Chapter 3: Daring to Suck
“You’ve come about the message,” he taunted when he had enough air for words. “Do it. Kill me now.” Breathing in shallow gasps, he checked that his hand remained firmly wrapped around the vial inside his robe pocket. Maybe it was better to end it now.
Maybe he’d been too naïve to think that any of them could have made a difference.
His attacker paused, and Severus involuntarily winced, prepared for the definitive blow. But instead, the hand released him and shoved him against the wall and the air came whooshing back into his lungs. He didn’t dare move, still tormented with the unwavering tip of a wand.
He held up the vial, his thumb poised on the cap. “I’ve used my time wisely.”
"Put that thing away, Snape," came a smooth reply. The wand wavered to his hand and then up to his nose. “Karkaroff wants cooperation, not a bloody massacre.”
Severus swallowed and tried to focus beyond the menacing stick. Must have been a different message. They didn’t know about the Order. He blinked rapidly, forcing the face of his second attacker to appear. A lean man with a platinum mane of hair stood before him and he stumbled at the sight, the crunch of glass underfoot. In another blink, the form of Lucius Malfoy came into focus, amid a backdrop of the broken basement laboratory under Netterheim’s Potions Shop. As his brain finally began functioning again, he remembered the creaking staircase, the billowing robes, his wand aiming for the place where his would-be assassin’s head was likely to appear in the next few seconds…
And now he was up against a wall – with a lump at the base of the stairs where the first of his attackers had ended up – of course. It had been stupid to think there would be only one of them.
"I'm here," Lucius snarled into his ear, "to check on your progress, as usual." The lump on the floor groaned in agreement. Lucius gave it a withering glare. "And to offer you incentive."
Severus swore silently. "You've taken all incentive away with what you did to my mother," he shot back, fingering the vial again.
Lucius stared him down, giving him measure. Then he lowered his wand and laughed out loud. The sound reverberated around the broken room, making it feel larger, as if they were on the edge of a cavernous abyss.
"I'm a happily married man. I have no need of your mother. I can't be solely responsible for all the havoc in the world, although I do my fair share. I've heard rumors of what our associates are planning." He raised his wand in warning as his tone froze over. "But none of it is as fascinating as what you accuse me of. She is protected. By penalty of torture."
The lump whimpered, but Lucius gave it no mind.
"She's dead." Severus said flatly. "Dark Mark. Last week," he spat out.
Lucius Malfoy had the audacity to look surprised. "I knew nothing of it," he said. "Which is odd. I would normally be notified of such things." He cocked his head to the side. "You have never been a disappointment to Him. What did you do?"
"Nothing," Severus bit out. "Karkaroff came to see me the day before. Said my new assignment was a ... promotion."
"That, I have heard about." Lucius finally dropped his wand arm and took a step away. Severus' breathing came easier, but nothing made sense anymore. Severus slumped into the wall.
Lucius surveyed the darkened room for the first time. "I don't doubt that we all should watch our backs. You've made quite a mess out of this place." He lit the suspended lantern with a word as the extent of the damage came to light.
Broken shards of oddly shaped tubing lay at their feet. The side of Severus' head was still bleeding from where he'd flown into the shelf above. Fortunately the adjacent wall was intact, the one with rows of spoons, knives and various measuring implements hanging at odd intervals.
Lucius freed his long platinum hair from his cloak, shaking it out. "What does that do?" he asked, pointing his wand at Severus' vial.
Severus held the dark vial to the light. "Karkaroff’s project.”
"I see," Lucius took a step back, discretely moving to what might be considered a safe distance. "You stabilized the formula?"
"It's a start." Severus tipped the vial on its side to let the brown sludge wander lazily along the inside of the glass. "It’s only supposed to be lethal after the phase transfer.” He didn’t mention that in its current form, it wasn’t any more harmful than the effects of Garroting Gas with a bad hangover.
Let them think I’m ahead of them - which I will be – just not today.
Lucius nodded, but Severus could see from the skeptical expression on his face that if he continued with any more detail, the man would be lost. He admired the way Lucius feigned understanding with dignity. Severus set the vial down on the lab table and saw Lucius visibly relax. He summoned a broom and tried to decide where to start on the debris.
"I will be relieved to have something positive to report," Lucius said after a long silence, watching Severus push his unsalvageable possessions into a tidy pile. He eyed the lump at the foot of the stairs. "There have been recent blunders."
Severus' head came up from his work. "What has Avery done this time?" If he hadn’t seemed so ready to kill him moments ago, Severus would almost feel sorry for Lucius, having to put up with the git.
"He failed to deliver the correct lunch order. There were painful consequences."
Severus continued with his work, picking up a shard of his once-favored graduated cylinder. He threw it unceremoniously into the bin and cringed at the crunch of glass against metal. Some things were beyond repair, magical or otherwise.
It was a good thing Netterheim had taken a few days off. He’d have time to clean the place up – perhaps replace some of the equipment before his mentor returned – perhaps Netterheim wouldn’t take all of the damages out of his pay…
Lucius gestured to their surroundings. "This," he said, "can be rectified. Our Master's resources are vast. You can have anything you need."
Severus stopped short. The promises, the veiled threats... he couldn't distinguish one from the other. "I'd like my mother back," he answered stiffly.
Lucius cleared his throat. "I meant anything that is within my authority. Karkaroff has made it clear that he doesn't wish to oversee a suicide mission. The product must be transported in a stable form. There have been too many losses and he grows tired of constantly breaking in new recruits.”
On all sides, Severus agreed silently. Which is probably why they haven’t killed off that git Avery.
"I was told to assist you with equipment and materials."
"I'll need a ventilation hood,” he began. “For the stabilization trial. And a team that can produce strong shield and containment charms, as we don’t know how harmful the potion is and I have no antidote."
"Ahh,” Lucius intoned in a disturbingly melodic tenor voice. The lump finally stirred in earnest, a shaky hand grasping the rail and hoisted the form up against the banister, breathing heavily and pausing to steady himself.
"That is," Lucius gave the recovering hooded form a look, "why we came. Our Lord has asked that my associate be reassigned to other duties for a term. Because of your tight deadline with this project, he had come to offer assistance and explore his options with you tonight." He turned his head to Severus this time. "But," he gestured behind him to the form at the stairs, still gripping the banister, "it seems we will have that discussion another time. Don't you agree, Avery?"
The man at the stairs turned and faced Severus, his hair sticking up at odd angles and matted to his head on one side. “I told you he’d be cranky. There’s no way that girl was going to go home with him that night.”
Severus eyed him suspiciously. He’d been there at the Leaky Cauldron. He’d seen her. “You were the one upsetting my rubbish bins a few nights ago?”
"What rubbish bins?" Avery spat blood on the floor. “Thought you’d be grateful, what with all the help and all.” He whispered something hoarsely and his wand flew into his hand.
"Now Avery," Lucius warned, "I'm sure you can overlook our friend's misunderstanding."
Avery mumbled something under his breath, but with a warning look from his handler, lowered his wand. Lucius shoved his mask over his face and tossed the other one to Avery, who, despite his condition, caught it deftly and donned it just as quickly.
There were some advantages to having a head full of rocks.
Severus followed them up the stairs to show them out of the shop personally. He couldn’t afford any of the merchandise to be damaged – an owl clambered at the window and he let it in. It dropped a scroll on the counter which Severus tucked into his cloak before the Death Eaters could catch a glimpse of the suspicious looking seal. “Last minute order,” he explained as the owl hopped on one foot and made noises for its payment. “You’ll have to excuse me.”
"About your mother," Lucius’ voice drifted through the shop, muffled behind the mask. "I'm sorry."
Severus watched Lucius usher the other man out of the shop and didn't relax until the edge of his cloak disappeared beyond the doorway. He flicked his wand at the door, heard the latch click shut and the lock twist after it. Another ward guaranteed that, for now, he would be left alone.
After making a ruckus on the shop counter, the owl was finally rewarded with a pelting of coins. It collected them in its beak and flew off before the potions apprentice could find something heftier to throw at it.
Severus sank onto a stool and pulled out the untimely scroll. If Lucius had seen the seal of the Order, it wouldn’t matter how much damage the shop had taken. Damned wretched timing those people had. Maybe it wasn’t the Dark Lord who wanted him dead after all.
"The Axiom Black Magic System, our top-rated hood, has a state-of-the-art magical reactor that neutralizes all traceable air contaminants. It consistently produces a high quality microenvironment for testing both liquid and gaseous poisons. The reactor also handles temperature differentials flawlessly with no down-time for experimental reconfiguration."
Severus re-read the advertisement and then examined the moving photograph of the self-contained magical ventilation hood opening and closing like the mouth of a gaping metallic troll. He watched with interest as the toxic green smoke poured into the hood and was instantly transformed to a pale yellow. The lovely demonstrator stepped forward, opened the hood and stuck her pretty neck into the chamber, inhaling deeply and smiling for the camera.
Netterheim didn't own fancy equipment like that, not that he would consider it. The heap of dead rodents in the waste bin each week stood as a testament to his outdated techniques.
"Probably smoke and mirrors," he grumbled to himself. Severus took a bite of his sandwich and made a face. "I didn't order corned beef," he said to the empty chair in front of him.
"Sorry dear," the serving lady said, appearing at his side. “Unusually busy today.” She took the plate and disappeared into the kitchen.
Having lost interest in the magazine and his dinner temporarily delayed, Severus stared out across the Leaky Cauldron Inn and immediately wished he hadn’t.
The fortuneteller was making her rounds again, but she was teetering on the edge, attempting to keep her balance on wobbly three-inch heels and the kill-me-now red dress was too short to cover the rip in her stocking she’d obviously not had practice putting on. Her hair was a massive tangled nest on the top of her head, revealing a scrawny neck and a clearly unpracticed make-up job.
Even for Severus, who had endured many distasteful things, it was too much. He folded the magazine under his arm and shoved past the crowd, grabbing the unfortunate woman away from a portly man who looked a bit put out by the intrusion. Severus didn’t care. He headed back to his table and pushed her into the empty seat.
“What the hell are you doing, Sybill?”
“Trying to get business. What is it to you?” She feebly straightened the hem of her dress at bony mid-thigh.
“You smell like gin. And I don’t think that’s the type of business you’re wanting to attract,” he said, nodding his head to the pot-bellied man he’d cut off getting to her.
She sniffed. “He’d have paid for it. And it’s not gin. Whiskey. Besides, when you said you wouldn’t help me anymore, what else was I going to do, starve myself to death on teaching wages?”
“I don’t know. Better sign? Two-for-one discount on your readings? This is a new low, even for you.”
“Pay up then.” She held out her palm.
“You’ve run my customer away and I have to eat. Now you pay or I go over there and…”
Severus slapped what loose change he had into her hand to shut her up.
He stared her down and flipped over a gold coin. “Fine. But you owe me.” Then he cringed. He’d been avoiding the woman for a month and now look what he’d done. She’d be banging on the Potions Shop door again at three in the morning. He wondered how much he’d have to pay her to stop.
She got out a deck of cards and slapped it down on the table. “Cut.”
His mouth twisted. He hated Seers. Particularly the ones who dealt decks of cards and got themselves liquored up to hide their failing abilities. Except last year, she’d actually seen things – and then Dumbledore had told him to make her forget – and then everything had gone to hell since then. Now with the headaches, she’d decided she needed to remember and was drunk half the time trying to get her memory back. Severus had given her a “clarifying potion” and she’d become addicted – and now she was here, dressed like a two-bit whore and he couldn’t’ help feeling responsible.
Actually, it had been that manipulative headmaster, Dumbledore. He’d given Sybill a teaching position at the school – probably to keep a watchful eye on her – but she insisted on working in the Alley on breaks between terms - and pestering him for more of what he’d given her…
“No.” He didn’t want his fortune told. He didn’t want to be sitting here with her. He wanted her to go away… and he knew how to make that happen.
He dug in his satchel and pulled out a small vial with a pink slurry in it. “Put your cards away, Sybill. Put a drop of this in something weak – not gin. Sherry.”
She snatched it up quicker than he could finish. “Just a drop?” She eyed him suspiciously.
“Just. It’s a condensed formula.” The first of a small trial he’d used with the elemental solubility theory that Meadowes had suggested. And by god, it had worked. Not surprising since she’d been perhaps almost as good as he had been in their final Potions lab. Which was why he’d been so surprised she was behind a desk at the Ministry. Except she wasn’t really, was she?
He wished the loon in front of him would give a desk job a try.
“A. Drop.” He spelled it out again. “It will take away the headaches.”
“And give me back my abilities?”
“Perhaps. Go home. Change your clothes – take a nap. Whatever.”
And get the hell away from me.
“THANK you,” she enunciated. Sybill stood up and clattered into an adjacent table as she made her way shakily to the door, but not before she stumbled over to the one who got away, whispered something in his ear and pressed a business card into his hand.
Severus tried not to watch as he made his way to the bar to retrieve his sandwich order.
“Fascinating that you pay her to take your potions. Doesn’t seem like a profitable way to do business.”
“She needs help,” he said, not looking up. “I’m helping.” Then he said, “I don’t know if they found out what I’ve done, but I think they’re following me.”
“Most people in your situation…”
“I swear, Meadowes. They watch us like hawks even when we’re not up to anything. We shouldn’t even be meeting like this. Not here.”
Dorcas said as she eased next to him at the bar. "You have a suggestion?"
"That owl could have gotten me killed, thank you very much.”
She looked at him like he was stupid or something. "Can you think of someplace that's less obvious than the Leaky Cauldron?"
He scanned the Inn with derision, then grabbed the brown package that appeared in front of him and threw his coins on the bar.
She grabbed his arm. “I do have to talk to you. Can we go somewhere private?”
People were going to have to quit grabbing him. Severus took her by the wrist and she let go, slightly surprised. He got out his wand and pointed it at her wrist and whispered something. Then he said, “Get out the letter, the one from Dumbledore.”
Dorcas, still caught off guard, did as she was told. “Now what? Are you going to tell me what… ouch!”
Severus had finished his incantation and the mark on her wrist was already fading to a thin line. That should do it for now. “Give me ten seconds and then follow me outside. I know a place.”
He let her go and took his sandwich outside. Then he turned on the spot and got away from it all.
Dorcas stood at the bar, her wrist still throbbing.
She wasn’t sure what had happened, but she couldn’t let him leave like that. She counted to ten and walked out into the street, careful that it was nonchalant enough that no one noticed. Much.
The street was empty. No sign of Severus Snape anywhere. Was he simply going to leave her hanging like this? Dorcas felt her face heat up. Embarrassing. Angry.
Where was he?
Her wrist burned and she looked down at the glowing line parallel to her forearm. What is that thing? And then she knew. He was there.
She turned on the spot and hurled through the unknown darkness, only knowing that she’d end up where he was and she wasn’t even sure how that was possible.
And then she was surrounded by large trees and uneven ground and she took a step and caught herself before she stumbled forward over a… root?
The light was fading beyond the horizon and as if on cue, a chorus of crickets began their nightly buzzing noisily above her head. Severus was waiting a few yards away, his cloak covering most of his face. The wind whipped her hair around and she stepped closer. He turned away. “Took you long enough,” he muttered loud enough for her to hear as he stalked away.
“No thanks to you,” she muttered back, and then hurried after him so as not to lose him in the shadows. “What is this thing on my wrist?” she demanded, and then had to fight for her footing as she mis-stepped over another tree root. He kept moving down the path at a quick pace. She caught up to him again, panting. “What did you DO to me?”
Letters flashed on the note she was still gripping in her left hand and then disappeared before she could make them out. “Would you STOP for a minute and tell me what’s going on? How… “
Severus stopped at a flat boulder that lay in front of a large gnarled oak tree and faced her. “It doesn’t have a name. Works like a tracing charm.”
“But that’s impossible. The Ministry…”
“The Ministry says you can’t because they don’t know how.”
“Why not?” She gasped and examined both sides of her arm. “Is it illegal?” He sat down and began unwrapping the package he’d picked up from the bar. Dorcas blew out a breath. The man was starting to irritate her in earnest. “What are you doing?”
“Eating my dinner. I’m hungry.”
The burning on her wrist suddenly flared, which made her flinch, and then quickly faded away. “Is it… Dark Magic?” she whispered.
She thought that he might have suppressed a growl. “It’s a sandwich.”
“My arm. The tracing charm. Was it?”
"Only if you were unwilling or under duress. The pain should have passed by now." When she didn’t relax, he added, “It was the only way I could get you here without being obvious. It’s reversible. I’ll take it off if you want.”
She cleared her throat. "No. It's alright." Maybe he did trust her more than she thought. Or maybe he thought she was dimmer than she looked. She hoped she didn’t look stupid.
"See?" he said with a complete lack of enthusiasm. "We're so clever."
"No, we're not, actually.” She put her hands on her hips and stared accusingly at him.
Severus frowned. "Give me your note." At her blank expression, he said "The one from Dumbledore." When he had it in his hand, he said, "Hold this and don't move." He took hold of the other side of the parchment and whispered over it. There was a low burning sensation in Dorcas' fingers, but it passed quickly. "It’s a simple communication charm. I assume you know how to use it. As for your arm…” Severus tossed her a small leather-bound notebook. “Page seventeen. You can read it for yourself.”
Dorcas flipped it open and found the tracing charm, something that she’d never seen in any of her studies, something that they’d been taught couldn’t be done except by very powerful tracer magic within the secret walls of the Ministry. But here it was, a simple charm that a fifth year could manage without difficulty. “Where did you get this? What is it?”
“Karkaroff’s vision of a brighter future. Lost secrets.”
“So you put this on me and I was able to find you.” She paused, thinking. “Can you find me?”
“Like a Hufflepuff. But only if you want to be found.”
Dorcas would have found that funnier if she was back in the Ravenclaw common room, but that had been years ago. She didn’t see the instructions but there was a brief description of use. The mechanics seemed relatively harmless. “This is the notebook that Karkaroff gave you?”
“Like I said, lost secrets – it describes a potion that he’s very interested in.”
“And you’re giving it to me?” The notebook suddenly flew out of her hands.
Severus snatched it out of the air. “No, I’m giving you this,” he said, holding up a vial with a translucent green liquid inside. “Careful,” he warned when she reached for it. “It’s refined but still unstable. The concentration is about right. Knowing Karkaroff, the active ingredient contains something deadly.” When she opened her mouth to ask another question, he shook his head. “I know you think that I’m supposed to know everything about this, but I haven’t had the time to figure out exactly what this potion is capable of. I’d rather not be responsible for anyone dying if I can prevent it. Don’t you have people who can handle this sort of thing?”
“Of course we do. The Order has the best people that Dumbledore could assemble.” Or the most reckless, depending on how one looked at it.
Severus stared at her for a moment, and then sighed. “Karkaroff never discloses his plans until right before he’s ready to act. I doubt that even the Dark Lord, sorry… he-who-shall-not be-named… that’s so… awkward. Do you people actually say that out loud?”
“If he hadn’t cursed his own name, we wouldn’t have to.” Dorcas looked at the vial in her hand. It wasn’t proof that Karkaroff was involved, but it was hard evidence that the Death Eaters were up to something. Severus Snape was risking a lot giving this to her and she knew it. Not that she read anything selfless or noble into it. “You actually trust us enough to hand this over?”
“I don’t trust anyone. That’s how people like me get themselves killed. Besides, you said you could stop him if I cooperated with you. And I’m not dead, so yes, I guess I have a reason to trust you. For now.” He paused, the half moon bright enough to see that he was finishing his sandwich. “But I think you’re forgetting something. You called this meeting, not me.”
Dorcas brushed up against the tree trunk, trying to lean on it without the little twigs sticking her in the back. “How well do you know Netterheim?”
”I’ve been under his roof for two years. Can’t tell you much about him, why?”
“That’s what we figured. You haven’t mentioned any of this to him?”
“The Order? You? No. Of course not. I’m not a fool.” Severus narrowed his eyes. “Wait a minute. What did he do?”
“It’s more what he didn’t do… or rather what we don’t know. When I checked his business records, I assumed he lived above the Potions shop like Fortescue does across the street. But when I went to verify it, the flat above the Potions shop is listed as vacant/abandoned. He has no known residential address. All his business records are registered. Guild Membership, controlled substance licenses, and the like. But no school records, no next of kin, nothing from his personal history at all. People like that are usually trying to hide something.” She could tell that Severus wasn’t impressed with her news at all. Maybe he knew something, or maybe he and Netterheim were working together, which meant that she could possibly be in a dangerous position right now. All the stories about Death Eaters from her school days, how they lured unsuspecting students into the shadows and… did things… “I’m sure it means nothing,” she said quickly. “I thought you should know.”
Severus stood up, produced a handkerchief from somewhere and wiped crumbs off his robe, neatly folded it up and stuffed it back in his pocket. “Thanks.” He wasn’t even pretending to take her warning seriously. “That was so important it almost got me killed?” Then he froze with that pained expression she’d seen before and he rubbed his arm a bit. “Have to go. Next time, don’t send an owl. Use the charm if you have to. I don’t want to die until they get what they deserve.”
And he left her just like that, alone in the darkened clearing by the tree surrounded by chirping crickets, thinking that he definitely was not the same person she remembered.
Severus wasn’t sure about Dorcas Meadowes’ suspicions of his mentor. She’d been correct about elemental theory affecting his solvency issue, which was how he’d managed to correct the potion formula so quickly. At what became almost weekly meetings, he was increasingly frustrated that he had only incidental information to offer to the Order. Karkaroff had become his primary nemesis, partially because he seemed a more realistic goal than Voldemort himself, but also because Meadowes was so interested in him. Severus hoped that after this coming round of experiments, Karkaroff would show himself again and perhaps then he would get his hands on some hard evidence to bring the man down.
He knew what he was risking, how dangerous it was to be in his position as Death Eater and Order informant, but for him, it was the only path left to take. But he couldn’t figure out why she was risking herself by doing the same. Logically, he understood that she wasn’t doing it for him, but he couldn’t help but feel responsible. He wondered at times if he should just stay away.
On top of everything - and this was the strange part – he had begun to worry about her personal safety.
Then his faith in his mentor had fallen flat as Lucius explained that Netterheim had adamantly rejected the idea of using a ventilation hood. Instead, Severus was unceremoniously presented with a sack full of angry rats and a small metal box with more enchantments on it than Severus had personally encountered. Fortunately, the box came with a magical key "to contain the Gubraithian Fire," Netterheim explained. "If I had agreed to your involvement in this project, which I hadn’t, I would remind you that any experiment should be thorough. Better to test the whole gambit of temperature ranges."
At his most optimistic, which was like imagining Netterheim announce a week's reprieve from straining armadillo bile, he could imagine at least fifty things to cause failure. An unstable solution, explosive charms and Gubraithian Fire were all risks by themselves. Add in Wizard error if the shields didn't hold...
"Avery." Severus gave Lucius the "you can't be serious" look. When Lucius didn't reply, Severus sighed. "Very well. Tell him not to bring lunch."
Severus had spent the week preparing his own flat for the experiment. It made his trepidation reach the level of ‘if they screw up, we could all die’.
And he realized later that night that perhaps all of his preparations might not save any of them.
"You must put strong shields around the table,” Severus began, eyeing each of them in turn. Rosier sat patiently on the couch, staring at the drapes. He would be steady enough and do whatever he was told. Bully-faced Wilkes towered over him at the edge of the couch by the window with a bored expression on his face. He wasn't going to get enough action for his liking on this assignment, Severus decided.
“Got any ale?” Wilkes asked him.
“Later,” Severus said. “And don’t touch that!” He slapped Avery’s hand away from the enchanted box.
The thin, wiry nuisance with the ridiculous hair grunted and went over to where Rosier was standing and flipped his lucky coin, dropping it more than not.
“Focus on the mission,” Rosier said. “The man’s trying to work.”
Maybe they could stand at the door and watch, Severus thought. But rehashing his notes, he’d need all three of them casting shield spells for the plan to succeed.
“We will need the strongest shields you can muster,” he continued.
Wilkes started cleaning his nails with his teeth.
Severus inhaled and pushed onward. “I will control the heat sources. The potion sample should either remain inert or evaporate on contact with the heat. NO ONE can be inside the shield bubble except one of these." He held up a struggling rat by the tail. He hoped they'd only need one of them. "The poison will appear as a smoky blue mist. When the smoke clears, bring down the shield so we can contain the fire. But we have to wait for the smoke to clear. Understood?”
He went to the kitchen island that was cleared of everything except a small iron tripod stand and a candle. He carefully balanced a shallow metal evaporating dish on the stand, positioning it just so, lining up the candleholder with the it.
Wilkes came up behind him and slapped the rat cage on top of the table. "Let's get started, Snape."
Severus awarded Wilkes a hardened stare. "Try not to scratch the table with that."
Wilkes shrugged it off and went across the room to throw himself back on the couch.
Severus breathed deep, his nostrils flaring. If he had the ventilator system, he wouldn't need THEM. "Pay attention. We begin now."
He poured the contents of the first vial into the shallow bowl. Then he backed away and used a flick of his wand to ignite it. Two shields went up like clockwork and then...
Ffft, ffft, ffft. The rat scratched at the bottom of the cage restlessly, inside the shield bubble on the table. "That's it?" Wilkes sulked as Severus made notes in his book.
"Shields down," he said, stepping forward and extinguishing the flame.
Rosier let his arm fall at his side, giving Wilkes a sideways glance. Severus set up the next evaporating dish on the stand. "What did you expect?" he drawled at their fallen faces. "This isn't a holiday fireworks display."
"The candle again?" Wilkes growled, clearly impatient.
"No, I'm going to ignite it this time."
"Lovely," Rosier mimicked in a high-pitched voice.
"Just do your job," Severus muttered, flicking his wand at the bowl with a strong heating charm. "Shields up," he commanded.
Two wands pointed at the kitchen island just in time as a pale blue smoke rose from the bowl and swirled round the contained bubble. The rat frantically skittered about and then keeled over on its side. When the blue mist had completely cleared, Severus motioned for the shields to come down and made his notes.
"Change the rat."
Rosier elbowed Wilkes in the ribs. "Wilkes," Rosier said. "Change the rat."
Wilkes kicked the couch, rousing Avery. "Hey!"
"Go change the rat."
Once the final test was prepared, Severus approached the man on his couch. “Avery,” Severus said, “we’ll need your shield for this one. Don’t let it down until I give you the word.” Avery nodded and stood up, stretching languidly like an overgrown gnome after a badly executed Growth Charm… with really stupid hair.
It was almost over.
He set up the final metal dish carefully and brought the special box containing the Gubraithian Fire to the table, setting it down carefully. He backed away from the table and gave the signal for the shields.
Immediately, the three shield spells circled the table, and Severus’ nerves were on edge. He gestured with his wand for the fire to lightly touch the potion sample. It evaporated on contact, going up in a single blue plume. “Lower the shields,” he said, making ready to contain the fire. Two wands lowered, and he stepped forward but something blocked his way. “I said lower the shields,” He repeated, trying to move forward. When nothing happened, he turned around and saw Avery with his wand up, staring at the table.
“I still see smoke,” Avery said.
Severus turned back to the table and saw a thin, white wisp coming from the bowl. “Avery, the potion is gone. Bring down your shield.” He focused on the bowl, which was definitely smoking now.
“But the smoke,” Avery started.
“Bring it down, Avery!” Wilkes punched his arm.
“He said there was no antidote!” Avery insisted, keeping his wand steady, as the smoke got darker. "I... I don't want to die!"
“Avery!” Severus gritted his teeth, watching as the metal bowl melted from the magical fire and the wooden plank caught. He had to get the fire under control. "The fire burned through the bowl, which is causing the smoke. Now let the shield down, or you won't have to worry about what kills you."
"I don't know. Gimme another minute. Don't you see the smoke..."
"No! NOW!" Severus shouted. Wilkes grabbed Avery's wand arm while Rosier tried to break through the shield, both aware that things were going badly. By the time Severus got to the workbench, it was burning. The magic fire ran like quicksilver down the leg of the table and caught on the floor. He grabbed for the holding box, but it was too hot.
He cried out in pain, managing to scrape a collection of vials off the kitchen counter and into his satchel before the kitchen island went down. He didn't even notice that his arm had passed right over the flame, scorching his skin in the process. Wilkes and Rosier furiously cast spells on the fire, but it spread rapidly and found the drapes. The whole flat filled with smoke.
"Get out!” Rosier called out. “It's too late."
The flames were licking up and around the windows and it wasn't long before they caught on the roof, dancing along the top layer of stock brick, which, at even this high temperature refused to burn. Severus threw the strap of his satchel over his shoulder and they vacated the flat at the same time as an emergency flare rose up from a few buildings down. Wilkes swore. "Now what do we do?"
"Plan B!" shouted Rosier, casting his last spells at the flat, meant to extinguish the fire, or at least slow it down. Avery followed suit with a slew of continuous spells, his last spell glancing sloppily across Severus' shoulder.
"Damn it Avery! Watch where you're pointing that thing!" Severus yelled as he clutched his arm to cover a long rip in the cloak. There were other shouts back and forth between Wilkes and Rosier, but a loud rushing in his ears consumed his mind, and he fought to keep his head clear and get a handle on the situation.
Severus saw his future fading as the glowing green skull reached its full height over what used to be his home. Was this the new plan?
He winced at a sudden burst of pain in his arm.
"Quick! The Ministry's coming! Get out of here!"
He heard three loud cracking sounds as the others vanished, but he stood, motionless as a half-dozen Ministry robes appeared in the distance. The wind picked up and blew the fiery mess around in swirls of glowing red. Cursing silently, he patted down a stray ember that had landed on his robe and cast a final hex at the burning building. There was a muffled explosion from inside, and then the whole thing collapsed upon itself.
Hopefully, everything that could link this place to him would be beyond recognition in the morning. It would take the Ministry at least half the night to contain the fire and Confund the neighbors.
Severus took the edge of his robe and wrapped his arm tightly, attempting to stop the bleeding. The shouts of alarm were closer now and shadowy figures in Ministry robes were breaking into a run towards him.
No, he thought, horrified that this was all that was left. He'd sacrificed too much and come too far to have it end now. He turned on the spot and felt himself hurl through the darkness, all the while imagining himself in the least likely of places.