Chapter One: The Choice Will Be Yours
Severus Snape caught himself before he fell completely. The hand thrust forward onto the forest floor before him prevented him from crashing onto his knees by a mere fraction, but the fall still cost him precious seconds. With a quick glance over his shoulder, the Potions Master of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry resolutely pushed himself back and hurried on.
Snape allowed himself a second to glance down at the ornately carved wooden box held securely to his chest by one shaking arm. It had nearly cost him life, he knew, and might still, for that matter. He glanced around the darkening forest, alert to any movement.
The hum of distant human activity was growing steadily louder as he hastened forward and he knew that help was nearby. Members of the Order of the Phoenix had been planning on attending the Quidditch World Cup this year and his life now depended upon finding them.
Not for the first time since he had appeared in the woods next to the stadium did Snape curse the organizers' decision not to allow Apparating too close to the main event. Instead, he had been forced to run for it, hoping that he would not see any innocent civilians also Apparating nearby to enjoy the festivities. If he did end up running into his enemies, he did not want innocent bystanders getting caught in the middle.
He tripped again and this time fell face first into the forest floor, his hand flying up a fraction too late to prevent his cheekbone from impacting a sharp rock. The resulting pain kept Snape down this time, his head swimming. Idly, he decided that he should probably rest for a moment and try to catch his breath. At least the box was still securely in front of him, he thought. Nothing else mattered at the moment.
Snape sighed heavily. Mere hours ago he had been sitting comfortably in front of his fire, reading a book and sipping a well-aged brandy. He shook his head and slowly lifted himself back to his feet. He decided to take it a bit more slowly this time and actually watch the path before him for protruding roots.
His head swam with the new assault to his face and he found his mind wandering slightly as he ran. He began to reflect on the evening he had just had with Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Dumbledore had always told him that this day would come and that he would have to be prepared for it. While it was a constant threat that Voldemort would one day discover him, he had never envisioned it happening this way.
"The choice will be completely yours, Severus," Dumbledore had said to him many years before. "Something will happen one day and you will have to decide for yourself which is more important; remaining a spy or preventing the thing occurring before you, whatever that may be."
Over the many years that he had acted as spy for Dumbledore, Severus had tried to imagine what that thing would be. Honestly, he had begun to believe that the "thing" he would one day have to rescue from under Voldemort's nose would be that brat, Harry Potter, not the box currently clenched to his chest.
He involuntarily heaved another deep sigh. Dumbledore had been right, as usual. Snape had known the second Voldemort had triumphantly announced to his gathered Death Eaters what lay within the ornate box that his days as spy had ended. If the speed with which he had acted had surprised everyone around him, it had utterly shocked Snape himself. He had always thought of himself as a calculating man, never acting without due thought and consideration. On this occasion, however, another part of him had evidently taken the reigns. Before Voldemort had even finished his sentence, Snape had stepped forward, grabbed the box from the table in front of the Dark Lord, ducked down low and Apparated.
Voldemort was always ready for treachery, however. Those Death Eaters "invited" to his meetings were closely monitored for signs of betrayal. By way of the Dark Mark on their arms, Death Eaters were brought to the meetings by Voldemort's force alone. When summoned, they were simply to make their way to a secluded spot and Apparate. From there Voldemort directed them to the location of his choice. Once their original Apparation point was known by the Dark Lord, several of his own Death Squad members were sent there to wait.
Reluctantly, Snape had to admit that the idea was sound enough. Thanks to some Dark magic of Voldemort's design, once a meeting was over, Death Eaters could only ever use their first Apparation to return back to their original location. And there the Death Squad waited for them. If no sign arrived from Voldemort, they sent them on their way. If, however, they felt the warning burn on their Dark Mark from their Master, they cursed to death the first person to Apparate in front of them. Simple but effective. No easy escape for traitors.
So, Snape had known that several Death Eaters were waiting for him back in the clearing outside of Hogwarts' grounds when he Apparated out of Voldemort's meeting. This knowledge was his best defence against them, however. Knowing they would be there, Snape had Apparated in a crouched position and arrived low to the ground. The curses that had been intended for his head and chest had passed over him harmlessly, several of them actually striking other Death Eaters behind him. He had Apparated out of there again as quickly as possible, leaving nothing but confusion in his wake.
The plan was not faultless, however. Though it took some time, it was not impossible for a gifted witch or wizard to track an Apparation. It was just a matter of time. They were coming for him, of that he was certain.
With the noise ahead growing steadily louder, Snape dared to increase his speed again, the pain in his head receding somewhat. McGonagall would be the logical person to try and find. He was certain she'd left Hogwarts for the match early this morning. It would not be easy, of course, as several thousand people were in attendance at the Cup. He knew a red flare from his wand would instantly bring help but he did not want to risk a repeat of the stampede the Death Eaters had caused at the World Cup several years earlier.
A noise behind him made Snape stop in his tracks, his head snapping around. He listened, aware that his breathing had increased and his heart was beating quickly. A snapped twig. Whispered voices. Death Eaters.
Snape swore under his breath and burst forward with a new found vigour. Fear coursed through him and he ignored the pain now washing through his head. A shadow passed through the trees in front of him and he halted abruptly, his hands slick with the sweat of fear. They were in front of him too. They must have Apparated all around him. He was surrounded.
Wildly, Snape looked in all directions for a clear path of escape. Shadows moving everywhere. Instinctively, he grabbed for his wand and tried to Apparate. Nothing.
A low laugh wound its way through the trees behind him and Snape froze. Lucius Malfoy. "We've put up our own dampening field, Severus. Your trapped, I'm afraid. Like a rat, as it were. Rather a fitting comparison really. Expelliarmus!" Snape's wand flew from his hand and disappeared into Malfoy's hand.
Snape turned slowly to face his old "friend", his heart beating so loudly he could hear the blood rushing through his ears. The site of Malfoy's smug face as he approached slowly through the trees, wand raised, made Snape's eyes narrow. He would not yield to this man, or any other for that matter. He would have no choice but to writhe in pain once they began to "play" with the Crucio, he knew, but he would meet his enemy now with his pride intact.
Snape straightened to his full, imposing height and lifted his chin, his eyes steady on Malfoy's pointed face. Malfoy, in turn, laughed deeply as he approached. "Ever the cool and collected presence, eh, Severus? Not just a little bit afraid of what the Dark Lord is going to do to you?"
Snape felt his throat constrict but his face remained impassive and his eyes unreadable. He would not be drawn into one of Malfoy's word games. He would meet his enemy's taunting with resolute silence, thus robbing him of the opportunity to enjoy himself at his expense. It was not much, but it was the last bit of personal power and dignity that Snape had.
Malfoy watched him for a moment and then finally shrugged, turning away as he did so. "Very well, Severus. Have it your way. The Dark Lord has instructed that you be returned alive." He looked back at Snape. "But then I'm sure that doesn't surprise you. You know he likes to take care of these things himself." The smile Malfoy levelled at Snape caused his insides to churn, not because Malfoy was particularly adept at delivering frightening smiles but because Snape knew what its implication was. He knew he would be begging for death within the next few hours.
"Take him!" Malfoy ordered as he turned away and two more Death Eaters appeared from behind Snape, their hands outstretched.
Snape would later wonder at the thought processes that had taken place in his mind during those next few seconds. The entire experience, he would reflect, had apparently robbed him of all his usual measured and methodical ways because once again he found himself acting with the speed of a cornered cat. Before he had even had a chance to fully consider the implications of what he was doing, he had thrown himself onto the forest floor, wrenched open the wooden box and grabbed the item within it. Clutching the thing firmly in his left hand, he had muttered (or had he shouted?) the incantation needed to release the sleeping spirit within it.
All time seemed to slow at that point. Snape felt a sudden heat in his hand and was aware of Malfoy turning back to him, his eyes widening in surprise. "Stop him!" he screamed, his cape swirling around him like black water and his blue eyes blazing with fury.
Snape felt the world around him spin as a strange warmth entered through his left hand and coursed its way through his entire body like a small tidal wave. His eyes darkened and he fell onto his back, the fist clasping the item still held in the air above him. As he watched through closing eyes, bright green light suddenly shot through his clenched fingers and drenched the darkening forest around him with ethereal emerald beams.
The two Death Eaters who had been behind him were now directly over him and one grabbed desperately for the thing in Snape's hand. Nearing unconsciousness now, he was only vaguely aware that the man trying to grab his extended hand was suddenly fired backwards into the forest. Dimly, he heard wailing all around him as men scrambled to escape the angry light. Unaware of why he was doing it, Snape suddenly opened his mouth and screamed for the men to leave before he cursed them all to the grave. The problem was, he reflected just before the darkness of unconsciousness took him, the voice wasn't his.
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