Chapter 17: Mist and Mysteries
"There are numerous restorative draughts," Snape said as he swept into the Potions classroom Wednesday afternoon. "The Mandrake Draught is used to restore those who have been petrified. It is an excellent example of the essential characteristics of restorative potions. While we have no mature Mandrakes and thus will not be brewing the potion itself, any of you who aspire to pass your NEWT let alone this class would do well to memorize its properties and ingredients."
Snape launched into a detailed description of the Mandrake Draught: its history, properties and uses. Hermione, who was sitting next to Harry, wrote furiously, apparently determined to take down every word that Snape was saying. Yet despite Snape's insistence that this information was crucial, Harry could muster no interest in the lecture. He was still brooding over the near-disaster in Dorset the previous evening.
Harry hadn't had the chance to discuss it with Ron, Ginny or Hermione yet, but the more he turned the events over in his own mind, the more convinced he became that there was more to the Death Eaters' arrival at the Keene manor than an undetected ward. The old house had been abandoned for years, maybe even since before he'd been born. There was no way that there would have been a spell to detect his presence specifically. That meant that Bellatrix Lestrange must have been tipped off to go looking for him and Harry had a good idea of who might have told her so.
Harry glanced across the classroom to where Draco Malfoy sat unenthusiastically taking down notes. The Slytherin looked subdued at the moment. His usual sullen scowl was missing and he seemed oddly reserved. Was he trying to hide his guilt and disappointment that Harry hadn't been captured the night before?
It made perfect sense. Malfoy was the son of one prominent Death Eater and the nephew of another. He'd already sent up the Dark Mark during the Quidditch match the previous year. Who better to serve as the Death Eaters' spy at Hogwarts? Harry only wondered how he could have been so thick as to have not realized it before. But at the same time he felt relieved. There was no sinister mystery to Bellatrix having found them in Dorset. Draco had undoubtedly spotted them leaving, sent word to his aunt and she had tracked them to the old manor.
"Mr. Potter, perhaps you would like to explain the Mandrake's restorative properties to the class since you don't feel the need to pay attention while I do so."
Harry looked up to find Snape standing in front of him, arms crossed and glaring coldly at him. "Am I boring you?"
"No. No, of course not. Sir." Harry said.
"I'm delighted to hear it. Given that you are far from the top student in this class, you can ill afford daydreaming. Five points from Gryffindor."
Snape turned away to resume his lecture and for the rest of the lesson Harry forced himself to appear attentive. He was relieved when the bell finally rang.
"Harry, are you all right?" Hermione asked as they left the classroom.
"I'm fine, though I'd be better if Snape didn't take every opportunity to humiliate me. The way he acts, you'd think I was failing Potions."
"Well, you were a million miles away," Hermione retorted. "It was obvious that you weren't paying any attention."
Just then Malfoy passed them and Harry frowned. The Slytherin never missed a chance to taunt Harry and surely should have had some scathing remark to make about the dressing down Harry had received from Snape. Instead, he simply hurried by without even looking at Harry.
Harry dropped his voice. "I think I know how Bellatrix Lestrange found us last night."
"Malfoy!" Ron grimaced as though the name left a bitter taste in his mouth. "We should have spotted that straight away. It has to have been him."
Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny were in the boys' dormitory where they'd lately taken to discussing matters they didn't want anyone else to overhear.
"I can't believe that I didn't think to cast any anti-tracking charms last night!" Hermione said.
"It's not your fault," Harry reassured her. "None of us expected anyone to be following us."
"What should we do about Malfoy?" Ginny asked. She was sitting cross-legged on Harry's bed regarding him alertly. "If he's spying for the Death Eaters, then you're probably not the only one he's watching."
"That's true," Hermione said. "He could be passing all sorts of information."
Harry nodded. He'd already considered that. "We'll need to keep an eye on him, but we have to be careful. We don't want him to know that we've spotted what he's up to."
Ron, Ginny and Hermione agreed to this and Harry was actually cheered by the prospect of watching Malfoy. It made him feel useful at least, particularly since they'd hit a dead end in the search for Riddle's research.
Unfortunately, over the next two weeks, this surveillance proved to be far less interesting than Harry had expected. After observing Malfoy at every opportunity, Harry was forced to admit that while the Slytherin seemed preoccupied and tense, he had done nothing to warrant any suspicion, nor indeed anything to draw attention to himself at all. He'd even stopped acting up in Knight's lessons.
Harry was almost disappointed in Malfoy and wondered if Bellatrix had warned her nephew to lie low after the debacle in Dorset. Fortunately, Harry had other things to occupy him besides spying on the Slytherin. He had thrown himself into his lessons with Dumbledore and Knight, putting all of his efforts into learning to duel both in the physical world and in the mind.
His hard work was paying off, too. He was particularly pleased at the progress he was making with Knight. He had finally learnt to cast protective charms non-verbally and was working diligently on learning to do the same with the Summoning spell.
"If you never learn to cast another spell non-verbally, learn this one," Knight had told him with a sly smile. "For a creative wizard, Accio has endless possibilities."
Harry's progress with Dumbledore was slower, but the old wizard was unwaveringly encouraging and his confidence in Harry was infectious. Harry always left the headmaster's office feeling sure that he would be able to defeat Voldemort.
Then there was Quidditch. As Halloween approached, Ron badgered Harry to schedule more practices in order to prepare for Gryffindor's upcoming match against Slytherin. Harry was happy to oblige and booked the pitch as often as possible, allowing himself to forget his cares while soaring through the sky with his teammates.
It was after one such practice that Harry, Ron and Ginny landed in high spirits to find Hermione waiting for them. Hermione occasionally came out to watch them practice, but today she looked even more exultant than Harry felt.
"I've found it!" she said, her face flushed with triumph.
"Found what?" Harry asked.
"Our next lead on Riddle's research!"
Harry, Ron and Ginny gaped at Hermione.
"What?" Harry said. "How?"
"After we went to Dorset I started thinking about the house and I began to wonder if Riddle had any other property where he might have hidden his research. That's when I realized that I'd missed the obvious. Instead of searching for Thane and Lawrence, I should have been searching the records for other properties that were owned by the company that owns the house in Dorset. When I did, I found an old cottage out in the middle of a moor in Wales. The last known resident was a man named Ethan Celic."
"Who's he?" Ron asked.
"An old friend." Hermione held out a piece of parchment:
ETHAN CELIC = CECIL THANE
Quidditch forgotten, Harry took the slip of parchment and looked at Hermione. "Do we know if he's still living there?"
Hermione shook her head. "The cottage is really remote. The nearest village is forty miles away.
"Well, Wales is no further than Dorset," Ron said. "When do we leave?"
"I've been thinking about that," Hermione said. "And I think we'd be better off going during the day."
"Are you barking? How are we supposed to sneak around in the daytime?"
"We can use disillusionment charms if we have to and it'll make searching the place a lot easier. Besides, sneaking about at night didn't do us much good last time and I don't fancy stumbling around a moor in the dark. This Saturday is the first Hogsmeade weekend. All we have to do is leave the castle with everyone else and no one will miss us."
Ron looked at Harry. "What do you think?"
Harry considered a moment then nodded. "Yeah. That should work. The three of us ought to be able to step into any alley and Disapparate."
"What do you mean, the three of you?" Ginny said indignantly. "I'm coming too."
Harry looked at her calmly. "No, you're not."
Ginny flushed in anger. "I can fight as well as any of you!"
"This isn't about how well you can fight. Until you can Apparate on your own, it's too risky for you to come with us."
"I can Apparate with you. Or Ron, or Hermione –"
"And what happens if we get separated?" Harry snapped.
Ginny glared defiantly at Harry, but she clearly had no good answer to that, and Harry pressed the point. "I already have enough to worry about; enough people risking their lives to give me the chance to finish Voldemort. I don't need anyone taking stupid risks."
Ginny continued to glare stubbornly at Harry. "I'm not going to just sit around here being useless!"
"You won't be," Hermione interjected.
Ginny threw Hermione an exasperated look. "What good can I do here?"
"You can be our backup. If we take our mirrors with us and you have yours, then if we get into any trouble we can call you to send help."
Ginny considered that suggestion for a moment then let out a deep breath and nodded. "All right. That makes sense, I suppose."
"That's settled then," Harry said. "We'll go Saturday afternoon."
Harry was excited at the prospect of taking up the search for Riddle's research once more and couldn't wait to investigate the house in Wales, so naturally the next several days dragged by. It seemed that the more impatient Harry became for Saturday to arrive, the slower time passed. At last on Friday evening, Harry gathered with his friends in the common room to play Exploding Snap in the hope that the hours would slip away more quickly. They were on their second round when Professor McGonagall came in carrying a large scroll.
"I need everyone's attention, please. Due to the attack at the end of last term, there are new security measures in place in Hogsmeade that those of you thinking of going into town tomorrow need to be aware of. To begin with, students may visit Hogsmeade only between the hours of one and four o'clock."
A murmur of discontent ran through the assembled students. "That's only three hours," Dean complained.
"Which is more than enough time to spend your money on sweets and butterbeer, Mr. Thomas," McGonagall said. "The restriction in hours is necessary. While our students are in Hogsmeade, there will be at least four Hogwarts staff in town acting as chaperones. In addition, the Ministry is doubling the number of Aurors on patrol during these hours."
Harry and his friends exchanged concerned glances. They hadn't reckoned on having to skirt that much security.
"Tomorrow, Professor Flitwick, Professor Sprout, Hagrid and I will be in Hogsmeade," McGonagall continued. "If you notice anything suspicious, find one of us or an Auror immediately. Finally, I need a show of hands of everyone who is planning to go into town tomorrow so that I can take down your names. You will need to check out and back in with Mr. Filch so that we know that all students are accounted for."
Most of the students in the room raised their hands, though some seemed hesitant and Harry noticed dark looks being exchanged among his housemates.
"Do you reckon that three hours will be enough time?" Ron whispered.
"It'll have to be," Harry replied.
"What about the Aurors?" Ginny asked. "Leaving shouldn't be a problem, but coming back –"
"Weasley, Weasley, Granger," McGonagall said as she approached them, holding the open scroll of parchment. A quill hovering above it quickly scribbled down three entries. McGonagall closed the scroll and sighed. "I'm sorry, Mr. Potter, but you can't go."
"What?" Harry said, taken aback.
"Given what happened last term, the Ministry has forbidden you to go into Hogsmeade."
"But Professor – !"
"It's out of my hands, Potter. Even the headmaster has no authority to override the Ministry's order. I'm sorry." McGonagall turned away and unrolled her scroll once more. "Thomas, Patil…"
"It's the stupid DPS!" Ginny said. "They have no right, Harry!"
"What are we going to do?" Ron asked.
Harry shrugged. "I'll just have to sneak out and meet you."
"No, you won't," Hermione said. "Come on, let's go upstairs. I have an idea."
They headed up to the boys dormitory. Once there, Hermione explained her plan. "This might actually work to our advantage"
Ginny frowned. "How?"
"Half of the teachers are going to be busy watching the students in Hogsmeade which means they won't be paying attention to those of us left behind at school. It'll be the perfect opportunity to slip away. All we have to do is sneak down to the Whomping Willow without being seen and go to the Shrieking Shack. We'll bypass all of the security plus Filch won't be waiting for us to come back."
"You know, you're actually quite devious when you want to be," Ron said approvingly.
"All right then," Harry said. "Keep an eye on Malfoy while I'm in detention to make sure he's not snooping around. We'll leave as soon as Snape dismisses me."
Despite Quidditch practice, Saturday mornings had become the low point of Harry's week. Since following Snape to London and his subsequent conversations with Knight, Harry's unease at the thought of Snape murdering Death Eaters had become a constant dread lurking at the back of his mind. He had stuffed the Marauders Map away in his bedside table and determinedly avoided the obituaries page of the Daily Prophet, but still he was haunted by the possibility that the man might be out stalking another victim on any given night.
Most of the time Harry could push these thoughts aside, but in the silence of the Potions Master's office with the man sitting in front of him, it was impossible. As a result, Harry's concentration had suffered and his progress on his essays had slowed dramatically. This Saturday morning was even worse than usual.
Harry found it impossible to think about anything but the trip to Wales and fidgeted impatiently in his seat. As noon came and went, he glanced with increasing frequency and frustration at his watch. Snape hadn't kept him this late in weeks and of all the days the man might have chosen to hold him back, this was the last one Harry could afford.
"You seem anxious today, Mr. Potter," Snape drawled at last, looking up from the stack of homework he was marking. "Is there some place in particular that you're in a hurry to be?"
"No, sir," Harry lied through gritted teeth.
Snape smirked. "Good. I thought you might have forgotten that you aren't allowed to go into Hogsmeade. I certainly wouldn't want there to be any misunderstanding on that point."
Harry bit his lip to keep from swearing in frustration. So that was it. Harry should have realized that Snape would expect him to try to flout the Ministry's order. Of course, Snape was right, but that didn't diminish Harry's indignation. More importantly, if Snape kept him in detention half the afternoon, he'd miss his best opportunity to investigate the cottage in Wales. He had to convince Snape to let him go, but he had no idea how to do so. Arguing certainly wouldn't work and the idea of appealing to the man's sympathy was laughable.
But as Harry sat with his jaw clenched in anger staring at the smug, knowing look on Snape's face, the answer suddenly came to him, like an epiphany. Harry's mouth twitched into the slightest smile.
"If that's what you're worried about, you needn't bother," he said lightly, with a dismissive shrug. "I wasn't planning on going into Hogsmeade anyway."
Snape's eyebrows rose skeptically. "Really?"
"That's right." Harry looked straight into Snape's eyes. "My last visit pretty well put me off the place."
Snape's expression didn't change, but Harry knew the man well and spotted the slight tensing in Snape's jaw and shoulders that told him his words had hit their mark. Snape looked back down at the essay he was marking. "Very well then, Mr. Potter, you may go."
Snape's smooth drawl betrayed no emotion and Harry made certain not to reveal his own feelings as he quickly gathered his things and left the office. Once he had closed the door behind him, though, he grinned in triumph. At long last he'd managed to beat Snape in a verbal sparring match and it felt wonderful. Harry took off at a run for Gryffindor tower, so pleased with himself that he didn't notice the small voice whispering in the back of his mind, telling him that what he had just done was wrong.
Snape sat at his desk scowling at the unread essay in front of him and wondering how he could have been so obtuse as to accuse Potter of wanting to sneak into Hogsmeade.
Of course, it had been apparent from the moment Potter had set foot in the office that morning that the boy was particularly anxious to be elsewhere. Since it was also the first Hogsmeade weekend of the year, Snape had jumped to the obvious conclusion. That had been his first mistake. He should have known that Hogsmeade was the last place Potter would want to set foot and he had deserved the boy's sarcastic reminder of that fact. But this begged the question of why Potter had been in such a hurry. Aside from meeting his friends in Hogsmeade, Snape couldn't imagine what might have inspired such urgency.
Maybe if you'd kept him in detention you'd have found out, a disgruntled voice sneered in his mind.
Snape grimaced. That had been his second mistake. He never should have let the boy go. It was the very thing Potter had been hoping for when he delivered his unmistakably calculated barb, Snape knew, though he wasn't angry with the boy for that. Actually, he almost felt proud of Potter; the ploy had been worthy of a Slytherin. Nevertheless, it shouldn't have worked against Slytherin's head of house. And yet, it had. He had allowed himself to be manipulated by a seventeen year old boy.
Snape sighed and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. Perhaps it was lack of sleep that was playing havoc with his emotions and judgment. It had been months since he'd managed more than four hours a night. But Snape's lip immediately curled in contempt at that notion. It was a weak excuse and Snape had no patience for weak excuses, neither from others nor especially from himself. Also, he generally tried not to lie to himself, if for no other reason than that self-delusion was not conducive to long life for a spy. Snape knew that he wasn't suffering from sleep-deprivation. The plain, frustrating, absurd truth was that Potter's words had hurt. Snape loathed admitting that weakness. Worse, it troubled him.
Snape craved few things in life. Respect was one: acknowledgement of his talents and effort. The other was control. Snape didn't covet power on a grand scale, but in his own life and work he needed to feel in command. At Hogwarts, he taught as he liked and ran his house as he pleased. No student ever stepped out of line in Snape's class without regretting it. He was feared by all. Likewise as a spy he had complete autonomy. But most of all Snape needed to feel in control of himself. He prided himself on his emotional control. Indeed, it was his ability to shut down his feelings that had allowed him to deceive the Dark Lord for so long. The prospect of losing that control was alarming and he could no longer deny that it was happening with Potter, though at least he had the bitter consolation of knowing why.
Snape was certain the Occlumency and Legilimency lessons he'd given Potter were to blame. Such prolonged mental intimacy formed a bond between wizards and he was never going to forgive Dumbledore for manipulating him into that. Snape had discounted the effects of that bond at first, imagining himself to be immune to such sentimental foolishness. Perhaps with anyone else he might have been. But he had realized far too late what Dumbledore surely had known all along – Harry Potter wasn't just anyone. There was too much history between them and the intense hatred Snape had long felt for the boy had turned to sympathy and concern with shocking ease.
In and of itself, this wouldn't have been an issue. Snape had always been committed to protecting Potter, after all. If he cared about the boy as well, what of it? The problem was that Potter had come to care for him, to respect him, to trust him. Snape hadn't realized how much that had come to mean to him until that fateful day on the road outside Hogsmeade. Potter's anguish and fury at having been betrayed had torn at Snape's heart and ripped open the old wound which, if not healed, had at least lain buried under sixteen years of life's numbing drudgery. Now, that pain was as raw as it had been on Halloween night sixteen years ago and Potter's earnest attempts over summer to repair the breach between them had felt like salt being rubbed into the wound.
That was why Snape had worked so hard to push the boy away. He had thought that if he could dissuade Potter – make the boy realize that he didn't deserve forgiveness or compassion – then perhaps Potter would stop caring about him and his pain would subside. It wouldn't have been the first time that Snape had found solace in the indifference or contempt of others. In his experience, hate was far easier to bear than empathy.
It hadn't quite worked out with Potter, though. While the boy's attitude towards him had indeed turned guarded and cool, that had given Snape no satisfaction and today, as the boy had looked him in the eyes and calmly spoken those deliberately hurtful words, Snape had known that he'd been wrong. Potter's cavalier indictment of him was every bit as painful as the boy's prior forgiveness had been and Snape had realized with a sort of awful wonder that he didn't want Harry Potter to hate him.
A bit late for that, the mocking voice in Snape's mind commented dryly.
Snape shook his head, disgusted with himself. He was being childish. Potter had every right to hate him and to hold him bound for his crimes. It was no more than Snape had ever expected and there was no reason for it to affect him this much. Fortunately, they were in the middle of a war. There was no time for maudlin regret and no point in wishing that his life could be something other than it was. He simply had to do what he had always done: get through just one more day and hope to repeat the process indefinitely.
With that pragmatic goal in mind, Snape picked up his quill and forced himself to focus on the essay before him.
Harry, Ron and Hermione had no difficulty making their way to the Whomping Willow unobserved while Ginny waited in her dormitory for an alarm they all hoped would never be sent. Once at the Shrieking Shack, Hermione cast anti-tracking charms on each of them then they Disapparated and reappeared on a damp, foggy moor.
The moor was shrouded in a thick mist that seemed to cling to everything. Though it was the middle of the day, Harry couldn't see the sun, nor make out anything beyond twenty paces in front of him.
"It should be this way," Hermione said, pointing into the blank whiteness off to their left. Her voice sounded oddly muffled by the chill fog that was closing in around them.
"Let's go then," Harry said, striking off in the direction Hermione had indicated with Ron and Hermione close behind. They walked in silence, picking their way around bogs and numerous stones littering their path. Harry strained to listen for any sound that might signal danger ahead, but there was none. The moor was eerily silent.
After a few minutes, the cottage appeared like an apparition coalescing out of the mist. It was a squat little house that seemed to have been cobbled together out of stones from the surrounding moor and was so gray with age and neglect that it blended almost perfectly into the mist shrouding it, as though it was a part of the mist itself. There was a low stone wall, crumbling in places, which ran around the cottage and was broken by a rusted metal gate. This hemmed in a forlorn looking yard which, if it had ever been tended, had long since been reclaimed by the moor.
Harry, Ron and Hermione slowed to a halt, regarding the house warily for a moment before Harry beckoned for them to keep moving. They crept forward and huddled down behind the wall next to the gate. Harry peered through the rusted bars at the house. It appeared dark and deserted and he could hear no sound coming from it, but that hardly meant there was no danger. To begin with, they needed to ensure that there were no wards protecting the place. Harry looked at Hermione but she hardly seemed to be paying attention to the cottage. She was shivering and had her arms wrapped tightly around herself.
Harry frowned. "Are you all right?"
Hermione nodded. "It's just so dreadfully cold."
It was cold, now that Harry thought of it, but he ignored the chill seeping into his bones and raised his wand. "Manifesto!"
There was no response from his wand, not even the slightest twitch to indicate that any wards were present.
"I'll have a look. Wait here." Ignoring the gate, Harry leapt lightly over the wall and moved cautiously towards the house. He peered through the grimy window next to the weather-beaten front door, but could see no sign of life. He signaled for Ron and Hermione to join him.
"Do you reckon it's deserted?" Ron asked.
"There's one way to find out." Holding his wand at the ready, Harry rapped sharply on the front door, listening intently for any response. There was none and after a minute Ron spoke again.
"I'd say there's no one home."
Harry took hold of the doorknob and twisted it. To his surprise, it turned and the door swung open with a muffled creak.
"Lumos," Harry said as Ron and Hermione lit their own wands. He stepped through the door into a low-ceilinged room that felt cramped despite being sparsely furnished. There was a sunken, worn-out sofa against one wall and what had probably once been a matching chair in another corner. What caught Harry's attention, though, was an old sagging bookcase whose shelves held stacks of parchment and notebooks.
"Have a look at these," Harry said, crossing the room to examine the papers more closely. He pulled out a large stack of yellowing pages from one of the shelves and spread it on a nearby table where he, Ron and Hermione peered down at them and Harry felt his heart leap.
While the handwriting wasn't Riddle's, this was unmistakably research of some sort. There were pages and Arithmancy calculations as well as scrawled notes on various runes and their interactions with one another. Most of the notes however concerned magic Harry had never even heard of.
"I can't make heads or tails of any of this," Ron said, echoing Harry's own thoughts.
"Hermione, what do you think?" Harry asked.
"I think it's hopeless."
Harry and Ron both looked at Hermione in disbelief.
"Just look at all of this," Hermione continued, waving her hand to encompass the table and bookcase. "It's a mess. Nothing's organized and even if we could work it all out, what good would it do? None of this is going to help us defeat Voldemort."
"You don't know that," Harry snapped, feeling a rush of anger at Hermione. "You've barely even glanced at any of this."
"No, it's not!" Harry slammed his fist down on the table which shuddered under the impact. He hadn't come all this way to give up. He refused to give in to hopelessness and he was furious with Hermione for doing so.
Harry turned on Ron who was staring at him in concern. "What? Do you want to quit too?"
"Of course not! Are you both mad? What's wrong with you two?"
Harry took a deep breath and unclenched his fists, forcing himself to calm down. He didn't know why he felt so anxious, but before he could give the matter any thought, he heard a sound, almost like the moaning of the wind. Only this sound hadn't come from outside. It had come from just beyond a doorway to his right. Someone else was in the house.
The moan rose and fell once more as Harry, Ron and Hermione exchanged looks of alarm. Harry raised his wand and the three of them moved quietly towards the sound. They peered through the doorway and found a small, squalid kitchen. Unwashed dishes were scattered about and there was a faint stench of rancid food. Flies buzzed in the light of a single oil lamp which sputtered on a rickety table casting its feeble glow around the tiny room. Sitting in a rocking chair, close to the cold fireplace was a wizened old man who looked as gray as everything else they had encountered.
For a moment, Harry wondered if the man was dead, but then realized that the emaciated figure was the source of the sound they'd heard. Though his lips never moved, the man was making a soft keening sound, half moan, half unintelligible words.
Harry, Ron and Hermione exchanged another glance then approached the man.
"This must be Cecil Thane," Hermione whispered.
Harry nodded and stepped closer to the man. He cleared his throat. "Mr. Thane?"
The man showed no sign that he heard Harry, but continued his soft keening. Harry looked questioningly at Ron and Hermione. Ron shrugged and Harry turned back to the man
"Mr. Thane!" he said more loudly. "Can you hear me?"
The keening stopped and the man turned sunken eyes towards Harry who shuddered. It was like looking into the eyes of a corpse, but after a moment a spark of life seemed to flicker in their depths and suddenly the man sprang to his feet, a mad look of terror and desire on his gaunt features. He held out a skeletal hand and pointed at Harry, Ron and Hermione.
"Are you Mudbloods?" he demanded. "No Mudbloods are allowed here! You understand me? No Mudbloods!"
"We're not," Harry lied. "We're purebloods – all of us. We just want to talk to you, Mr. Thane."
The man shook his head and sank back into his chair. "Cecil's not here."
Harry looked at his friends in confusion and after a moment, Hermione spoke in a small, hesitant voice. "Are you Mordecai Lawrence?"
The man nodded, staring blankly at the wall. Harry sighed and stepped directly in front of the man.
"Mr. Lawrence, we need to ask you some questions."
Slowly the man raised his head and looked at Harry. "Questions?"
"About Tom Riddle."
"Tom?" Lawrence murmured softly. "Tom. We were at school together."
"That's right," Harry prompted. "He called himself Lord Voldemort."
A look of pain and fear flashed across Lawrence's face. "It was just a nickname he gave himself – a clever anagram of his own name. That's all it was… just a nickname."
"What happened after you left school? Do you remember? Riddle was doing some sort of research. Do you know anything about that?"
Lawrence's voice grew stronger as Harry's words sparked memories from half a century ago.
"He wanted to become immortal. Tom, he was always the best pupil in our class and he had an idea of how he could manage it. He asked Albert, Cecil and me to help him. We agreed, of course. To find a means of achieving immortality – who could resist the chance to do that?"
"What did you do? How did you help him?" Harry prodded as Lawrence lapsed into silence, seemingly lost in his memories. The man roused himself once more.
"After school we went to stay with Albert. His estate was large and provided ample privacy from prying eyes, both wizard and Muggle alike." Lawrence smiled at the memory. "That first year was a good one. We worked almost constantly, excited and hopeful of success. Tom traveled a great deal. He was working for Borgin and Burke's where he made all sorts of connections that he in turn exploited for our own work. He was often away for weeks at a time, but he brought back wondrous texts, full of ancient magic none of us had ever even dreamed of before. He would never tell us where or how he came by the books. He probably charmed some of his wealthy, unsuspecting clients out of them. It didn't matter, but as one year turned to two, the key to immortality still eluded us.
"Then, on one of his trips, Tom brought back an obscure treatise from Armenia about Dementors. It was the most in-depth study of them I'd ever seen and Tom was particularly excited about it. He was convinced that Dementors held the key to the kind of immortality he was searching for because they're the only creatures who can manipulate a soul. A Dementor's Kiss doesn't kill, you see; the soul doesn't pass on into Death. Rather, the Dementor draws the soul out of its victim, deliberately, with perfect control, and consumes it."
Harry shuddered as Lawrence continued. "Of course, the treatise was of little more than academic value without an actual Dementor to study, but Tom wasn't to be deterred. A fortnight after bringing us the treatise, he turned up more elated than I'd ever seen him. He had captured a Dementor. I was nearly as excited as he was. I'd always been fascinated by every sort of creature and almost nothing was known of Dementors at that time. Using the Armenian treatise as a starting point, we began to experiment – to try to discover the secret that allows a Dementor to capture a living soul." Lawrence's voice faltered and he lapsed into silence again, staring once more into the cold fireplace.
"What happened next?" Harry asked.
For a long moment the man showed no sign of having heard the question. Harry was about to prompt him again when Lawrence finally replied in a strangled whisper.
"It Kissed Albert."
A terrible silence hung in the air before Lawrence hurried on. "It was an accident. He and Tom were alone with it one morning and it somehow broke through the wards Tom had set up. Tom managed to subdue it again, but not before…
"We couldn't tell anyone what had happened. Harboring a Dementor was against the law. We'd have all been sent to Azkaban. So that night we took Albert out to a bluff overlooking the ocean. It was so simple, really. He had no mind and never struggled. And Tom was right – Albert was already worse than dead, so it could hardly be called murder.
"The next morning, Tom notified the Aurors that Albert was missing and two days after that they recovered his body on an insolated beach. His death was deemed a tragic accident and no one ever even suspected the truth.
"We buried Albert there in Quixby, but we knew that it would be too dangerous to stay ourselves. Tom was already talking of having more than one Dementor for our research. I wasn't even sure we should continue after what had happened to Albert, but Tom was insistent. He'd learnt a lot from Albert's death and was almost obsessed with carrying on. He said that we owed it to Albert. And so we came out here.
Lawrence fell silent once more and Harry dreaded pressing the man for more details of the grotesque work he'd done. But Harry had to know how Voldemort had succeeded in achieving immortality.
"So after you came out here, what happened? How many more Dementors did you capture?"
"None," Lawrence said, rousing once more. "We bred them."
"They're asexual; they grow like fungi," Lawrence explained calmly. Then his eyes lit up and his voice grew stronger than ever. "It was fascinating research. It took two years, but we finally succeeded in discovering how they separate a soul from a body. Think of it – of the possibilities! But we went beyond that. We were able to manipulate their natures and domesticate them to a degree. Tom envisioned a whole new breed of Dementors that would attack only Mudbloods. Loosing them on the population would purify the wizarding world."
"It's a good thing that never worked out," Ron whispered.
Lawrence shook his head. "The new ones were too unstable. Even a half dozen wizards together would cause them to turn and flee. They can only exist in very isolated areas, which is why I still live out here. They won't hurt me. They're almost like my children."
Harry stared at Lawrence, appalled. "They're here?"
"Of course. They're in the very mist." Lawrence smiled brightly and Harry knew that the man was quite mad.
"Harry, Ron, look."
Hermione's breathless whisper drew Harry's attention and he turned towards her. She was staring out the window with an expression of horrified dread and with a terrible sense of foreboding, Harry followed her gaze. While they had been talking the mist had been gathering outside and was now so dense that Harry could see nothing, not the moor, nor the crumbling wall circling the cottage, nor even any of the ramshackle yard just outside – nothing but a swirling, waiting whiteness.
"You've brought them," Lawrence croaked in a coarse whisper. "You lied!"
Lawrence jumped to his feet and pointed an accusing finger at Harry. His eyes were wild with the same look of terror and desire they'd held when he'd first spoken to them.
"You're Mudbloods! They only come to feed on Mudbloods!"
Harry backed away from the man.
"LIAR! LIAR!" Lawrence screamed hysterically.
Ron seized Harry's arm and pulled him towards the door. "Harry, we have to get out of here!"
Harry turned with his friends and bolted from the kitchen, Lawrence's shrieks following them as they fled. Harry yanked open the front door and gasped. It was like opening the door to a freezer. The air was oppressive and icy cold. Harry pushed his way outside through the mist and raised his wand.
"Expecto Patronum!" he called, but though his Patronus leapt from his wand, it was almost instantly swallowed up by the pervasive whiteness.
"Expecto – " Harry's voice faltered. He was dizzy and disoriented by the mist pressing in on him. He couldn't see anything. Ron and Hermione, who should have been right behind him, had vanished. Harry stumbled and fell to the ground, his head spinning. He knew that he was about to pass out and fought to stay conscious.
Harry looked up. Ron was standing beside him, cradling Hermione in his arms. She was unconscious.
"Come on, Harry! You've got to get up!"
Ron's presence seemed to help banish the fog invading Harry's mind. He struggled to his feet against the weight of the mist bearing down on him.
"Go on and Apparate," Ron said. "I'll be right behind you."
Harry didn't argue. He gritted his teeth and spun around then felt the familiar compression of Apparation. For a moment he thought he might pass out after all, but then his feet hit solid ground and he pitched forward onto his hands and knees on the floor of the Shrieking Shack.
With a pop, Ron appeared with Hermione. He laid her on the dusty floor as Harry gulped down several deep breaths and shook his head to clear it.
Ron knelt beside Hermione and shook her gently. "Wake up, Hermione! Come on, wake up!"
There was no response. Ron shook her harder and pleaded desperately. "Hermione! Please, wake up! Come on!"
Suddenly, Hermione eyes flew open, but they were unseeing and wide with terror. She screamed and began flailing wildly as if to beat off an attack. Ron grabbed her wrists to keep from being throttled and called her name urgently, but Hermione only fought harder. Ron abandoned her wrists. He grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her up into a sitting position, ignoring her struggles. He shook her hard and shouted into her face. "HERMIONE!"
That brought Hermione back to herself. She stopped fighting and looked around dazedly. "Ron?" she whispered weakly, searching his face.
"Oh, Ron!" Hermione buried her head on Ron's shoulder and sobbed. Ron wrapped his arms around her and rocked her gently.
"It's all right," he said comfortingly. "It's all right, now."
The three of them sat in silence as the minutes dragged by and Hermione's sobs diminished. At last she pulled away from Ron and gave him a wan smile.
Ron kissed her on the cheek then looked at Harry. "Voldemort used Dementors to achieve immortality? I think I'd rather die."
Harry couldn't have agreed more. He nodded and stood up. "Come on. We'd better get back before we're missed."
The trek back through the tunnel to the Whomping Willow was made in silence. Hermione still looked pale and shaken and Ron kept his arm around her as they walked. Harry's thoughts were racing. Even if Voldemort had found a way to manipulate souls the same way that Dementors did, how would that have helped him achieve immortality? Dementors destroyed the souls they sucked out of their victims and even if they could be domesticated – Harry suppressed a shudder at that thought – having his soul removed from his body couldn't be Voldemort's idea of immortality.
If only they'd had more time to talk to Lawrence or to go through the research they'd found. Harry was certain that the answer lay in that cottage, but with the remote house surrounded by a mist apparently made up of Dementors, he didn't know how they would ever get the chance to uncover the information they needed. They seemed to have hit another dead end, but Harry wasn't about to give up. One way or another, he was going to uncover the secret of Voldemort's immortality.