Friendly Reminder: There are no Horcruxes in this story.

Questions/Fears Concerning:

Dumbledore understanding Parseltongue — In an interview, JK Rowling stated, "Dumbledore understood Mermish, Gobbledegook and Parseltongue. The man was brilliant." From this, I gather it is possible to learn to -understand- Parseltongue, but to actually speak it is impossible/much much harder.


Part 27: True Colors

Severus watched the first years enter, his eyes gliding over their faces, some of which he had come to know well.

Ginny Weasley was the first he unintentionally focused on. She had been a ferocious fighter in Potter's Resistance. She was practically the Light's version of Bellatrix. Unfortunately, Bellatrix outlived her by nine months. She was killed by Avery while defending a safe house from Death Eaters.

Severus turned his eyes away, not about to allow himself to recall how they had found the bodies there. His eyes came to rest on Luna Lovegood, who was dreamily gazing up at the ceiling as they continued down to the front. She had been alive as far as he knew before Harry activated the rune network that sent him back. She had escorted people across enemy lines to safer places and focused primarily on relocating children (who were mostly orphans). That was her forte. She was not a powerful fighter, but her strength was in something often far more useful, especially when things went bad.

Misdirection and illusion.

Severus swore if she had an animagus form it would be a fox.

He gave a slow, content sigh, knowing, despite all things, the future had at least one person who would make it their sole duty to preserve the next generation. No matter what happened.

His eyes strayed, for whatever reason falling to a small boy beside her. Colin Creevey.

Clenching his jaw, Severus was disturbed to find that this Creevey was not the Creevey he had found so annoying and excitable. The first thing he noticed was the lack of a camera, and the next was the forlorn expression in place of the amazed one the boy had had practically his entire first year at Hogwarts last time. It was quite unlike Colin, but then it hit him. Dennis Creevey, his younger brother, was one of the nine who had been kidnapped.

Severus' closed his hand into a fist as he tried not to let the sick feeling that had suddenly risen within him show on his face.

What was that boy experiencing in that very moment? Was it as Severus feared? Was he surrounded by werewolves — perhaps now one himself?

Suddenly, he was snapped from his brooding thoughts as McGonagall called the first name.

It went just as it had last time, sorting wise, even for Colin Creevey, although Ginny did look dejectedly at the Hufflepuff table. Severus shook his head. He hoped that frankly idiotic crush would pass faster than it had last time.

Ignoring the beginning of the year announcements, he thought back to how this day had gone before. He had to admit this time was much smoother. Last time, Harry and Ron had missed the sorting and had ended up fighting for their lives against the Whomping Willow. Severus really did wish that thing would be chopped, but it had been planted to solely provide Remus secret and exclusive passage to the Shrieking Shack so he could safely transform away from the student population. Or at least that had been the goal.

Severus shook his head, wisely just letting it go. It didn't matter; it was a lifetime ago.

"After centuries of devotedly teaching, Professor Binns has resigned; however, he will be offering private tutoring sessions in the library, if anyone is interested," Dumbledore announced.

There were many snickers at that, as well as muffled sarcastic remarks. Severus didn't blame them.

"Now, let me introduce you to your new History professor," Dumbledore continued, turning to a woman on the other side of Filius. "Professor Cattermole."

There was polite clapping, though Severus had to force himself.

Mary Cattermole. A muggleborn witch who had barely managed to flee with her children to Italy. Mary and her three children had only managed to get there because of Luna. Her husband, Reginald Cattermole, had been killed at the recently constructed border, trying to get to them.

Severus resigned himself to the fact he really should make more of an effort to get to beginning-of-the-year staff meetings so he wouldn't get surprised like this, but when Voldemort calls. . . .

Well, he could only hope the Cattermoles' future would be brighter than it had been originally.

O o O o O

Harry and the others fell back into the routine of school very quickly, though on the first morning Harry received a curious letter. Confident in the house elves' screening abilities, not to mention the fact Dobby himself checked over all of his incoming letters, Harry removed the letter from the owl's leg.

To: Mr. Potter J. H.

From: Mr. Lee V. Q.

Intrigued, and slightly confused about the order of his name, Harry went on and read the letter.

Dear Mr. Potter J. H.,

I am not writing to you as a Representative of the Republic of Vietnam or as a Member of the International Confederation of Wizards, but as a man who is grateful to you and sees that it is time I repay some of what you have done for me.

It has come to my attention that you may be in need of some assistance against renegade werewolves and a Dark Lord. It is unfortunate that people such as yourself often obtain such relentless enemies, but take comfort in the knowledge you have also made powerful allies — perhaps more than you realize.

I cannot act in a politically official capacity, as I cannot speak for my country in declaring war against any faction. However, I can act as a wizard committed to aiding one who I am indebted to. International Law cannot touch me in such a case, and, as your deeds have affected more than just myself, once my actions come to light I am confident others will stand and also come to your aid, should you need it.

As for the specific aid I am referring to, it is public support and information. I understand much of this may be more than you can digest, but, no matter your age, you deserve my support and I refuse to turn my back on you.

Please contact me if you are in need of anything. I will endeavor to provide.

With Undying Allegiance,

Lee V. Quan

Harry of course remembered Mr. Lee. He was the last man he had cured of Lycanthropy at the ICW meeting during the winter holidays. Thus, he took the letter to Professor Snape and asked for some advice.

Professor Snape seemed surprised but pleased by the letter, and advised Harry to not be afraid to ask things of Mr. Lee. Much like the Malfoys, Mr. Lee owed him a debt, and to ignore his support would be insulting. Besides, this was an opportunity that should not be missed.

Harry agreed, and wrote back to Mr. Lee that evening, thanking him for his support and asking what he meant exactly by 'information' and 'public support'. Mr. Lee replied the following day, stating he had a large library of rare magical books as well as many contacts throughout the wizarding world which provided a broad range of useful information. As for the public support, he stated if he was ever given the opportunity, and Harry approved, he would give statements that would positively promote Harry's public image — as such a thing could be a powerful tool in any conflict.

Of course, Mr. Lee's answer went over Harry's head a bit, and Harry once again found himself asking Professor Snape about what it all really meant. The professor summed it up by saying Mr. Lee was offering to be a kind of public liaison for him, and that, considering Mr. Lee's credentials, it would be wise to accept. Harry quickly did so. Mr. Lee was proud.

Harry's Friday lessons with Professor Sprout continued, as did his weekends helping in the infirmary.

He used the Modus Cube a bit with Professor Sprout, but where he was really seeing improvement was actually in his parselmagic. It was certainly stronger than before, as in, more reactive to his intent, so much so that there were times that he found himself healing the patient without speaking any parseltongue out loud. He merely had to think it.

Coral suggested it was because of how much practice he had had with the full block in place, and now that a quarter of it had been lifted, healing was much easier than before. Harry couldn't help but agree with that assessment, as it did make sense. But no matter the reason, Harry felt it time to really begin looking at the protective aspect of parselmagic.

O o O o O

The following weeks were busy but no more than others during a school year, or at least that's how it was for most people at Hogwarts.

Professor Cattermole was a decent History teacher, well, if compared to Binns she was extraordinary, but that was no surprise. She covered things other than goblins and actually made a real effort to learn her students' names. Overall, the students had no complaints. Harry found himself comparing her to his kindergarten teacher, as she had a soft voice and spoke simply to them.

As for their other classes, they were much like the previous year. Professor Lupin remained the DADA instructor, introducing them to the finer points of hexes and jinxes. Harry enjoyed practicing them on the Modus Cube, which he had shown to Neville, Justin, Ernie, Draco, Vince, and Greg one weekend. They had all taken a turn, but Neville was the only one who seemed to remain interested in it afterwards — partly because it indicated he had cast a few spells with too little power.

Outside of class, Harry continued his correspondence with Black. They remained a bit distanced, but they were getting to know each other better, and Harry could tell Sirius still genuinely wanted to know him. Harry only wished it didn't require so much effort — for both of them. Other than that, Sirius had recently begun job searching. His healers stated it would give him a semblance of normalcy and provide a means for him to 'begin living' again. This bit of news had opened up things between them some more, mainly because Harry was curious about his life before Azkaban — specifically about what he did as an Auror. Unfortunately, Sirius was adamant about avoiding the Ministry now. He didn't want to work anywhere near them, let alone for them. Harry didn't blame him, but it left Sirius with less job options.

Hopefully something would come along soon.

Mr. Lee kept in contact with Harry, sending him brief messages every other week or so, mainly to keep him informed on any pertinent information that may concern him. One example was the progression of the Lycanthropy vaccine. Through the ICW, the cure had reached around the globe by the beginning of October. Every nation now had access to the cure and volunteers were instructing magical hospitals on how to administer it. This news, of course, was relevant enough, but what was more was the fact a number of nations were recommending Harry for the Order of Merlin, First Class, as well as one for Severus Snape.

Mr. Lee was blunt on his feelings, stating he felt it was about time (his nation had made the recommendation months before). He also added he was certain Harry would be accepted to receive the award within the month. He was right.

Unfortunately, due to school being in session, Harry would need to wait to receive the award that Holiday Break. However, that didn't stop the Daily Prophet from plastering the news everywhere and declaring it loudly with bold text and flashing articles. The only good thing was that they didn't have any recent photos of Harry.

Harry coped with the sudden influx of fame well enough, though that may have been due to Draco and the others discouraging people (at least those close to their age) from yapping about it when he was around.

"It is a big deal, though, Harry," Cedric said.

They were in the common room, working on their transfiguration homework.

"I know, but can't people just let me be?" Harry said with a sigh.

"Harry, you're the youngest recipient of the Order of Merlin ever -and- it's First Class. I know it's annoying, but look at it from other people's point of view. Here's a second year who — mystifying history notwithstanding — can use parselmagic to heal critical injuries and cure Lycanthropy. Not only that, but the boy is going to receive an Order of Merlin while having asked for nothing. For crying out loud, Harry, anyone else would have asked for — heck, demanded — payment for curing hundreds of people of a previously thought incurable, un-liftable curse. But receiving payment or an award never entered your mind, did it?" Cedric said, shaking his head in amazement.

Harry gave another sigh. "I just don't think that way. I don't know why."

"Just don't judge people's fascination with you too harshly. Whether you like it or not, you are a very intriguing and impressive person," Cedric stated.

That did little to ease Harry's feeling on the matter.

O o O o O

Severus was not having a good week.

With the news out concerning his and Harry's Order of Merlins, he was in a bit of trouble — or at least he was certain he was or would be.

It had not been common knowledge that he had been responsible for the creation of the vaccine. In fact, only Madam Bones and a handful of Healers from the Ministry had known (other than the professors at Hogwarts). And, at the time, Severus had counted himself lucky in that the news of the vaccine itself was more important than the identity of its creator — himself.

Well, his anonymity was gone now.

Looking at the clock, he couldn't help but cringe. Time to deliver Voldemort's potions.

Heading toward the Dark Lord's room in Yaxley's Manor, Severus expertly avoided getting near any of the werewolves, who, by the looks of them, were not impressed by or happy with the new Order of Merlin recipient.

He swept past Yaxley, who gave him an amused sneer, before disappearing into the Dark Lord's quarters.

"Ah, Severus," Voldemort breathed.

There was sweat on his brow and his cheeks were pale — paler than his natural color. However, he was sitting on a chair, not lying in the bed.

"My lord," Severus said with a bow. "I believe I've made a breakthrough, though I'm afraid I haven't found the cure yet."

Voldemort motioned him over while shooing Bellatrix aside.

Severus glanced at her, finding she was having difficulty keeping her hands steady and that her right shoulder was twitching.

Prolonged exposure to the Cruciatus.

Voldemort was still taking out his anger on her, believing she was responsible for his illness.

Severus barely managed to swallow up his twisted pleasure at the sight before refocusing on Voldemort.

"This potion should help prevent the illness from progressing further, and these should lower the fever and discomfort," Severus said, partly lying as he knelt before Voldemort.

The first potion would not prevent the illness from advancing; instead, it would make it appear that way by alleviating the symptoms while allowing the bacteria to continue multiplying and spreading unhindered. Severus hoped Voldemort would learn the truth too late.

He wasn't sure if this illness would actually kill him, but he was confident, at the very least, if it progressed far enough it would permanently damage his body and, with any luck, the madman's magic — as he could see evidence of damage already.

Voldemort's magic, though powerful, was beginning to struggle to keep the infection at bay. His skin, over where the bullet was, nestled within the over-healed rib, was tender and faintly discolored now.

Voldemort motioned for Snape to put the vials on the side table as he sat up in his chair a bit more.

"Severus, tell me, if I were to absorb a supply of neutral magic, would these potions have any impact?" he asked silkily.

"I am uncertain, my Lord. I would need to know more about the source of this neutral magic, how quickly it would be absorbed, and how much would be involved," he answered swiftly.

Voldemort smiled, his skin stretching tightly against his thin face.

"Very soon, I plan to use the nine children to fortify my power. This infusion will also remove this . . . illness," he said, sending a glare at Bellatrix which made her twitch even more.

"So, a ritual, my Lord?" Severus asked, inserting as much awe as he could stomach.

"Yes. This Halloween, the most magic of nights," he said proudly, smirking.

"Hmm," Severus said, thinking on how to answer. He decided to be honest. He didn't know how much research Voldemort had done, and couldn't risk being wrong here. "The potions shouldn't have any effect, if you absorb magic from each child individually."

"I see. Very good then, the ritual calls for that anyway. I will send for you when I need of you."

Severus gave a small, approving smile. "I look forward to receiving your call."

"More than your Order of Merlin?" Voldemort asked after a short pause.

Severus straightened, barely managing to cover his sudden unease.

"My Lord, I—"

Voldemort interrupted him by standing up and towering above him. Severus remained on his knee as he looked up.

"Severus, my servant, you do not need to explain yourself to me. You are very cunning, perhaps more than any other Slytherin, save myself. You have positioned yourself well, for you have gained more influence than any of my other followers — after all, the Ministry has marked you as a hero. What more could I ask for? When we are ready to move, we will be able to strike at the heart of the Ministry and the Wizarding World."

Severus knelt down further, practically placing his forehead on the ground.

"Your approval is all I seek, My Lord," he said, calming his pounding heart before Voldemort stepped back and dismissed him.

O o O

Severus exited the manor after briefly running into Crabbe and offhandedly mentioning he needed to make a stop at Knockturn Alley for some potion ingredients so couldn't stay and chat.

Apparating to Knockturn Alley, he wasted no time in heading toward the shop most would avoid at all costs; however, he soon slowed his pace when he felt tiny prickles at the back of his neck.

He was being followed.

He didn't look behind him, since that would be foolish. Instead, he turned a corner and entered a narrow alley he knew had a good chance of being completely empty. Calling his wand into his hand, he heard his pursuer step into the alley. Severus stopped, keeping his wand concealed.

"Why are you following me?" Severus asked, his stance firm among the shadows.

He only received a snarl in reply before a pulse of magic surged toward him.

Deflecting the spell with a shield, he sidestepped and turned, brushing against a disgusting waste bin before firing a spell of his own and managing to identify his attacker.

It was one of the werewolves under the command of Ardolf Lowell, who was one of the two werewolf Lieutenants.

"I will punish you for what you have done!" the werewolf snarled.

Deflecting another spell, this one with a slab of concrete from the alley's floor, Severus decided to make quick work of this, a plan quickly forming in his mind as he realized this problem could easily become an opportunity.

Wordlessly, and holding nothing back, Severus advanced.

He rapidly sent forth three spells. One exploded a nearby crate of filth while another blanketed the entire space in blackness. The third hit its mark as Severus reached out, tightly grabbing onto the werewolf as he rotated on his heel.

They vanished with a muffled crack as passersby wisely fled the area.

-Crack-

They appeared in a secluded shack deep in a forest. Severus promptly let the stunned werewolf fall at his feet as he summoned two chairs before levitating the beefy man's limp form into one of them.

"Petrificus Totalus," he muttered, localizing the spell to specifically function from the man's shoulders to his feet. "Well now, let's see what you know," he said, pulling out a tiny vial and tipping the werewolf's head back.

With three drops, he closed the vial and enervated his prisoner.

"Where are the nine children kidnapped this summer being kept?" Severus asked, going right to the heart of it.

With glazed eyes, the werewolf answered. "Three of 'em are being held at Macnair's place. Don't know where others are."

"Why don't you know?"

"Each of us were only told one location, depending on the place we would be guarding."

Severus was grudgingly impressed. It was a good strategy.

"So the other werewolves know of the other locations?"

"Yes."

"Who knows them all?"

"Kamalia Rendall, Ardolf Lowell, and the Dark Lord."

"How many locations are there?"

"Three. Rendall told us they separated the children into three's."

"Have the nine children been bitten and turned into werewolves?"

"Yes."

Severus tightened his hold on his wand.

"Do you know what's going to happen on Halloween?"

"Yes."

"What?"

"The ritual."

"What of the children?"

"All of them will be moved to the one location. They will be given to the Dark Lord."

"You are going to allow the Dark Lord to kill nine werewolf children?" Severus asked, barely keeping his voice from rising furiously.

"Yes."

"Why?"

"With the Dark Lord back to full power, we can truly begin increasing our numbers once more. These nine are a necessary sacrifice. They will be remembered."

Disgusted, Severus was tempted to poison the monster and be done with it, but he still needed more information.

"Where will the ritual take place?"

"I don't know. We haven't been told, but we will know on Halloween."

"What is the current state of the children? Are they physically well?"

"They are very well. Fed, clothed, and housed. They must be healthy for the ritual."

"Do you know anything specific about the ritual?"

"It must be done at night."

"Do you know anything else about the ritual?"

"No."

"Very well. Obliviate."

O o O o O

"Cotton candy," Severus stated, causing the gargoyle to move aside.

Coming to the door, he lifted his hand to knock, but he needn't have bothered.

"Come in, Severus," Albus called.

Snape entered, quickly finding the Headmaster wasn't alone and appeared to be diligently . . . tinkering on a one inch tall rectangular board on his desk with a pair of tweezers connected to the board by a red wire. And, on the other side of the desk watching, was a black man with short peppered hair.

At first, he didn't know who this person was or why they were there, but judging by the situation, he had an idea of who it could be.

"I apologize for interrupting, Headmaster. Shall I come back later?" he asked, seamlessly recovering from his mild surprise.

"It's not a problem, Severus, we are nearly finished today," Dumbledore answered. "This is my physical and speech therapist, Mr. Lewis," he continued, even as he leaned over his desk, bringing the tweezers closer to the board's surface. "Mr. Lewis, this is Professor Snape, Hogwart's Potions Master."

"Hello, Professor. Congratulations on the Order of Merlin," he said, standing up and holding out his hand.

Severus shook it, just to be polite. The man was helping the Headmaster, after all.

"Thank you," he replied simply.

-BZZZZ-

Severus immediately turned toward the sound to find Dumbledore staring at the board, both annoyed and amused, tweezers in his left hand. Slowly, Severus approached the desk to get a closer look at what the Headmaster was tinkering with and why it had made that irritating noise.

There was an overly simple image of a man on the board with small cut outs throughout his body where shapes of 'ailments' and 'organs' resided, such as a charley horse and spare ribs.

"I'm having him work on his fine motor skills. I find this game, 'Operation,' though considered a children's game, is a useful tool in improving muscle control and coordination. It is also much more rewarding than some other fine motor exercises," Mr. Lewis explained.

"I see," Severus stated, raising an eyebrow as Dumbledore returned to trying to retrieve the stubborn funny bone. Glancing beside the board, he found that the Headmaster had already managed to get a butterfly, bucket, wrench, and an Adam's apple.

"Ah-ha!" Dumbledore exclaimed triumphantly, lifting the tiny plastic funny bone with the tweezers.

Operation successful, Dumbledore put the game aside and, knowing Severus had not come to make a social call, quickly became a bit more serious.

"Mr. Lewis, thank you for coming today. I will do those exercises you suggested. Will I see you next week?" he asked.

"Yes, sir. Same time," he said, gathering up the game and giving Severus a departing nod before heading to the fireplace. He was smart enough to know when it was time to go.

With Mr. Lewis gone, Albus motioned Severus to take a chair before massaging his left hand with his right.

Sitting down, Severus took a moment to figure out where to begin.

"I've figured out what the Dark Lord is up to," he said after a moment.

Dumbledore stilled. "Does it involve the children, as we had feared?"

"Unfortunately," Severus answered, before repeating what Voldemort had told him and what he had learned from the angry werewolf.

"Voldemort has certainly gone beyond what even I had thought him capable of," Dumbledore whispered.

"I fear there may be more. His last words to me . . . I think he is planning something serious with the Ministry."

Albus nodded. "I agree with you, especially considering he and his followers have been so quiet of late. However, I doubt they have been inactive. For the past few weeks, the Minister has been acting . . . well, I can't quite put my finger on it, but he is not himself. I am not sure if it is the Imperius or not, but . . . something is certainly off. He has been reassigning people to different departments and has even created a few new positions. Another troubling thing is the assignment of his new Senior Undersecretary — a rather vile woman, a description I do not use lightly, by the name of Dolores Umbridge."

Severus clenched his jaw.

"I don't have any solid evidence to bring my concerns to the Wizengamot, and though I have expressed some of my concern to Madam Bones, I fear I can do nothing to stop Cornelius' aberrant decisions. To most, his actions are a reaction to Voldemort and the problem with the werewolves. They won't fault him for 'doing what he can to help protect the Ministry and Britain.'"

"Idiotic sheep," Severus could help but retort.

Dumbledore didn't comment on Severus' words, but moved on.

"I'll inform Madam Bones of what we know so she will be able to assemble Aurors quickly when I contact her Halloween. She understands the likelihood of there being spies in even her department, so she will be subtle," Dumbledore said.

"Very well. I will inform you of the location as soon as I can that night."

O o O o O

The days went by at a crawl. Severus almost wondered if time itself had been slowed and he was the only one who noticed. At meal times, he kept his eyes away from the Gryffindor table. He did not want to think about Dennis Creevey more than he had to, or see the Colin Creevey silently worrying over his missing baby brother.

He knew Draco had noticed his tense mood, even though many other students remained oblivious, heck, even most of the professors had no clue he was so overwrought. But he could not explain it to Draco, nor did he have the opportunity to try. Thus, he communicated the best he could with brief looks and subtle nods he hoped would be deciphered as 'yes, something is happening, but you and your family remain safe.'

Halloween finally came, and the feast in the Great Hall was as grand as it was every year for that magical night.

He couldn't stomach eating, and the floating pumpkins over the tables just made him feel sicker.

He would be called soon.

"Severus?" Remus asked, glancing at him with barely disguised concern.

"Yes?" Severus drawled, turning toward him with what he hoped was a bored expression.

"Is there . . ." Remus began, before apparently changing his mind about what to say. "Is there something wrong with the food?"

Severus lifted an eyebrow. "No. I'm just not particularly hungry."

"I . . . see," Remus said, wisely deciding to let the matter drop.

Severus was thankful, especially when he felt his mark burn a moment later.

It was time.

Straightening the portkey-disguised-watch on his wrist, he gave a parting nod to Remus and a subtle look at Albus before heading out of Hogwarts and beyond her wards. Once he was a distance away, he apparated out, allowing his mark to lead him to his destination.

O o O

It took a moment for him to realize where he was, as it had been a long time since he had been on the grounds of Augustus Rookwood's Manor.

After ensuring he was alone, he swiftly cast the patronus charm and sent a quick message to Dumbledore, informing him of his location. If things went as he hoped, Dumbledore and Aurors would arrive within the hour, and before anything unfortunate happened.

With that done, Severus went forward and entered the manor's wards before going to the back of the house, the place where his mark was directing him toward.

"Ah, Severus, always punctual," Voldemort said.

"Yes, my Lord," he answered with a bow. "Your time is valuable. I try my best to avoid wasting it."

Voldemort smiled as he walked across the bare earth toward him.

Severus took in his surroundings the best he could as he knelt before the Dark Lord.

To his right was a containment ward of some kind. He unhappily concluded it was for the children. Before him and behind Voldemort was an area of land that had been completely cleared. The earth had been gently swept of all debris, and all that was left was rich soil. There were two 1 meter wide circles, each surrounded by an etched rune ring with intricate symbols branching off and around it. Connecting them was a stream of runes that contorted slightly as they meshed with the rings. This was dual rune network with a joining rune channel, and, by what Severus knew of runes (which was a great deal due to helping craft the one Harry had activated to send him back), he saw it enabled life and energy transference.

This did not bode well.

To his left were death eaters and werewolves, and behind them was the manor. There were not many Death Eaters present, though that was understandable as Voldemort did not want to flaunt his injury. Also, most of the 'free' Death Eaters were at Halloween Parties, keeping up appearances.

"Rise, my loyal servant," Voldemort said, giving one of the werewolves beside him a nod.

Severus stood as six children were brought from the house and placed into the containment ward by Kamalia Rendall and Ardolf Lowell, the werewolf lieutenants. He turned toward the children and gazed at them without any emotion showing on his face, although inside he was boiling and wondering where the last three were.

"Severus, would the children having Lycanthropy pose any problem to me during or after the rituals have been completed?" Voldemort asked, his eyes holding a disturbing glint as he glanced at the children.

"I don't believe so, my Lord, as you have Lycanthropy immunity through having Dumbledore's blood running in your veins," he answered after a thoughtful pause.

Voldemort nodded. "As I thought. Now, I expect Dolohov to arrive with the last three children soon, but we must complete the rituals within the sacrificial window. Ardolf, bring one of the children to the far ring," he said while motioning for a few of his servants to gather around the dual network.

Severus' stomach tightened. He had already set himself to stalling the ritual for as long as he could, but actually doing it was a serious risk. He only hoped it would be worth it and that help would arrive in time.

"My Lord," he interrupted, bowing deeply. "Forgive me, but may I make a suggestion?"

The Death Eaters near stared at Snape with wide eyes, stunned by his daring, while the werewolves stilled.

"And what suggestion would that be?" Voldemort asked.

"I believe it may be best to wait for Dolohov so you may select the best child to be used first. I believe placing the children in order of highest power and health would provide you with the optimum energy transference — as your body would no longer require any attention after the first absorption."

Voldemort paused, thinking over Severus' words.

"That may be . . ." he said. "Very well. Begin examining the children already here and place them in the optimum order."

"Yes, my Lord," he said.

Walking to the trapped children, he kept his face passive, knowing he was being watched.

He knew there was about thirty more minutes before he could begin to hope for Aurors to arrive, so resigned himself to continuing his charade.

Kamalia Rendall brought the front of the ward down so he could check the children over. Pulling out his wand, he began casting diagnostic spells and charms that would give hints to how closely tied a child currently was to their magic. He knew them being werewolves would skew the results some, but this was for show more than anything else.

The children were healthy and strong, but it was clear they were terrified. They didn't move at all as he cast the spells on them, and even their breath, which appeared as pale fog in the cold night air, was slow and hesitant.

They averted their eyes from his, which only made his heart clench further. Looking at their faces, he recognized a few as future students; however, Dennis Creevey was not yet present.

"You," he snarled, wishing he did not need to keep up his Death Eater persona in this instant, "Stand here."

The child he pointed to did as he was told immediately. Severus could tell they had been conditioned to obey without question. There was no sign of having been bewitched, but being in captivity since the summer had squashed any resistance they might have originally had.

Severus continued his work, placing the children in the 'optimum order' to be sacrificed.

He did it as slowly as he dared, deliberately placing the children in the order he felt would enable them the best chance of escape, if the ward were to drop. He only hoped their sense of survival was still strong enough to have them run if they were given the opportunity.

As he finished getting the six in order, the last three arrived.

He turned to find Antonin Dolohov and Rodolphus Lestrange bringing the children to him at Voldemort's nod.

Severus guided the children into the warded area, his eyes taking in their faces. They were just like the other six, too frightened to resist or even cry. Dennis Creevey was among them, and Severus had to strengthen his mental shields to hold back the rush of rage that surged at seeing the once hyper boy so defeated.

Casting the spells he had on the others, he examined them and began forming a plan to execute.

If Dumbledore and the others did not arrive in time, he had to prevent the rituals from taking place, his position as spy be damned. He would not stand by and watch more innocents be murdered and Voldemort regain his strength — not if he could do something to stop it.

He had forced himself to do such things in his future, believing his position as spy was worth the price, that his work as a double agent was saving more lives in the end — when in truth . . . had it been?

Was the information he was gathering for the side of Light worth the lives of those he watched Voldemort murder right before his eyes? Now, he wasn't reckless, far from it, but there had been a few times when he could have acted . . . when there had been a good chance he would have been able to save a few lives and escape with his own. But he had refused to take the risk and reveal himself as a spy, believing the information he was gathering was worth far more than a few lives — whether they were adults' or children's.

But now, looking back, Severus was not so sure of the worth of his work. Oh, it was valuable, no doubt, but was it equal to a life? Any life? How much damage could his defiance have done if he had acted in such a moment, especially near the beginning of the war? Who else would have joined him if he had shown that one did not have to obey, shown fellow victims of the Dark Lord that one could fight back and live? Would fellow Death Eaters have turned? Would frightened civilians have risen up before it had been too late?

He didn't know, but if now was the time to drop his act, there was no better time to find out.

He looked down at Dennis Creevey, finding his clothes shabby and torn, but a trace of color on the boy's wrist under the sleeve of his robes caught his eye.

His heart hammered wildly in his chest as his plan solidified further.

He gripped Dennis' wrist as he finished casting, making it appear he was squeezing him tightly when in actuality his hold was loose and gentle. Then, with a mutter, he performed the Switching Spell. He felt his wrist watch appear beneath his hand around the boy's wrist and a thin bracelet of colored twine replace his watch.

Then, pretending he was casting another diagnostic spell, he quietly ordered, "Ignore it."

Dennis's face didn't react, but Severus felt the muscles in his arm tighten as he clenched his little fist.

"Are you finished, Severus?" Voldemort asked behind him, a bit of impatience clear in his voice.

"Yes, my Lord," Severus answered, knowing he could not stall any longer.

Where was Dumbledore? !

"Bring the first," Voldemort ordered.

Severus stood up and indicated Dennis as the first. "This one," he stated.

"Perfect," Voldemort said, moving to the rune network and entering the circle that the energy from the other would flow into.

Dennis was then steered by Dolohov into the other. He was rigid and breathing heavily. Severus was certain the boy fully believed he was going to die.

Severus stepped back, overtly glancing around and identifying who his first targets would be if he had to act.

Kamalia Rendall and Ardolf Lowell were by the containment ward, keeping it up. Bellatrix was on the left side of the dual network, anxiously watching Voldemort. Pettigrew was beside her, looking like a disgusting, fat doll more than a living person, and Rodolphus was with the few other Death Eaters near the upper portion of the network with the rest of the werewolves.

Continuing his careful inspection of the area, his eyes caught a bit of movement behind Voldemort, just outside the ring.

Nagini.

Severus tightened his grip on his wand. She might be a problem.

Finally, Dolohov exited the ring, leaving Dennis standing alone at its center facing a pleased and eager Voldemort. All the while, Severus was wondering what in Merlin's name was taking Dumbledore so long. They were running out of time!

Time passed agonizingly so, and it was only as Voldemort's wand fell from his sleeve and into his hand when Severus knew. . . .

It was now or never.

His magic bubbled at his center as his heart throbbed in his chest, his mouth opening just as Voldemort raised his wand.

"Avada Ked—" Voldemort began, thrusting his wand forward as Severus' voice cut over his.

"Non adorabis!" Severus yelled, declaring the activation phrase of the portkey.

Dennis' form vanished an instant before he would have been struck by the Unforgivable, causing the green curse to continue and strike a surprised and unlucky werewolf.

Severus did not wait for any of them come to their senses, but took advantage of their brief stupor.

"Sectumsempra!" he hissed, slashing his wand down where Nagini lay, plunging as much magic as he could down through his wand.

Blood filled the air as he turned, instantly casting a Diffindo directly through Ardolf Lowell's chest and bringing him down. The containment ward flickered.

Now was not the time for mercy.

Voldemort gave a cry of absolute and unrestrained fury as he twisted around. Severus barely had time to duck and roll as spells were finally cast at him, but the fight had only begun. The air crackled with apparition cracks just beyond the property wards of Rookwood Manor, and it was soon followed by the ominous sound of straining wards.

Dumbledore and countless others had finally arrived and were attacking the perimeter.

"HE'S MINE!" Voldemort roared, his eyes blazing as his magic pulsed from his frame and visibly contorted the air around him — the fog of his breath twisting.

Unlike all the others within the ward, Severus did not freeze at Voldemort's words. Instead, he took the opportunity to strike down an ill prepared Kamalia Rendall with another well-aimed Diffindo.

"Get down!" Severus shouted at the kids as the ward around them went down.

Fortunately, they obeyed him instantly, but his order to them gave Voldemort an opening.

"CRUCIO MAXIMA!"

Though invisible, the power of the spell caused the air around it to ripple as it went forth.

It did not miss.

It struck Severus in the chest, right above his heart, and he was slammed back just by the fierce power behind the spell; however, he remained on his feet, even as Voldemort stepped forward, keeping his wand trained on him and his focus constant.

Severus' muscles, overwhelmed by the sheer magic coursing through him, clenched tightly at the assault, but his eyes stared unwaveringly into Voldemort's own as the spell remained active.

The sensation was beyond anything Severus could ever describe.

"This is only the beginning of the pain you will suffer, Severus," Voldemort began, forcing even more hateful power into the spell.

But Severus had yet to scream, had yet to fall at his feet and writhe on the ground, even though he continued to hold the spell on his once 'most loyal' follower.

Severus didn't know what was happening, but the pain Voldemort was claiming was only the beginning of what he would suffer did not feel all that painful. And though he could feel the monster's raging magic dancing just under his skin and across his core, it did not feel like a Crucio, let alone a Crucio Maxima.

Was this a result of Voldemort's magic suffering from the illness, or was it something else? Severus could only hope it was Voldemort's magic, but, whatever the reason, he couldn't ponder on it now. There were more pressing things to do, like survive.

He straightened, making Voldemort lift his eyebrows.

"No, Voldemort, this is only the beginning of your defeat," Severus replied defiantly as he moved and cast as if the Cruciatus was not still upon him, to the shock of Voldemort and all bearing witness. "Reducto!" he shouted as the wards suddenly crumbled around them.

Voldemort was forced to defend himself, deflecting the curse into the center of the rune network. Earth exploded upward as Aurors surged onto the property, immediately engaging the Death Eaters and werewolves in combat.

The scene quickly caved into the inconceivable reality of battle, and Severus' only thought was of the children caught in the middle of it. Rolling to avoid an ill-aimed curse, Severus made it to the huddled children who had yet to move after his order of 'get down.'

Sweeping his wand over their heads, he cast the strongest protective ward he could think of as he heard the voice he had been waiting to hear since he had left Hogwarts.

"So, this is more of your 'greatness'?" Dumbledore asked, stepping up to the right of the Dark Lord as he glanced at the ruined rune network on the ground.

Severus looked up just in time to see Voldemort's pale face whiten further.

"Unlike others, I am able to pursue such magic," Voldemort retorted, feigning calmness as he turned to fully face his first enemy — Severus momentarily forgotten.

"You believe it is about ability? No, it is about willingness. You are merely an individual willing to perform such vile acts, violating magic herself," Dumbledore stated, lazily sidestepping a stray curse in his purple robes.

The passing spell made the stars on his robes sparkle, almost as brightly as the twinkle normally in his eyes.

Voldemort scoffed. "You are confusing people's weakness for unwillingness. They are too weak to seek power, and thus, they are unworthy."

"And yet many who you consider weak have power you will never know."

"Going to continue the old argument, are you?" Voldemort asked with a sneer.

"An argument I have already won? Why bother? No, I am merely stating truth. After all, love has defeated you before, and it will again," Dumbledore answered confidently.

With a snarl, Voldemort fired a Killing Curse, which was intercepted by a slab of earth guided by a flick of Dumbledore's wand. But Voldemort's assault did not mark the beginning of a duel, but a retreat.

Voldemort fled with a loud resounding crack, which was soon joined by his followers' — Death Eaters and werewolves alike.

With the battle over, Severus felt it best to slowly reveal his presence and that of the children he had hidden with the quick but messy protective ward during the short skirmish. Rising up to his full height in front of the children, he kept his wand pointed down and tried his best to look nonthreatening. Of course, his dark menacing clothing and naturally intimidating stance did little to assist in this.

The Aurors immediately aimed their wands at him, several looking uneasy as they realized how close he was to the children.

"Severus," Albus said, quickly moving forward while ignoring the confused looks from Bones' men. "Are you and the children alright?" he asked, stopping just in front of Severus before reaching out and grasping his shoulder.

Severus gave a short nod as the children gathered more closely around him, some of the younger ones even daring to grip the sides of his black robes.

"One child is at Hogwarts, Headmaster. I sent him by my portkey," he answered, choosing to not comment on or acknowledge the eight children clinging to him.

Severus was just glad they weren't crying.

"Very good," Albus said before turning toward Madam Bones who was on her way toward them. "Well, I suppose some explanation is in order?" he asked when she reached them.

"That's one way to put it," Madam Bones muttered.

O o O o O

Next part, Gain and Loss, is under construction.