Part XIV – The Visitors

The ostentatious Death Eater Celebrations had continued far into the night, and despite a local village being ransacked and Muggle cries shrilling unanswered across the hills, the whole event passed without the sign of a single Auror. Either something wasn't running so smoothly at the Wizarding Headquarters (How it irritated him that he was no longer freely able to discover this sort of information for himself!) Or, perhaps the Ministry – the portions of it that were not corrupt - were biding their time. Severus of course was secretly hoping it was the latter reason. He, too, was still uncomfortably far from what he wanted to accomplish, and he hardly wanted to die, be thrown in prison or be put on trail before he had the chance to carry out all his plans.

After the gathering he had apparated back to the Death Eater hideout to find no sign of Draco. He shivered slightly as he recalled how the creature that was now inhabiting the boy's father's body had snarled at him before apparating in pursuit of his son.

It seemed the boy's fear for the evening entertainment had realised itself in a wholly different way.

The proud pureblood wizard Lucius Malfoy was now a vampire, and ironically seemed to radiate more power and determination in death than he had ever done in life. Snape recalled the first time they had met. The upper class senior boy had given him warm welcome as a first year. Their introduction had occurred on the first train ride there, and Malfoy had been quick to make it clear he wished Severus to be in Slytherin.

And the ambitious first year from a poor, working class home was then indeed sorted into Slytherin, and he did of course take great lengths to be like that elder boy, to hide his regional accent, disguise his station, to make sure he made the most of his mother's connection to the old pureblood line of Prince. Though the thought was more repulsive to him now, once upon a time, Severus Snape had desired to be like Lucius Malfoy.

Now Malfoy was on nobody's side, really, not even his own. Malfoy was now a soulless, damned creature, a hollow mockery of the man it was trying to imitate.

It was quite a shock, of course, Severus couldn't pretend otherwise. Though it did make him wonder precisely what the Dark Lord was playing at making deals with the vampires. Particularly with such an ancient one as Sanguini. No doubt there would be uneasy whisperings among the other purebloods about this.

He couldn't help quirking a lip at the thought of the expression on Bellatrix's face when she realised she had a Ministry classified Monster for a brother in law, though.

Snape silently opened the door to his makeshift quarters and was about to step inside when his nostrils were struck by a strange pungent smell. He recognised it instantly, went for his wand but wasn't quite quick enough. Faster than even his reflexes could react a pale hand shot out from the shadows and wrenched his wand roughly from his grasp. Snape went to leap backwards but the second hand was already tightening round his neck.

The pungent smell wafted forward stronger than ever – the unmistakably horrid smell of old blood. A pair of purplish eyes glinted back at him in the darkness. Eyes he recognised.

Snape felt his blood turn to ice in his veins. Of course; how could he have been so foolish to forget that the door wards to the hideout welcomed all wizards branded with the Dark Mark?

"I pity you now, rather, Severus," came the cool, detached whisper as Snape tried with all his might to prise the cruelly strong fingers from his neck. "I assume you have never had to deal with an old wizarding-friend-turned-vampire before, have you? One that knows all your habits, your secrets, your possible weaknesses?"

The vampire came forward into the torchlight a little more, The light gleaming off his unmistakably white-blond hair and ghastly pale features.

Wandless magic would not help him here. It was simply not powerful enough to blast a full adult vampire off its feet. Snape gave up prising the ice-cold fingers away from his neck and bared his teeth in defiance.

"Speak of the Devil..."

"Ever the skilful wordsmith, aren't you, Severus Snape? Though in this case I rather think you mean, what have you done with Draco?" crooned Lucius amusedly. "And how your heart is thrumming inside that scrawny ribcage of yours. Do you care for my son at all? Dear dear, I believe you just may…"

Snape's heart was indeed beating rapidly, and his initial thoughts had been about Draco. He hoped the boy had had the sense to flee back home to warn his mother. They would be safe providing she had not already unwittingly invited her husband into the house…

Lucius smiled just then, almost as if he had indeed read Snape's mind. "They have indeed both barricaded and warded themselves in the Manor. They know for the moment I am unable to step across the threshold. But they won't be able to hide from me forever."

"They have nothing to do with you anymore, creature!" hissed Snape as threateningly as he could, trying hard resist the icy claws of panic that were fast closing in on him.

The vampire quirked a pale eyebrow in amusement. "They are my recognised next of kin, Severus. Why, even you must see why I must turn them. I wouldn't want my family fragmented by hate and misunderstanding now, would I?"

Snape glowered confusedly. "What the hell do you want with me?"

Lucius' eyes glinted. "Ah. This is where it all gets rather interesting. The Dark Lord may still be able to summon me with the Mark, but by orchestrating my death he has removed my only limitation and my only sense of continuing loyalty toward him. Fear."

"You always were a coward at heart, Malfoy," growled Snape. He forced his eyes shut in an attempt to block the Vampire's mesmerising glare. If only he were strong enough to wrench his wand free from the vampire's grasp…

"Well, in my own way, yes, I suppose I was a coward," replied Lucius somewhat detachedly, a sinister leer creeping across his pasty face. "But, that is all in the past. This is where you should be wise to begin fearing me, Severus, because of course as we well know all the Occlumency skills in the world will not protect you from a vampire's prying eyes."

Snape couldn't help but grimace. It was very true. But it was not often that a vampire took that great an interest in interrogating a wizard for information, most were more concerned with the simple animalistic act of biting and feeding and moving on to the next victim. Voldemort knew this too, of course, but in his arrogance the Dark Lord had obviously greatly and foolishly underestimated the intelligence of this one…

"Indeed he did, Severus," was the chilling whisper. "And so he underestimates you I see. And if you value your life and intelligence, and don't want another more personal war on your hands I suggest you persuade whichever side wins to consider me and my kin more compassionately after the final battle. Though, whatever happens, the Dark Lord and Harry Potter have both helped to destroy my family, and I will have my revenge on them both."

Snape curled his lip in contempt. "It's not me you should be trying to sweet talk. Try Dumbledore's precious Gryffindors for that. Or perhaps call in at the Ministry for tea and biscuits…see if your dear friends there will have you back."

the vampire emitted an almost preternatural snarl of anger. He loomed closer and grinned to show the tips of his slightly pointed incisors in warning. "Careful, Severus… If your orders are to assist the Potter fool in finding the Horcruxes then you would indeed be an idiot to deny acquaintance with somebody who has a definite lead on at least one of them."

Snape narrowed his eyes contemptuously. "Only fools can be bought."

"No buying involved, just understanding," answered Lucius. "Vampires have been misunderstood for far too long. Killing humans is a natural act for us; wizarding law should not deny us this right and force us to drink bottled inferior blood which makes us sleepy and weak. You have seen for yourself what damage it is doing to Sanguini."

Snape stared back into the vampire's eerily gleaming eyes. If he was going to walk away from this unscathed it was paramount that he be completely honest in his thoughts. Very luckily for him, being sidelined and forever pigeonholed by society and the Ministry for making a terrible mistake in his youth he did have the ability to empathise with this creature.

If he was brutally honest about it, he was at this precise moment little better off and decidedly less loved in the wizarding society than a vampire. The thought was entirely unsettling, but very true.

As soon as he considered this he felt the fingers around his neck relax slightly. Lucius gave an oily smile.

"That wasn't so difficult now, was it my dear friend?"

Snape glowered. "The Horcrux?"

"Goldgleams. He keeps it under the glass counter at the back of his shop. Has quite a weighty price tag on it, which is why no one has purchased it yet." Lucius' eyes glinted. "Mundungus Fletcher was trying to bargain with me to spare his life, but by the description of it I realised exactly what it must be. An obliviate may have sufficed following our conversation, but I was rather hungry for my first kill and Sanguini was becoming impatient with me… He is a much more simplistic creature, is Sanguini. Great and powerful, but regrettably simplistic."

In spite of himself, Snape swallowed and felt a cold tingle of horror run down his spine as Lucius reached out with his other hand and stroked icy cold fingertips - almost tenderly - down the side of his face.

"I think we are in mutual understanding for the moment, my dear friend," murmured Lucius with another chill smile. "Now, if you don't mind I have pressing business to attend to before sunrise…" With one last chilling look, Lucius Malfoy placed Snape's wand back into his robe pocket before dissolving into a haze of smoke.

Once the Vampire had gone Snape sank down to his knees in shock. He clutched at his throat with both hands and retched and swallowed. The creature's flesh felt like it had burned where it had touched him. He could also clearly feel indentations where its sharp fingernails had dug mercilessly into his skin.

Severus had dealt with a vampire or two before in his life, but never a wizard vampire. They were exceedingly rare, and wildly varying in power and intelligence, so it was impossible to tell in each instance exactly how much effort it would take to kill them. Those few reported in history books who'd had the intelligence to protect themselves had done so with complex shields and charms. The best short-term tips the defence books could offer on wizard vampires was talk and bargain, rather than attack.

And Severus Snape had been lucky enough to be able to do just that.

His mind was racing. So much of urgent significance had happened in the past few hours it was almost impossible to take it all in. Someone else in the Order now had to be let in on his and Dumbledore's secret, the swift chain of events had grown impossible for him to deal with all by himself.

But who could he tell?

At this point in time he felt he would much rather talk to an adult, than three over-excitable gung-ho heroic teenagers with Hex-happy wand fingers.

He began to mentally tick possible confidants off on his fingers, until he was left with just one. His mouth twisted again.

McGonagall.

Snape closed his eyes. She must truly loathe him now. Could he even risk contacting her, or slipping her a message? Would she even listen to reason or would her wounded and irascible Gryffindor temper blast him out of her sight before he had even uttered a single word?

Considering the fact Dumbledore had to leave her completely in the dark about their entire plan, perhaps she wouldn't trust him at all. More to the point; she would be shocked and absolutely furious.

He poured himself a glass of wine and slouched despondently back into an armchair.

The mantlepiece clock chimed to announce the time as six 'o' clock in the morning. Snape swirled the dregs of the wine around and swallowed them down. The developing bruises on his neck from the vampire's grip made him wince painfully as he did so.

Dying firelight shone off his pale hand, raised to trace a finger along his lips. He paused as he hit the indentation at the corner of his mouth; the tail end of a long, thin scar. His eyes clouded as he gently traced the scar's path up his cheek and through his eyebrow. One of the Hippogriff's razor sharp talons had torn its merciless way up his face in the attack, missing his eye by millimetres.

A creature that had only been fiercely protecting what it saw as its master and friend. It had succeeded where he had failed. Others saw it just as a battle scar; a mark of pride. No one would need to know that he had kept this ugly scar as a sober reminder that he had to succeed at his final, secret mission.

A secret mission that for the moment seemed to be fast slipping out of his grasp.

Snape let out a heavy sigh and turned his head from the fire, losing his face to the dark shadows.

"I just don't know what to do this time, Dumbledore."

As if in immediate answer to a summons, a bright flash of fire suddenly plumed from the fireplace, spitting out a ball of flame that shot across the stone floor.

After having an evening of shocks and scares, Snape's nerves were wound tighter than a coiled spring. On seeing the flame, he leapt out of the chair, eyes darting, his wand drawn in an instant.

The flames dulled in intensity, then disappered, and in their place stood a brightly plumaged bird.

"Fawkes?!" hissed Snape incredulously.

The golden-plumaged bird peered up at him with one bright eye and trilled, in its usual concerned manner, before sticking out a leg.

Snape immediately threw a few protective wards toward his door and stared at the bird for a moment as if he had gone slightly mad. The bird still trusted him. He had been so involved in serving the Dark Lord and playing his part well he had…forgotten…what it was like to be trusted.

He berated himself silently. Of course the bird would still trust you, Severus. You blithering idiot.

Taking a quill and ink, he quickly concocted a note to McGonagall, stressing the fact he had extremely important information that could not be ignored. With bated breath, Severus attached the scroll to the Phoenix's leg and watched as it strutted back into the flames and disappeared.

After more than twenty minutes of agitated waiting, the phoenix reappeared with the same regal attitude and a completely different scroll.

"You have just given me the most frightful turn indeed, Severus Snape. Yet, Fawkes has come to you, and Albus' portrait is also shockingly and insuffrably insistant I see you in person before I make my final judgement on your character. So, if you are indeed in earnest, then use the secret passageway from Honeyduke's cellar to gain access to Hogwarts. It would be prudent to come in disguise, of course. I will not have my staff members be put at risk of possible heart failure with the shock of it all."

Snape scowled indignantly at the piece of parchment.

Did she think he was a complete idiot? Of course he was damn well going to go in disguise!

But which sort of disguise would be best? He had neither the preparation time or the ingredients to impersonate any of the current Hogwart's staff. It would have to be a current Hogwart's student. And, seeing as he only had hair samples from three students at this point in time…

Draco's hair was useless to him here, and he certainly wasn't going to impersonate a Weasley again if he had any choice in the matter.

Any means to achieve their ends…

Snape's mouth curled in obvious distaste as he contemplated what he was about to do. He stood, walked into his brewing room, picked up a stand of empty vials, pulled them out and flipped the stand upside down. The wooden base slid across to reveal a secret compartment. His thin fingers pinched around the topmost vial. Inside were a few small short strands of black hair, and a thin torn-off slip of parchment on which were scrawled the initials: H.J.P.

Pulling a flask of Polyjuice toward him and removing the lid, Snape carefully pulled a single hair out of the vial and dropped it in.

Snape's eyes narrowed as he heard the potion begin to fizz as expected. He replaced the cap and stowed the flask safely in a robe pocket.

"Coward am I, Potter?" he hissed quietly to himself.