Loneliness it shadows me, quicker than darkness
Crawls to the surface of my skin, visibly surrounded by it
Black is all I feel, so this is how it feels to be free
Surrounded by empty souls, artificial courage used
And because so, once was mine
I walk this maze alone
Black is all I feel, so this is how it feels to be free
The man's beside himself, man's below himself
Man's behind himself, am I inside myself?
-Alice In Chains
It had been an unreasonably long day for Severus Snape. He had spent much of it brewing medicinal potions at Madam Pomfrey’s behest. The beginning of term was drawing near and, as ever at this time of year, the infirmary’s stores were in dire need of a resupply. As loathe as he was to get to work on another batch of Blemish Blitzer, however, he undeniably preferred it to his current occupation.
“This one, I think.” With a sigh, the Potions Master pushed a thin stack of parchment across the desk toward the Headmistress. “He seems a bit unremarkable for my taste, but he has the necessary experience. Kingsley wrote him a solid recommendation.”
Minerva McGonagall peered over her spectacles at him and made a noise of assent.
“Unremarkable ought to have been listed as a requisite attribute for the position,” she said archly, flicking her eyes toward the applicant’s photo. Mr. Janus Podmore was a mousy sort of fellow – middle-aged and beginning to go bald on top. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost say that codswallop about a curse holds some merit.”
Judging by the state of her desk, half of wizarding Britain considered the notion codswallop as well. Nearly the entire surface was stacked with heaps of parchment. For nigh on a week, the two professors had spent their evenings sorting through the applications for the Defense Against the Dark Arts post. Minerva was committed to giving them all a thorough looking over, whilst Severus fervently wished to be literally anywhere else.
She favored him with a pointed look, and he knew what was coming next. They’d beaten this particular dead horse into the ground over the last three months. “It could still be yours, you know. You could say the word, and this would all disappear.” As if to illustrate her point, she waved a hand and vanished the piles of parchment, save for the one he had indicated. Exhausted with the whole ordeal, he pinched the bridge of his sizeable nose between thumb and forefinger.
“I’m afraid, Minerva, that the job no longer interests me as it once did. Please be so good as to inform the unremarkable Mr. Podmore that he is welcome to it. I’m quite content to stay put in my dungeon.” He was far from content in any respect, but that was beside the point.
Minerva raised her hands in resignation. “Fine, fine. I won’t pester you about it any longer. Merlin knows I’ve had a bellyful of your rejection already.”
Severus highly doubted it. To tell the truth, it bothered him just as much, if not more than it did Minerva, that he no longer desired the position. Had he been offered it at any time over the last twenty years, under different circumstances, he would have leapt at the chance. The one year he had spent filling the position, to say nothing of his equally brief time as Headmaster, had been far from ideal. One could have said an unmitigated disaster, even. As things stood now, he no longer saw the point.
He hardly saw the point in much of anything these days. He should have been grateful, he knew. The war was over. The Potter boy’s victory over the Dark Lord had finally ensured his hard-won freedom. His reputation had been rehabilitated. He’d even been awarded a bloody Order of Merlin, First Class, for fuck’s sake. Though he was disinclined to admit it, somehow it wasn’t enough.
Severus had often fantasized about leading an ordinary life, should he survive his perilous double agent work for Albus. Instead, after a suspiciously speedy acquittal by the Wizengamot (which undoubtedly had something to do with the phial of memories they had returned to him afterward), he had wandered, strangely numb, back to Hogwarts, where after a long conversation with Dumbledore’s portrait, Minerva had very graciously allowed him to resume his place as Potions Master.
For the first time in his life, he was accountable to no one but himself. Twenty miserable years he had spent beneath the yoke of not one, but two masters. Though it was a relief to no longer be subject to the Dark Lord’s torturous demands and Dumbledore’s endless machinations, he found that his days felt singularly empty. He taught, he marked assignments, he made the night rounds thrice weekly. Rinse and repeat, month after month. Still, it was familiar, and that was all he had left.
Severus moved to take his leave, but Minerva stopped him. “There’s still the matter of Muggle Studies to attend to,” she said softly.
He would rather eat flobberworms.
If the influx of DADA applicants had been a deluge, those applying for the Muggle Studies post were barely the trickle from a leaky tap. He need not remind himself of the rather good reason for the dearth of suitable choices. Not a day went by when he did not curse himself for it.
The last time he had seen poor Charity Burbage, the position’s most recent tenured occupant, she had been suspended above the Malfoy’s dining table, begging him for her life. At the time, he thought he would be sick, but his survival depended on his demeanor in that moment. The slightest inclination that he would be affected by her impending murder would have spelled his end. So, he had sat, unmoved and complicit in his silence, for all the world looking as bored as if he were sitting through one of Professor Binns’ interminable History of Magic lectures. Later, after he had Apparated outside the gates of Hogwarts, he had been sick. He thought of his colleague, who was by then, but a vaguely human-sized lump inside Nagini’s stomach, and lost what little he himself had eaten that day.
Minerva slid a single piece of parchment toward him across the desk.
Severus stared at her, incredulous. “Just the one?”
The few who had applied domestically had been dismissed out of hand. They either didn’t measure up to standard, or their background checks had left something to be desired. In truth, there had only been three to begin with. They'd been scraping the bottom of the barrel right out of the gate. But this? This beggared belief. Minerva had been so desperate as to reach out to the Ministry, and failing that, MACUSA. How was it that they had returned merely a single candidate?
McGonagall huffed. “We just have to face up to it, dear boy. The war may be over, but people are still afraid, and with good reason. I can’t say that I blame them.”
He looked over the application, curious to see just who they had been forced to accept into their ranks at the eleventh hour.
The girl in the photo – for that was almost certainly what she was; she looked as though she’d barely finished her NEWTs – smiled up at him good-naturedly. Her curly hair and large, innocent eyes put him in mind of a prosaic image of a milkmaid he’d once seen on muggle postcard.
In spite of her age, he was relieved to see that she was almost overqualified. Right out of school she had worked for MACUSA, and her reference letters were positively glowing. He glanced from the corner of his eye back to the photograph. Miss Gildthread was peering over her shoulder. When she turned back, Severus did not like what he saw. She looked tired, uneasy, and more than a little frightened. He turned his head to look at her openly, and the witch resumed her placid smile posthaste.
No, he did not like it one bit.
Still, he found he could not justify his gut instincts without sufficient evidence, and the final decision was not his to make, in any case. Minerva was merely consulting him in his capacity as Deputy Headmaster. “As much as I would like to say no, I don’t see that we have any other choice,” he said.
Minerva gave him a long-suffering look. “I’d have thought you would have at least been pleased with her credentials. Merlin’s nightgown, Severus, what more do you want?”
How could he tell her that the witch simply looked wrong – dodgy, even? He would sound like a fool. He opted for another reason, just as ridiculous, but ostensibly stemming from much sounder logic. “I would like to hire someone who doesn’t look as though they’ve just changed out of their school uniform. She’s far too young.”
“I seem to recall another young professor who did quite well here, Severus. The youngest, as a matter of fact. Younger, even, than Miss Gildthread.”
Damn and blast. He knew she would throw that in his face. “You know perfectly well that I was not hired for my credentials alone. If Albus had not been able to use me, I would not be here now.”
Minerva pursed her lips in a way that spoke of finality. “Be that as it may, we’re out of time. The Ministry is breathing down my neck, and they were the ones who coordinated with MACUSA to find her. She has the requisite skills. If you find her to demonstrate the impulsiveness of youth, I suggest you take it upon yourself to mentor her. She’s the best we’re likely to get on such short notice, and you know it.”
“It would appear to be out of my hands, then,” he replied coolly. “If there’s nothing else?”
With a flick of her wand, Minerva sent the application flying into a file cabinet. She bid him goodnight and dismissed him, secure in the knowledge that she had won, at least for now. Severus closed the door behind him, unable to shake his lingering feelings of nebulous disquiet.
As Severus began his patrol, he tried to pinpoint what he had found so objectionably suspicious about the lone applicant, with little success. He only paused in speculating on the matter when he found himself walking briskly in the direction of Sybill Trelawney’s tower classroom.
This was unusual for a number of reasons. For one, Professor Trelawney was notorious for eschewing normal life in the castle, and almost invariably kept to herself. Additionally, Severus knew from his rounds, that outside school hours, the trapdoor that led to her classroom and her quarters stayed shut up tighter than a drum. Aside from the regrettable events of Delores Umbridge’s tenure, this had been the state of things for as long as Severus had been at Hogwarts.
Thus, he felt a certain justification for the ominous prickle of unease that crawled up his spine when he spied the ladder hanging down and a flickering blue light shining through the hole in the ceiling.
As he mounted the ladder, his ears detected a distinctive hoarse wheeze, and a feeling of ice-cold dread gripped his heart at the familiarity of it. His mind flashed back immediately to that awful day – the day he had heard a snatch of something he shouldn’t have, and had sealed his fate forever.
Still, there was the possibility that Trelawney was only in need of medical attention and not foretelling catastrophe, and it was this razor thin thread of hope to which Severus clung as he climbed up and into the Divination classroom.
The thread was unceremoniously snipped by the scene that met his eyes upon his ascension into the cluttered space.
Professor Trelawney stood in the middle of the room, swaying slightly, her eyes unfocused. The labored breaths she drew were harsh and unsettlingly reminiscent of a death rattle. Slowly, Severus began to approach her, but halted at once when her eyes lit upon him, suddenly burning with single-minded intensity. Levitating a foot above her head, a glowing orb rotated slowly, filling the otherwise unlit room with a cold, blue radiance.
“In the nascent year of the millennium,” she pronounced raspily, “the Bell-Ringer will return to the House of her Mother. By her abilities shall ye know her – the restless dead will stir beneath her feet, and she will take them in hand and guide them. The ancient Charter, raw and unbound, shall be reborn within her.”
Severus stared, unable to move. Trelawney’s words produced a silvery substance, similar to smoke, that curled and floated into the orb, which was spinning faster now, turning steadily, like the reel of a tape recorder.
“In the hallowed chamber, two serpents must entwine,” she continued, “One light and one dark, two halves of the same whole, their purpose to consecrate the Charter. Should they fail to perform the Sacred Rite before Beltane’s fire is extinguished, the Dark Serpent shall forfeit the mantle of his birthright.”
Here she paused and took a stiff step in Severus’ direction, the expression on her face just this side of threatening. Her voice, heavy with grim portent, lowered, as though she were intimating the prophecy not to the wider world, but Severus himself. The Potions Master pulled back in horror, but could not bring himself to step away from her.
“Should the Charter remain unconsecrated,” she said, “He Who Waits shall rise again, to subjugate the Bell-Ringer. In mastering her, he shall be master over Death and bring upon this land a great shambling Evil, which none will withstand.”
The silver corporeal flow of her words tapered off, and the orb began to spin at great speed. In the next moment, it simply popped out of existence, and like a marionette whose strings had been severed, Trelawney collapsed to the floor in a fluttering heap of mismatched shawls.
Too shell-shocked to render her aid, even if he had wanted to, Severus made a hasty quarter-turn and disappeared as well.
Many miles away, deep beneath the streets of London, a wizard holding a long-handled broom was meticulously sweeping up shards of glass and crystal. It was the last pile left, and to be honest, the wizard carefully pushing the shards into a dustpan had thought never to see the end of it when he had been handed the assignment four long years ago.
He and the Keeper alone had taken on the job, and when he had asked the wizened man who employed him why he wasn’t allowed to use magic, the shriveled old coot had looked at him as if he had asked why the sky was blue.
“You great numpty,” the Keeper had muttered, “Didn’t you ‘ear what happened to the last poor sod to touch a prophecy as didn’t belong to ‘im? It’s the protective enchantments, boy. They’ll drive you barmy as a Bandersnatch, they will. I’m the only one as is allowed to handle them – myself and their owners, of course.”
The grouchy fellow had wandered off through the wreckage then, gesticulating to himself and having a good grumble over what an indifferent peon the Department of Mysteries’ Unspeakable Liaisons office had saddled him with.
That had been the beginning of this Sisyphean task. Eight hours a day, five days a week, he had scuffed his broom across the floor, scribbling out an interdepartmental memo with a message to summon the Keeper whenever he encountered an uninjured prophecy. The Unspeakable had been curious about every single one he came across, as they were something of a rarity. He found one only every few days at best. His particular favorite had been large, nearly the size of a football, and tinged a smoky brown like a blown lightbulb. The Keeper had whisked it away like all the others, along with its fancy filigreed stand, to Merlin-knew-where. That had been two years previous.
The Unspeakable used a small hand broom to sweep the last particles of glass dust into the bin on his cart and gave a sigh of satisfaction. It had not been a pleasant job, or an enjoyable one, but it would shine on his employee file. He would have been surprised if there wasn't a promotion waiting for him after his next performance review. He wheeled his cart back at a leisurely pace, speculating on where the Department would place him next.
Finally, he rolled up to the Keeper’s desk, expecting, if not a word of praise, at least some indication of a job well done. The Unspeakable was robbed of this moment, however, as the Keeper’s undivided attention was centered wholly on the chute that coiled down from the ceiling and terminated on the far corner of his desk.
Inside it, glowing and bright, was something neither wizard had encountered in the past four years. Both Keeper and Unspeakable gawped at it, their eyes reflecting the light it gave off. Blue and brilliant, and rotating lazily in the cradle at the end of the chute, was a brand new prophecy.