Chapter One Hundred Forty-Five: Don't Tempt Me, Frodo!

Dumbledore remembered his existence in the second week of August, and came to the Dursleys to fetch him to Grimmauld Place. "It is still the safest place in Britain", he reminded Harry.

Before they even left, Dumbledore seemed to take great pleasure in his insistence upon confronting the Dursleys with their own behaviour, chastising them for their treatment of Harry, as champagne glasses assaulted them, demanding that the wine they contained be drunk. But, even this was less a reward for Harry than had it happened last year, or the year before that.

Aunt Petunia and Dudley, at least, had been making an effort, and Uncle Vernon had pressed his lips together and gone easy on Harry—or what passed for going easy on him, to Uncle Vernon's mind. Harry could not help dwelling more on Dumbledore's ominous words that he knew that he'd been condemning Harry to ten dark and dangerous years….

Hmm.

From the Dursleys, they went straightaway to Hogwarts, which was, for the moment, empty, awaiting the arrival of the students and staff, almost a month hence. There was something in particular Dumbledore wished to discuss with Harry, and it could not be done in the muggle side of the world, or at Grimmauld Place. There was nowhere more secure for discussion than the Headmaster's Office.

Fawkes provided instantaneous transportation to the room itself, in a manner much more pleasant than apparation. He glared balefully at Harry, hovering high enough up not to set the Dursleys' furniture ablaze, and Harry winced.

"Right. Well, Guy, Dumbledore was fastidiously ignoring me all last year, so I didn't think to visit his office, and then you went and turned yourself into a fledgling, again. There's been little opportunity to speak with you, otherwise."

Fawkes seemed to consider, and decide that he would give Harry the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, the landing, a fall from a height sufficient to send a jolt up Harry's legs, was Fawkes's idea of getting some of his own back. Speaking the English language—or, indeed, any language understandable to humanoid beings—was not in the vast repertoire of the non-legendary phoenix. He made do with a sleepy trill, shuffling himself into his cage, and folding his wing over his head. It was almost a dismissal.

"Doubtless, you wondered why I brought you here," Dumbledore said, with his grimmest voice. "Well, I must say that recent events have made me aware of an alarming possibility. I must ask for your help in a certain matter—I am told you can be quite persuasive, and I have need of such, in recruiting the newest addition to the Hogwarts staff—the return of one of our retired Professors, whom you've never met. But, more on that, later."

The twinkle in his eyes dimmed, and his voice had switched from its usual whimsical levity to a sort of grim thoughtfulness as he continued. "I have had the chance to examine the tiara that you left in my possession at the end of last year, and have confirmed that it does, indeed, seem to be the fabled lost diadem said to have belonged to the Founder, Rowena Ravenclaw, herself—the diadem said to bestow and bolster the wisdom and knowledge of whomever wore it. But, as you seem to have somehow noticed, it has been curst."

Harry shrugged, in response to the unasked question. "There's a sort of…dirty feel to it. And a pulling," he said. "I've felt it before. It reminds me of the diary, before I destroyed it." And the locket, he thought, but did not say.

Dumbledore gave his gravest nod, clasping his hands before his beard. Harry glanced at Fawkes, to see that one of the beady eyes, at least, the one facing them, was half-open. Of course the phoenix and the Headmasters' portraits of centuries past were all attending.

Harry stared at Dumbledore's blackened, charred left hand, trying to puzzle out whether it might not be connected.

"I found another such curst artefact, besides, in the old shack that belonged to Tom Riddle's grandfather, Marvolo," he said, in such a way that Harry couldn't tell if it was in answer to Harry's own unasked question. "A ring…I had a moment's weakness—curiosity is not only the death of a fool, but also, and more often, of the wise. Remember that, Harry. But, I cannot now be saved. Professor Snape has done what he can to contain the curse to my hand, but it is insufficient. I will die before a year has passed. I must impart to you all the knowledge I have concerning this war, before then."

Harry stared at the hand even more fixedly. He considered the merits of admitting to possessing healing knowledge that Madam Pomfrey could only dream of.

But, there would be plenty of opportunity to stare at and scrutinise that curse, inconspicuously, over the course of the coming year. And, he would certainly not be fool enough to admit his unique circumstances. If he thought that he could save Dumbledore, and he decided that the attempt was worth it, then he would find a suitable lie, rather than call attention to Mother, and to what he himself was. Whatever that was. Dumbledore's recent words, back at the Dursleys, still rang in Harry's mind, also, and they did not inspire trust.

"I have determined that the diadem and the ring are a foul brand of dark magic known as 'horcruxes'. The creation of the horcrux is one of the darkest, most deplorable of rituals that exists in the realm of magic. It requires the taking of a human life. Whenever a man murders in cold blood, it fractures the soul. In time, and with proper treatment, this fracture can be healed, somewhat. But, in the creation of the horcrux, this piece of soul is torn loose from the caster's body, and enshrined in an object nearby, of its caster's choosing. Voldemort has clearly made at least three of these. It is possible—indeed, it seems likely—that he would have made four more, to bring the number up to seven, a powerful magical number, as perhaps you know."

Harry said nothing. He knew, and was fairly sure that Dumbledore knew that he knew. He rattled off the hiding darknesses (the horcruxes) in his head. The locket, the diary, the ring, now, and the diadem. If there were four, there would be three more. Or perhaps only two, if Riddle decided that his soul was best served being in seven parts, rather than being split seven times. One was as likely as the other, with that one.

"I believe, given your experiences last year, and before that, that his pet snake, Nagini, may be another. What remains is to discover how many others there are, what they are, where they are, and to retrieve and to destroy them. Which brings me to my next point."

He held up the diadem Harry had found at the end of the previous year, and set it down on his desk. It still radiated a creeping sort of darkness, rolling out, as would a bank of fog, and within that, the scuttling darkness hid in pockets of depth within the crown. Something similar could be said of the ring that followed the diadem onto the desk, all of tarnished silver, but with a stone that might be onyx, an unprepossessing round stone like a pebble, set into it. This close to him, it seemed to call to Harry. He could think of very few things that had called him in such a way. The Mirror of Desire. The Veil of Death. The abyss beneath the Rainbow Bridge.

He wrenched his gaze away, and found his hands pushing away at the desk, as if it would increase the amount of distance deemed respectful for having a conversation.

"What—?" he began, and then frowned at his right hand, which was reaching out for the ring. He pulled it back, and crushed both his hands under his armpits. "Why haven't you destroyed them?" he demanded, his voice harsher than intended, given the recent scare. Still, the ring called him. He wished that he could justify asking Dumbledore to move it away from him.

Dumbledore gave a heavy sigh, and reached out for the ring, himself, before seeming a bit nonplussed at his own actions, dropping it even as he picked it up, to say, with only a hint of reproach, "My research has indicated that there are only two things that can destroy a horcrux: fiendfyre, which is not to be trifled with, and basilisk venom, which is not easy to come by. I know that there is a basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, beneath the school, but I am not a parselmouth, and can't go down there, myself. And, you are the only one with access to basilisk venom."

Harry's brow furrowed, as if in confusion, while his mind raced. Surely, Dumbledore couldn't know that he had a basilisk fang in his possession!

"I mean to say," said Dumbledore, catching sight of Harry's feigned befuddlement, "that the Sword of Gryffindor, as research suggests, is truly a remarkable weapon. It seems to have the ability to absorb the abilities of the substances with which it comes into contact—any power over which its wielder triumphs. You slew the basilisk, coating the Sword in its venom as you did. You lived, and the Sword did not melt, and therefore, some of that same venom endures within the sword. It is one of the factors that makes that sword, and its wielder, so indomitable. With that Sword—"

Harry, only half-attending now, flipped open his trunk, and retrieved the basilisk fang, illusioned to resemble the Sword of Gryffindor, yanking the makeshift sheath off as he did, and then impaling the diadem, which hissed and sizzled and screeched in a way that was half buckling metal, and half damned soul. He watched the metal distort, as the tarnish fell off from the bronze, making it gleam with a vibrant lustre, as if new made.

He turned to the more threatening artefact, certain that he was hearing Riddle's death throes. It took greater precision to stab straight through the metal band without disturbing the stone. It was not until he noticed the renewed screeching, the wailing, the twisting grating of buckling metal, that it even occurred to him that he had been avoiding damaging the stone.

It was the Stone that called him. He knew that, now. Not another one. That made…what, four?

"I think," Dumbledore said, with an odd sort of heavy regret, "that you should remove that ring from my sight. The temptation to use it is too great. I will not tell you what it does, or how to use it. I must simply trust in you to exercise more restraint than I have. I have seen, by now, that you are far more patient, and far less reckless, than I. I can think of no better holder. Put it in a safe place—out of sight, out of mind. Do not use it unless you know precisely what you are holding. It is not a toy."

Something in Harry's heart cried out in pain as Dumbledore shoved the ring over in his direction. This was the last thing he needed—a relic that called to him, entrusted into his possession, where he daren't risk that anyone else come across it, but still had to resist the temptation of its call. See how well that had availed him, before!

See how well that had availed him, before! He was the last person that anyone should trust with an artefact of power, wasn't he? Particularly one that called to him, as this one did….

But, he had the sense that it called to Dumbledore, too. Perhaps, it was in its nature to call, and he and Dumbledore were not being singled out. He did wish that Dumbledore had told him what this ring was, what it did. But, one glance in Dumbledore's direction (his eyes had lost their signature twinkle, and there was a tug of what Harry refused to admit was dread, at the thought of what manner of artefact could extinguish the infamous twinkling) told him that Dumbledore had said as much on the subject as he was going to. It was no use trying to pry more information from the old man. At least, for the moment. Perhaps, later…?

Then again: how much did he want to know about the artefact that Riddle had poisoned?

Harry was loath to touch that ring, he was justly wary of it, but he took it, nonetheless, and, with no small amount of misgiving, wrapt it up in one of Uncle Vernon's old socks (a particularly ugly, mustard yellow one), and slammed the trunk shut again. They both seemed to relax, with the ring out of sight.

"This crown belonged to Rowena Ravenclaw, the founder of Ravenclaw House," Dumbledore said. "For now, I will keep it in my office, on display, lest anyone be tempted to use it. It's said to instil great wisdom in its wearer."

Dumbledore was starting to recover from whatever pall the ring had cast over him. Harry was nowhere near recovered. As usual, life was being far from just towards him.

A sort of tranquility gradually settled in the room, fostered by Dumbledore's musing,

"You know, Harry, you really aren't being very cautious." He was even twinkling, now, perhaps because of the hidden teasing, that Harry was known for not letting his guard down. But Harry didn't know where this was coming from. Before he could ask for clarification, Dumbledore continued, "Didn't you receive the pamphlets the Ministry sent out, over the summer?"

Harry had the vague recollection of receiving some sort of government-issue rundown of safety precautions now the Ministry was willing to admit that You-Know-Who had returned. The only thing he'd learnt from it was that there were beings known as inferi, which were much muggle zombies. Recalling Remus's description of what became of those whose souls had been excised by dementors, he had resolved himself to asking Remus for further clarification. Remus was, after all, the local expert on dark creatures and monsters. Inferi probably counted.

But while he was remembering, Dumbledore continued. "Why, you haven't even asked me a personal question to confirm that I'm not an imposter. For the record, my favourite jam is raspberry."

That was Dumbledore for you. He took his entertainment where he could find it. It took a great deal of power to be comfortable enough even in dangerous times to mock the government. Harry hadn't thought highly of them before, but the way they now sought to curry favour, as if courting Harry's endorsement of them-no. He didn't trust Dumbledore, quite, but Dumbledore hadn't slandered him all last year. He'd ignored Harry, kept him in the dark, which was something Harry found unforgivable, but he hadn't actively acted against Harry, and there had been times, in past years, when Dumbledore had helped him.

The Ministry had never helped Harry. They had no capital to spend with Harry. He'd side, superficially, with Dumbledore, if he were required to choose a side. Dumbledore had done a horrendous job of preparing for the war, last year, but he'd done something. The Ministry, on the other hand, had actively thwarted their efforts. There was a hierarchy, here.

Besides, Dumbledore was a powerful individual. It was best to stay on his good side. But he was shrewd, too. Harry struggled to find a non-suspicious response.

"Wouldn't any biographer know your favourite foods?" he asked at last. "Those security questions have their uses, but legilimency and veritaserum seem surer tools. I doubt most people would dare to even try to impersonate you. They'd swift be expected to be able to do…something that only you could do. Or to solve a dispute in your characteristic way. They might try to pass as me, I suppose. But you didn't ask me for proof of my identity, and I felt no need to ask you for proof of yours. Didn't you say that there were protections around Number Four to keep out Death Eaters?"

Dumbledore seemed rather disheartened at this reminder. "I believe I told you that Voldemort couldn't touch you, there."

Harry sent him his most incredulous stare. "Then, I've still always been vulnerable to Death Eaters? What was the point-?"

He cut himself off, remembering that his connection to Mother might hinge on his continued residence at the Dursleys. He remembered resolving himself to suffer anything to keep that connection alive, and the Dursleys hadn't been as bad, this year.

"It was the best defence that I could give you," Dumbledore said, the twinkle again departed from behind his glasses. He looked old, and worn. He looked his age.

"Better than nothing," Harry said. "Okay. Well, we've taken care of the ring and the crown-"

"There is more," Dumbledore said, holding up a hand to silence Harry. "This year, I would like to share what knowledge I have that may assist you in defeating Voldemort, as it is clear that he will not simply leave you be. I will contact you to schedule these meetings as they come up. You may tell Mr. Weasley, and Ms. Granger—"

"And Sirius," Harry said, folding his arms. Dumbledore's eyebrows rose.

"Yes, that seems reasonable. He may be able to assist you in ways that your friends may not, owing to his unique circumstances."

Dumbledore was being his most inscrutable, where he practically begged you to ask him questions. But those questions would also go unanswered, Harry was sure. Sirius was unique in many ways, not all of which Dumbledore was aware of.

"Was that all you required of me, Professor, sir?" Harry asked, determined not to give Dumbledore the satisfaction of asking.

Dumbledore didn't seem to have considered this response. "Ah, no. There was another matter that I thought you might help me with.…"


Three hours later, Harry lay back on his bed in Grimmauld Place, pondering the events of the last day. It was quite late, now, nearing midnight, and he'd had quite the eventful day, all told. The encounter with the horcruxes, the ring, whatever it was (he was going to research it, if he could—as he recalled thinking before, he just needed a hint), Dumbledore's offer of private lessons, and then meeting Horace Slughorn, the former, now reinstated, Potions Master, who was soon to return to his post of Head of Slytherin House, as well, given that the Defence professor position was agreed upon to be curst. With Snape in that position…Harry hoped that Dumbledore knew what he was doing. There didn't seem to be any specifics as to how a professor would be booted out of his post—Snape might die, or be driven mad, as Umbridge had, last year…and Dumbledore would be down a spy.

Still, Snape was quite skilled, and good at defending himself… Harry doubted that the curse would have an easy time of him. Dumbledore seemed to have decided that their cause was best served by cementing Snape's supposed loyalty to Riddle. The only reason Harry had to concern himself with these affairs, however (other than the obvious reason that anything to do with the war naturally also involved him) was that Snape was an old friend of Mum's. He sort of thought that might carry with it the requirement that he look after the man, who clearly couldn't take care of himself.

There were other matters to think on. One persistent question was the specific reason that Slughorn had given up the ghost and agreed to resume his old post at Hogwarts. Because Slughorn's claims that he was hiding out in this muggle town lest Riddle seek to silence him, before he could damage Riddle's reputation more than Skeeter already had… that argument, as Slughorn had made the mistake of claiming, was not his main reason for camping out in other people's houses.

Slughorn loved his connections. He loved the life of luxury that they provided. He respected talent and raw potential. Riddle had had that even in his teens. And, he'd been charming and suave, and beloved by the entire school. Harry rather suspected that it might have been that argument that telling Dumbledore what Slughorn knew might be a weight off Slughorn's mind that had convinced him—that offer of redemption. Pointing out that that road is rarely short and easy to follow. That had seemed to strike a chord.

Just what might Slughorn have done, warranting such a need, a drive to redeem himself that outweighed his slytherin sense of self-preservation? Or was it, after all that, his admiration for both of Harry's parents, Lily Evans, skilled at potions, of all things, and James Potter, one of the best students all around, in his day? Was it a mere need to collect, the desire to have Harry in his collection?

He decided that he didn't know the man well-enough, yet, but that he'd best keep an eye on him.

Upon arriving at Grimmauld Place, he'd filled Sirius in on as much of the day's events as his tired mind could gather together, including sending Sirius Slughorn's regrets that Sirius hadn't been sorted into Slytherin, that he'd "liked to have collected the set", and asked for some knowledge of what sort of man Slughorn was.

Secondhand information was better than nothing, but it still wasn't enough to solve the puzzle of what Slughorn might have regretted so desperately. And, perhaps he did, or perhaps he didn't, have a certain very real fondness for Harry's parents. Apparently, all three of them had been in "The Slug Club", back in the seventies, Harry's parents and dogfather all.

Of course, now that he was lying in bed, thinking back over the day, he remembered the ring. He'd need to tell Sirius about the horcruxes tomorrow. Or, at least, before Ron and Ginny arrived, next week, for a visit, and such thoughts were driven from Harry's mind, entirely.