My first original novel, Strangers In Boston, is now available on Amazon under my pen name, T.S. Mann (get it?). It's free to Kindle Prime members and $4.99 to people who want to download the Ebook. Paperback copies are available for $12.99. Check it out, and if you like it, please leave a review. Basically, it's American Harry Potter. Except there's no school, no wands, and if you use magic improperly, it can drive you insane and possibly destroy the world. No pressure or anything.
UPDATE: Work on the sequel—Strangers In Dallas—proceeds apace. Chapters will be uploaded to my website and available for preview to patrons on the first of each month. Also, work has begun on the audiobook for Strangers In Boston, and Discord followers can listen to the recording in real time. Thanks everyone for your support.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled fanfic.
and the Resurrection Game
Harry Potter and all associated characters and situations are the property of J.K. Rowling. I make no claim to ownership.
Chapter 7: Little Hangleton
6 August 1994
At long last, Harry and his friends' summer lessons had ended, but the Brain Trust wasn't quite done yet. On Saturday, August 6th, the two exhibition matches held at Hogwarts took place before sizeable audiences, and Harry took great pride in informing Dumbledore how much money had been made for the Hogwarts General Fund. Hermione had not attended the matches, but that was not terribly surprising. House pride was barely enough to induce the witch to come to the Gryffindor matches, after all. Instead, she spent part of the day at a Muggle library, though she did join Harry and her other friends for a final dinner party. Apparently, Harry had taught Buttercup how to make pizza and tacos, to the confusion and then delight of the Purebloods in attendance.
If any of Hermione's friends noticed the file folder that she had brought with her and handed off to Harry upon arrival, no one commented.
During the dinner, Harry officially announced that "Blackstone" would be the new name of the former Potter Manor. Ginny Weasley had proposed it, as Black was Harry's surname now and he was heavily integrated into House Black. The suggestion had won her a hefty gift certificate to Honeyduke's, which she looked forward to trying out, as she was a rising Third Year and would finally get to visit Hogsmeade.
"Well, legally, anyway," she admitted with a smirk. "I am a Weasley, after all, and the Twins told me where a few secret passages are. I'm pretty sure Ron and Percy are the only ones to have never snuck over to Hogsmeade without permission."
Ron was not present to respond to the dig as he had declined to come to the party claiming a prior engagement. He did, however, send a very nice thank-you note to Harry for allowing him to join Harry's study group over the summer. Harry hoped he would be able to have at least a cordial relationship with Jim's best friend despite the Oath of Enmity.
More than the Manor's name had changed. Going with Ginny's suggestion, Harry had arranged to have the sandstone walls of the former Potter Manor transfigured into a jet black. He'd also assisted Regulus in taking stones recovered from Chevenoir's fireplace—the only part of the original structure to survive its destruction—and using them to make a small black rock garden behind the house as a memorial to Arcturus Black. Sirius had been deeply moved when he saw it.
After dinner, the group retired to the Great Hall, which had been set up as the nerve center for Eye-Spy Productions. The room was presently home to an assortment of mirrors all of different sizes, each of which had been prepared to replay the day's Quidditch matches from different angles. The Brain Trust would review the playback on each screen and discuss their plans for editing them together. Harry made some comments but mentioned that he wouldn't be available the next day to help with the editing as he had a meeting with Lucius Malfoy about financing.
"That's okay, Harry," Sue said amiably. "Keeping our backers happy is probably as important as what we'll be doing."
Harry laughed, and so did everyone else. All except for Hermione, who merely smiled and nodded as the two of them made eye contact. Everyone headed home around 9:00 p.m. Hermione was the last to leave, and she paused at the Floo.
"Good luck," she said quietly before leaving. Harry quickly went up to his room and opened the folder containing Hermione's research.
"Yeah," he muttered to himself. "We'll probably need it."
Meanwhile at 4 Privet Drive
"The meal was delicious, Mrs. Potter," Ron said politely. "What was it called again? Pasghetti?"
"Spaghetti," Lily replied with a smile. "Although, I think Jim called it pasghetti for a while when he was about four or so."
"Muuum!" Jim wailed at his mother's attempt to embarrass him. Lily and James just laughed.
After dinner, the four retired to the living room to watch some television (which always amazed Ron). They all laughed over the latest episode of Brittas Empire, though Lily had to explain repeatedly that, no, Muggle leisure center managers were not that foolish, that everyone on the show was an actor, and they were all acting silly on purpose because it was a comedy. She also had to explain the concepts of "leisure center" and, to an extent, "comedy." Not for the first time, Lily marveled at the odd nature of wizarding pop culture.
The Statute of Secrecy came into existence at the dawn of the Restoration Era, which meant that wizards largely missed out on the advent of the Restoration Comedy. Indeed, in the decades prior to the Statute's enactment, Britain was ruled by Oliver Cromwell and the humorless Puritans who supported him, and theater had been outlawed. Thus, among wizards, comedy, at least on the stage, had largely stagnated since the time of William Shakespeare. The only exceptions came from those wizards and witches who actively embraced modern Muggle culture, and even they were mostly limited to Muggle books and stage plays. The Potters were quite literally the only wizarding family Lily knew of who had access to a television set. Consequently, the idea of a "situation comedy" or indeed any form of comedy more modern than Vaudeville was largely unheard of.
"I still say you should try to figure out how to make magical television," Jim said to his parents with a grin. "I bet you could make a fortune that way."
Ron looked around the room in confusion. "Um, didn't you know? I think Harry's already doing that."
The three Potters all stared at him.
"What?" Jim asked with just a hint of anger. Ron swallowed, suddenly wishing he'd stayed silent.
"Um, he and his friends from the summer study group figured out how to make flying caramels."
The other three looked at him strangely.
"Caramels?" James asked.
"No, not caramels, I guess. Those things you use to record stuff like they show on the television."
"Ah, cameras, I think you mean," Lily said.
"Oh yeah, sorry. Cameras. Anyway, they've figured out how to make floating cameras that can record and save moving pictures like what they're showing here. They recorded the two Quidditch matches held today at Hogwarts and are gonna try to sell the recordings somehow."
Then, Ron actually quailed a bit in response to the look Jim was giving him.
"Harry's going to sell video recordings?! He stole my idea!"
"That will do, Jim," Lily said firmly. "You're not the first person to come up with the idea of video recording. Harry was raised Muggle, so it's no surprise that he considered it. Although I'm impressed if he and his friends solved the technical issues with a magical video camera."
"Yeah," Jim said bitingly. "I know how he was raised, Mum. I live down the hall from his old room, remember?"
"Jim!" James said firmly. "That's enough."
Jim opened his mouth and then closed it again. He spent the next half-hour or so sulking before finally announcing that he was tired and ready for bed. Ron, who was spending the night, spent that same half-hour wishing he'd kept his mouth shut.
Upstairs, Ron followed Jim into his bedroom. "Jim, I'm sorry I mentioned it. I didn't mean to upset you."
"It's not your fault, Ron. It's just … bloody Harry Black Lord Wilkes, the richest wizarding teen in the world, is getting even richer! And we're still struggling to stay afloat. It's not fair!"
"Is that you talking or the Imperius Curse?"
Jim turned angrily towards his best mate, who simply held up his hands in a placating manner. Meanwhile, Ghost-Vernon, who stood leaning against the far wall, spoke up.
"Oh Good Lord Above! What has the Freak done now?"
"You stay out of this!" Jim snapped only to remember that he was the only human present who could see Vernon. Ron was now staring at him wide-eyed in response to his outburst.
Jim sighed and turned to Vernon. "Could you … I dunno, materialize or something so he can see you?"
"I have absolutely no idea how to do that. And I repeat my question. What has the Freak done now that has you so upset?"
The boy shook his head and ignored the question. He turned back to Ron who looked visibly concerned at his behavior.
"Okay, don't get upset at this but … my Uncle Vernon, who died in this house, is here as a ghost, but I'm the only one who can see him. It's somehow related to my Animagery. Apparently, ravens can see ghosts."
"Oookay," Ron said cautiously.
"I'm serious, Ron," Jim said.
Then, he closed his human eyes and opened his all-black raven eyes.
"Bloody hell!" Ron exclaimed as he instinctively fell back a step.
"Shhh! My Mum and Dad don't know yet!" He closed his eyes again and returned them to normal.
"So, can you do the whole transformation now?" Ron asked.
Jim exhaled angrily.
"No! Well, not intentionally, at least. I've turned completely into a raven about three times, but never intentionally. And it takes me forever to change back! And every time I do, I'm still naked!"
"Indeed you are," muttered Vernon. "It's as indecent as it is unnatural!"
Meanwhile, Ron fought down a snicker.
"It's not funny!" Jim snapped.
"Oh come on!" Ron replied. "It totally is! If I were trying to become an Animagus and ended up starkers all the time, you'd be laughing your arse off at me!"
Jim gave Ron a foul look before finally bursting into laughter.
"Yeah, alright, maybe I would. But after a few weeks of it, it's getting old. At least I haven't come out of it naked and a mile away since that first night."
"I think I remember that," Vernon said thoughtfully. "Yes, I'm pretty sure I slammed the window on your fingers!"
Jim glared at the ghost who simply shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry?" he said.
"Look," Ron said. "Your dad is an Animagus. It was all over the papers. Why haven't you asked him how to transform without showing off your bits to everyone? I'm sure he had to deal with that too when he was just learning how."
Jim shook his head. "I'm an illegal Animagus, Ron. I could get into a lot of trouble if I get caught. And Dad could get into a lot of trouble if he's caught helping me."
Ron nodded. "Okay, how about this? I'll ask him tomorrow. I'll say I heard about him being one and I was interested in what's involved. You come up with a list of questions for me, and I'll ask them tomorrow at breakfast."
"Would you, Ron?" Jim asked excitedly. "That would be awesome!"
The other boy shrugged and blushed a bit. "Hey, anything for my best mate." Then, he looked around the room. "So, um, being a raven Animagus lets you see ghosts? I thought all wizards could see ghosts. I never heard of any ghosts at Hogwarts that were invisible."
"I think it's because there's not as much ambient magic here as at Hogwarts. Uncle Vernon doesn't have enough magic in him to remain visible all the time. I can only see him because there's a connection between ravens and death."
Ron crooked an eyebrow. "Oh, is there? Wonderful. Are you sure this is something you need to be mucking about with on your own?"
"Well, I'm not entirely on my own. Remus Lupin sent me a book containing notes on the transformation. It's helped a lot. Well, not with the actual transformation itself, but with the theory and whatnot."
Then, he looked at Ron with a curious expression.
"Say, are you sure you don't want to learn to be an Animagus?"
"Very! I'm already a Parselmouth, a beginner Wu Xi Do martial artist, and an overworked delivery boy for my Mum's magical catering business. There's only so many hours in the day, you know?"
Jim laughed. "Fair enough. I hope your Mum's paying you at least."
"She is, actually," Ron said proudly. "First time I've had my own spending money in my whole bloody life."
Jim was surprised by that, and he looked at his best friend speculatively. But before he could say anything about what was on his mind, Ron looked around the room carefully and turned the topic back to that of Ghost-Vernon.
"So, anyway, you have an invisible ghost that only you can see. And your parents don't know about it because…?"
The other boy sighed. "Because … I'm not entirely sure what the Ministry does to the ghosts of Muggles. But I'm kind of worried that it's something … not good. Can you keep this a secret for now?"
Ron smiled. "Of course. What's one more secret we're keeping?" Then, he furrowed his brow. "Hey, your Uncle Vernon's not going to, I don't know, spy on me while I'm sleeping or taking a shower, is he?"
"Certainly not!" Vernon exclaimed, though Ron couldn't hear him. "How dare you insinuate such a thing!"
"Duuude," said Steve, Jim's kingsnake, who had been resting quietly in his terrarium until now. "You were totally creeping on Jimbo here every night until he finally noticed you were here."
Vernon spluttered at that, while Jim turned to his pet snake.
"Yeah, Sssteve. And thank you ssso much for not sssharing that with me!"
The kingsnake gave an odd trembling motion which both Jim and Ron recognized as the serpentine equivalent to a shrug. "Jimbo, you and Big Red had ghostsss all over the place back at Hogwartsss. I figured you were usssed to it, and you were jussst ignoring the Walrusss over there."
Ron's eyes widened as Steve confirmed the ghost's existence and presence while Vernon just fumed silently at the snake's insults about his appearance. Jim looked back and forth between the two, slipping in and out of Parseltongue as necessary.
"Okay, Sssteve, how can you even see Uncle Vernon? And Uncle Vernon, how can you understand my pet snake?"
"Eh, mossst animalsss can sssee ghostsss. It's jussst, mossst of the time they ignore usss, so we return the favor. Live and let live." Steve turned his head from Jim towards Vernon. "No offense ... Walrus."
"And I have no idea how I'm able to understand that … reptile!" Vernon said while ignoring Steve's comments. "More freakishness, I suppose."
"I have asked you not to use that word," Jim spat through gritted teeth.
"Jim," Ron said tiredly. "I'm going to bed now. This conversation is too weird for me, especially since I can only hear two thirds of it. I'll see you in the morning."
"Okay, Ron. Good night." Then, as Ron put his hand on the door, he spoke again. "Hey, Ron? Thanks. For everything."
Ron smiled wanly. "What are best mates for?"
7 August 1994
"Well, Harry," said Lucius Malfoy languidly. "You called for this meeting. And also insisted I find a pretext to send Draco away. I assume you have some information to share with us about the fourth Horcrux."
There were four people sitting on Malfoy's veranda: Harry, Lucius, Regulus Black, and Severus Snape. Harry frowned as he took a sip of tea.
"Information to share," he said ruefully. "That's one way of putting it."
He took a moment to collect his thoughts as he recalled the Secret which Erasmus Wilkes had revealed to him.
Five days earlier in the Wilkes Office…
"Just outside the village of Little Hangleton, down the Old Mill Road about two miles past the Hangleton Bridge, lies a deserted shack where the last of the Gaunts once dwelt, and inside, guarded by traps and curses meant to slay any intruders not loyal to the Dark Lord, rests a golden treasure chest within which the secret of Voldemort's restoration lies hidden."
Harry stared at the portrait nonplussed. "So … this … golden treasure chest you need me to find. It's hidden in a box in a shack in the woods past the bridge down the Old Mill Road? I'm surprised it's not in a box on a boat with a hole in the bottom of the sea."
"What?" Wilkes asked in confusion.
"Never mind," Harry said. "It's a line from an annoying children's song."
"Oh really?" the Toymaker exclaimed excitedly. "How does it go? I love children's songs. They're so peppy!"
"I'll try to bring a recording when I return," Harry said drily. "But in the meantime, can you give me any more information? What sort of traps are we talking about? What's this golden treasure chest? And since I'm a minor who can't travel easily during the summer, why can't I bring an adult we can trust here so you can reveal the Secret to them?"
"Well," Wilkes began before stopping abruptly. "Wait. Secret? You're familiar with the Fidelius Charm?"
Harry waived his hand dismissively. "Everyone knows about the Fidelius, Father. The Potters used one to hide from our Lord, but they were stupid and trusted the wrong person to keep their Secret. Naturally, I took an interest in all the details of the Dark Lord's fall, including the workings of the Fidelius. Although I was not aware that a Secret could be as … complicated as what you just told me."
Wilkes shrugged. "It was an interesting experiment. A Secret must consist of a single sentence, but the rules for how many words, phrases, or clauses it could incorporate were … fuzzy. So for this Secret, we decided to incorporate as many details as possible in hopes of providing the highest level of occlusion, on top of the most devilish traps and curses that Boruslav, T… er, the Dark Lord, and I could devise."
"Right. So … my questions?"
"Ah, yes! Sorry! I'm afraid I'm all giddy and distracted now on account of finding out I'm dead and also a father. And most remarkably, in that order! But to answer your first question, you needn't worry about the traps because the defenses are all psycho-reactive. So long as your loyalty to our Lord's cause is absolute, they will all remain inactive. But if you show any doubts or hesitation about restoring Lord Voldemort to his full power, well, there goes the last bit of House Wilkes, I suppose."
"One would think," Harry said with asperity, "that my father's portrait would be more interested in making sure that his son and Heir didn't die in a failed attempt to resurrect our Lord."
"Family's important, m'boy," the man said brightly before his expression darkened. "But not as important as the Goal. If you aren't committed to the Goal, well to be honest, I'd rather you died horribly than live to deliver a portion of our Lord's soul to his enemies for destruction. Consider this an epic challenge of worthiness. A Test of Loyalty and Devotion!"
Harry snorted softly. "Well, can you at least tell me what the Goal is? All I know is what the Goyles had to say about the Dark Lord's agenda, and that was a bit … simplistic. Am I right in thinking that there's more to being a part of Lord Voldemort's Inner Circle than 'Blargh! Kill the Mudbloods! Blargh!' I mean, I hate Mudbloods as much as the next fellow, but there has to be more to it than that?"
Wilkes giggled excitedly for several seconds. "Oh, you are a clever clogs! Yes, Harry, there was a lot more to the Inner Circle's goals than genocide against our inferiors. Honestly, that was simply an enjoyable leisure activity for most of us. Lord Voldemort's true goal was … visionary!"
"Uh-huh. Care to share that vision with me?"
"When you've brought me the box, Harry. When I know you're truly one of us! Then, I'll tell you all about that. But not before."
He held up his hand to stop Harry from inquiring further about that topic.
"Now then, moving on to your second question, you can't take anyone with you, and we can't share the Secret with anyone else because, honestly, I don't know who's left that we can trust. From what you told me, Boruslav and the Lestrange woman are dead, while Gus has scampered off somewhere and is incommunicado. Mr. January might be a possibility, but I'm not sure. As of the last time I was updated, he wasn't finished cooking. That leaves the Selwyns, and I'm not sending my only begotten son to meet with those nutters. I mean, I'm an enthusiastic serial killer with a body-count in the hundreds, and even I think the Selwyns are creeeeeepy."
"No, Harry. If getting past the traps is a Test of Loyalty and Devotion, then consider this a Test of Cleverness. Let's see if you can figure out how to get some expendable patsy to convey you to Little Hangleton. Get one of the Goyles to take you. They're both stupid! Or if that's too risky, you can always call it a Test of Patience instead. Just wait a few years until you're old enough to Apparate!"
"A few years?!"
Wilkes grinned wickedly. "What can I say, Harry? I'm a portrait now. Lacking the sense of urgency that mortality imposes, I can afford to kick back and take these things slow and easy. Besides, in the end, time is nothing but an illusion, just a lie we tell ourselves so that things don't all happen at once!"
Harry sighed in annoyance. "Fine. So what can you tell me about this golden treasure chest?"
Wilkes blew on his pipe and bubbles floated up out of the end. "Not much to tell. It's a golden box that can only be opened with the magic words. I'm quite certain you'll recognize it when you see it. It's … distinctive. But the treasure you seek is inside. Well, there's actually more than one treasure inside. In fact, there's a treasure on the outside too if you want to get technical about it. But just say the magic words—in Parseltongue, of course—and it will open right up."
"And what are the magic words?"
The Toymaker snickered. "I tell you what, son-of-mine. If you can't figure it out on your own, bring the box back here to me and I'll tell you. And then mock you for how poorly you were raised."
Harry glared at the portrait and tried a few more approaches, but Erasmus Wilkes had nothing left to share.
Harry took a deep breath. "The Secret to the Fourth Horcrux is … complicated. And also kind of long. Over sixty words, in fact. I can't tell any of you the actual Secret, which means a lot of information is blocked from direct transmission. But I've learned that I can tell you things about the Secret. Peripheral information is okay to share so long as it doesn't invade the specific text of the Secret itself."
"What sort of peripheral information?" Snape asked.
"Well for starters, I would be very grateful, Mr. Malfoy, if you would make us all portkeys that will carry us to Sheffield tomorrow morning. I know it's short notice, but the World Cup prelims start tomorrow, which will provide a distraction in case anything we do sets off any Ministry alarms."
"Sensible, I suppose," said Malfoy. "But why Sheffield? I assume the Horcrux isn't there or else you couldn't have given us that city name."
"It's not. I wish I could tell you where it was. It would make things a lot easier if I could give you the name of … the specific place we're going. But I can't. So instead, we're all going to get motor coach tickets from Sheffield to Doncaster. And then, at a certain point, I'll be getting off. Obviously, I can't tell any of you where to get off, but if you choose to follow me, well, that's not my fault."
"What is a… motor coach?" Malfoy asked in confusion.
"It's sort of like the Knight Bus except not insane," Regulus said. "So can I assume that Muggle attire will be needed?"
Harry nodded and then looked cautiously towards Snape and Malfoy.
"I believe we are both capable of passing as Muggles if necessary, Black," Snape snapped. "Or at least I can. Though I suspect Lucius's hair might stand out on a motor coach in Yorkshire."
Lucius sniffed disdainfully. Then, he touched his wand to the side of his head and snapped out three words Harry had never heard before. Instantly, the patrician Pureblood's long golden locks shrank back into his head before turning a dark brown.
Harry looked simultaneously awestruck and vexed. "You mean this whole time there were Charms to fix one's hair and nobody told me about it? I've been spending a fortune on Sleekeazy all these years for nothing?!"
"Focus on what's important, Harry!" Regulus snapped.
"Typical!" Lucius snorted. "Only a Metamorphmagus would fail to see the importance of proper hair care." He glanced to his left. "Oh, and Potions Masters, I suppose."
Snape rolled his eyes at Malfoy before turning to Harry.
"So phase one is to travel by coach through Yorkshire, using the fiction that we are trailing you rather than traveling with you to bypass the Fidelius. What then?"
"Then, you three do a bit of investigating among the locals since I doubt that they'll want to talk to a 14-year-old. I can't tell you specifically what to look for, but you know Voldemort's real name and his Wizarding lineage. Ask the locals about that. I think it would be helpful if you know some of the local history as it pertains to Tom Marvolo Riddle … which, by the way, is not part of the Secret, so I can talk about him freely. In the meantime, I'll be getting a map of … the area and figuring out exactly where to go."
Lucius's eyes brightened as he made a mental note of what the boy did and did not say. He'd advised them indirectly to inquire about Tom Riddle and about the Gaunt family but then revealed that the name Tom Marvolo Riddle was not a part of the Secret. Which meant that the name "Gaunt" was!
"I see now!" he exclaimed. "We're doing discovery theater!"
"Discovery … theater?" Harry said hesitantly.
"Yes! An advanced Slytherin technique that will serve you well as Prince. It refers to strategies to use when you need someone to know a bit of information in order to manipulate them but cannot tell them directly lest the knowledge that it came from you affect their reactions. My congratulations! I was nearly sixteen when I mastered this art!"
"... Thanks?" Harry replied.
"Ahem!" Regulus interrupted before turning to Harry. "Anything else we should be doing?"
"Only one thing between now and when we get to … where we're going."
Harry paused and chose his words carefully.
"Mr. Malfoy, speaking purely hypothetically, what sort of magic would you use to protect a location so that it would only let in people who were completely loyal to you but would kill anyone who tried to get in that wasn't loyal? And how would you get around such protections?"
Lucius sighed. "The possibilities are, well, not endless. But fairly broad. Perhaps we should adjourn to my library for some research."
"Wonderful," Regulus griped. "I might as well be back at school!"
The Little Hangleton Bus Station
8 August 1994
As the coach made its morning stop in the rustic village of Little Hangleton ("rustic" being the word travel agents used to describe decayed towns on their last legs), the coach driver was surprised when four people—three men and one teen—actually got off. It had been years since anyone had actually gotten off the bus at Little Hangleton.
Of the four males, one looked nothing like Harry Black, another looked nothing like Regulus Black, and a third looked just a bit like Lucius Malfoy—if the notorious Lord Malfoy had short brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard instead of the long golden tresses for which Malfoy men were known. The man who looked a bit like Malfoy was distinctly unhappy to be wearing denim jeans, which was apparently the name Muggles gave to their most uncomfortable form of wearing apparel.
Alas, the burdens one must bear when searching for fragments of a Dark Lord's soul.
The fourth male who disembarked looked exactly like Severus Snape in all-black Muggle attire and his hair pulled back in a ponytail, as he honestly thought that the others were simply being paranoid and that such subterfuge was unnecessary.
Once he'd stepped off, Harry mentally reviewed what he'd learned from Hermione's thorough research. Little Hangleton was a tiny Yorkshire village, population 53. It was separated from the larger and more important Greater Hangleton (population 1,845) by the Hangleton River and the Hangleton Bridge that spanned it. The larger village was the former home of Riddle Textile Works, once a very profitable textile mill founded in 1803. During its heyday, it made the Riddle family quite wealthy, and they owned most of the land in Little Hangleton, which they managed to have incorporated as a separate community in 1869 as part of a tax avoidance scheme.
Sadly, the Riddle family's dominance of the region came to an end in 1943 when Thomas and Mary Riddle, along with their son, Tom Jr., were all found dead under suspicious circumstances. While Riddle Sr. had a will, it left everything to his wife and son who died alongside him. None of them had any other known heirs. With no clear ownership, Riddle's various creditors foreclosed on his properties, the mill went out of business, and both Little and Greater Hangletons went into a state of perpetual decline.
"Okay," said Harry, "let's meet in front of that pub in an hour. I'll be invisible, since I've no wish for a repeat of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril."
"What on Earth does that mean?" Lucius asked in confusion.
"Trust me, Lucius," Regulus muttered. "Ignorance is bliss."
The four wizards split up, with Harry ducking into an alley and reaching into the satchel he carried for a shimmery cloth—the Potter Invisibility Cloak. Harry figured if ever there had been a time to break it out of its vault, walking through a village of Muggles who might be cursed to hate him at any moment while on his way to collect a Horcrux was probably it. He threw the cloak over his head. Then, for good measure, he popped the Black Wand out of its holster and cast a mild Muggle-Repelling Charm over himself so that no one would bump into him. The Black Wand still wasn't as comfortable to use as his holly-and-phoenix wand. It was a powerful wand, to be sure, but it seemed to resent him using it. Harry couldn't decide if the wand disapproved of being wielded by a Halfblood or if it was just angry that he hadn't used it to cast any Dark curses yet.
An hour later, the group reunited at the pub. Harry quickly joined the three adult wizards in case there were any problems, but so far none of the Muggles paid him any mind even after removing his cloak. Indeed, the only one to draw any attention at all was Lucius, and that was for asking the barkeep if he could see the wine list. The Muggle stared at him for several seconds before tersely responding: "We got white and red. Take your pick."
The Pureblood chose water.
Regulus and Snape, meanwhile, each ordered a pint while Harry took a fizzy drink. Once the drinks arrived at their corner booth, Lucius discreetly produced his wand under the table and wordlessly cast a powerful Notice-Me-Not Charm to make sure they were neither disturbed nor overheard.
"Well, speaking for myself," Lucius began after taking a sip of water and grimacing at the taste, "I must confess I was unable to acquire any useful knowledge. Beyond, of course, the fact that the denizens of Little Hangleton fulfill the worst stereotypes of Muggles. If Tom Marvolo Riddle spent any time here, much of his attitude towards them can be explained."
Regulus laughed. "Well, I wouldn't go that far. Of course, I was raised by Walburga Black, so the worst stereotype of Muggles I've ever heard were claims that they are, in fact, a different species from wizards entirely and are essentially a breed of hairless baboons who somehow learned to dress themselves. That said, I wasn't able to learn much either."
"Well then," Severus drawled, "it is fortunate that you three Great Princes brought me along, as I obtained a wealth of information through superior cunning and perhaps a more amiable personality."
At that comment, Regulus nearly choked on his beer, while Lucius merely snorted.
"Amiable … personality, Severus? And which bottle did you drink out of to acquire that trait?"
"I drank nothing, Lucius," the Potions Master said imperiously. "Though I may have perhaps aerosolized a dose of Unctuous Unction and incorporated it into the cologne I sprayed on myself moments after separating from you all."
"You can turn a potion into an aerosol?" Harry asked in surprise.
"Normally, no, but the formula for the Unction is primarily an admixture of various essential oils which can easily be suspended in a mist form with the addition of..."
"No. One. Cares."
Snape glared at Regulus for so rudely interrupting his lecture. Then, he reached into a pocket and produced a Muggle pen and a hand-sized memo pad which he opened and flipped through.
"In that case, I shall move on to my findings. To begin with, this village is indeed the last known domicile of the Gaunt family, though that fact is known only to the older villagers as no Gaunts have been seen in these parts in over fifty years. Marvolo Gaunt is remembered as a deranged tramp who lived in a dilapidated shack somewhere just outside of town with two children, one male, one female. The son's name was Morfin. No one recalled the name of the daughter—who we know as Merope Gaunt—but a few of the eldest Muggles recalled stories from their childhood of a scandal involving her and Tom Riddle Jr., the son of the local textile magnate who essentially owned most of the town."
"Now we're getting somewhere!" Regulus exclaimed.
"Indeed. The details are vague, as the story began sometime in the mid-1920s. Only two of those I spoke to were old enough to remember back that far. But apparently, Morfin Gaunt, an addled young man with a speech impediment that left him unable to speak in anything other than strange hissing sounds, attended a May Day festival and caused a disturbance of some kind. Interestingly, neither of the witnesses I spoke to remembered what kind of disturbance it was beyond the fact that several Muggles were injured."
Lucius nodded. "In other words, the fool breached the Statute of Secrecy to the extent that Obliviators were called in. I'll have my people at the Ministry begin a search for the DMLE records from that era."
Snape resumed. "The scandal part of the story takes place a few weeks later, when Tom Riddle Jr., who was already engaged to a local girl, disappeared from Little Hangleton. He reappeared after many months had passed, claiming that a woman, almost certainly Merope, had 'hoodwinked' him into a marriage which was quickly annulled upon his return. Despite the annulment, Tom Riddle Jr. never remarried and, in fact, seldom left the Riddle house for the remainder of his life. There was speculation that whatever had happened to him during his absence had driven him mad."
"Yeah," Regulus said. "If Merope was as bad as her father and brother, I imagine getting Charmed to marry her and run off together would have done it."
Harry shook his head. "Merope Gaunt was a Squib, though. Or at least, she never got a Hogwarts letter. She couldn't have used a Charm."
"I agree," said Snape. "I think she most likely used Amortentia on Riddle. As an Ancient and Noble House, the Gaunts probably would have had a supply of it. It was commonplace among the Great Houses for facilitating arranged marriages, but it is a potion to which Muggles often react very poorly and which frequently damages mental health."
He paused, suddenly wondering if his own father's propensity for violence might have been the result of a "poor reaction" to Amortentia. He quickly pushed the thought aside.
"In any event, the Riddles, both parents and the son, largely withdrew from society from then on until their mysterious deaths in the Summer of 1943."
"By mysterious," said Lucius, "I assume you mean magical?"
"There were no wounds, no traumas, no signs of poison. All three died instantly without leaving a mark. Classic signs of the Killing Curse."
Harry whistled. "Tom Marvolo Riddle's homecoming. That would have been the summer after the Chamber of Secrets business, which was also when he accidentally turned himself into a sociopath. But how did he kill three people with the Killing Curse at age 16 without setting off the Trace?"
"I have no idea. The Muggles I interviewed believed that the Riddles were actually murdered by a young man named Frank Bryce who worked as a gardener and caretaker for the Riddles. There was no real reason for the suspicion of Bryce beyond the fact that the local police interviewed him. He lived, and still lives, in a small house at the edge of the Riddle property and so would have had access to the home. Perhaps it might be worthwhile to speak with him. And also pay a visit to the scene of the crime."
The three adult Slytherins turned as one to look at Harry expectantly, as he alone knew the Secret that had led them to this village. Somewhat daunted by their expectant looks, he coughed in embarrassment.
"Um, yeah, couldn't hurt, I guess," he said somewhat evasively.
Thirty minutes later, the quartet entered the decrepit Riddle Manor.
"Watch your step, Harry," Regulus cautioned.
"You think there might be danger in here?" the boy asked. "After all these years?"
"Danger takes many forms," the older Black said. "Honestly, my biggest fear is the floor caving in or the roof falling down on our heads."
Lucius ignored them in favor of casting multiple Revelios before moving on to more obscure investigatory Charms.
"Only one person, a Muggle, has been inside this house within the last three years, which is as far back as my revelatory spells can detect."
"Everyone!" Snape called. "Come here!"
The other three followed the Potions Master's voice into a parlor to find him standing in front of the cold fireplace. He was looking up at a portrait that was covered in dust and faded with age. Three people were depicted, one of whom made Harry gasp in surprise.
"That's …" he paused. "No, wait … it's not. But that kid looks almost exactly like Tom Riddle from the Horcrux-Diary. The hair's a little different but the resemblance is otherwise spot on."
Snape cleaned away the dust with a sweep of his wand. At the bottom of the painting was a worn brass placard.
Thomas, Mary, and Tom Jr.
"From what we know of Tom Marvolo Riddle," Regulus said, "he wasn't born until 1926. So undoubtedly, the young man in this picture is his father as a youth."
"There are other pictures of him on the walls that show him older," Harry said. "Take a look at this."
The boy pointed to an old black and white photograph dated 1933. It showed the three Riddles seated on a couch. The older Riddles bore stern and somewhat weary expressions, but Harry's eyes were drawn to the younger man, though younger was a relative term. By all rights, Tom Riddle Jr. should still be under 30 in this photo, but his hair was white, while his face bore a haunted and broken expression. He seemed closer to fifty than thirty.
"Oh, yeah," Regulus said. "Definitely not a happy marriage."
Their discussion of the younger Muggle was interrupted by the sound of the front door opening.
"OI! WHO'S IN 'ERE MUCKIN' ABOUT?!" bellowed someone in a raspy voice. Before anyone else could react, Lucius whipped out his wand and cast a spell. To Harry's surprise, he felt the familiar sensation of an egg being cracked over his head even though Malfoy wasn't close enough to touch him.
"Do not move," said Malfoy softly. "Do not speak above a whisper."
Seconds later, the four wizards watched as an elderly man crept through the doorway holding a shotgun. He scanned the parlor carefully but was unable to see them even though they stood boldly in the middle of the room. Slowly, Snape drew his own wand.
"CONFUNDO NONTEMPUS." Instantly, the man froze in mid-step. To Harry, the effect seemed similar to the Petrificus Totalus except that the man's limbs didn't slam together. Instead, he simply stopped moving. Snape stepped closer and gazed deeply into the old man's eyes.
"LEGILIMENS," he murmured softly.
"What is Confundo Nontempus?" asked Harry, who was always interested in learning a new spell.
"A modified Confundus," Lucius explained. "It replicates the Petrification Hex but leaves no signs of its use and, more importantly, leaves the target with no memories of the time spent petrified. And because of its nature, it does not count as a memory-altering Charm and so cannot be detected by a Remembrall."
"Uh-huh. And that wordless Mass Disillusionment?"
"A proprietary spell of my own design created during my Mastery," Malfoy replied in a tone suggesting he was unlikely to share any more details about any of his proprietary magic.
After a moment, Snape touched his wand to the side of the man's head and muttered a soft incantation. In response, a trickle of silver fluid began to leak from the man's right eye like tears. With another wand flick, the silvery liquid floated through the air into an open vial which Snape casually produced and then stoppered. That done, he turned to his companions.
"This man is Frank Bryce, who was falsely accused of murdering the Riddles in 1943. He still works as a caretaker and security guard in exchange for free room and board in the caretaker's house at the edge of the Riddle property."
Lucius's eyes narrowed. "Who is paying him?"
"A law firm in London that oversees the Riddle property on behalf of an unidentified purchaser who bought the land sometime in the 1970s for unspecified 'tax purposes.' I have withdrawn his memories pertinent to that topic for you to review later, Lucius. I also have some other memories more immediately relevant to our investigation."
"Oh?" asked Harry.
"Yes. On the night the Riddles were slain, he witnessed a young man heading up to the house clutching what is clearly a wand, though Bryce did not recognize it as such at the time. I wish for you to view the memory to confirm, Harry, but based on your description, I feel certain it was Tom Marvolo Riddle."
"Is there anything else we need to do here?" Regulus asked cautiously. "This place is starting to give me the willies."
The other wizards agreed and made their way out of the house. Snape explained that Bryce would come out of his stupor within a few minutes with no memory of the elapsed time.
"So what now?" Lucius asked once they were out of the ruined house.
"Now?" Harry said. "We go for a walk."
From the Riddle home, it was indeed a fairly long walk that took the four wizards back into Little Hangleton. In the center of the hamlet, Harry stopped and pulled out a map of the area that he'd acquired from a local shop and made some notes on. He took a left and headed out of town in another direction that followed along the Old Mill Road. They soon passed by the Little Hangleton Cemetery before crossing the bridge over the Hangleton River (which was actually barely a stream at this point). Past the bridge, there were fewer signs of civilization and more woods, as the Riddles had purchased much of this land back in the 1870s with the goal of turning it back into a forest for hunting purposes.
After another half-hour, Harry stopped abruptly, checked his map, and then confirmed his location with an orienteering Charm Regulus had shown him the night before. The three adult wizards waited patiently. Harry began walking again, but more slowly, as he continually scanned the left side of the road for … something. After about a hundred yards, he found it: a narrow trail leading off the main road that was almost completely overcome with brush and vegetation. Harry turned off of Old Mill Road and started for the trail when Regulus grabbed him by the shoulder.
"If it's all the same, Harry, I'll take point."
"How?" Harry asked. "You probably won't even be able to see what we're looking for until you walk right into it."
Regulus stopped with a chagrined expression. "Fine. I will walk in front with you close behind me."
Harry frowned but nodded, and the group continued on down the barely visible path which opened up into a clearing about fifty feet from the road.
"Stop!" Harry said firmly, and Regulus froze in response. Lucius took out his wand and cast a number of detection spells.
"I see the remains of a Muggle-Repelling Charm that probably collapsed decades ago," he said. "Nothing else out of the ordinary."
"Uh-huh," Harry said while staring into the clearing with an intense expression. "Does anybody notice anything odd up ahead?"
All three men claimed to see nothing but an empty clearing. Harry, however, saw a dilapidated shack ahead of them. It was small, no more than twenty feet on a side, though with Expansion Charms, it could easily be bigger on the inside. From his vantage point, Harry could see a snakeskin nailed to the front door.
Somewhat more troubling was the sea of black adders that surrounded the shack on all sides! Harry estimated there were hundreds of them writhing all over each other. And they were almost certainly enchanted as well. These snakes had apparently been here since Voldemort and Wilkes set up the protections for this place decades earlier—presumably without a regular food source—and they all seemed in good health. Perhaps most disturbingly, every one of the snakes had its head raised, and they were all staring directly at the quartet with unmistakable hostility.
"What do you see, Harry?" Snape asked. Harry turned to the other men and described the scene as he perceived it. All three of them looked at him strangely.
"What do you see, Harry?" Snape asked again with exactly the same tone and inflections as the first time he'd asked the question.
Harry pinched his nose angrily. "What I see is that the Fidelius is still the most annoying Charm in the world!" he growled before addressing Snape's question.
"Okay, let's just say for now that if any of you take more than about ten steps forward, you will probably die horribly. Professor Snape, did you bring any bezoars, perhaps? I only have one."
"I have six," the Potions Master said flatly.
"And I have another two," Lucius added. Regulus just shook his head.
"I am beginning to feel insecure in my fitness for Slytherin," he said irritably. "I don't have any."
"Well, don't worry," Harry said, "because it may not matter. Is it possible to enchant a venomous creature so that a bezoar won't protect against it?"
Snape looked doubtful, but Lucius spoke up first. "Yes. Boruslav Lestrange bred a number of Komodo dragons to guard his estate. He claimed that their venom could overcome a bezoar. And we are operating under the theory that Wilkes, the Dark Lord, and Lestrange played a role in devising protections for this … seemingly empty clearing, yes?"
"Yes," Harry said ruefully as he turned back to the shack and the hundreds of adders who protected it. Cautiously, he took a few steps forward and then hissed softly.
"I come in peaccce. I wasss sssent by Erasssmusss Wilkesss to claim that which he and the Dark Lord hid here ssso long ago."
The massive colony spoke as one, hissing in perfect unison. It was quite daunting.
"To passs by usss, you mussst prove your complete loyalty, ssstranger."
"What mussst I do?"
"You mussst allow one of usss to bite you. The blood of the Massster flowsss through our venom and will judge you. If your ssspirit is true, you ssshall passs through usss unssscathed. If not, you ssshall sssurely die!"
Harry nodded slowly and took a step back.
"Yeah. Pretty sure that's not gonna happen," he thought. Then, he closed his eyes in concentration. "Well, Mark? Any sssuggestionsss?"
"Only that you be cautiousss, my Massster," said Mark, Harry's quasi-sentient tattoo that had been the remnant of Bellatrix Black's Dark Mark. "They dissstrussst you. Becaussse he dissstrusssts you. I sssenssse hisss ssspirit nearby within yon dwelling. Hisss mind echoesss within all of thessse ssserpentsss. They ssspeak the truth. Hisss mind will enter you along with the ssserpent'sss venom, and he will sssee into your heart."
"Him? You mean Voldemort?"
Instantly, all the innumerable adders hissed loudly in agitation.
"I would advissse againssst sssaying hisss name aloud in thisss place, my Massster. Or indeed, thinking it too ssstrongly."
Harry nodded. "Okay, then" he said aloud and in English. "Let's try another approach."
The boy reached into a pocket to produce a small orb which he set down on the ground before tapping it three times with his wand. The orb instantly grew to about two feet in diameter. It was an Eye-Spy. From another pocket, he produced a small mirror which he touched to the Eye-Spy so that they could sync up. Most of the Brain Trust's Eye-Spy designs held glass memory crystals which could be removed and then attached physically to mirrors, but at his request, the group had fashioned one that could send real-time visuals to a linked mirror so long as it was nearby.
Oh, and it was also shrinkable, which apparently made the enchantment process much more complicated, if Sue Li's grumbling was anything to go by. As a result, it was generally inferior to the ones they had built for commercial use; there was a significant reduction in the Eye-Spy's speed, maneuverability, and video quality, and there was no sound at all. But Harry thought it would work for this purpose.
With a flick of the Black Wand, the Eye-Spy rose into the air and floated slowly over the field of adders, all of whom hissed angrily at it as it passed over them. Soon, it was on the porch a few feet from the front door.
"Okay, everyone," Harry asked. "What do you see now?"
"Just your Eye-Spy thingy floating in the middle of the clearing," Regulus said. The other two Slytherins concurred.
"Good… I guess," Harry said. "Okay, Mr. Malfoy, if I told you to target a position one foot directly in front of where the Eye-Spy is facing with your strongest Unlocking Charm, would it still work even if you couldn't see the door and on a fundamental level don't even believe that the door exists?"
Lucius's eyebrows rose as he considered the question. "What an interesting theoretical conundrum! Let us put it to an experimental test!"
"Wait!" Harry interrupted. "Before you do, let me just say that … if I suddenly scream 'RUN!' at the top of my lungs, do it and don't look back. That 'certain death' that is ten feet away from us is probably capable of moving closer and fast under the right circumstances. In fact, you should probably all stay ready to Apparate just in case."
He paused in thought. "I'd appreciate it if one of you grabbed me and took me along for the ride," he added.
"We'll do our best to remember you," said Malfoy drolly. Then, he steeled himself and tried to visualize a locked door in front of the Eye-Spy. "ABIERTO HORRIBILIS!"
There was a flash of light that only Harry could see, along with a frighteningly loud and obviously angry susurration from the enormous adder colony that only he could hear. But the snakes did not leave the circle, and the door slowly opened. He watched the video feed on the mirror and gestured carefully with his wand to guide the Eye-Spy through the opening.
"What the…!" Regulus exclaimed. "The Eye-Spy just disappeared!"
"No," Harry answered while his eyes remained focused on the mirror and the hazy, grainy images within it. "It just moved inside an invisible building."
The three men looked at one another in consternation, while Harry ignored them to focus on maintaining control over the Eye-Spy.
The interior of the shack was indeed bigger than its exterior but not by much. Harry estimated that there were probably three or four rooms, all in a state of extreme decay. To his surprise, however, it appeared that the item he sought was in plain view. On the far side of the main room, there was a stone fireplace. On the mantle above it sat a small golden box that appeared to be six inches on a side and four inches tall. And rather unexpectedly, sitting on top of it was … a rubber duck. It was bright green with a yellow bill, comically large eyes, and silver accents, but it otherwise looked like an ordinary Muggle children's bath toy.
Harry stared at the video image dully and wondered when his life started to become so strange.
"Okay," he said. "Time for a Death Eater history lesson. Just for curiosity's sake, can any of you tell me what the deal was with Erasmus Wilkes and rubber ducks?"
Regulus winced. "Harry, is there a damned rubber duck somewhere in … that place we can't see?"
"Yes. And I think it's sitting right on top of the exact thing we're here for. Unless, of course, the thing that looks like the thing we're looking for is a fake meant to divert us. We'll see, I guess. So … the rubber duck?"
It was Snape who responded. "As either Professor McGonagall or Professor Babbling might have explained to you, enchanted objects generally cannot be subject to externally applied Transfiguration effects, including Charms that mimic such Transfiguration. Runic inscription and direct Transfiguration are usually incompatible. Either the Transfiguration fails to alter the enchanted object at all, or the object is transformed but is no longer enchanted once restored to normality. The former outcome is far more likely than the latter, as only a Transfiguration master can alter the form of an enchanted item. However, even then, the Transfiguration will still disrupt the object's runic matrices. There are a few exceptions where a vulnerability to a particular type of transformation is woven into the enchantments. For example, magical trunks nowadays can usually be subjected to Shrinking Charms because that characteristic is now commonly incorporated into their manufacture. But such is rare."
Harry blinked slowly. "Uh-huh. And that is relevant to my question about rubber duckies because…?
"Because Wilkes, being a mad genius," Lucius continued, "found a way around that limitation. He had a technique whereby enchanted items—regardless of the nature of their enchantments, their composition, or their size—could be Transfigured into another form that would fit easily into a pocket and then restored to their true shape instantly and with no loss of functionality."
"Okay. I'm still not hearing any explanation about the ducks."
"And you likely won't get one, Harry," Regulus said ruefully. "The secret died with Wilkes, so no one knows whether he always transfigured magic items into rubber ducks because of some quirk in his technique that made that the only viable form or whether he chose to always use rubber ducks because he was a barking loon and thought killing people with rubber ducks was funny. But regardless, if one of his ducks is in there, then it will likely transform spontaneously into some other form, and probably a deadly one, if triggered."
Harry shook his head at the absurdity. "Rubber ducks! Honestly!"
"So how do I avoid triggering it?" he asked aloud.
"Bugger if any of us know, Harry," Reg said. "We can't see the damned thing if it exists. We can only talk about it by hanging on to the idea that this is just a hypothetical question. It could be anything inside the duck. And it could be anything that triggers it into action."
"True," said Lucius thoughtfully. "But if it was left to guard something, Occam's Razor tells us it will probably be triggered by proximity. And it will probably not be something so destructive that it damages whatever it is protecting."
"That's still not how Occam's Razor works," Severus snapped irritably. In front of him, Harry frowned into the mirror before shrugging.
"Oh well, nothing ventured …" he said before gesturing with his wand to cause the Eye-Spy to move closer to the fireplace.
When it got within about five feet, the duck trembled slightly. And then, to Harry's surprise, the duck was suddenly gone, and in its place stood a short doll-like figure. It stood two-feet tall and greatly resembled the toy nutcracker soldier from the Nutcracker Ballet. Petunia had a similar one that she put up every year as a Christmas decoration, although it didn't look nearly as angry and menacing as the one Harry could now see in the mirror. Almost instantly, the nutcracker's eyes began to glow before its wooden mouth dropped down suddenly.
"Hit the deck!" Harry yelled before dropping to the ground. His three companions did the same after a second of hesitation but just in the nick of time. There was a deafening KRAK-OWW, and the Eye-Spy was blasted back out of the shack to fly over the four wizards before crashing into a tree branch and falling to the ground in pieces. In response, several hundred adders all hissed "Ki-ki-ki!" in unison. Even though he was a Parselmouth, Harry still found it incredibly creepy.
The group stayed down for a few seconds before Lucius was the first to rise. "Odd," he quipped sarcastically. "I don't see any storm clouds overhead."
Malfoy quickly made his way over to the remains of the Eye-Spy which were blackened and in several chunks. He cast a quick spell, and his eyes widened in surprise.
"Fulminata Maxima," he announced. "I would not have thought it possible to incorporate such a destructive spell into any enchanted object, let alone one that could be transformed by the Toymaker's ridiculous duck fetish. Truly, this is a day for unwelcome surprises."
Harry sighed loudly. "Okay, I'm out of ideas." He paused. "Well, almost. I've got one minor idea left."
With that, the boy walked up close to the edge of the snake colony before pointing his wand at the ground and casting the Color-Changing Charm. Instantly, there was a bright orange spot on the ground. Harry then proceeded to walk slowly around the perimeter of the shack, periodically recasting the spell as he went. The snakes hissed angrily but made no move to attack. By the time he had completed his trek, there was a bright orange circle completely surrounding the Gaunt Shack.
"Can one of you do something to this to make it permanent?" he asked the others. "Or at least longer lasting? Or is the circle I just drew invisible to you all as well?"
"No, Harry," Lucius said as he targeted the circle for a spell. "That, at least, I can see. And it will now last for a week or so."
"Well, surely to Merlin, we can figure out something by then," Harry said. "And it gives you three a mental image of this place that's not blocked by the Fidelius. That way, we can Apparate back here next time without having to ride Muggle buses."
"Next time?" Snape asked. "We are giving up?"
Harry looked to his mentor in frustration. "Well, what else can we do?! None of you can perceive… whatever's in the circle, let alone target it with a spell! And I only brought the one Eye-Spy!"
He turned back to the shack and glared angrily at it and at the sea of adders who seemed to collectively mock his efforts.
"I say we go home, brainstorm for a bit, and come back in a week. If nothing else, I can get Hermione to make some more Eye-Spies. And maybe have Fred and George pack some high explosives into them."
Meanwhile, Reg stepped forward and studied the circle as if willing himself to see what was hidden within.
"Do you think that would work?" he asked. "Just blowing it up, I mean?"
"The Horcrux?" Lucius said. "Assuredly not. They are incredibly resistant to damage. Even my strongest Bombarda Maxima would do nothing."
Then, he frowned. "We are agreed that it is a Horcrux sitting inside that circle? Odd that we can say the word so freely given the contortions we went through just to get here."
"The word 'Horcrux' is not actually used in the Secret," Harry said tiredly. "We can talk about that because we knew about … You-Know-Who's Horcruxes in general before I learned the Secret. And I wasn't expecting explosives to destroy it. But I thought they might destroy the structure it's in enough to cause the Fidelius itself to collapse, which can happen when an important part of the Secret ceases to be true."
Regulus turned back to the group.
"Well, if all we're talking about is destroying what's inside the circumference of that circle, we don't need to leave at all, do we? Surely the four of us have the firepower for that!"
Harry shook his head. "It's too risky, I think. I'm worried that the… that the defenses that are currently contained inside the circle might be able to spread outside to attack us if we just Bombarda the… the… oh, hell, the thing I can't describe!"
Regulus turned back around and smiled. "What if we used something a wee bit more destructive than a Bombarda?"
The boy's eyes lit up. "Oh, no! No, no, no! Bad Reg!"
"Oh, this sounds exciting," Lucius drawled sarcastically. "What madness is Regulus contemplating?"
"Unless I miss my guess," Snape hissed, "I believe our lunatic friend is considering the deployment of Fiendfyre on the circle and whatever lies within it!"
Regulus grinned. "Well, I am rather good at Fiendfyre."
"I don't think I have ever heard seven words that have filled me with more dread," Lucius replied.
"Look!" Reg snapped. "I understand the need for caution. But except for Harry, we're all flying blind. I am opposed to simply leaving now because we can't exclude the possibility that the protections for this place include letting the Dark Lord know someone's been here! We're here now, and I don't know about you lot, but the Cup Horcrux taught me a lesson about the dangers of hesitating where one of these damned things is concerned. Now, Lucius, will Fiendfyre destroy it or not?"
After a moment of hesitation, Malfoy nodded. "Almost certainly."
"Good, so everyone can just stand back and let me end this! If something goes horribly wrong, you can nag me about it later in the afterlife!"
With that, Regulus turned back to the seemingly empty circle and took a moment to center himself before drawing forth his most painful memories, leading up to his moment of greatest anger and despair. Then, he whirled his wand in a circle over his head before pointing it at the center of the clearing.
And hell came to Little Hangleton.
All four wizards could see as a portal to some other place opened to admit the raging green hellfire. It exploded outward from its point of origin, and the sound of mad laughter filled the air. But Regulus tightened his grip on his wand, and the flames came no further than the edge of the circle, though the grass just outside it blackened and died. The flames also rose upwards, but the wizard's will prevented it from going too high. The Fiendfyre stabilized into a perfect hemisphere in the center of the clearing, one full of swirling green flames, within which leering, inhuman faces seemed to appear and disappear.
Only Harry could see that the Gaunt Shack was incinerated almost instantly, and only he could hear the sound of scores of serpents hissing in terror before being vaporized by the deadly flames.
But all of them heard and saw what came next, an animalistic roar from inside the flaming dome, followed by the dome itself rising up and expanding into a firestorm nearly fifty feet high despite Reg's best efforts to contain it. Then, all the disturbing images that seemed to float in the Fiendfyre merged into one singular face, gigantic and terrifying, carved from the hellish flames.
It was the face of Voldemort.
"It's… him," Lucius whispered wide-eyed while unconsciously clutching the tattoo on his left forearm. Beside him, Snape fought to suppress his own shock at the Dark Lord made manifest in this nightmarish form.
"Regulus!" He yelled. "Enough! End your spell!"
"Brilliant idea, Snape!" Regulus called back. By now, he was holding his wand in both hands, but it was now shaking violently. "Only it's not working!"
"I thought you said you could control this!" Lucius bellowed.
"Usually, I can! But not when there's someone else who's fighting against me! And especially not when it's the bloody Dark Lord himself!"
"How can it be Vold… I mean, You-Know-Who?!" Harry called out. "If the Fiendfyre destroyed the Horcrux, how can any of his soul be left to do this?! To do anything?!
"I don't know! But I can't hold him much longer! Severus, take Harry and Apparate out of here!"
"We're not leaving you!" Harry said as he ran up to stand beside Regulus, an image of his god-uncle lying dead in a forest in an aborted timeline rushing through his head. Lucius and Snape followed the boy forward.
"Severus will Apparate the boy, Regulus, and I will Apparate you!"
"NO!" Regulus yelled with authority. "If I leave now, the Fiendfyre will run wild! There are two towns near here just full of Muggles that will be incinerated before it burns itself out! I have to keep it contained!"
Suddenly, an idea fought its way to the forefront of Harry's mind. "When you summoned Fiendfyre at Hogwarts, you said the Aurors brought it down. How did they do it?"
Regulus winced in pain from his exertions as sweat poured from his forehead. "There is a spell from the Auror training manual that can be used to disrupt Fiendfyre, but it takes several minutes to do so safely and requires at least four Aurors to cast!"
"Is that the only way?"
Reg closed his eyes in concentration but then opened them wide. "No! There is another way! Insanely risky but it's our only chance. If someone else casts Fiendfyre inside a Fiendfyre inferno that's already been summoned and overcomes the will of the wizard controlling it, the two spells will cancel each other out!
"Would that work here?! Against Voldemort?!"
The man hesitated. "Possibly ... Yes! Lucius! Severus! Quickly! Cast Fiendfyre inside of mine. Our minds should sync up and be enough to overpower the Horcrux's control!"
"Regulus!" Snape said while mentally preparing himself to grab Harry and Apparate out with him despite the boy's objections. "I have never been able to cast Fiendfyre!"
"Nor I!" Lucius said.
"Is it that hard?!" Harry asked in surprise. He'd assumed that if Regulus could cast the spell, surely two connoisseurs of dark magic like Snape and Malfoy could as well. Meanwhile, all four of them could only stare up at the gigantic visage that loomed over them as it strained against Regulus's control. Voldemort's spectral face contorted as if he were screaming in a mad fury.
Malfoy barked out a laugh. "In somatic and verbal terms, it's the easiest dark spell ever invented. Just whirl your wand overhead in a circle and then point it at the target while screaming 'Fiendfyre!' The problem is with the esoteric requirement which I, thankfully, never had call to master."
"What is the esoteric requirement?!"
Harry had to yell now to be heard over the roaring flames. There was a sudden horrifying rush of heat, and the daemonic face inside the circle grew larger and then pushed towards them, but Regulus held his control. It was Snape who answered the boy's question.
"You must focus your mind on a memory of hating someone so much that you would die to ensure their destruction! So much, in fact, that you would see everyone left that you still cared about die along with you! I … Even at my lowest, I was never so lost that I would sacrifice … sacrifice those few I had left just to destroy an enemy."
Harry's eyes widened, as he turned back to the column of Fiendfyre. And he remembered. No, he chose to remember!
"And so, as Lord of the Ancient and Noble House of Potter, I, Iacomus Charlus Potter …"
"Don't. You. Dare!"
"… do hereby invoke Sanctumen Ultimo and declare you Outcast … Hadrian Remus No-Name!"
"My sense of self-preservation was always too great to allow me to cast the spell," Lucius yelled, oblivious to the boy's sudden inner turmoil. "Just as that sense of self-preservation demands that we leave this instant!"
"He's right, Harry!" Regulus exclaimed as sweat poured down his forehead. "Take Snape's arm and get the hell out of here."
"No!" said Harry in a cold voice. It was not a yell or cry, yet somehow his denial made itself heard over the roaring flames.
Snape hesitated, while Lucius looked at the boy in sudden surprise. Harry moved forward to stand even with Regulus but about five feet to the side. He never took his eyes off Voldemort's screaming face, but it was someone else's face he drew forth from deep within his Memory Palace with all the precision and clarity his Occlumency allowed. With a flick of his wrist, the Black Wand dropped into Harry's hand, and for once, he did not feel disdain from the wand but rather anticipation.
"I will never stop hating you for what you've done to me today, James Potter. Never. I will hate you from beyond the grave."
From somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind, Harry felt the thing he called "Bob" growl and snap in impotent rage. Harry whirled the Black Wand in a circle over his head before pointing it straight into the image of Voldemort's face.
The Fiendfyre Voldemort screamed as a second portal opened within the first and a second inferno poured forth. The face stretched and distorted before melting back into the flames. After a few seconds, all trace of the Dark Lord was gone. But what remained was still terrifying to all who could see it: a great miasma of howling green fire within which dire animal shapes—some kind of wolf-like predator and an enormous serpent—came into existence and began snapping at one another, like daemonic antitheses of Reg and Harry's Patronuses. Then, each of the animals threw back its head and breathed matching gouts of green fire into the sky.
It took all of Harry's willpower to maintain his own control over the flames he'd summoned, and to his surprise, he could feel Regulus's mind in sync with his own. No, not his mind. He could feel Regulus's soul and see the terrible gaping wound in the heart of it.
"I knew you'd come ... pretty ... boy. I ... knew you'd ... save ... our son."
And while he stood side by side with Regulus Black and shared with him the moment when each of them learned how to hate completely and without any restraint, Harry Black thought for just a moment about how wonderful it would be to simply let the whole world burn. The Black Wand sang in his hand, while deep down, Bob exulted in the raging hatred that Harry had allowed back into his heart. But then…
The voice was soft and full of such compassion for him that it was almost painful. It was Regulus.
"You've done it. Now just let go of your anger. Allow it to drain out of you like poison drawn from a wound. It does not control you. You control yourself."
Regulus continued to talk mentally to Harry, guiding him through the process of bringing the Fiendfyre—and himself—under control. It took several minutes, but finally the last of the hellish flames dissipated, leaving nothing but a perfect circle of blackened smoldering earth. Suddenly exhausted, Harry dropped to his knees. Snape rushed over to him, medicinal potions already in his hands.
"How in Merlin's name is that spell not Unforgiveable?" the boy gasped in a daze.
Behind Snape, Lucius answered with a blandness that concealed the shock and concern he felt at witnessing the boy's power.
"Arguably, it should be, as its esoteric component is just as destructive and anti-social as that of the Killing Curse. I believe it is tolerated mainly because it does have a few beneficial uses. There are some Class XXXXX creatures who can only be harmed by Fiendfyre. And as we've seen, it is the most effective tool for safely destroying powerful cursed objects."
Harry gave him a look, and Malfoy chuckled. "Well, for some definitions of 'safely.' It's also the closest thing to a magical shield against the Killing Curse."
"Really?" the boy asked in surprise.
"Eh, it's not much of a shield. It doesn't stop the Avada Kedavra, but it can bend it slightly, diverting its trajectory by about two degrees to the right from the point the curse strikes the hellfire. Not much, but when nothing else fashioned from magic can even slow the Killing Curse in the slightest, it's an intriguing characteristic. Besides, the psychological defense it provides is arguably better. If you've summoned Fiendfyre and your opponent kills you, the Fiendfyre will run wild, destroying your assailant as revenge. Along with everything within a few miles, of course. That's why it's banned during World Class duels."
"Honestly, Lucius," Regulus said while stretching his back. "I don't care about any of your Dark Arts trivia in the slightest. All that matters now is that Fiendfyre has the power to—OH FOR FUCK'S SAKE!"
Everyone else turned towards Regulus and then followed the direction of his shocked gaze. They were just as astonished. In the center of the circle, buried halfway into the cursed blackened earth, was a golden box completely unharmed by the fires of Hell itself!
After a long, shocked silence, Harry rose unsteadily to his feet and pointed the Black Wand towards the very object the Toymaker had sent him to recover. "ACCIO GOLDEN BOX!" The box didn't move.
"Were you seriously expecting that to work?" Lucius chided.
Harry shrugged. "Couldn't hurt to check," he said.
Regulus looked across the blasted clearing. "And can I assume that it would be horrifically bad to just walk across this blackened earth to pick it up?"
"Probably fatal," Severus said. "Absent anti-curse paraphernalia we don't have or protective Charms I doubt even Lucius knows, the immediate aftereffects of Fiendfyre are highly toxic. It seems we must leave for a week after all. It will take at least that long for the residual curse-fire to dissipate enough for us to cross it, although long term exposure will likely be toxic for years to come."
Harry shook his head. "No, we won't need to leave, Professor. We'll just get someone to bring the box to us."
"Who…?" Snape began, but Harry put up a hand while staring intently at the clearing. After a few seconds, a small gout of flame shot up from the ground, followed by a short wriggling form that was still on fire yet unharmed by it. Within seconds, the form had grown into a large crimson serpent almost four feet long. It was followed by a flurry of similar flames erupting from elsewhere in the cursed area, each of which was followed by the emergence of a flaming snake.
"Ashwinders!" Harry said triumphantly. "Big ones too! They're born from the residue of magical flames. And apparently, Fiendfyre makes them larger than normal."
He turned back to Snape. "As I recall, Sir, you did once tell me to undertake a study of herpetology."
The boy took a step forward and then hissed loudly. The dozen or so Ashwinders within the circle turned to look at him before hissing in response and then slithering over to the golden box. Working in tandem, they dislodged it from the earth into which it had partially sunk. Then, they took turns nudging it over towards the quartet. Meanwhile, Lucius was busy counting under his breath.
"Lucius, what are you doing?" Regulus asked.
"I'm counting Ashwinders," he said distractedly. "I see at least twelve, all of them born of Fiendfyre. They will likely each lay a clutch of ten to twelve eggs in the next hour before they dissipate. That's between 120 and 144 ashwinder eggs of the highest quality, worth 10 galleons per egg at least! At least 1,200 galleons just waiting to be picked up!"
Regulus stared at his fellow Slytherin. "You're a millionaire! Why the hell are you so excited over a mere 1,200 galleons?!"
Lucius sniffed disdainfully. "I'm a multi-millionaire. And I did not achieve that by ignoring opportunities for profit when they literally explode out of the ground in front of me!"
While the other two men were bickering, Snape moved closer to Harry and spoke softly.
"So … Mr. Black. Would you like to share with me what memory you have that allows you to summon Fiendfyre?"
Harry looked back up at his mentor with a polite yet firm expression. "No, Professor. Respectfully … I would not."
By that point, the Ashwinders had ferried the box over to the edge of the circle and nudged it over. Harry reached to pick it up, but all three adults yelled "NO!" simultaneously. He froze with his hand just inches from the box.
"For pity's sake, Harry!" Regulus exclaimed. "That thing just came out of a Fiendfyre conflagration! It's probably hot enough to burn your fingers clean off."
The boy looked back down at the box and his hand, which was still only inches away. His brow furrowed.
"It doesn't feel like it," he said.
"Impossible," Lucius said before moving closer. He cast a spell at the box. And then another. The second spell caused an array of strange runes to appear floating in the air above the box. Lucius's eyes widened. He slashed his wand and the runes disappeared. Then, he cast the same spell again, with the same results. He slashed his wand again, this time almost angrily. When a third repetition gave him the same result, he lowered his wand and staggered back, his face ashen.
"What is it, Lucius?" Snape said, concerned.
Malfoy looked around at the others in visible shock before he finally spoke.
"The box … is orichalcum. Given Boruslav Lestrange's involvement, that is not surprising, although a quantity of orichalcum that size is … extraordinary."
Harry's eyes narrowed. "That's not what disturbs you though, is it, Lord Malfoy."
It was not a question. Lucius took a deep shuddering breath.
"Commercially available orichalcum is usually rated at about 50% pure. That is, an alloy of equal parts orichalcum and some other precious metal, usually gold. If you're willing to spend a fortune, orichalcum that is 65% pure can be obtained. About sixty years ago, Nicolas Flamel produced approximately twenty grams of orichalcum that was 75% pure, and he declared that further refinement beyond that point was absolutely impossible."
All four Slytherins looked down at the box.
"So how pure is this?" Harry asked slowly.
"I don't know, Harry," the man said in a shaken voice. "The spell I used was unable to determine that. You see, it only goes up to a purely theoretical 85%, and the purity of this box clearly exceeds that!"
"How much is it worth?!" Snape asked. Lucius gave a slightly hysterical laugh.
"So much that it is effectively worthless! Based on the value and scarcity of 65% orichalcum, I would guess there are literally not enough galleons in Wizarding Britain to pay for a quantity of orichalcum this large! The Goblins would go to war if they had the slightest clue that this existed!"
"Well fine then!" Regulus interrupted. "Let's get on with destroying the damnable thing and be done with it!"
"Regulus, this box survived Fiendfyre!" Snape noted. "I don't know if we can destroy it!"
"Hang on a minute," Harry said. "Is the box itself the Horcrux? Or is it something inside the box? I mean, Voldemort-possessed Fiendfyre aside, this thing hasn't tried to kill us. And the Toymaker said that the golden box was a treasure but there were other treasures inside, one of which could lead to Voldemort's resurrection. So maybe all we have to do is figure out how to open the thing. Then, we can destroy the Horcrux inside and, I dunno, toss the economy-wrecking orichalcum box into the sea or something."
Regulus sighed. "Severus, pretend you didn't see this."
Then, he cast a spell upon the box that Arcturus Black had taught him when he was a boy. A faint rune appeared floating in the air over the box, one that he last saw fifteen years earlier in a cave guarded by Inferi. He shuddered.
"Harry is correct. The Horcrux is inside the box but not the box itself."
"You have a spell to detect Horcruxes and I am only now hearing of it?!" Snape growled.
"I cannot answer your questions, Severus," Regulus said. "I'm under an oath."
Then, he looked down at Harry, who simply shrugged. "Don't look at me! You're the one who put me under an Unbreakable Vow not to talk about it with anyone else back when you were still Lockhart."
The man frowned. "Oh, right! I totally forgot about that! 'ha-Ha!' and all that. We should probably see about getting Miss Lovegood to free you from that Oath at some point."
"I don't even want to know what you're burbling about, Regulus," Lucius snapped. "Severus, I am not under any of the oaths to which Regulus is obliquely referring. I will explain to you once we're home what I can, though my own knowledge is incomplete. While I know of the … Horcrux Detection Charm, I don't know how to perform it."
He turned to look pointedly at Regulus. "At some point, I should like to cure my ignorance—of that and other ... related matters—before I introduce my son to the topic."
"That shouldn't be a problem," the other man said. "We'll have to use your copy, though. Ours got, well, poof!"
Lucius nodded slowly before changing the subject. "In the meantime, Harry, you told us that Erasmus Wilkes suggested that you would be able to open this box with the right words, yes?"
"Um, yeah. But he wouldn't tell me what the words are. Just 'say the magic words in Parseltongue' and it would open."
"Well, then. You're a clever boy. Put your Slytherin brain to it."
At that, the boy paused for a moment in thought before hissing in Parseltongue at the box for about a minute and, at one point, pulling out the Black Wand to cast spells at it. The box remained unaffected. Finally, Harry gave up.
"Okay, I've tried every Unlocking Charm I know in Parseltongue. I've also tried open, open up, open sesame, and Speak to me Slytherin, Greatest of the Hogwarts Four. None of them worked."
"… Greatest of the Hogwarts Four?" Regulus muttered confusedly. Meanwhile, Lucius looked thoughtful.
"Hmm. Well, it is the Toymaker, after all. Try saying 'the magic words' in Parseltongue."
Harry looked at him quizzically before divining his meaning. Then, he turned back to the box. "The magic wordsss." Still nothing.
Finally admitting defeat for the moment, Lucius reached down to carefully pick up the box. It was surprisingly lightweight. He held it gingerly for a moment, and when he was certain it wasn't about to kill him somehow, he reached his other hand into a different pocket to produce a two-foot-long piece of braided twine which he held out for the other three wizards. Each of them grabbed hold of the Portkey and braced themselves as Lucius said the activation phrase.
"UK FOOTSIE 100 3161.70."
One brief but harrowing Portkey ride later, the quartet found themselves just outside the gates of Malfoy Manor. They paused to reverse the various effects they'd previously used to disguise their appearance. Then, with a flick of Lucius's wand, the gates opened, and the group headed towards the house, only to freeze as an unexpected figure on a broom flew towards them at great speed, stopping effortlessly to hover in front of them just a few feet off the ground.
Harry did a double-take, as he almost didn't recognize the flyer, who'd grown at least four inches since the last time they'd seen one another. He'd also put on a decent amount of muscle, and his hair was no longer carefully styled and pomaded into submission. Instead, it was quite a bit longer and flowed freely in the breeze in what Harry thought was a surprisingly dashing manner.
"Draco," Lucius said, almost but not quite concealing his surprise. "I'd thought you and young Justin would still be at the World Cup opening. What brings you home so early?"
"Boredom," Draco said casually while taken in the figures before him, one of whom was his own father wearing Muggle jeans! "In both of today's matches, the Snitch showed up early and got caught in under half an hour. Quite anticlimactic."
Draco turned his attention to his father's guests, all three of whom looked flummoxed to varying degrees at the Malfoy Heir's unexpected arrival. He pulled his right leg over the broom casually to cross his left and then smiled at their discomfort.
"So," he said in a chipper voice and with an amused grin. "What's in the box?"
Next: The Quidditch World Cup!
AN1: Check out the Sinister Man's web presence on the POS wiki, the POS TV Tropes page, and my Discord server (through which you can see advance previews of this story as it is begin written). Also, the Sinister Man would be profoundly grateful if you checked out my P*****n page and supported my original fiction. Patronage is not necessary to get the free POS previews via Discord.
AN2 (What the Sinister Man is reading):
Behind Doors and Masks by dragonwriter24cmf has updated again after a long break. During Year 7, Neville learns the truth about Headmaster Snape and, to the surprise of them both, becomes the only person Snape can count on.
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