Cripplethorn Manor stood high on the murky moor, shaded in the grays and blacks of disuse and disrepair. It was surrounded by twisted, bare trees that shuddered in agony in the harsh Scottish wind. Perennially shrouded in a creeping, cold mist, the manor house stood still as death as eerie green lights, reminiscent of foxfire, swirled ghoulishly around it at sporadic intervals. The snap and groan of distant trees echoed across the barren wasteland. There wasn't even a glimmer, a vestige, of its former glory remaining.

Harry Potter looked down at his scrap of parchment before again surveying what lay before him. He shivered as the shrieking wind's fetid breath curled around and clung to him, causing the hairs on the back of his neck to rise and cry out the alarm. He shivered again. He pulled his heavy cloak closer to him, but it was of little use.

His eyes traveled along the horizon. It was afternoon, close to the magical gloaming hour, but nothing here on Cripplethorn Moor would glow with gold and shine with silver as the sun seeped back into the earth, backlighting the world with its last vestiges of brilliance. Here, the gloaming hour brought only sharply drawn shadows, a detached coldness and a sense of foreboding so prescient that it nearly brought Harry to his knees. He gasped in terrified surprise as a strong gust of wind whirled around him and he felt cold fingers grasping his cloak at the small of his back and sickly hot breath sliding across his nape. Harry shook himself loose with a small yelp and whirled around to face his phantom attacker.

The stony visage of Severus Snape stared back at him. "What are you waiting for? The day isn't getting any longer. We are expected at the manor within the hour," Snape drawled in annoyance.

Harry huffed as he pulled his cloak closer to him and fought to regain his composure. "I know that," Harry snapped. "I was just assessing the manor from a distance. We need to know what we're walking into."

Severus rolled his eyes. "Right," he said before stalking off towards the house.

Harry frowned in indignation. As the cruel wind curled around him once more, however, he shivered and quickly fell into step behind Severus.

They trooped along the moor in silence, save the groaning trees and shrieking wind. At the sound of a branch breaking from one of the gnarled trees beside them, Harry gave a small jump and nearly crashed into Severus.

Severus turned and fixed Harry with an assessing stare. "How is it, Mr. Potter, that you defeated the Dark Lord and became a renowned curse breaker when the sound of breaking branches sends you into hysterical fits? If I didn't know better, I'd say you were a Hufflepuff in disguise. Good thing this is our last assignment," Severus said with a sneer.

"Shut up, Snape. I was startled. And, you have to admit, there's something about this place. It's… it's…," Harry sighed, "I dunno. There's just something about it that doesn't feel right."

"If ickle little Potter is too scared, perhaps you should turn back and leave this assignment to someone with the proper fortitude. And might I remind you, the reason we are here is because the new owners want it checked for dark curses. Perhaps, Mr. Potter, it doesn't feel right as you so eloquently put it, because it is, in fact, cursed!"

Harry glowered and sputtered, but in the end he simply pushed past Severus and trudged determinedly to Cripplethorn Manor, ignoring the dark chuckle behind him.

Severus and Harry had formed an unlikely alliance during the war—a war which had taken all they knew from them. With no family or any real sense of belonging, they had banded together in an uneasy companionship and had been working as a team of curse breakers for three years. They'd traipsed around the world battling dark curses, cursed artifacts, demons, ghosts, banshees, and the like. But, in their last assignment, they'd gotten a little too close and Harry had uncharacteristically fled out of fear. When Severus had come to him two days ago and asked for this last assignment, Harry found he simply couldn't say no. They had been through too much together and it was just one, last assignment.

"How did we get this assignment anyway?" Harry asked as they continued to walk towards the darkened manor.

Severus hesitated. "The new owners were concerned about rumors they'd heard about Cripplethorn. It's reputed to be spectacularly haunted with all manner of things. I thought you might enjoy the challenge. A last hurrah, if you will. Who knows, after this you may find you simply can't leave me," Severus said drolly.

"Yes, you're right. I simply can't imagine my life without you," Harry said with heavy sarcasm.

Severus said nothing in return. Harry wondered if he'd gone just a bit too far, given what had happened only two months ago. That sparked another question in Harry's mind.

"By the way, what have you been doing for the last couple of months? I… I couldn't find you. After," Harry cleared his throat, "after what happened last time," he said hesitantly.

Severus turned back sharply and fixed Harry with a penetrating stare that seemed to soften, slightly, over its course. "I had another assignment. I did it alone. Realized a few things."

"Oh," Harry said, not knowing what else to say. Their silence stretched, while the harsh wind whipped around them in maddening frenzy. Harry looked down at his feet and bit his lip. "Listen, Severus, I'm sorry about before, I just. You just took me by surprise. It's not that I'm not flattered, really. I just. I mean—I didn't mean to—" Harry was surprised to feel a large, cold hand clamp onto his shoulder. He looked up, startled by how close Severus was to him.

"It's in the past Harry," he began with an eerie calm, "It was good that it happened. It was an odd assignment. People react differently in times of stress—I'm sure you've forgiven my rather… forward declarations. Everything happens for a reason. If it hadn't, I daresay we wouldn't be here now. Speaking of which, I think we should make haste—the sun is beginning to set and I for one have no desire to stomp about an unfamiliar moor at night."

Harry nodded, grateful for Severus's understanding, as he stepped back slightly. "We did think we were going to die," Harry said, trying to affect a light tone and failing miserably. He shivered. Severus was still staring at him. "We should get going," Harry murmured as he turned away and started walking again.

Their arrival at Cripplethorn Manor was heralded only by the constant staccato of rattling window frames and the whine of wind forced through cracks and crevices. If possible, the manor was more menacing up close than from far away. Harry started to knock before remembering that the house was empty—save those things haunting it. He was filled with a sense of dread unlike any before as his hand reached for the rusty brass knob. The door opened easily, which surprised him, and swung wide with a theatrical creak. Harry looked back at Severus who was looking away, his head slightly cocked to the right, as if listening to something. All of Harry's instincts were screaming at him to turn away, to run from this place as quickly as possible. He couldn't understand it. He'd faced far worse than a broken-down manor filled with ghosts and ghouls. Admonishing himself for his ridiculous behavior, he crept across the threshold, not knowing what to expect.

"The house is haunted, Potter, not booby trapped," Severus said from behind as he pushed a startled and gasping Harry into the entrance hall.

Immediately, the door slammed closed with a cacophonous BANG! Ice-cold fear gripped Harry at the sound. The cold, the overwhelming sense of dread and despair – it was far worse than any experience he'd ever had with a Dementor. He whirled around and ran for the door, pulling on it as he tried desperately to get out. The door held fast. Harry whipped out his wand and cast every unlocking spell he could think of. But with each failed spell, his panic grew, threatened to overwhelm him and eventually boiled over. At the end, he stood near the door gasping for breath and shaking while Severus stood across the way, cool as you please.

"Are you quite finished, Potter?" he said with his characteristic drawl. "I do believe there are a few Sandestin unlocking spells you didn't try."

Harry turned his attention to Severus, his hands balled into fists at his side. "What's wrong with you?! We're locked in. We know nothing about this house, we have no idea what we're in for, and now we can't get out!"

Severus pushed off from the wall he was casually leaning against and moved to Harry. He placed the back of his hand against Harry's flushed cheek. The cold was comforting against his overheated skin.

"Are you all right, Harry?" Severus asked with a worried tone. "This happened during our assignment in Egypt, remember? We couldn't get out of that crypt for days. Just like then, I assume we won't be allowed to leave until the house releases us."

Harry jerked away from the cold hand idly caressing his cheek. "A lot of things happened in Egypt as I recall," Harry muttered. Harry shuddered at the feel of ghostly fingers running along his cloak. "Why are you so calm?" he barked.

"Why are you so hysterical?" Severus said, his eyes wrinkled in apparent confusion.

The truth was, Harry had no idea why he was reacting this way. He'd faced far worse than a haunted house and a locked door with nary a gasp. It was just that there was something off about this place – something more sinister than they'd bargained for. Harry raked a hand through his hair and looked around the room. "I'm sorry. I don't know what's gotten into me. I'm sure it will pass. Let's make a quick perimeter search and settle in for the night, okay?"

Severus nodded and they began their exploration.

After a thorough, but fast search of the manor, they'd found only one habitable room. Everywhere else was filled with dark curses and other nasty things. Conveniently, the room was one of the upstairs bedrooms. At least they would be comfortable, even though there was only one bed and they would have to share. Harry braced himself for Severus's blistering commentary about having to share sleeping space with the "hysterical Hufflepuff," as he had taken to calling him all evening.

Severus set about making a fire in the enormous fireplace while Harry scourgified everything in sight and took inventory. Surprisingly, he found clean, if not dusty, bed linens in the cupboard as well as a few white nightshirts.

Severus turned as Harry finished making the bed. "Ah, only one bed I see. Good thing we've already slept together," Severus said dryly.

"We haven't slept together!" Harry retorted, suddenly feeling flustered and overly warm, "We've only …slept together, beside each other, I mean, when there was no where else… and it was cold…. It was the assignment, damn it!"

"Of course, Harry. That's what I meant," Severus said smugly. Severus looked at Harry strangely before gliding over to the cupboard and pulling out one of the long, white night shirts. "Here," he said as he gave it to Harry, "put this on—it's warmer than that thin Muggle shirt and those pants. You've been shivering all day."

Harry huffed, but changed nonetheless. He always got a funny feeling at the bottom of his stomach when Severus did something so protective and so… possessive. It scared Harry how easily Severus could provoke him, how easily Severus could get him to give up control. That was precisely why he'd run after their last assignment. He'd come far too close to giving in. If Harry had learned nothing else from the "greasy git," it was how to marshal his emotions and stay in control.

But in less than a day at Cripplethorn Manor, he felt completely off-balance and was grateful that familiar, grounded Severus was there. Thus, Harry didn't object when Severus pulled him close after they'd gotten in bed. Severus had mumbled something about keeping Harry warm. Harry hadn't argued. He would never admit it out loud, but there was something rather comforting about the familiarity of feeling Severus close to him in the unfamiliar and eerie manor house.

After several days of hard work, they had cleared out most of the dark artifacts and minor malicious creatures. Harry had wanted to find and clear out the ghosts first, but Severus had vetoed that idea—it was wiser, he'd said, to take care of the small things so that they wouldn't have to worry about surprises later. Harry had acquiesced. He was ready to do just about anything in order to finish and get the hell out. He hated Cripplethorn Manor. His heart raced at every creaking step, he thought he was beginning to hear things and shadowed specters seemed to creep just outside of his line of sight. Worse still, was the coldness that washed over him, filled him with dread and left him weak and shaking. Then, there were the nightmares. He hadn't suffered so since the war and these felt as though they were trying to rip his mind from him. Harry knew that each moment he spent at Cripplethorn put him one moment closer to going mad.

Harry tried desperately to keep himself together, but he wasn't that good of an actor and the phantom pains were becoming increasingly real. He knew Severus had noticed when he'd casually remarked one evening that perhaps Harry was suffering from some sort of psychological fit. Harry hadn't responded, because if he had, it would have been to agree.

On the morning of their tenth day at Cripplethorn Manor, it was decided that they would divide up the house in an attempt to determine what was haunting the horrid place. So far, common ghosts, banshees, ghouls and demons had been struck from the list. Harry didn't like what that left them with. At Severus's firm suggestion, he'd taken the east wing. He hated admitting that he was afraid to explore the manor alone. Harry had become somewhat dependant on Severus. When Severus was with him, the coldness wasn't as awful, the shadows were not as malicious and creepy, the nightmares were mere vestiges of what they could be. Harry knew he'd do anything to keep that sense of security, of comfort. Even though that meant acquiescing to Severus's soft touches at night and gentle kisses during the day. Even though what had started out as tentative had become bolder and more possessive with each passing day. Harry didn't mind. All of it kept Severus closer, which kept Harry saner. Besides, Harry was beginning to enjoy their burgeoning relationship. Perhaps he'd been hasty in his reaction to Severus's proclamation of undying love before. Perhaps this could work.

Harry put such thoughts away, though, as he stood on the threshold that led to the east wing of the manor house. The cold seemed worse here. His teeth were chattering already and his body was a tight coil of anxiety. He took a deep breath and told himself he was being silly. All he had to do for the moment was make it the end of the hallway. There was a huge mirror hanging at the end – all Harry had to do was focus on that and count the doors lining the hallway. That's all he had to do. He took the first few steps, his eyes not wavering from the mirror. It was dirty and had lost much of its silvering, but Harry could still see his shadowed form advancing at a creep.

"One," he whispered to himself as he passed the first door on his left. He would not enter any room until he knew the layout of the wing. That was their standard plan – survey the area first and explore detail second.

"Two," he whispered as he passed the sagging, doorless frame on his right. The sound of creaking boards muffled by thick carpet was the only other sound in this part of the manor, though the air hung heavy with the stirrings of something malicious.

"Three," he whispered and stopped. He shivered. Something was there. Something that he couldn't define, or see, or touch, or smell, but something was there. It made his skin crawl. He stood there for several long moments. Waiting. His heart beating rapidly, his breathing shallow and terrified. Nothing came. Harry didn't know whether to be grateful or more scared. He shook his head and started creeping along the hallway once again.

"Four," he said as bile rose in his throat. He felt sick. Harry shivered again. He'd been doing that a lot, actually. The only time he wasn't freezing was when he was with Severus. Quickly putting that thought from his mind, and the other thoughts that flowed from it, Harry returned his gaze to the mirror.

He crept further. "Five," he said with a wavering voice. He was shivering again, but this time it wasn't from the cold. He was beginning to lose control. Something was there, tracking him, taunting him. He was sure of it. "Six," he said finally, never so thankful to have reached the end of a hallway in all of his life.

His eyes were drawn back to the mirror. Age and poor conditions had warped it, making Harry's reflection a grotesque parody. Entranced, he leaned closer to it. Harry was almost nose to nose with his reflection when he heard it. An ice-cold chill swept through him while a voice that could only come from the very depths of hell whispered, "Seven."

Harry nearly jumped out of his skin. He screamed and whipped around, wand at the ready. He saw nothing, but he could feel, he could feel, them all around him – wanting desperately to devour him. Harry whirled around again, and saw that the mirror and wall had popped open – the mirror was a door. He looked up quickly and screamed like he never had before. Surrounding him in the mirror were horrible, horrible creatures dressed in ripped, brown robes. Wrinkled, sunken, leather-like skin was where their eyes should have been and their large, gaping mouths were filled with sharp fangs; fangs that snapped at Harry with rapacious desire. Harry watched in horror as they closed in and reached for him with their long, claw like hands. "No!" he screamed, unable to move forward or back. "NO!" he screamed again, tears coursing down his face as he felt them touch him, as he heard the gnashing of their fangs, as he watched them descend on him and push him into the little room behind the mirror.

The door slammed behind him as he staggered and fell. It was pitch black. Harry tried to scream, but no sound came from him. He tried to stand, but was unable to move. Scrape. He heard it and stilled. Scrape, scrape. Harry fought desperately at the invisible bonds holding him down. Whatever was there was coming closer. He heard a skittering across the floor. He was crying again, begging for help, willing to do anything. And then he felt it. Something, lots of somethings, crawling across him. He screamed. He closed his eyes out of instinct, which only made the horrors worse. In his mind's eye, he could see them all there, their mouths gaping and dripping with poisonous drool as they murmured and whispered and touched him. He tried to open his eyes, tried to make the visions go away, but he couldn't. As a group, they descended. Harry felt as though he were on fire. They were biting, scratching, stabbing, digging, ripping. He was dying, they were killing him, making him watch as they ripped him apart. He screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed, but it was no use. He couldn't drown out their shrieks, their touches, their twisted desire for him. Harry sobbed and begged and pleaded for mercy he was sure would never come.

A brilliant shaft of light fell across him moments later as the mirror wall flew open. The creatures drew back from their feast. To Harry's addled brain, they seemed almost afraid of the light. Harry sobbed with relief as he felt strong arms lift him from the floor and cradle him close. Harry inhaled deeply as he nuzzled against the coarse material on the body holding him. Severus. It was Severus who'd come for him. It didn't occur to him to wonder how Severus had known to come, just that he had. "Severus," he whispered in between sobs, half out of his mind. "Severus," he cried again as lips pressed insistent kisses all over his face. Harry took them greedily, as if they were the very essence of life. "Severus," he said again, as a comforting darkness overtook him.

Harry regained consciousness as Severus maneuvered them into the bedroom they shared murmuring over and over "I've got you now. You're safe. You see, you need me?"

Harry moaned, causing Severus to still and cease his fevered murmuring. "What are those things?" Harry asked as he shivered and pressed himself closer to Severus's body.

"Decari. Very old, very obscure, and very nasty phantom lords. They are related distantly to Dementors, which probably explains your fits," Severus said as he carefully sat Harry on the bed.

"I have not had fits," Harry mumbled as he sat patient and pliable while Severus dressed him in the soft, white nightshirt he'd taken to wearing.

"As I was saying," Severus said with a glare, "the Decari are related to the Dementors, but unlike those mindless savages, it's unknown what Decari want or why they want it. You cannot ward them off with a simple spell or potion. We must be very careful. They do not like to be disturbed and will be very resistant to removal." Severus hesitated. He stood and walked towards the fire, his back to Harry. "The Decari, Harry. They have set their sights on you. You have something they want, or rather, can give them something that they want." Severus turned and faced him. "There is only one way to protect you. Only I can protect you," he whispered.

Startled, Harry looked up at Severus. Harry saw the seriousness in his expression. He nodded, agreeing to whatever it would take, not knowing what it would take. Not caring what it would take. What else could he do? He had to trust that Severus would protect him, because Harry was seriously beginning to question his ability to protect himself.

Severus dropped to his knees and took Harry's face in his hands. His thumbs lightly caressed Harry's skin. He smiled when Harry's eyes fluttered closed as he leaned into the gentle touch. "Harry?" he questioned. He waited for Harry's eyes to reopen. "You must bond with me now. A blood bond. You know the ritual – it's the one we found in Egypt. Do you remember? You must subjugate yourself completely to me – it is the only way. We must make the Dacari believe that you belong to me, and you must, for this to work. Will you do this, Harry? It is the only way. Surely you can see that?"

Harry's eyes went wide in surprise and his body went stiff as if he'd been hit with a Petrificus Totalus. If he hadn't been half mad himself, he would have seen the crazed madness in Severus's eyes. As it was, Harry was struggling more with the fact that he was being forced to choose between the devil he knew and the one he didn't. He didn't want to bond with anyone. But, he wanted the voices, the faces, the screams – he wanted them all to go away. This was the only way. Severus said so. Tears spilled from his eyes as he jerkily nodded his head in assent.

Not caring if the tears were from relief or terror, Severus kissed them away greedily as he whispered promises of love and protection and prepared them for the ritual.

Harry felt numb. He wasn't entirely cognizant of what was happening. He knew he had to do this. He would die, or go mad, if he didn't. It wouldn't be so bad, would it? He remained pliant as Severus reverently stripped him of his clothing. He felt Severus pick him up and draw him close before he was spread on the floor in the center of a makeshift protection circle. He only vaguely felt the burn of the knife as Severus quickly sliced his palms. He could hear them. The Decari. They were angry. Very angry. He focused on Severus's low rumble in an effort to shut out their screeches and insidious whispering. He focused on the pop and crackle of the fire in hopes of drowning out their vicious shrieks. He could feel them pressing against the circle. He screwed his eyes shut in an effort to make them go away. Instead of giving into the feel of their fetid breath ghosting across his skin, he arched into every stroke of Severus's finger as he painted archaic symbols on his body with their mingled blood. He moaned and quivered as Severus prepared him with his fingers and his tongue. He screamed in pleasure instead of terror as Severus entered him and clasped their bloody hands together.

The Decari screamed and whined and gnashed their fangs at him as Severus started the incantation that would bind them forever. Harry screamed with them, begging them to leave him, begging Severus to take him forever, begging him to make the pain go away. The window nearly flew from the frame from its rattling. The wind screamed in its high-pitched whine as it raced through the room, carrying the frenzied Decari with it.

And then, as Severus came, as Harry came, as the incantation ended, the Decari withdrew. Harry sobbed in relief as the Decari were forced from the room and thrown beyond its walls. They could not enter this room. Not anymore. This was the only place Harry would ever be safe alone.

"Mine, forever," Severus whispered over and over as he cradled a limp and sobbing Harry to him. "Shh, Harry. You're safe. Forever, you are safe. I will protect you, my own, I will protect you."

The room was silent, save the crackle and pop of the fire and the window frames rattling in the wind. Harry lay curled on the bed in his too-long white nightshirt, his head in Severus's lap, Severus's heavy hand drawing through his hair with its rhythmic lulling while he read a book and hummed an unfamiliar tune. How long had it been since they'd bonded? How long had he been trapped in this room? Days? Weeks? Years? Harry didn't know—he hadn't left after that night. After what had happened in the east wing. It was as if time had simply stopped. He only knew that Severus left their little enclave for a few hours each day to work on the assignment. He only knew that when Severus left he shivered violently, screwed his eyes shut and tried desperately to ignore the taunts and threats of the Decari that lurked just outside the door. They called to him, sent him hazy images of death and terror and despair. Only when Severus returned did they scuttle away. Only when Severus returned did Harry feel the warmth of life return to him.

Harry rubbed his face on his sleeve. He was nearly swaddled in the nightshirt he'd taken to wearing day in and day out. He never dressed anymore. What was the point? He didn't leave the protection of this room. Severus gave him everything he needed. He protected him, pleasured him, made him safe. The spectral predators that haunted him, plagued him, kept their distance while he was entwined with Severus. Here. In this room. True to his word, Severus had kept the Decari away. He'd protected Harry while going about finishing the assignment.

But Harry was ready to leave this place. He felt a bit more of his sanity slip away every day. They couldn't leave, though. Not until Severus said they could. Harry prayed it would be soon. Not that Harry could ask. Severus discouraged questions, meaningful conversation. Harry often found himself quieted with Severus's soft shushes and fervent kisses when he'd asked questions that were too pointed. Severus was content to discuss the banal and superficial. They talked about springtime and strawberries. Severus read to him occasionally and seemed to revel in the feel of Harry's body against his. Most of the time, they spent their time together doing what they were doing now, Harry curled in his lap, afraid to move lest he gain the attention of the beasts just beyond the doorframe.

"Severus?" Harry asked in his small voice.


"What was your assignment before coming here?" Harry had asked this question almost daily since Severus had first come to him about this assignment. Severus had never answered. Harry kept asking. He didn't really expect an answer. It was just something to pass the time.

Severus's hand stilled for a moment before continuing to draw through Harry's hair. "I'm surprised you haven't figured it out yet, Harry," Severus said quietly.

"What do you mean?" Harry asked, genuinely confused. But, then again, most of his days felt like one confused jumble. His thoughts skittered across the surface of his mind without really anchoring themselves anywhere.

Severus pulled Harry up and drew him close. He kissed him gently, which Harry accepted greedily. "Here, Harry. I was here. This was my assignment. And I, or rather we, are the new owners."

Harry drew back. His mouth still open from the kiss. Realization came slowly and felt like ice water trickling down his back and through his veins, washing him away into nothingness. "No," he whispered, his eyes bright with disbelief and betrayal. He refused to believe that Severus had meant to bring him here. That he had meant to trap him, make him go mad.

But, he had. Hadn't he?

Harry tried desperately to pull away, scratching and clawing in terror. "No, no, nononononononono," he chanted, he shrieked.

Possessed with an eerie calmness, Severus held Harry closer and shushed him, ignoring Harry's struggles, whines and cries. "Stop this Harry. We belong here, you and I. We belong somewhere where no one will ever find us, where no one can take you from me. I can't possibly let you go, now can I? You need me here. You don't need me out there. You were going to leave me. I couldn't have that, now could I? Not when you so obviously need me, my sweet Harry. Just as I need you. You belong to me now. Shh, calm yourself."

Harry choked back a scream as silent tears ran from his face and he continued to struggle against the cold, stone arms entrapping him.

"Shh, my sweet Harry. You will see. This is for the best. You will see," Severus whispered. "I knew that this was exactly what we needed. You see, I visited Cripplethorn after our last assignment, alone, and the Decari—they helped me see, Harry. They helped me realize what we both needed." He forcibly turned Harry's body so that he was once again laying with his head in Severus's lap. He began humming a haunting lullaby as his hand drew through Harry's hair once again, while Harry continued his half-hearted struggle and sobbing cries.

"Let me go. Please, let me go," Harry sobbed over and over again, "I can't stay here. I can't. Please, let me go."

Severus abruptly started giggling like a madman. "You will never have to fear anything here. I will always, always protect you from the Decari. You are mine forever as long as no one enters this house and releases you. So I can't banish the Decari, now can I? No, my dear heart, no. They must stay so that you are protected from those who would take you from me. Besides, I promised them that I would not make them leave when I was here the last. That was why they let me leave the first time. This is their home as much as ours."

Harry shuddered and sat up, clutching at Severus desperately. "Please. This isn't home, Severus. We can still leave. We can banish the Decari and leave. I promise I will never, ever leave you. Please!"

Severus pushed Harry back into his prone position, despite Harry's cry to the contrary. "Shush, now. There's no need for fretting. I've already told you, they will not harm you – as long as you are in this room and in my embrace. It will be fine. You shall see." Severus leant down and softly kissed the crown of Harry's head as Harry sobbed silently. "I shall protect you and love you. Forever," Severus said wistfully before madly laughing again, the last vestiges of his sanity slipping from him.

Eventually, Harry stopped struggling and returned to staring at the far wall, unblinking, as tears slipped from his eyes. What else could he do? He couldn't leave this room—the Decari would rend him limb from limb. He was at their and Severus's mercy. He would never be free. Never. Severus would never leave this place. The last vestiges of hope slipped from him, just as the gloaming hour slipped away and the once cheery room became bathed in cruel shadows. Harry let slip a strangled cry at the feel of the Decari hovering beyond the barrier of Severus's protective embrace, waiting for him, hungering for him with their sharp claws and fangs bared in anticipation. He shivered again as they pushed against the barrier. He listened as their cackling drifted through the room in malicious wisps. Or, was it the wind still rattling the window frames? Harry couldn't be sure anymore. He wasn't sure of anything, except for Severus. Severus would protect him, his beloved captor would protect him. Forever. And, that terrified Harry all the more.

"Jared? Jared, are you okay?" Mrs. McTavish asked as Jared McCorkle made his way unsteadily to the bar.

Jared looked up at her with solemn eyes, his skin a ghastly white. "Just been past Cripplethorn Moor," he said quietly, his hands trembling as he gratefully took the pint offered to him.

A hush fell over the small crowd enjoying the warm glow of the small pub.

"Cripplethon Moor?! Whatever possessed you to go to that cursed place?" Mrs. McTavish roared.

Strange and terrible things had happened on Cripplethorn Moor. Rumors of mangled bodies, unwitting trespassers tortured into insanity, ghosts and banshees. No one had traveled past or through there in generations.

Jared shrugged. "The dogs took off. Got lost. I had to fetch them. Didn't realize where I was until I was there."

"What happened? Is it true. What they say?" someone from the crowd asked.

Jared looked down and swallowed thickly. "Yes," was all he said as he heard a collective gasp from the room.

Jared shook his head and closed his eyes. He would never forget what he saw. Never. Rising from a thick mist was menacing Cripplethorn Manor, which was frightening enough in its own right. It was what he saw in one of the upstairs windows, though, that would forever stay with him. The sad, melancholy face of a young man, once beautiful but now frail and pale as death, peered out over the Moor. The ghostly, pale figure gasped when it saw Jared standing in the distance. Jared watched, transfixed, as the young man, began frantically calling to him with his terrified unearthly green eyes that glowed eerily like foxfire. He watched as his mouth formed the same words over and over again in what was assuredly a shrieking litany reminiscent of the snapping wind. He watched as the young man's gnarled hands clawed at the wavy glass in desperation. He watched, now terrified himself, as a dark figure swooped in behind and pulled the young man away. As the black-as-night figure turned back, its ghastly visage bared its teeth and issued the unspoken warning that Jared never return to Cripplethorn Moor, lest he be mangled or driven to insanity, before swooping away with the young man clutched to him tightly.

Jared had long heard that the Manor was haunted by a young man and an older one who'd brazenly, recklessly entered the house over a hundred years earlier, never to be seen again. The story went that the older man had gone mad and killed the younger man and himself and that they were bound together in death. The older kept the younger as a beloved prisoner and cursed all who stumbled upon them, all who threatened to steal the younger from him.

Jared shuddered at the image burned into his mind. It was of the pale young man frantically forming the same words over and over again. "Release me," he'd pleaded as the last vestiges of life left him. "Release me."



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