Severus sighed inwardly as 'He Who Must Not Be Named,' (or 'Pretentious Git Who Just Won't Bloody Die' as Severus was privately naming him that evening) started on about Harry Potter again. If Severus didn't know better, he'd think the Dark Lord had a bit of a thing for the Potter boy, the way he went on and on and on about him. He smirked inwardly, thinking of Potter's face if he suggested something like that to him. It almost cheered him up. Almost.

Tonight was the night when all of Voldemorts new 'recruits' learned what they had to do to prove themselves to their master; to prove that they loved and feared Voldemort above all else. They wouldn't come to understand exactly what this meant for another year, if they got that far, but this was the night where it started.

Voldemort, the snake-like man sitting on the throne in the center of the circle, was in his element in all the pomp and circumstance, which was all centered around him. God, he was ugly. He somehow managed to look more and more snake-like every time Severus saw him. And Severus saw him about once a month. He had seen the Snake Snogger at least once a month since his 'resurrection' three years earlier, where Severus had had to pretend to come back to his side and be his loyal servant.

"And how time flew," he thought, bitterly.

Severus looked out of the corner of his eye at the three masked figures standing next to Voldemort's throne. They were standing, waiting to be acknowledged by their future 'master'. Waiting for the terms of the test that would, if they passed it, lead to glory and greatness.

"That's a bloody laugh," he thought, trying to work out which of the boys was Draco Malfoy.

Draco was among them, Severus knew, because Draco had asked Severus what to expect as he was about to start the year-long process that would ultimately end in him becoming one of Voldemort's minions. If he passed all the tests he was about to face that is, and not many did.

All he could say to Draco was, "Pain. Expect pain," as he strode off, wanting to stop Malfoy from getting into the same eternal trap that he had so many years ago, but knowing that to do so would just give away the fact that he was a spy and wouldn't stop Malfoy from joining the Dark Lord. It would just end up in him being 'Crucioed' to death, and that was if he was lucky.

Severus eyed the throne his 'master' was perched upon. It was silver, made from hundreds of thousands of entwined silver snakes, which seemed to be slithering over each other, making the chair look almost liquid. The seat and back were covered in a dark green velvet and snakes heads jutted out from every angle, their eyes glinting with emeralds and little silver forked tongues darting out here and there.

A bloody throne for Merlin's sake! Maybe he's compensating for something? Maybe his whole dark reign has been all because he's just not very well endowed...Sort of like buying a big, shiny, red sports car, if the big, shiny, red sports car was, well, the world, and Voldemort was trying conquer it.

Severus knew his random thoughts were just him trying desperately to push the images to the back of his mind. Not the images of the thing Voldemort may be compensating for (although that would have been awful enough), but the images of the night he was made a Death Eater and was forced to prove his obedience and loyalty to the barely human creature in front of him.

He felt bile at the back of his throat and swallowed it down. It was like this every year. Every year it reminded him of the night he pledged allegiance to the Dark Lord, and how on that very same night he had had his first stirrings of real regret. It wasn't until a year later that the stirrings had turned into full-blown horror of what he had got himself into. But by then it was too late.

He had wanted to run to Dumbledore that night, but had changed his mind at the last minute, knowing that he had gone too far to go back now. It had taken him a year and eight months of doing Voldemort's bidding. A year and eight months to finally see that what he was doing to other people was worse than anything that could ever happen to him, any punishment or pain he would have to endure from either Voldemort, or Dumbledore.

The night he'd gone to Dumbledore, he had wanted to be punished. He half yearned for the Dementor's kiss, needing some sort of punishment for the awful things he'd done and seen. And all Dumbledore had given him was understanding. Understanding that he knew he hadn't deserved and he knew he didn't want. He had cried that night, for only the second time in his life. And Dumbledore had held him, not speaking at all, just holding him.

He blinked to clear his mind, knowing that with Voldemort near, he should be guarding his thoughts against sudden intrusion, in case Voldemort had a sudden urge to read his mind. He did that a lot – you would be standing there quietly, happily minding your own business... and suddenly you felt the red-hot burning in your head. His mind pushing down into your mind. You could almost feel his fingers poking around in your brain. Then suddenly he'd withdraw and you were left feeling sore and tired and split open.

Severus had been studying the rare art of Occlumency since he was ten. He had gone to bed one night and had found a book of it under his pillow. He didn't know if it was his mother or his sister's doing; both had just witnessed a particularly vicious beating of his that evening; but he had studied the book night after night and when he knew it inside out, he found more books and studied them. By the time he was twelve, his father could no-longer read his thoughts and Severus didn't know if that just made his father more violent; punishing him for what he might be thinking.

At sixteen, he was not only a master of keeping people out of his thoughts, he was also amazing at the opposite, Legilimency. If he hadn't already hated James Potter and Sirius Black before, then once he read their minds he had despised them. Remus Lupin had kept them from making most of their most vicious comments to Severus, but he couldn't stop them thinking them.

Severus jumped as Voldemort clapped his slimy looking hands. "God, what's wrong with me tonight? I'll get myself killed if I don't start concentrating". But God, he was tired. It was midnight and he'd not slept well the night before, mind you, he never slept well at this time of year. And to add to it, he had the rest of the seventh year's lesson plan to sort out. It didn't need changing every year, but he liked to tailor it to the specific group he was teaching. At least he didn't have Neville Longbottom in his class this year – strangely enough, he'd opted out of taking his Potions NEWT.

"I wonder if Voldemort has ever actually had a job?" The random thought came to him, as he tried to focus on what the deformed and demented man before him was saying.

He jumped again as Voldemort turned his glower onto him for a second, reminding Severus that exhaustion wasn't an excuse for getting complacent. His life and the lives of many others depended on him. He looked Voldemort straight in the eye and started listening properly, as the new 'recruits' were ordered forward.

This year there were only three recruits and two of them had never attended Hogwarts, so Severus had no idea who they were. Severus tried not to feel for the platinum blonde boy, standing there, his back straight, no doubt very proud of what he was about to do. He was too young to know what he was getting into; too young, and too desperate to please his father for it to even occur to him that he was about to make the biggest mistake of his life.

Severus had tried every subtle way he could to get Draco to think about what he was about to do, but it was blatantly obvious that he didn't stand a chance against Lucius and his friends.

Voldemort chose that moment to acknowledge their presence by he raising his wand and aiming it at them. All three of them flinched and one of them raised their arm up and cowered.

"Silly move," Severus thought, inwardly wincing for the young man or woman who had been stupid enough to show weakness in front of this insane man with far too much power. He would pay for that at some point in the future.

With a hissed word from Voldemort, their brand new Death Eater's masks flew off to reveal three boys looking petrified, especially the tall, thin boy on the end, who had dared to cower.

"You are not worthy of these masks yet," Voldemort almost hissed at them. "You have but a year to prove yourselves to me. In the course of that year, you will complete a task for me. Your last task will be revealed to you on the night of your initiation in a years time."

He was in his element, all pompous and threatening, acting like he was God. Although, Severus supposed, he does keep refusing to die... and it would explain why my life is so bloody dire. Sod God being a woman, God is a slimy, sadistic snake-man, with a very small penis.

"Your task is an easy one," he hissed, loving the fact that the boys were hanging onto his every word, terrified he'd use one of them as an example and Crucio them.

"You are to choose a Muggle-born or half-blood witch and use whatever way you see fit to turn them and bring them to our side," he said, his black eyes glinting in the semi-darkness. "The more... inventive the persuading, the more pleased I will be with your efforts."

Severus remembered the year he had joined, and remembered the broken, sobbing Mudbloods that had cowered at Voldemort's feet. That year, the new recruits had been especially depraved and the women and men that had been 'turned' had barely been aware of the fact that they were alive, let alone that they were about to be used for a fate worse than death.

All the 'recruits' had to do, was make their protégé sign a scroll in blood, giving their bodies and souls to Voldemort. Most did this out of fear, or because they'd been convinced that no one else in the world would love them, or care for them. The future Death Eaters had made most of these people's lives so unbearable that they didn't care any more.

"You are to write the name of the Mudblood on this scroll," Voldemort interrupted his thoughts and indicated the scroll that Peter Pettigrew was clutching in his silver hand. "There will be other tasks during this twelve month period, but exactly twelve months from now, should you have completed this task, the girls will be yours to use as you wish, until I decide to dispose of them. Then on that night, you will perform your final task and prove whether or not you are worthy of my favour."

The three boys looked relieved. Draco actually grinned. Severus's stomach turned over, seeing how much the older Malfoy had rubbed off on his son and how much Draco wanted this, whatever the reasons behind it.

"Should you fail, however," Voldemort said, half grinning at Draco's happy expression. "This will happen to you... Step forward Peterson."

Peterson was one of last year's recruits. There had been five of them – three of them had managed their task, one had committed suicide, no doubt coming to his senses enough to know it was better to die than either join, or cross Lord Voldemort, and the last was Peterson.

Peterson was pale and shaking, his eyes hollow and his teeth chattering. Severus stared straight ahead, trying to clear his mind and distance himself a little.

"You were to turn Amanda Flower, were you not?" he hissed at the man standing in front of him. "A pathetic little Mudblood! Twelve months to break her, turn her and bring her to me... and you FAILED!"

The last word came out as a screech and Peterson fell to his knees. "No, please! No!" he sobbed, as Voldemort stood and pointed his wand at the boy's chest. "I'll do better! I'll try again! Please!"

"Crucio," Voldemort said, in an almost bored voice. He twiddled his wand, as if oblivious to the screaming and choking of the man on the floor. He was only nineteen and had looked so sure of himself the day he had come to join the Death Eaters. He'd stood there in front of Voldemort and told him he was honoured to be given the chance to become his slave. Now he was lying in a pool of blood, vomit and urine, screaming. Funny how these things turned out.

Severus had seen this so many times before, but each time was different, each time the victim reacted in a slightly different way. Different people took different amounts of time to eventually rupture something, which would ultimately result in death. Some people screamed and others clawed at their skin and eyes. Either way, Severus had to grit his teeth and stare straight ahead, trying to resist the urge to rescue the boy and blow his cover as one of Voldemort's most loyal Death Eaters.

When Severus had asked Dumbledore to punish him, he hadn't known that despite Dumbledore wanting to save him from his hell, he would condemn him to a life of torture and punishment, having to watch and participate in the sick games he had long ago grown to despise.

He had spent the longest three years of his life spying for Dumbledore, having to pretend every day that he was loyal to Voldemort, and was enjoying it. Then when Harry Potter had somehow reduced Voldemort to less than nothing, it had stopped. But the pain had never stopped, and now he was doing it again – pretending to be someone he wasn't sure he had ever been. Three more years of spying and pretending. He was exhausted.

When Severus uncleared his mind again, Peterson was lying on the floor, barely breathing. The Crucio had been stopped, as Voldemort was observing what names his new recruits were writing on the parchment. No hospital, whether Muggle or Wizarding, would ever be able to save this boy. Yet he was still breathing. Still alive. Still feeling every bit of pain the Crucio had inflicted on him. Severus prayed he was at least unconscious, that he would be allowed that small mercy.

His attention turned to Draco and his father, standing by Pettigrew, as he proudly held the scroll as the boys each cut their arms with the silver-handled knife provided and dipped their quills into their blood. Symbolic, but poncy, Severus thought, as he watched, waiting to be 'dismissed' by Voldemort.

Draco and his father were laughing as the boy cut himself, barely flinching and wrote a name on the paper.

"Can we, dad? Can we?" Draco was pleading with his dad, like a child who wanted desperately to go to the sweet shop.

"You will have to ask Our Lord," Lucius said, in his usual smarmy way, half bowing to Voldemort.

"What does your boy wish to do?" Voldemort said, sounding almost pleased. It had been a long time since he'd seen someone as eager as Malfoy Junior. Draco would suffer for it later, Severus knew, but Voldemort would see how far he could push him first.

"He wishes to go and find the Mudblood now," Lucius explained, shaking his head and smiling, as if Draco was an impetuous child, throwing a tantrum for a new toy. "He wishes to stage an anonymous kidnapping, which will break the Mudblood before she even starts the school year. He wishes to... use her body."

Severus felt sick for the third time that night.

"Your boy has potential, Lucius," Voldemort said, using Malfoy Senior's first name, which was a rare honour for any of his Death Eaters. "A couple of weeks at your tender mercy, Draco and she'll be begging for our comfort and understanding..."

Voldemort's last few words were sneering and he was grinning that evil grin again. "Go and get Granger, but make sure she does not know it is you. Obliviate her if you must. But first, you will enjoy the ceremony."

"Granger?" Severus's heart started thundering in his chest. "Hermione Granger? Clear your mind, clear your mind... Don't think about it. You can't put everything at risk just because you know the girl they're planning to torture and rape."

Severus closed his eyes, then opened them, looking around surreptitiously for a way to get away for a moment. He needed to get word to Dumbledore before the Malfoys could get to Hermione, so she could be hidden, fast. Trust Draco Malfoy to choose someone like Hermione to turn. Someone who would be almost impossible, but with his father's help, breakable. Hermione would be a big prize for Voldemort and would make Draco 'teacher's pet' for some time.

Severus knew everyone would be stuck here until Voldemort had initiated last years recruits, which could take minutes or hours, depending on the tasks they were given and how quickly they achieved them. He needed to get away before Lucius and Draco did.

Thinking quickly, Severus walked over to where Voldemort was standing with Lucius and Draco, and he dropped to his knees at Voldemort's feet.

"My Lord," he said, kissing the hem of his robes then rising to his feet.

He kept his head bent as a sign of respect, which had the added bonus that he didn't have to actually look at the odious man in front of him, and said, "I must beg for your understanding and benevolence, My Lord. The protective charms I have used to guard my quarters against intruders have been triggered. There is a chance that it may be the Headmaster coming to ramble on about some nonsense and I do not want to raise suspicions as to my whereabouts. If I could leave your presence...?"

"Snape!" Voldemort hissed, turning a red-eyed glare on Severus. "How dare you ask to leave our presence so early!"

"If I may, My Lord," Lucius said, bowing his head as he spoke to the furious half-man next to him. "Severus has never been very good at stomaching our joining ceremonies... Maybe he feels the need to miss this one?"

Severus gave Malfoy as good a look of distain as he could manage through the heavy Death Eater's mask he wore.

"On the contrary, Lucius, I have always enjoyed these ceremonies, although admittedly never as much as you. But then, you do have a huge appreciation for pain and torture, as I recall."

Lucius smirked and Severus turned back to his pissed off looking master, wondering if he was about to be Crucioed for his efforts.

Was Hermione really worth this?

"My Lord, I have never left the Joining Ceremony before and I would not ask unless I felt it was of the utmost importance. I fear the bumbling headmaster is already suspicious enough of my disappearances..."

Another mention of Dumbledore made Voldemort flinch again and Severus tried not to feel some pleasure in that. He tried not to feel anything at all, emptying his mind in case Voldemort suddenly decided to have a rummage around.

"I grow weary of the sight of you," Voldemort said, in a bored voice, turning away from Severus.

"Leave!" he said, flicking his scaly hand in a dismissive gesture, as he walked to his throne and slowly lowered himself onto it.

Severus walked a few steps away from the ring of Death Eaters, ignoring Lucius's gaze following him, as he got ready to Apparate.

Lucius lifted a hand in a sarcastic farewell and Severus Apparated, before he was forced to use one of the unforgivables on Lucius himself. Annoying prat.

The second he felt his feet hit the ground just outside the grounds of Hogwarts, he hitched up his robes and started running, not caring who might see him. It was late anyway and two weeks from being term time, so the chances of anyone seeing their Potion Master looking like a complete twit was unlikely. It was much more likely that he'd scare a passing Ghost, or Hagrid on the hunt for one of his lost 'pets.'

It took a good ten minutes for Severus to get to the school and he cursed the fact that he couldn't Apparate directly onto Hogwarts grounds for the hundredth time since he had started teaching there.

When he arrived in the Great Hall, he was completely out of breath and barely noticed when he barged into someone.

"Minerva! Where's Albus?" he managed to gasp as he recognized the professor he'd nearly flattened.

"Severus? What's happened?" Minerva McGonagall asked, slightly disturbed by the sight of the Potions Master so flustered, his hair everywhere and his face pink.

"Where is Albus?" He snarled, annoyed having to ask again.

"He's away somewhere, visiting a friend," she said, in an annoyingly concerned tone of voice. "Is there anything I can do to..."

He'd already started running. He got to the headmaster's gargoyle and frantically shouted any sweet he could think of at it. At one of them, he had no idea which one, it swung open, revealing the stone staircase leading to Dumbledore's room.

Should really talk to the headmaster about being less predictable... he thought as he leapt up the stairs two at a time, his wand out, shouting "Acio address book!"

A giant black and gold book, it's pages yellowed and old flew through the air towards him at full pelt. He ducked and managed to grab it just before it hit the wall behind him. He started flicking through it, frantically.

Hermione's address was filed under H, rather than G, for Granger. Severus only discovered this after searching through hundreds of 'G's without finding a single Granger. He quietly cursed the headmaster for being so bloody awkward, then cursed Hermione for not being connected to the Floo Network.

He hitched his robes up once more and started running back towards the grounds, so he could Apparate to her house, cursing Dumbledore yet again. He desperately hoped that Voldemort was having one of his 'look at me, aren't I great' days, so he'd keep Lucius and Draco for long enough for him to get Hermione and her family to safety.