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The foothills of Albania were pleasantly warm, as the afternoon waned; the jagged peaks, however, were chilly and shadowed. Severus Snape looked back over his shoulder, and suppressed the urge to sigh.

"Miss Granger, I thought I told you to put that book away. If you miss a step and take an unfortunate... tumble down the side of the mountain -- preferably taking Misters Potter and Weasley with you along the way -- I shall have quite a lot of tedious explaining to do to the Headmaster."

"Professor, I was just--"

"Miss Granger. Do not make me tell you again."

Hermione's mouth snapped closed, and she tucked the guidebook back into her satchel, casting a dark look at Snape's back. Ron, however, couldn't seem to keep his mouth shut. "She's just trying to learn a bit about the local-- local whatsits, culture, isn't she?" he snapped irritably, pulling a few leaves from a low, scrubby olive tree beside the narrow path. "And anyway, you're not our professor any longer."

"But I am a senior Order member, and as such you ought to have a care not to overstep your bounds. And as for culture..." Snape casually flicked his wand, and a few rocks flew out of their path. "Considering the only culture we are likely to encounter would be the occasional goat, I believe we are perhaps safe in our ignorance."

At the tail end of the little group was Harry, who hadn't spoken for a while. That wasn't unusual for him, these days. Perhaps the business of meeting his destiny was weighing heavily on his mind. Perhaps he was mentally reviewing everything the DA had ever gone over, as a kind of last-minute preparation. Or perhaps he was just very, very tired.

In reality, it was some combination of all three, with an additional inkling of wondering when they'd get around to supper.

For a while, they walked in silence, and the sun dipped further and further below the horizon. All four of them kept their wands handy. These mountains were rugged and beautiful -- and likely hid more than a few dark creatures. In this part of the world, vampires weren't just a myth. Off in the distance, an eerie howl pierced the quiet, and Ron jumped. "--That's not a werewolf, is it?"

"No," replied Hermione and Professor Snape at once, in equally exasperated tones. Harry finally cracked a crooked smile, and Ron rolled his eyes.

"Not the full moon, mate," Harry pointed out, nodding towards a dip between two far-off peaks, where a tiny sliver of waxing moon glimmered in the sky.

Ron opened his mouth to retort, but Snape suddenly stopped short and held up a hand for silence. Harry, Ron, and Hermione froze, eyes wide, hands clenched tightly around their wands. The potions master peered ahead, and then nodded. "There it is."

"What?"

"The tower, Ron. Honestly. Don't you see it?"

"That old thing? Not much of a tower anymore, is it?"

"It is a sixteenth-century Ottoman outpost, Mr. Weasley. What did you expect?"

"Look, can we get on?"

"Oh yeah, Harry, I'm terribly keen to have my hand melted off, or whatever it is these horcrux things do. I saw Tonks' hand, before it healed up."

Harry paled, a bit, as he recalled the small glimpse he'd had of Professor Dumbledore's withered hand a few days ago. The Headmaster had amiably brushed off Harry's concern, but the boy knew he'd been in Egypt with Bill, looking for another of the horcuxes.

He didn't know what to expect, except...

No, there was no way to finish that sentence, Harry decided, and sighed.

***


The tower was no more inviting on the inside than it had been on first sight. The walls were crumbling, and clearly more than a few animals had made their home in it since it had been abandoned years before. Shrubbery had sprung up here and there, and only a few patches of the original stone floor remained.

Getting the door open had been easy. It was the ashwinder eggs smouldering just inside that had given them a few moments' trouble, though a few strong Freezing Charms had sorted things out before the tower had gone up in flames.

"Cor, it smells bloody awful," Ron remarked, wrinkling his nose and peering around. "Lumos. What, did something die in here?"

"I'm sure," Snape replied calmly, "but I think this is a rather different sort of problem." The professor lit his own wand, and the light fell upon a patch of greenish fungus, where the wall met the floor.

Fungus that... blinked.

"Ooohh, a bundimun!" breathed Hermione, her scholarly interest piqued despite the situation at hand.

"Correction, Miss Granger." He held his wand higher, and the growing swath of light illuminated perhaps a dozen more of the creatures. "Bundimuns. Plural."

Harry wracked his brain, trying to recall the half a lesson they'd spent on bundimuns in Care of Magical Creatures. "Jus' remember," Hagrid had told them, "Can't abide Scouring Charms, bundimuns. Don' like the competition for the dirt, I reckon," he'd added with a chuckle.

It took a solid twenty minutes of Scourgify-ing the perimeter of the tower to shoo the last of the bundimuns away. Ron sat down on a half-crumbled bench, and wiped his sweaty brow. "Right, so. Where's this horcrux meant to be hidden, then?"

Snape didn't reply. He was slowly prowling the far wall, wand aloft. Suddenly it glowed a faint blue, and he stopped. "Here," he said finally, and pointed to a seemingly innocuous patch of stone. "The hidden stair."

"But how do we get inside, if we can't even see the door?" asked Harry, coming over to stand beside Snape.

"Kindly use your head, Mr. Potter," Snape murmured, and began fishing in the pocket of his robe.

Shrugging, Harry pointed his wand at the wall. Could it really be that easy? "Revelare!"

And just like that, a door materialized -- rough-hewn and low, but a door nonetheless.

Well. Hunh.

Ron and Hermione moved closer, peering at it too. "Look, there's a keyhole," the witch pointed out.

"Which is why we have this," Snape replied, finally producing a heavy-looking iron key from his pocket.

Ron's eyes narrowed. "Where'd you get that?" he asked suspiciously.

"None of your concern, Mr. Weasley. Stand aside."

With some difficulty, Snape fit the key into the lock, and with a quiet click -- more like a popping in one's ear -- the door swung open with preternatural silence. A torch suddenly flared to life, its flame a sickly green, lighting up the narrow, downward-spiraling staircase that dropped into inky blackness.

***


It didn't look like much, really. The locket was tarnished, and somewhat crudely wrought. On its face was the impression of a striking snake; appropriate, Snape thought, for a possession of Salazar Slytherin. A small part of him couldn't help but marvel at this-- this mere trinket, at its magical importance, yes, but also at the physical connection to one of the Founders. To Slytherin.

Snape was, after all, ever loyal to his house.

"It doesn't look hot," Ron said dubiously.

Hermione tutted. "No, well, I suppose that cup didn't look too hot to Tonks either, did it? It must be activated on contact, if it's got a protection spell on it."

"I'll try," Harry broke in quietly, and Snape lifted an eyebrow, but didn't protest.

Harry stepped forward, his wand in one hand, the other reaching carefully for the locket. He wrapped his fingers around it, and then--



Nothing happened.

Snape's brow furrowed. "Potter, what's...?"

"It's fine," Harry replied disbelievingly, peering more closely at the ancient locket. "I don't feel anything wrong, look for yourself."

Snape started to reply, but Ron broke in.

"Do you hear something?"

They all fell silent, listening.

"No, but I feel it," said Hermione after a moment, her voice tight. "The bundimuns, they've liquified the foundations, we've got to get out, the whole place is going to come down!"

"Calm yourself, Miss Granger," Snape snapped. "Quickly, the stairs--"

But amidst the rumbling that was growing louder with every passing moment, there came a soft sort of... crooning, near the door.

They turned.

"Oh, fuck," Ron said with feeling.

It was a manticore. Fully grown, skin like armour, and a stinger that could kill in an instant.

"Apparate, now. All of you. Outside to the path." Snape closed his eyes, preparing to do just that, but in a split second, all four of them were sprawled on the ground, knocked off their feet by some invisible force.

"We can't Apparate, there's wards," Harry said, scrambling to his feet and helping Hermione up, eyes on the manticore all the while. The beast's sinuous lion's body begins pacing towards them, deadly scorpion's stinger curling up over its back.

Suddenly it lunged forward, and Snape dove aside, knowing his spells would be useless. "Weasley, make a hole! Now!"

Ron didn't need to be told twice. "Reducto!"

The blast made a crater in the wall, but didn't quite go through; Hermione helped Snape to his feet, and Harry joined Ron, firing spell after spell until the waning twilight could be seen through a hole in the mountainside.

And then the shaking of the tower grew so strong that even the manticore looked frightened.

"Move!" bellowed Snape, pushing them through the hole just as the very walls around them began to crumble. The four of them tumbled head over heels down the steep mountainside, coming to rest in a craggy ravine, chests heaving, covered over with nasty cuts and bruises.

After a moment, Harry turned his head.

The locket lay in the palm of his open hand.

"Right, that's it," he croaked, shutting his eyes. "Don't care what you say, Snape, we're stopping for food on the way home."

And for once, Snape couldn't find it in himself to disagree.

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Date: 2011-01-27 08:22 am (UTC)
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