STAVE I: Albus Dumbledore's Ghost
Dumbledore was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. This must be understood, if any of the wondrous things to follow can be appreciated. Dumbledore was dead.
Severus Snape lay on the dirty, and now bloody floor of the Shrieking Shack and remembered that terrible night on the Astronomy Tower. Though he couldn't claim surprise, the emotions that overcame him that night had almost been his undoing. He'd fought to tamp down the dismay, the hurt, the guilt, and the inexplicable rage that had consumed him, and had forced himself to utter those horrifying words, "Avada Kedavra."
Though the rest of the wizarding world thought him incapable of it, the hurt and guilt remained to this day. Albus had ignored his pleas for respite from this dark deed, had played upon his sense of logic and loyalty to accomplish what he deemed necessary for The Greater Good.
Damn the wizard. As if Snape hadn't already had enough guilt to contend with, Albus had saddled him with the task of furthering The Plan.
As if the depressing thoughts were enough to conjure up his spirit, Albus' filmy ghost materialized in the same doorway Voldemort had just passed through after unleashing the serpent upon Severus. He forced his eyes to focus, waiting for Albus to guide him through to the bright light that must lead him to the beginning of his afterlife.
As Albus took his bloody time coming nearer, Severus had time to think about his regrets. His most recent regrets, other than answering the summons of the Dark Lord a few moments ago, were the events of the past year.
He groaned inwardly. All he'd wanted was the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts Master. Was that so much to ask? He'd had one aborted year at it, and suddenly he was running the whole school. Although he had to remind the Carrows of it regularly, he had, in fact, been in charge.
As much as Voldemort would let him be in charge of anything.
Just when he had needed his strength the most, the energy required to keep all those remarkably obtuse children under control, protect them from the Carrows, and still report like clockwork to the Dark Lord had all kept him from relishing the position as he should. Surely, things had not been so difficult during Albus' reign?
As Albus' finer features began to fill out, Severus managed to lift himself on one elbow. He ignored the sticky, bloody mess and narrowed his eyes, looking behind Albus to see what that loud, eerie noise was.
It was the rattling of chains, as though those chains were being dragged over a rough and inhospitable walkway. Snape stood there, disbelieving, as the chains came closer.
Severus backed away in alarm. There was something different about Albus, quite different than he'd seemed in all those portrait-chats where he'd offered guidance and support throughout Severus' ordeal as headmaster and loyal member of the Order.
"The venom must have had some sort of hallucinogenic draught in it," he told himself. "What I'm seeing now is simply an aftereffect of the poison."
He'd almost convinced himself he was imagining the whole incident, when, as he watched, the shape became more and more pronounced, until the white, wispy form walked toward him, its robes trailing long and shapeless on the floor, until it was seated across from where he stood, and reclined on the chair nearest him.
Severus fell back to the floor, smirking at the apparition before him. "Really, Albus, wasn't that a bit dramatic, even for you?"
"Don't mock me, Severus," the spectre warned him. "I come with grave news."
"You could be more gravy than grave," Severus chided him. "You could be a bit of undigested beef, left behind from dinner. Perhaps the repulsive pumpkin juice is warring with the potatoes."
"I will be heard," Albus broke in, "whether or not you will listen. I have but this one chance to warn you of what's to come, and to offer advice before it's too late for you."
"Nonsense. You've breathed down my back every day I sat in your abandoned chair. You had every opportunity to offer me guidance, yet you chose to speak only of your wishes for that Potter boy. Why come to me in this fashion now, so melodramatic and ominous? And what are you wearing? It sounded dreadful coming down the hall."
"I wear the chains I forged in life," Albus answered. "You should get a peek at your own. Though you are many years my junior, I judge your chain's length even now surpasses mine. It's the heaviest burden you will ever know, Severus, and unless you heed my words, you'll be spending your afterlife dragging it with you, on your many travels."
"I don't plan to travel, now that I'm dead," Severus said waspishly. "I feel I've earned the right to rest in peace."
"You have no choice in the matter. Everyone must travel while alive--the spirit must travel, to go beyond the boundaries of self. That your only travels took you to a woman who didn't return your love only means you should have traveled further, and are now destined to travel in the afterlife."
"What is the purpose of travel? Why shouldn't I be left alone to eke out my existence as I see fit? All my life, others have been making my choices for me. The few times I chose on my own, the results were nothing but failure and heartbreak. Surely, the powers that be will realize I, of all people, must not travel."
"My time grows short already, Severus, so hear me. You will be visited by three ghosts this night. The first as the chimes strike one, the next at two, and the last at three. Listen to the lessons they teach you. It's your only chance to cast off this great chain before it's too late."
"I have no wish to be visited by three troublesome ghosts, Albus. Use your influence to keep them away. And why do they choose to annoy me, by the way? What meddlesome soul decided I should seek redemption?"
"It was my intervention, Severus. Allow an old wizard to feel remorse for all the hell I put you through. My intentions were nothing but good, but you see I'm on my way to hell, walking that paved road with my chains weighing me down. If I have any opportunity at all to let loose at least a few of these anchors, it will be if I can turn you away from the path you're on."
"Why not send all three at once, then? It couldn't be any worse than dealing with Peeves, could it?"
"The first an hour from now, Severus..."
The voice faded away as did the white form, and Severus idly wondered where Albus' normal sense of humor had gone. If he could make it back up to the office and studied the portrait there, would he still see the twinkling of the faded blue eyes?
His strength ebbing quickly, he let his eyes unfocus and waited for the finality of death...