"That wasn't well done," Dumbledore said quietly.
Slughorn was back in his home, unaware that they'd even visited. As far as Harry was concerned it was a win for all of them. He wouldn't be asked about something he didn't even know, and he couldn't betray them either.
Harry frowned. "What else could we have done? Got him to teach at the school and then waited for most of a year while we tried to wear him down?"
"That would have been the kinder choice."
They were back in Dumbledore's study, the fire crackling quietly. It was darker than usual, or maybe it was Harry's mood making everything seem darker.
"It would have been a stupid choice...a Gryffindor choice. More concerned with looking heroic than actually saving people." Harry shook his head. "Sometimes the pragmatic thing really is the best way."
He couldn't have done it if Dumbledore hadn't stopped him after all, and Slughorn has been his friend. Dumbledore had known it was necessary just as much as Harry had. He might not have liked the methods, but he absolutely needed the results.
"Besides," Harry said. "He won't remember it. We'll fix his mistake, and he'll be able to tell himself that it all worked out in the end."
"I had rather hoped to get him to teach independent of all of this," Dumbledore said mildly.
Harry shook his head. "Did you see the condition he was in? He'd be as bad as Quirrell was in first year, except he wouldn't be pretending. He'd not the man you knew before."
The fear and trauma of what had happened to him had obviously made him afraid of his own shadow. Harry was both sympathetic toward that and not. He understood fear intimately, but he believed that the only way to conquer fear was to fight back.
That was the only way to find some measure of control.
Dumbledore cleared his throat. "We now know that there is a limit to the number of horcruxes he could have made."
"My guess is that he made one less than the maximum," Harry said. At Dumbledore's look he hurried to explain. "He's terrified of death, and what is having your soul completely dissolve but a form of death? He wouldn't want to chance it."
"Making you a horcrux likely has made him less stable," Dumbledore said. "His soul on the verge of dissolution."
For a moment Harry imagined himself tricking Voldemort into making that last Horcrux; the man would simply dissolve on his own. If it didn't require a murder and it wasn't for the fact that he couldn't figure out a way to convince Voldemort to do it, Harry would have been enthusiastic about the plan.
"Me and the book make two," Harry said. "How will we figure out what and where the others are?"
The sheer impossibility of the task was almost overwhelming. If it had been Harry he'd have created horcruxes out of common items while making fake horcruxes. If he didn't need to retrieve them for some reason, he'd have dropped at least one of them into the depths of the ocean. If he did need them, he'd have put them in places only he could find- behind a wall in a random muggle house, inside of a statue that had nothing to do with him at all.
He'd have thrown darts at a map on the wall and buried the horcruxes wherever the dart landed.
"He would keep one near him always," Dumbledore said, his fingers tented together before him. "So that even if the others were destroyed he could keep it protected."
"The Snake," Harry said. "I didn't see any kind of locket or pendant around the infant Voldemort, and he certainly didn't have anything on when he was resurrected."
"I agree. It would serve as a vessel to hold his spirit and a protector," Dumbledore said.
"Wouldn't that mean the snake was made after he tried to kill me as a baby?" Harry asked.
Dumbledore nodded. "I believe he intended to use your murder to create the last horcrux. He always had an ego; it would tickle his sense of irony to use the death of his greatest foe to secure his own immortality."
"So what about the others?" Harry asked.
"He always admired the founders of Hogwarts; Slytherin the most of course, but the others as well. I believe that he would have attempted to use the artifacts most associated with them to create his immortality."
"So that's four," Harry said.
Dumbledore shook his head. "He had no access to Gryffindor's sword; I know where that is. However, Hufflepuff's cup, Slytherin's locket and Ravenclaw's diadem are all things he would have coveted."
"So we know all but one of the items," Harry said glumly. "He only needs one to stay here forever, like a stain on a muggle carpet. Worse, we have no way of knowing where any of the others are."
"I believe he would have placed the items in places of personal significance to him," Dumbledore said, "It is possible that we shall stumble across the last item in one of those places."
Harry nodded shortly.
It was a hope, at least, as vague as it was.
"I will contemplate possible locations," Dumbledore said. "And we will discuss going together to find them."
If it hadn't been for his rest ability Harry doubted that Dumbledore would have bothered to keep him in the loop. With it, however, he'd be foolish not to include him. After all, even someone like Dumbledore could be caught unawares and killed.
And if it had been Harry he'd have protected his horcruxes with the nastiest traps and spells that he knew.
"Perhaps we will do better tomorrow, with fresher heads," Dumbledore said.
Harry nodded shortly. It wouldn't do to have Malfoy or one of the others to notice that he'd been out unusually late to his detention.
"Tomorrow, then," he said.
The next few days settled back into a routine. The final task of the Triwizard tournament wasn't for almost another four months and the furor over his saving of Fleur's sister and Cho Chang gradualy started to die down.
Most people seemed to believe that it had simply been some sort of mistake. That was the Ministry line after all; according to the Ministry it had been human error that had caused the girl's almost to die, not sabotage.
That didn't stop the Daily Prophet from lambasting the aurors, calling them incompetent for responding so slowly, for not double checking the girl's. Still from the perspective of the Ministry incompetence was better than sabotage.
Cho Chang seemed embarrassed every time she saw Harry; probably the memory of hurling into his face was embedded in her mind. It had been projected onto massive screens for everyone to see after all.
The lessons in occlumency continued, and Harry continued his lessons in combat with Moody. He was getting better and better; Moody no longer had to hold back as much as he had in the past, even the first time Harry had worked for him.
Hermione worked on occlumency with the kind of mania Harry usually associated with himself. She was learning it faster than he had too; it surprised him not because he doubted her capabilities, but because he hadn't thought she had the personality for it.
It shouldn't have surprised him though. She always wanted to know everyone else's secrets, but she wasn't nearly as open as Neville with her own secrets. In a way, he wouldn't have been surprised to see her in Slytherin. She was ambitious, clever and cunning. She was ferociously loyal and she had a certain vindictive streak that Harry fully approved of.
She was a planner, cautious and willing to lie in wait and plot her next move. She didn't have the normal rash and reckless nature of a Gryffindor.
Neville, oddly seemed more of a Gryffindor than she did, although he wasn't the glory seeker that most of them were.
Harry wondered just how many of Hermione's Slytherin traits had already existed, and how many of them had rubbed off on her from exposure to him. After all, the personality someone had at eleven changed. He had no doubt that some Gryffindors became more Slytherin and vice versa.
The day was coming rapidly when he would have to have the discussion he'd been dreading. Anticipating the discussion had his stomach in knots because while telling Dumbledore had carried the possibility of personal danger, the odds had never been very high. Dumbledore had chosen to back him, and Harry suspected that he'd have to do something fairly horrible for that to change.
As long as Dumbledore could tell himself that Harry was better than the alternative, Harry suspected that he would be allowed a great deal of leeway. If that changed...well, Harry would have to be worse than Voldemort, which would be a horrible fate in itself.
Learning what had happened to him would change Hermione. It had fundamentally changed Harry and even learning about it secondhand would damage her in ways he couldn't predict. He feared it would change the way she saw him as well.
Neville, at least wasn't doing at all well in occlumency. Hermione hadn't shared the reason she was so determined to learn it, which meant that he didn't have the same motivation that he had. He didn't have her native intelligence or magical ability, even though he wasn't the duffer he'd thought himself to be.
It would be easy to tell Hermione without telling Neville. He might not have a choice if Neville couldn't master occlumency.
It was Harry's second "detention" with Snape in a week. People were beginning to notice; usually Snape had a policy of ignoring Harry, but this week he'd found reasons to be more critical of him. Hermione and Neville were both concerned, but Harry assured them that nothing had happened between him and the professor.
In truth, Dumbledore had decided on searching out a promising location and wanted Harry to go with him. The detention ruse wouldn't hold forever, not if these things were to be common events, but they would do for the short term.
"So you aren't sure we'll find anything," Harry asked as they hurried quietly through the streets of Little Hangleton.
Dumbledore was beside him. He'd cast disillusionment spells on both of them so that Harry wouldn't have to use his cloak, and spells to muffle their voices, but he'd still encouraged Harry to speak quietly.
He shook his head and said, "I've been studying the course of Tom's life since before you were born. I believe that retracing the steps to places important to him will be the first place to look for hidden Horcruxes."
Harry nodded. "So why is this place important?"
"It is the place where his mother grew up," Dumbledore said. "It seemed prudent to start at the very beginning."
They passed a set of trees and the house came into view. It was halfway concealed by tangled trunks. The trees blocked out the light and would have prevented any kind of a view of the valley below. The walls were moss covered and rafters were visible from holes in the roof even as tiles lay fallen on the ground.
The whole place looked as though it had been deserted for longer than Harry had been alive. Nettles grew up along the walls, reaching up to tiny, grime encrusted windows.
It didn't look like the kind of place Tom Riddle would have been proud to admit to living in. Compared to the Wizarding houses Harry had seen before it actually seemed rather modest. Even the Dursley's would have turned their noses up at it.
It looked like a good wind would have blown the entire place down if it hadn't been supported by the trees.
"We must be careful," Dumbledore said. "I have no doubt that if this truly is a repository for a horcrux there will be fearsome spells. Stay behind me and don't touch anything."
Normally Harry would have protested that he wasn't incompetent. Although he was physically only fourteen he was mentally almost two years older than that. He was at least as skilled as a sixth year in things related to combat and more likely a seventh year.
However, he knew nothing about curse breaking, a skill he was seeing now that he would need to rectify. After all, what better way to kill someone than send them a cursed item or put a curse on the toilet in the loo?
"I'll be careful," Harry said.
As they reached the perimeter, Dumbledore began casting a complex series of spells far beyond anything Harry had ever heard of. Apparently there were warning spells that would alert Voldemort if the perimeter was breached.
"Walk closely behind me," Dumbledore said after almost ten minutes, "And don't stray from the path."
Harry was careful to follow his instructions to the letter, even trying to step where Dumbledore had stepped. He focused on that so much that he almost ran into Dumbledore's back as he stopped at the front door.
The desiccated remains of a dead snake were nailed to the front door. Whether it as a warning or a decoration Harry didn't know, but Dumbledore began another ten minutes of spell casting.
It was a little frustrating for Harry. He wasn't used to sitting or standing in this case and doing nothing. He kept his time well occupied; he was either studying, training or occasionally spending time with his friends. The times where he simply did nothing didn't exist.
So he found himself fidgeting. He didn't begrudge Dumbledore his caution. If he was right, setting off an alarm would be disastrous for many reasons. If they were killed and the alarm was set off, Voldemort would move all of his horcruxes and then they'd never find them. Even if they weren't killed the same result was likely.
The door clicked and a moment later it swung open. Harry peered around Dumbledore to see that the inside was if anything even worse than the outside. It was small and cramped. It was dilapidated and it was filled with filth; the dust of a lifetime of neglect and the droppings of numerous animals.
In fact one corner had numerous animal skeletons; it looked as though the animals had simply dropped dead. There were still a few fresh pigeon corpses.
The fact that all the corpses were in one corner of the room was suspicious in and of itself. The fact that
there were piles of dead ants around the bodies, apparently killed as they tried to reach them only increased Harry's conviction that something deadly was in that corner of the room.
Dumbledore glanced at Harry, and he didn't have to warn him. If the path outside had been dangerous, whatever was in here would be deadly.
Harry found himself regretting coming. It was frustrating not knowing what would happen if he simply stepped into the wrong place. The fact that the corner was obviously dangerous didn't mean that there weren't other traps in the room, something Dumbledore proved as he took a cautious step forward only to step hurriedly back as something barely visible slashed through the space where he had been.
Wand in his hand Harry watched to see if there was some kind of guardian that they couldn't see, They were disillusioned, and could see each other, but Harry assumed that was a special property of the magic that Dumbledore had used. It didn't mean that they could see anyone else who was disillusioned.
Dumbledore's wand slashed down, and a single golden line of force appeared in front of them. A set of complicated movements of his wand and the line twisted and bent, lifting in a section so that they could walk under it.
Pointing silently at the floor, Dumbledore pointed at another line that Harry hadn't noticed. He stepped over it, and Harry very carefully did the same. He felt sweat beading at his brow.
He was sure that Dumbledore would have done this more easily by him himself; he wouldn't have had to spend time or energy looking out after Harry.
Nevertheless, he didn't act as though he was annoyed or put out by Harry's presence, so Harry was determined to be the least trouble possible.
Reaching the edge of the line where the dead ants were gathered, Dumbledore shook his head and began mumbling incantations.
Harry suspected it would be a long time again. Apparently Dumbledore was emphasizing caution over speed, a sentiment that he agreed with entirely.
Dumbledore pointed his wand and a moment later the floorboards began to levitate, pulled from the joists in the floor. Harry could see a metal box in the dirt under the floor.
"If you would," Dumbledore murmured.
Waving his wand, he levitated the box, floating it toward Dumbledore. When it passed the line, Dumbledore checked the box carefully before touching it.
A simple spell opened the lock, and inside was a ring. It was a golden ring set with a black stone.
"Tom wore this ring," Dumbledore said. "all throughout school."
He picked it up and Harry let the box drop slowly to the floor. It surprised him that Dumbledore hadn't checked the ring more before touching it, but he assumed that when he was checking the box he must have checked the enchantments on the ring.
"He had no idea of what he really had, though," Dumbledore said softly. "I didn't until later."
"What did he have?" Harry asked. He didn't like the look in Dumbledore's eyes. There was a strange sort of greed there, one that looked out of place on a face that usually displayed calmness or quiet amusement.
"Have you ever heard of the Deathly Hallows?" Dumbledore asked quietly.
Harry frowned. There was a story Neville had told them; some kind of pureblood fable. "Something about three brothers avoiding death, right?"
Dumbledore nodded. "And three artifacts were left behind. Most believe they are legend, but I know it to be the truth. There was a cloak of invisibility that has been passed down through the ages."
A significant glance down at the pack Harry was carrying.
His cloak? It was the one in the story?
"There was an elder wand," Dumbledore said. He held up his wand, and Harry noticed for the first time that it was different from the other wands he had seen. It had carvings down the length of it, and it was made from a kind of wood that Harry had never seen.
Dumbledore carried a wand that had been gifted by Death himself?
"Finally there is the Resurrection stone," Dumbledore said. "It is said to be able to raise shades of the dead so long as it is held."
"Like ghosts?" Harry asked.
"More than ghosts," Dumbledore said, "but less than alive."
Harry stared at the stone. What would he say to Colin or Adrian if he could bring them back, even for a little while. Would he tell them he was sorry? Would he thank them for everything they had meant to him?
Would they even remember him? Harry knew what dying was like, but he had no idea of what it was like to actually be dead. Did the dead experience time in the same way those alive did? Did they even remember those they'd left behind? What happened afterwards?
He could understand Dumbledore's greed. After all, the answer to some of those questions might calm his fears about dying permanently.
Harry blinked as he saw Dumbledore slip the ring onto his finger.
"Are you stupid?" Harry blurted out, but it was too late.
A blackness was already spreading up Dumbledore's arm as he frantically spoke incantation after incantation. Harry felt helpless and overwhelmed; he didn't know any kind of magic to stop this, and what Dumbledore was doing barely seemed to be slowing it down.
He took a step back, unsure of what to do.
"I fear I have made a mistake," Dumbledore said heavily. "We need to get out...Harry!"
Harry looked down. He'd stepped backward into the line of light that had been illuminated by Dumbledore's spell. He felt a sudden sharp pain as his foot was cleanly amputated. He screamed, and as he fell back he felt a sharp pain in his neck.
He'd hit the top line as he fell he realized.
The world suddenly began to tumble around him, everything confused as jumbled. He could no longer feel anything, but as he rolled to a stop he could see his body falling heavily to the ground.
The heavy, shocked rasp of Dumbledore's breathing was the only sound that Harry could hear and even that was quickly fading. His vision began to grown dark.
He only hoped that next time they'd be able to get ahead.