Chapter 26: Fools

He who controls others may be powerful,

but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.

--Lao Tzu

'You asked for one night, and I have given you two,' Albus said kindly as he stepped through the door to the potions classroom. His presence in the dungeon always made Snape feel slightly disillusioned, as the Headmaster faded slightly against the dreary backdrop the rooms provided. The imposing stone walls made him look more hunched and frail; the spluttering torches washed the brightness from his robes.

'There was an unforeseen problem.' Snape spelled the flame that sat beneath the gently bubbling cauldron to reduce minutely. His own shadow flickered against the chalkboard behind him, the spidery remnants of his slanted writing almost invisible beneath it. He had tried to write it down, to keep some record of his creation so he could analyse it for pitfalls and weaknesses. But potions of this variety were felt more than brewed, and resisted being recorded in such a finite way. Every step he had hurriedly scrawled resulted in a stray hair, and extra stir or an unwanted bubble in his distraction. 'It must be kept at this temperature precisely, or it will be about as effective as mud.'

Dumbledore eyed the cauldron speculatively. As far as Snape knew, the man never brewed, yet the care he took as he leant over to inhale deeply indicated this was more a matter of personal choice than any lacking skill. The Headmaster had dabbled in alchemy, after all; and whilst the subject itself was considered by many as nothing more than the foolish search for glory, it was widely acknowledge that such a search required considerable skill in potions. 'Surely you are capable of maintaining it as such without your continued presence?'

Snape frowned. 'Of course.'

Dumbledore nodded. 'Then we should depart immediately.'

The faint outline of the amulet the Headmaster had produced the previous night, bobbing just beneath the collar of his robes, sparked a rush of annoyance. 'It cannot be brought with us,' he challenged, wanting something more than this calm and unconcerned foray into an unknown threat. He didn't get it. The Headmaster just smiled, running a hand through his beard in a gesture Snape remembered from a time when he had been scared and just a little homesick, and had set fire to his friends curtains rather than admit to being either. He wondered, with a fair degree of vindictiveness, if even Minerva would ever be more than just an old student to the man.

'I do understand that is what you meant.'

'It adds to the risk.' He wasn't a student any more, however, and Albus was more than just an associate, which meant Snape was damned if he was going to take the vagueness and never-ending optimism that was supposed to surrogate for actual answers. 'I brewed a batch without the phoenix tears, but since I cannot guarantee the efficiency of the potion that contains them, I am even less convinced of the batch without.' More of the brew rested on the tears than he would have liked. He resisted saying they were the most important ingredient he had added. Without the aconite, the potion had an alarming tendancy to froth excessively; without the nightshade he had almost taken out the entire wing. But without the tears he had a nasty suspicion the potion made a better plant food than it did miracle cure-all. He had been tempted to demand the fire-bird join them on the expedition, and be ready to damn well cry on command. Surely any creature that could spontaneously burst into flames and survive was capable of providing warm tears when requested.

'I do not plan on lingering once we are done.' Dumbledore waited patiently as Snape once again checked the ward surrounding the cauldron, checked his wand and rummaged through his drawers. The vials he pulled out were old, coloured with age and pitted from long use. But the glass was thick and well made, even as he muttered any number of charms to clean and protect it. 'No doubt it will buy us the time to return.'

'Then I would recommend we return very, very quickly.' Snape strode to a second cauldron, dipping the neck of each vial in turn, watching as the thick liquid slowly piled at the bottom. Each one was sealed with a cork, one disappearing into the many folds of his cloak, the other pressed into the Headmaster's warm hand.

Dumbledore clasped his in return, if only for a moment. 'Have you a broom?'

'I was thinking more along the lines of a Portkey,' Snape argued. Failing that, he would have rather taken Floo powder. Injuries didn't travel well through the Floo, but if it were a choice between that, and the aching slowness of flight, he would take the fireplace in a pinch. 'One that would, preferably, deposit us both in this very room.'

'Given where we are going, do you honestly believe that to be the wisest item to carry?' Albus accompanied the question with a look over the rims of his glasses that withered Snape's protests.

'Perhaps not,' he conceded. 'I will borrow a broom from the school supplies.'

'Hardly sufficient for a quick return. I have one you can borrow.' He snapped his fingers, a house elf appearing with two broomsticks clutched in its spindly fingers. The creature handed them over silently, the rustle of the bristles and the slight rasping of wood against wood the only noise that passed between the two before the elf disappeared with a pop. Dumbledore let his eyes drift briefly over both before handing one over with a flourish. 'Much faster and more reliable than those old Cleansweeps.'

'I forgot broom collection was amongst your many eccentricities.' Snape scoffed as he grasped the polished wood with determination, his gaze barely brushing the item before landing on the stark imprint emblazoned across the handle. 'This is Potter's broom.' He said with something akin to horror.

'Technically,' the Headmaster corrected him, 'thanks to the ban implemented by the late Undersecretary, it is the property of the Ministry.'

Snape may as well have been deaf for all that mattered to him. 'The god-forsaken mutt gave it to him. I wouldn't be surprised if the damn thing tossed me.'

Albus continued obliviously. 'The ban will be lifted, of course. Such a ruling could not hold sway for life. I think a summer will be sufficient.' He smiled benignly. 'I will return it after the feast.'

'He will not appreciate my using it.'

'I do believe you said speed was of the utmost importance. There is no faster broom in the school.' The Headmaster held the door open, leaving Snape no option but to cast the item a final resigned glance before striding through.

'How far must I ride the accursed thing?'

'As far as Hogsmeade,' Dumbledore chuckled. 'I am not barbaric, Severus, and we will be travelling quite a distance. I'm not ignorant to the concept of Apparition. Nor am I unaware that the town, whilst close, can seem to be an eternity away when you have nothing but your feet to rely on.'

'You find this amusing?' Snape sneered, not expecting or wanting an answer. The silence they had drifted into was much more comfortable. Dumbledore kept pace with him easily, the corridors flowing quickly past them until they stood by the front doors. The sun was already creeping towards the distant horizon. The school train was even now nearing its destination. They should not have left it so late.

'We will be back in plenty of time for the feast,' Dumbledore assured him. 'Whilst I too would have preferred not to have left it so close, I cannot argue that you have not used the extra time well.'

'I'm sure there would be other opportunities,' Snape suggested.

'Indeed there would be, but I will not leave the school unprotected once the students have arrived.' The more he spoke, the more Snape was convinced that the entire notion of their venture was ludicrous. Hogwarts needed Albus, and not just as a figurehead, but as a powerful adversary. And Snape had seen what lay waiting for them this evening; he had heard the buried acceptance in the Headmaster's voice before he had ever breached the memory showing him exactly what awaited them. He had sworn to help the Headmaster survive before he had even seen the tangled web of protections they would be attempting to breach. Neither had brought up it was a promise he would likely be forced into breaking. 'We must go now.'

It was a piece of the Dark Lord's very soul, his secret to immortality, and its destruction was both a valuable and priceless thing. Worth more than both their lives combined were that the only cost they would be paying. The school needed Albus, however. The Order needed him. Blast it all if Potter didn't need him, and that brat had more resting on his shoulders than Snape cared to contemplate. Albus probably thought he was doing the boy a great favour, carrying what burden he could. He doubted the man had considered what extra burden, what new hurt, his death would bring about instead.

'And if something should happen to you this evening?' He phrased it as a remote happenstance when they both knew it wasn't. 'The school will be even more vulnerable if you are dead as opposed to simply away.'

'The school will have Minerva. As Headmistress she would be a much greater threat to the enemy than she would simply as my deputy.' Snape couldn't argue with that. The power of the deputy Headmistress was limited in comparison to what the true Headmaster could do. With the weight of the full title, Minerva would lack only in reputation, of which she still had a plethora. 'I have, of course, warned her of the potential situation.'

'And she accepted it?'

'Of a sort,' Dumbledore chuckled.

'I would appreciate it if you didn't laugh just prior to your imminent death,' Snape growled angrily. The grounds were far behind them now, the small village closer with every step, the boundary of the wards even closer still. 'It is somewhat disconcerting.'

'And I do wish you wouldn't snarl so, but life is full of disappointment.'

Snape passed the rest of the distance to the town in icy, emotionless silence that seemed to amuse the Headmaster as much as any other response Snape could have envisioned would have done. He glared as the Headmaster grasped his arm for apparition, a silent chuckle shaking the old mans shoulders, and then the world crushed around him for an instant, reforming almost instantly into a wooded alcove far denser than the one they had left. The crackle of dead leaves in the distance had Snape turning in an instant, wand drawn and pointed even as branches snagged and pulled at his robes. When nothing sinister appeared, he fought to reclaim them, thorns tearing a deep gnash down his left sleeve. A hasty spell obliterated the worst of the growth, and a flash of red caught his eye as he turned back to the Headmaster.

'You brought the sword with you?' He had only seen it for an instant, hidden beneath the many folds of Dumbledore's cloak, but the jeweled hilt had been unmistakable. 'Why?'

'I believe we will need it to destroy the item,' Albus replied easily.

'It can do that?' Snape did not have the complete faith in the item that the Headmaster radiated, and found himself wondering if it was a reasonable reaction, or if he had been that far indoctrinated against all things Gryffindor. Certainly it didn't look like anything special, unless excessive gaudiness was a secret weakness of the Dark Lord.

'Certainly.' Albus hefted the lengthy blade, studying the writing engraved along its surface. 'It is Goblin forged, and given the life it has led, that is a great advantage.'

Snape found himself torn between complete admiration and absolute panic. 'You did tell me that Potter used it to kill a Basilisk, correct?' he confirmed, his mouth going dry as Albus nodded. 'And you are absolutely sure the Dark Lord has not managed to get his hands on it?'

'I am.' The conviction was driven home with a rush of Legilimency Snape found himself appreciating for once. 'We would have a whole host of other problems were I anything less than entirely certain.'

'That is one way of understating it,' Snape said humourlessly. He hadn't brought up the question of destroying whatever the Horcrux was, too blinded by his own task to even think of it. 'I take it that it was that brief brush with the snake you were referring to as an advantage.'

'Indeed.' Albus pointed between the trees. Snape could vaguely make out the shadowy shape of a long forgotten building. 'The entrance is on this side.' Snape pushed ahead of the Headmaster, ignoring his catching robes and the muffled sounds of a distant town. A spider scuttled quickly out of his path, Snape tearing through its web and leaving it vibrating wildly on a remaining strand.

It was as if a line had been breached. The air had been brisk, ruffling his cloak and rustling the leaves that were overhanging above them. The sun had just started to dip below the canopy of distant rooftops, casting warming slants of red and orange through the branches as the dust stirred from the abandoned path cutting through the overgrowth. The shack stood just before him, only partly concealed by the overgrowth of holly that meandered across the teetering roof. Grass grew long and thick, peeking through knots in the woodwork and brushing persistently against the clouded windows. Snape sent a spell hacking straight through the burgeoning growth at his feet, reducing a twist of competing saplings to ruin, his boots further grinding the remains into the ground beneath as he attempted to further clear the pitiful excuse for a path. It hit him unexpectedly, drawing an involuntary wince and a quick backstep, away from what could only be called noise despite the pressing silence that left his ears ringing.

He reached a hand out tentatively, long fingers snaking towards the rotting beams of the tiny, wooden shack. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he felt something lying, waiting, just a hairs breadth away. Albus needn't have placed the hand on his wrist, preventing any further movement. Snape couldn't have pushed himself past the intent that hovered there.

It was ridiculous; loud, demanding and unpleasant in a way that clawed and itched. The shack wasn't a hiding place, it was a fortress that pointed and laughed and was undeniably there and couldn't possibly be missed. By anyone. 'How has it managed to remain unnoticed for so long?' It was meant to be a secret, Albus had said, and the Dark Lord didn't hide his secrets with such raucous abandon.

And it was different, Snape remembered with a start. The memory he had seen, swirling in Dumbledore's pensieve, had been formidable, yes. But it hadn't exuded this flippant disregard for its hidden value; it hadn't stomped and shouted. The wards had been the same knotted mess they were now, but muted; visible only if you looked and, sometimes, only if you knew what you were looking for. Which meant only one of two things. Either the Dark Lord had been given reason to return; had felt compelled to risk his greatest and most treasured asset for this trumped up, posturing attempt at intimidation.

Or Albus had changed his memory.

Disconcertingly, Snape was pretty sure that the correct answer was the one he least wanted to find true.

'It is out of the way, now,' Dumbledore offered as a paltry explanation to the question Snape had almost forgotten asking. He focused on the shack again, trying to mask his unease. 'Even if it once was not.' It wasn't as if he had never been lied to before. The Dark Lord frequently tested his loyalty in such a way. But the Dark Lord inspired fear, beyond all else, and it was easy to hide a wealth of knowledge behind a mask of fearful subservience. He had never expected such a maneuver, however, from the man he considered a friend. He had never thought he would have to hide apprehension, of all things, from the Headmaster, who inspired nothing but admiration from others. 'There are many rumours that help to keep it so.'

'Rumours?' he asked, finding interest he didn't have to feign. 'Like the shrieking shack?'

Dumbledore nodded twice, tilting his head in consideration before shaking it instead, answering, 'rumours with perhaps a little more truth behind them than that.' Snape fervently wished he had seen how obviously distracted the man was earlier. Actually, he had seen it; he had just falsely attributed it to the nature of their little excursion. Even Albus Dumbledore was allowed a little trepidation before facing something that could, and probably still would, kill him. This carelessness spoke of something far greater than that, however. Snape wondered exactly what else the Headmaster had decided to keep from him. No doubt it involved Potter, who didn't deserve this sort of devotion, yet was getting it anyway.

'It will kill anyone who gets close.' The point was obvious but, Snape felt, worth making.

'It will, and it has,' Dumbledore sighed tiredly. 'Tom may be sentimental, but he does not shirk in protection when it is due.'

'I can break half of these, perhaps.' Snape held the palm of his hand out flat again. Magic needed to be strong, in order to be felt in such a way. It wasn't so much a feeling even as it was the merest sense. Hogwarts managed it, leaving newcomers aghast. But even there the feeling quickly dissipated. The wards surrounding the shack writhed and twisted on themselves, bucking ferociously whenever Snape raised his wand in the hope to catch the identity of another. He wasn't even sure that the ones he had managed to name were correct. If they were, than by all rights the protections should have destroyed each other. 'I can't just let you walk into them.'

'We shall see what we can do first,' Albus said comfortingly, and Snape was achingly aware that it was neither a confirmation nor a denial of what he feared.

'You should've brought Filius,' he mentioned offhandedly instead. 'He has far greater skill for this.'

The reply chilled Snape. 'And beliefs that would have only hindered when he failed.' Albus' words bore down on him with a crashing wave of incredulity and betrayal. Potter didn't deserve this; didn't deserve that someone would willingly risk so much to save him from even a slither of his own destiny. Potter should have been brought here to share in the pain and the sacrifices and the distinct lack of choices and answers. But most of all, Potter shouldn't have the right to hate the person who was stuck here in his place, making all the hard decisions for him, so very much. Albus had offered Snape the choice before, and now Snape was going to make it. Damn the golden boy to the depths of Hell and back again before Snape let one more person make another futile sacrifice in his name.

He cast a final spell at the shack in vicious satisfaction, turned on his heel to tell Albus exactly what he could do with the thrice cursed Horcrux, and felt his every shred of loathing evaporate as his wand sparked twice in response to the hastily cast identification charm, horror quickly sweeping in to take its place.

'It wouldn't make a difference anyway,' he snapped in overwhelming relief. If this was right, there was nothing they could do. The potion would be useless. If a swarm of phoenixes, all sobbing over the impending death of the old man, were to swoop down in a rainstorm of tears it would make no difference. Albus would have to find another way. 'We may as well leave them all up.'

'You spotted it too?'

Snape looked aghast. 'You've seen this?' he questioned with disbelief.

'I did say it was well protected,' Dumbledore chastised gently.

'This changes everything!'

Albus had the gall to chuckle. Snape had never hated him so much. 'I also believe I mentioned that I doubted the wards could be broken.'

'You manipulative bastard!' Snape roared. Dumbledore's expression was amused. 'You could have mentioned it specifically! It's not as if it could be anything else.'

'Then you would not have come.' The implications of that passed Snape by.

'Because it is a fruitless endeavour!'

Albus quirked an eyebrow. 'Given the potion you have spent the better part of the last two days brewing, I would have thought you could have figured that out for yourself.'

'You doddering old man!' Even as he said it, Snape reached out to grasp Albus around the arm. 'How dare you stand there, willing to walk in to that, whilst letting me believe I had a chance of saving you from it!'

'You have every chance.' Have, not had. Snape redoubled his grip. 'I brought you here to help, Severus, because I was not sure, after what Harry said about the locket, that the risk was entirely worth taking by myself. If someone else has also been stealing horcruxes, then there is much more to consider.' Except Albus wasn't actually considering anything beyond saving poor Harry Potter.

'It's an Unreachable Curse,' he shouted, all but shaking the Headmaster like an unruly child who refused to listen and, above all else, learn. 'You do know what that means, right?'

'That something must be sacrificed in order to break it,' Albus quoted dutifully, disentangling Snape's fingers from his robes.

'He tethered it, lord only knows how, to a Binding Charm, of all things.' Innocuous and harmless, except the Unreachable Curse was based on the rules of sacrifice, and sacrifice without reward or purpose was a pointless thing. Somehow, the charm fulfilled this requirement.

'You make it sound so simple.' Even Albus was impressed, Snape could tell; always willing to admire the skill behind the deadliest of spell constructions.

'Simple, no, just out of character,' Snape argued. 'If he could do this, then I see no reason why he also couldn't have ensured your entrails were dragged out through your nose when you first approach.'

'As opposed to being magically bound to sacrifice the first thing the ward comes into contact with?' Dumbledore commented with innocence that gave Snape pause. That was what the Binding Charm did? Magical sacrifice was a nasty thing, outlawed so long ago for several exceedingly good reasons.

'Point taken,' Snape conceded reluctantly. 'I suppose this is why you hold on to your foolhardy belief that this is survivable.'

'Sacrifices do not kill.'

'Until the ritual is over,' Snape amended. 'Then they are known for killing.'

'The injuries that result often kill, yes,' Albus argued, as if cause and effect were things that could be separated by sheer force of will. 'The ritual itself is relatively benign.'

Snape held back on a snort of disbelief at the suspicions that were forming in his mind, suddenly sure he knew how Albus planned on living through the night. 'There are wizards who have argued that it was the attempt of someone to avoid making the promised sacrifice that led to the existence of werewolves, you know,' he said lightly.

'I have no intention of shirking payment.'

Snape's brow furrowed in confusion. There was no other possible loophole, no other weakness or potential point of manipulation. 'Then what?'

Albus just smiled, his hand patting gently against Snape's arm before giving one final, conciliatory squeeze.

He stepped towards the shack.

Snape's hand shot out, his fingers grasping thin air, finding nothing to hold onto or pull back. He cursed at the impulsiveness of Gryffindors in general and the rashness of the Headmaster in particular and he hated Potter with all of his soul as he realised there was nothing he could do. He couldn't even reach the Headmaster, not until the sacrifice was made, at which point it would probably be too late for anything but a hasty goodbye. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out the vial and hurled it against the wall, his previous spells preventing the glass from shattering so it fell to the ground with a dull and completely unsatisfying thud.

Snape cursed again, his wand twitching almost frantically as he rattled off every spell his memory could dredge that could possible do something. Albus hadn't thought it through; he never did. Oh, the man could plan for the future like none other, but the only future he could see was months and years in the distance. He was blind to the immediately preceding time after any decision. It was all very well to charge Snape with the duty of saving him from his own, immense, stupidity. It was quite another to make himself beyond saving.

With a snarl of incomprehensible fury, Snape tried to summon back the vial, but it refused to move. He aimed a Blasting Curse at the ground just beyond it, but the spell appeared to fizzle out before it even reached. In a haze of anger, he strode forwards, the buzzing of the wards growing louder and more deafening with each step, until he could just bend down and reach it for himself.

The silence hit him first.

It was almost as painful as the noise itself had been, and the creaking of rotting wood shifting in the wind was a blessing of normalcy as he straightened upright, glanced round to confirm the dawning comprehension, and then glared at the Headmaster.

'They're all an illusion?' Snape looked round, his perplexity doing nothing to mute his enraged infuriation. The shack was more ramshackle than humble; there was no charm to it, only the remains of abject poverty and the disillusioned pride he knew so well. He should have figured, really. Nothing that powerful could have gone undetected by the Ministry for so long. An illusion, however, left so little spell residue it was remarkable it could falsify something of such immense proportions.

'It would appear so.'

Snape wasn't as convinced. 'We are missing something fundamental. Leaving it this unguarded is almost as preposterous as the ridiculous farce he erected.'

'I quite agree.' The old man said it with apparent truth, but Snape couldn't shake the feeling he was being told what he wanted to hear and no more. As if to emphasise this, Dumbledore took a moment to rap his knuckles solidly on the bare wall behind him, and scuff his foot meaningfully into the dust that shifted round his feet. 'Yet my entrails remain firmly where they should be.'

There had to be something else here, though; some curse or hex. The illusion seemed to serve more than just one purpose, however, since it overrode everything else around it. It didn't matter what spells he tossed into the darkened corners, they all told him exactly the same thing. 'It's useless,' he snarled, thoroughly disgusted at being so completely undone by such a simple principle. 'I can't find anything beyond that damn atrocity. There could be anything in here.'

'I can take it down,' Albus offered, 'but I do not feel it would be for the best.'

Snape did consider it, for a moment. It was an obvious ploy, but he was exhausted with stumbling around blind. At least that way they would be ready for whatever came, instead of accidentally tripping something unexpected. For all it had sounded like an offer, however, Albus clearly wasn't willing to do such a thing. The suggestion had been purely to appease him, as if he had any control left at all, and it had him snapping. 'You are capable of forethought, then?' Snape sneered bitterly as he continued. 'I am eternally surprised.'

'Severus…' It was less a warning, much more a tired request that Snape felt he had every right to ignore.

'Don't 'Severus' me,' he barked, feeling bizarrely lightheaded. 'It could have been real, and it could have done anything. It could have taken your very magic, you absolute imbecile.'

'But it didn't.' Insulting Albus wasn't as satisfying as it should have been, especially when he offered nothing more in defense of his actions. 'Would you like me to take it down?'

Snape growled in frustration. Of course he didn't want it, even at the height of his pique and ranting, it was a ridiculous idea. And Albus knew that. 'It will likely activate the very thing we are trying to avoid.'

'We would, at least, be able to ascertain if there are any other curses waiting.' Snape was grateful the Headmaster hadn't just torn the wretched illusion down with the same disregard he has stepped through it. For all he knew, doing so would bring the Dark Lord himself here, and this was the very last place Snape wanted to be found, in the absolute worst company.

'At the moment your chances of living through this night have increased from highly unlikely to relatively slim.' It was funny that he had never feared the prospect of the Headmasters death until the chance of it had faded, however minutely. 'I am growing quite attached to these new odds.' He took a step forward, as if to further prove his point. They needed to get this done and get out, get back to the school, and that wasn't going to happen whilst they remained fearfully rooted to the same spot. 'You said you had seen it; where is the blasted thing?' Albus gestured to the far corner of the shack where an opening Snape generously called a door stood swathed in shadows. The gesture bolstered Snape's belief that they were safe, at least in their current room, as he strode towards it and peered inside.

There was nothing there. Snape looked angrily back to the Headmaster. 'I don't see anything.'

'That is because it is hidden.'

Snape bit back on a growl. 'Then why don't you unhide the damn thing.' Albus was studying the doorway; the rusted hinges that hung loosely from a mass of sodden and peeling pulp.

'I have already used up more than my fair share of luck today,' the Headmaster commented. 'If the house itself is carrying the illusion, then that room is most certainly enchanted against any intruder who manages to brave it.' Snape eyed the Headmaster with mistrust, mentally substituting the reference to bravery with sheer, hardheaded foolishness. 'I think it is safe to assume the standard counters will not work.'

'Nor any of those I know,' Snape admitted. He had rattled off a few out of habit, but with no way of knowing if anything existed to combat in the first place, he may as well have wasted his breath in praise of Longbottom. Albus was still staring at the frame, so Snape took a deep breath to bolster his intent, and took a single step into the room.

'Severus!' Albus cry of alarm gave Snape a wave of satisfaction. 'What are you doing?'

'Gaining some control of the situation,' Snape replied easily. For all his apparent care to the nuances of their predicament, Snape had no doubt that eventually Albus would have done the exact same thing. Again. Snape wasn't about to allow him the ease of merely throwing himself into danger. Let the old man have to fend it off for a change. 'I have yet to encounter anything particularly hostile, however.'

'Obviously,' Dumbledore entered after him, forehead creased in confusion. 'Tom would not be so lax.'

The smoke seeped through the boards beneath his feet; tiny wisps at first that clung to the soles of his boots and snaked their way through the tread, wrapping round the laces. Snape managed a single step forward before the wisps coalesced and tightened, drawing his boot to the floor as he glanced down and let out a mangled curse and warning.

It was too late. Already the tendrils had snaked towards Albus, finding purchase in the hem of his robe, stitching it to the broken boards in a grey and misty latticework that was multiplying and growing, shrouding every inch in a murky, translucent haze. 'Don't let it touch you!' Snape managed to gasp in warning. Potioned Imperius, the few Death Eaters to have encountered it had named it; virtually unheard of, almost impossible to create and, for once, something he didn't have to feel responsible for himself. 'Or the damn sword,' he added quickly, as Albus raised the weapon as if to slice through the reaching threads. It sank into the skin, into the bloodstream. If he and Albus were lucky, they would then merely be commanded to kill themselves. He aimed his wand carefully at a coil that was rising towards his neckline far faster than the others, shooting a narrow jet of fiery light at the offending smoke. The two met for an instant in a blinding eddy of orange and grey, before the smoke hardened to ash, drifting in lazy rivulets to the floor below.

'I can only assume that was truly necessary.' Even now Albus managed to sound chastising as Snape aimed at another tendril.

'Fiendfyre is the only thing that can destroy it.' Snape had freed enough of himself to turn to the Headmaster, whose own fiery shield was serving only to slow the encroaching smoke. Whilst the progress had been halted, however, it was still growing, and where there had previously been only threads there was now a rolling wave of thick and inky blackness, crashing in a huge, bounding surf around the mans legs, buffeting the belt of roaring fire the Headmaster had conjured, filling the air with choking fumes. The threads that had held the potions master were even now retreating from the residue the brief clash of Fiendfyre had left behind, snaking towards the only other target in the small room, joining in the relentless assault. Snape raised his wand.

'Do not!' Albus had to roar to be heard over the crackling flames that were starting to lick at the wall, charring the wood. Only the floor itself was unscathed beneath the broiling mass of smoke, and even through that Snape could see the occasional distorted flicker of red and gold as the fire fought to gain ground. The smell was unbearable, the Bubblehead Charm he had cast keeping out the worst of the smoke, but not all. The air was too hot, burning his throat and singing his hairs. His eyes watered as he squinted through the haze of heat to the lone figure of the Headmaster, now embroiled in a battle of red and black. Albus was winning, however impossible it should have been, his flames wrapping round the smoke and squeezing before leaping for the next thread. And slowly it wasn't fire that filled the air, it was the cloying ash of victory that clung heavily to his robes and glued to his skin. He was on his knees despite having no recollection of falling to them, and Albus had stepped wearily forward and grasped his hand. 'You should not have cast that.'

'You're going to lecture me now?' Snape said with disbelief. An Augmenti had relieved the worst of the burning in his throat, but the words still sounded hoarse.

'We have still not seen the Horcrux,' Dumbledore heaved the potions master to his feet with surprising strength. 'And Fiendfyre is notoriously difficult to control.'

'The worst that would have happened,' Snape corrected, 'is that we would have been forced to Apparate, and the fyre would have done what your precious sword is apparently capable of.'

'The fyre would have destroyed whatever lies in this room, yes.' Dumbledore's beard was streaked with soot, the grey highlighting the pallor of his skin from the exertion. 'As I have already mentioned, however, there is a second thief on the loose. I would like to confirm that what we have destroyed is, in fact, the real thing.'

Snape nodded after a moment, doubling over in a harsh barrage of coughing as Albus cleared the air further with another spell. 'Where is it then?' he asked, surveying what little remained of the room.

Dumbledore pressed the tip of his wand against a floorboard, banishing the ash that coated the ground before muttering a spell that had it slowly curling backwards. A golden box was nestled in a small nook beneath it. Snape felt his anger growing as hot as the flames had been. 'And how, exactly, did you know that was there if you haven't even been in this accursed place before?'

Albus didn't look offended at the tone and the questioning mistrust contained within it. Instead he just looked infuriatingly smug. 'The floor is rotten, Severus.' Snape had noticed that. Having almost put his foot through one or two riper boards, he would have been hard pushed not too. He quirked an eyebrow to indicate how little he thought that explained. 'And whilst I admit I may have been a little hasty in my approach today, I assure you I was quite thorough in my first visit.' Snape didn't doubt it, given all the man had changed in his memory just to get Snape here. Albus gestured to a window at the far of the room. 'Just because I didn't enter this place last time, doesn't mean I didn't look through the window.' Snape took a closer look at the board that had been peeled back. A particularly determined plant had mercilessly forced its way through, leaving a meter long split in the grain. Whilst he had been able to see nothing from the doorway in which he now stood, Snape was willing to accept that someone could, perhaps, have seen a glint of the box from the other direction. 'The Gaunts were not rich; they could not have left it here. Tom is the only other person who might have had reason to return to hide such a thing.'

'Are you going to open it?' Of course he was. Someone had too, eventually. It was the general defining theme for the night.

Albus nodded thoughtfully, waving Snape backwards as he started to approach. 'There has been nothing overtly nasty thrown at me so far.' Snape wondered exactly what the old man considered nasty for nothing to have counted so far. 'I do not believe, any more than you, that that is likely to continue.'

'Then what?' Albus knelt before the box, careful not to touch it, hovering the small item to rest at his feet. He appraised it for several seconds, his wand tracing patterns in the air before he sighed deeply.

'It is cursed, that much is certain, but I can't see what with.' Albus tapped his wand against his beard in consideration. 'I would be tempted to take it with us. Perhaps, once outside the illusion, we would have more success. I do not believe it will leave quietly though.' Snape heartily agreed. If the illusion was to blind them, then attempting to circumvent that would probably trigger something equally horrific. 'Which leaves the option of opening it here, and dealing with whatever comes.'

'Then get on with it.' Snape hated it when the Headmaster acted as though he has not already made up his mind. For his part, Albus hooked his wand against the tiny latch that held the lid closed. Snape took a deep breath and silently intoned a Shield Charm, his gaze fixed on the box and ready to leap at whatever emerged. The latch opened with barely a sound beyond a single clink as it fell back against the side of the ornate box. The crack between the lid had widened, enough that Albus could prise it further open with the tip of his wand, the rich green padding within becoming visible as, with a sudden flick, the Headmaster threw the lid back fully.

The box opened with a clatter that reverberated in the small room, but did not herald a coming curse. Curious, Snape leant forward to better see what lay within. It was an ugly thing, really, a stone overly large and miserably coloured and pitted on a tarnished band. It certainly didn't warrant the hungry look that lit in the headmaster's eyes.

'A ring?'

'Not just any ring,' Albus breathed in disbelief, leaning in to study the stone closer, his eyes widening as his hands twitched to reach for it. He managed to hold himself back for a moment, but seemed incapable of leaving it entirely. He settled for grasping the box, holding it close to his chest as if protecting it.

'It could be Merlin's for all I care. Just stab the thing with the blasted sword already,' Snape prompted, Albus having made no move for the heavy weapon still slung at his waist. 'God only knows what else the Dark Lord has left behind here.'

'We have come this far.' It was true. Dumbledore had opened the box and remained unharmed. As if reading his thoughts, a curse took the opportunity to flare briefly at the feet of the Headmaster, but Albus deflected it neatly. It had been vicious, yes, but considerably less powerful than Snape had expected, given what they now held.

'And I would quite like to continue further,' Snape snapped, his growing unease shifting into irritability. They were being toyed with; picked at by distractions while the real threat lay somewhere, out of reach, but still close. With the ring no more than an arms length away, there was only one place it could be.

'You do not know what it is you are looking at, Severus,' the Headmaster responded softly. Snape felt his chest constrict in growing dread. There was no gentleness to the tone; no chiding reprimand or laughing geniality. There was only hunger, and need, and desire, and want, and a thousand other things Snape had not once associated with the Headmaster, but yet seemed now a part of him he would be indefinable without. It was something he had seen more times than his conscience could happily live with, something he had caused more times than could be forgiven, and something he could not comprehend or source in the midst of the empty room. Unless it was the box. This was what protected it! Not an enchantment to kill directly, but one to lead you, unflinchingly, to death. Albus had felt nothing until he had touched the blasted thing he was now cradling like a lifeline. Snape wanted to grab the man and run, but he didn't dare take a step further lest whatever enchants had ensnared the Headmaster take him too.

'Why don't you tell me?' Oh yes, he had definately seen it before. Lust potions frequently falsified the desperate urgency that vibrated from the old man, who was mesmerised by the ring. There were books detailing hundreds of dark spells, each of which was capable of ensnaring even the strongest of minds with a single focus, regardless of consequences; silent siren songs that lured and trapped and killed. 'What is it?'

Albus' reply was so quiet, Snape almost didn't catch it above the pounding in his ears and the rasping of his breath. 'It is forgiveness.'

Snape raised his wand, or at least he meant too. His arm refused to move, his wand useless by his side as Albus dragged his gaze away from the ring to stare at Snape with true sorrow that Snape couldn't even turn away from. A body bind? You bastard! 'Even you, Severus, cannot understand this.' And Albus spoke so softly as Snape thrashed and fought inside his head to absolutely no avail. 'It will all work out in the end though, trust me on this.'

But Snape didn't, not any more. There was nothing good that could come of this, all the lies and evasions, as the Headmaster turned back to the ring, his arm reaching out, and Snape turned to his only option. Albus was a Legilimens few could rival, it was true, but his Occlumency skills were relatively weak in comparison, certainly nothing to Snape's own. It was a risk, most certainly; the old man wasn't even facing him, and Snape was going to have one monster of a headache in a few moments, but he couldn't move and it was all connected to the ring. He had been an idiot not to see it sooner. The protections were all on the ring, every single last one of them. What else needed them? The shack was nothing but a degraded and abandoned hovel, and a person could have only one reason to come here. Everything else was hype and propaganda, leading inevitably to the only conclusion.

Snape thrust his will forward, snapping in to the Headmaster's mind with a force that would have thrown him to his knees were they still connected. Without eye contact it always felt like he had to push so much more of himself out, and Albus was turning his attention to fight him, with all his strength, if necessary, which was formidable in its intent as much as its power.

'Albus, you stupid old man. Potter isn't worth this.'

He was in here, somewhere, Snape was sure. He just had to find him, find the spell, and break its hold, before he was tossed out on his metaphysical arse. Already it was a strain to remain, the pressure building so that every step forward was a battle in itself. The threads of Occlumency were gathering round him, steering him as he attempted to slip and slither past. They buffeted him with surprising gentleness, as if trying to keep the inevitable pain to a minimum.

'Leave, Severus. You do not know what you are doing.'

Oh, he hated it when the Headmaster spoke this way. Each word was a relentless, agonising nail driving into his skull, reverberating and crashing through his mind, leaving speckled trails of pain in their wake.

'You brought me here to protect you. I am trying. You could help yourself too, you know.'

He caught a glimpse of something, a pretty young girl, blonde hair tumbled carelessly round her small face, blue eyes open and staring but nothing more, not anymore. A hand on his shoulder as he knelt on the grass beside her, tears in his eyes and guilt gnawing at his heart, next to the hatred of his brother.

'You cannot, and I am. This is no longer your fight.'

A gust of memory caught him, sweeping him along with the shouts and heated words of a nameless fight, as Snape bucked and twisted and clawed not to be thrown out. Where is the goddamn, bloody spell already. He still hadn't found it, nor even a wisp of its existence. It was hidden too well, and gentle fingers were slowly disengaging his grip as he felt his consciousness separated and carefully cradled, his own mind looming back towards him. With his last burst of strength he grabbed blindly, sifting through the fragments of mind and memory he ensnared, seeing nothing but the softened curls of clarity as he realised with a wrenching start, there is no spell, there is no spell.

He knew he had returned to his own mind the second he felt it trying to trickle out of his ears. He sank to his knees with a groan, gritting his teeth and bunching his fists as he wavered somewhere between vomiting and passing out. A cool hand wiped the sweat that had beaded on his forehead.

'What is it about the brat,' Snape managed to pant out between the rhythmic, pounding blackness in his head, 'that you risk so much for.' The ground wavered again, and Snape managed to crack open his eyes, Albus' face careening in and out of his vision. The eyes were blue. They looked familiar. 'You said this was his task, but if you can do this, so can anyone else.'

'It is not always about Harry.' Albus had helped him to sit at some point, but his supportive hands were leaving, his footsteps drawing further away. Snape braced his hands against the floorboards first, then the wall behind him as he pushed himself to his feet.

'Is it even about the Dark Lord anymore?'

'Yes,' Albus said with such surety that Snape felt his concerns momentarily alleviated. 'And no.'

The Headmaster bent down to the ring. He studied the stone for a moment and the tenseness left his shoulders, the weight he had apparently been carrying for so long, that Snape had never before really seen, fell effortlessly away. He slid it careful, reverentially, onto his finger.

He screamed.