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The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 5]

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Chapter Sixty-Six

Eye of the Beast

Tess’s thoughts pressed urgently into Severus’s mind. Harry is leaving for the Shrieking Shack! He’s heading your way!

Potter’s coming straight to the Dark Lord?

Yes! Where are you?

Outside the shack. I can’t delay any longer. Tess, please try not to interrupt me – I need to concentrate. Stay in the Headmaster’s office and keep safe.

I will.

The Dark Lord was waiting for Severus behind the light of an old oil lamp.

The creaky, dilapidated front room of the supposedly haunted house was lit up by the far-away lights of firing spells, flickering like fireworks against the night sky. The pounding against the castle walls sounded muffled from this distance, a distance which Potter was traversing at that very moment.

Severus knew Potter might not be far away. If he was foolish enough to use the secret passageway underneath the Whomping Willow, the boy would walk straight into the dragon’s lair.

The Dark Lord was seated next to a table, his long fingers caressing his wand thoughtfully. At his side, suspended mid-air in a silvery protective sphere was his pet snake, Nagini. The giant serpent coiled inside its enchanted cage, issuing soft hisses into the shabby, claustrophobic room.

Severus’s heart froze as Albus Dumbledore’s words came back to him – there would come a time when Lord Voldemort would seem to fear for the life of his snake. When he no longer sent the snake forth to do his bidding, but kept it safe beside him, under magical protection, then it was safe to tell Harry the truth.

That time had apparently arrived. The moment was here, and Potter might be about to walk into a trap, not even aware he was missing essential knowledge to defeat the Dark Lord.

Severus stepped into the room, kneeled before his master, and then placed himself between the Dark Lord and the old crate which concealed the hidden passageway to Hogwarts.

“You wished to see me, my Lord?” Severus said with a bow.

“Indeed I do, Severus. You have been loyal and served me well.” The Dark Lord’s voice was contemplative.

“Allow me to serve you again; I can return to the battle and add my weight to the attack, my Lord, their resistance is crumbling –”

“– And it is doing so without your help,” the Dark Lord interrupted. “Skilled wizard though you are, Severus, I do not think you will make much difference now. We are almost there... almost.”

“Let me find the boy. Let me bring you Potter. I know I can find him, my Lord. Please.”

Severus took a pre-emptive step towards the door, but the Dark Lord stood up, forcing him to stop.

“I have a problem, Severus.” The Dark Lord’s voice was unusually soft.

“My Lord?”

The wand in the Dark Lord’s hand rose into the air with delicate precision.

“Why doesn’t it work for me, Severus?”

Severus felt a frozen stone plunge through his stomach. The Dark Lord obviously had something he wished to discuss, and Severus wasn’t going to be able to absent himself quickly.

“My – my Lord?” he replied, puzzled. “I do not understand. You – you have performed extraordinary magic with that wand.”

“No,” The Dark Lord declared. “I have performed my usual magic. I am extraordinary, but this wand... no. It has not revealed the wonders it promised. I feel no difference between this wand and the one I procured from Ollivander all those years ago. No difference.”

The calmness in the Dark Lord’s voice turned Severus’s spine to ice. Something was going to be required of him – was it knowledge, or something else? Severus stared at Nagini twisting and curling as she floated in her sparkling cell. He knew the snake was important, but he knew not why.

The Dark Lord began to pace around the room. “I have thought long and hard, Severus... do you know why I have called you back from the battle?”

“No, my Lord, but I beg you will let me return. Let me find Potter.”

“You sound like Lucius. Neither of you understands Potter as I do. He does not need finding. Potter will come to me. I know his weakness, you see, his one great flaw. He will hate watching the others struck down around him, knowing that it is for him that it happens. He will want to stop it at any cost. He will come.”

Severus knew his master was correct, and knew there was even a chance that Potter could already be within a few feet of them both. “But my Lord, he might be killed accidentally by one other than yourself –”

“My instructions to my Death Eaters have been perfectly clear. Capture Potter. Kill his friends – the more, the better – but do not kill him. But it is of you that I wished to speak, Severus, not Harry Potter. You have been very valuable to me. Very valuable.”

“My Lord knows I seek only to serve him. But – let me go and find the boy, my Lord. Let me bring him to you. I know I can –”

“I have told you no!” The Dark Lord turned and his cloak swished against the dusty floorboards. “My concern at the moment, Severus, is what will happen when I finally meet the boy!”

“My Lord, surely there can be no question – surely –?”

“– But there is a question, Severus. There is.”

Red eyes fixed themselves upon Severus, and the Dark Lord’s wand slid through his pale fingers.

“Why did both the wands I have used fail when directed at Harry Potter?”

“I – I cannot answer that, my Lord,” Severus replied shakily. However, he might have access to the answer...

Tess? I need your help.

“Can’t you?” The Dark Lord’s question was a sibilant whisper. “My wand of yew did everything of which I asked it, Severus, except to kill Harry Potter. Twice it failed. Ollivander told me under torture of the twin cores, told me to take another’s wand. I did so, but Lucuis’s wand shattered upon meeting Potter’s.”

“I – I have no explanation, my Lord.”

Tess, wandlore! There will be a reference book in the office! Find it!

Severus’s eyes were drawn once again to the snake, swimming mid-air in its enchanted cage.

“I sought a third wand, Severus. The Elder Wand, the Wand of Destiny, the Deathstick. I took it from its previous master. I took it from the grave of Albus Dumbledore.”

It was as though Severus’s heart had stopped beating. Dumbledore’s wand had in fact been the fabled Deathstick, and was now in the clutches of the greatest Dark wizard the world had ever known.

He looked into the slit-like eyes of the Dark Lord, Occluding his emotions and adopting an unperturbed mask. Severus knew what this meant: he had been the one who had killed Dumbledore. If the Dark Lord thought Severus himself was now the master of the Elder Wand...

“My Lord – let me go to the boy –”

“All this long night, when I am on the brink of victory, I have sat here wondering, wondering, why the Elder Wand refuses to be what it ought to be, refuses to perform as legend says it must perform for its rightful owner... and I think I have the answer.”

Tess, am I the master of the Elder Wand?

Frantic flicking of old parchment pages was quickly followed by, If you defeated Dumbledore that night on the Astronomy Tower, then yes.

But his death was already arranged between us. Would the wand know that? And what about Draco? He Disarmed Dumbledore first!

Disarming could be the same as defeating, I’m not sure.

“Perhaps you already know it?” the Dark Lord continued. “You are a clever man, after all, Severus. You have been a good and faithful servant, and I regret what must happen.”

Severus wondered what the Dark Lord was postulating; did he believe he needed to defeat Severus, in order to win the wand’s loyalty? The Deathstick was reputed to be won through murder, though, not simply defeat. Was that true?

Or was this just a test, some sort of cruel experiment to check Severus’s own loyalty? Was he expected to divulge knowledge? He secured his wand in his hand, ready to defend himself.

“My Lord –”

“The Elder Wand cannot serve me properly, Severus, because I am not its true master. The Elder Wand belongs to the wizard who killed its last owner. You killed Albus Dumbledore. While you live, Severus, the Elder Wand cannot truly be mine.”

Severus’s hand jerked as he raised his wand. “My Lord!”

But, from the look on the Dark Lord’s face, Severus knew his plea would be ignored. Whilst the Dark Lord believed he needed to die by his hand, Severus was certain his death alone would not accomplish the Dark Lord’s mastery of the Elder Wand. He could, of course, earn himself a reprieve by offering the information that it was Draco Malfoy who had Disarmed the wand’s master, but then the power of the Deathstick could be easily transferred to the most dangerous man alive, and Harry Potter would have no chance of defeating him.

“It cannot be any other way,” said the Dark Lord, prowling like a cat circling his prey. “I must master the wand, Severus. Master the wand, and I master Potter at last.”

Severus knew he was trapped, and that he was not the one destined to kill the Dark Lord. There could only be one winner.

There was, of course, still the chance that the Dark Lord was testing him. He sensed Tess now, furiously thumping the door as she tried unsuccessfully to undo his protective spells.

Perhaps this was the way it had to be...

Dumbledore’s wand cut through the air.

And nothing happened.

Severus let out a fraction of the breath he’d been holding.

He hadn’t cast a Shield Charm in the hope that he was being tested. Had he passed the Dark Lord’s inquisition?

But then the starry pen which enclosed Nagini began to roll in his direction. Tess screamed in his mind and, as the cage encased his head and shoulders, Severus yelled his own surprise. The scaly skin of the serpent brushed up against his cheek and he tried desperately to push the cage away. The eye of the beast glinted at him malevolently.

Severus started to feel faint, as if all his blood had drained from his head. It was as though time had suspended, and his body turned to marble.

He heard the Dark Lord hissing in Parseltongue and sensed the snake’s fangs sinking into his neck. At first there was a sting of venom, but soon there was very little pain; it was as if his body accepted its fate and had stopped fighting. He was aware of his scream as the breath he’d held in his lungs rushed out. And then he was falling to his knees...

He didn’t feel the impact. The sound of the hissing snake sounded strangely remote. However, he could hear Tess’s hysterical cry in his mind. He tried to reassure her.

“I regret it,” The Dark Lord said, but there was no remorse in his voice.

The caged enclosure floated away, and Severus was free to fall to the ground. His knees buckled and he landed sideways. He heard the clunk of the Tiger’s Eye ring when his hand thudded on the floor.

Footsteps resonated on the wooden floorboards as the Dark Lord exited the room, and the illumination dipped as Nagini followed her master.

Warm liquid flowed against his cheek. Severus realised he was haemorrhaging, and he pressed his free hand against his neck to stem the blood flow. But he had seen others die this way, and knew the attempt was futile.

As his strength waned he could no longer Occlude himself and he rushed full-force into the sanctuary of Tess’s mind.

Tess, he thought. I need to tell you what Dumbledore entrusted to me, and then you must find Harry. I won’t make it.

No! I’ll come to you! There’s still time to save you!

No. There isn’t. It’s too dangerous. Stay there.

But –

Don’t argue! This is more important. I need to do this, not just for Harry, but for me.

Severus felt Tess waver.

Take my memories, Tess. Give them to Harry. I want him to know everything. I want him to understand. He deserves to know the whole truth. I need him to know everything... Why I did what I did.

He selected his memories assiduously, telling his story, the entire story – his love for Lily, his one big mistake, his attempts to redeem himself, and finally the information which Dumbledore had assigned to him, more critical now than ever before.

Tess had barely begun to see his memories when the crate in the corner of the room levitated silently to one side, and Harry Potter revealed himself from underneath his Invisibility Cloak. He was followed closely by Hermione Granger and Ronald Weasley, climbing into the room from the secret passage.

Harry bent down and looked at Severus, entranced. Severus reached out and grasped Harry’s robes, pulling him closer.

When he tried to speak, blood gurgled in his throat, choking him. Severus heaved another breath, the air struggling to push past the gushing flow.

“Take... it... Take... it,” he rasped.

The silvery-blue whispers of the past, which he’d collected for Tess, leaked slowly into the stale air of the room, a précis of his hopes, fears and quest for redemption.

Out of the corner of his vision he saw Miss Granger conjure a flask and collect the precious memories. All of them.

The Half-Blood Prince’s tale was told, and he knew that The Chosen One would know who Severus truly was, and who he had always been.

Severus was complete.

Lily’s green eyes peered at Severus. They were all he could see now the peripheries had darkened. He felt his fingers starting to lose their grip and slip against Harry’s robes.

“Look... at... me.”

Lily’s eyes locked onto his.

And then suddenly Severus realised he no longer needed Lily’s forgiveness.

Because now, in this moment, Severus had forgiven himself.

He could feel Tess’s presence encircling and cradling him, as he drifted away from this mortal coil. She held him and comforted him in ephemeral arms.

Severus held his last breath in his lungs, knowing his end had come.

The Tiger’s Eye ring on his little finger tingled furiously.

I love you, Tess.

And then all was black.

The first thing of which Severus became aware was the soft stroke of a warm breeze, and the rushing sound of flowing water.

The gentle wind tickled his body which, he now realised, was naked. As soon as his discomfort registered, he could feel the soft brush of cotton and wool against his skin. he

He lay for a while, wondering if he should open his eyes.

He felt calm, untroubled and free of pain.

Eventually his curiosity got the better of him. He needed to know where he was and, indeed, if he were still alive.

Opening his eyes answered neither of these questions.

He was lying upon grass, surrounded by a swirling white mist.

Shapes began to form above him. First, the outline of tree branches, then leaves, and the sun breaking through the canopy, casting shadows in the dappled shade.

Slowly he sat up. The leaves glowed luminous green in the sunlight, and the branches of the ancient willow creaked, their extent almost brushing against the bank of the river. Beyond, the gentle flow of water lapped against the riverbank.

Now he knew where he was.

It was the same riverbank he had shared with Lily during their childhood; some of the happiest memories of his life.

Severus pulled his knees towards him and wrapped his arms around his legs. He realised now he was wearing the clothes he’d worn for Tess’s birthday – the same dark green shirt and black waistcoat. He studied the cufflinks, and remembered fidgeting with the cuffs and straightening his attire nervously as he’d battled to tell her how he felt about her.

But he’d done it now.

With his last breath.

Even though they’d spent nearly a year together, it seemed their time had been cut tragically short.

Severus tried to recall the taste of her on his lips, and then, as if by request, he evoked the flavour of Marasca cherries, intense, rich and refined, like a classic Amarone wine.

It seemed whatever he imagined in this place would materialise, all his wishes and requirements, like some universal Mirror of Erised.

So, if he had access to anything he desired, living or dead, what would he choose?

He was in the special place he’d shared with Lily, and yet he didn’t want her here with him.

He wanted Tess.

Wanted her to find him, to hold him, to love him.

The leafy branches at his back made a rustling sound, which could not have been caused by the wind.

If he looked around, Severus wondered who he might see.

The Unconditional Vow by Agnus Castus [Reviews - 5]

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