Readers are encouraged not to skip the Shrieking Shack chapter, as the ending might not make sense without it.
Into the Fray
Standing on the landing at the top of the spiral stairway, Severus withdrew his wand and cast a complicated succession of spells upon the door to his office. The protective enchantments were a different combination to the ones he used at Spinner’s End, and had been planned carefully in advance.
Satisfied the entrance to the Headmaster’s office was securely sealed, he then groped inside his frock coat for his Tiger’s Eye ring. The metal was tingling before he’d placed the silver band on his little finger.
Having already shut down his own emotions, Severus was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of Tess’s feelings: fear, anguish and... unmistakably... love. The strength of her emotions caused him to stagger at the top of the stairs.
Occlude yourself, he sent.
As Tess complied, Severus stored the latter feeling safely inside his heart.
Better? She sent.
Severus swished his wand and changed the password to the office to ‘Dumbledore’. He felt Tess’s smile.
You’ll be safe now, he thought, knowing she’d hear him.
Severus ran down the stairs and passed the sliding stone wall, heading in the direction of Ravenclaw Tower.
Shortly afterwards, Minerva McGonagall emerged from the Ravenclaw common room, and the headteachers' portraits were able to send him a steady stream of co-ordinates via Tess. Eventually, two floors below the tower’s entrance, Severus witnessed three cat-shaped Patronuses racing down the corridor.
He stepped into an alcove, and within a few seconds he saw Minerva running down the passageway, dressed in her tartan dressing gown.
Severus listened closely. There were definitely more than one set of footsteps, and they followed her invisibly down the corridor.
His heart leapt to his throat. Potter.
Severus stepped out into the dimly-lit hallway and followed the Transfiguration professor, eyes alert to the signs of a concealed wizard, but before he had taken even a dozen steps he observed Minerva come to a halt and raise her wand.
He stealthily concealed himself behind one of Hogwarts’ many suits of armour.
Be careful, Tess sent.
“Who’s there?” Minerva asked.
“It is I,” Severus said, stepping out into the corridor. “Where are the Carrows?” he asked, modulating his voice to sound soft and calm. He hoped to avoid a duel; Minerva seemed primed to fight at a moment’s notice.
“Wherever you told them to be, I expect, Severus,” Minerva replied crisply.
Severus moved closer and searched the shadows for a sign of Potter. All sets of footsteps had ceased when Minerva had turned to face him. The Boy Who Lived had to be here somewhere.
“I was under the impression that Alecto had apprehended an intruder,” he said.
“Really?” Minerva replied. “And what gave you that impression?”
The witch’s eyes flitted to Severus’s left arm, drawing his attention to the fact he was unconsciously flexing his wrist. The skull and serpent branded into his skin would be there forever. If only he had known at the tender age of seventeen that taking the Dark Lord’s Mark would alter his life-course so irrevocably.
“Oh, but naturally,” Minerva said. “You Death Eaters have your own private means of communication, I forgot.”
Severus ignored her and continued to move furtively in her direction. “I did not know it was your night to patrol the corridors, Minerva.”
“You have some objection?”
“I wonder what could have brought you out of your bed at this late hour?” Severus deflected, now standing within a few feet of her.
“I thought I heard a disturbance.”
“Really? But all seems calm.” Severus assessed her, knowing he had moved as close as he dared. He knew she wouldn’t co-operate and offer up Potter of her own accord, and his next question might be the last. Prepared to enter into the fray, he asked, “Have you seen Harry Potter, Minerva? Because if you have, I must insist –”
At the first signs of movement, Severus cast a Shield Charm, which met her Stunning Spell and repelled it with such force that Minerva stumbled backwards.
Severus followed her line of sight as she seized a torch from a sconce on the wall. Flames descended, fashioned into a lasso by Minerva’s wand. Severus reacted quickly, Transfiguring the fiery whip into a great, black snake, which Minerva promptly vanquished to smoke. Through the smouldering haze, Severus caught sight of a glint of metal and, just in time, dived behind a serendipitously-placed suit of armour to dodge the swarm of daggers flying towards him. He sheltered behind the armoured suit as dozens of knives pierced its breast.
“Minerva!” came the recognisable squeak of Filius Flitwick.
Severus could discern the sound of several sets of footsteps, heading in the direction of the duel. It could mean only one thing: the Heads of House had arrived. Severus knew this was the end of round one – he couldn’t fight all four of them on his own – especially if Potter might be hurt in the crossfire.
Let me help you, Tess sent.
No. Stay there, he replied.
Severus could hear Horace Slughorn panting as he jogged towards them, and knew he had to move quickly. Straightening up, he made to sprint to a nearby classroom.
“No! You’ll do no more murder at Hogwarts!” Filius squealed.
The Charms professor’s spell hit the suit of armour and animated it into action. Metallic arms grappled Severus, but he managed to fight free from the onslaught and pushed the silver suit in the direction of his attackers.
Without looking back, Severus fled to the nearest classroom door, sprinting full-speed toward the window and jumping straight through it.
The glass shattered around him, and he fell into the night air to the sounds of Minerva’s cry.
Beyond the perimeter wall, Severus landed on the shore of the Great Lake.
The waxing crescent moon reflected on the black, watery mirror with eerie stillness. It was as though the battle inside the castle had never happened.
Enraged by failure, Severus kicked the trunk of a nearby pine tree in disgust. If only Minerva hadn’t found Potter first, he could have told him all he needed to know, and the boy would have been fully prepared for the Dark Lord’s imminent arrival.
Now it would be so much more difficult for Severus to find Harry Potter.
He growled his annoyance into the night.
Belatedly, he realised he was no longer Occluding his emotions.
Don’t worry, we’ll find him, Tess reassured.
But how am I to gain access to him now?
I’ll leave the office, find him and bring him to you.
No, you won’t, Severus thought firmly.
Potter doesn’t know who you are, Tess.
No, but Ronald Weasley does – I can convince them to trust me.
Severus sensed her physical movement and then felt her ripple of shock.
Severus, I can’t open your office door!
He cringed. I know.
Tess paused, incredulous. What have you done?
You’re safe. That’s all that matters.
Safe? How can I be safe if I can’t get out? What if someone breaks in?
He sighed. The moment someone penetrates the barrier, uses the password, or unblocks the Floo, the enchantments will break and you’ll be able to escape.
Tess’s frustration felt like a fist tightening around Severus’s stomach.
You’ve blocked the Floo Network too?
I needed to know you would be alright. I can’t do this without you.
He felt something in Tess melt away when she heard the plea in his thoughts.
Please stay in the office, Tess, whatever happens... Promise me?
She sighed, retreated from the door, and slumped into a cushioned seat by the leaded windows. Tess was gazing out towards the lake, in the direction of where he was standing. She pressed her palm against the cold glass.
I promise, she sent, after painfully long deliberation.
“I know that you are preparing to fight.”
The Dark Lord’s cold voice rang clearly across the lake, echoing through the Highland landscape.
“Your efforts are futile. You cannot fight me. I do not want to kill you. I have great respect for the teachers of Hogwarts. I do not want to spill magical blood. Give me Harry Potter, and none shall be harmed. Give me Harry Potter and I shall leave the school untouched. Give me Harry Potter and you shall be rewarded. You have until midnight.”
Severus sensed the Dark Lord’s strategy, reaching into the hearts and minds of students and teachers alike, to persuade them to save themselves first. He glanced at his timepiece. It was half past eleven.
Tess, where is Potter now?
In the Great Hall, with everyone else.
Minutes later, she sent, The Slytherins are vacating the castle via the Room of Requirement... And now the Ravenclaws... and the rest of the underage students. The defenders are dividing up, heading to the towers, preparing for battle. What should we do, Severus?
We wait. And when the battle begins, I must fight for the Dark Lord.
Tess’s heart plummeted.
I’ll do what I can to protect Hogwarts, he promised.
The male voice shouted to him from the edges of the Forbidden Forest. Severus lowered his wand and retreated to the cover of the trees.
In the dark shadows, behind a twisted tree trunk, a blond-haired Death Eater awaited his presence.
“Lucius,” Severus said, approaching the man. Fear burned his throat.
His old friend staggered raggedly towards him, one eye puffy and the other half-closed. Lucius Malfoy’s fall from grace had never been more apparent.
“Do you know where Draco is?” the broken man asked.
Severus sent the request for information through a single thought to Tess.
He’s still in the castle, she replied. Sir Cadogan followed Harry into the Room of Requirement, talking to his friends about Horcruxes. Draco entered the room shortly afterwards.
Horcuxes? Severus mused for a moment.
“Draco remained behind,” he told Lucius presently.
Lucius grimaced. “The Dark Lord sent me to fetch you, Severus. He wishes a service of you at the Shrieking Shack.”
Severus felt a flurry of terror adding to his own.
Stay calm, Tess.
“Of course. I shall go there immediately.”
The flashing colours of spells firing from the battleground briefly illuminated the torn features of his old friend, and Severus departed to meet with his master.