Chapter Nineteen: It's What I'm Here For
Snape finally seemed to cry himself out and he slowly opened his eyes. He looked up at Slytherin who smiled paternally down at him.
"I don't understand," Snape said softly. "This feels so real."
Slytherin nodded. "Yes," he said softly, still rocking his descendant gently. "It's this room. Permeated with ancient magic, it is. Our spirits are almost completely separate now. In this room, in the presence of such primeval power, it is almost as though we exist as two beings, though of course, we are not."
Snape slowly sat up and looked back at the magic mirror on the wall. He studied the reflection for a moment, allowing the child that he was to sink in. "What is that?" he finally asked.
"The Mirror of Inner Truths, Severus. Very powerful and also very ancient," Salazar whispered. "It shows what is truly inside a person."
Snape looked back up at his ancestor. "How far can I move away from you?"
"Do you want to get closer to it?" he asked.
Snape nodded and glanced back at the mirror. Somehow, he needed to see himself clearly. To see the truly terrible condition he was in internally.
Slytherin picked him up and placed him on his feet, taking his hand again. "Though we may see one another as clearly separate whilst in this room, we still occupy the same body. That is a physical fact, so we cannot move far away from one another. Come." He led Snape across the room to stand before the magical mirror.
Snape examined himself in horror. He looked terrible. "You said I was still locked in my father's dungeons," he said hoarsely.
Slytherin nodded and looked into the mirror himself. "Yes," he said and pointed into it. "See?"
Snape wrinkled his brow, trying to see what Salazar was pointing at, when suddenly the images in the mirror began to change. While Snape and Slytherin remained constant, the entire room around them seemed to morph. Snape released Slytherin's hand and stepped closer to the mirror. The room in the reflection had changed into a damp dungeon prison, the floor covered with mouldy straw and rusty chains dangling from the stone walls.
"That's the cell I was locked in!" he said and looked up at Slytherin.
Salazar looked down at Snape and smiled. Without any warning whatsoever, he put his hand on his descendant's back and pushed him hard toward the mirror. Snape gasped and instinctively put his hands up to break the fall against the glass. Instead of crashing into it, however, Snape simply fell through it and into the room beyond.
"Good luck in Wonderland, Severus," Slytherin smiled sadly. "Be strong."
Snape was back in the dungeon of his family's home, lying on the floor, too weak to move. The stones were cold beneath him and his vision was blurred. He felt utterly hopeless and helpless. He knew he was trapped here and that he would never leave.
He tried desperately to remember the last real, coherent thought that he had had. It must have been when Father locked him in here. Two weeks ago, right? Four weeks? Thirty years? Hmm. He couldn't recall.
A sound outside the heavy dungeon door made him stir, but he could not lift his head to look up. A scraping noise now and a shuffling of feet. He could sense a presence at the small barred window set in the door, but could still not raise his tired head.
"You're not alone, Severus," he heard a gentle voice say. "It's time. Time to leave the dungeon, my boy. Come on, now, lift your head."
Snape felt something stir in his foggy mind. He recognized that voice. It didn't belong to Father, but seemed almost as familiar somehow. With what seemed more effort than he was capable of making, he slowly lifted his head and looked up at the door. A face beamed back at him, silver hair glowing and mischievous green eyes twinkling. "That's it," the man said. "Time to go now."
Severus frowned and spoke weakly. "But Father said..."
The grin left the man's face and he rolled his eyes. "Pish to your father, my boy," he said. "It's time to go. Now, get to your feet!" There was something about the man that Severus instantly trusted, though he couldn't think why, considering he hadn't trusted anyone in a very long time. He rolled painfully onto his side and slowly began to push himself up into a sitting position.
The man beamed through the door and nodded approvingly. "Good, good," he muttered, his eyes bright. "That's it."
Severus soon had to rest, however, the effort of sitting up having used up almost all of his energy. His head slumped forward until his chin touched his chest, and he sighed heavily.
"Just a bit more, son," the man said encouragingly. "Look what I've got for you when you get out."
Severus' head came up slowly and he looked up at what the man was holding in the window. An ice cream cone? He couldn't remember the last time he had had ice cream. As though to confirm his offer, the man waved the ice cream cone playfully, smiling broadly. "Yum!" he said and stuck out his tongue as if about to lick at it.
"No!" Severus said abruptly, surprising himself with his own vehemence. He really wanted that ice cream cone, he realized.
The man raised his eye brow. "Well, better hurry then. It's starting to melt!"
With a grunt, Severus leaned over and slowly pushed himself up onto thin shaky legs. He wobbled there for a moment, the room spinning around him. He put one leg forward to balance himself and put his arms out to the sides. He looked up at the man again and realized he was looking at him with the most heartbroken expression on his face. As soon as the man realized he was being observed, however, his expression abruptly changed to one of mischievousness and he waved the ice cream cone again. "Almost there!" he said.
Slowly, Severus put one shaky foot in front of the other and shuffled painfully across the damp room, his eyes never leaving the ice cream cone in the window. He licked his lips as he reached the door and leaned against it, breathing heavily from his efforts. He looked back up at the man in the window. "Can you open the door for me?" he asked, his voice hoarse.
The man suddenly looked sad and shook his head. "No, son," he said. "Only you can do that."
Severus shook his head, the feeling of hopelessness threatening to overwhelm him again. "But it's locked," he said, tears forming in his black eyes. "I've tried it already. Loads of times."
"Maybe this will help," the man said and offered Severus the ice cream cone through the bars of the window.
Severus' brow creased. How could that help him open the door? With a sigh, he reached up and took the cone anyway. He wouldn't be able to open the door with it, but he could at least eat it, he reasoned. He looked at the melting ice cream and felt something deep inside stir. What was that? Hope?
Severus closed his eyes and licked the ice cream. Instead of the sweet, sticky taste of chocolate, however, he tasted nothing but cold metal and he immediately pulled his tongue away. He opened his eyes abruptly and looked at the cone in annoyance. What was this man playing at? His eyes popped open at what he saw, however. The cone had transformed into a large, brass key.
Without knowing how he knew it, Severus immediately understood that the key opened the door to his prison. He looked up at the window, a smile across his face, intending to thank the man. The smile slid from his face, however, when he realized that the man had vanished.
"Hello?" Severus called tentatively. "Are you still there?"
Severus swallowed and looked at the key, his hands trembling slightly. He shouldn't really leave the dungeons, he knew. Father had told him to stay there until he came for him. He would be in terrible trouble if he left before he was supposed to. But, he thought, he was awfully hungry and thirsty. And lonely. Other then the nice man with the ice cream, it seemed like ages since anyone had come to talk to him down here. Two weeks, in fact. Or was it thirty years?
He stood fingering the key thoughtfully, trying to decide what to do, when he suddenly heard another familiar voice outside the door. It was further down the hall, though, and this one, Severus did immediately recognize. Father.
Instinctively, Severus shoved the key into his pocket, hoping to hide it from his vengeful father. He would never believe him if he told him he had not intended to use it. Father did not appear to be talking to him, however, Severus suddenly realized. He was talking, in a raised voice, to someone at the end of the hall, outside his cell.
"He's staying there until I say so!" Father yelled harshly. "A good for nothing excuse for a son, he is! Lazy, stupid and ugly! Should have done myself a favour and exposed him at birth!"
Severus put his head down and stared at his feet. What he was hearing was nothing knew, but it hurt all the same.
And then he heard another voice. The voice of the ice cream man. He, however, wasn't yelling. Severus lifted himself onto his toes and tried to peer out the window. Despite the fact that the man wasn't yelling like Father had been, his voice still seemed to carry more power and presence. He managed to peek over the edge and looked into the hallway beyond.
His father, tall, dressed in black and looking for all the world like a human bat, faced the ice cream man menacingly. The ice cream man, for his part, did not seem the least intimidated. On the contrary, he seemed to radiate strength and ancient power. He tossed back his silver mane of hair and laughed at Father, his face wide with a mocking grin. Severus gasped. He had never seen anyone dare to laugh at Father before!
"Oh, please," the ice cream man said, his hands placed jauntily upon his hips. "Who do you think you're talking to here?" Father scowled, the hatred deepening into his ugly features. The ice cream man seemed not to notice. "You are evidently unaware, sir," the ice cream man continued, "that I know Severus better than almost anyone else alive." He looked at his fingernails. "Indeed, I happen to know that everything you're saying is a load of donkey dung."
Fathers hands clenched into fists and his face glowed with rage. "How dare you question my..."
As Severus watched, the ice cream man casually stepped forward and slapped Father squarely across the face. Severus gasped and his eyes popped open in shock. Father's face turned so red it looked as though it might actually explode. Before he could speak, however, the ice cream man continued his speech. "I happen to know that Severus is actually a highly intelligent, brave and handsome boy. I, for one, am extremely proud of him."
Severus blinked. He was?
Severus' father stepped forward menacingly and raised a fist towards the ice cream man. Without warning, he swung hard at the man's head, his face crimson with fury. The ice cream man easily ducked aside. As Father completed the unconnected swing, he momentarily turned away from his prey. The ice cream man took quick advantage of this and reached out to slap his backside hard. The resulting thwap! echoed across the dungeon.
Severus put his head back and laughed raucously.
Father stood up straight and looked over at Severus in the window. The smile immediately slid from the boy's face and he watched his father with cold terror.
"You will pay for that one, boy," he growled and stepped towards the cell.
From behind, the ice cream man stepped forward and grabbed Father by the arm. He looked directly at Severus. "I can't dance with him forever, son," he said gently. "You have to help."
Father pulled his arm away from the ice cream man and turned on him again, his fists flying again. The ice cream man ducked and twisted, easily staying out of the man's reach. He looked over at Severus, his eye brows lifted questioningly.
Severus bit his lip. Help? Did he mean, escape from Father? But, what would happen to him if Father was gone? He would be out of the prison, yes, but then he would be alone. He didn't think he was strong enough for that. He watched the two men circling one another and tried to think. He didn't believe he could stand being alone, but...
Something stirred somewhere deep inside. Wait a minute, he thought. He was alone. He had been alone for so long now that he didn't even recognize he was anymore. In fact, the first time he hadn't felt alone in almost thirty years had been when he had been visited by...visited by...
Snape's head snapped up and he looked out the cell window. He noticed immediately that the view of the circling men seemed different and he looked down at his own hand. Long and slender and ... adult.
Snape immediately grabbed the key from his pocket and jammed it into the heavy lock. He cranked the key to the right and heard the lock pull back. He yanked the door open and stepped out into the hall.
"I'm here, Salazar!" he yelled.
Father's head snapped around at the sound of the voice behind him and he stopped cold. He looked Snape up and down, seemingly unable to comprehend what he was seeing. Snape lifted his head and returned his gaze evenly.
Father's expression darkened and he turned threateningly back to Slytherin. "You!" he growled. "You did this!" he screamed and stepped forward, arms outstretched and fingers curled like talons.
Slytherin beamed at Snape and pointed to the key in his hand. "My gift to you," he said. "Whatever you need." With a snap of his fingers, Salazar suddenly vanished and Father's fingers swiped through empty air.
The moment Slytherin vanished, Snape felt his newly found adult form waver slightly as though it were a mould not quite set yet. Somehow he knew that he had yet to earn this new adulthood and felt himself begin to panic a bit at his sudden aloneness.
Father turned abruptly upon finding his nemesis gone and stared at Snape for a moment. "Back in the cell," he finally hissed and took a step towards Snape.
What happened next, Snape would always remember as his moment of awakening. As abruptly as a page turning in a book, his perception seemed to change. He suddenly saw the mental events taking place around him not from the perception of a frightened child, but from that of a grown man, experienced and wise. Father could not be real, he thought logically, because Father was dead and had been for a very long time. This black thing and its wicked prison cell were illusions. They were a manifestation of his own fears, hurts and insecurities. And it was not going to be telling him what to do anymore.
Snape put his chin up and narrowed his eyes. "Go straight to hell," he said to the image of his father. "If you're not already there, that is."
Father hesitated and cocked his head to the side as though misunderstanding what he had heard. "What?" he growled.
"It's over. You've lost." The certainty with which Snape spoke the words vanished rather abruptly, however, as the images of his father and the surrounding dungeon suddenly began to shudder and moan ominously. Father's face began to melt like a candle held too close to a flame and the colours of the dungeon began to melt together.
Snape instinctively shrank back but quickly realized that he had no where to go. He was just as much a part of this vision as the surroundings now contorting themselves around him.
Father melted from the head down until he was nothing but a black pool on the dungeon floor. The dungeon itself quickly followed until all colour had melted together into the oily slick in front of Snape. Breathing hard, he looked around and realized that he was surrounded by a strange mist. From within that mist, however, came a sound he found familiar. A tinkling sound. Like small bells or breaking icicles. He turned his attention back to the black pool before him, his heart suddenly pounding wildly in his chest. Slowly, the pool began to move and churn and bubble, like some evil potion set on a high flame. Snape stepped back again, his breathing fast and irregular. Where had Slytherin gone? he suddenly wondered. Why had he left him?
With a suddenness that sent Snape reeling backwards off his feet, the black pool exploded outward and morphed into a huge black dragon, twenty feet tall and breathing molten flame. Snape flung his arms over his face and screamed. He pulled himself away from the beast with one hand while still holding the other before him for protection.
The dragon put back its head and roared with pure black hatred, the fire of its wrath releasing into the nothingness around them. Snape was trapped in place by a sudden dread that compared to nothing he had ever experienced. The dragon continued to howl and shoot angry flame all around Snape, almost touching him, pinning him down. He suddenly realized that he would never be able to move from this spot. He was trapped. He felt an angry tear leave his eye and travel down his hot face. The blackness had won after all. It seemed he was fated; fated to be held captive by his own hate and his anger and his fear. He dropped his arm and let his chin fall to his chest. Bitter tears of defeat slid down his face as he realized the darkness had won. He was fated to stay Severus Snape, the greasy foul tempered git, for the rest of his days.
With a sigh of resignation, Snape closed his eyes and prepared to return to his waiting body on the other side of the mirror. The dragon almost seemed to smile above him as it took another deep breath, preparing another terrifying tirade to send him on his way.
And then he heard it again. The tinkling. Like small bells. Or breaking icicles. What was that sound? He suddenly needed to know. He looked around for the source. It seemed to emanate from the mist itself, from everywhere.
The dragon roared again, muffling the soft sound. Annoyed, Snape turned to the dragon and yelled, "Will you shut up! I'm trying to hear something!" The dragon halted halfway through its terrible roar and raised its eyebrows. A small puff of black smoke left its nostril.
Snape also raised his eyebrow and slowly turned to look at the beast. The dragon seemed to realize what it had done and immediately furrowed its brow in a display of anger and roared a terrible roar, shooting flame deep into the fathomless depths.
With sudden realization, Snape looked down at the hand that held the brass key and became conscious of the fact that it was now a large, black whip. His eyebrows shot up again and he sprang to his feet. Slytherin had said that it would be whatever he needed it to be! His gift, he had said!
The dragon continued to roar aggressively, its head back in a display of terrible rage. With his own indignant anger building within him, Snape snapped the thick whip back over his head and brought it crashing down across the beast's nose with a great wrenching snap.
The dragon yelped and jumped back, its paws going immediately to its red nose. It's eyes shot open and it looked at Snape, surprised. Snape stepped forward and snapped the whip again near the animal's head, causing it to back up another step. The dragon seemed finally to take great offence to the attack and reached out a paw towards Snape, hissing menacingly.
Snape reached back again and brought the whip down hard across the back of the beast's paw. It yelped again and withdrew it into its mouth, where it proceeded to whine and suck on its newest wound. It looked confused and uncertain, but quickly recovered. It's eyes narrowed dangerously and it pulled its paw from its large, razor-toothed mouth. It seemed to grin wickedly at Snape, opened its mouth slightly and took in a deep breath.
Snape brought the whip back behind him but did not strike immediately. "You breath fire at me and I will bring this across your nose so hard, you'll be needing a new one!" he yelled at the creature.
The dragon abruptly closed its mouth and let the air out through its nose. It looked at Snape sideways and eyed the whip carefully, seeming to consider its options.
"Listen to me," Snape finally said to it. "I know what you are."
The dragon raised its eyebrows in an "oh-do-you-now?" way and began to suck on its wounded paw again, obviously thinking hard.
"Indeed I do," Snape continued. "You're my hatred, my sarcasm, my hurt and my fear. You are everything black and ugly about me," he said evenly, never letting his eyes leave the beast.
The dragon shrugged and pulled its paw from its mouth. It settled down on its haunches and watched Snape with interest.
"Basically," he continued, "Things that I cannot be without in my life without risking certain death."
The dragon raised an eyebrow, obviously surprised at the admission. It nodded slowly and smiled a toothy grin of triumph.
"Having said that, however," Snape continued, "the roles are about to be reversed. I am now the master. I control you, you do not control me!"
The dragon stood abruptly and roared in anger. A stream of fire flew from its mouth and it suddenly charged at its nemesis. Snape brought the whip down on the beast with a terrible magical howl and the dragon fell heavily onto its side with a great cry of agony.
Panting and sweating, Snape approached the dragon and stood beside it. It lay motionless for several moments before slowly opening one wary eye. As soon as it saw Snape and his magical whip, however, it yelped and covered its nose protectively. As Snape watched, the dragon suddenly shrank until it was no more than four feet long. It huddled at Snape's feet, shivering and moaning.
Snape sighed and looked down at the whip. He was not surprised to see that it had become a long, black leather leash, green and silver spikes alternating along the collar. Snape could not help but laugh at the sight and wondered who had conjured the spikes, his mind or Slytherin's. With a quick flick of the wrist, Snape clipped the collar and lead onto the dragon and yanked at the end of it.
The dragon abruptly struggled to its feet and looked at Snape. It's yellow eyes slowly fell to the leash in Snape's hand and they narrowed in anger. It looked back up at Snape, now several feet taller than it was, and snarled menacingly, showing its razor teeth. Snape reached out and swatted it across the nose like a bad dog. The dragon yelped again and grabbed its snout, indignation evident on its face. It finally snorted a puff of black smoke, gave Snape one last withering look and curled up at his feet, closing its eyes in resignation.
"I like your new pet, Severus," a familiar voice said from the mist.
Snape turned as Slytherin emerged from the fog, his face bright with a wide grin. "Salazar!" he said happily and stepped forward to greet his ancestor. "Where were you?"
"Nearby," Salazar said, indicating over his shoulder with his head.
Snape sighed and nodded. "Ah," he said softly. "That sound. The bells. That was you. Your spirit."
The dragon snorted and opened one eye to look at them, obviously not impressed with the conversation. It pulled slightly at the lead.
"Hmmm," Slytherin said thoughtfully. "You're going to have to watch him. I don't think he's going to relinquish control easily."
Snape nodded and looked at the dragon. "I know. I've lived under it almost all my life." He looked back up at Slytherin. "But it's never getting control again. Never."
Salazar nodded and put a hand on Snape's shoulder. "I know," he said softly.
Snape smiled at the old Founder and was about to speak, when he suddenly felt the mist closing in around him. His voice seemed to catch in his throat and he could not find words to speak. The sound of distant bells, or was it breaking icicles, appeared from all around them and Salazar smiled serenely at his descendant. "Tell Rowena farewell for me, Severus," he said softy, the mist beginning to surround them now. "I never was able to say good-bye to her."
Snape felt his heart begin to beat quickly and he tried to reach out to his ancestor but found he could not move. His eyes widened in fear and he tried to speak again.
Slytherin nodded sadly, the mist now so thick that Snape could hardly see him anymore. Slowly, Salazar reached out his other hand and pulled Snape into a hug. What he felt coming from Slytherin then could never have been expressed in words anyway so he leaned willingly into the Founder's embrace. Pride, acceptance and unconditional love flowed over him and through him. Things he had never felt before. They filled the empty spaces of his soul and wound their way into the cheerless fissures of his spirit. A warm light seeped through the mist and the sound of bells seemed to reach a crescendo before fading softly. Severus closed his eyes and leaned his head on his ancestor's shoulder, a sigh of great contentment and gratitude escaping his lips.
"Thank you," Snape said softly.
Salazar gently patted his back, his voice soft and far-away. "It's what I'm here for."
Snape opened his eyes again to find that the warm light had faded, the mist had enveloped him wholly and his vision was completely obscured.
Darkness finally overtook him and he felt something precious slip from his grasp.
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