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The door to Dumbledore’s office hung open at the top of the small spiral staircase, Fawkes’s cheerful trilling echoing from within.
Time to find out what Malfoy’s task is. Harry knocked on the door and stepped into the room.
‘Come in, Harry, come in.’ Dumbledore pulled his half-moon glasses off his nose and set them down on the desk.
Fawkes snatched them up in one taloned foot and fluttered to his perch, waving the glasses up and down in his toes.
Dumbledore gave the phoenix a reproachful stare and turned to Harry. ‘How have you been, Harry?’ He thrust his hand out and snatched the spectacles back from Fawkes. ‘My apologies. Fawkes, despite being spoilt with an endless supply of magical toys, prefers to steal my glasses.’
‘Fairly well.’ Harry’s fingers slipped to the slim gold chain about his neck. ‘I’ve found myself with a little time to spare recently.’
‘Professor Snape told me you’ve done a remarkable job in teaching some of the others in your year the Patronus Charm.’ Dumbledore smiled and the corners of his bright blue eyes crinkled. ‘A very admirable deed, my boy. It is a hard charm to cast, despite its simple theory, and yet so many of your peers have achieved a corporeal version. Perhaps you should consider teaching yourself one day.’
‘I think I lack the necessary patience, sir,’ Harry admitted. ‘Did Snape really use those words?’
‘Professor Snape may not have said that in so many words, but his meaning was easy to infer.’
‘After you picked your way through the insults?’ Harry asked.
‘He was quite complimentary, I assure you, Harry. However, I must admit a certain level of curiosity about the form of your patronus. I understand it is no longer a stag?’
‘An anzu,’ Harry said. ‘I’m absolutely sure Snape must’ve mentioned it.’
‘Remarkable,’ Dumbledore murmured. ‘Miss Delacour is a lucky girl.’
‘Speaking of lucky girls, sir, Hermione warned me that Malfoy’s been acting strangely. He’s been lurking in strange places and been seen clutching his forearm.’ Harry weighed his next words on the tip of his tongue. ‘I saw Malfoy arguing with Snape about some task he has to fulfill. It was a very heated argument.’
‘I am aware of Mr Malfoy’s actions,’ Dumbledore said. ‘Tom has given him a target, but I do not believe he has it in him to be successful as things are. Professor Snape is taking care of it nonetheless, Harry, and it would be best if you did not involve yourself. Mr Malfoy may act rashly if antagonised.’
‘Of course, professor,’ Harry said. ‘But just what exactly is Malfoy’s target? Is it something to do with me?’
‘You are not his target, my boy. I suspect that it is more than likely to be myself, but, whomever the target is, I will keep them from harm.’ Dumbledore sighed and ran his fingers through the length of his beard. ‘But don’t let it trouble you. Mr Malfoy, unlike his father, has yet to really make a choice about which side he wants to be on. I hope to show him that there are other ways than those of his father before he loses himself. While he is in Hogwarts and fixated on this mission, I can keep him safe and make sure he does no harm to others.’
So Dumbledore has Malfoy in hand, but I bet Snape hasn’t mentioned his Unbreakable Vow. Harry kept his expression unreadable and brushed his fingers over the time-turner dangling beneath his robes. I’m going to deal with Snape in a few minutes anyway. We’ll see if he’s worth the risk to Fleur or not.
‘Your note mentioned a memory, sir?’ he asked.
‘Ah, yes. One of those I’ve collected from Tom’s past.’ Dumbledore rose from his seat and opened the cabinet behind his desk to reveal a stone bowl covered in hundreds of tiny runes. ‘Would you care to join me in the pensieve, Harry?’
‘Of course.’ Harry stepped around the desk to stare into the swirling silver mist within the basin.
‘This recollection belongs to Professor Slughorn.’ Dumbledore poked at the mist with the tip of his wand.
‘What will it show us?’
‘You will see.’ Dumbledore extended his bright-gloved hand. ‘Coming, Harry?’
He took hold of Dumbledore’s fingers and with a sudden lurch, Harry found himself standing alongside Dumbledore in the same room he’d been brewing in only a few days ago. Identical furnishings surrounded them, though Slughorn’s belly had less of a curve to it where he stood at the door to the room.
‘This way, Harry.’ Dumbledore led him to one side of the room.
Slughorn paused in the doorway. ‘Look sharp, Tom, you don’t want to be caught out of bed out of hours, and you a prefect…’
Tom strode into the centre of the room, and waved a hand around. Harry caught the gleam of a slim golden band on his finger and the faint, familiar, eldritch glow in his eyes.
He’s found Salazar by now, then. Is that where he originally got that ring from? Salazar never mentioned a ring. Harry frowned. I’ll have to ask him once I have the Resurrection Stone.
‘Sir, I wanted to ask you something,’ Tom said.
‘Ask away, then, m’boy, ask away…’
‘Sir, I wondered what you know about… about horcruxes?’
Slughorn paused by his desk, fingering his wine glass. ‘Project for Defence Against the Dark Arts, is it?’
‘Not exactly, sir,’ Tom said. ‘I came across the term while reading and I didn’t fully understand it.’
‘No… Well… You’d be hard pushed to find a book at Hogwarts that’ll give you details on horcruxes, Tom. That’s very dark stuff, very dark indeed.’
Dark stuff… A faint smile curved the edge of Harry’s lips. It’s a selfish, cruel, terrible piece of magic, but it has nothing to do with dark or light.
The corner of Tom’s mouth twitched.
‘As you can see, Harry,’ Dumbledore murmured. ‘Tom was already quite proficient in extracting what he wanted to know from those around him. By the time he was this age, sixteen, he already knew far more than most adult wizards ever would about the intricacies of magic.’
‘Why are we watching this, sir?’ Harry watched Tom drink in every word Slughorn said.
‘This is the moment that I believe started Tom down the road to becoming Voldemort.’ Dumbledore sighed. ‘The instant he decided that anything was better than death.’
No. Harry stared stared into the terrible, desperate ambition reflected in Tom’s eyes and the shadow of a vast, hopeless fear above it. It’s not. He was nothing once too. He even said so.
‘Yes, sir,’ Tom said. ‘What I still don’t understand, though — just out of curiosity — I mean, would one horcrux be much use? Can you only split your soul once? Wouldn’t it be better, make you stronger—’ a gleam of hunger rippled through his eyes ‘—to have your soul in more pieces? For instance, isn’t seven the most magically powerful number, wouldn’t seven—’
Shock coursed through Harry’s veins and his heart hammered in his ears, drowning out Slughorn’s yelp. I underestimated him. Seven. Not three. Seven. He struggled to keep his breathing even. Merde. There’re four more. We’re no closer to freedom than we were a year ago…
‘You understand now,’ Dumbledore said. ‘I too looked just as horrified as you when I first saw this memory. Its revelation was part of the agreement for Professor Slughorn’s return.’
‘Seven,’ Harry murmured. ‘So many.’
‘I’d suspected such a thing for some years now,’ Dumbledore confessed, pulling them from the pensieve. ‘I’d hoped for three, but I know, having seen this, that he intended to make seven, even if he was not successful.’
‘Not successful?’ Harry asked.
‘Tom has always had a flair for melodrama and a terrible hubris. He would’ve gone beyond the requirements of the piece of magic and only created them from the deaths of those he thought noteworthy. I am certain of it.’
‘The diary?’ Harry asked.
‘That diary is proof of his heritage and ancestry, something he has always been proud of,’ Dumbledore explained. ‘It was also his first attempt, so perhaps the convenience outweighed his hubris.’
No, that doesn’t feel right. Harry frowned. The object has to be precious to him in its own right and he would’ve had Salazar as far better proof of his heritage and ancestry. He shook the unease away. It doesn’t matter, that horcrux is destroyed.
‘So we have destroyed two of seven?’ he asked.
‘Two of six,’ Dumbledore said. ‘Seven pieces means six horcruxes, since one part of the soul must remain within the body.’
‘Oh.’ Harry let a little sigh of relief escape. ‘Well, that’s better than seven horcruxes, I suppose.’
The diary. The diadem. The ring. And now three more.
‘I have, over the last few years of searching, located a few of the items I believe to have been made into horcruxes by Voldemort.’ Dumbledore gestured at the pensieve. ‘If you will venture with me once more?’
Harry drifted over to take the headmaster’s gloved hand. If Dumbledore knows more about these horcruxes, I can’t risk his death yet. He touched a finger to where the golden time-turner hung about his neck like a lead weight. I will have to get rid of Snape before he can try and carry out his vow.
They lurched into the pensieve.
An older, pale-faced Tom conversed with a slim old witch caked in make-up and dressed in fine silk and lace. A gleam of eldritch light shone in his irises, a slight crimson tint to the smooth mahogany.
‘He is eighteen,’ Dumbledore said as the old lady directed Riddle’s attention to two velvet-lined boxes and a small platter of lemon cakes. ‘You can see for yourself that his pursuit of power has already led him into controversial areas of magic.’
Rituals. Blood magic, too. Harry studied the unnatural speed of Tom’s movements. How much had he sacrificed by this point? Are all his dreams already gone?
‘Tom was, by now, quietly pursuing his own goal of immortality while he waited to apply for and take up a post at Hogwarts itself. He was much taken with the castle,’ Dumbledore said. ‘I believe it is the only place he ever considered home.’
Tom pried the boxes open. A golden badger gleamed upon an intricate goblet in the first and a heart-shaped silver locket emblazoned with a serpentine ‘S’ sat in the second.
Harry’s stomach churned and a tight, cold fist of fury clenched beneath his ribs. He didn’t… The fading gleam of the ruined diadem sinking down in the dark pool in the Chamber of Secrets flashed before his eyes. He did. He tarnished the locket of Salazar’s wife, the woman who sacrificed everything she had to help the family that would come after her.
Crimson flecks swirled in Tom’s eyes as he stared at them with undisguised lust, then a bright smile slid across his face and he turned back to the old lady. ‘Remarkable pieces, but I can tell already you’ve no intention of entertaining an offer for them.’
‘Heavens, no.’ The woman giggled and fanned her face with her hand. ‘I’d rather take them to my grave than let Borgin or Burke get their greasy hands on them. Honestly, Tom, I don’t know how a nice boy like you can stand them.’
I don’t think there’s anything left of Tom. Harry caught the gleam of scarlet in Voldemort’s irises. He’s already sacrificed everything Tom dreamt of.
‘Hepzibah died later that week, accidentally poisoned by her house elf.’ Dumbledore shook his head. ‘We both know, however, that that was unlikely to be the case. The locket and the cup were missing from the inventory of her will.’ He sighed. ‘I think that is all we need to see of this.’
‘What do you know of the others?’ Harry asked as they left the pensieve.
‘The locket and the cup I have yet to locate for certain. However, the fifth of his horcruxes, I believe I have found. His control over the serpent Nagini is too great for a simple familiar.’ A slight smile adorned Dumbledore’s lips. ‘As you have no doubt noticed, I have very little influence over my own.’
A small chuckle escaped Harry. ‘Fawkes does seem a particularly free spirit.’
‘That he does.’ Dumbledore sent an indulgent smile in the direction of the phoenix and took his seat. ‘There will be other horcruxes. Ones I’ve not yet been able to identify, but I am confident that together we’ll be able to discover them from the memories I have of Tom and destroy them.’
Locket. Cup. Diadem. Diary. Nagini. Ring. Harry released a long breath. I know of all of them. Freedom isn’t quite so far away as I feared.
‘We’ll continue with this another time, Harry,’ Dumbledore said. ‘The curse on my hand has not helped my strength and I’m no longer a young man.’
‘Of course, sir,’ Harry said, drifting toward the door. ‘I hope you’ll feel better in the morning.’
‘Thank you, Harry.’
Harry made his way down the staircase and back to his bed, tugging the hangings shut around him. Pulling his invisibility cloak from beneath his pillow, he drew the time-turner from within his robes and spun it until it glowed bright and the golden sand faded to fine, black dust.
Spent, but I got a final three hours out of it, which means past Harry will be in the common room, in full view of at least thirty people, and then with Dumbledore. Harry closed his eyes as the world blurred backward. This is the only perfect alibi I will have. He disillusioned himself, throwing the cloak over his shoulders, and headed down through the evening clamour to Snape’s office. I‘ve destroyed the horcrux Dumbledore hasn’t found. Dumbledore will locate the two that remain, but he needs to survive to do that.
Harry abandoned his disillusionment and tucked the cloak away, then knocked on the door to Snape’s office. ‘Professor? I wanted to ask you a few more questions about the Dark Mark.’
‘Harry,’ Snape drawled as the door swung open. ‘Shouldn’t you be with the headmaster soon?’
I will be with the headmaster soon. Harry allowed himself a small smile. And now time to see if keeping him for my Potions NEWT is worth the risk.
‘How is the Dark Mark given?’ he asked. ‘Are there any restrictions on giving it? Do you have to be of a certain age? Or fairly powerful?’ He pulled his most innocent face. ‘Could he give it to someone of my age?’
‘The Dark Lord marks those of certain value to him,’ Snape said, inviting Harry to take a seat within his office. ‘However there are no restrictions save the receiver being magical and knowingly accepting it.’
A clear glass goblet full of blackberry wine sat on the desk.
‘About to have a nice relaxing drink?’ Harry asked.
‘My one small indulgence,’ Snape said, taking a seat. ‘Was that all your questions?’
‘Almost,’ Harry leant forward. ‘Those that choose to bear it, they know exactly what it entails and what they’ve agreed to do?’
‘They think they do,’ Snape said. ‘Even if they later realise they were misguided in their belief.’
‘Either way they are far from innocent,’ Harry replied.
‘There are very few innocents.’ Snape sneered. ‘Naivety is common, innocence is not. There are naive Death Eaters and naive Order members, but no innocent ones.’
‘Least of all those who belong to both,’ Harry said.
Snape’s lips crooked and nodded. ‘I find it hard to believe that was your only reason for coming.’
‘It was not,’ Harry admitted. ‘I find myself with a dilemma. I know a man who wears two faces, who smiles in two directions, lying to both. I am forced to wonder whether such a man can be trusted.’
‘A promise is only as good as the wizard or witch who makes it,’ Snape replied. ‘A man with two faces might as well have three.’
‘And yet none would be true and none could be trusted.’
‘As long as he is necessary—’ Snape’s eyes gleamed with amusement ‘—it would not matter.’
‘And if he became redundant?’ Harry leant back in his chair and found the shrunken glass goblet full of aconite in his pocket. He disillusioned it with a tap of his wand. ‘What then?’
‘Then he would find himself crushed between those he pretended to serve, no matter his true intentions.’
‘I suppose, then, that he best ensure he is always more useful alive than dead.’ Harry placed the shrunken goblet upon the table and restored it to its original size, keeping his wand in his sleeve. ‘Otherwise, it might not end well for him.’
Snape inclined his head, a faint smile on his lips. ‘How fare your attempts to win over Slughorn, Harry?’
‘Well enough,’ Harry replied. ‘I think my constant party attendance has tipped the scales in my favour, so long as I continue to excel in Potions.’
And I have Hermione’s book for that, now. He vanished the paper sealing the goblet shut and let Fleur’s voice well up in the back of his head. Wipe them all away until it’s just us and we’re free.
‘That’s good.’ Snape leant forward. ‘Your mother would be proud of your academic success.’
‘But not my extra-curricular activities?’ Harry quipped. ‘I thought I was doing quite well.’
‘Your mother was an exceptionally good person, albeit capable of righteous violence if incensed.’ Snape sighed and closed his eyes. ‘She was innocent. Her parents were kind. Her childhood was sweet. She came to the magical world full of wonder and light. I have never met another quite like her.’
And you got her killed. Harry stifled a trickle of ice through his veins and switched the goblets, watching the aconite dissolve away and vanishing everything else. Fleur’s right. Not only are you too great a risk to endure, but I owe you oblivion.
‘I do have another question,’ he said.
‘Ask away.’ Snape said, opening his eyes.
Harry let a faint smile spread across his face. ‘What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?’
‘You’d be perilously close to the Draught of Living Death.’
‘And what, professor, is the difference between monkshood, and wolfsbane?’ Harry let his smile broaden.
Snape paled a fraction and took a drink of dark blackberry wine. ‘None, they are the same plant.’
‘A poisonous one also known as aconite. I remember you asking me those questions right at the start of the first lesson you gave me, I’m sure you are glad to know that your students were listening.’
‘You look like your father,’ Snape murmured, sipping his wine. ‘He and I… we did not see eye to eye, even before he married the girl I loved.’ A hollow look hung in his eyes when he met Harry’s gaze. ‘I have since learnt there’s precious little of James Potter about you.’
Harry studied the level of wine in the glass. ‘If I imbued myself with a drop of unicorn’s blood, amongst other things, can you guess what it might do?’
Just a little longer. There’s enough aconite in there that it shouldn’t take long to act. A single sip is probably more than enough to kill.
‘Imbued?’ Snape’s brow creased. ‘With the use of some magic the Ministry would be tempted to condemn you to Azkaban for, you’d be immune to most poisons, or any similarly effective spells…’
‘I would be,’ Harry said. ‘But imagine, if you will, that I’m sitting in a hall filled with children, the naive, if not the innocent, and everything that I might touch, could also be touched by them. Now imagine there’s an individual harbouring the malice to spike everything they can touch with aconite.’
‘A tragedy might unfold,’ Snape whispered, taking another drink of wine. He glanced at the cup with a faint frown. ‘Yet none has.’
‘How very fortunate.’
‘Very. I must admit I was concerned, Professor Slughorn expressed some worry over missing ingredients, and I too have found some of my personal supply gone.’ Snape’s dark gaze gave nothing away as he sipped his wine.
‘I’m sure the guilty party will be revealed.’ Harry glanced at the near-empty goblet. ‘It won’t be long now.’
‘Are you sure?’ Snape asked. ‘Things are often less obvious than they seem.’
‘Almost always,’ Harry murmured. ‘Tell me, who is Malfoy really meant to be targeting?’
Snape held his gaze with wide, dilated pupils, running his tongue around the inside of his mouth. ‘I’ll tell you if you tell me why you haven’t killed him.’ He wiped beads of sweat off his forehead and dabbed his palms on his thighs. ‘Is that a fair enough trade?’
Your vow… He hid a smile as Snape sweated and licked his lips, sipping his wine in small gulps. But the aconite’s beginning to take effect.
‘Fair enough.’ Harry leant back in his chair. ‘I haven’t killed him because where he’d fail, you might succeed. Dumbledore said he suspected that he was the target.’
‘You know about the vow,’ Snape muttered, breathing light and fast. ‘You’ve been using that damn invisibility cloak.’
‘It’s very useful and not very dangerous.’ Harry let out a quiet chuckle. ‘Unlike you.’
Snape flinched, then pressed a hand to his chest and snatched his wand out. Harry disarmed him and plucked the wand from the air.
‘Aconite,’ Snape gasped between shallow, ragged breaths, staring at the goblet. ‘A lot of it, to act so fast.’ He stumbled from his seat and collapsed to all fours, crawling past Harry’s chair, dragging himself onward toward the drawers in the far corner.
Harry spied a section labelled bezoars there and turned the whole thing to dust with a tap of his wand.
Snape slumped to the floor. ‘Lily’s eyes were never so cold,’ he whispered.
‘You never deserved her,’ Harry hissed. ‘You should’ve burnt the world before betraying her!’
A hoarse, faint laugh tore from Snape’s throat and he hurled red-spattered vomit up onto the floor. ‘Nobody deserved her,’ he rasped. ‘She was perfect.’
Perfect… Harry stared down at him, but saw only Fleur’s soft smile and veil of silver hair. As always.
‘Don’t pin this on Draco… he’s not lost yet.’ Snape rolled over onto his back, gasping for breath in thin wheezes. ‘And, Harry… Do better by Fleur… than I did by Lily.’ His ribs rose, fell and stilled.
Harry stared down into his blank, dead eyes. ‘Well, I could hardly do worse, could I?’