Snape breathed shallowly, and concentrated on emptying his mind. He did allow a bitter resentment of Harry Potter to float to the surface of his thoughts. That, after all, did not strain his skills at deception very deeply.

He did not even attempt to hide the dread seeping icily through every cell of his body. Voldemort would be disappointed in him otherwise: not to mention deeply suspicious. Voldemort both preferred and expected his allies to fear him.

This was most especially the case since, just now, Lord Voldemort was annoyed. Possibly, 'in a towering rage' would have been a more accurate description. What was more, his fury was not general, but directed very specifically at one Severus Snape. This reflection did little to ease the twisting in Snape's guts.

"You let that Potter boy live," Voldemort stated flatly. His red eyes flared dangerously.

"I'm sorry, my Lord," Snape responded, striving to keep his voice both humble and fearful. The 'fearful' part came quite easily. "I did not foresee that he would survive . . . I have failed you, my Lord…."

"Yes," agreed the Dark Lord tightly. "You have. I am disappointed. I do not, Snape, appreciate disappointment."

He flicked his wand casually and watched in satisfaction as Snape convulsed, consumed by waves of burning agony. It was not, of course, the first time Lord Voldemort had seen fit to punish him with the Cruciatus curse. This was one circumstance, however, for which familiarity did not breed contempt. Distantly, Snape could hear that bloody snake slithering around and hissing smugly. Snape thought vaguely how pleasant it would be to wrap the thing around Potter's neck.

Voldemort was especially disgruntled on this occasion. He kept Snape under the curse for longer than usual. When he had finished, Snape's whole body remained racked with pain, and twitched uncontrollably.

Snape had a particular dislike of not being in control. Through the red haze of his own screams (he did not know whether they were merely in his head or uttered aloud), the only coherent thought he possessed was: this is all – Potter's – fault. If Potter had not, yet again, transgressed the rules, he, Snape would not be here now. He would not have had to put himself in the position of pretending to harm Potter for the benefit of Voldemort – while actually contriving to keep the ungrateful brat alive.

Not a thought to entertain in this place, even fleetingly, even in the buried recesses of his mind…he gave in to the roaring fires of pain…

Snape lay apparently unconscious on the floor when the messenger was invited to enter and present his report.

"My Lord," the visitor murmured, grovelling deeply. There was something odd about his voice. And with him had entered a peculiar smell: earthy and rotten at the same time.

Voldemort turned his gaze from Snape, whom he had continued to regard with deep displeasure. Reluctantly he decided he had better call it a day at that point. After all, Snape would be no use to him at St Mungo's in the next cubicle along to the Longbottoms. However tempting such a thought might be at the moment...

"I have good news, my Lord."

Snape was dizzy, and barely able to hear. Through the fog, he grasped just two phrases, both uttered and received with deep excitement: "…vampires…!" and, "finally, the Amulet of Anima…".

He filed them carefully in his brain before collapsing into total oblivion.

Dumbledore frowned.

"Severus," he said gently. "I really think you should call for a healer to treat you…"

"How…would…I …explain this," Snape managed through gritted teeth.

He was in his own chambers at his London house. Normally, he had a profound dislike of revealing his weaknesses to anyone, even Dumbledore. But the high note of triumph in Voldemort's voice when he received his message had made him think it must be urgent. He had therefore contacted Dumbledore immediately upon his painful, dragging return to his home. He had just managed to speak to Dumbledore in the fire before staggering to his bed and finally collapsing.

"Can brew..a potion…as well as anyone…"

"I do not doubt it. Only, ah, perhaps," Dumbledore added delicately, "not just at this precise moment, however. Do you have anything already brewed in your store I may fetch for you?"

Snape moved his head in a feeble nod. "Elanthian Skullcap," he muttered. "In my study. Third shelf…Good for damage to nerves."

Dumbledore rose and retrieved the potion. He picked up a glass and returned to Snape's side.

"Here, Severus," he said.

Snape tried to reach out a hand for it, but to his disgust fell back wracked by fresh spasms.

"How much do you need?" Dumbledore asked neutrally. His face was grave. He poured the medicine into the glass, and despite Snape's sputtering protests, himself raised his head and trickled the liquid between his lips.

"What do you think he is up to?" Snape demanded finally, lying back with his black eyes half-closed. "I have never heard of this Amulet of Anima."

Dumbledore paused. "Nor I, Severus, nor I. I will seek to discover its nature as soon as can be. As for vampires…This is disturbing news, Severus. It is fortunate that you overheard that conversation. If Voldemort has entered into alliance with the vampires, the consequences could be serious. It is surprising, though. The vampires normally pay little mind to our world, and certainly have never before had any thought of casting their lot in with any human power."

"I would remind you, Albus," Snape said through gritted teeth, "that the Dark Lord's interest in vampires goes beyond alliances." Sweat sprang on his brow once more.

Dumbledore looked down at Snape with compassion.

"I think I will leave you to sleep now," Dumbledore said then, correctly guessing that Snape found it no comfort to be observed in his less than flourishing condition. "I will return to check on you in an hour or two. If you need me, Severus…just call."

Snape again inclined his head slightly. Dumbledore moved slowly across the chamber and Floo'ed back to the Order of the Phoenix, casting one last glance behind him. His eyes betrayed both sorrow and guilt.

It was he, after all, who had requested that Snape play this game.

And yet, he could not be too sorry, given the value of the information they had just learned. Vampires! Dumbledore felt foreboding prickling along his spine. And that amulet…a stray memory plucked in the depths of his mind. He creased his brow thoughtfully. Anima, the Amulet of Anima…mentioned in the same breath as vampires... could that be just another name for…

Dumbledore's eyes widened and his breath sucked in.

He needed to call a meeting of the Order, and he had to find Harry. Now.

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