Seamus Finnigan snorted and rolled his eyes.
Hermione, who was seated in her favorite chair, held up a piece of parchment paper in her hand. “Have you heard the news? Potions is starting up again in two weeks.”
“Oh, they’ve found someone to teach it then?” Katie asked. “Who’s the new teacher?”
“Probably better than Snape,” said Angelina.
Harry gritted his teeth, but said nothing.
“Who’s the new teacher?” Ron asked. Harry noticed Ron’s ears were turning a bit pink.
“Igor Karkaroff,” Hermione said as she held out the paper for the others to read. “This was posted just before the game started.”
“You mean that snobby bloke from Durmstrang? The one that quit his job and vanished for six months?” Lee Jordan queried. Hermione nodded.
“Wonder why we haven’t seen him in the Great Hall?” Seamus Finnigan mused.
“Maybe he’s not here yet,” Dean responded practically.
“No, I suspect he’s here, but the headmaster is letting him settle in first,” Hermione said.
The other Quidditch team members had begun to file up the stairs to their respective dorms to get changed. Harry remained standing, deep in thought.
“Funny,” he said. “I never would have thought of Karkaroff as a Potions teacher. He always struck me as a stuck-up git who preferred to let others do the work for him. Wonder why Dumbledore hired him, especially with his past? I wonder how this got past the Ministry?”
Hermione leveled a cool gaze at Harry. “Well, it’s easy to misjudge people. We need someone to teach the classes; we can’t teach ourselves. Besides, maybe Dumbledore wanted to give him a second chance, as he has done for others.”
“I better get changed,” Harry muttered as he headed up the stairs.
End of Chapter 44