Chapter Two: At the Department of Mysteries
'Something is most definitely wrong.'
Severus Snape sighs in annoyance and pinches the bridge of his nose. The feeling of impending doom has built steadily during the last few days and is now hanging over him like a storm cloud. He wonders for a moment whether it might have something to do with Potter again. Possible, but unlikely, for he knows that Albus' Golden Boy was brought to the Headquarters at the beginning of the week and is therefore under constant supervision.
'As if that has ever prevented him from stumbling, no, rushing into the nearest dangerous situation on his way...'
Severus snorts. Whatever others might think, he is absolutely certain that behind that modest-hero-facade the boy presents to the world, he is just as bad as his father, always craving attention and praise, always seeking to stand in the spotlight, arrogant and sure of himself. Granted, the events in the Department of Mysteries seem to have gotten through that thick skull of his - his recklessness had finally dimmed somewhat over his sixth year - but the Head of Slytherin is as certain that the boy will get into trouble before long as he is that the sun will rise in the morning.
'I just hope that Albus will not expect me to save Potter's sorry little hide this time. I have already enough to keep me occupied, thank you very much!'
The Dark Lord has changed his tactics since the disaster at the Ministry of Magic. He now lies low and plans in his secret hiding-hole, trying to make Dumbledore look like a hysterical, senile old man and Fudge like a fool for finally confirming the rumors of Voldemort's return. And the worst is that with no word whatsoever of any Death Eater attacks or other signs of the Dark Lord for over one year, people are starting to believe him.
He sighs again and flops gracefully down onto his favorite armchair. Voldemort has started to recruit again, subtly, discreetly, courting ambitious young witches and wizards in positions that might help him greatly later. The mood is tense in the Order, and Tonks and Shacklebolt are wondering how much longer they will be able to trust their fellow Aurors. Severus for his part thinks that they stopped doing that already when they started to question their colleagues' loyalty, but he keeps his opinion to himself. He has enough to worry about, as the Dark Lord still hasn't forgiven him for his absence on that first fateful meeting on the graveyard. Since the capture of Lucius and the others, the old Snake has kept the Death Eaters strictly on a need-to-know-basis, lest they reveal parts of his plan under the influence of Veritaserum, and he has aggravated the punishments for failing him, becoming rather ... creative due to his amount of free time.
The Potions Master shudders inwardly. The last year has been hell. Every Death Eater has tried to get back into the Dark Lord's good graces, especially Bellatrix Lestrange, and that woman surpasses even Voldemort himself in her cold blood, cruelty and unscrupulousness. The battle for power in the Death Eaters' ranks has been a harsh one, and is still going on. Severus wonders how much longer he will last. A few of the meetings have been a near miss for him and it has been getting worse lately.
'Maybe I am missing Potter. It is kind of relaxing to make the little jerk fight for control over his temper.'
He chuckles maliciously. 'Maybe I will go and visit the Headquarters tomorrow, release a bit of tension and such...'
The beginnings of a sneer on his face turn into a grimace when a sharp jolt of pain in his arm tells him that his quiet Friday evening with the ancient potions tome he found yesterday in Diagon Alley and a glass of old Firewhiskey has just been canceled.
Growling, he rises and tosses a pinch of silver powder into the fire, the sign for Albus that he is gone, then puts his shrunken attire into an inner pocket of his robe and leaves the dungeons to head to the edge of the Anti-Apparating Wards.
'Here I go,' he thinks sourly. 'Hopefully I will come back once again this time.'
Masked and clad in his black Death Eater robes, Severus Snape stumbles and steadies himself against a wall. 'Merlin, I hate traveling by Portkey,' he thinks, disgusted by the feeling of being sucked into a void and spit out again. 'I wonder where it is that we cannot apparate to.'
His onyx eyes widen as he recognizes his surroundings. 'The Ministry of Magic! What the hell...?!' He swallows the feeling of dread that is rising in his throat and slowly follows the corridor the Portkey has taken him to, wand at the ready.
Something is wrong here, very wrong. He should have realized that when the Dark Mark took him to a clearing where a Death Eater novice handed him the small hourglass that brought him here. Something is going on and he doesn't know whether he really wants to find out what it might be.
Analyzing his position, Severus realizes he is in the Department of Mysteries, on his way to the Chamber of Death. His heartbeat quickens, and a thin layer of sweat begins to spread on his forehead. As he tries to calm himself, he notices that the sweating is not caused by anxiousness, but by heat.
'Damn, why is it so hot in here?'
The nearer he gets to the entrance of the chamber, the warmer and stuffier the air becomes. Preparing himself for the worst, he takes a deep breath and steps into the room. Only to stop, paralyzed by shock, at the sight that greets him.
The Chamber is a disaster. Everything is burned and blackened. Some stones in the walls are still glowing faintly with heat.
The air is hot and sears through his lungs, and the sickening smell of burnt flesh clings to it.
Three charred bodies lie on the floor, the half-molten axe next to one of them implying that it is Walden Macnair, since no other Death Eater would carry such a weapon with him. The other two offer no clue as to their identities.
Smoke is rising faintly from piles of ashes, embers still glowing.
Severus is horrified by the sheer amount of devastation that has taken place in the room. Whatever happened here must have involved one hell of a fire. But what kind of fire could have been so deadly and struck so quickly that a Death Eater like Macnair was unable to protect himself with a spell or flee?
The dark-haired Slytherin steps further into the room and discovers a large spot that has been spared from the fire, unmarred. Remaining constantly alert, though a quick glance around tells him that he seems to be the only living person present, he moves towards it and examines it carefully. It is approximately five or six feet in diameter, an irregularly formed circle, and its floor is stained with blood. A small trail of it leaves the spot at one side. Looking up, he sees the second thing that remains untouched by the flames: the Archway with the Veil. The trail of blood leads straight in its direction and Severus follows it cautiously, clutching his wand tighter as he reflects briefly on what kind of creature could leave such strange tracks.
His question is answered by a faint movement in front of the Veil. Snarling, he raises his wand and leaps forward, poised to strike.
A pitiful whimper comes from his opponent, and a small, trembling figure tries to cringe away from his towering form.
Still wary, the Potions Master draws nearer and looks down at the creature.
Cowering about one yard away from the Archway is a small dragen, pale rusty-red and golden in colour, trying desperately to hide behind its large wings. It is covered with soot, which apparently hid it from view before, and smeared with blood.
Its own blood, the Slytherin realizes as he bends down. The dragon struggles wearily to get away from him, but it is too weak.
He reaches out to the shaking creature, laying his hand on the fragile neck in case it tries to turn around and breathe its fire at him, but the dragon is so weakened that it can't move on its own. It whimpers again when the wizard's hand touches it, and its faint pulse races under his fingers. The smooth scales are strangely cold in the heat of the room, as if life is slowly leaking out of the small body.
'That is a bad sign.'
He has no idea how he knows that, since he has never been particularly interested in dragons, that is, aside from as providers of potions ingredients. Nevertheless, his instincts tell him that this little dragon is something special and might well be the key to what happened today, and that it will die if he doesn't help it.
Sighing, he crouches down beside it, and takes a gentle hold of the copper-coloured wings with the golden undersides. The dragon moans in pain, and Severus points his wand at the broken left upper wing-bone to mend it, before examining the rest of the wounded creature. It doesn't look good. The broken limbs and ribs he can mend provisionally, but the wounds on its abdomen indicate internal bleeding and need to be taken care of by a professional.
Pondering his alternatives briefly, he decides on the only real one: To take the dragon to Hogwarts. 'Hagrid can look after it. He will without doubt be overjoyed to do so.'
Determined, he takes a small vial out of one of his many pockets, gently pries the slender jaws apart and softly massages the pale golden throat to make the little dragon swallow. A few moments later, once the Pain-Numbing Potion has taken effect, he dares to lift his small patient into his arms, but with its pain dulled the dragon panicks at being picked up and struggles to escape.
Caught off balance, Severus has no choice but to let the creature down as gently as he can. He curses colourfully as it scrambles away to hide behind the Archway. Before he can follow it, however, the dragon makes a terrified sound. It backs away from the far side of the Archway as fast as it can, moaning in distress, until it knocks into the legs of the Potions Master. With a pitiful whine, it puts its front claws on his lower leg and hides under his robes like a child.
Freeing his leg gently, the Slytherin raises his wand again and peers around the Archway. Another Death Eater is lying there, severely burned, but not as bad as the others due to the shelter the Archway provides.
All of a sudden, the man breaks into a coughing fit, and Severus realizes that he is still alive. In a swift motion the dark-haired wizard reaches his side and kneels down to help him. The rest of his Numbing Potion and a vial of a strong healing potion that he didn't dare give to the dragon because it is explicitly for humans goes down the poor git's throat.
The man clears up a little and looks at the Slytherin with glassy eyes. "Snape..." he croaks. "Thank Merlin.... "
"Rookwood," Severus says urgently, "what the hell happened here?"
The burnt man's lips twitch at his words. "Hell... All hell ...broke loose," he mutters. "Potter and ...his friends were ...here today."
His breathing becomes shallower, and the Potions Master knows he will slip back into delirium soon. "Try to hang on, Rookwood and tell me. I need to know what ... went wrong."
The other man coughs weakly. "The Dark Lord... Ambush... Fight... Got them... But then.... out of nowhere... the dragon... the fire..."
Rookwood draws a deep, rattling breath and smiles. "But... we got him ...in the end, ... Snape. There is no way ... Potter could have survived ... this."
With the triumphant smile still on his face, the Death Eater's eyes drift shut and he loses consciousness again.
Severus rises and remains motionless for a moment, considering what he should do about Rookwood, but the question becomes irrelevant as the faint sound of distant footsteps leaks into the room.
Knowing that the other man will be tended to in a short while, he turns back to gather the dragon up, only to find it cowering behind him. His sudden movement startles the creature, and it backs away in fear. Sighing once more, the black-clad wizard kneels down again, and drops his voice to the seductive, silken tones he saves for special purposes.
The little dragon stops its frantic movements, half-closes its eyes and listens in rapt attention. Severus moves towards it, and soothed by the dark voice, the small golden and rust-coloured creature meets him halfway, allowing him to cradle it in his arms. Though it is about the size of a large dog, it is strangely light-weight and he suspects that it is malnourished as well.
The Potions Master fishes for the Emergency Portkey in his pocket with his left hand while steadying his burden with his right, and the little dragon lifts its head shyly. For the first time, he can look directly into its eyes.
Its emerald eyes. 'No, that is impossible...'
His gaze flickers to the red and golden forehead, and sure enough a discreet zig-zagging line is embedded into the scales there.
Severus groans, though whether it's in relief or exasperation he can't say. "Potter! I should have known it was you again," is all he manages to get out before his searching fingers touch the Portkey and the world vanishes into a whirl of colours.
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