It was approaching midnight. Framed by black clouds, the full moon cast its pale silver light upon the high stone walls of a giant castle. Ordinarily, the castle housed the students of Hogwarts, the world's most renowned school of magic. But as the month was July, the students and staff had all gone home for the summer. Presently, no light appeared in the castle's numerous windows; even the groundskeeper's hut was darkened.

To one side of the castle stretched a vast expanse of woodland. The tall trees' shadows were cast across the mossy ground. The trees quivered with the occasional gust of wind, but the owls and animals who lived in the forest were unusually silent. Here in the woods, as at the castle, there seemed to be no sign of life - except for one tall cloaked man, slipping stealthily through the shadows. Purposely deviating far from the forest path, he wove between the trees with a confident knowledge of his course. Barely making a sound save his own laboured breathing, the man dodged branches and stepped over fallen branches.

Suddenly he saw a low branch too late and when he ducked, his hood caught on the branch and fell away, revealing a pale, haggard face and a head of graying sandy hair. There were bags under the eyes and the brow was furrowed with worry. The lined face clearly exposed the fact that the man was currently in very poor health. Remus Lupin hastily pulled up his hood, glancing around furtively. He saw no one, but he thought he perceived movement ahead. He moved forward cautiously, one silent step at a time, and stopped short when he saw what was there.

Moonlight illuminated the small clearing into which Lupin stared. It lay deep in the heart of the dark woods. Here a circular area exposed bare ground, devoid of even grass. Hundreds of hissing snakes of all types and lengths slithered in circles round the edge of the clearing.

In the centre, surrounded by the circling snakes, stood two robed and hooded figures. One was short and squat, and was constantly fidgeting. The other was tall and imposing, and stayed perfectly still while the shorter figure paced nervously back and forth in front of him. Lupin slipped unobtrusively behind the thick trunk of an oak tree and listened to the conversation. He flinched, recognizing the voice of the first speaker.

"Eleven-fifty-eight and twenty-seven seconds," the short creature said as he consulted a pocket watch. "Twenty-eight, twenty-nine-"

"Wormtail," said the tall figure quietly, and his attendant halted in his tracks. "Why must you march back and forth so, looking at that ridiculous pocket watch? Do you imitate the White Rabbit?"

The creature called Wormtail put away the watch and came to stand by the tall cloaked figure. "I'm sorry, master."

"They will be here soon, Wormtail."

"Yes, Lord Voldemort."

"You seem worried." The voice of the Dark Lord held a note of mocking amusement.

"N-no, of course not, my lord. I- I worry that your Lordship is uncomfortable waiting here."

"Rubbish. I flourish this atmosphere, Wormtail, surrounded by loyal followers in the impenetrable obscurity of the night. And to be so close to my ancient alma mater-" Voldemort gestured to the immense castle, whose turrets, despite their soaring altitude, only managed to show their uppermost windows above the tall trees enclosing the clearing. "Wormtail, I feel at home."

Lupin shivered, wondering if the Dark Lord planned to make the forest his permanent dwelling.

"Eleven-fifty-nine," said Wormtail, sneaking a peek at his watch.

"What are you fretting about? What time did I tell them, Wormtail?"

"The stroke of midnight, master."

"And not a lapse of one second, early or late, will be tolerated. They will be here on time. But that is not for another- how many seconds, Wormtail?"

"Twenty seconds."

"Magnificent." From the sleeves of the black cloak emerged two long, white, spidery hands, which rubbed together slowly, expressing their owner's glee. "A few more seconds, and then-a reunion! The first meeting of the Death Eaters since I was returned to flesh." The white fingers curled around each other absently as memories of that momentous night passed through Voldemort's mind. Wormtail observed this exhibition of arachnoid dexterity with much revulsion.

The ticking of his pocket watch brought him back. "Seven seconds left, master."


Tick, tick, tick, went the watch.

A cold wind suddenly picked up, and blew a shroud of clouds in front of the moon, leaving the forest in utter darkness. Wormtail shivered as gales of wind stung his face. Lord Voldemort stood still, smiling complacently.

Drawing his wand, Lupin chanced a peek around the trunk of the oak tree but could see nothing in the pitch-black. The clearing filled with the swish of cloth. When the cloud passed away from the fat white moon, Voldemort and his servant had mysteriously been joined inside the ring of slithering snakes by two dozen more cloaked people. They pulled away their hoods to show their faces to their master, and one by one approached him, knelt to kiss the hem of his robes, and drew back reverently into a circle around him. As if out of the habit of allowing space for more people, large gaps were left in the circle.

Lupin peeked out at the gathering and felt a sudden pang when the moonlight fell on his skin. He closed his eyes against the beguiling light of the full moon and ducked back into the tree trunk's shadow. He had taken his Wolfsbane potion earlier that afternoon, but he was beginning to realize that its magic was wearing off. It should last up to seven hours, if the potion was strong and had a lot of Turks' nose hairs in it. Lupin's head began to ache and his skin felt like it was on fire. He tried to concentrate on what was happening in the clearing behind him.

"My loyal Death Eaters." Lord Voldemort's voice was quiet but commanded the complete attention of every person present. "It has been almost two weeks since we last saw each other, has it not?" Lord Voldemort swept the Death Eaters with his red eyes. "I wish there were more of you here with me. But." He smiled slyly. "I do note the appearance of one more man than we had at the ceremony of my rebirth. Let us welcome our old colleague."

The Death Eaters looked round at each other, trying to see who had rejoined their ranks.

"Wait," breathed one Death Eater. She pointed across the semi-circle. "You!"

"Well, well, well," someone else said softly. "Severus Snape. We hardly expected you to show up."

"What do you want here?" snarled Wormtail. "You abandoned us long ago, turncoat!"

"Deserter!" hissed someone else. "Traitor!"

The Death Eaters moved towards Snape, whispering angrily, "Traitor, traitor!"

"Shall we kill him like you said, my Lord?" Wormtail said to Voldemort.

"Please, let me have the honour, Lord Voldemort," snarled a Death Eater, drawing his wand. Lupin recognized the snobbish tones of Lucius Malfoy.

"We can torture him first," a witch suggested viciously, drawing her wand as well.

"Excellent thinking, Emily," said Malfoy, advancing in long, strong strides. "What shall we use? Cruciatus, perhaps?"

"No," said Snape, backing away. "Stop! I beg you, Lord Voldemort, stop them-"

Malfoy was raising his wand.

"Put your wands away," Voldemort commanded quietly.

The Death Eaters all turned away from Snape to look at their master.

"My Lord," Lucius Malfoy said in amazement, "do you not remember what Snape has done? He turned spy against you! He joined the other side! He's in league with Dumbledore! He's a slimy, treacherous, lying-"

"Shut up, Lucius," Voldemort said lazily, and Malfoy fell silent, stunned. "Allow me to explain how Snape escaped the fate of becoming a rotting corpse at my feet."

The Death Eaters reluctantly reformed the circle and waited for their master to speak again.

"After my rebirth," Voldemort said, "Severus came to find me. He told me everything that had happened at Hogwarts, everything that Dumbledore was planning."

"What if he's lying?" a Death Eater broke in.

"He's not," Voldemort said. "I was able to confirm everything he said."

"That's all?" Lucius Malfoy said incredulously. "That's why we're not killing him?"

"Lucius. It is because I have realized the value of keeping Severus alive. He can help me. Why don't you tell them, Severus, what you told me."

Snape looked into the other Death Eaters' hostile faces and took a deep breath. "I explained to Lord Voldemort that I can help him ascend back into power. Even in the decade since the Dark Lord's temporary disappearance, I alone was able to secure a position of legitimate integrity. None of you, not one, provided for the return of Lord Voldemort, which I knew was imminent. As you all know, I am the Potions master at Hogwarts school. I have a mostly clean record and a respectable social standing. What's more, I work alongside Albus Dumbledore and many of his underlings."

"You yourself are one of his underlings," sneered Malfoy.

"That's what everyone thinks," Snape responded swiftly. "Dumbledore trusts me wholeheartedly. But all this time I have been waiting for Lord Voldemort to rise again."

"Then why did you not show up last meeting?" challenged Wormtail.

Snape's reply was smooth and ready. Lupin could almost mouth the words along with him, because he had spent hours the day before, rehearsing acceptable responses with Snape. "What, vanish from right under the noses of Dumbledore, McGonagall, and the Minister of Magic? I couldn't endanger my position like that, after all my careful and painstaking planning precautions."

Lupin admired the easy acting skills possessed by Snape that allowed him to credibly mask his internal fears; but most of the Death Eaters still seemed on their guard.

"Are you really going to take his word for this, master?" a Death Eater asked Lord Voldemort.

Voldemort laughed softly. "You may think I'm foolish to believe Severus, but he was right about himself being in the perfect position to be of assistance to my scheme. And Severus knows what will happen to him if he is discovered to be spying for Dumbledore, doesn't he?"

Snape cringed. "I will be subjected to Cruciatus until I have learned respect for your Lordship."

"And then?" prompted Voldemort.

"And then slow and painful death," Snape said in a low voice. "I know, I know, and I won't disappoint you, master. I will serve you faithfully."

"Master," began Malfoy, "I too had planned for your return. The secret room below my house-"

"Lucius, the construction of that room took place in the Medieval Ages," Voldemort interrupted. "I hardly consider that an example of foresight on your part. However, I may have plans for that little chamber later." He gave a short laugh.

"What is our precious Severus going to do to prove his usefulness?" spat Malfoy, disappointed that he was being paid so little attention.

Voldemort laughed gleefully. "He's going to help me get Albus Dumbledore!"

"It's possible if we plan it right," Snape said quickly into the amazed silence. "I'm in the perfect place. I know everything about Dumbledore. I know exactly what his weaknesses are."

"It's actually a very good situation," admitted a Death Eater grudgingly.

"Thank you, Nott, for having some faith in me," Snape said, glowering at the others.

"Now, Severus, you can't expect to be accepted so readily back into our little circle," Voldemort chided him. "You have, after all, returned suddenly from a decade-long absence, during which your virtue and honour alone were vouched for. Your colleagues, however, have all suffered terrible discrimination at the hands of Muggle-lovers like Albus Dumbledore!" The long spidery hand curled into a fist. "I think it is time that the noble name of Lord Voldemort was vindicated! We seek justice, and it is not to be found while a crackpot old coot like Albus Dumbledore retains power!"

The Death Eaters nodded reverently.

"And though it may seem that I have been idle since last we met, let me assure, the opposite is true. I have busily been plotting my re-emergence into the world. Many brilliant ideas for this have passed through my mind.

"I have considered a grand-scale robbery of Gringotts' Bank."

This proposal was met with admiring murmurs from the Death Eaters.

"But of course," Voldemort went on, "this is far too rash and admittedly very risky, even for a great wizard like myself. And what would it accomplish? It could only send the vague message that I need money, which is untrue and irrelevant. I need to send a powerful message, one that heralds my resurrection in the grandest of styles.

"I then thought about annihilating a large region of people."

This, too, impressed the Death Eaters.

By now Lupin was suffering almost unbearably. He wanted to vomit out his internal organs. His head pounded and his heart was beating at triple speed. Hot little pinpricks were trying to force their way through his skin. Though he had never been placed under the Cruciatus curse himself, Lupin reflected that this was probably a similar experience. He desperately tried to ignore his pain.

"But this presented several planning problems," Voldemort went on. "For instance, which country to choose? Which town to strike? Should I do just the one, or several all at once- a feat which I am indeed capable of doing? Would it send a greater message to kill all Muggles, all magic, or a combination of both?

"No, this plot was too flawed, and sounded somewhat Bolshevist. But I felt I was on the right track. Killing was the answer, but it left the question- who to kill?

"I debated attacking a wizardry school like the one you see over the top of the trees there. There are several of its ilk all over the planet- three in Europe alone. These three are direct rivals. If I hit one of these schools, perhaps one or both other schools would be accused of the crime, correct? But then I myself would get no credit. However, I do still like this idea. I may launch this attack in the future, so be prepared." He laughed quietly.

"But now I understood that to send the greatest message to the magical world, to the Ministry of Magic, and to that foolish old Dumbledore, I would have to kill a symbol. A symbol of their security, their safety from dangerous evil wizards." He chuckled to himself. "Like myself.

"So, Death Eaters, we are going to kill Harry Potter."

There was a silence. Lupin dared to peer around the tree trunk, but wished he hadn't when the light of the moon fell on him again and intensified the pain.

"But your Lordship," began Lucius Malfoy. "My son attends school with the Potter boy, and he says that since Diggory was killed-"

"Who?" interrupted Voldemort, sounding bored.

"The boy who was with Potter when he picked up the Portkey," supplied Wormtail. "The, er, spare."

"Ah yes, I remember now. His death made a ruckus at Hogwarts, did it?"

"Yes, your Lordship. Diggory was considered a minor hero of sorts at the school."

Voldemort pondered this for a moment. "Elaborate, Malfoy."

"What I meant was, Potter was widely blamed for Diggory's death. Many students believed that Potter, possibly in league with you, Lord Voldemort, arranged to have Diggory eliminated- they were in direct competition in the Triwizard Cup, as you all know.

"This awkward situation left Potter generally unpopular among his fellow students, who may have spread their misgivings to their families and around the magical community, despite Albus Dumbledore's efforts to point out that you were the most likely suspect for Diggory's murder."

Voldemort listened attentively to this narrative. When Lucius Malfoy had finished he spoke calmly. "Malfoy, I thank you for your concern about my nescience. But I can assure you, even one thousand students spreading rumours about Potter cannot hurt his reputation. He thwarted me as an infant, and three times again as a mere adolescent. The magical community regards him as a kind of invincible champion. Ha! As if that child ever really had a chance against me. If not for his mother's fluke-" He sucked in his breath angrily. "If not for that, he and Dumbledore would both be long dead and none of this nonsense would have bothered me!"

The Death Eaters all nodded and murmured to each other.

"When will we attack?" asked Snape.

"This school year," said Voldemort. "I will go into hiding nearby and when the opportunity presents itself, I will strike him myself."

"Master," began a witch hesitantly, "where exactly do you plan to stay? You can't be here in the forest. My daughter, a student at Hogwarts, tells me that the Forbidden Forest is carefully watched by Albus Dumbledore. They will find you quickly."

"Great wizard though you are," interposed another Death Eater, "you can't escape Dumbledore if you're living right under his long crooked nose."

Though his servants had revealed their faces for him, Lord Voldemort's face had remained hidden until now. He slowly drew back his hood with his long white hand to expose the ghastly pale face. The red slitted eyes sparkled with malice and the mouth curved into an evil grin.

"That is where you are mistaken. I have already discovered the perfect place to live, and it is, as you say, right under Dumbledore's crooked nose. I will move there tomorrow."

"Will you tell us where it is?"

"I'm afraid not, for you see, I fear betrayal and disloyalty."

This statement was met with protests. Lord Voldemort waved his hand.

"Treachery has occurred in the past."

There was a moment of silence as the Death Eaters debated whether to pursue the subject or leave it alone.

"You could at least tell me, master," spoke up Snape. "I'm going to be in the school. I'd like to know where you are so that I can protect your secret from the other side."

Voldemort gave him a condescending look. "Severus, though we have established that the worthiness of your position warrants the continuation of your existence, I must borrow the common phrase and say, don't push your luck. It is from you that I fear betrayal the most."

The other Death Eaters sniggered quietly. Severus Snape coloured slightly but pressed on. "But master, if you are discovered I will feel guilt at not having been able to guard you."

"Snape, surely you have more confidence in me than that! I will not be discovered. And I am not going to say where my hiding place is."

Lord Voldemort paced slowly round the inside of the circle. He paused at a small gap directly beside Snape.

"Who should stand here?" he asked aloud. "I know, but I have forgotten."

"Igor Karkaroff." Death Eaters made scornful noises.

"Ah yes, Karkaroff. Once he was one of my most faithful and reliable followers. But when I fell on that night fourteen years ago, where did he go? Was he seeking me out, to help me? No, he marched straight into the Ministry and tried to cut himself a deal. And still he was thrown in Azkaban, with the very witches and wizards he had denounced!" As Voldemort spoke he took another two steps, passing Snape, who let out an imperceptible breath of relief, and reached a gap wide enough for three people. "Now here are three truly faithful Death Eaters. The most faithful of all, I should think. They went willingly to Azkaban rather than betray me, their master. Still do I remember their names and their glorious deeds in my honour. Halvard Travers, Derrick and Maldora Lestrange! How we will celebrate their return!"

"Are they returning?" a big, burly Death Eater asked.

"Truly, truly they are, Crabbe! They will be welcomed back into our circle with open arms and will reap the most magnificent rewards for their suffering in my name."

"When will they come back, your Lordship?" the big Death Eater next to Crabbe said eagerly. "Is it soon?"

Voldemort laughed gently. "I think we shall see them before long, Goyle. And when all my faithful servants return to me-" Voldemort pounded one white fist in the palm of the other. "The world will quake in fear at the unfathomable terrors that we will spread!"

Lupin could hardly concentrate on anything that was being said. As Voldemort sermonized, he was slowly losing control of himself. He could feel the coarse brown fur growing on his face and hands. His ears were getting pointy. He was also troubled by the hissing snakes that circled, round and round, slowing every time they neared the oak tree behind which he hid. They could sense him now, he knew. He was fortunate that he was positioned downwind of the snakes, but they could feel him transforming.

Lupin decided that he had better leave, and began to move in the direction he had come- but he was not watching where his steps landed. A dry twig crunched under his foot. The snapping sound was loud in the tranquil forest. Lupin's heart leaped into his mouth.

The Death Eaters' heads swiveled simultaneously in the oak tree's direction. Lupin continued to back away slowly, gripped with fear and the pain of his transformation, which was almost complete.

"A centaur?" Wormtail suggested nervously.

"Impossible," Voldemort said softly. "I put a Sleeping Spell on the entire forest."

The Death Eaters drew their wands quickly. No one noticed that Severus Snape had turned pale.

A fifteen-foot cobra hissed something at Voldemort.

"A wolf!" repeated Voldemort in English.

Lupin turned and ran.

"After it!" raged Voldemort, and the snakes and Death Eaters began to chase Lupin.

Lupin realized that he ran faster and fought better as a werewolf than as a human, and stopped avoiding the patches of moonlight that shone through the trees. His finger- and toenails became sharp claws that found better traction on the mossy forest ground. The fur grew denser on his face and hands, saving him from scrapes on outstretched branches that hit him as he ran.

It seemed like Lupin was going to get away- but suddenly one of the Death Eaters' curses hit its mark. A jet of red light struck him in the shoulder. Lupin uttered a high-pitched howl at the moon as he fell forward. His pursuers shouted triumphantly and rushed forward.

Then a sparse dark cloud appeared over the treetops. Lupin's howl had alerted the cavalry; but this Auror rescue squad rode not on horses, but on broomsticks. Six riders, each wearing a golden ring on their right-hand little fingers, sped to Lupin's succour. Four wizards stayed over the trees, firing spells down through the trees at the Death Eaters, while two wizards dropped to the ground, swooped in on Lupin, and carried him off into the sky.

The Death Eaters, grounded, shot volleys of deadly curses at the receding backs of the broomstick-riding Aurors, but all their hexes were deflected, and the Aurors escaped.

When they were far away from Voldemort and Hogwarts, one Auror shouted to the others, "Right, let's Apparate! To Little Whinging!" and the seven Aurors vanished.

The Death Eaters stood on the ground, stricken, staring after the Aurors. A low hissing sound from Voldemort brought them back.

"Master," Goyle grunted, "what should we do? Should we follow them?"

Voldemort shook his head. "It could be a trap. No, it's all right. They haven't heard anything too significant- but-" He pointed his wand at Severus Snape and ropes sprang from the end, binding Snape tightly.

"Master?" gasped Snape, wild-eyed. The Death Eaters watched silently.

Voldemort glared at Snape. "One must wonder- how did they know about our little meeting? Were they" -he roughly pulled Snape closer- "alerted beforehand?"

"Please," Snape said frantically, "I don't know anything about this-"

"Liar!" shouted Malfoy. "Kill him!"

"Liar! He lies, the treacherous weasel!" hissed the Death Eaters.

"Lucius," Voldemort said, and Malfoy snapped to attention. "I think I will have some use for your secret chamber at this point in time." He addressed to the other Death Eaters. "The most important thing is to vacate this forest. Go home. Speak naught of this meeting to anyone."

The Death Eaters ran off, scattering in the dark forest.

Then Voldemort turned to the snakes and began making hissing, spitting sounds, and the serpents immediately slithered away into the trees.

Lucius Malfoy Transfigured Snape into a clothespin. Then he turned back to Lord Voldemort, looking apprehensive.

"Master, I must ask you-do you truly feel certain that you can trust this lying scoundrel Snape?"

Voldemort eyed the clothespin in Malfoy's hand. "Can he not hear us?"

Malfoy bristled. "My Lord, perhaps you are not aware that my skills in human Transfiguration spells are exceptional. I can assure you, this clothespin has no ears."

Voldemort laughed. "Then Lucius, I can assure you, I do not intend to trust Severus Snape. I intend to use him."

There was not a single trace of the meeting when the Ministry of Magic's Hit Wizards, alerted anonymously, arrived on the scene ten minutes later.