Chapter Notes: I removed 2 sentences from what I wrote for the Gauntlet prompts, just because on a couple of prompts I rather wrote myself into a corner. It's a little disjointed--I had to give up a couple of favorite idea (one was too slashy, the other too crossover-y) and that sort of took the wind out of my sails. But hey, it was fun, and a great exercise in writing. Enjoy!
He cracked his knuckles. A useless gesture, one he did not generally perform even under stress, but he had exhausted his normal repertoire of nervous habits an hour earlier. Snape glanced at the clock. It was still 10:30, but the second hand had described almost ninety degrees of arc since the last time he checked.
He reflected back to his first year at Hogwarts, on the night he'd slept in the Slytherin common room (fearing that he'd murder his idiot roommate if he spent another hour in his presence). He'd awoken to the sound of hushed voices at the hearth, already burning emerald flames. "Knockturn Alley," one of them said loudly enough for him to hear. As the last one stepped through, Snape vaulted from the couch and hurled himself into the Floo.
He did not meet the Dark Lord that night, which was fortunate. Univited guests did not generally depart alive from such meetings. Lucius Malfoy had spotted him; a seventh-year student, he was taking his vow that very night. Malfoy ordered him back to Hogwarts and told him to come speak to him in a week.
Snape felt a brilliant new confidence from that day forth. He had a goal, a secret; it didn't matter what childish nonsense was perpetrated against him now, because his day would come very, very soon. He endured The Idiot (and dozens of other idiots as well), even though biting the bullet vexed him to no end. It would be worth it. When he completed his education and received his Mark, he would have the power to exact a most satisfying revenge upon anyone he wished.
So now that it's here, why are my palms cold and damp?
The minute hand had moved all the way to 10:32.
There's still time to back out. Back out? Mother of Merlin, what seldom-used corner of his brain came up with that idea? The Dark Lord appreciated service, and Severus Snape could offer it in spades. He had not wasted his time at Hogwarts fawning over pretty girls or zipping over the Quidditch pitch like a bloody bat chasing flies. He had studied relentlessly, and honed his natural aptitude for potions. It had earned him the contempt of his shallow, mediocre contemporaries, but the Dark Lord would appreciate his discipline, his persistence, his exacting standards. And Lord Voldemort did not play the shallow political games of most men in power. His approach was straightforward: reward excellence and punish failure, regardless of the wealth or pedigree of the wizard in question.
His youth, powerless and alone, would die tonight. He would be reborn a man of influence, a force to be reckoned with. Simply lifting the cuff of his sleeve would open doors upon which he had never before dared knock.
The ceremonial march would begin at 10:45.
Snape hoped his knees would stop trembling by then.
"The truth, child. Why do you offer me your service?"
A loaded question. He was here because this was what his destiny, it was that simple.
Snape had pondered this concept over and over, uncertain what sort of answer would please the Dark Lord. Lucius had been no help at all. He refused to tell the reasons that he had given Lord Voldemort; he simply kept insisting, "Severus, you must tell the truth." And now the Dark Lord demanded it, just as predicted.
"If I were an honest and communicative man, I would not be standing here, my lord," Snape said firmly. Maybe wrong, but never in doubt, he repeated inwardly. "Because I am a different sort of man altogether, I choose to serve you."
Lord Voldemort had altered his body to make it appear serpentine, but Snape never agreed that his eyes were reptilian. Only a human being is capable of the deliberate malice that glowed within those eyes. When they narrowed, they were even more terrifying.
"A judicious answer, but devoid of meaning. Do you toy with me?"
"No, my lord." His skin tingled and went cold, as though trying to blend in with the icy stone floor on which he knelt.
Lord Voldemort leaned closer to him, lifting his chin with the clawed tip of one finger. "I will know all that is in your heart, Severus," he hissed. "Do not waste this opportunity to tell it."
"No, my lord."
"What sort of man, then, chooses to serve me?" he asked loudly, with a dangerous glare.
Without meaning to, Snape licked his lips anxiously. "I am...ultimately a man who prefers to serve no one. I would remain an island unto myself if it could be done. Unfortunately, I cannot be a hermit and still enjoy the comforts of society, so I must find a niche in which to fit. I believe it lies in your service, my lord."
Lord Voldemort cocked his head, with something like amusement crinkling the skin around his eyes. "As masters go, then, you consider me the least offensive?"
Watch it, Severus. "Greatly oversimplified, my lord, but essentially accurate."
Lord Voldemort stared at him, motionless, for a very long time before he pursed his lips in what might have been a smile years ago, before the changes. "I am not accustomed to insolence, Severus."
It wasn't a question, but he had a look of expectation, so Snape ventured a reply. "You asked for truth, my lord, and I have given it in toto. If you prefer a more flattering answer, I will produce one."
The surrounding Death Eaters flinched as one as Lord Voldemort burst into peals of laughter, but not one of his toadies dared to imitate his mirth. His hand came up and clutched Snape's jawbone with fierce pressure.
At that moment, the eyes disappeared. Snape's vision filled with his own memories. It was terrifying, suffocating, and though Snape had known it would happen, he was unprepared for the intensity. The Dark Lord was speaking, though he could not tell if it came through his ears or was born intact within his mind.
"You wish only to 'enjoy the comforts of society?' I will know your ambitions, Snape, though you may not even comprehend them yourself."
His father's hands, clenched into fists, with that enormous ruby ring that gouged whatever it struck. His mother's broken body on the steel table. Pain, then shame, then defiance, rolling through his mind in an unbroken loop across the first decade of his life. Then Hogwarts and the discovery of rules which were neither arbitrary nor constantly changing, and when followed, produced rewards.
Suddenly the Dark Lord had left his mind, and to his surprise, he was no longer kneeling on the uneven stones. Lord Voldemort had lifted him to his feet with the hand on his jaw. It ached terribly, but Snape was thankful that he was not lying prone on the ground.
"I understand you now, Severus. We even have much in common, save one important difference. You aspire only to govern yourself, while I wish to govern others as well."
Voldemort bared his teeth in what was unmistakably his equivalent of a smile.
When Lord Voldemort released his jaw and turned away, Snape permitted himself the indulgence of closing his eyes for an instant, a brief escape from the crowded room and the intensity of the Dark Lord's gaze. Surely it was over now. There were others to ordain tonight, and out of the corner of his eye, Snape could tell that a few of the masked Death Eaters were growing bored. Not that they presumed to fidget or tap their feet, but their postures were slumping into the barest of slouches.
The deputy to his right gave him the signal, a mere flick of one finger. Snape twisted open the button on his left cuff and, embarrassed by his trembling hands, pushed the sleeve up past his elbow. Rolling the end of it to lock it in place, he slowly lowered both hands to his sides and waited.
Lord Voldemort had paced to the far wall and stood there with his arms folded, as though studying an oil painting by one of the Great Masters. But there was nothing there, just bricks and mortar; what the Dark Lord was doing was anyone's guess.
Bloody hell, just how long are you going to drag this out? Snape was growing irritated. He understood the rationale for initiations such as this, and as far as he was concerned, it was all a heap of rubbish. Other wizards might require public humiliation to assure their loyalty, but Snape did not. He had aligned himself with the Dark Arts many years ago, and his service was to them. Lord Voldemort was a living embodiment of that power; as long as Snape lived for the Dark Arts, there would be no question of his loyalty to the Dark Lord.
Lord Voldemort finally rounded from the wall. He approached, fixing Snape with his fearsome gaze, but did not gesture for his forearm. The crowd had slouched too soon; the show apparently wasn't over yet. Snape tossed his head in yet another fruitless attempt to clear an errant tuft of hair hanging over his right eye as the Dark Lord spoke.
"I have many servants, Severus Snape, with skill and experience. How many Potion Masters do you suppose I need, child? What else can you offer me, that I do not already have at my disposal?"
Snape would never have backed out of this ritual because of nerves or fear, but this treatment was enough to give him second thoughts. Seven years of relentless study and my pledge of loyalty are not enough? It was almost laughable, except that nothing about Lord Voldemort was truly funny. If there had been a line of volunteers stretching all the way back to Diagon Alley, such demanding tastes might be justified. But the fact was, most wizards preferred "not to get involved," and between the Ministry and Dumbledore's lot, the Death Eaters were outnumbered.
Voldemort was bluffing. Worse, he was playing games. I don't know if you're trying to intimidate me by suggesting I am insufficient, or provoke me for some reason of your own, but either way, I'm not falling for it. Snape had not spent seven years enduring constant bullying just to repeat that pattern under the Dark Lord.
Holding his head high, he looked Voldemort straight in the eye and said, cockily, "I make the best fettucini Alfredo that you will ever eat."
Lucius Malfoy's eyes were unmistakeable, the color of wet slate on a cloudy winter's day. Snape had spotted them immediately among the witnesses to the ceremony, despite the hoods and masks attempting to preserve anonymity. The last thing he saw after answering Lord Voldemort were Lucius's eyes, narrowed with frustration and rolling back in their sockets.
After that, what happened was beyond his comprehension. It appeared as though someone had activated a Portkey, although there were none of the visceral sensations that accompanied such a spell. Snape was suddenly alone in a cavernous, empty room, so vast that the far walls were but a dim gray blur.
If this was supposed to frighten him, it wasn't working. As transport spells go, it was artfully done, but barely worth Owling home about. Scowling, Snape folded his arms across his chest and waited for the other shoe to drop.
It did not take long. A black cloud began to coalesce in the air before him, elongating as it thickened until it began to resemble a serpent, coiled and switched back upon itself. How trite, he thought, idly wondering if he would have to turn it into some sort of Serpent Alfredo, but then the cloud began to act in a curious manner. Wriggling and kinking itself in a most unsnakelike fashion, the "body" of the cloud began to form letters, written in a joined or cursive hand. Little tails and heads formed at the discontinuities between words, and the cloud soon spelled out a riddle:
At eighteen, you believe your worth
is too great to pass by,
Such arrogance, my child. And now
to prove it, or to die.
From metal, hard, cold steel is forged
much like your heart within;
A master cook hears and accepts
your challenge with a grin.
Snape read it several times before the cloud dissipated, but repetition didn't make it more sensible. Fine, he caught me giving a snide response to a pointless question. If he must now prove himself to be a culinary artist at Alfredo sauce, then he could give this "master cook" a run for his money. But what that had to do with steel, or the iron from which it was forged, escaped him.
Well, he would surely figure it out as he went along.
With the next blink of his eyes, Snape found himself back in the meeting hall on Knockturn Alley. Lord Voldemort's eyes burned before his own, and he wore a self-satisfied sneer. It took Snape a moment to realize that the "journey" and the strange riddle had taken place entirely within his mind. Admittedly impressive, he thought, raising a single eyebrow. There was more to this Legilimency business than their professors had let on.
The Dark Lord slowly nodded, clearly acknowledging Snape's deduction of what had happened. He's still in my mind. The sneer spread into a sadistic smile.
What greater terror for a reclusive man than to discover the world within his mind was no longer private? For the first time, Snape doubted that he had chosen the correct path.
He was too late.
"I accept your worthy service, Severus Snape. You are bound to me until your death."
Mother of Merlin, spare me!
There was no way out. Snape didn't bother glancing around the room to seek a sympathetic gaze. Even Lucius dared not openly oppose the Master. If Snape bolted, no one would create a diversion, no one would hamper the pursuit. Every wand in the room would be levelled at him within seconds, the Cruciatus on every tongue. He would be quartered by pure pain, and he knew it.
Snape slowly raised his left arm, unable to stop it from trembling.
Lord Voldemort's hands felt so normal, so human, that it startled Snape even more. The clawed fingertips had been produced by altering the nails, but the palmar side was still warm and pink. Soft hands that had never performed hard labor, thin and free of callouses. Hands that wove the most potent Dark magic in centuries, yet felt as soft as a woman's. The incongruity sent chills up his spine.
Voldemort held Snape by the elbow and wrist, peering thoughtfully at his forearm. It was forbidden to speak of the nature of the Mark, and Snape had a sudden, irrational vision of rays suddenly shooting from the Master's eyes to burn the Mark into the skin.
The Dark Lord seemed almost serene, studying Snape's forearm like an artist poised before a blank canvas. Another irrational thought: with his arm shaking so hard, would the Mark come out blurred? End it. Just end this. Seal my fate or kill me, but do it!
Lord Voldemort lowered his head, his mouth opening impossibly wide and his teeth elongating into fangs. Snape closed his eyes, unwilling to watch those jaws close on his flesh. He could not keep from screaming as the venom shot into his skin.
"Severus! Wake up, man. Up!"
Lucius. Why is everything so dark? This isn't... "Where am I?" Snape's voice was so distorted he barely recognized it himself.
"He lives. Inform the Master," Malfoy said to someone else in the room, then turned back to Snape, shoving a steaming tumbler into his hand. "Breathe this in, Severus. You had a reaction to the Marking. Anaphylaxis." Lucius glanced over his shoulder nervously. "I cannot stay. You must recover on your own, though the Dark Lord permitted me to give you this. I swear, Severus, you have caused me more grief tonight." Malfoy's voice softened as he prepared to leave. "Despite your cheek, though, I believe you've impressed the Master. Unless he has spared you only to kill you more painfully later."
"Charming," Snape croaked as Malfoy slipped silently from the room, closing the door with a metallic click. Judging by the damp and cold, he had been taken to a cellar, to recover or die out of sight of the other petitioners. His chest ached; the air felt as thick as syrup, and the effort required to move it in or out of his lungs was exhausting. He could smell the belladonna in the tumbler; it would help him, if he could manage to breathe long and deep enough for it to take effect.
There was enough light coming through the small viewport in the door for Snape to look at his Mark for the first time. His left upper body was covered in red welts that coalesced into one continuous swelling from elbow to wrist. An allergic reaction to whatever magical poison the Dark Lord used to create the Mark--it was downright embarrassing, really. Not to mention that it itched mercilessly.
Snape sighed. This was hardly the way he'd imagined his induction into Voldemort's ranks. He should be marching forth in glorious triumph and smiting his enemies, not huddling in a chilly cellar with histamine poisoning.
Alone in the dark quiet, Snape began to ponder the paths he'd taken to this place. As a small boy, he dreamed of bringing home a powerful ally. One who would crush the life from his father and carry he and Mother away to a wonderful new home, where the pantry was always full and dazzling heaps of toys and books filled every room. When he learned that he had magic, he dreamed of doing it all himself, but Mother...
By the blood of Merlin, he still hated the woman. She wouldn't use her magic against Father; she said it was unfair, as though it was fair of him to use brute strength against people fifty kilos lighter than himself. She'd forbidden her son to fight with the only weapon he had, telling him instead to "work hard" and "be good," and thus stave off Father's ire. Hah! As if that were possible!
Because she refused to teach him how to defend himself, he sought knowledge on his own. His great-uncle had an extensive library and Snape spent many hours hiding in Uncle's gabled attic with the most dangerous-looking books he could find. Through Dark magic, he learned spells to hinder his father that Mother could not recognize, and gained a few years of relative comfort for himself. What he had not known, of course, was that Father's rage was merely being diverted to Mother.
Perhaps it was a product of the quiet dark or his shortness of breath, but he vividly recalled her, laid out on the steel table, a cardboard tag attached to her toe with a wire. He could smell the room again, the sickening mixture of decay, formalin, and chlorine antiseptic. The bored Muggle policeman, the coroner trying to appear sympathetic while his belly rumbled in protest at the interruption to his lunch hour. A perfect eulogy for a woman no one cared about anymore.
Her death did not release him from his promise to spare Father. Snape still needed a cohort to finish this task.
And then he'd been awakened by voices in the Slytherin common room during his first year at Hogwarts.
It was all too easy to linger on dreary thoughts in the damp darkness, but once Snape could breathe again, he chided himself for being so pathetic. Snap out of it, you idiot! It's done, no turning back. Maybe not as clean and simple as you wished, but by Jove, it's DONE!
He wiped his eyes and appraised his new Mark once again. Aside from the swelling and red blotches, it wasbeautiful. He understood why the Master had paused before Marking him; he had aligned it smartly with the flexors in his forearm so its contours followed those of his own body. Not merely a flat image, it had some qualities of a bas-relief or fresco. And if I move my index finger like this, the snake wriggles!
Within a fraction of a second, Snape felt a range of emotions, starting with pure embarrassment that he'd just animated his Dark Mark like a child opening and shutting his belly button to "make it talk." That immediately led to self-reproach for feeling shy when there was no one else there to see it anyway, and besides, what did he care what anyone else thought of him? And that brought him back at last to the anticipation he'd felt earlier in the evening. Never again must I bite my tongue and accept others' abuse. He tipped his head back and laughed.
Merlin's beard, now all I need is a pipe organ playing in B-flat minor in the background, he thought, which made him laugh even harder. "I've become trite, and I don't care!" he marveled aloud, between chortles. He suspected there was something disinhibiting in that potion from Lucius; this was more than his yearly allotment of mirth, used up all in one evening. "Ah, well, if there were ever a night I should be happy, this is it," he giggled, making the snakey on his arm do an impromptu hula dance.
"Good, you're awake. Come!"
Snape nearly made an obscene remark, but the look on Lucius's face made his giddiness wither away. "What?" he growled; his whole left side still itched.
"He asks for you. Move!" Though Lucius was gruff, he helped Snape to his feet and hurriedly tugged his robes into a presentable state. After one last scrutinizing glance, he winked and handed Snape a hooded mask, and both men smiled. Snape pulled it on and they ascended silently from the cellar.
Snape knew the protocol; Lucius had drilled him in the etiquette for handling the Dark Lord. Snape had chosen to deviate from proper form earlier in the evening, but sensed that this was not the time. He held his head high as he approached the Master, then dropped to one knee. "Your servant, my lord."
"Indeed," Voldemort said with narrowed eyes, bringing his hand up under the hood to Snape's chin and raising him to his feet. Merlin's ghost, I hope this touchy-feely business doesn't last. "You will fetch something for me, child. Take this Portkey--" with a sweep of his hand, he indicated a silver snuffbox on the table beside him, "--to the estate and bring me the briefcase from the rolltop desk in the entry hall."
A delivery boy. Huzzah. "At once, my lord."
The Portkey whisked him to a crumbling black gate before an overgrown courtyard. It was locked, but it swung open after a simple Alohomora. Snape was glad it moved itself; it looked as though one good push would rip the thing off its hinges.
He stepped inside, not even blinking when the gate violently clanged shut behind him. More bloody dramatics, he thought irritably. The flagstone path was choked with weeds, but at least there were no tombstones or talking trees in the garden. The manor house itself was a completely black Victorian design with lots of delicate curliques and finials (all intact, despite the fact that every single window was broken or cracked). Snape sighed. How Lucius could stand all this tackiness was beyond him.
There's something a little different! Snape spotted the inevitable caretaker through a broken pane. She was meandering up the tattered staircase opposite the front door. He had to study her a moment before he decided that she was walking, not floating. Solid, then--not a ghost. Judging by her rich black hair and graceful step, Snape thought there was a decent chance she might be a looker.
As he stepped onto the (creaky) porch, however, she immediately turned around to descend the staircase, and his meager hopes were dashed. She had a glowing green skull for a face. Of course she does. I've been a bit too cheeky to be sent to the ruined mansion with the beautiful damsel trapped inside.
It was notoriously hard to judge the facial expressions of a skeleton, so he approached the door cautiously. "Good evening," he said with a slight bow, but she made no response. "May I come in?" Again, nothing. Growing annoyed with this nonsense, he turned the doorknob and pushed his way inside.
With a scream like a banshee, she slammed into him with astounding force, knocking him back outside and onto his keester. To his amazement, the door slowly swung closed with a soft click.
"Nice touch, there at the end," he sneered as he pulled himself up. "Slamming it would have been so predictable." He gingerly patted his sore posterior. "What game shall we play, then? Riddles, perhaps? Some sort of payment, or password? Or must I physically force my way past you?" He addressed her through the broken window beside the door, but she made no reply. "Oh, come now! I know you are capable of sounds. I have already tired of this charade; what do you require to let me pass?" Nothing, not even a tip of her skeletal head in acknowledgement.
Snotty little spectre. It was hard to stare down an empty skull; there was no way to tell if she blinked.
He tried several more times to pass her, to no avail. Neither strength nor magic could repel her attacks; as soon as he stepped through the door, he would find himself back where he started with a slightly more tender bottom. Sun, moon and stars, woman! I got a splinter that time! Snape knew he must use his head, as his other end couldn't take much more of this challenge.
"Obviously, you require persuasion, Madam Spectre," he said, "but you have been most unhelpful in what you require. Should I coax you out, that I may enter? Ply you with a gift? Fool you by pretending to deliver a pizza?" He meant it all rhetorically, but at the word "pizza," she straightened up abruptly. By the blood of Merlin! If this turns into some Muggle burlesque involving 'extra sausage on her pizza,' I'm leaving.
But then it dawned on Snape that he had made a recent claim about his cooking. He grinned. He was in no position to prepare fettucini on a crumbling front porch, but he could conjure up a reasonable facsimile. With a few thoughtful flicks of his wand, he produced a nice serving on a lovely porcelain plate. "Madam?" he asked hopefully.
She turned her head away, which was better than nothing, but not much.
Snape sighed. "What now? You require kosher? Vegan? A garnish? You're rather particular for a creature lacking taste buds, or a stomach for that matter." She turned her back, folding her arms with a creaky huff.
Women. Even undead, they're impossible. But then the answer became so obvious, he nearly kicked himself (but declined, as his rump had already taken quite a beating that night).
Five minutes later, he had turned the porch into a veritable Parisian sidewalk cafe, complete with a single black rose on the table and a solo violin (literally--with no one to play it, the instrument had to be spelled to float around the table and play itself) for ambiance. With a sigh, he topped it off with a second chair and place setting.
"Will you join me, milady?" he said, offering his arm to the doorknob.
What do you know? You CAN tell when they smile.
Madam Spectre was an impressive piece of magic. As she ate, her skeletal body filled in with flesh (in a slow fade, thankfully, rather than the more disgusting internal layers building up to the surface). By the end of the meal, she was most striking, if one could ignore the green glow.
"Your word was true, Severus," she said, her voice raspy from the combination of disuse and screeching. "If this was any less than outstanding, you were to be the next course." Snape raised a single eyebrow, but said nothing. His sarcasm had caused him in enough trouble for one evening.
She stared at him, then tossed her head irritably. "Petty child. If you won't play with me, then complete your task and go. I shall only be solid for a short time and I shan't waste it in your dour company." She rose and hastened down the path without another word.
"Some watchdog," Snape muttered, watching her skirt flare behind her as she darted through the gate. After carefully appraising the foyer to ensure there wasn't a second guard, he spied the briefcase and retrieved it without hindrance. Too easy, he thought. But nothing prevented him from leaving the mansion, nothing accosted him on the path. When he reached the gate, his heart was pounding in anticipation of the inevitable obstacle. He was a little hesitant to step through it; there had to be something.
I feel as though I should have a twenty-sided die to toss...well, here goes nothing. He set foot outside the gate. Aside from the clang when it slammed, nothing. Perhaps I've overestimated this task, he thought, a smirk beginning to form on his lips.
It was then that he realized he had no idea where he was, or how to return to London.
He had to pound on the gate for five minutes before it would let him in again. There was nothing in the garden that acted as a Portkey, and he was reluctant to venture much further inside the mansion. The temptation to explore this Dark house had "TRAP" written all over it. "Accio Portkey!" he said halfheartedly, unsurprised when nothing flew into his hand. A quick revealing spell confirmed his suspicion that the grounds were warded against Apparition. Snape sighed. The only way out of here appeared to be on foot.
The gate sassed him, refusing to open, but he offered to Transform it from iron to candy floss (pink, of course) and it gave in with a rattling shudder. He stepped outside and discovered that the path ended rather abruptly in what he'd taken for a hedgerow, but was in fact some sort of magical wall. He studied it carefully, realizing that it arched over the entire manor. Some sort of invisibility shield, presumably. Snape harrumphed at the unsophisticated method of concealing such a large property and stepped through the barrier.
He was suddenly dazzled by sunlight. Bloody hell! It was roughly midnight when he left Knockturn Alley; he must have Ported halfway around the world. Good thing I couldn't Apparate, they would be picking up little bits of me with fuzzy edges all throughout London!
There was nothing for it now. Snape squinted until his eyes adjusted to the light, then peered out at his surroundings. There were some houses in the distance. He would take his chances in the village.
Rounding the first bend in the little country path, Snape found himself face to face with the Dark Lord. There were two masked Death Eaters as well, one whom he did not recognize though the other, obviously female, could only be Bellatrix Lestrange. That sent a shiver up his spine. If anyone was favored among Voldemort's ranks, it was Bellatrix, and she took advantage of that status at every opportunity. Fun's over, he thought glumly as he dropped to one knee and bowed his head.
"You will look at the Dark Lord as he addresses you," Bellatrix said icily. Bitch. Snape raised his eyes.
"I have been insulted, child," began Voldemort, in a bored, languid tone. "This cannot be tolerated, yet it is not worth my while to punish the offender myself. I leave it to you instead."
Snape caught his breath. He wants me to kill someone. He'd barely been a Death Eater for four hours and he was already assigned to murder. This was moving much faster than he'd planned. Punishment and revenge were more to his taste; death was too absolute, too unforgiving. But it was clear that the choice was to kill, or to die himself. Snape nodded slowly.
"His name is Robert Douglass. I trust you can find him."
Despite hours of training with Lucius to hide his reactions, a horrified gasp escaped Snape's throat. It all made sense now. Robert had been a year ahead of Snape at Hogwarts. He had come to Hogwarts from Australia, the other side of the world. Snape suddenly recognized the terrain--he had visited Robert's family once and their village was not far.
Snape could feel Bellatrix's eyes upon him; she was enjoying every minute of this. I'm not going to sit here and let her gloat. "It is done, my lord," Snape said quietly but firmly, then stood up and Apparated to the rainforest near Tomarong.
Free of Bella's gloating gaze, Snape sat down--fell down, to be more accurate--and leaned against a fern he recognized as Dicksonia antarctica. He softly uttered every swear word he knew, and improvised a few new ones on the spot. Why did it have to be Robert? Lucius, six years older, had been a mentor, but Robert had been a friend. Though a Slytherin, Robert did not practice Dark Arts, but neither did he judge Severus for embracing them. How Robert could insult the Dark Lord was beyond him; like Lucius, Robert was seemingly imperturbable, and when he did take issue with something, he kept his opinions quite secret from anyone who mattered.
Despite the sunshine, it was cold--July was midwinter in New South Wales, a fact that Snape knew but seemed nonetheless outrageous to his Northern Hemispheric sensibilities. Snape sighed and looked up through the fronds of the ancient fern. A modern dinosaur, this species had found its niche millions of years ago and had not deviated from it since. They were often found in gardens in the UK, far from their native soil. The climate to the north seemed to suit them, just as it had with Robert.
Robert. Snape simply disregarded most people--whether they lived or died were of no consequence or interest to him. Nearly everyone in the world, in fact, fell into this category. There were several hundred (a mere drop in the bucket compared to the entire population) whose death he would welcome or even celebrate. And then there were a very small number, only three he could think of off the top of his head (though he knew there were more), whom he hated enough to kill. Robert was one of a very select few that belonged to neither group.
Snape shook his head. It was no coincidence that he was ordered to kill this man. This was the real test of the evening. The other "challenges" had seemed inane and irritating because they were only diversions, and not very clever ones at that. The Dark Lord had wanted to soften him up, or to see if he would give up or break too easily. Now was the time for him to show his mettle.
Snape took his wand from his robe and turned it over and over in his hand. Robert. True, he hadn't seen the man in over a year, and even in their last two years together at Hogwarts they had grown somewhat distant. But they had still parted as friends. Snape suddenly snorted out loud. There was no way Robert Douglass had insulted the Dark Lord. The man lived in the middle of nowhere, raising Tazmanian dervishes (a magical beast related to the Tasmanian devil) and keeping to himself. He was singled out for this test because someone had identified him as one of the few people whose death would matter to Severus Snape.
The Dark Arts were about power, and Voldemort was asserting his power to issue orders. But Snape knew he had earned the power to decide who he would or would not kill.
Stuffing his wand angrily back into his robe, Snape got to his feet and trudged toward the Douglass ranch. He and Robert were going to have a long talk.