Harry Potter and the Chained Souls

Chapter 28: The Chained Souls

To say that Snape had declined to continue the Legilimency sessions was an understatement. He had refused in the strongest possible terms and even that was putting it delicately. Snape had been livid when he'd woken up in the hospital wing. Not so much because he had passed out – such things did happen during Legilimency – but because he had no idea why he'd done so.

Naturally Dumbledore hadn't been forthcoming. He had, however, listened to Snape's tirade with perfect equanimity and then shocked the younger wizard by agreeing with him.

"Yes, Severus, I do believe these sessions have gone on long enough. I am certain that Harry has learnt as much as he will need to know in order to face Voldemort."

Snape's eyes had narrowed suspiciously at that. He had learnt to always be suspicious when Dumbledore was too cooperative. But he could hardly complain when the man was giving him his long sought after respite from Potter.

After three days, however, Snape was beginning to wonder if Dumbledore hadn't consented to end the sessions for Potter's benefit rather than his own. He glanced at the Gryffindor table where the boy sat listlessly pushing his lunch around his plate. Potter had been moping ever since their last aborted session which wouldn't have mattered to Snape if the boy were evincing any of the emotions he'd grown accustomed to seeing on Potter's face: anger, frustration, worry, impatience. Even disgust or hate wouldn't have bothered Snape overly much. But it was sadness and regret that Snape spied in Potter's eyes whenever he spotted the boy gazing off into space, lost in thought, and too often he caught those green eyes staring at him with the same troubling emotions. All of which made him furious.

Snape had worked very hard over the previous weeks to shut down his emotions completely where Potter was concerned. It had taken enormous effort, but it had been the only way to endure the perpetual mental invasion from the boy and he had also taken satisfaction from the frustration it had caused Potter. If the boy was going to put him through such misery then he could be miserable as well.

But the sessions were at an end now and maudlin sympathy was something Snape had never been able to abide. He could feel anger and indignation building beneath the cold detachment he'd maintained for the last month. How dare Potter pity him? The boy had no right and Snape was determined to put a stop to it as soon as possible. Luckily, the Defense practicum that evening would provide him with the perfect opportunity. Snape smiled slightly to himself. He would make certain that Potter never felt sorry for him again.

Having got over the initial shock of discovering that the dark figure in Snape's mind was Snape himself, Harry had come to the conclusion that ending their sessions probably had been for the best. He was sure that he hadn't helped Snape at all. Given how distressing the sessions had obviously been for the man, Harry suspected he'd done the opposite and he doubted that more time in Snape's mind would have improved matters. Severus had been as stubbornly determined to think the worst of himself as Snape was and Harry had no idea how to change that.

Harry took a bite of his pudding and tried to put that depressing thought out of his mind. Instead he turned his attention to the more important question of how the sessions might have helped him in his quest to defeat Voldemort. Dumbledore had insisted that they'd been useful and Harry had already spent a fair bit of time during which he was supposed to be doing his homework trying to work out what he'd learnt.

The sessions with Snape had been markedly different from his lessons with Dumbledore. During the latter, he spent all of his time fighting. But Snape's mind had posed a different challenge. There, he had had to solve mysteries and discover allies. He wondered if Voldemort's mind might present similar challenges. Could there be some shred of good personified in Voldemort's mind that might help him? Harry even wondered fleetingly if he might encounter a young Tom Riddle lurking in Voldemort's mind.

Regardless, Harry knew that his understanding of navigating the subconscious mind had improved dramatically thanks to his sessions with Snape. He considered telling the man as much as a way of thanking him, but glancing up at the staff table Harry abandoned that idea. Snape looked at him with cold indifference whenever the man happened to glance his way. Harry wondered how long Snape was going to keep that up and hoped that eventually, the man would begin treating him normally again.

A few hours later, Harry was reminded that he should always be careful what he wished for. He and his classmates had barely taken their seats in the Great Hall for the week's Defense practicum when Snape arrived.

"Mr. Potter, step forward," he began at once. Snape had taken to beginning each practicum by calling forward a student whose humiliation would provide the lesson of the day.

Harry sighed in resignation and stood up.

"Mr. Weasley, we will need your assistance as well."

Harry and Ron glanced at each other in surprise, but Ron stood up too.

"Potter, I need to see your wand," Snape said, holding out his hand.

Harry wasn't keen on giving Snape his wand, but he passed it to the man without protest. Snape pointed Harry's wand at Ron then passed his own wand over Harry's murmuring a complex incantation as he did so. Then he handed Harry's wand back to him.

"You and I will be dueling this evening, Potter," Snape said.

"Yes, sir." Harry nodded. He wasn't surprised and was actually relieved. He had already suspected that Snape might use the practicum to take revenge for Harry beating him in their duel the previous year and Harry reckoned there were worse things he could suffer than being humiliated in a fight with Snape.

"There is, however, one caveat you need to be aware of," Snape continued smoothly. "The charm I just cast upon your wand was a twinning spell which functions to double any spell you cast with it for the next hour. Not only will the spells you cast enjoy their usual effect, each and every spell will be directed at a remote target as well – in this case Mr. Weasley."

Harry blinked. "What?"

"The charm is normally used to allow wizards to cast spells remotely in what would otherwise be untenable locations," Snape continued in his standard lecturing tone. "For instance, it might be used in very small spaces or extremes of temperature which would make long exposure impractical or dangerous for a wizard. In your case, however, it will simply ensure that Mr. Weasley suffers the effects of any curse you may cast at me. Only he will not have the option of dodging or blocking it."

For a moment, Harry simply stared at Snape. "You can't be serious."

"I am entirely serious."

"You can't do that!"

"I am the teacher, here, Potter. I can do whatever I like. You have a tendency to sacrifice yourself for others whenever the opportunity presents itself. The Dark Lord is well aware of this weakness and has already used it against you. Do you imagine for a moment that he will fail to do so again? With luck, this exercise will teach you to focus on your goal without being hampered by undue concern for the fates of others."

"You're mad!" Harry said. "I won't do this!"

Snape smiled slightly. "Then you and Mr. Weasley may spend every Saturday morning in detention for the remainder of the term."


"What?" Ron blurted out, sounding horrified. "Harry, are you mad! We have Quidditch?"

"I don't care about Quidditch!" Harry snapped.

"I do!" Ron yelled back. "I'm not spending every bloody Saturday in detention and neither are you!"

"Ron, you can't expect me to do this," Harry said incredulously.

"Why not? It isn't as if you're going to kill me."

Harry gaped at his friend, but Ron was clearly serious.

"You have to do it, Harry!"

Ron was glaring at Harry with fierce determination and Harry felt his heart sink. He looked at Snape who was regarding him with smug amusement. The man had known exactly how to trap him and Harry hated him for it.

Harry looked at Ron once more, but Ron simply nodded vigorously. "Go on!"

Harry took a deep breath. "All right."

"Mr. Weasley," Snape said at once, "you may go stand next to your housemates. Mr. Potter, you will take your place ten paces to the left."

While Harry and Ron both moved into position, Harry's mind was racing. Any spell he cast was sure to hit Ron, but there had to be some way around cursing his friend. Then it came to him. If he only used defensive spells against Snape, there would be no harm done. With that strategy settled upon, Harry turned to face Snape and raised his wand.

Snape still looked amused, but his eyes now glinted dangerously and Harry found the combination more than a little disconcerting. Before he could give this any more thought, however, Snape flicked his wrist and a knot of force slammed into Harry, throwing him backwards. Harry hit the floor, sliding across the smooth stones. When he came to a halt he scrambled to his feet, glaring at Snape in surprise.

Snape waited, looking mildly bored, until Harry was on his feet again with his wand poised. "An accomplished duelist rarely wastes time on incantations, Potter," Snape said, lecturing once more. He made two quick slashing motions with his wand.

Harry was ready with his shield charm this time, but the spells came in such quick succession that he was only able to block the first. The second blasted him off his feet once more and slammed him into the house table behind him.

Harry grunted in pain and steadied himself as Snape advanced on him.

"Shield charms, while effective in defending against mediocre opponents, will do little to protect you from a master. If you refuse to attack, then you leave yourself at my mercy, giving me complete control of the battle."

Another brace of hexes flew at Harry and again he only managed to block one. The second found its mark and Harry cried out, clutching his side as white-hot pain lanced through it. He stumbled backward as Snape continued to advance on him.

"Even if only half of my spells find their way past your shields, they will whittle away at you, little by little, until you are no longer capable of defending yourself at all," Snape taunted Harry. "Or until I simply become bored of toying with you."

Snape flicked his wrist and Harry wasn't quick enough this time. He gasped as what felt like a jolt of electricity shot through him followed by a sharp blow to his abdomen. Harry doubled over in pain and dropped to his knees as Snape raised his wand again.

Desperate, Harry slashed his wand through the air. Silver arrows shot towards Snape. The man waved his wand and the arrows passed harmlessly on either side of him. But Harry had already brought his wand around again. Fiery sparks leapt from the end. Snape blocked them, but Harry jabbed his wand at Snape. The man jumped aside, just avoiding the concentrated knot of force Harry had hurled at him.

But a cry from the other side of the hall made Harry freeze. He looked up and was horrified to see Ron crumpled on the floor with Hermione and Ginny kneeling next to him.

"Focus, Potter!" Snape growled. "You can't afford to divide your attention."

To prove his point, he pointed his wand at Harry who jumped as a powerful stinging hex hit him.

"Defend yourself!" Snape ordered, but Harry couldn't. While Snape parried each of his curses with ease, Ron took their full brunt. Harry didn't know how badly his friend was hurt and couldn't risk injuring him further.

Snape sneered at Harry's inaction. "The choice is yours," he said in a deadly quiet voice.

He waved his wand and Harry blocked, but Snape hadn't cast a non-verbal spell. Instead, he reached out with his free hand. "Expelliarmus"

Harry wasn't prepared for the feint and his wand was jerked from his grasp. Snape caught it then brought his own wand around in a quick slashing motion.

It felt to Harry as though he'd been punched in the jaw. He collapsed onto the hard stone floor, dazed and with the wind knocked out of him. He shook his head to clear it and looked up to find Snape standing over him with his wand pointed straight at Harry's chest.

"Congratulations, Mr. Potter. You've just sacrificed the future of the entire wizarding world for the sake of one person." Snape looked around and raised his voice to address the other students. "Class dismissed. Mr. Thomas, Mr. Finnegan, see that Mr. Weasley gets to the hospital wing."

Harry started to get up and go to Ron, but Snape flicked his wand meaningfully. "Not you, Potter."

Harry watched as Dean and Seamus helped Ron get slowly to his feet. With them supporting him, Ron limped out of the hall and the rest of the students followed, looking shaken. Hermione and Ginny hung back, but Harry shook his head at them and reluctantly they left the hall as well.

When the last of his classmates was gone, Harry looked up at Snape whose wand was still trained on him.

"Is this part of the lesson, too?" he spat, angrily.

"Yes, Potter," Snape said, far too quietly. "This is the part that teaches you what happens when you allow your weaknesses to get the better of you."

Harry felt his stomach tense. "Are you really going to curse me when I can't defend myself?"

"I already gave you the chance to defend yourself. Do you imagine the Dark Lord will show you mercy?"

"You aren't Voldemort and you don't need to prove to me that you're a bastard. I already know that."

Snape smiled a very unpleasant smile and Harry braced himself, quite certain Snape was going to prove the point anyway. Instead, Snape lowered his wand.

"As long as we understand each other." Snape held out Harry's wand and Harry took it then scrambled to his feet, though he continued to watch Snape's wand warily.

"This practicum is designed to help you and your classmates overcome your weaknesses, Potter," Snape said. "Your chief weakness is that you care too much."

"Funny, Dumbledore thinks that's my greatest strength."

"In some situations it might be, but not in battle. You can't allow yourself to be held hostage by your friends."

"I'm not going to sacrifice them!"

"You may have no choice and you need to be prepared for that."

"I won't do it!"

"Then you will be easy prey for the Dark Lord and his servants!"

Harry glared furiously at Snape, repulsed by the man's callousness. "You may be a cold-blooded git who would betray your only friend if you had one, but unlike you, I won't sell my soul to darkness."

Snape's eyes widened so that Harry could see his own reflection in the ebony depths, but an instant later, the look of shock was gone and Snape was completely composed once more. "Then let us hope for all our sakes you never have to face that choice. You may go, Potter."

With a final glare at Snape, Harry left the Great Hall and hurried to the hospital wing. He felt a sharp pang of guilt at the sight of Ron slumped on a bed, looking haggard. Dean and Seamus were gone, but Hermione and Ginny were there.

"Ron, are you all right?" Harry asked worriedly.

"I've been better, but I've been worse, too."

"I'm sorry. I meant to only use defensive spells, but –"

"Don't worry about it, Harry. You had to defend yourself. It isn't your fault that Snape's a sadistic madman. Though I suppose we know why Dumbledore never gave him the Defense post before. Probably afraid he'd kill someone."

"Well, I think you're all mad!" Hermione said angrily. "Honestly, Ron! Quidditch? You could have been seriously hurt all because of that stupid game!"

"Quidditch isn't stupid!"

"Hermione, I don't really believe Snape would have taken 'no' for an answer, anyway," Harry interjected. "I'm sure he'd have forced me to duel him somehow."

"What about you, Harry? Are you all right?" Ginny asked. "Snape wasn't exactly taking it easy on you."

Harry ached all over, but shook his head dismissively. "I'm fine."

At that moment Madam Pomfrey came bustling into the ward. "All right, Weasley, you can go now. Just take it easy for the next couple of days."

The four Gryffindors continued to discuss the evening's events as they headed for their common room. Harry was still furious with Snape.

"I don't mind that he hates me and goes out of his way to be an arse to me, but when he starts hurting other people that's going to far."

"I don't think he hates you, Harry," Ginny said. "I think he's just doing his worst to everyone. Look at how he humiliated Pansy last week. She was in tears. Not that that wasn't fun to watch." She added mischievously.

"I wouldn't mind it if it were just humiliation."

"That's the point though," Hermione said. "He's hitting each of us where it hurts most and you care about your friends more than anything else. It makes sense that he'd use that against you."

They had arrived at the portrait of the fat lady. Harry stopped and faced Hermione indignantly. "So you think what he did was right?"

"No!" Hermione insisted. "But I understand why he thought it was right and I don't think he's picking on you maliciously. The stakes are just higher for you than for the rest of us. And you have to admit he's right. You do have a tendency to sacrifice yourself for others. Sine qua non," she added, addressing the portrait.

The portrait hole swung open and Harry climbed into the common room feeling very irritated by the lack of empathy from Ginny and Hermione. Fortunately, the rest of his classmates were there and immediately gathered around to voice their outrage at Snape's despicable conduct. That went a long way towards mollifying Harry's hurt feelings. Still, he couldn't help but wonder why his closest friends didn't feel the same way.

Snape prowled the halls of the castle as he usually did on the nights when he couldn't sleep – in other words, most nights. He was particularly troubled this night; which was his own fault, of course. He had only meant to shake Potter out of his melancholy funk, but the tempest of emotions the boy perpetually inspired in him and which he worked constantly to keep in check had got the better of him. He'd pushed too hard and Potter had lashed out at him in retaliation.

But Potter was long past childish, ineffectual tantrums: the boy was shrewd enough now to make his words count. His contemptuous accusation of betrayal and snarled, "… unlike you, I won't sell my soul to darkness," had hit their mark to great effect. The words had churned up Snape's guilt as well as an old fear, long buried, that had resurfaced in the months since Potter had begun delving into his mind and which haunted him now more than ever. Have I sold my soul? Potter had said as much and the wretched boy was certainly in the best position to know. Was that why he had looked so regretful the last few days, because he felt pity for the damned?

Snape rubbed his left forearm without thinking then pulled his black robes close around him against the night's chill. He was weary beyond physical exhaustion and knew the rest he craved would not be found in bed. Still he needed to sleep, so he turned his steps back to the dungeons. He would need another sleeping draught tonight, but at least it would give him a few hours respite from his own thoughts.

Harry was grateful for Easter break. Not that he had any less work to do since the teachers had all given the seventh year students lengthy essays to complete during the interim, but at least he wouldn't have to deal with Snape for a while. He didn't really mind studying either. It at least kept his mind off of the war and Voldemort. But Thursday morning he was forcefully reminded of both.

"It's really getting bad," Seamus said, looking particularly grim as he scanned the front page of the Quibbler.

"What happened?" Hermione asked, craning to get a glimpse of the article he was reading.

"Have a look." Seamus laid the paper down so everyone could see the photo that took up half of the page. It showed the Dark Mark hanging in the sky over a whole block of houses that had been reduced to rubble.

"Muggles are calling it a freak hurricane," Seamus continued. "Ministry says it was giants."

"Giants!" Lavender exclaimed, sounding horrified.

"It's bad enough that the Dementors and werewolves have joined You-Know-Who again," Dean said. "But the giants are going to be a real problem and there are rumors that the vampires are set to join him too."

"All his old allies," Pavarti said. "I suppose it was only a matter of time."

Seamus shook his head. "Yeah, but the Ministry's stretched thin enough just dealing with Death Eaters. I don't know how they're going to handle all this on top of it."

Harry listened in silence to his classmates, all the while staring at the ruined block of houses. The Ministry was never going to be able to get the upper hand in the war, he knew. There was only one way to stop the increasing carnage. Harry looked up and noticed that Ron, Hermione and Ginny were all looking worriedly at him. He couldn't even manage a wan smile of reassurance. Instead he stood up.

"I'm going to go and study."

Harry left the Great Hall and made his way back to his dormitory where he lay down on his bed to brood. However Ginny, Ron and Hermione arrived a few moments later.

"Harry, it's not your fault," Ginny said, coming to sit next to him. "You know that!"

"It is when I'm the one who's supposed to stop him."

"Harry, don't blame yourself!" Hermione said.

"Look, mate," Ron chimed in. "Instead of blaming yourself, we ought to be having a go at Riddle's research so that we can work out how you can defeat him for good."

Harry grimaced, but Ron pressed the point. "We could go to see Lawrence right now, just you and me. We could be there and back in an hour with no one the wiser."

"Harry promised Dumbledore that he wouldn't go off on his own anymore, Ron," Hermione said.

"And Dumbledore promised to tell Harry how Voldemort became immortal."

"Which I'm sure he'll do," Hermione said in exasperation. "Do you honestly think that Dumbledore wouldn't tell Harry everything he needs to know to defeat Voldemort?"

"I think that Dumbledore can make mistakes."

Harry sighed. They'd had this argument too many times. "Ron, you may be right," he said tiredly. "We could probably go and get Voldemort's research without any trouble. Except that we've thought that before and were wrong. I don't fancy being wrong again, not when it might get someone killed."

"Harry, we know the dangers and I'm willing to take the risk," Ron insisted.

"We can't be certain that we know all of the dangers," Hermione said.

"I'm still willing to take the chance. What I can't understand, Harry, is why you aren't."

Ron's disappointment and frustration were palpable and Harry couldn't really blame him. There were days when he'd been sorely tempted to go back to Wales to find Riddle's research too. Six months ago he would have done so – had done so – without hesitation and regardless of any consequences. But Halloween night had changed that.

"I never told any of you this," Harry said. "But Snape nearly died because we went to Dorset."

"What?" Ginny said.

"Dumbledore told me on Halloween. That night, Snape went to find out how Bellatrix Lestrange tracked us to Dorset and he very nearly got caught. He would have been tortured to death, if he had been. That's why Dumbledore and McGonagall were both so angry with us."

Ron, Ginny and Hermione stared at Harry, stunned.

"Why didn't you tell us?" Ginny asked.

"Because I felt horrible enough already."

"But Harry, you couldn't have known that there was going to be any danger to Snape," Ron protested.

"Do you suppose that would have made me feel any less guilty if he'd died? The fact that I had no idea that I was putting his life at risk is the whole point. I don't want to go back to Wales because I don't know what might happen – what unforeseen, unpredictable consequence might occur that I have no way of anticipating or preparing for. Maybe you think I'm being too cautious and maybe I am. But you haven't had to make the kinds of decisions that might get someone killed. I have and as often as not, I've made the wrong ones. Unless I have to go after Riddle's research, I won't do it. I don't need more blood on my hands. I've enough already."

Ron looked away, frowning in thought then he nodded slowly. "You have to do what you think is right, Harry."

Harry was relieved that Ron understood. "Dumbledore's in London today, but as he soon as he gets back, I'll go and talk to him and see if I can pry any information out of him."

"That's a good idea, Harry," Hermione said. "In the meantime, we might as well do our Charms homework. There's no point in wasting the time."

With that agreed, the girls went to retrieve their books as Harry and Ron grabbed theirs and went down to find a place to study in the common room. Ron still seemed pensive and didn't join Harry in spreading out his homework on their favorite table.

"What's wrong?" Harry asked.

"Nothing," Ron said. "I just remembered that I need to go see McGonagall about Quidditch practice. I booked the pitch for all morning on Saturday, but Slytherin were making noises about trying to cut in on our practice time. I'll be back as soon as I can, but this might take a while, so don't wait for me. I'll catch up on Charms when I get back."

Ron left and a few moments later Hermione and Ginny arrived.

"Where's Ron?" Hermione asked at once.

"He went to see McGonagall about booking the Quidditch pitch."

Hermione rolled her eyes in disgust. "I swear that Quidditch is all he thinks about. It'll be his own fault if he isn't prepared for his NEWTs."

They settled down to work, but Harry could tell that Hermione was still annoyed with Ron for having ducked out on studying. She kept glancing at the portrait hole and frowning. At last the portrait hole swung open, however it wasn't Ron, but Neville who clambered through.

"Oh! Are you working on Charms?" Neville asked, his eyes lighting up hopefully as he spied Harry and Hermione textbooks. "Do you mind if I study with you? I've been having trouble with that gender-switching charm. I tried it on Trevor, but I can't tell if it worked."

"Of course you can," Hermione said. "It's nice to know that someone takes their studies seriously."

Ginny smiled at Neville's bewildered expression and explained. "Ron skived off. He's gone to see McGonagall about Quidditch."

"Oh," Neville said, then he frowned, looking even more confused. "But I just came back from the greenhouse and I saw him heading off across the grounds."

"Where was he going?" Harry asked.

"I don't know. But he was heading towards the Whomping Willow."

Harry, Ginny and Hermione raced across the grounds towards the Whomping Willow. Reaching it, they quickly found a stick and prodded the knot at its base, then slipped down into the tunnel beneath it.

"That idiot!" Hermione said, repeating the phrase she'd been muttering over and over since they'd left Gryffindor tower. "That stupid, stubborn idiot!"

"Don't worry, Hermione. I'm sure Ron's fine," Harry said, trying to convince himself.

"If he isn't, I'm going to kill him!"

It had taken no time to guess where Ron had gone. Given how strongly he'd been urging Harry to go with him to Wales, it was no great surprise that he'd finally given up and gone alone. Just to be sure Harry had checked the Marauder's Map thoroughly and confirmed that Ron definitely wasn't on Hogwarts' grounds. Now Harry just had to go and find his friend before Ron did something stupid such as get himself Kissed by a Dementor.

The tunnel ended and they climbed up into the Shrieking Shack.

"You two wait here," Harry said. "I'll find Ron and bring him back. I won't be long. I promise."

"Just be careful, Harry," Ginny said.

"I will be."

Harry drew his wand and Disapparated. He appeared just outside the low, crumbling wall surrounding the ramshackle cottage where Lawrence lived. Mist hung in the air, but it didn't seem unnatural, nor did it radiate the biting cold which Harry associated with Dementors.

Looking warily around, Harry hopped over the wall and approached the cottage. Silently, he pushed the front door open and slipped inside. The living room was deserted and for a moment, Harry wondered if they might have been mistaken and that Ron hadn't come here after all. Then he spotted the shelves where Riddle's research had been the last time they'd been here. They were completely bare now, but several sturdy bags sat on the floor, stuffed with notebooks and rolls of parchment. Harry went to have a look, but as he bent over the first bag a hand clamped onto his shoulder.

Harry whirled around, pulling out his wand.

"Hang on! It's me!" Ron said. "Blimey, Harry! What are you doing here?"

Harry sighed in relief and pocketed his wand. But now that he knew Ron was safe, his anger at Ron's recklessness surged forward. "What am I doing here? What are you doing here?"

"Collecting Riddle's research," Ron said, ignoring Harry's ire as he began to tie the bags tightly shut.

"Nice of you to tell me that."

"I was hoping I'd be back before you missed me. How did you know I was here, anyway?"

"Neville saw you heading for the Whomping Willow and we worked out where you'd gone. Why did you lie to me and come out here? I thought you understood why I didn't want to come."

"I do, which is why I came alone. You don't have to bear every burden, Harry, or make every tough choice. The rest of us can carry some of the weight too and I wanted to do something myself for once that was more useful than finishing a bloody Charms essay."

Harry couldn't help but smile at that and his anger subsided. "Thanks. But you still shouldn't have come out here alone."

"It's all right. Lawrence is mumbling to himself in the kitchen and there's no sign of any of his pet Dementors." Ron cinched the last of the bags closed and frowned slightly. "I don't know how they feel about half-bloods though, so we'd better get going. You might as well carry one of these since you're here."

Harry nodded and was about to pick up one of the bags when a sepulchral voice spoke. "You."

Harry and Ron whirled around, drawing their wands. Mordecai Lawrence didn't react. He simply stared at them from the kitchen doorway. "You're back. Why are you here?"

Harry lowered his wand and regarded the wasted figure with pity and disgust. "We were just leaving."

The old man was paying no attention, however. He was looking past Harry to the empty bookshelves and bulging bags. His eyes widened in dismay and he started forward. "No, you can't take that. That's Tom's research. We spent years working on it."

"We'll bring it back," Harry said reassuringly as he moved to block Lawrence. "We just need to have a look at it."

"No!" Lawrence begged, clutching at Harry's robes as he looked plaintively into the young man's face. "Please, you can't take it!"

"We'll bring it back," Harry repeated firmly. "I promise. But we have to know how Voldemort – how Tom – became immortal."

"How…?" Lawrence trailed off as his eyes clouded with the mist of memories.

"Don't waste your time, Harry," Ron said, shaking his head. "He doesn't understand. He's mad."

"That's it," Lawrence said, coming back to the present and staring at Harry in astonishment.

Harry looked at the man in surprise. "What?"

"That scar – he gave it to you."

"That's right; he did," Harry said, frowning. "What of it?"

"It's his mark... the mark the spell left..."

"What spell?"

"The spell to bind another soul to his."

Harry stared at the old man in disbelief. "You mean – you're saying that Voldemort bound my soul to his?"

"Yes," Lawrence nodded, excitedly. "All of the subjects bore the same lightning-shaped scar wherever the spell touched them." The old man's eyes clouded once more. "Of course, the earliest trials killed the targets. Some went mad. It took months to work out. But eventually we devised a spell that would bind a soul to the caster without harming the one bound and which would make the caster immortal for as long as the target of the spell survived. There were still side effects though – mainly a strange mental connection. Tom found that the subjects could sense his thoughts and feelings, even hundreds of miles away..."

Harry grabbed the man by the shoulders. "Look at me! This is important. How do I break the spell?"

Lawrence looked up at Harry once more. "What?"

"The bond," Harry said, shaking the old man slightly to get him to pay attention. "How do I break it?"

Lawrence blinked. "You can't."

Harry tightened his grip on the man and shook him harder. "There has to be a way!"

"There isn't" Lawrence said, his eyes wide with fear at being manhandled. "Even Tom couldn't break the bond once it was made. Only the death of the victim will break it."

Harry stared into the watery eyes. "Death?"

"That's the only way," Lawrence repeated. "That's why he had to kill them all. Don't you see? They weren't worthy and he couldn't remain bound to those who were unworthy. So he had to kill them. It was the only way to free himself –"

Harry shoved the old man away and Lawrence stumbled back against the doorframe, cowering as though expecting Harry to strike him.

Harry ran a hand through his hair, but stopped halfway through the gesture and traced a finger over his scar instead. As a child, it had been a curiosity, then a mark of fame, a harbinger of danger, even occasionally a comfort. Now it felt like an abomination – the mark of a bond between himself and his enemy more horrible than he had ever imagined.

Harry looked at the cringing man before him. "So then, if – if the victim dies, Voldemort becomes mortal again? He can die too?"

Lawrence nodded. "Yes."

Harry nodded and turned away only to find Ron staring at him in horror.

"Come on," Harry said evenly, ignoring the stunned expression on Ron's face. "Let's get out of here." He picked up one of bags stuffed with Riddle's papers and left the cottage without another word.

With a 'pop', Harry appeared in the Shrieking Shack and dumped the bag he was carrying on the floor.

"Harry!" Hermione exclaimed, pausing in the process of pacing the dusty floor. "What took you so long? Where's Ron?"

Another 'pop' announced Ron's arrival even before Hermione finished speaking. He dropped the bags he was carrying as Hermione threw her arms around him.

"Ron! Thank goodness!" she said, hugging him tightly. Then she pulled back and punched him in the arm. "Don't you ever do that again! You scared us all half to death."

"Sorry," Ron mumbled, weakly.

"Is this Riddle's research?" Ginny asked, excitedly.

"Yes, but I don't think we're going to need it," Harry said.

"Why not? What's wrong?" Ginny added, frowning at the pale, troubled expression on Ron's face.

"I know what Voldemort did to become immortal," Harry said. "Lawrence told me."

"He could be wrong!" Ron said. "He probably is. I told you, Harry, he's mad."

"He may be mad, but he knew what he was talking about. I looked into his mind. I could tell."

"What's wrong?" Ginny repeated looking between her brother and Harry. "What did he say?"

Ron looked away, but Harry spoke without hesitation. "He said that Voldemort created a spell that would bind another soul to his own and that as long as that person was alive, Voldemort couldn't die." Harry reached up and touched the scar on his forehead. "He said that this was the mark of that spell."

"Harry, I'm telling you: he has to be wrong!" Ron insisted as Hermione and Ginny gaped at Harry in shock. "He might not be lying, but he has to be mistaken. That's just a curse scar."

Harry shook his head. "He's not mistaken."

"How do you know that?"

"Because the prophecy said that Voldemort would 'mark him as his equal' – mark me. And Dumbledore even told me that Voldemort put a part of himself in me. That's why I can speak Parseltongue. It's why I can get inside his mind from two hundred miles away just as Lawrence said. We're connected – not just mentally. Our – our souls are."

"There has to be a way to break the spell," Ginny said.

Harry hesitated. "According to Lawrence, only death can break it."

Ginny's eyes flashed with fierce determination. "There has to be another way!"

Harry looked from Ginny to Ron and Hermione, both of whom looked pale and anxious.

"Yeah," he said, trying to sound confident. "There probably is. I'll go and talk to Dumbledore as soon as he gets back. If anyone can work it out, he can."

Having reassured his friends as best he could, Harry led the way back down into the tunnel and headed for Hogwarts. No one spoke and Harry was grateful for the silence as well as the darkness. Though he hadn't said so to his friends, he held out very little hope that Dumbledore would be able to find a way to break the bond between himself and Voldemort. Lawrence might be mad, but Harry had seen the memories in his mind and knew he was telling the truth. All his years of research had never uncovered a means of breaking the bond apart from death.

There was a slim possibility that Lawrence might have missed something, of course, but Harry couldn't quite bring himself to believe it, not with the way Dumbledore had been acting. The old wizard had been so circumspect about Riddle's spell that Harry was certain Dumbledore already knew what would be required to break it and that he hadn't wanted to share that information – hadn't wanted to tell Harry that he had to die.

The thought of death didn't frighten Harry: he'd faced it often enough and knew that it was a constant threat. Still, the knowledge that it wasn't just a possibility anymore, but a near certainty felt like a physical burden and Harry found himself regretting all of the things he'd never have the chance to do. For so long he had wished for a normal life and he had believed that by defeating Voldemort he would finally have one. It was a bitter disappointment to know that that hope would never be realized.

Harry glanced at Ginny who was walking beside him and felt an acute stab of pain in his chest. He had postponed telling his friends the truth, but once he met with Dumbledore, he would have no further excuse to lie to them. The thought of telling them, however, made him feel rather sick. Burdening them with that knowledge would be much harder than facing death.

At last Harry and his friends emerged from the tunnel. It was a beautiful afternoon, drenched in sunshine. A soft, warm breeze tousled Harry's hair and rustled the budding leaves on the trees as the four headed back towards the castle. Harry barely noticed, preoccupied as he was with his gloomy reverie. But his melancholy thoughts were interrupted as Ginny moved closer to him and took his hand. Harry looked at her and she met his eyes and smiled. And at that moment Harry realized that she knew.

A huge wave of relief swept over him. Of course, Ginny knew. She had always had an uncanny ability to know what he was thinking and feeling, sometimes better than he did himself. But while there was sorrow in her brown eyes, it was overshadowed by joy and affection. Best of all, there was no regret.

Ginny squeezed Harry's hand reassuringly and he squeezed hers back, feeling the worst of his dread fall away. The future was never guaranteed. On balance, he'd known more joy than sorrow in his life and he had no regrets. That was more than some people could say and as long as he could put an end to Voldemort, it would be enough.

Harry and his friends arrived at Gryffindor tower to find their abandoned homework waiting for them. Studying was out of the question, however, so they went up to the boys' dormitory and took turns watching the Marauders Map for Dumbledore to return while flipping through magazines and playing chess. It was the longest afternoon that Harry had ever endured, but at last Ginny pointed to the map.

"He's back."

Sure enough, a tiny dot labeled 'Albus Dumbledore' had appeared in the headmaster's office. Harry laid aside his book on the Romanian dragon preserve at once and stood up.

"Do you want us to go with you?" Ginny asked.

Harry shook his head. "No. I need to talk to Dumbledore alone. I'll be back soon."

Harry headed to Dumbledore's office and found the headmaster at his desk.

"Come in, Harry," Dumbledore said, glancing up from a squat silver instrument he was examining. "What brings you here this afternoon?"

"I know why you refused to tell me about the spell Voldemort used to become immortal," Harry began without preamble.

Dumbledore stared at Harry then set the instrument aside and folded his hands. "What is it that you believe you know?"

"I went to see an old friend of Riddle's – Mordecai Lawrence. I know you told me not to go looking for Riddle's research, but I couldn't wait for the truth any longer. Lawrence told me how Voldemort devised a spell to bind another soul to his and that as long as that person lived, Voldemort couldn't die." Harry reached up and touched his scar. "This is the mark of that spell."

Dumbledore let out a weary sigh and ran a hand across his eyes. "Forgive me, Harry. I wanted to spare you the pain of the truth as long as possible, but I should have realized that you would only be put off for so long."

Harry took a deep breath and felt a calm resignation settle over him. He had wished that Lawrence might be wrong, but if Dumbledore could give him no hope then he knew there was none to be had. "Professor, I understand why you didn't want to tell me, but it's all right. If I have to die to finish him then I will. I'm not afraid."

Dumbledore looked at Harry and his eyes shone brightly with admiration and sorrow. "I know that. Nevertheless, my reticence has caused you undue anxiety over a misconception that I should have prevented."

Harry frowned. "What misconception?"

"Sit down, Harry, and I will explain."

Harry sat down as Dumbledore continued.

"You have not had the opportunity to study bonding magic, Harry. There are many varieties of spells that can bind one wizard to another as well as ancient magic that requires no incantation at all. A life debt is one such example and there are many others, some benign, some malevolent, but all require some form of intent by both parties – an acceptance of the terms of the contract, if you will, even if only tacitly given.

"A life debt, for instance, does not require formal agreement from the one whose life is saved, because it is presupposed that such an individual wishes to live. If, by chance, one were to save the life of someone who did not in fact wish to survive, then no life debt would be incurred. In every case, there must be intent to accept the terms of the bond. Do you understand this, Harry?"

"Yes, of course."

"Then you will understand why the spell Voldemort accidentally employed against you the night your parents died could not have formed such a bond between you. You were fifteen months old. It would have been impossible for you to understand the bond which that spell sought to impose, let alone agree to submit yourself to its terms. And because you did not accept Voldemort's dominion over you, the connection that was formed between you is unique. For yours is not a bond of master and slave, but of equals.

"That is what gives you the unique ability to reach into his mind, into his very soul with impunity. He is vulnerable to you. Though he forged the connection between you, he is not the master of it. Your soul is not his and you need not die to finish him."

Harry felt a thrill of relief and elation sweep through him, but a moment later it was dampened by confusion. "But, if he can die while I'm still alive, then why didn't he die the night he killed my parents."

"Because you are not the only person he has ever marked with this spell."

Harry felt a prickle of dread on the back of his neck. "How many others has he used it on?"

"That is impossible to say. Dozens, at least."

Harry's elation evaporated and he leapt to his feet. "What? We can't track down and – and kill dozens of people. If you knew that all along, why did you even bother teaching me to fight him? It won't do any good!"

"Ah, there you are wrong, Harry. You see, the means by which you have been preparing to fight Voldemort are fundamentally different than a conventional, physical attack. A spell such as the Avada Kedavra or even slow poison, results in an instant when the soul is separated from the body. Normally, this leads to death where the soul departs the physical world forever. However, because Voldemort has bound his soul to others, such a separation does not result in death. His soul remains anchored to this world.

"But a mental assault is different. Rather than a physical attack designed to separate body and soul, you will be attacking his soul directly and in order to defend himself, he will have to use the souls that are bound to his. He will draw upon their life force in order to sustain himself, much as he nearly returned to life during your second year by using his old diary to draw upon Ginny Weasley's life force.

"But he cannot keep this up indefinitely. One by one, he will drain the life from those bound to him and they will die regardless of where they may be anywhere in the world. You must maintain your assault against him until that happens. Only when the last of those chained souls has been freed by death will Voldemort be vulnerable to you. Only then will your presence in his mind be able to destroy him."

Harry sank back into his chair. "How do you know all of this?"

"I know because I have spoken with the last member of Riddle's cohort from his school days: Cecil Thane. The spell that Riddle created is one of the strongest and most evil of its kind. It took years to perfect. Mordecai Lawrence, with whom you spoke, only worked with Riddle on the earliest phases of it. His conscience was beginning to trouble him too much for Riddle's liking, so Riddle left him alone with the Dementors to slowly drive him mad while he found another safe house in which to continue his research.

"Thane stayed with him until the end and gave me a copy of their completed research which details the final form of the spell they developed. It is considerably more sophisticated than the crude version which gave you that scar. Voldemort eliminated those side effects that would give his victims any entry into his own mind, while at the same time strengthening his power over them. The bond gives him a limited means of communicating with those whom he has bound to him and the mark itself may be used to bypass wards or even as a homing beacon. And instead of the scar you bear, he fashioned a far more intricate mark – one which has come to strike fear in the hearts of all who behold it."

"The Dark Mark," Harry guessed.

"Exactly. The bonding spell that Voldemort created he named Morsmordre – 'to devour death' – because it prevents him from dying. And those whom he bound by it came to be known as Death Eaters."

"Of course! His followers are the only ones worthy."

"You see the brilliance of it, Harry? He uses the mark at once to control his servants and to ensure his own immortality. Under normal circumstances, the chance of our being able to kill all of his Death Eaters at once would be all but non-existent. That is why you – and you alone – have the hope of defeating him."

"Why didn't you tell me this?"

"I did not wish to burden you."

"Sir, I don't particularly want to be responsible for the deaths of all of Voldemort's Death Eaters. But if it's the only way to stop him, then I don't have a choice. Besides, it isn't as if I have to kill them. So I reckon I can handle it."

Dumbledore smiled wistfully at Harry. "I am certain you can, but there are worse things than being the catalyst of your enemies' deaths; worse even than giving your own life for a just cause. The worst thing, Harry, is to sacrifice those we care for. I know this because I have sent far too many to their deaths in service to this cause: men and women who trusted my judgment enough to follow my orders knowing full well the mortal-danger I was asking them to face. There is no greater agony and I wished to spare you that anguish as long as possible."

Harry frowned at Dumbledore in confusion. "I don't understand."

"Harry, it is not only Voldemort's active Death Eaters who protect him from death. Everyone who bears the Dark Mark must die if Voldemort is to be defeated."

Harry stared at Dumbledore in horrified understanding. "Oh god."

"You understand now, Harry, why I didn't tell you?"

Harry shook his head. "Professor, there has to be another way!"

"There is not," Dumbledore said firmly. "Believe me, Harry, if there were I would tell you. This is the only means of defeating Voldemort."

"But, sir –"

"Do you or do you not intend to vanquish him?"

Harry stared into the old man's piercing blue eyes. "I do," he whispered.

"Then you must do what must be done."

Harry wanted to scream, wanted to rail against Dumbledore and fate for forcing him into this unbearable position. Instead he simply nodded in silence and stood up. He crossed the room to the fireplace which was dark and cold and stared into it. After a moment, he turned back to look at Dumbledore. "Does he know?"

"Not yet, no."

"When are you going to tell him?"

"I wanted you to be the first to know. Now that you do, I see no reason to delay. I will tell him this evening after dinner."

Harry could think of nothing else to say, so he simply nodded once more.

"Harry, I am sorry," Dumbledore said gently.

"So am I."

Harry left Dumbledore and headed back to Gryffindor tower, embattled by a torrent of emotions. He arrived at his dormitory where Ron, Hermione and Ginny were waiting for him. All three paled at the sight of him.

"It's true then?" Ginny asked.

For a moment, Harry had no idea what Ginny meant or why his friends looked so worried, but then he remembered. "No. I don't have to die. Voldemort never meant to cast that spell on me the night he killed my parents. I suppose it was some sort of reflex from the Killing Curse rebounding on him. But Dumbledore said that since it was an accident and since I was only a baby, the spell didn't work properly. Our souls are connected, but Voldemort has no control over the bond. We're equals and that's why I'm the only one who can get inside his mind and destroy him. But I don't have to die to do it."

Ginny and Hermione rushed to hug Harry while Ron pounded him on the back. They were overjoyed in their relief and Harry wished that he could feel even a glimmer of that happiness. Instead he felt nothing but a crushing weight of dread.

"Harry, what's wrong?" Ginny asked, looking at him in confusion.

"Nothing. I just… I need to go and see Professor Snape," Harry said, giving the first likely excuse that came to mind. "I'll see you all later."

Harry left the dormitory before his friends could ask him any more questions. But he was definitely not going to see Snape and didn't actually know where he was going. All he knew was that he needed to get far away where no one would find him.

Snape stood with his arms folded and gazed into the flames dancing in his fireplace. "I see," he said softly to the old man standing next to him. "It's exactly the sort of thing he would do."

"I'm sorry, Severus," Dumbledore said gently.

Snape raised an eyebrow at him. "Albus, the chances of my surviving this war were never high. I need no words of solace from you."

"I'm sure you don't. However, I feel that I should at least offer some token of comfort, especially as I must ask you to do something that you will no doubt find unpleasant as a result of the current situation."

"And what might that be?"

"You need to talk to Harry."

Snape frowned. "I beg your pardon?"

"Harry has his mother's heart and he is bereft at what he must do."

Snape's frown deepened to a scowl and he looked away. "The boy lets his emotions rule him, Albus. There is nothing I can do about that."

"Isn't there?"

Snape could feel Dumbledore's keen blue eyes watching him. He glared at the old man. "What do you want from me?"

"I want you to tell Harry the truth. All of it."

Snape stared at Dumbledore in silence for a long moment. "I fail to see how that could possibly improve matters."

"You know what grief and guilt are like. Harry cannot afford to be burdened by them when he goes to face Voldemort, nor does he deserve to spend the rest of his life ignorant of the truth that might ease that burden. You owe him this, Severus."

"No! You tell me that my life is forfeit, yet still my overriding concern must be for Potter's sensibilities!"

"Not only for his, but for your own as well."

Snape turned on Dumbledore, outraged. "Mine? Do you honestly imagine I will reap the slightest benefit from this? How? Do you suppose the boy's hatred will make my fate more bearable or perhaps even pleasant by comparison?"

"I believe the truth will benefit you both, regardless of how painful the revelation may be."

"Then you're a fool."

"Severus –"

"Get out!"

Dumbledore continued to look at Snape mildly. "No, I don't think I will. You may of course try to force me, though I wouldn't advise it."

"These are still my private quarters and I have the right to be left in peace!"

"If I thought that by leaving you I could grant you peace I would already be gone. But we both know that is not true. For nearly twenty years I have respected your privacy and your unwillingness to confront or even to acknowledge the pain you carry in your heart. But I fear I can do so no longer. You cannot go on hiding from the past. You must confront it if you are going to find peace."

"There is no peace for me in this world, Albus! There hasn't been for as long as I can remember. Give Potter the chance to finish this once and for all and then I will have peace."

"Perhaps. But it is not wise to leave unfinished business in this life assuming that it will magically right itself in the next."

Snape regarded Dumbledore coldly. "Albus, if this is your idea of comfort, it falls rather short of the mark."

"You have always preferred the truth, however harsh, to dishonesty. I will not insult you by lying to you. You and Harry must come to an understanding between you – an honest one. You deserve to be relieved of the burden you carry and Harry deserves the truth as well as your trust. I do not for one moment believe he will hate you for offering him either. You have held him at arms length for too long and he has suffered for it as have you. It is difficult enough to lose those we care for, Severus. It is doubly hard to lose those for whom we never had the chance to care. Do not make Harry mourn you twice."

Snape waved a dismissive hand. "Albus, don't you think that's a bit melodramatic, even for Potter. I'm certain the boy isn't that distressed."

"Then you are deceiving yourself."

Snape glared at Dumbledore. "If so, then frankly, I don't care. At the moment I would simply like to be left alone. Surely that isn't too much to ask under the circumstances."

Dumbledore sighed. "Very well then; I will leave you for now and we shall discuss Harry later."

"I'll look forward to it," Snape said.

His voice oozed sarcasm, but Dumbledore ignored it. He left and Snape turned back to gaze into the fire once more.

So, he was going to die. Snape felt strangely detached from that fact, but then he had never thought about the aftermath of the war, had never imagined life beyond the hoped-for victory and so perhaps it was not too unusual that he felt no particular disappointment at the knowledge that he wouldn't be around to share in the celebration. He'd never really been one for parties anyway.

He was more troubled by Albus's insistence that he speak to Potter. Albus wanted everything to be neat and tidy, but life had never been neat and tidy for Snape. It had forever been strewn with hardships, mistakes and regrets and he was in no mood to suffer having the greatest regret of his life laid bare. He was not under any circumstances going to confess that to Potter. Albus was mad if he believed that the boy needed anything else to agonize over. And regardless of what Albus had said about leaving unfinished business in this life, Snape would take his chances.

"Severus?" Dumbledore called from the fireplace, interrupting Snape's dour reverie.

Snape sighed. "Yes, Headmaster."

"I need to see you in my office."

Snape sighed once more, but reached for the floo powder. A moment later, he stepped out of Dumbledore's fireplace into the Headmaster's office. He immediately noticed that they weren't alone. Granger and the Weasleys were present along with McGonagall.

"What can I do for you, Headmaster?"

"Have you seen Harry at all this afternoon?"

Snape scowled. "No, of course not. Why do you ask?"

"Potter is missing," McGonagall replied.

"What?" Snape snapped, incredulously.

Ginny Weasley spoke up. "Harry went to see Professor Dumbledore this afternoon. When he got back he seemed upset, but he said that everything was all right. Then he left the dormitory saying that he was going to see you."

Granger picked up the narrative, looking at Snape anxiously. "But when Harry didn't show up for dinner we got worried and checked. He's nowhere in the castle or on the grounds."

Snape looked from the worried faces of the students to the grim expressions of his colleagues. "He never came to see me. How long has he been gone?"

"Four hours," McGonagall said.

Snape felt a chill run through him. "You have no idea where he might have gone?" Snape demanded, glowering at the students.

"Don't you suppose we'd tell you if we did?" Ron Weasley replied.

Dumbledore fixed Snape with a pointed look. "Clearly Harry was more upset by our meeting than even I realized. He is not at Hogwarts, nor is there any likely place he might have gone. I have also checked and discovered that he has neither been seen in Hogsmeade, nor heard from at headquarters." Dumbledore paused to let this sink in, then concluded. "All things considered, I would venture to guess that we have a runaway on our hands."

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