Chapter 18 : Aftermath

Publish Date: 8 August 2005

Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter, its characters, or anything associated with it. I'm not making any money from this story, and I don't intend to. I'm writing it purely for the satisfaction of it, and because several people warned me that there would be dire consequences if I didn't finish it. The resemblance of any character to an actual person is completely accidental. Please don't sue -- I don't own enough to make it worth your while.

Note: This is a Harry / Severus slash story -- and while their relationship is also accompanied by plot, action, and drama, if you seriously object to the slash element -- or to the particular pairing -- then don't read the story!


THE MIRROR OF MAYBE: Chapter 18
-- Aftermath --

It was not until several minutes later that Harry finally convinced Severus that yes, he actually had said 'Soul Mage' and yes, he was deadly serious about it, and no, the chance of him being mistaken was vanishingly small.

"We need to tell Albus," was Severus' first reaction as he hastily started to climb out of bed.

"Not right now we don't," Harry argued, pulling him back down.

"But--"

"Look, it's not as bad as it sounds -- well, at least not yet."

"The Dark Lord just became a Soul Mage and it's not as bad as it sounds?!" Severus demanded incredulously.

"That's right," Harry told him firmly. "He's only performed the first step. He now has the ability to perform Soul Magic -- but he's never actually done it! And as with any spell or ability that's never been used, he won't be very good at it until he's had the chance to practice and... uh... experiment." Severus shuddered, but Harry doggedly continued. "He's also just expended a lot of energy, and his magic would've been taxed to its limit trying to cope with the surge of power. He won't be weak -- but he'll be exhausted and sore. If we're lucky, it might even be painful for him to cast spells for a day or two -- which means there could be a sizeable delay before he even starts trying to figure out how to use this new ability."

"And if that isn't enough for you," Harry added, "then consider this -- performing Soul Magic takes a lot of regular magical ability. It will drain him significantly every time he uses it. That'll leave him vulnerable after each instance, and he'll hate that." Harry paused to see how Severus was taking his explanations. The Potions Master looked somewhat calmer, though not significantly reassured.

"If we knew where Voldemort was," Harry finished, "it would be the ideal time to attack. But we don't -- or at least I don't," and he looked questioningly at Severus. The Potions Master shook his head slightly to indicate that he didn't either, and that he knew Albus would be just as ignorant. "Then there's absolutely nothing we can do right now is there? So why disturb Albus in the middle of the night? It's only a few more hours until breakfast. Let the man sleep -- we can tell him in the morning."

Severus still looked dubious, but grudgingly allowed himself to be coaxed back down into a sitting position on the bed. Harry chose to display his own lack of anxiety by stretching out across his side of the mattress, wincing a little as several muscles protested their earlier abuse.

Severus -- who'd been watching the display of bare skin with appreciative eyes -- noticed both the wince and the shift to a slightly more comfortable position. Harry watched as a somewhat troubled expression appeared on the other man's face. "Something wrong?" he asked curiously.

Severus seemed to consider that for a moment -- as though he wasn't quite sure. When he finally replied, there was a cautious note to his voice.

"It seems we're both a bit the worse for wear," he commented, "even though I vaguely recall something about a healing potion -- one of mine I think."

"Yes," Harry agreed. "I knew we'd need them. Although I may have done a bit of... damage... to your storage cupboard while I was getting them. Sorry about that..."

Severus was looking at him with an indecipherable expression. "You knew we'd need them," he repeated carefully. Harry nodded, not quite sure where this was leading.

"So you've... done that before?" Severus asked. "Last night was some sort of... War Mage thing?"

Harry looked at him blankly. "What... breaking into potions cupboards?"

Severus stared at him as though he was a complete moron.

"Sleeping with Potions Professors?" Harry hazarded.

There was a disgusted noise from the man beside him. "No you idiot," Severus told him scornfully, "I mean the... the mix of pleasure and pain. During sex."

The light dawned. Severus was worried that Ash -- being a War Mage -- might like a little pain during sex. Harry could feel his face turning red. //Hell,// he thought desperately, //I haven't blushed this much in one night since I really was sixteen.// How on earth was he going to explain this?

"It's true," he began carefully, "that War Mages are taught how to balance pleasure and pain so as not to be overwhelmed by either one. But it's not... I mean... the skill can be applied to sex, but that's not why -- or how -- we learn it. We study our bodies to know what they're capable of and how we'll react in certain situations. Pleasure and pain are just about the most basic stimuli anyone can be subjected to -- and when they're used against us, we can be broken, healed, controlled, freed, or simply made to behave in ways that are completely foreign to our normal behaviour. By understanding pleasure and pain, and how we're affected by it, a War Mage can gain a measure of control over those effects -- as we did last night."

"Ah," Severus nodded, looking somewhat relieved. "I believe I understand."

At which point Harry decided it might be fun to tease Sev just a little. "But of course," he continued innocently, "pretty much every War Mage I know of has, um... experimented... with those particular lessons. And of course, sex is such an interesting way to test all the practical applications." Then Harry cheerfully added: "A few members of the circle even come to prefer a bit more... variety... in their physical relationships."

Severus blinked at him. "Really," he said with a carefully neutral expression.

Harry laughed, and then quickly added: "But I promise you I'm not one of them. I do not enjoy pain in any form -- and what happened last night wasn't what I wanted or would have chosen."

Severus shot him a disgusted look that said quite a bit about his opinion of Ash's sense of humour. Then Sev tilted his head thoughtfully. "But you wanted me," he mused quietly.

"Yes." There didn't seem to be much more Harry could say to that.

"Why?" Severus asked bluntly. "Is it because we conveniently happen to work together? Or because we both prefer men and you can't be bothered looking for anyone else who shares our preference in partners?"

Harry snorted with amusement. "Well first off, I'm quite capable of apparating anywhere I want. If you moved to Timbuktu, you'd still find me hanging around after I'd finished classes for the day. And secondly, I don't prefer men."

Severus shot him a surprised look. "You're bisexual?"

"Professor," Harry said with a heavy touch of sarcasm. "I'm a mage. That means I have the ability to see things from a completely non-human perspective. It should come as no surprise to you that every intelligent being believes its own kind is the most attractive when it comes to sex. Quite frankly, I sometimes wake up grateful for the fact that I still prefer my own species!"

Severus looked a bit shocked. "You haven't... that is... with dwarves... or anything?"

It was all Harry could do not to fall back into hysterical laughter. "No I haven't... with dwarves anyway. But I hope you're not going to hold elves against me -- of either gender."

By now Severus had the look of someone who wasn't sure if they were still being teased or not. But at least elves were all strikingly attractive by human standards. Elves he could understand. Dwarves or -- Merlin forbid -- goblins, would've been way too much information.

But Harry -- who was still secretly laughing at Sev's confusion -- had one more bit of entertainment to throw out. "You know," he added casually, "you're actually the second person at Hogwarts to ask me about my sexual preferences. Draco wanted to know whether flobberworms looked any good to me."

Flobberworms? And Severus suddenly realised how absurd the conversation had become. "He didn't!" the Potions Master laughed. "The cheeky little bugger! I hope you gave him detention for a week!"

"I probably should have," Harry agreed, "but somehow he 'wormed' his way out of it."

Severus winced at the awful pun.

"Sorry," Harry smirked.

"Not as sorry as you should be," Severus replied looking pained.

Harry's smirk only got wider, and Severus regarded it -- and him -- with a mildly irritated expression. But the irritation soon faded as Severus realised that he'd been very effectively diverted from his question.

"Ash," Severus said firmly -- determined to finally have an answer. "I really would like to know: why me? If it's not due to convenience or sexual preference, then why have you been pursuing me? If it's information you're after, you'd be much better off speaking to Albus."

"Professor..." Harry sighed. How could he explain this to Severus so that he'd believe it? Perhaps it was time to call upon his more Slytherin side -- time to explain some of the darker aspects of the man named War Mage Ash.

"You know I'm a War Mage--" Harry began.

"No -- really?" came the sarcastic interruption. "I'd never have guessed."

"Shut up," Harry responded automatically. "You asked. I'm answering. Don't interrupt."

Severus looked torn between amusement and indignation. But he stayed silent.

"As I was saying," Harry continued, "you know I'm a War Mage, but you haven't really stopped to consider all the implications of that title. The most obvious one is that I react suddenly and violently to being surprised. But just think about that for a second, and then tell me what kind of person -- wizard or witch -- wants to be with someone who might hex them simply for sneaking back to bed after a quick trip to the bathroom?"

Severus frowned. "But they would know about that reaction. Why would they 'sneak' as you so quaintly put it?"

"Because," Harry explained, "it's the polite thing to do -- trying not to wake your lover. And they'd be half-asleep themselves and not expecting an attack from the person in bed with them."

Severus was still frowning. "If they knew that person was you, then they'd have to be an idiot not to expect it."

Harry laughed. "According to you half the world is made up of idiots." Severus acknowledged that with a little snort of derision. "And as if that wasn't enough," Harry added, "just think about what happened here tonight. Even though you were half out of your mind with pain, you still knew exactly what I was trying to accomplish when I joined our minds -- you understood what I was offering and how to use it to survive. You don't seriously think some pretty young witch I picked up in Hogsmeade would've coped with that do you?"

"Probably not," Severus agreed. "But somehow I don't think tonight's events are likely to repeat themselves."

"But they still happened," Harry argued, "and even if that particular example never crops up again, who's to say some other horror won't? I'm a War Mage Professor. That means I've seen things -- done things -- that would send most wizarding folk screaming into the night."

"But not me," Severus replied slowly. His eyes on Harry were shadowed and unreadable.

"No," Harry agreed softly. "Not you. Never you. You've walked in shadows just as I have -- and even if they weren't the same shadows, it doesn't matter. They taught us both the same lessons."

"Such as?"

Harry gave him a considering look, and then asked: "Are you afraid of the Killing Curse?"

"Of course," Severus replied. "What fool isn't?"

Harry ignored Sev's question in favour of his own. "Why?" he asked intently. "Why do you fear it?"

"I... it's too much -- too much power. It... corrupts -- pulls you in. The ability to say who lives and who dies -- the fear in their faces -- it's addictive. And it... warps you."

"Yes," Harry agreed quietly. "I know."

Severus looked surprised for a moment. Then a look of understanding crossed his face as he murmured, "Most people would've said they were afraid because they don't want to die." Then with certainty, he added: "But you would've given me the same answer I just gave you."

Harry gave him a sad little half-smile. "And that," Harry stated, "is why I want you. You understand. There is Darkness -- and then there is Evil. And although most people don't realise it, they're not the same thing. But you already know that -- so you won't suddenly hate me, or flee in terror, when I eventually do something that proves I'm every bit as Dark as I am Light."

Severus was silent, and Harry noticed his eyes straying to the battle-scarred lion imprinted on his chest. Aside from Harry's curse scar, Severus had yet to make any comment on the long-healed wounds that criss-crossed Harry's skin -- or on the tattoos embedded beneath them.

Only Dark and malicious magic caused permanent scars on a wizard -- and even then, only if the healers couldn't get to the wound in time, or couldn't neutralize the foreign magic before the scar stabilised.

Severus too, wore scars upon his body. They were far fewer in number than Harry's, but they were still there -- puckered flesh marring his otherwise smooth skin. The War Mage knew they were not something the other man was proud of, and it was then that he realised why Severus hadn't asked about any of Harry's other scars. The one-time Death Eater obviously didn't want Ash asking questions about his own wounds, or any of the awful ways he had acquired them.

//I won't ask,// Harry silently promised. //But you once trusted me enough to want to tell me -- and one day you will again.//

However it wasn't Harry's scars that currently held such fascination for the Potions Master.

"A Dark Gryffindor..." Severus murmured while staring at the tattoo on Harry's chest. For some reason, he seemed... surprised.

Amused, Harry silently reached out and took Severus' hand. The Potions Master was still sitting upright on the bed, and he unconsciously shifted closer as Harry gently pulled the captured hand down towards his chest. Harry laid it palm-down, with fingers spread, over the vivid image of Gryffindor's famous lion.

Severus' eyes widened in shock.

Harry could feel the image on his chest shifting subtly beneath his skin, and knew that his beloved Potions Master was presently experiencing the ghostly sensation of warm fur between his fingers.

The soft rumble of a great cat echoed silently in the air. It was impossible to tell whether the sound was real. Like the memory of a dream -- it was there, but not.

"Life Ink..." Severus breathed, awe and appreciation written on his face.

Well of course. The man was a Potions Master -- and there were few, even among Masters, with the skill to successfully create Life Ink. This was quite possibly the first time Severus had ever seen the substance actually in use. Watching the shadows play across the other man's face, Harry idly wondered whether Severus had ever brewed Life Ink himself. But it seemed unlikely, given that the precious liquid was so expensive to make and had such a limited market.

Severus tugged his hand away and Harry allowed it.

The Potions Master looked at him with a curious expression. "I know how Life Ink works," he began. "The image is, in part, generated from you -- from your thoughts and memories. I have no particular liking for Gryffindors, but even I can see that this is... magnificent work. How you can be Dark -- be anything other than completely Light -- when you have that on you?"

With a start, Harry realised that Severus didn't know about his other tattoo. This confused him until he remembered that neither of them had been in any shape to notice such things earlier. And after they'd awoken, Harry had always been facing the other man -- well, except for when he'd gone to get the calming potion. But Severus had been laughing too hard to pay any attention to it then. Had there been any time after that when Severus had touched his back? A brief moment when the other man might've been felt the cool slide of smooth scales under his fingers?

No.

//Right now,// Harry mused, //he must think I'm the most stereotypical Gryffindor since Godric himself walked these halls.//

Well. It was definitely time to disabuse Severus of that idea.

"Professor," Harry began in a low dangerous purr, "don't make the mistake of assuming that all Gryffindors are arrogant, self-righteous, and brave to the point of stupidity."

"Then you are a Gryffindor?" Severus asked suspiciously. "You attended Hogwarts as a student?" Harry could practically hear the Potions Master wondering whether he could rely on someone whose House was so notorious for it's inflexible adherence to 'right' and 'wrong'.

"Attended Hogwarts? Oh yes," Harry confirmed, still using that low sultry tone. "But not under the name 'Ash' of course. I didn't earn that name until later..." Abruptly Harry sat up, ignoring the protest of sore muscles. At the same time, Severus twitched backwards, instinctively wary of the predatory light that had appeared in the War Mage's eyes. Harry tilted his head thoughtfully as he watched Severus trying to deal with the fact that 'Ash' was currently displaying some very dangerous and decidedly non-Gryffindor behaviour patterns.

Harry smirked at him. "But even if you did try to find my name on the roles," he added, "there's no guarantee you'd find it in Gryffindor..." Gracefully, Harry arched his back, exposing his throat and drawing Severus' gaze. "Look..." he commanded, and then suddenly turned away.

Shoulders flexed. Muscle shifted under candlelight. A soft hiss teased at the edge of hearing.

Behind him, Severus gasped.

Harry could almost feel Severus' hand moving towards his spine -- pulled in by the desire to actually touch the deadly beauty that was the emblem of his House -- of their House.

"Stop," Harry commanded -- and Severus' hand froze, mere inches from his skin.

"This isn't like the lion," Harry explained softly. "You have more than enough courage to be worthy of him, but it's not in your nature to be part of him. You aren't Gryffindor, and you never will be. And even if you could -- you wouldn't want to. But the serpent... You're as much Slytherin as I, and because of that your touch on my other tattoo would be very different -- far more... personal." Harry paused. No words could ever truly explain what he was trying to say. It would be more useful to simply give Severus the warning, and then let him choose.

"There's a risk," Harry whispered, "associated with touching it. But if you still want to -- then you'll have to do exactly as I say."

There was a moment's silence. Then: "Tell me."

Harry made himself comfortable, settling himself closer to the edge of the bed so that he could swing both legs over the side and sit upright more easily. "You need to be closer," he told Severus. "I need you to rest your hand on my shoulder without feeling uncomfortable, or getting tired. If we're going to do this, then you can't pull away. You mustn’t take your hand off my shoulder until I say you can -- no matter what happens. If you pull away too soon, I'm not sure what will happen -- to either of us."

"I understand," Severus replied as he shifted closer. The other man's curiosity was almost a physical sensation, and Harry imagined that he could sense it radiating from Severus like the heat of the other man's body close behind him. In comparison, the rest of the room suddenly seemed cold.

Harry closed his eyes. He wanted to feel every moment of this. "All right," he said softly. "Put one hand on my shoulder and for Merlin's sake -- keep it there!"

Severus' hand brushed his bare skin, and then settled steadily onto his left shoulder.

Harry focused on Slytherin and everything that being Slytherin meant to him.

On his back -- under his skin -- the serpent came alive.

----oo00oo----

When Severus had first glimpsed the snake twisting its way down Ash's spine, his immediate reaction had been one of sheer disbelief.

//How is that possible!?// came the astonished thought. Oh, he understood well enough that most people had a little bit of all four Houses in them. Some of his Slytherins for example, could be almost as studious as Ravenclaws. But there was usually one dominant characteristic that had more influence on a person's behaviour than any other, and that was what determined which House they belonged in.

Occasionally a child would be evenly balanced between two or more Houses. But even then, it was virtually guaranteed that after seven years of living with the attitudes and beliefs of their Housemates, the characteristics of the House they ended up in would be reinforced until the wizard or witch actually did belong there rather than anywhere else.

So how could it be that War Mage Ash -- whose mind could produce such a powerful image of the Gryffindor lion -- was also wearing an equally powerful and stunning image of Slytherin's emerald serpent?

It shouldn't be possible.

Particularly with those two Houses.

"Stop."

And Severus automatically obeyed, hearing the underlying warning in Ash's voice. He hadn't even realised his hand was moving. But in hindsight, he wasn't surprised. He'd been astonished by the feel of the lion under his fingers, and also by the fact that -- if the strangely silent purr was any indication -- the beast actually seemed to approve of him! But the snake...

It was... compelling...

He was drawn to it -- identifying with it as he never would with the lion. Small wonder his hand had moved of its own volition.

And now Ash was telling him about what it might be like to actually feel those gleaming scales beneath his fingertips.

Different from the lion? Of course. How could it not be? Far more personal? Oh, yes -- always.

But there was apparently some sort of danger involved. A 'risk' Ash was saying. //Naturally,// he thought. //We are talking about Slytherin after all.// He considered the warning carefully. But Ash seemed willing -- so long as Severus followed instructions. He could do that. And he really wanted to touch...

"Tell me."

And Ash did.

Cautiously, Severus moved closer, folding his right leg in behind Ash's back, and draping the other down beside Ash's thigh. So close...

At Ash's instruction, he gently laid his left hand on the other man's shoulder.

And the serpent moved.

Severus' breath caught in his throat as he watched the snake unwind itself from Ash's spine and twist its head towards the hand on its master's shoulder.

Incredible.

All wizarding tattoos moved -- but not like this. Their shifting beneath the skin was supposed to be subtle -- a small thing that caught the eye, giving the image more life than it would've otherwise had. But the range of movement varied depending on the power of the owner's magic -- and the depth of emotion and meaning imbued into the Life Ink.

Severus watched -- mesmerised -- as the scaled body flowed like water over muscle and bone -- falling in and out of darkness where Severus' body cast shadows against Ash's golden skin. The serpent's head disappeared under the edge of his hand. Severus shuddered slightly as the feeling of dry scales rustled against his palm. A soothing hiss echoed in his mind.

And then...

Gasp.

His hand clutched reflexively at Ash's shoulder, and Severus stared in horrified wonder as the tip of the snake's head slithered into view -- on the back of his hand!

No -- not on his hand... under his skin!

"Merlin," came his strangled gasp.

And then the magic hit him.

The emotion -- the power -- everything Ash had put into the creation of his Slytherin tattoo poured into Severus. He could feel it, hear it, see it -- even taste it. He was part of it. Slytherin in him -- under his skin. No wonder Ash had warned him. No wonder Ash couldn't explain what he was warning him about.

Without conscious thought, Severus' eyes followed the snake as it slithered further up his forearm. He let the sensations -- both physical and magical -- wash over him. This was... there were no words. Darkness was everywhere. It lived and breathed in him -- and in the man before him. But it was a clean Darkness -- a natural thing -- the way Severus had always known it should be -- before Voldemort had come and twisted everything.

Still clutching Ash's shoulder, Severus closed his eyes and leaned forward until his forehead came to rest on Ash's shoulders. He was Slytherin. They were Slytherin. Severus kissed the skin beneath his lips, then turned his head and rested his cheek against the warm body of his lover. He opened his eyes. The snake's unblinking gaze glittered at him as it turned, moving down and around -- assiduously avoiding the Dark Mark until it could begin its return journey on the underside of his forearm.

A little less than half the snake's length now graced Severus' skin, and the Potions Master realised that by the time the first half had made its way back along the bottom, the snake's tail would be just arriving at the edge of his hand. At no time would the tattoo ever be entirely upon him -- and he suddenly understood what Ash meant about not knowing what would happen if he unexpectedly pulled his hand away. Who knew what the consequences might be if such a strong and... intimate... magical connection was abruptly destroyed by being literally torn in half.

Ash's hand came around to pull his right arm forward. Severus gave in and draped himself across Ash's back, allowing the War Mage to embrace his right arm until -- once again -- Severus found himself with lion's fur trailing soft warmth beneath his fingertips. //Gryffindor,// Severus remembered. But the memory seemed vague and distant. It was Slytherin that dominated his mind and emotions now. //I am Slytherin. He is Slytherin.// But a silent growl forced the memory into reality -- demanding the acknowledgement: //He is Gryffindor too.// The growl returned to its previous purr. //But the Gryffindor in him is willing to accept me.//

Then Ash's voice came to him -- a whispered understanding breathed out in candlelight and cold dungeons in the middle of the night -- "It's hard," the War Mage told him, "to find someone who understands -- someone who shares your underlying beliefs -- even though they might seem nothing like you on the surface. Wizarding tattoos can only be shared like this when two people have the same understanding of the concept that formed the tattoo."

"No two people ever have exactly the same understanding of anything," Severus protested quietly. His right hand was lazily stroking soft fur, and absently mapping a well-defined chest.

"It's close enough," Ash told him.

And after that, they were both silent.

The serpent continued its journey until Severus could feel it moving across Ash's back wherever his own skin pressed up against the War Mage. The tattoo was once more under its master's skin and not his own, which both relieved and disappointed him. It had been an amazing experience, but overwhelming too, and he wasn't sure he wanted to feel that... exposed... again for a very long time.

Eventually, Ash sighed and one of the hands that had been cradling his right arm came up and pulled Severus' hand down from the mage's shoulder. Ash wrapped Severus' left arm around himself and leaned back into the Potions Master's embrace. Severus could feel the muted presence of the lion under his arms, and the snake pressed against his chest. Two Houses -- one man. In his arms.

"What if it's not?" he asked quietly.

"Hmm?"

"Close enough," Severus explained. "What if it's -- we're -- not close enough? Not... compatible?"

"But what if we are?" Ash asked him in return. Severus was silent, and the War Mage sighed again. "I don't know what to tell you," he continued, "-- what I could say to convince you..."

"I don't know either."

Ash stirred and pulled away from him. Severus let him go.

But he didn't go far.

"Professor," Ash began as he turned and brought a hand up to the side of Severus' jaw, "I may not be able to give you my name as yet, but I can at least give you this: I swear upon my oath as a War Mage that whatever happens -- or doesn't happen -- between us, I will not abandon you to Voldemort's wrath. I've been told I'm a fair actor when I need to be, and you know that my profession means I understand the value of a spy so highly-placed amongst the enemy. I hope my acting skills won't be needed, but even if they are, Voldemort will never doubt my attachment to you."

It seemed a rash promise to Severus. But as far as he could tell, Ash appeared to be sincere. And it was true that a War Mage would know how critical it was to have a spy in Voldemort's ranks. Ash would protect him for that reason alone if he had to.

He still didn't know whether Ash's interest in him would last out the week, but at least the consequences of its decline wouldn't be life-threatening. And with that thought, Severus suddenly realised that he'd already made up his mind. //I must be mad,// he told himself. But for some reason it was a strangely exuberant madness. //And I suppose,// he mused, //there's always the hope that even if we aren't compatible as lovers, we may at least become friends.// He'd never considered that option with any of his previous lovers, but with Ash he thought it might be possible. From what little he knew, the War Mage didn't seem to be the sort of man who wallowed in blame and recrimination at the end of a relationship. In fact, now that he knew Ash didn't limit himself only to men, Severus strongly suspected that the very... enthusiastic... female War Mage was probably one of Ash's former lovers -- and she was obviously still a good friend.

He could live with that.

And with that thought, Severus suddenly became aware of a calloused thumb that was gently stroking the line of his jaw, and the naked man who was still sitting so close.

Ash seemed to realise that he'd made a decision.

"May I stay?" he asked.

So eager. So hopeful.

"You may," Severus replied. The he smiled just a little and added, "If you can manage to do so without the necessity for any more healing potions."

Ash leaned forward and kissed him very lightly on the lips. Unbelievably, Severus felt the distant vague stirrings of desire. "No more of that," he cautioned, laying a finger over Ash's lips, "or you really will be the death of me."

Ash nipped at the finger, but Severus was too fast for him. "Then you'll let me come here again? To your rooms?" the War Mage queried, still seeking reassurance of Severus' decision.

"Most definitely," Severus chuckled as he lay down, pulling the other man along with him. "In fact," he added smugly, "I intend to make you 'come' here as often as possible." It was a crude double entendre, but he knew it had been successful when the War Mage gave a chuckle that held faint overtones of giggling.

Ash quieted as Severus gently stroked his back -- still fascinated by the occasional sensation of scales as he brushed lightly past Ash's less-visible tattoo. //Such a Slytherin place for it,// Severus mused. //Hidden away where no-one can see it unless he chooses to show it to them.//

Ash was almost asleep. He was obviously not used to being awake in the early hours between midnight and dawn. Severus noted the way the other man unconsciously arched into his touch. //So responsive...// he thought. That pleased him. It would be fun later to find out just how responsive Ash really was.

But something about it also bothered him. It almost seemed as though Ash was... touch-starved. As though the other man had spent a large part of his life with little or no positive physical contact. Severus had seen similar reactions in children who'd been abused or neglected. Sometimes such treatment manifested as a desire to avoid any kind of physical contact at all, while at other times it showed itself as a desperate need for all forms of touch -- whether socially acceptable or not. But in a rare few, it shaped a never-ending reverence and joy for the privilege of being allowed to hold another person in their arms.

Ash touched him like that -- as though he felt honoured that Severus would allow him such intimacy. The Potions Master wondered what could have happened -- how it could be that someone like Ash might've been mistreated as a child.

But then, he was probably reading too much into it. He knew hardly anything about War Mages and their training. Perhaps it was simply a consequence of something they were taught. He'd heard from some of the other teachers that the female War Mage certainly seemed to enjoy physical contact. And Ash had already told him that all War Mages experimented with sex -- which naturally included touching. Yes, that was probably a more reasonable explanation.

Ash snuggled closer, and Severus felt the Gryffindor tattoo brush up against his side. There was such power in those tattoos -- so much magic and emotion embodied in them. The man himself would be no less powerful -- and clearly no less passionate. It was frightening -- but intoxicating at the same time. Severus wondered -- not for the first time -- what the hell he was doing.

He sighed quietly to himself. //No-one could ever claim my life is boring,// he reflected. But at least he'd be able to entertain himself by watching the rest of the Hogwarts population when they realised that he and Ash were involved. In fact the shocked looks and sudden silences he could foresee might prove to be very entertaining indeed. That is, if the shock didn't kill off too many of them first.

And then, with dawning horror, Severus remembered.

Not every staff member was going to be surprised.

//Oh hell,// he thought. //Albus is going to have a field day.//

----oo00oo----

Pale early-morning light streamed in through the high-set stone windows. Broken glass, dirt, and bits of paper littered the abandoned building's empty rooms. Beneath the high vaulted ceiling, a large circle had been inscribed onto the cold stone floor, and within that circle a burnt-out pentacle surrounded a large pile of black ash. Both the ash and the pentacle were slowly disintegrating into fine powder wherever the weak sunlight touched them.

At ten precisely equal points around the circle's edge, ten bodies draped in black lay motionless in the cool morning air.

Until one of them moved.

Weakly, Voldemort tried to sit up. But his resurrected body refused to obey him. The resultant pain and uncontrollable twitching were somewhat frustrating, but at least there was nobody around to witness his momentary weakness.

//Or more to the point,// he reflected, //nobody capable of witnessing it.// The other bodies around the circle still hadn't moved.

But then, he hadn't really expected them to.

The Dark Lord waited patiently for the worst of the muscle spasms to pass before carefully rolling over and dragging himself away from the circle towards the raised dais at the back of the building's main hall. He was covered in dirt and grime by the time he reached it, but he ignored the humiliation of being forced to crawl like an insect in favour of reaching for the plain brown satchel that lay nearby.

With a minor sense of achievement, Voldemort pulled the bag towards himself. Seconds later, he was downing a very strong healing potion, which he quickly followed up with a restorative draught and a mild pepper-up potion. He decided to leave the other vials and bottles until he felt better able to judge his general state of health.

Satisfied to wait while his body and magic recovered, Voldemort then turned his attention to the remains of last night's spellwork. As he dispassionately regarded the decaying pentacle and it's attendant bodies, he silently congratulated himself on successfully completing one of the most forbidden and forgotten rituals in wizarding history. Even Salazar Slytherin had banned all knowledge of it from his House.

Although not from his descendants.

The first time Voldemort had seen references to the ritual, he'd been reading fragments of Slytherin's personal journal. There hadn't really been much left of it -- it was mostly just scraps of crumbling parchment after all this time. But on one of those scraps, Voldemort's illustrious ancestor had commanded all of his descendants to memorise a particular list of spells and to destroy all other written reference to them -- as well as to obliviate any oral histories no matter where or when his descendants might come across them. In extreme cases, where 'Obliviate' could not be used, Salazar had actually called upon his descendants to kill anyone who knew about the spells.

Needless to say, such commands had made Voldemort extremely curious.

After painstaking research into every fragment of Slytherin's writings that he could lay his hands on, Voldemort eventually managed to piece together the reason for his ancestor's peculiar orders. Apparently the spells could be used as part of a ritual that would summon something quite powerful and incredibly dangerous.

Under normal circumstances Salazar Slytherin would've protected such a valuable resource by keeping all knowledge of it safely hidden away for his personal benefit. But in this unique case, Slytherin had discovered that the power called up by the spells was completely impossible to control. And to make matters worse, he also realised that in the hands of an incompetent, even attempting the ritual might well cause widespread devastation.

Thus, with no potential gain and the high probability of complete disaster, Voldemort's ancestor had decided to remove all knowledge of the ritual and its component spells from the wizarding world.

But of course even in Salazar's time the wizarding world was a very large place, and although Slytherin's knowledge and power were famous across the British Isles and Europe, his sphere of influence never did extend much beyond that. What's more, at the time he began looking for any mention of the forbidden spells there were quite a few persecuted wizards and witches who'd made the decision to hide themselves away from everyone -- including the rest of the wizarding world. Thus, there were plenty of wizarding folk in other parts of the world who'd never even heard the name 'Salazar Slytherin', and more than a few individuals and families who knew the name quite well but were either 'missing' or 'presumed dead' by the time he started looking for them.

In the end, the wizarding world was simply too large and too scattered for Slytherin to successfully enforce his decision -- which meant there were still plenty of places for Voldemort to search in his quest to re-discover both the spells and the ritual.

And re-discover them he did.

It took him several years to re-construct the entire ritual, but Voldemort hadn't been in any particular hurry. While not normally a very patient man, the Dark Lord soon realised that time and indifference had very nearly succeeded where his ancestor had failed. There was almost nothing left -- either written or spoken -- of the spells or the ritual he was looking for. After all, why would anyone bother to safeguard something that granted no reward and was, in fact, very likely to kill you if you attempted to use it? Whenever he did manage to find a torn page or a few words of faded ink, Voldemort invariably discovered that the decaying book or scroll also contained other spells which were far more useful than the ones he was looking for.

Of course, the other reason for his relaxed attitude was that, for once, nobody was trying to keep him away from what he wanted. Nobody was trying to beat him to it. Nobody was trying to keep it for themselves. Nobody was even trying to destroy the spells he wanted to find. In short, nobody beside himself was the least bit interested in the ritual he was trying to reconstruct.

Indeed, Voldemort himself was only interested because Dark Magic had always fascinated him, and because there was a small chance that some of the theory behind the spells could be used elsewhere, in ways that Salazar Slytherin might not have considered. After all, there'd been many advances in magical theory since Slytherin's time, and while some might say that more had been lost than gained, it was still true that a modern witch or wizard did not regard their magic with the same superstitious overtones that had once been common.

But while Voldemort hoped that a more modern approach to magic might yield new insights into the forbidden spells, he wasn't actually expecting it. After all, it was well known that none of the Hogwarts Founders had placed much faith in superstition. The mere fact that they'd started a school where magic was not only taught, but also studied, was proof of that. And Slytherin himself had never been one to place much faith in anything he couldn't personally verify. So there was little chance that Voldemort's ancestor hadn't studied the ritual in rigorous detail.

Still, the possibility remained -- as did Voldemort's curiosity -- until finally both the spells and the ritual were completely reassembled.

Along the way, Voldemort's detailed study of each magical component gradually allowed him to piece together what the entire ritual would actually do -- and more to the point, why it was so dangerous.

What he discovered was that once the ritual was begun, there were only four possible outcomes -- three of which resulted in death.

The most likely scenario involved a wizard or witch who botched the rather complicated spells and lost control of the magic they were trying to invoke. When the carefully constructed spell-structures collapsed, they did so almost instantly and the resulting surge of uncontrolled power then poured back into spell caster's body, frying it to a blackened crisp within seconds.

Slytherin's writings indicated that he felt this was the most desirable outcome since the caster didn't get far enough into the ritual to be dangerous, and they most certainly couldn't pass on what they knew to anybody else. Given that the sort of people who attempted such Dark magic were not usually inclined to share anything with anyone -- or leave detailed notes lying around -- Voldemort felt this was not an unreasonable assumption on the part of his ancestor.

The next most probable outcome was where the caster actually managed to complete the first part of ritual, but wasn't powerful enough to maintain the spell-wards once the power they'd summoned actually arrived. Interestingly, Voldemort found two separate references to this scenario, both of which used the word 'consumed' when referring to the summoner's fate after the wards failed. This led the Dark Lord to wonder whether the writers were talking about being 'consumed' by magic, or whether the summoned power was actually some sort of creature that ate wizards.

But whatever it was, it was most certainly fatal. This was borne out by the fact that once the summoner was 'consumed', their death released the last of their magic back into the spells, thereby completing the ritual and banishing the thing back where it came from.

Voldemort had been amused by the fact that the spells were designed to complete themselves if the summoner died. Modern Dark spells certainly didn't have an in-built warning about what might happen to you if you tried to use them. For magic that was so very Dark, the ritual itself was almost... polite.

And then, of course, there was the worst case scenario.

This outcome was the reason Salazar Slytherin didn't consider the second scenario to be nearly as desirable as the first -- for while the first outcome was safe for everyone except the spell caster, the second was only a hair's breadth away from utter disaster.

The difference lay in the exact moment the summoner realised they didn't have enough power to fuel the spell-wards. And that mistake wasn't hard to make since the wards didn't take much power to set up. They didn't even take much effort to maintain -- that is, until they were placed under the strain of holding whatever it was the ritual summoned. After that... well, if you weren't powerful enough, then neither were the wards.

Most people who attempted the ritual didn't realise they were in trouble until it was too late. If they were lacking in magical strength, then there simply wasn't enough time before the wards fell to perform the incantation and the precise wand movement that would safely end the ritual. But since those unfortunate wizards and witches didn't know there wasn't enough time -- and had undoubtedly practiced ending the ritual until they could do it in their sleep -- most of them went ahead and tried it anyway, and were then 'consumed' once the wards fell.

The worst case scenario occurred when the summoner didn't try to end the ritual. When confronted with the nightmare they'd summoned, and the reality of their failing spell-wards, there was a very real possibility that a witch or wizard might panic and forget what they were doing. This virtually guaranteed that the summoner would run off -- apparating away to save their own life and leaving the ritual incomplete. That left the thing they'd summoned free and unfettered to do whatever it liked.

And what it liked was 'consuming' things.

It was at this point that Voldemort was fortunate enough to come across records so old that they were little more than myths and stories passed down from parent to child in remote parts of northern Europe's wizarding community. And what those stories described told the Dark Lord exactly what that intriguing word 'consumed' really meant.

As it turned out, the ritual did summon a creature of some kind -- and that creature did, in fact, eat wizards.

Literally.

Although not very often.

For the most part, the summoned creature seemed to subsist on the energy of life itself. It simply had to grab hold of a living thing in order to drain the life-force out of it. Animals, plants, muggles, wizards -- it didn't matter what, just so long as it was alive. In the stories Voldemort noted down, even the grass shrivelled up and died as the horrible thing passed.

To Voldemort, this was both good news and bad news.

The good news was that life-force was not magic. This was obvious simply because things like paintings and floo powder could be magical, but would never be 'alive' no matter how much magic was poured into them. And that meant that the creature was very unlikely to be magical itself, which in turn explained why magic could be used to summon and imprison it.

The bad news was that magical beings had more life-force than non-magical ones. There was even some debate as to whether magic caused a wizard to have more life-force -- and thus a longer lifespan than muggles -- or whether being born with more life-force was what made you a wizard. Still, regardless of who was right, life-force and magic seemed to go hand-in-hand, which explained why the creature tended to shun the muggle world in favour of hunting down powerful and long-lived magical beings such as unicorns and basilisks.

Unfortunately, unicorns and basilisks were few and far between.

By far, the most common magical beings of any significant power were wizards and witches -- and if the summoned creature managed to come upon a large number of them all at once, it reportedly went into a kind of a feeding frenzy.

Which was when it occasionally got carried away and started chewing on its victims.

But no matter how many it killed, the summoned monstrosity was never sated. It would inevitably move on to the next living thing it could get hold of. And it would keep moving on until it finally encountered the one who'd summoned it, at which point the summoner's death would banish it. But until that happened, it would continue to rampage through the magical world, leaving a swathe of dead earth in its wake.

And so the worst-case scenario would eventually leave an immensely powerful, uncontrollably destructive creature free to wreak utter devastation -- mostly on the wizarding world.

//Not a desirable outcome at all, really,// Voldemort had mused when he finally understood all the ramifications of it. //No wonder Salazar didn't want some incompetent getting his hands on this ritual.// Of course, it never occurred to Voldemort that such an outcome might apply to him.

Instead, Voldemort assumed that the fourth outcome -- which Salazar Slytherin himself had experienced -- would naturally be the one he experienced as well. This was the scenario his ancestor had described as the least likely, and was also the only one that did not result in the caster's eventual death.

Slytherin had performed the ritual in its entirety -- surviving the ordeal without allowing the creature to attack him, or escape his control. But from his notes, Voldemort gathered that his ancestor had not been all that confident about surviving a second attempt. In fact, it appeared that Slytherin had been a bit distressed by his encounter with whatever it was he'd summoned, and Voldemort had contemplated the faded writing for a very long time after reading the man's account of it.

Slytherin's usual precise and expressive words had failed him. The text on the ancient parchment had been erratic and disjointed. Even the shape of the lettering was unusual -- appearing jerky and malformed, as though the quill had been shaking in Slytherin's hand...

Salazar Slytherin's final words about the ritual had come in the form of advice for his descendants. He'd written quite simply: 'Do not attempt these spells. The risk of death is high and there is nothing -- no power, no advantage -- that could possibly be gained from them.'

But Slytherin had been wrong.

For Voldemort, there had been something very useful to be gained...

...the chance to study a being that -- by Slytherin's own account -- was immune to a wide variety of potions and spells --

-- including 'Avada Kedavra'.

----oo00oo----

There were, of course, problems to be overcome in performing the ritual.

To begin with, the wards would require a lot of power once the creature appeared. Normally, that power had to come from a single witch or wizard simply because all the spells had to be keyed to the same magical signature. Salazar Slytherin had only been able to sustain the wards for about an hour before he'd exhausted himself and ended the ritual. If Voldemort wanted to observe and test the creature for any meaningful length of time, then he had to find a way to feed power into the wards without draining himself.

Fortunately, Voldemort -- unlike his ancestor -- had plenty of servants who were magically bound to him through the Dark Mark. With a bit of preparation the ritual would allow him to enhance that link to the point where he could siphon off power from a few carefully selected servants and then filter it through his own body. To the ritual spells, it would seem as though the magic was simply an extension of his own power. Their power, acting as his, would then be able to fuel the spell-wards. All Voldemort had to work out after that was how many Death Eaters he could use without disrupting the power flows.

In the end, he'd chosen ten as the optimum number -- himself and nine others.

They, of course, had been eager to assist him -- probably hoping their Lord would reward them for their efforts. It never occurred to them that they'd been chosen because they were too inexperienced, or just too stupid, to be of any other use to him.

//Although,// Voldemort reflected idly, //they did manage to serve me well in the end.//

Looking over at the nine bodies lying in their perfect circle, Voldemort absently noted how peaceful the scene looked. The early morning stillness was in stark contrast to the roaring violence that had raged within the spell-wards mere hours ago. It was hard to believe how strongly the magic had flared and flickered -- splashing lurid colours on the walls like strangely inverted shadows. Tremendous blows had rained down upon the magical barrier, but with the power of nine wizards behind it, the wards had stood firm.

A pity the wizards themselves had not fared quite so well.

With that much power feeding into the wards, every moment the creature wasn't pounding on them caused a magical surge that spiked back into the originating spell caster. Voldemort, in turn, promptly shunted the extra power off to his servants. That meant his Death Eaters were being alternately drained and then charged with magic that had been filtered through the Dark Lord and no longer quite matched their own magical signatures.

It was no surprise that their bodies had not handled the strain well -- which was of little concern to Voldemort since the damage was not immediately fatal, and they would still last long enough to serve their purpose. The fate of nine servants was nothing when compared with the opportunity to study such a fascinating and uniquely powerful creature.

For hours Voldemort examined the thing he'd summoned. With meticulous detail he'd cast spell after spell upon it. Even most healers could not perform some of the high-level diagnostic charms he's been using. And what he discovered had been astonishing.

The creature was radically different from anything Voldemort had ever come across before. Its very existence was an affront to everything he'd learned about living beings. Its blood -- if it could be called that -- was made up of strange chemicals, some of which he couldn't identify. The 'head' contained far too many eyes, and he rather suspected they were seeing things that no human ever would. Its limbs bent off at unnatural angles, and he couldn't locate any organ that might conceivably be its heart. He hadn't dared try anything like 'Legilimens' on it. There was no telling what might pass for a mind in such a grotesque body.

No wonder most magic was useless against it -- the creature was simply too different to predict what effect 'normal' spells might have on it.

For Voldemort this was a disheartening discovery. He'd hoped to find something he could use to alter his own body, thereby mimicking the creature's immunity to magical attacks. But that was obviously not possible. He couldn't imagine how he'd even begin making such radical changes, let alone whether he actually could without killing himself.

However, perhaps all was not lost. There was still the creature's unique ability to drain the life-force out of living things. This was interesting in that while the Killing Curse could destroy something's life-force, it couldn't actually drain it away and take possession of it. //Perhaps,// thought Voldemort, //there's a way to steal the very life out of my enemies and use it for myself.//

And so, the Dark Lord had continued his study, this time focusing on the way the creature's body used life-force as opposed to the way a human body used it. Of course, to get the most out of such research, he needed a subject for comparison -- preferably a non-magical one since the creature itself was also non-magical. Fortunately, it had always been his intention to observe the creature as it fed, so Voldemort already had an unconscious muggle he could use for that purpose.

Initially, he simply suspended the muggle in the air outside the wards. This allowed him to cast spells over both the muggle and the creature while they were virtually side-by-side. Indeed, by reaching through the wards, he could even cast a single spell over both of them, allowing him to make a detailed analysis of the differences between them.

And somewhere in the midst of his studies, the Dark Lord noticed something very interesting.

The muggle -- who was actually in fairly good shape since Voldemort had only abducted him yesterday -- seemed to have something... entwined... with his life-force. It wasn't much of a something -- in fact it was hardly there at all. Even using the most advanced diagnostic and analytical spells in the world, Voldemort himself only noticed it because it was not present in the creature's life-force.

Upon further comparison, the Dark Lord discovered that each of his Death Eaters also had the same 'something' tangled up in their life-forces. However, in the case of his servants, their magic was also threaded in and around their life-force, making it even harder to detect the mysteriously faint presence.

The Dark Lord's next clue as to what that 'something' might be came when he cast several specialised spells upon his own body and discovered that, while his own life-force was now a bit different from that of his servants -- probably as a result of his resurrection -- he, too, had that same 'something' within him.

And then, with a sudden jolt of recognition, Voldemort recalled his previous and much-hated existence as a disembodied spirit.

After that damned Potter had reflected his Killing Curse, the Dark Lord had been reduced to almost nothing -- clinging to the absolute minimum of existence. Thus, he'd been intensely aware of everything he had left -- everything he was -- and how determined he was not to lose any more of himself. But it was that intense feeling of 'self' -- of being separate from the tattered remains of his magic and life-force -- that now struck him so forcefully.

In a rush of awareness and dizzying amazement, the Dark Lord suddenly realised that he might just have discovered the physical manifestation of his own soul!

His soul -- not his magic, and certainly not his life-force! But rather, something so faint and so entwined with the other two that -- had it not been for the creature's lack of it -- he never would've realised it was there.

Of course the final test came when Voldemort passed the unconscious muggle through the spell-wards.

The experiment was simplified by the fact that both subjects were non-magical, but even so, it was difficult to detect exactly what happened. Initially, the creature seemed to absorb both the muggle's life and what was quite possibly his soul. In Voldemort's opinion, that process alone deserved extensive study, but what he found especially interesting was that while the creature easily metabolised the muggle's life-force, it could not hold onto the 'soul'. Instead, that elusive, delicate, gossamer-like substance was freed from the entwined strands of life-force, and drifted away whole and undamaged.

Then it simply disappeared.

//Where did it go?// Voldemort wondered. It was possible -- even likely -- that his spells couldn't detect such a faint presence once it was no longer anchored to life. //Or perhaps it just... 'dissolved' or something,//he thought curiously. But there was no way to tell since he didn't have another muggle handy, and his Death Eaters were presently involved in the ritual. He roundly cursed himself for not having brought more muggles.

Unfortunately, without more test subjects to throw at the creature, there wasn't much else Voldemort could learn from it. He'd already performed every experiment and spell he'd planned to use, and while he would've liked the chance to try a few more, his bound servants were starting to look a bit... unreliable. So he wisely decided to end the ritual, and banish the creature back where it came from.

Confidently, Voldemort raised his wand and cast the final spell. The creature vanished just as the last word left his lips, and -- as expected -- the excess power from the spell-wards immediately began pouring back into his body.

The power flow was smooth and steady, and Voldemort easily shunted the excess magic back into his servants. In a few moments -- once the spell-wards were drained back to their base level -- the last few syllables of the spell would trigger the careful, systematic dismantling of the wards, and the ritual would be complete.

With the creature already gone, the dangerous part of the ritual was over, and Voldemort was already considering how he might use his new-found knowledge of souls -- if they were souls -- to his advantage. If he could somehow gain control over the flimsy stuff -- or manipulate it somehow...

With such exciting possibilities before him, it was no surprise that Voldemort was barely paying attention when the spell-wards suddenly and catastrophically collapsed.

Instantly all their remaining power slammed into him like a sledgehammer.

Too late, Voldemort realised that by using the ritual to enhance the link between himself and his servants, he had not, as he'd thought, fooled the spells into accepting that he was a single unusually-powerful wizard. Instead, he'd created a situation where the spells believed he was one wizard with ten bodies!

Setting up the wards hadn't been a problem since Voldemort had constructed them by himself. That part of the ritual required more skill than power, and the magic he'd used to enhance the link to his servants could not be performed until after the underlying spell structures were active and stable.

Once his servants were linked to him through the ritual, powering the wards had also been a simple matter. All wizards instinctively concentrated their magic before expelling it through a single point -- usually their wand. Thus, the ritual had easily accepted that the spell caster's magic would flow through Voldemort as though he was the wand for a single wizard who'd been split into ten parts.

However, the underlying structure of the spell-wards was tied directly to the magical power centres of the body.

That meant that when Voldemort added his Death Eaters to the equation, he unwittingly added nine more power centres to the wards' base-level construction. Thus, when the wards began to dismantle themselves, they tried to return that underlying power to ten different bodies at the same time. But of course, Voldemort was the only one directly connected to the spells, which forced the other nine power flows to rebound back into the partially-dismantled wards. That, in turn, caused a disruption in the remaining magical constructs and started a cascading collapse.

The resulting power surge had only one place to go -- Voldemort himself.

The massive influx of magic instantly overwhelmed the Dark Lord's ability to channel it. Voldemort was barely conscious as he frantically searched for ways to expel the excess power. The enhanced links to his nine Death Eaters were not large enough -- strong enough -- to handle the load. Something had to give.

Something did.

And the Dark Lord's mind spiralled into darkness.

----oo00oo----

Now, hours later, Voldemort sat beside his satchel full of healing potions and reflected on how fortunate he was to have survived his mistake. //It's a pity,// he thought irritably, //that I can't use bits of the ritual to gain access to my servants' magic.// But, as he'd discovered, there were some rather undesirable side-effects that he did not wish to experience a second time.

As it was, the Dark Lord now had first-hand knowledge of what would've happened if he'd botched the ritual spells while he was setting them up. //No wonder the fools who fail that part of the ritual are fried to a crisp,// he thought. The dead muggle -- whose body had been inside the wards when they fell -- was now little more than a pile of disintegrating ashes.

Still tired, but gaining strength with each passing minute, Voldemort considered the things he'd learned. If it really was the 'soul' he'd discovered, then he should be able to detect it in any witch, wizard, squib, or muggle. He would definitely need to do more research. Perhaps he'd start with muggles since they were easy to get hold of and there wouldn't be any magic to complicate his preliminary experiments. With the proper spells, and by applying what he'd learned from the creature and the way it 'consumed' life-force, he should be able to work out a way to directly affect or manipulate the strangely elusive stuff.

Then it occurred to him that now he knew what to look for, he should definitely study a few dementors. Would he eventually be able to extract a soul the way a dementor did? If he could, it would generate massive panic and fear the first time he demonstrated such an ability!

And of course, since the 'soul' was so intimately tangled up with both life-force and magic, it would be interesting to see whether manipulating one would cause changes in the other two. He suspected it would, since his own 'soul' had seemed different from his servants' when he'd compared them -- and he knew his own life-force was... unusual... as a result of his resurrection. In addition, life-force was directly connected to the physical body. If the body failed, so too did that body's life-energy. What might be possible if he made changes to something -- or somebody -- while altering their soul at the same time?

If his suspicions were true, it opened up a whole new world of possibilities -- a whole new way of looking at the very nature of living things! Could he, for example, alter a wizard's soul and have that change be reflected in their magic so that they couldn't use it? Would he be able to alter the human body in ways that could never be undone with mere medi-magic?

Voldemort's mind was awhirl with the possibilities when a new thought brought him to a standstill.

Was this, then, the key to becoming a Soul Mage?

//Oh, yesss,// he thought. //Yesss, I will be a Mage -- and I will need no-one to teach me their pathetic secrets!// And then, lying there exhausted beside the dead... the Dark Lord laughed.

----oo00oo----

Later -- once he was feeling more like his usual self -- Voldemort pushed himself up off the floor and made his way over to the body of his nearest servant. He was somewhat curious to know exactly how he had survived such a massive overload of power, and he had a suspicion it had something to do with the Dark Mark. Just before he'd passed out, he could vaguely recall something within him... breaking open... and the sensation had been centred around the connection to his Death Eaters.

Interestingly, it appeared that he'd literally burned out the Dark Mark on the nine other wizards who'd been with him when the ritual ended. Their left forearms were scorched and burnt between the elbow and hand, and there was nothing of the Mark itself left on the blackened skin.

His dead servants had enjoyed a much-enhanced link to him before they died, courtesy of his slight alteration in the ritual spells. That link had obviously been the first outlet the excess magic had found. However, the magic of those particular wizards had already been strained to breaking point by the time the wards collapsed, and they'd probably 'burned out' almost immediately. Had the rest of the excess magic found its way out through the Marks on his other Death Eaters?

Voldemort considered that for a moment. Then he cautiously reached inside himself and touched his magic where all his servants' Dark Marks were anchored.

He immediately recoiled in pain.

The sudden spike of agony quickly fell to a dull ache, and Voldemort ruefully acknowledged that the excess magic had most definitely overflowed into his network of Death Eaters. The links between him and them were raw and pain-filled -- obviously strained and magically overloaded. It would take some time for those links to recover.

//I wonder what effect that had on them...// Voldemort thought curiously. He supposed he would have to do some research into that as well. //So much to do,// he smirked to himself. //And so much power to claim!//

Satisfied that there was no reason to stay any longer, the Dark Lord returned to the raised dais and collected his satchel of potions. He then turned, and paused for a moment to consider the evidence of his night's work. With a flick of his wand, he set the robed bodies alight.

That proved to be a mistake.

"Aagh!" He immediately doubled over in pain, the satchel clinking noisily to the floor. "Merlin's balls," he hissed through clenched teeth. His magic -- like the link to his Death Eaters -- appeared to be rather badly strained. This was not something he could fix with potions. Breathing heavily, he slowly straightened up. It looked like he was going to have plenty of time for that research, since it would obviously be a while before his magic recovered. Exactly how long, he didn't yet know -- but he certainly intended to find out.

Carefully, he picked up the potions satchel again. He was unconcerned about broken glass since the bottles all had unbreakable charms on them. Then he headed for the double doors at the other end of the room, being careful to skirt around the burning bodies. He stopped for a moment when he noticed a twitching hand. Apparently one of them wasn't quite dead. //Close enough though,// he thought indifferently. The body wasn't even 'alive' enough to cry out -- there was only a pathetic mewling noise that stopped almost before it began.

Once outside, he then walked a short distance away from the building before turning back to make sure the fire had taken hold. Flickering light illuminated the doors, and echoed dimly in the high-set windows. With any luck the whole place would be gutted. He didn't hold out much hope for the entire building to burn down -- stone required a very high temperature to burn, and there just wasn't enough fuel inside to get it that hot.

Calmly, he pulled out a portkey and mentally congratulated himself on the having the foresight to prepare one. With his magic so overstrained he'd be foolish to try apparating.

As he activated the portkey, Voldemort idly wondered what the muggles would think if they knew what he'd done in their derelict little building. But then, they were, after all, only muggles -- and muggles were deaf, dumb, and blind when it came to anything magical.

As the tug of the portkey took hold behind his navel, Voldemort continued to watch the fire grow. It would be amusing if the muggles ever again tried to worship their god in that particular building. //After all,// he smirked, //it's not every church that's been used to summon a demon.//

----oo00oo----

Harry was half-asleep when he was suddenly woken by a strong wave of concern, friendship, and fear. Groggily he tried to roll over, only to realise that doing so was a very bad idea. His body had stiffened up overnight and was now sore and aching...

-- which reminded him of the night before and why his body was now sore and aching.

"Mmph," he mumbled as he forced his reluctant body into an upright position. //Ow,// he thought, and then looked over to his bedmate --

-- who wasn't there.

The wave of emotion rolled over him again -- this time with a lot more concern and fear in it. //Oh,// Harry abruptly realised, //bugger -- I missed Hagrid's check-in last night!// He immediately sent back a surge of warm friendship and apologetic reassurance. A sense of relief echoed back.

For a moment Harry contemplated lying there and trying to go back to sleep. But Severus was already up somewhere doing Merlin-knew-what, and he really should put his sore muscles under hot water as soon as possible. He didn't want to stiffen up any more than he already had.

//Sunday,// he thought suddenly. //It's Sunday, which means Sev usually eats in his quarters. With any luck he hasn't yet run off to Albus.// But there was a good chance the Potions Master would wait for Ash to accompany him anyway.

A quick search of Sev's wardrobe yielded a light bathrobe that Harry could easily wrap around himself and tie closed at the waist. Semi-decently attired, he then went in search of his missing bedmate.

He found the Potions Master awake and immaculately dressed, standing in his workroom staring forlornly at the wreckage of his potions cupboard.

"Um... sorry about that," Ash sighed from the doorway.

Severus waved off his apology. "While cleaning up such a mess is not how I imagined spending my Sunday," he replied, "I nonetheless find it infinitely preferable to being carted off to St Mungos."

"I'll help you clean up," Harry offered.

"Not if you're as hopeless at Potions as you claim to be," Severus retorted. "Besides, now that I've ascertained there's nothing dangerous or unstable in here, it can be left as it is in safety. We need to see Albus--"

"I need a shower first," Harry cut in. "A hot one."

Severus grunted his acknowledgement. "Go on then," he replied. "And here," he added while passing Harry a small tin, "apply this to the worst affected areas after your shower." Then he turned back to the shattered cupboard. "In the meantime, I shall see what I can do about the worst of this mess."

Harry went back to the bedroom and gathered up his robes. Before last night's abrupt change in plans he'd been about to go on a date, so they were still clean, if a bit wrinkled. They were also a bit too dressy for a Sunday morning at Hogwarts. //The restaurant,// Harry suddenly remembered, //I'll have to owl them with an apology. Merlin knows I won't be able to give them an explanation.//

He recovered his wand from the bedside table, cast an anti-wrinkle spell on his clothes and made his way to the bathroom. He was glad he always carried the makeup for his scar with him. Even though Sev now knew about the scar, he didn't want to set foot outside the Potions Master's door without all of his disguise firmly in place.

By the time Harry was dressed and ready to face the world -- or at least breakfast, Severus had managed to get the worst of the potions and glass off the floor. There were still a few stubborn puddles of goo and a bit of staining, but the mess was now largely confined to the broken glass and puddles inside the cupboard itself.

"Albus should be well awake by now," Sev announced upon seeing him.

"Can we stop by my quarters first?" Harry responded. Then indicating his rather nice outfit, he added: "I'd rather not give the Headmaster any more ammunition than I have to."

"Fine," Severus replied curtly. He looked somewhat taken aback -- as though it had only just occurred to him that Ash was wearing rather more flattering clothes than he normally would.

----oo00oo----

Once more attired in his usual War Mage outfit, Harry was hurriedly finishing off an apple he'd grabbed from his quarters as he and Severus made their way up to the Headmaster's office. As they neared the door they heard voices, indicating that someone was already in with the old wizard. Severus held up a hand, indicating that they should wait. He also made no attempt to hide the fact that he was listening to the conversation inside.

"So y'see Pr'fessor, it was jus' like yeh said las' night," came Hagrid's voice through the slightly open door. "Some sort o' mage thing I guess. But anyways, he answered me plain as day this mornin' and there was even this feelin' of bein' sorry to 've worried me. So I reckon he's fine after all."

With a raised eyebrow, Severus turned towards him and whispered: "I thought you said Potter couldn't feel his link to Voldemort anymore."

"I also said the link wouldn't normally affect me," Harry replied in an equally low voice. "Who knows what might have leaked through last night. But the circle would've looked after him."

"Thank-you Hagrid," came the Headmaster's voice. "It's a great relief to know that young Mr Potter is all right. I did think it likely that some aspect of his training might have prevented him from replying, but it's always reassuring to have proof of these things. I'm very glad indeed that you and he share this link between you."

"Oh, er... well, anythin' I c'n do, of course sir," Hagrid replied.

"Indeed Hagrid, indeed."

The conversation was obviously at an end, so Harry took the initiative and knocked on the door.

"Come in," Albus called.

"Albus," Severus acknowledged as they entered. And then, just as if he hadn't been listening all along, he caught sight of Hagrid and added: "We didn't mean to disturb you."

"No, no, pr'fessor," Hagrid assured him, "I was jus' leavin'." And with a mumbled farewell to the Headmaster, he did just that.

For the next hour or so, Severus and Harry explained as much as they knew about what Voldemort had done the previous night. They did not, however, describe exactly what happened -- only saying that Severus had been affected through his Mark, and that Ash had assisted him by linking them together in order to control the pain. They deliberately glossed over how Ash had assisted him, and focused instead on the fact that Ash was able to recognise the effect Severus was suffering under and was now certain that the Dark Lord was well on his way to becoming a Soul Mage.

Albus was both shocked and horrified by the news. He sincerely hoped Ash was wrong in his interpretation of events, but Harry assured the old wizard that he was not. The Headmaster was only mildly relieved when Harry told him that Voldemort could not yet use his ability, and that it would always weaken him whenever he did use it. Grimly, Albus told them: "There are people I will have to inform about this. I will almost certainly have to mention your involvement War Mage Ash. Do I have your support in this?"

"Absolutely," Harry agreed. He didn't like it, but if Albus needed his testimony to lend credibility to his information, then Harry would certainly give it. This was too important to ignore. Equally grimly, he added: "I will have to inform the Circle as well. They may need to get involved much sooner than I'd anticipated."

"However," Severus interrupted, "there may be a silver lining to this particular dark cloud." Albus looked at his Potions Master curiously. With a smirk, Severus told him: "I am not the only one who bears the Dark Mark."

The Headmaster quickly caught on. "Ah," he nodded sagely. "Yes, I understand. Anyone with the Mark would have suffered as you did. I'll have a few people check with St Mungos, and also find out who might have summoned a healer last night. This could be extremely useful in identifying previously unknown Death Eaters. Certainly it will confirm our suspicions about many of them."

By the time the Headmaster finished speaking Harry was shaking with the effort not to laugh, and Severus was smirking fiercely. Finally, Albus noticed their expressions.

"Have I misunderstood something?" he asked in confusion.

Gleefully, Harry explained that what Severus had suffered through was the result of his dis-loyalty towards Voldemort. He also explained what would've happened to the loyal Death Eaters.

Then Severus told him about the party Mr and Mrs Malfoy had been hosting last night.

The Headmaster's howls of laughter could be heard all the way down to the gargoyle at the bottom of the stairs.

----oo00oo----

Later that day, Ash found himself pacing worriedly up and down his living room. Lucius Malfoy aside, he suspected there would be very little to laugh about in the coming months. //Why?!// he desperately asked himself. //Why did that bastard give up on dragonfire?! It must have been something I did -- something I said. But what?//

Abruptly, he realised that his thoughts were going in circles. He might never know what had caused old Voldie to change his plans, and it wouldn't matter even if he did. //What's done is done,// he told himself firmly, //and there's no changing it now. What matters is what I'm going to do about it.//

All his plans would have to be moved up. He no longer had the luxury of years. Now even months might be critical. //But there's still a little time left,// he told himself. //Time enough, I hope.// And with that, he determinedly sat down at his writing desk and began to pen a letter to the Mage Circle and Ly'haniir.

Once he'd penned his letters and sealed them, he summoned Dobby to take them up to the owlery. He knew very well that the contents of those envelopes would set a kneazle amongst the pixies when they were opened, and in both letters he'd absolutely insisted that he be contacted before anyone turned up on his doorstep.

As Dobby rushed off, Harry thought briefly of Hedwig, and hoped she was well. Then he turned back to his desk and pulled out several blank sheets of parchment. He needed to re-think his plans and work out a manageable timetable. He was also going to have to work around his class schedules and...

//Oh, bugger,// he realised. //I've got classes tomorrow and marking to do before then.// For the first time Harry almost regretted becoming a Hogwarts professor. But the castle, and the people in it, were so critical to everything he needed to accomplish, that the benefits of staying in his current position far outweighed the costs.

With a sigh, he turned back to the blank sheets of parchment before him. //Plans first,// he thought determinedly. //Marking later.//

----oo00oo----

//Much later,// Harry thought with a sigh as he leaned back and stretched. The floor by his feet was covered in scrunched up bits of paper and the desk was covered in more of it. But finally, Harry thought he'd arrived at a workable schedule. He was going to need a few days off here and there, but that couldn't be helped.

Carefully, he gathered up all his notes and plans and took them across to the fireplace. Then he set them alight. He'd only put quill to parchment in order to organise his thoughts, and also because he couldn't visualise a month-by-month calendar in his head. But now that he'd sorted it all out, he didn't need the written notes anymore, and he didn't want to risk any of his scribbles falling into unknown hands.

The revised plan was a lot less flexible than the original, and the timing was going to be a bit tricky because he'd have to have a couple of things running at the same time. But on the whole, he felt that it was still adaptable enough to cope with the occasional setback.

He hoped he wouldn't catch wizard's flu -- or anything else that would lay him up in the hospital wing for any length of time.

//I'm going to have to watch my diet and sleeping habits,// he acknowledged. //I can't afford to let myself get run down.//

On cue, his stomach rumbled.

//Hey -- it's dinnertime!// he thought with shock. Then he groaned. "And," he complained out loud, "I still have to do all that bloody marking!"

And then: "Damn it! I forgot to ask Sev for a replacement dinner date!"

And finally: "Bugger, bugger, bugger... I forgot about the restaurant..."

----oo00oo----