Chapter 10: Hand of Corruption
Rhythmic whispers floated through Netterheim’s private laboratory, coaxing a swirl of vapors up through the maze of glass. Twisted metal gripped a series of tubes over a simmering cauldron, and the Potions Master held his breath as he attached the last heart-shaped vial to the end of the contraption.
This time, he hoped, the beastly procedure would produce the results his apprentice claimed. He’d hate to have wasted the entire weekend on nothing.
He watched the first wisp of vapor condense into a tiny droplet and slide to the bottom of the vial, a tiny pool of translucence. The ache in his back complained at the remaining hours it would take to collect enough droplets for the Guild’s potency tests. But thankfully, condensation had begun and he released his grip on the glass. The morning’s inventory needed attention. He scanned the shelves out of habit, frowning at a small collection of dust fairies.
Netterheim closed his eyes and inhaled the relative solitude of the sun lit shop. He relished the quiet; no bothersome customers, no unruly men in masks making demands on his patience. His momentary lull was interrupted by a strange murmuring from the basement below.
When he poked his head down the banister, the noise stopped abruptly. Severus looked up from his cauldron in an unspoken question.
Netterheim had forgotten that his apprentice was already here. He hadn’t seen him all weekend, expecting that the young man would have stuck his nose in at least once to see how the procedure was coming. Unusual for his apprentice not to hover obsessively, but quite unnecessary for a third party validation such as the Guild required. He dismissed Severus with a wave, knowing that the daily tasks were in capable hands, even if the apprentice had no idea he’d been humming to himself.
The Potions Master went back to his lab, resuming his impatient stance over the tubes and flasks. Re-checking, measuring throughout the day… until finally, the vial was full.
Netterheim unscrewed the vial carefully and raised it to the lamp, allowing himself one moment to stare at the brilliance pressed between his fingers. Then, with a quick nod to the shadow hovering in the corner, he took the vial to the basement.
The last few bars of a wobbly tune floated up the stairs as Severus finished tidying up the area, his eyes half closed, his rag making wet, lazy circles on the table. Netterheim was more interested in the rows of finished product that lined the shelves behind his apprentice and grunted approval as he thudded down the stairs.
The boy was smart and had made a fine apprentice, but Netterheim couldn’t help but wonder if the Guild was going to be ready for him. He’d seen potential like this wasted on too many occasions.
And there was the matter of Severus’ unfortunate associations.
Netterheim stepped into Severus’ work light. “The project for Karkaroff… do you know what it does?"
”I know what it’s capable of.” Severus shook the rag over the waste bin.
Netterheim took a small padded box from the cabinet and placed the vial gently inside. “Never forget for one minute that we must remain in control of our creations.” He leaned forward over the work table. “Do you understand?”
His apprentice nodded.
"You have a viable product for the Guild." He smiled, watching Severus' face change at the realization that he’d been given a compliment. Netterheim cleared his throat and got to the point. "You are almost finished with the notebook’s formula as well. If the Death Eaters go through with Karkaroff’s plans, the Guild will know who to blame.”
At this, Severus looked like he wanted to melt between the floor boards. They both knew that Severus had been stalling for weeks and that wasn’t going to be possible once the Guild began deliberations. Karkaroff would know Severus had overcome the solubility issue and would demand results. “Don’t look so surprised,” Netterheim told him. “I knew what Karkaroff wanted with that formula the moment I laid eyes on the notebook. You know what you must do."
Severus snapped back into focus and he started towards the shelf of research tomes. Netterheim appreciated Severus’ immediacy, but there was pressing business ahead. “Start on your research tomorrow. I must make use of the shop tonight.”
Severus paused, unsure at first, and then grabbed his notebook and headed up the stairs. At the jingle of the front bell, the shadow next to Netterheim shimmered, begging for attention. Netterheim muttered something about nervy people arriving too early. He threw a pinch of powder over his shoulder and chanted a charm under his breath.
The dust mixed with the shadow and coalesced into a sputtering man. He waved aside the cloud of powder and followed Netterheim up the stairs. “You don’t think that’s all it will take, do you?”
Netterheim didn’t look back at his colleague as he shuffled around the corner and into the back. “That one is bright. He’ll figure it out.”
The man behind him cleared his throat. “I doubt he’ll be able to stop them from using the potion once he turns it over to Karkaroff.”
Netterheim shrugged on his traditional Potions Master robe and glared at the man in the cocktail jacket, who was busy straightening his ridiculous bow tie in the reflection of a nearby flask. It was a Guild meeting for goodness sake, not a fancy theater production. He wasn’t at fault for his impeccable hygiene, but he certainly had developed a nasty habit of sitting on Netterheim’s last nerve.
With a name like Slughorn, how could he not?
“Snape’s got a slim chance of success. Nothing will prevent the Guild from retaliating if his potion is responsible for the death of innocents.” The cocktail jacket expanded with a heavy sigh. “Then we’ll have lost another one.”
“He understands the risk,” Netterheim said stiffly. “He will do what he has to.”
“And if he fails?”
“Have you no faith in my judgment?”
The man chuckled. “It isn’t your judgment I’m worried about. You know how this goes. I wasn’t the only one shocked that you’d taken him in after years of spouting reasons not to.”
“Dumbledore’s recommendation came highly placed. I could not refuse the opportunity.”
Slughorn stood idly by, watching the rapidly shrinking furniture. He smoothed down the lapels of his jacket, a nervous gesture. “The Guild has asked every year if I have any considerations for an apprentice. I don’t find it that difficult to turn them down.”
Netterheim’s eyes were starting to strain from the effort of glaring at him. “You and that school,” he flung a hand in Slughorn’s direction, “are too soft on your students. It is a wonder they grasp the barest rudiments of the subject. With the kind of watered-down curriculum you offer, I doubt you’d know exceptional talent if it stared you in the face.”
“I’ll have you know that I’ve trained several highly-talented wizards in my day. Who do you think gave your protégée his fundamentals?”
“Seemed to me that he raised himself up in spite of your so-called training. You never lifted a finger to help that boy, no matter what marks he earned.”
Slughorn polished his trimmed nails on his shirt. “I admit that he was a bit odd in school. He never got on with other children very well.”
Netterheim huffed, wondering how long it had been since Slughorn had brewed his own potions. A bit of dirt under the nails kept a man honest. “If you’d given the boy a little encouragement, he might not have succumbed to those fools.”
“I won’t deny that he was very talented,” Slughorn argued. “Too talented for his own good. You saw what happened the last time someone like that was encouraged. Even Dumbledore was fooled!”
“Dumbledore is a fool about many things.” Netterheim bit back. “You have been around children long enough, Slughorn. Surely by now you can tell the difference between a future mass-murderer and a misguided wallflower?”
The other Potions Master remained silent, looking at the floor. Then he said, “Dust fairies, Netterheim? Perhaps I could help you tidy up a bit before the rest of the Guild arrives.” Not that he had raised a wand the whole time. It was just words.
“Don’t change the subject. You accuse me of poor judgment and you can’t take the criticism yourself. The Guild has discussed this...”
“Argued, you mean. We are all aware of Karkaroff’s project and how he got his hands on the ancient notebook.” Slughorn met Netterheim’s gaze. “Tell me, when you were at Durmstrang with Karkaroff, did you know what kind of wizard he’d be today?”
“I was a student then. You can hardly draw a parallel. And you know very well that I wasn’t referring to Karkaroff.” Netterheim Summoned a short pedestal and blew the dust off its surface. The truth was that with all the signs, no one had stepped in to stop the man who now boasted the title of “Dark Lord”. Not the Guild, not even the Ministry. It was doubtful anyone would stand against him much longer if something wasn’t done.
To pin the responsibility of the Death Eaters’ latest attempt at terror on an apprentice wasn’t right. But the Guild had its rules. There was a reason the Guild didn’t take apprenticeships lightly. It would be Netterheim who’d have to fix things if Severus couldn’t do it himself. But that wouldn’t be necessary.
“I am certain about my apprentice.” Netterheim set the box on the pedestal for display. “This is the strongest potion concentration I have ever seen. One drop has the healing power of fifteen vials.” The Guild rightfully rejected Karkaroff for his over-ambitious greed. But Severus was different.
Slughorn smiled. “He still has to prove himself to us. I believe that a vote is in order.”
Netterheim opened the door and jabbed his wand to create chairs for the coalescing guests. Once again, he found himself irritated at his lounging colleague.
“You could make yourself useful.”
Slughorn shrugged and wandered the room popping dust fairies out of the air. As he passed by the pedestal, he paused and stared at the translucent blue liquid.
“Genius,” he whispered.
Netterheim reached around him and snapped the box shut. The man had no right to gloat over Severus Snape’s work.
“When this is over, no more apprentices. It will be someone else’s turn.”
Severus waited in the middle of a room full of ten generations of disapproving Malfoys, each peering at him from their gilded frames on the walls and whispering to each other, possibly about his lowly potions robe. He was clean and presentable, and that’s all that mattered to the man who he’d come to see. After a while, he stopped making eye contact with Lucius’ ancestors and chose to stare at the décor instead. The sitting room at Malfoy Manor was cold and formal, despite all the draperies and plush furniture… no wonder Lucius always looked so uncomfortable. Severus didn’t bother to sit. He wasn’t here for congenial conversation.
Lucius entered the room in his usual grand gesture and smiled. “He is ready for you.”
Severus followed him down the hall to another parlor. Lucius knocked once and then opened the door.
Karkaroff sat, or rather sprawled, over the plush upholstery. His gnarled hands wrung together in anticipation. “Did you bring what I asked for?”
Severus handed a vial to Karkaroff, who gave it a quick inspection and then nodded his approval.
“Very well done. It will not be long before you are a master in your own right.”
Severus kept a straight face at that. Netterheim had told him not to challenge Karkaroff’s illusion of having influence over the Guild.
The old man sniffed at it and then downed the contents in one swill. Then he laid back and stretched his legs. “Much better,” he said, reaching for his cane.
“With respect,” Severus said with a slight bow, “you’d do better to rest a moment and perhaps you might not need that.”
“This?” Karkaroff chuckled, grasping the silver hilt. “It has been in my family for centuries.” His face smoothed out, the rejuvenating potion doing more of its good work. “But I sense you have something to discuss, other than the cure for an ailing man.” He sat forward a bit more. “A timetable, I presume?”
Severus knew he’d have to do this at some point, but he still needed more time. “It’s complicated,” he began. “The active ingredient is highly regulated and I’ve been accumulating it in small batches so as not to raise suspicions.”
Karkaroff waved his hand. “Enough. I do not care for the details. That is your job. How much longer?”
“Six weeks,” Severus stated, hoping it was long enough to develop the antidote. And then it was time to step up.
“The notebook… the potion you assigned to me,” Severus began, but his thoughts stumbled. All he had to do was convince them that he needed to be involved in Karkaroff’s plan. He searched for something to say that would appeal to the man in front of him.
“It’s my work,” he stated. “My formula. I wouldn’t want to see all my efforts wasted because of improper or careless execution.”
Karkaroff studied him from the couch. “Your point is valid. It is good that you take such pride in your work.” His smile gave Severus a chill. “I was quite talented, like you,” he said. “I was told that my ambitions were too high. But with the Dark Lord on our side, there are no limits to what we can do.” He extended his arm, the thick veins continuing to recede beneath the rejuvenating skin.
Severus resisted the urge to flinch and instead, forced himself to clasp the well-manicured hand of corruption. Karkaroff looked at him warmly.
“The Dark Lord will hear of your unwavering dedication and service. Now I have other business to attend.”
As if on cue, the door opened, revealing a pock-faced man in a tattered Ministry robe, shifty-eyed and pale.
“Snape is finished,” Karkaroff called through the open doorway. “You may enter.”
Severus left them, feeling ill. It wasn’t the first time he’d promised to do their bidding, but this was getting him involved deeper than he’d ever wanted.
“Ahh, Rookwood. You look well,” he heard through the door. Severus glanced back at the man in the Ministry robe, wondering what they had promised him. Wondering what they had threatened him with.
“He’s recruiting from inside the Ministry again.” Severus had returned to the flat to find Dorcas elbow-deep in parchment at the kitchen table, a confused look on her face. After the day he’d had, all he wanted was a stiff drink. He stepped behind Dorcas to find a glass, but began to reconsider his plan when he saw the smooth back of her neck, exposed under a careless bun.
He wondered if her work could wait a while as he traced a finger along her shoulder to a dangling curl. “That’s… distracting,” she fussed, trying to sound annoyed. He smiled as the light blush that crept over her face told him otherwise.
Severus sat down beside her, thinking of other distractions, when he felt something crunch. He pulled out a squashed scroll from beneath him. “This time it’s an older bloke. Rookwood was his name.”
Dorcas’ quill stopped mid-stroke. “That’s impossible,” she said, looking up in alarm.
“I saw him at Malfoy’s when I told Karkaroff that I wanted…” He couldn’t say it out loud. His face fell and he stared at the table, finally feeling the weight of what he’d done sink in. It wasn’t what he wanted. It was what he had to do. He felt a hand on his shoulder.
Her eyes were sympathetic, but he was starting to recognize that frenzied state she got in when something was on her mind. “Can you hand me that scroll please?” she asked him.
He smoothed it out for her and couldn’t help scanning the crinkled parchment as he handed it over. The hand-scrawled map looked hauntingly familiar and all thoughts of a quiet evening at home went out the window. “You’re going somewhere.” It wasn’t a question.
She rose from the table and gathered her papers together, tucking the stray curl back into her bun. “The man you saw… short, hunched down to here…” She held her hand up to her neck. Severus nodded assent. Dorcas huffed. “I’m supposed to meet him in a few hours. There.” She pointed on the map Severus was holding. “He sent me a message earlier today. It’s strange, because he’s not supposed to be in London. Are you sure it’s Rookwood, and not someone else?”
He had a mind to ask her just how many Rookwoods she knew, but before he could utter his snarky comeback, she held up a hand.
“Don’t even say it. I’m going.”
“I wasn’t going to stop you. “ He’d quit counting how many times they’d dodged disaster so far. And if she wasn’t going to be sitting around the flat that night, neither was he. “I’m coming with you.”
He couldn’t tell if she was pleased or irritated by his announcement. Then she nodded to herself. “That might be a good idea, actually. You said once that you’d been there and I haven’t. Maybe you could help me get in without too much notice?”
Severus let out a breath, pleased that she hadn’t rejected the idea and doubly relieved at a chance to protect her if necessary; though he hoped it wouldn’t come to that. He’d meant to get out there after the renovations were completed anyway: there was a picture box with his name on it. “You’ll need Muggle clothes.”
Severus took her up a path beyond the now familiar glen. It led them up a sharp rise overlooking the valley. To him, the amusement park had all the elements of a secure meeting place: large anonymous crowds, deafening noises to mask most attempts at eavesdropping, and it was located far enough away from any significant wizarding population to be monitored by the Death Eaters.
He stood silently, gazing down into the valley as the lights turned on in the hazy dusk. He’d often spent long summer nights down there when things got unbearable at home. It had been recently upgraded, louder and flashier than the old fairgrounds he used to know. The Muggles were constantly coming up with larger and faster near-death Muggle experiences to entertain themselves. When Dorcas caught up to him, he pointed out the old landmarks that were still the same – the Ferris wheel and the Midway strip. Other attractions had changed over the years, but the layout of the grounds hadn’t.
“Maybe we should go in over there.” Dorcas pointed to the largest tent on the far side of the Midway. Severus nodded, still looking over the park grounds. He heard her swallow a chuckle. “I just can’t imagine you willingly spending your free time down there.”
He shrugged as he gazed over the flashing lights and the churning machines.
“Those people look awfully happy.” Dorcas said lightly. “How can you stand it?”
“This place…” Severus sighed. It wasn’t something he talked about. “It amuses me.”
Dorcas nudged him softly with her shoulder. “If that’s the best you can do,” she said as her hand slipped into his, “then we’d better get on with it.”
Severus led her back down the path and farther away from the gnarled tree, towards the cacophony of beeps and whistles coming from the large white tent. They could have apparated there to make it quicker, but it wasn’t that far. Part of him indulged in the feel of her walking next to him, just the two of them, hand in hand. His mind flitted over how ordinary people might act after they… well, whatever he and Dorcas had been doing lately… his mouth quirked up, pretty sure that it had been better than ordinary.
They reached the side entrance, the one for employees only. After a few minor charms to blend in with the locals, they lifted the flap and found themselves in the midst of a large assortment of electronic and mechanical games. The air crackled with Muggle magic, the kind that was fed through the thick black snakes that ran over the ground behind the machines. There wasn’t time to stop and explore the new additions, but he was more interested in what they had kept than what they had replaced.
As they moved through the tent, he happily noted an old box in the back by the change machine. A few lazy hours spent at that game was about as effective as the mind-numbing potion his “associates” frequently solicited from him… without the disturbing aftereffects. When they got to the entrance that opened out on the Midway, Dorcas pulled him to the side.
“Wait a sec,” she whispered, which was unnecessary with all the racket. She took out a stone and the machine next to them flickered as the stone began to glow green. “He’s not here yet.” Then she jumped in surprise as it flashed yellow. “That’s not supposed to happen unless…” She leaned closer to Severus and it returned to a dull green. “Oh, it’s just you.”
“Can I see that?” Severus turned the stone over in his palm, but couldn’t feel a source of power from inside it.
“New Ministry issue,” Dorcas explained. “It reveals magical sources within a quarter mile radius, so that means there’s only Muggles here right now, besides us.”
Then the stone pulsed yellow and Dorcas took it from him, frowning. “He’s brought someone with him.”
Severus peered out into the crowd and caught sight of the man he’d seen with Karkaroff at the Malfoys’. “That’s him,” he confirmed. “And he’s talking to someone I can’t make out from here. There’s a small booth near the House of Mirrors across the way. I’ll be there when you’re finished.”
“Good,” she told him and effectively disappeared into the crowd. Severus hadn’t expected her to just leave like that and spent a moment frantically scanning the sea of faces for her. He spotted a large gangly woman heading straight for Rookwood and he wasn’t sure until she turned and fixed him with a stare. Then he knew it was her.
Dorcas waited for the ugly bloke with the crooked teeth to move out of sight before she tapped Rookwood on the shoulder.
“Hi. It’s me.”
He turned and stared blankly at her. She pulled off the lllusioned cap and shook out her curls. “I got your message.”
Rookwood picked a bit of carnival food out of his teeth, the blank stare unchanged. When she didn’t move away, he scowled.
“Who the hell are you?”
Severus paced in the booth, which wasn’t at all satisfying since he could only manage two steps in either direction. There was something he had to do here, but he didn’t want to get distracted while Dorcas was out there. The line on his wrist stayed constant and unwavering, so at least he knew that Rookwood hadn’t abducted her from the spot.
Minutes went by and finally, he heard hurried footsteps outside the booth. Dorcas brushed the curtain aside and stepped in.
“It’s not him!”
She nodded and was about to say something else, but he’d already started prying at a panel at the side of the booth. “Good. Could you hold the curtain closed?”
Severus removed the panel below the camera lens to reveal a lit compartment with whirring contraptions and things. He reached in and submerged his hand in one of the buckets and pulled something invisible out. He whispered an incantation and the vial appeared in his hand. He breathed easier. It was still here, a sample from the first batch he’d made after they’d destroyed his flat. No doubt Lucius was counting his inventory when he stopped in and Severus needed a fully cured specimen for his work on the antidote.
When the panel clicked back in place, Dorcas grabbed him by the shoulders with both hands. “Didn’t you hear me? It wasn’t Rookwood.”
Before he could even respond to that, a loud bloke with a bad haircut stuck his head into the booth. “Oi! Are you going to get on with it?”
Severus made a face and pushed the curtain closed. Then he dug around in his pocket for a Muggle coin and flipped it to Dorcas. “Put that in that slot over there.” When she did and nothing happened, he kicked at the machine and it started whirring and clicking.
Severus gripped the curtain. “That was Rookwood. I saw him not three hours ago with Karkaroff.”
Dorcas let out a small shriek of surprise as a flash of light went off inside the booth. “It wasn’t,” she retorted, then shielded her eyes as the next flash went off. “Gah! Why does this thing keep blinding me?”
The whirring of the machine inside the white box continued and he could hear the blokes outside getting restless. Dorcas tugged at his shirt.
“It was supposed to be,” she was saying, “but that…” she pointed towards the curtain as one last flash went off, “was NOT Rookwood. I have to tell Moody.”
“How do you know it wasn’t him? Maybe he was distracted, maybe…”
“He’s known my name since I was born. I went up to him and he looked right through me. And when I asked him why he wanted to meet, he looked at me like I was daft.” She paused, thinking out loud. “He must have known something strange was going on…”
Severus tried to think how that was possible. “Mind wipe?”
“No, it’s something else.”
“Probably… let me think…”
The flashing stopped and the curtain shifted. The irritated man poked his head in. “Are you finished yet?” and then he added after looking back and forth between Dorcas’ blank stare and Severus’ scowl, “Is everything alright in here?”
“No.” Severus said, grappling with the curtain. He glanced over at Dorcas, thinking up some reasonable excuse. “Her hair… she’s not happy with it.”
“Well, you’ve been in here long enough, are you…”
“She’s fine,” Severus said. “Bugger off!” He shoved the curtain back in place and he kicked the machine to start it up again. “Look, I think Rookwood, or whoever he was has gone now, and we only have a few minutes before they throw us out. Did you find out why he was here?”
“They were exchanging tickets before I got there.” She held one up. “And what’s wrong with my hair?”
“He gave it to you?”
“Nicked it from his pocket.”
Severus scowled. “I think we should get out of here.”
They stepped out of the booth to go and almost ran over the impatient man.
“You forgot these,” he said, handing Severus two strips of glossy paper.
Severus shoved them in his pocket without a second glance. Then they went behind the white box, having to step over the thick ropes that fed the machine its Muggle magic.
“What about the other bloke?” Severus asked when they were back by the tree, the squeals of half-gleeful, half-tortured Muggles still carried on the wind.
“Mulciber didn’t stick around after the transaction. He hates crowds.”
Severus sputtered. “How do you know Mulciber so well?”
She shrugged. “It’s something his sister complained about a lot.”
Severus frowned. “I heard something about her.” He’d also heard (from Avery of all people) how Mulciber’s out-of-control temper had worsened since his sister’s disappearance. And then he tried to piece together what Dorcas was really saying and he didn’t like the picture he was getting.
Dorcas smiled and leaned closer. “He doesn’t know where she is.” She clearly looked like she knew exactly where the girl had gone and had a hand in getting her there. “I’ve been doing this before you came around. I think I’ve got it.”
She felt warm against him and he forgot for a second to be upset. What Mulciber might have done to her if he’d caught her with his sister... didn’t she have any idea? Even if he took the time to explain it to her, he realized that she would have done it anyway. “Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“And don’t think I didn’t notice you take that vial while we were down there. It’s getting closer, isn’t it? You gave Karkaroff a delivery date.”
“I told him six more weeks. He wants twelve vials and it takes that long to make it in small batches.” Besides the one he had in his pocket. But no one else needed to know about that. “It’ll give me time to figure out an antidote.”
He wanted to tell her to keep away from people like the fake Rookwood and that maniac, Mulciber. And shifty wizards who created deadly poisons on their off time… but that would be damned hypocritical of him, now wouldn’t it?
He put an arm around her in the dappled moonlight, entirely too aware of how she’d gone and done things just as risky as taking him in – probably for as long as he’d been attempting to claw his way out of the Death Eater pit. But where he’d failed, she’d at least had a small amount of success.
Dorcas’ shoulders suddenly drooped.
“I just realized that I have to schedule a meeting with Moody tomorrow morning.” She leaned into him. “I have to report my uncle to the Ministry.”