Harry toyed with his pumpkin juice like a preschooler, ladling it into his spoon and pouring it back into the goblet drop by drop. Each droplet sent ripples racing away across the surface of the liquid until they hit the edge of the cup and bounced back in an intricate dance of wave and counter-wave.
First Snape, then Moody, then the Krums, now Deveroux, Harry reflected. How many more people would his disastrous decision knock over before the ripples from that night smoothed themselves out?
“The seer has said that his choice will either shatter the cycle of darkness...or doom us all...”
How many indeed?
Plunk! Harry dropped the spoon into the cup and picked up his fork instead. He really didn’t feel like eating this morning, but he supposed he ought to try.
Harry idly stabbed at his sausage and cheese toast, and glanced over at the dais, where several of the teachers were eating their breakfast, with two painful exceptions. Snape, of course…and Deveroux. Karkaroff was now occupying Snape’s spot, and Deveroux…well, Deveroux never came to breakfast anymore.
Harry had not seen the Defense teacher at supper last night either, and all around him, he could hear talk from the older students about her having cancelled yesterday's sixth-year Gryffindor class. Harry had hoped to see her here this morning, for he had intended to…well…apologize to her about that night. Perhaps it wouldn’t do any good, but he had to try.
It occurred to Harry that he would far rather go through the Tri-Wizard Tournament all over again than talk to Deveroux about Snape. In fact, he’d even throw in the basilisk and the three-headed dog for free if only it would make the guilt and regret go away, and relieve him of the obligation of…well…apologizing.
"That sausage isn’t going anywhere, Harry. It’s already dead."
Harry started and looked up quickly to see Neville gazing at him with a mix of pity and concern on his round face. "Right," Harry replied, and he made another stab at a link and bit into it half-heartedly. The sausage tasted like sand, Harry thought, as he chewed at it mechanically.
Neville looked over toward the far end of the Gryffindor table, and Harry followed his gaze as he reached for his glass of pumpkin juice to help wash down the sausage. Ron and Hermione were carrying on in animated fashion, as had been their habit even before the blowup in the library. Ron had his hand in Hermione’s hair and was flipping it playfully. Hermione was scolding him for playing at the breakfast table and reaching for a spoon to whack his hand. They had it bad for each other. This was painfully obvious to Harry, now that he was no longer a part of their banter. He sighed wistfully, wishing for the old days when they had been a happy threesome.
“Carrying on like a couple of first-years again, aren’t they?” Neville observed. “They miss you, you know.”
“Oh sure,” Harry said acidly, stabbing another sausage. “I can tell just by looking.”
Ron was shaking his injured hand in exaggerated fashion, while Hermione coolly ignored the theatrics and reached for her pumpkin juice.
“They haven’t looked my way once this morning. They’re too busy looking at each other.”
Neville frowned. “Harry, people change. They fail; they succeed; they learn; they grow; they regress; they mature. One day they’re melting cauldrons and walking into walls. And the next day they’re walking into someone’s arms, finding their niche in life, finding new meaning in something that was right there in front of them the whole time. Maybe your friendship with them is going to have to change, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. It just means you have to accept a different role.”
“I don’t want things to change,” said Harry. “I want them to go back to the way they were before…”
“Oh,” said Neville, glancing toward the teachers’ dais. “I see Deveroux’s not here again. That’s the other reason you three split up, isn’t it? You’re blaming each other for what happened between Snape and Deveroux.”
Harry nearly choked on his sausage, and he glared at Neville. Neville looked away apologetically. Harry abruptly tossed his fork to his plate with a clatter, snatched up his backpack and stomped out of the Great Hall, leaving Neville to stare at his back.
It was no use getting up early for breakfast, he thought. He had as little appetite these days as Professor Deveroux. The difference between them was that at least he forced himself to go to the Great Hall, and he tried to take an interest in the food. But the trouble was that someone always wanted his attention. Someone always wanted to talk, and right now, he didn’t really feel like talking to anyone. Not even Neville.
Harry stopped just outside the doorway of the Great Hall, undecided as to what to do next. He still had some twenty minutes to kill before his first class, but he didn’t feel like inhaling incense in Divinations any longer than he had to.
“Hey, Harry!” Kenrick called cheerfully as he came bounding up to the doorway, waving his hand in an eager greeting. “All right, Harry? How’s your Defense class going?”
Maybe Deveroux was in her office getting ready for her classes. It wouldn’t take long to stop by and see. And it wasn’t too far from there to Trelawney’s room, maybe five minutes. That would give him enough time to say what he needed to say…
“Sorry, mate,” Harry responded shortly, heading up the stairway that would take him to Deveroux's office. “I really don’t have time to talk.” Not to a first-year, anyway. But it was long past time he and the Defense teacher had a chat.
Venator was still away, and still no word, no sign.
While Harry reflected on his misery and regret and wondered what to do about it, Aurellia Deveroux paced back and forth across the floor in her office, feeling frustrated and powerless. It had been just under a month since Venator’s departure, and she had seen no sign of the owl’s return. It was too early to begin worrying in earnest, for owls were not always the most punctual of creatures, particularly on long-distance trips through inclement weather. And especially with a mission as difficult as the one this owl had been saddled with! Perhaps Venator was unwilling to give up the search so soon. Perhaps he was still looking.
But Venator had been sent against his will. Aurellia had been expecting him to return to her as instructed to be released from his unwanted mission as soon as he was able. Perhaps he had been delayed by bad weather, blown off-course by a storm…
Perhaps he was dead. Or perhaps the object of his search was dead, and the owl would never return.
It was this last possibility that Aurellia least wished to dwell on, yet it was the one that seemed most likely. The Guardian Charm had its limitations, she had learned, and it had not been able to tell her whether or not Snape was still alive. But there had been other signs, other suggestions. The planetarium, the painting, the nightmares, and even, one time…his voice. Yet since Venator’s departure, the dreams and the night wanderings had all but stopped. Why?
Aurellia went over to the half-open window, put her palms to the frame, her nose to the glass.
“Are you still alive, Snape?” Aurellia whispered, her breath fogging the glass as she stared out over a forest shrouded in early morning mist. “Why don’t you call me anymore?”
But the forest and the fog returned no answer.
Finally, Aurellia sat down in exhaustion. She eyed the gray feather that rested on her desk and picked it up. The elf twirled the feather between her left thumb and forefinger.
Venator, why have you not returned? What has happened to you? Aurellia wondered in sorrow as she idly stroked the blue stone of her Guardian Charm. How will I ever know what happened if you never...?
Aurellia gave a sudden gasp of surprise as the room faded around her, and in its place, she saw a vision of rugged mountainsides covered with acres and acres of enormous evergreens. She was flying high above the treetops, her head turning from side to side as she searched with sharp, far-sighted eyes. She could feel the rush of wind against her face, could hear the almost inaudible ruffle of her feathers against the sky. At the edge of her field of vision, she could just catch a hint of gray wingtips.
My wings are tired, my eyes are tired. It’s been a long search, but I’m in the right place. I feel like I’m in the right place. His hair knows; my leg knows. Master is down there somewhere, close, very close. Where is he? Where is he?
The elf dropped her hand from her necklace, startled, and the office came back into place around her. Merlin, that was strange! For a moment there, I thought I was an owl! Wait a minute...
I just saw what Venator is seeing, Aurellia realized in amazement. She picked up the amulet in her right hand and clenched it tightly, her left hand still holding the feather. She closed her eyes and concentrated…
Venator, where are you? Have you found Snape? Show me!
And again, she was flying high above the rugged evergreen peaks…
“Bloody hell, not now!” Harry complained. The staircase he was on picked a most inopportune time to start moving, and it deposited him in the opposite direction of where he wanted to head.
Sighing, he turned left and scurried down another flight of stairs, seeking an alternate route to Deveroux's office.
Close, so close... There!
Aurellia/Venator was flying directly towards a dark, imposing fortress that rose up from the mountainside in the form of a hexagon with thick, crenellated walls encircling a stocky tower that resembled a chess rook. Venator sped up, losing altitude as he approached in a steep glide.
I know this place! Master sent me here with messages.
Perhaps thirty feet below a vast, vaguely horseshoe-shaped lake filled the valley over which the menacing fortress stood guard. Venator raced over the water like arrow, homing in on a familiar target…
Suddenly, somewhere behind and far above him there came a loud, strident shriek. Far ahead of him and on both sides there came several answering screes. And then he saw them.
Falcons, crows, ravens, hawks, other owls...all manner of predatory birds dove from above or burst from the ground, from trees, from the fortress ahead. And all of them flew straight at the intruder, beaks agape, talons stretched out. Within seconds, the air teemed with hostile wing beats.
Venator had only a moment to think to himself, “How strange, this has never happened before,” and then it was time to react!
Somewhere overhead a peregrine falcon folded its wings and dropped like a thunderbolt, its airspeed in excess of two hundred miles an hour. Venator heard it coming and dodged nimbly… right into the path of an eagle owl. The hostile owl grazed his wing with a clawed foot, but Venator eluded his grasp and slipped away. An oncoming crow tried to peck at his eyes as a hawk clutched at the other wing and tore out several primary feathers with its talons. The great gray let out a shriek of terror, folded his wings and dove, but another hawk was waiting, gliding upside-down with talons facing up. There was no time to react! Venator crashed right into the hawk, and the two somersaulted several times in the air. The hawk’s talons and hooked beak tore at his breast while four ravens and two shrikes swooped in to help the hawk attack him with vicious beaks and wings.
Help! thought Venator, screeching in pain and fear. But there was no answer, save the triumphant cries of his enemies.
“Let ‘it go, ya fool featherheads! Let ‘it go ‘fore ya kill it!” commanded a gravelly voice.
The other birds drew back, the hawk let go, and with shredded flight feathers beating uselessly, Venator plummeted in an out-of-control somersaulting dive. He crashed into the waiting arms of a tall pine and felt a wing snap against an unyielding limb. He closed his eyes as the pine needles dug at his feathers, then the ground rushed up at him with terrible speed.
He landed in a battered, painful heap of feathers into some sort of leathery black material that smelled of dragon and curing potions. Venator screeched in pain and fear, and he clawed futilely at the tough dragon-hide sack surrounding him. Then there came a cruel, gravelly cackling from somewhere outside the skin of Venator’s new prison as the sack was lifted up and darkness closed over the owl’s head.
Harry was heading down the hallway to the Defense teacher's office, when he heard a terrible, heart-rending scream. Deveroux? He picked up his pace and ran down the hall, suddenly alarmed. He found the office door closed and pounded on it with both fists.
"Professor Deveroux!" he called. "Professor? Are you all right?"
The door suddenly clicked and opened, and Harry peered inside to see Professor Deveroux sitting at her desk, visibly shaking and pale. There were tears running down her cheeks, and in her trembling hand she clutched a long, gray feather.
"Professor?" Harry asked anxiously, suddenly getting the distinct and disturbing impression that he shouldn’t be here right now. He looked around the office and thought that it seemed somehow different than when he had been here on Valentine’s Day. Papers were neatly stacked and arranged, plants looked sickly but watered and pruned, shelves, filing cabinets, knickknacks, and tables were dusted and polished, but something was wrong. There was dust on the tops of the picture frames on the walls, as if they had been missed. The fountains weren’t running. The Shimmer Lamps were all out, and candles had been placed beside them. And the candlewicks needed trimming. The fire in the hearth had burnt itself down to flickering crimson embers, and the atmosphere in here was rather chilly. The Venus flytrap by the half-open window could attest to that as it was coughing and sneezing again.
The feeling of wrongness about this picture intensified as Harry reflected. Deveroux was infamous for keeping rooms uncomfortably warm, for closing windows and stoking fires into blazing infernos. And her plants, fountains and Shimmer Lamps had been her pride and joy. Indeed, the room seemed to lack its former personality entirely. Instead, it seemed merely to exist, to take up space.
Deveroux tore her attention away from the feather and looked up reluctantly. She stared at the Gryffindor with eyes that shimmered with tears and something else entirely that was neither sadness nor accusation. Harry shivered at that strange, haunted look.
"You don’t need to pound on my door like a brute, Mr. Potter," she said in odd, high-pitched voice. "What do you want?"
"I wanted to tell you, er, that is I just wanted to say... Professor, are you all right?" Harry managed to get out.
Aurellia gave a strange laugh that made Harry’s scalp crawl. "All right? Am I all right?" she whispered as she turned her gaze from the teen to the feather. She twirled it between her thumb and index finger and stared at it, as if hypnotized. "All right. What is all right? You can’t tell me, can you? Because nothing is all right anymore. I’m not right anymore. You’re not right anymore. The war is coming but…but the line between right and wrong has been blurred. How can you fight a war if you don’t know what you’re fighting for anymore? How can anyone fight when the only ones who die are the innocents, and nothing ever gets resolved? When paths cross, divide, and wind around in darkness, in darkness where light has been forgotten…can you tell me where it is? Can you tell me how to get it back? How can I get him back? Why did you do it, Mr. Potter? Why did I do it? He is lost in darkness. We are lost in darkness. We’ve lost everything, and gained nothing. Why do we live? Why do we die? What does it matter when nothing is all right?" She lowered her head, covered her face with her hands and sobbed uncontrollably.
"I...I think I’ll go now," Harry said. He backed out of the office while Deveroux continued to weep, then turned and ran down the corridor. Bloody hell, he thought, she’s going mad, and it’s my fault. And I’m going to be late to Divinations.
Why did you do it, Mr. Potter?
I don’t know. I made a mistake. And now I am so sorry, Harry thought bleakly, the very words he could not bring himself to say in Deveroux’s office. Sorry. So sorry, and I don't know what to do.
Why couldn’t Trelawney’s tea leaves and prophecies ever tell him anything useful until it was too late?
Adolpho Adlar was making his rounds atop Durmstrang’s outer walls, receiving reports from the Dark Lord’s guards, and thinking that things could not possibly be any duller, when all of a sudden, the most unusual thing happened. One of the newest members of Lord Voldemort’s army came thumping over to him on his wooden leg, waving a hand in excitement and carrying a large dragon-hide sack over his shoulder.
“’Ey, Adlar!” the older wizard called, “Lookee what I got here! I reckon His Lordship will be most delighted when he sees what the sentries brought down.”
“What is it, Moody?” Adlar queried coldly. It was difficult to suppress his revulsion as Moody drew closer. There was something…distasteful…about Voldemort’s new converts, these single-minded servants who seemed more beast than being. Perhaps it was the fact that Adlar had witnessed Voldemort’s new curse as it was being applied to this one.
Admittedly, Adlar had witnessed the feeding of the dementors many times in the old days, before Voldemort’s fall. He had even watched the dementors remove the soul of a foolish trespasser once, and once only, for once had been enough. Yet for all that, nothing had prepared him for Lord Voldemort’s new power, for a ravenous hunger like that of the dementors, and a new kind of feeding that replaced a soulless husk with something other than emptiness. In the old days, the victims of the dementors had merely died the most horrible death imaginable. Now, if they merited the Dark Lord’s attention, they died and were reborn into something twisted, hungry, and monstrous, like Voldemort himself. And their hunger was not for the blood or souls of their victims, but for the approval of their new master in whose likeness they were remade. If Adlar had not already waded into the deepest depths of the Dark Arts, he would not have been able to bear the knowledge of what Lord Voldemort’s reign was really like. Even so, there were times such as this when he felt…uncomfortable.
Moody waved his treasured bag before Adlar and grinned like a child who had been set free in Honeydukes with the entire treasury of Gringotts at his disposal. “What we got here is a spy of some sort! A familiar! Lookee here.” He reached into the bag and pulled out a large Great Gray owl that stared at its captors with hostile yellow eyes and flapped one wing viciously against Moody’s face. The other wing, obviously broken, hung uselessly at the owl’s side. The Great Gray hissed and tried to bite Moody’s disfigured nose, but the old wizard only laughed.
“Splendid, Moody,” Adlar said, not bothering to hide his disgust and boredom. “Take the creature away and dispose of it. I will inform his lordship.”
“Yes, Sir,” Moody called out happily. “How do you want me to dispose of it, Sir?”
Adlar sniffed irritably. It was not that these soulless thrall servants lacked intelligence or enthusiasm. No, that was not what made them an annoyance. It was their lack of initiative, of independence. They refused to do anything without orders. And Adlar had to spell out every detail of every instruction to them, or they would find a way to bungle things.
Adlar stared at the owl for a moment, contemplating its fate. “Feed it to the…” he began. Then he stopped mid-sentence and held up a hand. “Wait!” The owl hissed and flapped and tried to bite at Adlar’s hand.
“Headmaster?” Moody prompted, peering at Adlar intently as he awaited instructions.
“I recognize this bird,” Adlar said thoughtfully, raising his right thumb and forefinger to stroke his upper lip. The smile that began to develop on the Durmstrang headmaster’s face could only be described as pure malevolence. “Oh yes, I know you, Venator. You used to bring messages from Hogwarts before your master began to distrust me, and I likewise, began to have my doubts about him. I wonder now, if Severus Snape would enjoy a little visit from an old friend…”
“Yer telling me this is Snape’s owl?” Moody asked, and he gave a chilling laugh. “Well, of course he’d have to have got a new one after the Dark Lord put old Rassy down, wouldn’t he?” Venator bit Moody’s hand, drawing blood, but Moody only laughed again. “Bloodthirsty little blighter, isn’t he? I wouldn’t be the least surprised if he’s part vampire too.”
“Yesss, it would definitely be a waste to feed you to the dragons, Venator,” Adlar said to the bird, his lips curling into a predatory smile. “Moody, it has been quite a while since Severus has been fed. I think you should offer him a little snack to curb his thirst.”
“Are you saying you want me to feed this owl to Snape, then?” Moody inquired gleefully.
Adlar nodded. “Yes. That is exactly what I want you to do. And Moody, I want you to make the experience as painful for him as possible. Remember Lord Voldemort’s wishes concerning Severus.”
“Yes, sir. He is to be broken first, and then consumed when the time is right. I assure you, I will carry out the Dark Lord’s wishes to the very best of my ability.”
“Excellent. Now go and do Lord Voldemort’s will.”
Moody left, with Venator still hanging upside-down by the legs in his gnarled hand.
Adlar found it ironic and somewhat amusing that not so very long ago Moody had been just like that owl, struggling fiercely but hopelessly against the overwhelming power and terror of his captor and master.
Snape awoke with a start as he heard the password given (“Thue'lazh khezemak!”) and the lock of his jail cell click. Then the heavy iron door swung open with a painful creaking sound of metal on metal. Whoever was entering the cell had recently sustained an injury. The smell of blood was overpowering all other senses. The dhampire pulled with all his might against the chains binding him. But to his dismay, he found that as usual, he could not break them. Nevertheless, Snape continued to struggle, driven by a frenzied craving unlike anything he had ever known before. This was the longest he had ever gone without having fed, or at least having sangui fictosa to quiet the maddening blood-hunger.
“Well, hello there, Snape,” called a gravelly voice that sounded familiar and yet…wrong. “I’ve been meaning to talk to ya, but Lord Voldemort had more important work for me to do for him first. I’ve been very busy telling him all I know about Dumbledore’s plans and who all works for him, you see.”
The absurdity of the Auror’s words managed to penetrate the haze of blood-craving enough so that Snape stopped fighting the chains for a moment and stared in astonishment. Moody? Bragging about working for Voldemort? Impossible!
“His Lordship…well, Adlar actually—with my master’s blessing—sent me down here to show you a little something.”
Snape’s first thought was that this could not be Alastor Moody, at least not an unaltered Alastor Moody. Polyjuice, perhaps? Or Imperius? Possibly. Particularly if the goal was to demonstrate the futility of further resistance. This was what Snape wanted to believe, but…
“You’re looking rather peaky. Hungry, Drac?”
No, this wasn’t Polyjuice or Imperius. Snape knew better. This was Mad-Eye Moody, the real Alastor Moody, but it wasn’t Alastor Moody. It was Luk Deveroux; it was Cluny Cobb; it was one the new breed of Death Eaters; it was one of the hundreds of others who had run afoul of the Dark Lord and had been forced to serve him in the most horrible way possible.
Snape forced his eyes to focus in spite of his misery, in spite of the painfully bright light coming from Moody’s wand, and he stared in mute horror at the latest victim of the Dementor’s Kiss Curse. Moody raised the hand that was not holding a wand, and flung something at Snape…something gray and feathery and fiercely alive that smacked into his face with a vicious hiss, followed by a frightened screech.
Life! Heartbeat! Blood!
Acting on bestial instinct, Snape snatched the great gray with two frantically grasping hands and sank his fangs into the bird’s breast. Moody cackled malevolently as Venator flapped and screeched furiously in a vain struggle to escape his imminent demise. Snape drank hungrily, ignoring the Auror’s amusement and the distress cries of his prey.
“Feel better, blood-fiend?” Moody taunted with a mirthless laugh.
Snape ignored the remark, his face buried in the Great Gray’s soft feathers as Venator gave one final feeble hiss, his frenzied heartbeat slowing into fatal stillness. The blood tasted like spiderplant acid extract on the dhampire’s tongue. A single tear trickled down Snape’s sunken cheek and disappeared into the owl’s lifeless feathers as he remembered what he had said to the bird the day Aurellia had presented Venator as a peace offering and Christmas present.
“You are an intelligent owl aren't you, Venator? You already know, don't you? You know that we are both doomed, you and I.”
“Well, you’ve done it now, Dracula!” Moody taunted. “You’ve just killed your last friend in the world. He came looking for you, I suppose, more’s the pity for him. Now you’re finished, Snape. That was your last hope, and you’ve eaten him!”
Snape did not reply. He didn’t even look up as Moody continued to heckle him. I’m sorry, Venator, he thought. I should have set you free before my words became prophetic. In fact, I should never have accepted you in the first place. Everything I care about dies...
“No one else is going to come searching for you. Everyone else has given up on you. In fact, they are probably glad to be rid of you, you greasy-haired, whey-faced bloodsucker!
“What is this silence, hey? No sarcastic comeback? No sharp retort? Relishing the taste of your last meal, are you? Why I’d wager that this is the first time I’ve ever known Severus Snape to keep a leash on his venomous blood-savoring tongue. Given up all hope of continued defiance at last, eh? You should have known that you can’t resist the Dark Lord forever. After he has broken your spirit, he will take what is left, the same way you have taken the life of your faithful familiar.”
With an amused snort, Moody turned and stomped out of the cell, his wand before him, the staccato sound of his wooden leg following him as it clunked relentlessly against the cold stone floor.
In the darkness, the dhampire permitted himself a small, bitter smile, for Moody had made a tactical error. An understandable, very human error, though calling Moody ‘human’ now was stretching the definition of the word. The thrall could not possibly know with his duller senses that the owl had borne an invisible message on its feathers, a message that would be legible only to the nose of another predatory creature like itself. Wind and weather had taken their toll upon Venator’s outer contour feathers, but underneath, the soft down on his back still smelled faintly of lilac.
Venator almost certainly hadn’t come of his own volition; he had been sent. And the scent of his sender still lingered, even beyond death.
“Why did she send you to your doom, Venator?” Snape whispered into the darkness of his prison. “Does she still consider it her duty to find me? Or does she hate me so much that she wanted you to share my fate? Or did she wish to apologize for the things she said that night?” The dhampire sighed heavily. “I know what I want to believe, but I have been disappointed too many times to ever entertain hope again.”
End of Chapter 47
Notes: “Ordinary World” lyrics by Duran Duran.
Hyacinth Sprout: We started Grudge Match well before OoP came out. At the time we wrote this scene, my co-author and I had to give Prof. Sprout a first name, and we settled on Hyacinth.