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!

WARNING: Some people may find this chapter distressing since it describes the imprisonment and torture of Robert Thomas (a muggle) at the hands of Voldemort and his Death Eaters. But I promise that everybody (including Robert) will have a happy ending by the time I finish the story. However the happy ending is not in this chapter.


The Mirror of Maybe

Chapter Fiveteen - Problems and Perspectives

By Midnight Blue

       

After such a momentous start to the week, Harry wasn't too surprised when he had another visitor a few days later. As it happened, he had a free period on Thursday afternoon and was just returning to his quarters when a voice from behind called out, "Ash! Wait up!"

Harry turned to see a complete stranger approaching.

"Hey there," the man smiled as he clapped Harry lightly on the shoulder. "I was just coming to see you. Are you on your way to back to your rooms?"

"I was, yes," Harry replied easily. The fact that the man was so relaxed and familiar with him told Harry that this apparent stranger was probably Sirius or Remus hidden under the disguise spell. He'd been half expecting either or both of them ever since news of the veritaserum interview had been published in every major newspaper in the wizarding world.

They reached Harry's quarters without interruption, and Harry politely ushered the man inside.

The stranger admired Harry's apartment -- turning in place to observe the lighting, the furniture, and the odd assortment of books, equipment, and curios.

"Hey!" the man suddenly exclaimed, "is that...? Merlins beard, it is!" His interest had been caught by an old tapestry hanging on the far wall. One corner was missing -- burned away in a fire of some kind -- and some of the remaining edges were a bit singed. But Harry found the geometric pattern and the warm earthy colours soothing, so he'd rescued it from the dusty storeroom where he'd found it, and hung it on his wall.

"You know," the man commented as he ran a gentle hand over the worn threads, "I'd forgotten all about this old thing. I thought they must have thrown it out." Turning to Harry he chuckled, "Do you know how it got burned?" Amused, Harry simply shook his head. "I set fire to it," the man laughed. "I didn't mean to, of course -- but Remus and James were still pretty ticked off with me afterwards."

"Sirius," Harry smiled, pleased to finally discover his guest's identity, "what on earth were you doing that would set fire to a tapestry?"

His godfather grinned at him. "At the time, we were studying middle-eastern wizards in History of Magic. Remus was fascinated by the idea of flying carpets, and wanted to see if we could make one." With a semi-embarrassed look, he added, "I didn't see the point myself. Give me a good broom any day."

"A bit hard in countries that are mostly desert," Harry replied. "There isn't exactly a lot of wood lying around to make brooms out of."

"Yeah, well... Anyway, we couldn't find a suitable carpet. We needed one that wouldn't be missed and that wasn't too big or too small." Then Sirius got a far-away look in his eyes as he added, "The one in the Headmaster's office would've been perfect..."

Harry laughed. "Don't tell me you tried to steal that one!"

Sirius snorted. "Are you kidding? Even Remus wasn't that desperate."

"So," Harry prompted, "I take it you couldn't find a carpet you liked. What made you decide on a tapestry?"

"A couple of things," Sirius explained. "For starters, this particular tapestry was hanging in our dormitory, so none of the teachers would notice if it went missing. It was also just the right size -- and the pattern on it looks sort of middle-eastern. Remus figured it was close enough, and by that stage I would've agreed to just about anything so long as I didn't have to look at any more carpets. Unfortunately, James liked this tapestry -- he always said it helped him relax -- so he wasn't too keen on the idea of us experimenting on it. But Remus and I eventually talked him into it."

Harry looked at the singed wall hanging with renewed appreciation. There were a number of treasured items that he'd deliberately searched for when he and Dobby had been rummaging around in the castle storerooms. Neville's old rememberall and Sev's dented cauldron were two of them. But this was an unexpected gift. For some unknown reason, he'd never come across this tapestry in the Mirror -- and so Sirius had never been reminded of it, and had never thought to tell him about it. Harry had so few of his parentsí belongings...

"I didn't know," he said simply. "When I found it, I just liked the look of it. But I can understand what Dad meant about it helping him to relax. I find the pattern... calming -- especially when I'm tired or stressed."

"Doesn't surprise me," Sirius smiled. "There's a lot of your Dad in you at times." Then he turned back to stare critically at the old tapestry. "I could never see it myself," he shrugged apologetically. "To me, it's just something to hang on the wall."

"Which still doesn't explain why you set fire to it," Harry commented.

Sirius grinned. "Remus kept telling us that when we were done it would hold at least two of us. Back then, we'd never seen a tandem broom, so we all thought having something two of us could fly together would be pretty cool. But I wasn't so sure. I mean, if you look at it, it isn't nearly as thick or strong as a proper carpet, and the thought kept going through my mind that it was all well and good for the rest of them... That damned rat," and Sirius' face darkened at the memory of Peter Pettigrew, "was always small -- and even though Remus and James were taller, they never bulked up the way I did. Of the four of us, I was always the heaviest, and I... well, I never trusted the idea of a carpet the way I did a broom." Sirius looked a little embarrassed before admitting, "I was more than a little concerned about the damned thing sagging at whichever end I was sitting on."

"Of course," he continued, "I didn't tell anyone how worried I was. Instead, I just sneaked back to our dorm' one night before dinner and cast a strengthening charm on it. Or at least, I thought I cast a strengthening charm on it. Unfortunately, I used 'a-duro' instead of 'duro' in the spell, and --"

"-- up she went!" Harry laughed.

"Like I'd poured Incendius Solution on it," Sirius agreed with a laugh. "It caught the drapes on my bed alight before I knew what was happening. McGonagall made me fill up six feet of parchment with 'Duro is for durable. Aduro is for arsonists. I will not experiment with charms by myself. I will not set fire to school property.' Then she gave me two weeks detention."

Harry found that pretty funny, and Sirius had to wait patiently for his godson to stop laughing before he could continue. "They confiscated the tapestry of course, and James didn't speak to me for two days. The rat had a panic attack over the fact that I might've burned down the tower, and then he avoided me until James let me off the hook and forgave me. Remus was just glad I didn't implicate the rest of them while I was trying to explain what I was doing with a tapestry in the first place."

"And speaking of Moony," Harry grinned, "where is your partner in crime?"

Sirius dropped himself into an armchair and replied, "He's off seeing Dumbledore. We're here to report on some Order business he's had us looking into. Since I'm still a wanted man and you don't want Albus knowing about the disguise spell, Remus is the one who's currently sitting in the Headmaster's office looking like his normal self."

A thought suddenly occurred to Sirius, "Hey! How did you know it was me? You didn't tell us you had a way of seeing through the spell."

Harry laughed as he made his way to the kitchen. "I don't." he assured his godfather. "But there aren't many total strangers who'd have the nerve to walk up and slap me on the shoulder. When you started talking about Remus and my Dad, it was fairly obvious. D'you want a drink?"

"Yes thanks," Sirius replied, "-- orange juice if you've got it."

"Coming right up."

As Harry walked back with two glasses in hand, Sirius leaned forwards and made the comment, "Y'know, this disguise spell is absolutely brilliant! It's the first time since I escaped that I've been able to walk around like an ordinary wizard. I was shaking like a leaf the first time Moony and I walked into the Leaky Cauldron. But nobody even blinked! It was fantastic!"

Harry handed Sirius his drink and watched as his godfather settled back into his chair. "I'm glad," Harry told him. "And I hope you haven't been spending all your time working for Albus."

Grinning madly, Sirius replied, "No fear of that. It's been a revelation for Remus too. It's the first time in his adult life that he hasn't had to worry about the prejudice against werewolves everywhere he goes. So trust me -- we're definitely not spending all our time working!"

"Just don't get too carried away," Harry grinned back.

Sirius rolled his eyes. "Good Lord," he moaned, "my godson is giving me parental advice!" Harry laughed again. "But seriously," the older man added, "don't worry about us. Marauders we may be, but stupid we're not. While it's been a real blessing for us to walk around so freely, we're both well aware of the risks we're taking. Having different faces won't save us if a Death Eater catches us snooping around -- or if an Auror thinks we're acting suspiciously."

Harry was relieved. "I wasn't really worried --" he began.

"Yes you were," Sirius interrupted cheerfully. "And you had every right to be. It's an exhilarating feeling -- the freedom you've given us. The first time we walked into a pub for dinner... it felt like... like I was finally out of Azkaban for real -- like I was finally me again! It would've been very easy for the two of us to get absolutely smashed off our faces that night." With a wry grin, he added, "Very easy. Too easy. But we both know we can't afford that sort of thing right now."

"But later?" Harry asked.

"You'd better believe it," Sirius smirked. "But not until after we get rid of old Voldie --" and Harry snickered at the irreverent nickname, "-- and we find that rat and get me acquitted!"

"More power to you," Harry toasted as he raised his glass.

"You mean to us," Sirius countered as he leaned forwards and clinked his own tumbler against his godson's. "And speaking of Voldie and his Death Eaters --"

"You're really stuck on that nickname, aren't you?"

"You got me started on it," Sirius replied, "so you don't get to complain about it. Now -- as I was about to say, Remus is off updating Dumbledore, so I'm here to update you." And with that, the conversation turned to more serious matters.

Mostly, Padfoot and Moony had been trying to track the movement of various Death Eaters in an attempt to locate the Dark Lord's current headquarters. They'd also been investigating rumours of suspicious activity in a variety of locations in the hope that any clues they could pick up might point the way to a larger pattern.

Every member of the Order of the Phoenix fed information back to their leader: Albus Dumbledore. He, in turn, tried to create an overall picture of the Dark Lord's plans from the little bits and pieces his people brought him. It was painstaking labour, often relying on guesswork and probabilities -- which was why Sev's role as a spy was so very vital to the effort.

By the time Sirius was winding down his report, Harry still hadn't heard anything that might require him to change his own plans. Indeed, a lot of what he'd been told meant very little to him and was probably unrelated to the Dark Lord, except incidentally. He'd asked for more detail once or twice, but even then Sirius' replies had only served to reassure him that Voldemort was proceeding pretty much just as Harry had anticipated.

It wasn't until the very end of Sirius' account that an offhand comment suddenly made Harry's blood run cold.

"Oh," Sirius was saying, "by the way, Remus and I came across some odd stories about a Death Eater attack on a muggle university."

"A muggle university?" Harry asked sharply. "Do you know which one?"

Surprised by Harry's acute interest, Sirius could only shake his head. "I'm afraid not," he replied. "The rumours were vague at best, and it's been over three months since the attack supposedly happened. Every lead disappeared like smoke when we tried to find something concrete to go on."

"Normally," Sirius continued, "we wouldn't even bother chasing down something like this, but it was rumoured that this attack occurred back in June -- about a week after you 'disappeared'. I thought it might be worth looking into because of the timing, and also because it's not very common for a problem in the muggle world to end up as a rumour in the wizarding one."

Worriedly, Sirius watched as Harry's attention focused inwards and a vague frown appeared on his godson's face. "Harry?" he prompted. "What's wrong?"

"Maybe nothing," Harry slowly replied. Then he looked up and asked, "Have you heard anything more about Voldemort's interest in dragons? That hasn't changed, has it?"

Sirius thought for a moment. "I don't -- no, wait a minute, I did hear something just recently... I think Remus might have mentioned it. Something about a Death Eater we'd been tailing. The man was saying something... I wasn't listening too closely since we already knew Voldemort was interested in that -- and I was watching our backs at the time..."

Suddenly Sirius snapped his fingers. "Got it!" he remembered. "The one we were following was whining to his mate about being forced to study dragons in Romania, and then suddenly being called home and replaced by some kid with only half a brain. Remus joked about it later, saying that half a brain was probably a step up for most Death Eaters."

"Damn," Harry said darkly. "That sounds like Voldemort has pulled his researchers out of Romania, and replaced them with regular grunts."

"Grunts?" Sirius asked.

"Semi-skilled or unskilled soldiers," Harry explained. "Someone like Voldemort assigns them to do all the nasty or boring jobs because they don't have the expertise to do the important ones. In this case, it may indicate that Voldemort has found something more important to focus on than research into Dragonfire."

"Dragonfire!" Sirius exclaimed. "I thought that was a myth!"

"No," Harry replied. "Dragonfire is real enough. It's just very rare -- probably because dragons themselves aren't as common as they once were. And even when they were, it was only the oldest members of one or two species that were ever able to produce it. But Dragonfire most definitely exists."

"And they're researching it in Romania?"

"Yes and no," Harry replied. "Charlie Weasley became interested in it a while back and has been pursuing it along with his officially approved research. But that fact isn't widely known."

"That explains why Voldemort was interested," Sirius muttered to himself.

"But not why he's suddenly become less interested," Harry added.

"Well, he hasn't given up on it altogether," Sirius pointed out. "He's still got people there, even if they are 'grunts'."

"Yes," Harry argued, "but that's not what he did in the Mirror. It's not what I remember! -- and it begs the question: what's so important that he's called his researchers home?"

"Something to do with a muggle university?" Sirius hazarded.

"I sincerely hope not," Harry grimly replied.

Without realising what he was doing, Harry rose from his chair and began pacing back and forth. //It's too soon!// he thought to himself. //Robert should still be doing his undergraduate degree. His work on technomagic won't even get started for another three years! He couldn't possibly have drawn Voldemort's interest so soon. Could he?//

Sirius watched his godson silently, wondering what could possibly have happened in that damned Mirror to cause so much worry over a rumour about a muggle university. Absently, he noted how strange it was to see this man -- a War Mage -- pacing up and down, and to know that this was Harry -- his godson -- hidden away under the same spell that Sirius was currently wearing himself.

Suddenly, Harry stopped pacing and turned to face him.

"Sirius, you've spent a lot of time in the muggle world haven't you?"

"Yeah, I guess," he acknowledged. "It's always fascinated me. That's one of the reasons I used to own a muggle motorcycle -- but I'm not an expert or anything."

"But you can blend in well enough to make some enquiries for me? -- Without being conspicuous?"

Sirius considered it. "Yes, I think so. I've spent quite a bit of time in the muggle world since I escaped from Azkaban." Wryly, he added, "You don't tend to encounter a lot of Dementors or Aurors when you're passing yourself off as a muggle."

Harry smiled a little at that, and dropped back into the chair beside his godfather. Leaning forwards, he explained: "I need you to go to the University of Cambridge and find out if there's a muggle there named Robert Thomas. He should be enrolled as a student, but I can't remember what course he's supposed to be in. However, he'll either be in the Physics or the Engineering Department, so you won't have to search the entire university for him."

"Physics or Engineering," Sirius repeated carefully, "and I'm looking for Robert Thomas."

"Discreet enquiries only," Harry cautioned. "I just want to know if he's there and whether he's all right. You don't need to speak to him -- or anyone official -- if you can avoid it."

Sirius nodded. "Find out where the students hang out and ask around. Don't attract official attention. Got it." Then he looked over at Harry. "Should I take Remus with me?"

"So long as you can get him to blend in, yes. I don't know how much experience he has with muggles though."

"It won't be a problem," Sirius assured him. "I'll do most of the talking."

"Don't wait until you get back to report in," Harry told him. "Send an owl. I need to know whether Mr Thomas is all right as soon as possible. A lot could change if there really was a Death Eater attack at that particular university."

By now Sirius was intensely curious. "Can you at least tell me why this muggle's so important?" he asked.

"I really wish I could, Padfoot. But I need to know what's going on first. I might be worrying over nothing, in which case it would be better for Mr Thomas if you and Moony just forgot you ever heard of him."

"Best for him..." Sirius repeated slowly, watching his godson thoughtfully. "Safety through anonymity?"

Harry made no reply.

Sirius rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay," he capitulated. "No more questions."

Harry snorted. "I'll believe that when I see it!"

"You know me too well," Sirius laughed. "But I'll promise no more questions for now. How's that?"

"What, not even about my personal life?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Sirius scoffed. "It's my duty as your godfather to hassle you about your personal life until you cave in and tell me everything."

Harry laughed.

       

It was shortly after sunset that Sirius -- still disguised as an anonymous stranger -- walked brazenly out of the castle and off the school grounds.

He and Remus had agreed to meet at the Shrieking Shack, and Sirius was supposed to arrive first and then wait for Remus to join him. Once there, they would both apply new disguises to themselves, and then apparate to London together. Nobody who saw them enter the Shack would see them leave -- or recognise the two men when they appeared seconds later in London.

       

Once Sirius departed, Harry ruefully admitted that his godfather hadn't been joking about Harry's personal life. Sirius was intensely curious about Harry's mysterious 'boyfriend-to-be', and had repeatedly mentioned the unidentified man in the hope that Harry might give him some details.

//Too bad for him I've been trained to resist interrogation,// Harry smirked to himself. Mind you, the first time Sirius had used the word 'boyfriend', Harry had nearly fallen off his chair laughing. The mental image of Severus Snape just did not go with the word 'boyfriend'. To Harry, Sev' had always been his lover, his mate, or his partner -- never his 'boyfriend'.

Fortunately, Sirius had been more teasing than annoying. He obviously wanted to know, but freely acknowledged that Harry didn't have to tell him. So instead of demanding details, he simply kept 'reminding' Harry that if Harry wanted help/advice/someone-to-listen, then his godfather was 'there' for him.

As for the rest of it, Harry thoroughly enjoyed telling Sirius about the veritaserum interview and about how he and Albus had managed to outwit a room full of reporters. Sirius hadn't been quite as happy about his godson trusting his health to Severus Snape, but Harry tried to mitigate the effect by describing Witless Wally's plight and the expression on the Auror's face when Fudge had deliberately stepped on his foot. Sirius and Sev' didn't see eye-to-eye on most things, but they did share a certain amount of contempt for Ministry Aurors. Harry was rewarded by a grudging smile from his godfather over Wally's eventual exile from the press conference.

Harry was also finally free to describe how bizarre it felt to actually be a Hogwarts professor. Sirius laughed with him about calling Ron and Hermione 'Mr Weasley' and 'Miss Granger', and made sympathetic noises about Harry's discomfort when awarding House points. In return, Sirius told Harry about his experiences as a travelling spy for the Order of the Phoenix, and the places he and Remus had visited together. By the time Harry was once more alone in his apartment, they'd both had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, and Harry was mentally thanking his parents for having such good taste in friends.

It wasn't until he finally turned back to face an empty room -- and noticed the silent shadows spreading outward from the corners -- that Harry's thoughts once more returned to Robert Thomas.

//If he has been taken,// Harry thought darkly, //then I'll just have to find a way to rescue him.// Harry knew he wouldn't be able to ignore the young man's plight if Voldemort really did have him. The memory of their first meeting -- of finding the man beaten, broken, eyes downcast, with the word 'master' always on his lips -- no, Harry could not allow that to happen again anymore than he could allow Draco to walk blindly down the same path he'd followed in the Mirror.

//But this is all conjecture at the moment,// Harry reminded himself. //I don't know that anything's happened to Robert. He could be perfectly all right.// But the thought that Voldemort might have recalled even some of his researchers nibbled at the back of Harry's thoughts -- reminding him that things were already different from the Mirror, and whispering to him that perhaps... just perhaps... this was the beginning of a major divergence.

"Dammit!" Harry swore aloud. "He was supposed to be safe! He wasn't even supposed to get involved this time!"

And along with the worry for Robert Thomas' safety came the knowledge that if Padfoot and Moony couldn't vouch for his whereabouts, then finding a single muggle prisoner among the Death Eaters could take months.

And those were months Harry wouldn't wish on anyone.

       

Elsewhere in the wizarding world, Voldemort was also contemplating an unforseen difficulty involving his enemies.

The Dark Lord was currently seated at a large desk in his personal quarters. Most of his followers would've been surprised by the simple furnishings that surrounded him. Yet the desk, while plain and undetailed, was made of a dark richly-coloured wood that had been smoothed back to a perfect satin finish. The polish laid over it was likewise of the highest quality, and served only to enhance the fine grain of the expensive timber. If it could be said that a wizard's chosen surroundings reflected their owner, then Voldemort was a man who had stripped away every part of himself that was not essential to his quest for power. Caring, sympathy, joy, sorrow -- none of it held any more meaning for him than the useless little adornments that others commonly enjoyed on their possessions. And out of all that was left -- anger, intelligence, strength, and a raw heated desire for power -- Voldemort had fashioned a clear and focused resolve that would allow him to carry out the darkest and most vile of acts without remorse or regret.

But for the moment, that cold calculating mind was focused intently upon the desktop before him, where a three-day-old copy of the Daily Prophet lay neatly folded under his gaze. The headline read: "War Mage Secrets Revealed -- the Veritaserum Interview!"

Leaning back in his chair, Voldemort mentally reviewed what he'd learned about War Mages since Ash's sudden arrival approximately four months ago.

At first, he'd given little thought to the possibility that other War Mages might exist. He had assumed -- as most people had -- that Ash was simply a wizard who'd stumbled across the secret of being able to work non-human magic all by himself. This was not an unreasonable assumption since mages had always been rare in the wizarding world, and there were several historical examples of witches and wizards who'd managed to become perfectly competent at non-human magic without ever seeing another mage, let alone meeting one.

For the gullible masses this was a perfectly understandable phenomenon. If you were foolish enough to believe that thinking like a non-human resulted in the ability to use non-human magic, then mage-ability was obviously something inherent in the witch or wizard. That meant it could be triggered simply by exposing a potential mage to non-human cultures and ideas.

But of course, Voldemort knew better.

A careful study of recorded history revealed that whenever an experienced mage appeared in the wizarding world, the probability that at least one or two other mages would be 'discovered' suddenly increased. Why then, if mage-ability was inborn, should this be the case? It made no sense -- unless the existing mage was somehow passing on the ability whenever he or she decided to take an apprentice or assistant. Which meant that it was not an inborn ability at all.

So there was definitely some trick to performing other-species magic, and the fact that mages were so rare simply meant that whatever the trick was, it had to be either very obscure, very difficult, or both. Thus, Voldemort naturally assumed that Ash had simply been lucky enough -- or desperate enough -- to stumble over the secret by accident, just as those isolated wizards and witches of the past must have done.

It never even occurred to the Dark Lord that an experienced mage might find it easier to recognise others with mage-potential -- or that they would certainly know how best to evoke that ability in those who might otherwise have gone undiscovered.

But of course, now -- after the much-publicized veritaserum interview -- Voldemort could plainly see that Ash had not, in fact, stumbled over the secret by himself. He'd obviously met up with his so-called 'Course Guide' at some point in the past, and then somehow managed to convince the aged elf to take him on as an apprentice.

//I wonder how he did it...// Voldemort mused curiously. //Blackmail? Bribery? Repayment of a debt? Perhaps some form of emotional or mental manipulation...// All the demons in hell knew Voldemort had never had any luck at convincing a mage to reveal the secret to him.

Which -- when combined with his contempt for the Daily Prophet's usual standard of reporting -- had been reason enough to demand confirmation of the so-called 'veritaserum interview' before he gave any serious consideration to the possibility that an organised group of War Mages might actually exist.

Voldemort's eyes narrowed slightly as his gaze shifted to the small stack of reports lying beside the newspaper on his desk. Three days since the Daily Prophet's headline, and his servants had easily managed to provide more than enough evidence to convince him that the veritaserum interview was genuine. On the same day that the Daily Prophet had run their article, several other newspapers had run the same story. The writers were all different, yet the details were all the same. But the most damning bit of evidence had arrived only yesterday: an owl from Severus confirming that he had brewed and administered the veritaserum himself. So unless the mage could somehow overcome the drug's effects -- which was unlikely in Severus' opinion -- then reports of the interview were neither lies nor exaggerations --

-- and the circle of War Mages was real.

Abruptly, Voldemort pushed away from his desk and crossed the room to the fireplace. A flick of his wand conveyed his voice to the kitchens. "Bring a meal to the audience chamber," he instructed. Then he dismissed the spell and departed for the chamber himself.

It was time to feed his new 'pet'.

       

As he moved among his servants, the Dark Lord hardly noticed the deep bows and the alternately fearful and adoring looks that were accorded him. His Death Eaters were only of note when he required something of them -- or when they failed him. And few of them wanted his attention for the second reason.

Heedless of those around him, Voldemort silently reviewed his analysis of the serious problem that Ash and his damned circle of War Mages now represented.

To begin with, it was obvious that War Mage Ash despised him. That in itself was not an insurmountable problem since, mage or not, he was still only one man. Even more, his interest in Severus was a weakness that could, and would, be exploited for Voldemort's benefit. The problem was that he had assumed Ash would be the same as every other mage: completely unwilling to give up his magical advantage by sharing the secret of magecraft with others.

But Voldemort was now faced with the disastrous possibility that this was not the case.

The man had suddenly appeared in the wizarding world with little more than the clothes on his back. That indicated a hasty and ill-prepared departure from a place that was unknown to the wizarding world. Given that there were not too many things a War Mage would run from, and that the War Mage circle itself had previously been unknown to the wizarding world, then it was not too difficult to work out that Ash had been fleeing from his fellow mages.

From there, it was a simple matter to deduce that Ash had probably argued with the War Mage council about their policy of non-interference in human affairs. It was obvious that the man had every intention of interfering, and that he'd managed to escape from the circle's influence before the other War Mages could prevent him from leaving. After that, it seemed that Ash had somehow found a way to prevent the circle from simply killing him or forcing him to return. Voldemort half suspected that Dumbledore might've had something to do with that. Why else would the mage be wasting his time and talent by teaching at that cursed school?

And now that the newly-revealed circle of War Mages had located their missing comrade, they were obviously checking up on him. The fact that they'd sent the man's teacher as well as one of his friends conveniently allowed Ash to explain away their visit as a mere social call. But it was clear that, in reality, the circle had chosen to send the two people who would best be able to judge Ash's mood and intentions.

Given that the man was fanatical enough about opposing Voldemort to betray his fellow mages, then it was very possible that Ash might just be fanatical enough to sacrifice his own magical superiority and begin training other wizards to become mages. Shortly after that, the secret of using non-human magic would be no secret at all. But by then Voldemort's enemies would've had sufficient time to become proficient in the use of other-species magic, and it would be a race against time to train his own servants before their opponents decimated them.

Voldemort contemplated that possibility for a few moments as he approached the open doors of his audience chamber. Silently, he swept past the impressive entry and made his way to the ornate throne at the far end of the hall. The large room was always brilliantly lit and ready for use, subtly reinforcing the idea that the Dark Lord was not ruled by the hours of the day or the vagaries of time as other men were. It also served to reinforce the lesson that his servants were expected to be submissive to his will, and would therefore answer his summons whenever it suited him, regardless of their own convenience.

At the moment, however, the audience hall was empty save for himself -- and unless he chose to summon someone, it would remain so until his pet's dinner arrived. Nobody would dare intrude upon him without a very good reason.

As he settled himself into the overdone filigree of the impressive throne, Voldemort carefully considered the repercussions of Ash's one-man crusade against him.

The Dark Lord inherently understood that the War Mage circle would not want their rogue brother spreading the secret of magecraft throughout the wizarding world. That would destroy the other War Mages' magical advantage and forever weaken their power amongst their own races. Yet for some reason, they were currently unable to silence or control the man.

Which meant they would inevitably be forced to negotiate with him.

Such negotiations would very likely mean that the policy of non-interference would be scrapped and the circle of War Mages would reluctantly ally itself with Ash -- a man who was already working for Albus Dumbledore. And unlike those idiots in the Ministry, Voldemort was under no illusions about the danger the circle of War Mages represented.

Others might believe the circle to be a disorganised group of mis-matched individuals, but Voldemort had ruled his Death Eaters as both master and military commander for longer than many of them had been alive. He well understood the damage that even a small number of highly-skilled professionals could inflict. What's more, once a certain level of professional competency was achieved, it wouldn't matter whether they were trained to work together or not -- they would be experienced and professional enough to find ways to work together.

But what disturbed Voldemort most about the entire situation, was the possibility that while the circle of War Mages would probably agree to an alliance, Ash himself might well go ahead and secretly train other wizards anyway. After all, how trustworthy could such reluctant allies be? Better by far to have the best of both worlds.

It was certainly what Voldemort would do in the same situation.

//But then,// Voldemort considered, //I must not forget my knife, hidden away in the folds of Dumbledore's very own robes. If Severus could gain control of the mage before he moves against me...//

But no -- Voldemort could not rely on that. As Severus had rightly pointed out, he would have to move carefully so as to avoid arousing the suspicion of both Dumbledore and the mage himself. Ash's eventual enslavement was still a worthy goal -- but the timing of it could not be predicted.

Just then a black-robed figure entered at the far end of the hall. It was a young man -- newly-initiated into the Death Eaters -- and he was carrying a tray with food and drink on it. The boy moved quietly and respectfully, carefully balancing the tray as he knelt before his master.

Voldemort cast a levitation charm on the tray and its contents, relieving the young man of his burden.

The boy remained on his knees.

"You my go," Voldemort finally allowed, and the youngster silently rose, bowed, and departed.

Voldemort watched him leave with something akin to approval. The boy knew his place and hadn't whined about what an honour it was to be serving his master. Then too, no-one had made the mistake of allowing a house elf into his presence. While Voldemort acknowledged that the annoying creatures had their uses, he certainly didn't trust them. As a consequence, he'd cast spells that made it impossible for them to leave the lower levels without an escort to supervise their work. And should one ever try to set foot inside his personal quarters...

...well, its death would be extremely painful and unpleasant.

As the Dark Lord arose from his chair, he pointed his wand at the hovering tray and commanded it to follow him. Then he made his way over to an unobtrusive door that led to a smaller and less gaudy room off to one side of the hall.

Voldemort generally preferred to use the adjacent room when dealing with his more useful servants. The useful ones were assigned tasks that Voldemort didn't want discussed in the echoing audience chamber. They were also his more intelligent servants and were not usually impressed by the size and lavishness of the main hall anyway.

Recently however, Voldemort had been using this smaller room for an entirely different purpose...

A simple spell unlocked the door and Voldemort watched as it swung open into darkness. As he entered -- the tray still floating obediently along behind him -- he called "Lumos" into the chilled air and was unsurprised by the rattle of chains as the muggle reacted to the sudden brightness.

The boy was currently huddled into his corner under several blankets, trying to keep warm and covering his eyes until they had time to adjust to the light.

"Let me see you," Voldemort commanded.

The muggle quickly complied, pushing the blankets away and kneeling on his makeshift bedding.

Carefully, Voldemort studied him. The boy looked to be around 18 or 19, and was dressed in plain brown pants and a non-descript t-shirt. He was at least neat and clean, although still rather pale and pathetic-looking. Still -- it was a vast improvement over the filthy smelly animal covered in welts and bruises that the Dark Lord had rescued from his over-enthusiastic servants three weeks ago.

A wave of Voldemort's wand caused the tray to descend to the floor in front of the muggle.

The boy made no move towards it -- even though he'd had nothing but water for well over twelve hours.

Pleased with the muggle's obedience, Voldemort summoned a nearby chair and a tiny round low-set table. "Put the tray on the table," he commanded, and the muggle carefully lifted the platter, setting it down with slightly-trembling hands.

Settling himself down onto the chair, Voldemort randomly selected a piece of cheese and offered it to the boy. The young man crept nearer until he could reach out and take the bit of food from Voldemort's hand. As soon as the muggle was finished with the cheese, Voldemort picked up a knife and sliced off a small bit of roast beef. He held it out on the end of the knife, and again the muggle carefully lifted it away.

As the Dark Lord continued to silently feed the muggle, he pondered the odd twist of fate that first brought the boy to his attention.

       

Several months ago, one of Voldemort's younger servants had been trying to escape from a pair of Aurors who'd managed to cast an anti-apparation charm on him. The inexperienced young Death Eater eventually managed to elude his hunters at a muggle university in Cambridge. He'd accomplished this by transfiguring his robes to match the muggle attire of the university students. Then, while trying to blend in, the young Death Eater had inadvertently been drawn into an intriguing conversation about another muggle who claimed that some kind of accident had caused every object in one of the university labs to levitate for a few seconds. While the other muggles had laughed and joked -- claiming that this was a pretty lame excuse for breaking most of the lab equipment -- Voldemort's servant had thought it worth investigating. After all, until the Aurors left the area, he couldn't contact any of his fellow Death Eaters to get the anti-apparation charm removed -- so he might as well pass the time by investigating the muggle's unlikely claim.

The faint traces of magic that still clung to the university lab were enough to bring two of Voldemort's older and more experienced servants to the university in order to verify their younger associate's claim. After that, the matter had been brought to Voldemort's attention and he, in turn, had casually ordered them to kidnap the muggle and bring him to a secure location so that Voldemort could examine the boy for himself.

Voldemort did not believe the boy could actually perform magic any more than his servants did. But there was some slight evidence that he might have used muggle machinery to tap into an unknown source of magical energy. At the time, however, Voldemort had placed little importance on such an unlikely event. The muggle had been 'acquired' as more of a curiosity than anything else. There was the possibility that he might become useful at some point in the future, but the Dark Lord already knew that Dragonfire existed and would be a formidable weapon. Why waste valuable resources on a muggle when he already had a line of research that promised power enough to defeat any spell his enemies could cast?

And so, when the two older Death Eaters reported the boy's capture, Voldemort had gone to see the muggle with little expectation of finding anything useful. And indeed, he had been proven correct. The foolish muggle had been stupefied during his abduction and upon waking hadn't realised that his captors were wizards. Amazingly, the boy hadn't even believed in magic until Voldemort entered the room. The Dark Lord's physical appearance had apparently caused the boy something of a shock. Although, it was undoubtedly far more shocking the first time Voldemort used Crucio on him for his disrespectful attitude.

Once the attitude problem had been corrected, Voldemort had listened to the muggle's story for himself. By the end of it, he was still not convinced that the boy would be of much use. However, the Dark Lord's curiosity had been peaked, and on the off chance that the muggle might actually have done what he claimed, Voldemort had left orders to keep the boy alive and out of the way until such time as the Dark Lord was free to devote more resources to studying him.

The muggle would not be going anywhere, and Voldemort could study the brat whenever he got around to it. By then however, the Potter boy had been missing for two full weeks and a War Mage had turned up in Knockturn Alley, and was reportedly making secret deals for unknown reasons with the goblins at Gringotts.

Voldemort had more important matters to consider than one paltry little muggle.

Unfortunately, the paltry little muggle had become somewhat more important nearly three months later when Voldemort received two pieces of rather disturbing news. The first was that some crazed elf had attacked the War Mage at Hogwarts. This had been unwelcome news since elves did not traditionally interfere with humans. The fact that the elf -- crazy or not -- had known who Ash was, and was willing to follow him into the wizarding world, meant that the War Mage had obviously had contact with elves before -- most likely when he'd been studying their magic.

Previously, Voldemort had only considered the War Mage as an isolated individual. But now he was confronted with the fact that the man probably had teachers, friends, and allies amongst any number of foreign powers. It was disturbing to think of inhuman magic-users fighting against his Death Eaters at Ash's invitation.

It was unlikely, though, that the War Mage would gain more than a handful of allies who were willing to help. After all, Ash was more likely to owe them for the privilege of his training, than they were to owe him any favours of assistance.

Still, it was cause for concern.

The second piece of news was from his servants in Romania who reluctantly informed him that research into Dragonfire was still too new and too inconclusive to be of any immediate use. The Death Eater who'd been placed as one of Charlie Weasley's co-workers was of the opinion that it might be years, if ever, before wizards would be able to duplicate and control Dragonfire.

//Too little too late,// Voldemort had sneered. Then he'd called his researchers home, leaving observers behind to throw off any spies who might've been watching.

Had there been no War Mage and no threat of non-human enemies, Voldemort would have left his researchers right where they were. Without those two things, Voldemort's forces would not have been opposed by anything worse than Dumbledore's ridiculous little band of followers and the Ministry's semi-competent Aurors -- and if not for the damned Potter boy, Voldemort would have overcome them nearly twenty years ago. Thus, the Dark Lord would've had no qualms about continuing to build up his own forces while at the same time waiting patiently for Dragonfire to become a viable weapon. But as it was, he no longer had the luxury of time to indulge in that kind of patience.

Naturally, once his researchers arrived back in England, Voldemort immediately set them to work trying to find any possible means of creating a weapon or power great enough to defeat the new set of enemies he knew would shortly be arrayed against him.

It was then that he'd remembered the muggle and his tale of an unknown source of magical energy.

Where once he had dismissed the boy as a mere curiosity who might someday be of use, now the Dark Lord was willing to entertain more extreme possibilities -- if the potential gain was worthwhile.

And -- upon due consideration -- it was certainly that.

An outside source of magical energy would be of immense use to him -- if he could somehow use that energy to fuel the spells and enchantments of his followers. If that was possible, then his servants would never grow tired or weary in battle, while their enemies would exhaust themselves casting spell after spell against them. Even better, many shielding spells were not particularly complex -- they simply required a great deal of strength to maintain. With an outside source to draw upon, Voldemort's forces would be unassailable, and the enemy could then be worn down at their leisure.

Even if there was no way to properly control whatever power the muggle had tapped into, then it should at least still be possible to create a magical explosive device of some kind. You wouldn't need to control such a thing -- you could simply set it up inside a powerful shield and allow the magical energy to build up until the shield failed. Depending on how strong the shield was, and how much raw magic had built up inside it, you might even be able to create varying degrees of destruction.

Very useful indeed - if the muggle could be made to replicate whatever it was he'd done.

But Voldemort's plans for the boy had suffered an unexpected setback.

The Dark Lord had not thought to check on the muggle since ordering his imprisonment some three months before. So when he arrived at the cell where the muggle was being kept, he'd been enraged to discover that the boy had been mistreated to the point where he was of absolutely no use to anyone!

The muggle had been starved and beaten, ignored for days at a time, and only allowed to wash on a semi-regular basis. The cell stank of fear, blood, and bodily waste, and Voldemort was disgusted to see an overflowing bucket in one corner that the muggle had obviously been using as a makeshift latrine.

The muggle himself was barely alive.

The first thing Voldemort did was summon one of his lesser potion-makers to pour healing draughts into the boy. Not surprisingly, the man first had to cast some minor spells to get the muggle into a state where he was conscious enough to drink the potions.

After that, Voldemort quickly had the boy transferred to the small meeting room next to his audience chamber. From there, he would be able to personally oversee the muggle's obedience training and return to health.

The last thing Voldemort did was send for the boy's keepers.

They did not long survive the meeting.

       

But now, three weeks later, Voldemort found himself wondering whether he hadn't been a bit hasty in killing those two idiots.

After three months at the mercy of his jailers, the muggle had been both physically and mentally shattered. As a result, Voldemort had discovered that training the boy was much easier than he'd anticipated.

//But then again,// Voldemort reminded himself, //they did disobey my command to keep the boy alive and available.// -- and nobody disobeyed the Dark Lord.

Or at least, nobody did it twice.

But even so, the useful side-effects were undeniable.

The first time the muggle woke, Voldemort had been standing right in front of him, directly in his line of sight -- and the boy hadn't even flinched. He'd simply stared at Voldemort for a while, and then drifted off back to sleep. Subsequent awakenings had echoed the first, and it was impossible to tell whether the muggle even realised that he was still alive.

But it made no difference to the boy's training, and Voldemort had taken full advantage of the muggle's strange behaviour. The oddly half-aware state only lasted three or four days, but during that time the boy did whatever he was told without the faintest hint of resentment or resistance. It was almost as if some part of the muggle was still asleep -- or in a state of profound shock.

Because of this, it was no problem at all to get the muggle into the habit of calling him 'Master' and of obeying him at every turn. Voldemort further reinforced the boy's understanding of his place in the world by making him physically dependent upon the Dark Lord's own presence for his day-to-day existence. As a consequence, the muggle slept only when Voldemort allowed it. He ate only what Voldemort hand-fed him. He wore only what Voldemort brought for him. The boy had been almost pathetically grateful first time Voldemort had taken him to a small bathroom and told him he would be allowed to use the facilities. To Voldemort it was not a kindness, but simply another measure of control. The boy had easily accepted that he now had to ask permission every time he wanted to use the bathroom.

By the time the muggle's mind began to rouse from its numbed state, Voldemort had already established a pattern of behaviour that the boy was used to following. As the Dark Lord noted the muggle's increasing awareness of his surroundings, he took care to ensure that any deviation from that pattern was immediately and severely punished.

After his first reminder of what Crucio felt like, the boy had quickly re-learned fear.

From there, the muggle had easily come to accept the familiar obedience that had been his entire world since Voldemort rescued him.

The Dark Lord was well satisfied with that acceptance, since he didn't want to use Crucio too often on the muggle. With no natural resistance to magic, muggles were particularly susceptible to spells, and the unforgivable curse might well cause even a healthy muggle to suffer a heart attack or brain haemorrhage -- and Voldemort had too much invested in the boy to let him drop dead anytime soon.

Which brought the Dark Lord's attention back to the current moment. Absently, he watched as the boy carefully pulled the last slice of apple from the tip of the proffered knife. As the muggle silently finished the last of the food, the Dark Lord studied him -- weighing up whether the boy was now sufficiently recovered to begin performing the task for which Voldemort had saved him.

Abruptly, the Dark Lord realised that it didn't matter. His tactical situation had been bad enough when he'd only been expecting a single mage and a handful of inhuman allies. Now that the existence of an entire circle of War Mages had been revealed, Voldemort had run out of time. He needed whatever power this muggle might have uncovered, and he needed it now. If he waited much longer, then it wouldn't matter what the muggle knew because Voldemort would no longer be in a position to use it.

"Boy."

Fearfully, the muggle looked up at him. Voldemort found it interesting to note that even after all the time the boy had spent in his presence, the muggle was still profoundly disturbed by the sight of his red eyes.

"I will be assigning you a new keeper today."

The fear turned to horror, but the muggle made no protest.

"Killion is one of my more talented servants," Voldemort informed him, "and I will be providing him with detailed instructions on how you are to be handled and cared for." The boy looked somewhat reassured, but still rather nervous. "You will address him as 'Sir', and obey him as you would obey me. Should you defy him, he will punish you just as I would. Do you understand?"

"Y-y-yes, Master," the boy stuttered.

"Good. Your task will be to tell Killion everything you know about your accident at the muggle university. I want him to re-enact that accident, and you are to answer any question -- perform any task -- that will assist him in doing so."

For a moment, it seemed as though the muggle wanted to say something, but then he obviously thought better of it.

Voldemort looked at the boy speculatively. "You had something to say?" he inquired. He'd taught the boy that it was not appropriate for a muggle to speak in the presence of his betters unless his advice or opinion was specifically requested. For the boy to knowingly come so close to another punishment made him curious as to what the muggle was thinking.

The boy seemed indecisive -- as though he didn't know whether it would be better to remain silent.

"Answer me," Voldemort told him flatly.

"M-M-Master, the l-lab where the accident h-h-happened -- it h-has a lot of v-v-ery complicated and d-delicate equipment in it. I-It's very exp-pensive and s-s-some of it was damaged. T-T-they might not h-have r-r-replaced it..."

"That is of no concern," Voldemort replied, "since you will not be returning to that particular laboratory. A more secure location has been acquired, and everything Killion needs -- including your muggle machinery -- will be supplied as and when he requires it."

The muggle looked surprised, and actually dared to protest: "B-but, what if t-the accident was c-caused by s-s-something at the u-university? O-Or s-s-something about that eq-q-quipment?" D-do wizards e-e-even have e-electricity? H-How can --"

Voldemort -- who had been watching the boy through flat half-lidded eyes -- suddenly leaned forward and backhanded him across the face. The muggle fell backwards in pain and surprise.

"Get up," Voldemort commanded, and as soon as the boy was once again kneeling before him, the Dark Lord reached out and grabbed the muggle by the chin, forcing him to look up.

"It is not your place to question my decisions, muggle," he hissed at the boy. "Your place is simply to obey. I thought I had made that abundantly clear." Through his grip on the muggle, Voldemort could feel the boy trembling. "But," he continued, "in the event that mere pain is not sufficient incentive for you, let me ask you a few simple questions --"

"Tell me, boy -- do you have friends? -- family?" The muggle looked horrified, and Voldemort smiled cruelly. "I dare say it would not be hard to find them, would it?" He paused to let that sink in. "And of course, while your assistance might be of some small use, the fate of your relatives is less than nothing to me."

"P-P-Please..." the boy whispered brokenly.

Voldemort released the muggle and leaned back into his chair, acting as though the boy hadn't said anything. "However," the Dark Lord continued, "it's a tedious business keeping muggles, and I really have no desire to inflict any more of you on my servants than I have to." With callous detachment, he looked at the boy and added, "For sake of your 'loved ones' -- and of course the convenience of my Death Eaters -- I would suggest that you do everything you can to ensure that Killion's work is a complete success."

And with that, Voldemort arose from his chair, summarily ending the conversation. A short spell and casual wave of his wand caused the now-empty serving platter to rise into the air beside him, and it followed dutifully along behind as the Dark Lord moved silently off towards the exit.

Just before he passed through the doorway, Voldemort had a sudden thought, and turned back to face the boy chained down in the far corner.

"It occurs to me," he commented, "that a muggle might just be stupid enough to try lying to a wizard. I would not advise it, since your sincere co-operation will be verified with veritaserum -- a potion I believe muggles refer to as 'truth-serum'."

Then he turned away, casually aiming his wand over his shoulder and calling "Nox" into the room behind him.

The door closed and locked itself, sealing its prisoner back into darkness.

       

As he departed the well-lit audience chamber, Voldemort used a word and an offhand gesture to send the empty platter sailing off back towards the kitchens. As he continued on towards his personal quarters, the Dark Lord resumed his consideration of the situation in which he now found himself.

Although his plans for the muggle were both necessary and important, whatever power Killion might discover would not be one the Dark Lord could reserve for his personal use. In order to turn the tide of the coming war, his servants would have to have access to whatever weapon might be developed -- no matter whether it was a way to empower a wizard's existing spells, or a crude magical explosive device.

Unfortunately, allowing his followers to become more powerful would inevitably close the gap between them and himself -- which was something that might well tempt the more ambitious among them to challenge his authority. Added to that, his enemies were already masters of wandless magic, and mages were commonly acknowledged to be magically superior to mere wizards. The implications that held for his personal safety were disturbing enough, but Voldemort also knew that it lessened his power in the eyes of the public, which in turn lessened their fear of him and increased morale amongst his enemies.

All in all, it was an intolerable situation, which the Dark Lord did not intend to allow to continue.

Voldemort was aware of several things that would -- if successful -- grant him the magical superiority he desired. Up until recently however, the chance of being killed while performing one of those spells or rituals had been too great. But now -- driven by the unacceptable possibility that he might become personally vulnerable -- the Dark Lord had finally come up with a way to complete one of those Dark ceremonies that would probably allow him to survive it.

The ritual he was considering had almost never been performed simply because it invariably resulted in a fate far worse than death for those who invoked it. When he'd first discovered it, Voldemort had been researching an idea that had occurred to him while he was still a disembodied spirit. After reading a description of the ceremony, he knew it would be exactly what he needed -- if he could only find a way to avoid the more... undesirable... side-effects.

Even now -- when he had come up with a way to do just that -- Voldemort knew the ritual was still extremely dangerous. However, the stakes were much higher now and so greater risks would have to be taken in order to guarantee success.

If it worked, every man woman and child on the face of the planet would eventually learn to fear him.

Everything that could be done to ensure the survival of his Death Eaters was already being done.

Now it was time to see to his own power.

       

Left behind in the cold darkness of his prison, Robert Thomas huddled into the scant warmth of the blankets that He had supplied. Robert suspected that he was being kept somewhere underground, and was grateful that whoever was next door always left the lights turned on. He might think Robert was being left in total darkness, but in reality there was always a thin line of light that glowed strongly along the bottom of the door. It wasn't enough to illuminate the room, but it was enough to remind Robert that there was still light in the world -- and also to reassure him that he could still tell the difference when he opened or closed his eyes. At least he knew he wasn't blind.

Robert's memory before waking up in this cold dark room was blurry at best. He could easily recall his childhood, his family, his years at school, and his time at Cambridge. But after the accident in the lab, things started to fade out on him. The accident itself was still clear and memorable: equipment levitating in front of his astonished eyes, and the scornful laughter of his peers who thought he was just making it up. The professors had been so angry with him, demanding to know what had really happened, and threatening to expel him for damaging so much valuable equipment.

But after that... it just sort of... slipped away from him.

And then He was there, with his pain and darkness.

Of course, Robert knew what his tormentor was trying to do. He couldn't remember where he'd learned about brainwashing and behaviour modification -- a book perhaps? -- but Robert recognised the techniques being used on him. Starvation, pain, always calling him 'Boy' -- they were all ways to try and take away his sense of self -- to make him forget who he was, and shape him into someone new -- someone submissive and obedient.

//But it won't work,// Robert promised himself. //I know the techniques -- I know how it works. That means I know how to fight it.//

And he did.

//My name is Robert James Thomas,// he repeated silently over and over to himself. //I am nineteen years old. I go to Cambridge University. My Mum and Dad love me, and Mandy thinks I'm a complete embarrassment as an older brother.//

With care and deliberation Robert continued to remind himself of who he was and of the things that had shaped him over the course of his life. He recalled friends, birthdays, Christmases spent with family -- his mad auntie Dot who hated being called 'Dorothy'. He especially focused on his parents and his little sister, praying that He wouldn't hurt them.

Robert found it painful to remember his previous life. Of course it felt good too, but the comparison between then and now was... unpleasant. He'd had so much, and now he had so little. It was tempting to just forget the past in an effort to make the present seem less horrific than it really was. Without the memory of better times, his current life of obedience would be easier to swallow.

But if he did that, then soon there would nothing left of him.

"Better to be in pain," he murmured to himself.

He did that occasionally -- the talking to himself thing. He's done it all his life, in an absent-minded sort of way. But now he was doing it more and more. He found it soothing to listen to a voice that wasn't full of cruelty or anger -- even if it was his own. It also helped him with his self-respect since he didn't stutter when he talked to himself. He'd never stuttered before, and he hated the fact that he did now.

It wasn't the stuttering itself that bothered him. It was the fact that his imprisonment had successfully changed something so basic about him. He had succeeded -- at least partially -- in changing something about Robert.

//But I will overcome it,// Robert promised himself. //I will not die here. I will survive this. I will not give that monster the satisfaction!// He would learn to speak again too -- even if it took him years of therapy. "Which it probably will," Robert muttered cynically to himself.

But of course, in the meantime, he would have to go on allowing himself to follow the pattern of behaviour laid down for him by his captors. He tried to divorce himself from it as much as possible, but sometimes he worried about the fact that it didn't bother him nearly as much as he thought it should. Shouldn't he be angry about being treated like some sort of overly-intelligent animal? Robert shuddered at the thought that he actually found His presence reassuring in some twisted sort of way.

Part of Robert wished he could remember why he felt like that.

The rest of him was grateful that he couldn't.

Robert knew he was fairly intelligent. The word 'genius' had even been mentioned around him once or twice. His parents had never let him get a swelled head over it, but he was still -- just quietly -- a little bit smug about it.

But the point of being smart, was that Robert could reason out the nature of things from relatively little information.

//He said he rules the wizarding world,// Robert mused -- and hadn't that been a shock: that wizards and witches actually existed and that magic was likewise real. //But if that's the case,// Robert continued to reason, //then why go to all the bother of finding out what happened at the lab?// His 'master' had made it plain that he considered muggles to be a waste of time.

Robert wasn't sure he liked being called a 'muggle', but it wasn't like he was in a position to argue.

What was interesting though, was that He obviously needed whatever power he thought Robert had uncovered -- and he needed it so badly that he was willing to overcome his disgust for muggles and put up with Robert's presence in order to get it.

//And if he really is a king or something,// Robert wondered, //then why doesn't anyone know about him -- or about wizards?// He didn't strike Robert as the kind of person who would settle for ruling the wizarding world when there was a 'muggle' world out there to conquer as well.

"Maybe he doesn't rule anything at all," Robert told himself. "Maybe he's a criminal of some sort." Actually, Robert wasn't even sure He was human. With those horrible red eyes, and that skeletal white body, he certainly didn't look human. But He had occasionally referred to himself as a wizard in the same way that he referred to the others as wizards. Although... that could simply refer to the ability to use magic.

//But I haven't seen anything else that looks like him,// Robert thought. Actually, the monsterís slit nose vaguely reminded him of something he'd seen in history classes. There'd been some rather gruesome pictures in some of the text books of men who'd been exposed to mustard gas and other atrocities in WWI. So maybe He was an example of what happened to people in a magical war.

//Which,// Robert concluded, //would support the theory that He probably wasn't the ruler of the wizarding world.// In fact, the more Robert thought about it, the more it seemed likely that his 'master' was in the process of trying to become ruler of the wizarding world -- and if he succeeded in that, would probably start in on Robert's world too.//

But the fact that He had enemies powerful enough to oppose him, also raised a whole new group of questions.

Would those enemies be any better than the monster that was currently holding him prisoner? After all, the monster's enemies would also be wizards wouldn't they? Did all wizards share the belief that people like him -- 'muggles' -- were a lower form of life? There was a fairly good chance they wouldn't care about the well-being of muggles any more than the monster did.

But Robert could at least hope that His enemies were the ones who wanted to continue living in secret away from the muggle world. Robert could support that if nothing else.

He wondered if he might be able to find a way to contact those enemies.

If the opportunity ever came up, he would take it. But in the meantime, he had to hang onto as much of himself as he could --

"My name is Robert James Thomas. I am nineteen years old. I go to Cambridge University. My Mum and Dad love me..."


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