For disclaimers and other ramblings, see part 1.
The seventh square was a grim-looking square building that appeared to have been destroyed in a fire. The high railing that surrounded the building was largely intact. Hoping to avoid notice, Severus slunk along the perimeter of the railing until he found a gate, which squealed on rusty hinges. He ascended the steps to the front door, which hung crookedly from its frame.
The entryway opened into a hallway that had once been tiled with black and white porcelain. However, the tiles were scattered haphazardly and stuck up unevenly like broken teeth. The walls were a mess of burned wood and broken plaster, and broken gas pipes were clearly visible in places.
Ruined though it was, the hallway seemed to continue endlessly on in both directions. Remembering his experience with the twins in the fourth square, he walked for a short time, then paused. A soft breeze whispered through the ruins, and Severus noticed that the hallway had shifted slightly.
All at once, he came to a set of stone steps that were suspended by no visible means. It was curious. Though the fire must have occurred many years ago, this place bore unmistakable traces of more recent violence. There were definite hex marks on the stone, and he spotted a few drops of wet blood on the floor.
As he examined the base of the steps, a flash of silver caught his eye. It was the figure of a lion cast in silver that curved outward in a spiraling shape until the end, where it had been snapped from whatever object it had originally been part. With an unpleasant feeling in the pit of his stomach, he recognized it as being part of a bishop's crosier. A bishop had been here and had done battle, but it was impossible to tell with whom and who had won.
He raised the bottle of laudanum to his lips, but the fortifying sip made him gag. He wiped the liquid from his lips and resolutely placed his foot in the center of the first step. It was reassuring solid. The first steps were equally steady, and he ascended with increasing confidence toward the second story.
The landing of the second floor was pristine, and Severus frowned. The second floor corridor hung unsteadily in the air, as large sections of it had been burned, but the first door in the corridor was as untouched as the landing. He opened the door with a wave of his wand and was surprised to find a windowless room that contained nothing but an iron bed frame and a battered wooden wardrobe. The ceiling was almost all intact, though he could see the gray sky through several openings.
Severus thought for a moment. The place, with its gas pipes and simple tile, had to be Muggle in origin. However, this section of the building had obviously been preserved by magic, and for some purpose. His memories chose that moment to struggle furiously against his mental barriers with such vigor that he could almost hear them humming. He pressed back and managed to silence them, though he didn't know how much longer he would be able to do so.
Focus was necessary. He examined the walls of the room and found them to be free of the hex marks that had marred the downstairs. Upon closer examination, the only part of the room that bore evidence of magic was the wardrobe, which was marked from numerous curses. He waved his wand to open the doors.
Still nothing. He bent closer to examine the lock. It bore heavy gouge marks, as if someone had tried to prise the lock. However, the fact that it remained locked led him to believe that the attempt was unsuccessful.
A Reducto curse had no effect, and neither did any of the dozens of other spells he tried, from burning to crushing. He felt his temper begin to fray, and with it, his control over his memories. He could feel them pounding against the shield in his mind. His stomach turned at the thought of taking more laudanum. He placed his fingertips firmly at his temples and forced his mind back to stillness. Panting, he leaned against the wardrobe and slid to the floor.
After the pressure in his brain relented somewhat, he noticed a pinch coming from a fold in his coat, just below his hip. He fumbled in his pocket and his fingertips brushed against the red pawn's key.
Inspired, he fished it out of his pocket and slid the key into the lock. It opened with a click, and the door swung open.
Severus wasn't sure what to expect, but he was still surprised to find the wardrobe empty. But no, it wasn't completely empty. On the topmost shelf rested a rough wooden box. It had a small golden lock that appeared to fit the wardrobe key. Still, something about the gleaming metal that rimmed the aperture made him suspicious. Instead of inserting the key, Severus slid the pins out of lid hinges and opened the box.
In a nest of golden silk lay a dainty porcelain teacup.
He picked up the teacup by its handle to examine it more closely. It was a fine thing, so eggshell thin that he could see the shadows his fingers made, even in the dim light. The lip of the cup was gold, and a curious badger device had been painted on the outside. A memory surged in his mind so violently that he wasn't able to suppress it entirely. It was an image of an elderly woman holding a golden cup out in front of her. He knew this cup, and he had a feeling that it was very dangerous.
Furious with himself for losing control of his mind, he took another mouthful of laudanum, but he was unable to make himself swallow the viscous tincture. He spat it onto the floor, coughing to rid his mouth and throat of the sticky feeling. He was positive that the barrier keeping his memories at bay was failing, and no amount of opium could stop it. He had to get to the eighth square. Then he'd have the rest of the game to occupy his mind.
He shoved his finger through the cup's handle, closed the wardrobe door, and locked it behind him. Without warning, the wardrobe burst into flame. Severus leaped backwards, only to find that the door to the hallway had locked behind him, and that the door had no keyhole. Attempting to Apparate accomplished nothing other than giving him a splitting headache. He attempted to douse the flames, but like the wardrobe and door, they were resistant to his magic
Already, smoke was making it difficult for him to breathe. He had to think. Whoever had created this trap would have been certain to leave no way for him to use magic to escape.
At last, he flung the bottle of laudanum at the wardrobe in frustration. It shattered, and the blaze flared from the alcohol. He was truly and utterly stuck, and all he had to aid his escape was a useless wand and a vaguely threatening cup.
The cup. Of course. He had sprung the trap by taking the cup. The white knight's song rang in his ears. The cup must get to the white knight. He laid the golden key in his palm and transfigured it into a small pigeon. He focused on giving the bird a more complex brain than the average dove and he was pleased with his efforts, even if the bird's feathers still had a distinct gold cast. He bound the cup firmly to the bird's foot.
"Take this to the white king's knight as fast as your wings can take you," he instructed the bird.
"You might say 'please,'" remarked the bird in a sulky tone.
Severus gestured to the rising flames. "I might also say 'rotisserie.' Clear off."
When the bird had escaped through a hole in the ceiling, Severus found himself alone in a burning room. He lay down on the floor and covered his face with his sleeve. The flames had engulfed the inside walls and were beginning to spread across the floor. He gazed up at the smoke, opaque and gray as the surface of the foe-glass, and felt suddenly calm.
His meditation was interrupted by the sound of ceiling timbers cracking. He reflexively rolled away from the sound and narrowly missed being crushed by chunks of burning wood. He forced himself to slow his breathing. Even as he pressed himself against the only remaining wall, he knew that there was no sense in dying terrified. Furthermore, there was even less sense in dying without proper reflection on one's life. Bearing that thought firmly in mind, he released the iron grip on his memories.
As the flames grew closer, his eyes fluttered closed and the memories began to pour across his mind's eye. Flashes of green and red, haunted blue eyes, his name, flight, fire. With the images came pain, punishment, exile, and the descent into obscurity. His consciousness was sinking deeper and deeper into a kaleidoscopic mandala of the past.
He could feel his skin beginning to blister, and it was becoming more and more difficult to draw breath. Soon it would be over, and he would be at peace with the memories, at peace with himself. This was his absolution. This was his punishment. This was his reward. The fire roared louder, and he prepared himself for the end.
But wait. For the fire to roar, it must have found air. He opened his irritated and watery eyes and saw that the flames were flaring where the ceiling timber had fallen. It had crashed partially through the back wall of the room, and when the black smoke cleared for an instant, he could see daylight on the other side of the wall.
He was vaguely aware of the heat and the acrid smoke displacing the air in his lungs as he crawled toward the broken wall determinedly. His vision was fading to gray and his head felt as if it were being squeezed in a vise. With the last of his strength, he pulled himself to his feet and heaved himself into the burning wall. The last thing he remembered was the sound of splintering wood as his body went limp and the pain disappeared into darkness.
When he woke, the first thing he noticed was the pressure on his brow.
His eyes flew open, surprised at the odd sensation on his head, and even more surprised to be alive and unscathed. He put his hands up to the heavy something that was wrapped firmly around his head. He lifted it off and held it in front of him to make out what it could possibly be.
It was a golden crown.
He stared at his surroundings and nearly fell over backwards. He was standing by a window in a room that was filled with all manner of bells, from enormous brass bells to tiny silver ones. He ran his finger along the edge of a particularly fine bronze bell, but the buttery ring was quickly lost in a chorus of irritated squeaks. Apparently, this belfry had bats, and lots of them.
Not wishing to disturb them, Severus walked over to the window. Below, he could clearly make out the burning building in which he'd been trapped, just to the south of a tiny brook that sparkled in the sunlight. The reflected sunlight made him start. He'd made it. He was in the eighth square.
From the belfry he could make out the neighboring squares. He was not high enough to see the entire game, but he occasionally saw flashes of movement in the distance, and at one point the white king's knight flashed through the treetops of another square and waved enthusiastically. Severus nearly found himself waving back.
It was then that he noticed the red queen sitting in a golden throne not twenty feet away. She was scowling at him over a cup of tea.
"Won't you join me in a cup of tea?"
"Rather stupid of you to offer."
The red queen ignored the insult. "Suit yourself. You won't be going anywhere for quite sometime. And when you do, you won't go far." She took a sip of tea and smirked at him.
He didn't answer. The less said to the red queen, the better.
They both stared out over the game. Severus wished he could more of the action.
"Nice, isn't it?" asked the red queen, daintily nibbling the head off a gingerbread man.
"Only if you can't go anywhere else."
"I'm queen," she said, calm façade cracking. "I can go anywhere, and I can take you if I want."
"You're not about to take me if it means getting taken yourself, and there's that pesky white knight to worry about."
The red queen glared at him. "I wondered who had been helping them strategize. It was you, wasn't it?" Finally she sighed. "The game's not the same without you, you know."
"Yes. I noticed that there are still a number of white pieces on the board."
"Not that, you fool. I meant that no-one else stirs me to a violent frenzy the way you used to."
"I'm told I have a similar effect on most."
"Which reminds me," said the red queen with relish, "I hear the white king's no happier with you than the red king."
"The white king can get stuffed for all I care," said Severus. "But I'm going to win this game for him, whether he likes it or not."
"Well," said the queen, enunciating carefully. "You will eventually have to deal with both kings at some point, and that knight won't always be here to protect you."
"I won't need him."
Not pausing to savor the furious look on the red queen's face, Severus took a deep breath, stepped up onto the windowsill, and ran down the side of the bell tower to the southwest.
Never in his life had he moved so swiftly or so easily; not in a car, not on a broomstick. The squares whizzed by in a blur. In the first square, the other white knight stood grimly over the body of a three-legged lion. The second square was a circular room with blue candles, where soft light poured forth from an open door. Severus felt drawn to it and nearly stopped running, but he kept his head down and continued. The third square was a graveyard dominated by a large white tomb. The fourth was filled with people singing. The fifth was a dark forest on whose westernmost border was a crenellated wall of stone. He had reached the edge of the board.
Feeling unpleasantly as though he were being watched, he ran south along the wall another square, which was covered with gravel and large boulders. When he felt that he was no longer in danger, he gazed to the north and northeast, trying to decide where to move next. He placed his hand against the cool stone wall and sighed.
"Boy, why are you sighing?" came a voice from behind him.
He spun around to find that on the other side of the brook was a vast library with a flagstone floor. The stone wall that edged the game board had large windows through which sun poured.
The source of the inquiry came from a white rook, who was perched precariously at the top of the closest bookcase. She wore a flowing white blouse that was cinched at the waist with a lovely patterned belt and at the neck with a matching cravat.
He raised an eyebrow at the castle- she couldn't have been more than eighteen- and scowled. "'Boy?'"
"Yes, boy," said the castle, primly closing the book she was reading. "Hardly more sense than a schoolboy, but at least you made it here in one piece."
Severus felt oddly drawn to the queer creature but took exception to being called a schoolboy. "I am queen, you know."
"Yes," she said, gesturing to her lithe form, "and I'm a castle. Funny how these things work, isn't it? If I were setting up the board, I should have made you a knight. But we have only limited control over such things."
Severus's memories began fluttering at the edge of his consciousness, and he let it. For the first time, he cursed the drug that was making his memories vague and sluggish. Her repeated inquiry interrupted his musings.
"You still didn't tell me what made you sigh so."
"I was thinking about the king."
"Well," she said tartly, "that's enough to make anyone sigh. I hope you don't think you're entirely without fault in the matter."
"Yes, yes," said Severus impatiently. "I've already been informed that I'm the root of all evil in this game and that if the white side loses, it will be entirely my fault."
"Where on earth did you get that idea?"
"I thought that universal antipathy was standard for those who destroy beloved leaders."
"Where have you been this game?" asked the castle, throwing her hands in the air in exasperation.
"Getting to the eighth square, you impertinent chit!" Severus snapped. "I notice you haven't even left your space!"
"Why should I have?" asked the castle with infuriating calm. "My job has been here."
The scathing reply came automatically. "With your nose in a book the whole time, no doubt."
The castle smiled. "Yes, with my nose in a book the whole time." She had dimples. She tossed Severus the book she'd been reading.
It was a notebook of sorts, with heavily edited entries, many side notes, and a few scratched out drawings of a chessboard. As he stared at the sequence of scribbled moves, it dawned on him why he had encountered so little resistance from the red pieces in his advance across the board.
"You instructed the other pieces to protect me."
"Well spotted!" she said with another smile. "After I convinced the king's knight, it was easy. He's quite good at this game, you know. So in spite of the white king, you managed to claim another of the seven squares we needed, and you've replaced the most powerful piece on our side."
"How did you know I was really on your side?"
"It came to me, just like this did," she said, expansively gesturing around her.
"What are you talking about?"
"Don't you find things around here to be a bit strange? That's because I'm dreaming it all."
"As much sense as it would make to know that this world came from the mind of a young female, you didn't dream this," Severus retorted. "I'm hallucinating it."
She regarded him curiously. "But you're wearing a funny hat. You always wear funny hats in my dreams. You don't happen to feel an irresistible urge to kiss me, do you?"
Severus wasn't quite sure which of her extraordinary comments to respond to. "This is a crown that I bloody well earned, ridiculous child. As for your inquiry, I should say not!"
Rather than look put out, as he had hoped, she looked even more interested. "Do you hallucinate like this often?"
"The frequency of my hallucinations is none of your concern." He avoided her penetrating gaze by flipping through her book. He was surprised to find the nonsense poem, yet again. The difference is that it was written so that he could read it, and it was annotated. This is what he read:
'Twas liret (late + dire?) and the bellitaurs (Centaurs? Taurus?)
Did archemune (?) the forbidrest (Forbidden Forest)
All gresolved (+ resolved) were the lakimers (mersea?)
And the orphee (Order) outgrest (?)
"Beware the Lodremort, my son! (Yes, yes)
The eyes that burn, the soulesplit (Yes)
Beware Lecarrowstrange and shunNaginos Pettinet!"(Yes)
He took his gryffish sword (Really?) in hand
And sought the vileunn (vile+villain) fragsole far (Yes.)
And found a space in grimmish place
And rubbed his cursiscar. (Clue or just a cute rhyme?)
And as in idlewhile he rests,
The Lodremort with eyes of flame
Burforsted from the forbidrest (An ill-conceived gambit?)
And avked as it came! (Ouch.)One, two! Three, four! And more and more
The gryffish blade turned bloddirud; (bloody + red )
At last it died and by his side
The orphee prodtor stood. (Order's what?)
"We have now slain the Lodremort.
So take my hand, O Prodtor Brave, (?)
We'll not be friends, but when this ends,
You'll be not revilnave." (?)'Twas timumph, and the orpheements (We win, apparently)
Did partabrate (Partake? Party? Celebrate?) in hoggydron,
All dellerpy (?) the wordwize was,
And the prodtor livpollon. (?)
What is the prodtor? A protector? A predator?
When does the attack come?
What needs to be done to win? Gryffish sword, cursiscar, the soulesplit.
Severus looked up at the castle, who had observed him in silence.
"You say you dreamed that I was on your side?"
"Yes. It took me some time to convince the other pieces that you were, but as you can see, they've all been helping."
"All but the king," said Severus nastily.
Her smile faded a bit. "I think he'll come around," she said with more confidence than she probably felt. "When push comes to shove, I think he's accepted the evidence that you were on our side all along. It's just taking his heart a little longer to catch up with his brain."
"It's weakness. It could get us all taken."
"His irrational anger with you is weakness," countered the castle, "but his love for the previous queen is what's keeping him in the game. I suspect it's also what's keeping you in the game."
Severus didn't say anything but returned the notebook to the castle. As she took the book from him, his fingers brushed hers, and he met her eyes.
"Who are you?"
"The king's castle," she said. "And your friend."
"In that order?"
She leaned down and placed her hand on the side of his face. "That all depends on you."
"Prodigal traitor. That's what the Prodtor is."
"Wonderful," she said. "Now all I need to do is find a prodigal traitor willing to help our side."
"Don't be stupid, girl," said Severus, irritation finally piercing the opium fog in his brain.
A slow smile spread across her face. "I'm so glad to hear you say that. By our calculations, we can checkmate the red king in five moves. Two of those moves are yours. Make them count. I'll find you when the game is over. Pay attention to what's happening. It could be important."
He covered her hand with his own and gave it a gentle squeeze. She rubbed her thumb against his.
"Now, if you would be so kind as to get that red pawn out of my way, we can start endgame."
Severus turned to the north and raced off.
The lumpy, lopsided red pawn never knew what hit him. He barely had enough time to wheeze in surprise before Severus struck. Then, before Severus knew what had happened, the pawn disappeared. No pop of Apparation, he simply vanished.
Severus then ran northeast as hard as he could to the northernmost edge of the board. As he caught his breath, he looked at the square around him with interest. He was standing on a hill that overlooked the entire board. Behind him stood a large manor house that must have been quite fine once but had fallen into disrepair. The view from the hill was troubling.
Several squares away, he two kings were facing one another, wands out, but neither was able to make a move toward the other. Severus realized that the kings were stuck until one of them was checkmated and suspected the red pieces would be coming to the same conclusion. Upon further scrutiny, Severus noticed that the white king was decked out in a number of odd items. On a heavy chain around his neck, the white king wore a battered black book, shards of the teacup Severus had found, a golden locket whose front was missing, a supremely ugly ring with a cracked stone, and what appeared to be a broken wand.
He could see the red and white knights threatening each other with swords, the bishops gliding, taking pawns and circling one another, and both castles teaming up to drive off the red queen, who had made a daring move deep into white territory.
His perusal was interrupted by a soft hissing noise behind him. He turned to find the largest, deadliest looking snake he had ever seen coiled and ready to strike. He leaped to the right, and the snake's arrow-shaped head whizzed past him, fangs bared. Severus retreated out of striking range and cast a Stupefying Curse at the snake. The snake dodged and glided rapidly toward the house.
Severus pursued the snake, firing off more curses as he ran. The snake dodged them easily and disappeared through a broken window into the house. The haze surrounding Severus's memories was still thick, but every instinct screamed at him that the snake needed to be eliminated.
Rather than squelch the feeling as he would have earlier in the game, he ran to the front door of the great house and slipped inside.
The entrance hall of the house was dark, in spite of the large windows on either side of the door. A round table in the center of the room was covered with a dustcloth, as were the other articles of furniture. Decades of spider webs hung from the chandelier, and a thick layer of dust coated every surface of the room.
To his relief, there were dozens of s-shaped tracks in the dust over the rotting carpet. It would be difficult to track the snake, but not impossible. Severus lit his wand silently, and followed the darkest and freshest-looking of the snake's tracks to the left.
The next room was nearly pitch black on account of the heavy velvet draperies covering the windows. As dilapidated as it was, Severus could tell that it had been a fine room, with its pale crimson walls and an ornate mirror over the marble mantelpiece. As he examined the room in the small circle of wandlight, his gaze fell upon a loveseat and two overstuffed chairs, all of which faced the fireplace. Curiously, they were devoid of dust covers.
He was startled to discover the faded chalk outlines of three bodies that had apparently been found sitting there. The figures appeared as negative shadows, in the light, almost as the outlines of ghosts. As he gazed at them, willing his mind to impart to him the significance of this find, he became aware of a soft sound coming from the floor to his right. His reflexes did not desert him, and he cast a stunning hex in the direction of the sound.
He was gratified to hear an angry hiss, and in the light of his wand, he saw the tail of the great snake disappear up the flue of the fireplace. He cast a quick hex, but it struck the back of the fireplace. Cursing the snake's unnatural intelligence and speed, he ran out of the drawing room up the stairs
He raced past several bedrooms, finally finding the one that shared a chimney with the downstairs drawing room. He stopped short in the doorway, listening for his quarry as he tried to quiet his fast breathing.
There. He swore that he could hear the foul serpent's belly scales whispering across fabric. He quickly lit his wand, and stepped cautiously into the room in search of the snake.
He crossed to the bed and flung off the bedding, which released a cloud of dust but revealed no sign of his prey. He coughed and unsuccessfully attempted to fan the dust away from him. A slight movement on the other side of the bed caught his attention.
The bell-pull! The cunning snake had coiled itself around the rope bell-pull and had lain in wait, perfectly camouflaged, for Severus to venture close enough for it to strike. He aimed his wand."Reducto!"
To his shock, the snake threw itself off the bell-pull a split second before his curse hit."Stupefy!"
But it was too late. The snake had slithered back to the fireplace and disappeared into the chimney.
The snake could have retreated to the ground floor, but Severus didn't think so. He threw the bedroom window open and twisted himself so that he could see the side of the house more clearly. The sheer walls that had appeared unscalable from a distance had large blocks of stone on the corners and around the windows, which protruded enough to grip. The snake would be expecting him to approach by the stairs, which presumably went up to the attic.
Severus placed his wand between his teeth and swung himself out the window. He wedged his toes into the space between two stones and began climbing. It was hard work. Sweat dripped into his eyes and his muscles protested as he lifted himself, arm over arm, up the side of the house. As he ascended, he felt a droplet of water strike his face. A storm was brewing.
He put his head down and kept climbing. It was odd, the house hadn't appeared this high from the outside. And what had been carefully worked sandstone cornerstones soon gave way to rough blocks of granite. The climbing was easier, but, judging from an upward glance, he had much further to go than he had initially supposed.
He gritted his teeth and kept climbing. The rain was falling harder. Fortunately, the rough-hewn stone had enough indentations for him to keep his grip. At last, he came to the crenellated edge of the chimney, but really, it appeared to be more of a great tower. As he pulled himself onto the tower, lightning flashed overhead, and he allowed himself to catch his breath.
There was no sign of the snake. Undoubtedly it had gone below to avoid the rain, which would make it more difficult for the snake to move. Severus welcomed the cooling rain, and when he felt sufficiently recovered from his climb, he tentatively approached the wooden door that led below. It was slightly ajar, just wide enough for a snake to get through. He peered through the crack in the door and froze.
The snake was curled up inside the door, lying peacefully atop a wooden trap door. Clever creature. Had he approached from below, the snake would have felt his attempts to open the trap door and could have bitten him. He considered, weighing whether he could take the snake by surprise. He finally decided that he ought to force a confrontation. After discarding a few strategies, he focused on the door beneath the snake.
The squelching noise immediately roused the snake, which seemed startled to have its exit taken away. It recovered quickly and darted behind the door where Severus couldn't hex it.
Severus threw the door open, hoping to crush the snake behind it, but it had gone all the way to the doorjamb, and struck out from between the hinges, forcing him to jump backwards. He slipped on the wet stone and fell.
Seizing the opportunity, the snake flopped to the ground and struck at his outstretched foot. The snake buried its fangs harmlessly in the thick rubber heel of his boot, and Severus sent a Stunning Spell toward the snake and struck it squarely in the midsection.
The snake was thrown backwards, and Severus scrambled to his feet. The snake seemed to sense that it had lost its advantage attempted to escape through the door to dryer environs, but Severus sealed the silently. Sensing failure, the snake launched itself over the edge of the tower.
The green beam hit the serpent midair, and the snake, which had been writhing frantically in search of a surface on which to cling, went completely limp. As if in slow motion, Severus watched the snake fall to the base of the tower. For an instant, even the raindrops seemed to hang in the air.
And as suddenly as the rain had started, it stopped.
A blinding beam of sunlight pierced the cloud, and Severus looked out from the tower, which had been entirely shrouded in mist, and saw the entire game board stretched before him. He could clearly see the pieces on the board. His heart leapt to see his castle gliding deliberately to the sixth square, where the red king was watching her with a look of contempt.
He glanced at the castle, the knight, and the white queen's bishop. All wore similar looks of triumph.
However, the white king seemed to realize that something was amiss. The red king, with whom he stood face to face, did not disappear. He didn't even tip over. He just stood there, glaring at the pieces that had trapped him, refusing to concede.
From his vantage point on top of the tower, it appeared to Severus as though the two kings were speaking. Suddenly the red king drew his wand and dropped into dueling stance.
Severus frowned. This wasn't how the game was played.
Then the white king did something strange. He looked up at the tower and caught Severus's eyes. Somehow sensing the question, Severus nodded.
The red king cast a spell and the white king dodged. But instead of pulling out his wand, the white king drew a large sword with a red gem in the pommel. With one swift cut, the white king cleanly severed the red king's head from his shoulders.
As the red king fell to the ground, the world around Severus began to melt. The colors of the squares ran together and he found himself suspended in a silvery fog. This time, he was not alone.
The white king hovered in front of him. He did not appear pleased.
"Look," he said at last, "I know we've had our differences in the past, but we couldn't have won the game without you."
Severus felt a scornful look twist his features. "Obviously," he said, infusing each syllable with as much derision as possible.
A rueful smile lifted the king's lips. "I guess this is my way of saying I don't like you, but I owe you my life." He extended his hand to Severus. "And my gratitude."
For one brief moment, Severus contemplated refusing to shake the king's hand. However, the king had ultimately trusted him and believed him.
He took the king's hand and shook it firmly.
Odd, the king's hand felt smaller than it looked, and it was much softer. He squinted. The king's face was fading in the mist, yet the gentle pressure on his hand remained.
Severus scrubbed his eyelids with his other hand and opened his eyes. It was daylight, and his blinds had been opened. He examined the room, marveling that it was clean, all the bottles were gone, and finally, at the brown head that lay next to his hip on the bed.
He winced, expecting the sun to do serious damage to his retinas, but no sting was forthcoming. Far from it- he felt quite hale, and surprisingly sober. Several empty potion vials sat on the nightstand, along with an empty soup bowl and a half-full glass of water.
He regarded the woman, who occupied the chair by his bed and whose head rested at his side, and whose hands clutched his right hand. She had nursed him back to health. A glance at the foe-glass on the door clearly indicated that she was not an enemy, but who was she? What was her purpose?
He gently moved his hand, and she uttered a soft mewling sound before sitting bolt upright in her chair, eyes wide.
"Oh! You're awake! Are you all right?"
He was too shocked to respond. The woman, no, girl, who had probably saved his life was Hermione Granger, one third of the bane of his existence.
"You!" he managed to hiss. "What the hell do you think you're doing here? You- what day is this?"
"September fourth. You've been out for nearly a week."
It was true, her face and clothing showed signs of a lengthy vigil. He glared at her. "Why aren't you at school, Miss Granger?"
She blinked at him in surprise, and to his surprise, began laughing, a high crystalline sound. "I'm so happy to hear you say that!" she exclaimed, brown eyes warm. "I was afraid you'd suffered permanent damage."
"Miss Granger," he said, disentangling his hand from her grip, "You will kindly tell me what you are doing in the house of an accused murderer instead of safe in class at Hogwarts."
"I had more important things to do than school."
"Such as nurse a killer back to health. What would precious Potter say?"
"He'd call you a greasy git, shake his head, and get back to work. He knows the truth."
Severus's jaw worked. "What in Morgan's name do you mean 'the truth'?" he demanded.
She looked seriously at him. "That you were following Professor Dumbledore's orders when you cast the Killing Curse. He had you do it to save Malfoy and to save yourself from the Unbreakable Vow you took. We also know he would have died that night, even without your intervention."
He felt the blood drain from his face. "Impossible. Nobody knew."
"Professor," she said tentatively, "I don't mean to pry, but do you remember any of your dreams while you were, you know-"
"Orbiting the moons of Jupiter."
"-orbiting the moons of Jupiter," she finished.
He thought for a moment. "Yes, I do. Parts of it, anyway."
"Then," she continued awkwardly, "you should write it all down. Even the slightest detail could be really important. I'd like to hear about it as soon as possible."
"Since when do you place such stock in dreams, Miss Granger?"
"Since I saved your life," she said with a slight smile. "Now, since you're awake, you really ought to take a shower. I'll be downstairs making dinner. We'll talk more then."
She left him alone, and as he mechanically followed her instructions, his mind was whirling. When he had dressed himself in a robe that she had obviously repaired, he followed the lovely smell of food down the stairs.
His sitting room had been returned to relative order, and he found himself drawn to his father's chess set, which had been placed in the corner. His hand sought the white king's rook, and he put the piece into his pocket.
"Professor?" came Hermione's voice from the kitchen. "Are you ready for supper?"
As he crossed his tiny sitting room to the kitchen, Severus felt as if he were in another alternate version of reality. Perhaps he'd gone beyond the foe-glass world into another stranger place. But when he saw the perfect shepherd's pie Hermione had prepared and the expectant look on her face, he wondered if he didn't vastly prefer this place to the previous realities he had experienced.
And really, he thought, patting the castle in his pocket, as long as Hermione was there, he suddenly found that he didn't really care about which was his dream and which was hers.
Which do you think it was?
Ever drifting down the stream-
Lingering in the golden gleam-
Life, what is it but a dream?
-Rev. Charles L. Dodgson
THE END DNE EHT
Author's Notes: I'd like to thank Mr. 42 for everything, including editing, idea bouncing, beta- and gamma-reading, and just plain awesomeness. This story is immeasurably better because of him, and my life immeasurably richer.
Special thanks to Moonlit River, whose initial Wonderland Challenge spawned "Down the Ferret-Hole," and, by extension, this story.
For long-time readers of SS/HG, the chess metaphor was drawn completely from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There and not from any venerable unfinished works. Also, for a much deeper take on junkie!Severus, go read Bambu's wonderful "Morning Has Broken."
Other direct quotations/acknowledgements:
"Honey? I beg your pardon, I hardly know you!" is Bob Hope's response to Fozzie's request for honey ice cream in "The Muppet Movie.".
"To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" is a poem by Robert Herrick, also known by its first line, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may."
"The Young Lady's Pleasures and How She Gained Them" is based on "You are old, Father William," from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which, in turn, is a spoof of Robert Southey's poem, "The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them." The original is a boring and didactic poem that was supposed to teach Victorian children the importance of temperance and piety. Thank goodness Carroll's is the version that survives.
The "Aged Aged Man" poem, is of course based on the Looking-Glass White Knight's Song, which in turn is based on Carroll's earlier poem, "Upon the Lonely Moor," which was published anonymously in 1856.
"Sea of holes" is from the Beatles animated film "Yellow Submarine."
"Boy, why are you sighing?" imprecisely echoes Wendy's first words to Peter in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan.
Having one person's dream intersect with another's drug trip came from Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," as did the phrase "orbiting the moons of Jupiter." Aah, the threshold of revelation.
I shamelessly stole a plot device from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Ten points to your house if you can identify it!
The stanzas at the beginning and end were written by Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson) as frames for Through the Looking-Glass.