The first thing it knew was the hunger.
It is a terrible thing to be born hungry, and a worse thing to be born with this hunger – a gnawing, painful emptiness that filled its mind to such an extent that it left no room for anything else. It came into existence a hollow vessel of need and want, a living shape of hungry desperation. It couldn't think, couldn't focus on anything other than make it stop, make it stop and please someone feed me. The others were leaving, and it followed blindly, not knowing where it was going and not caring so long as there was the chance there might be food.
There was food. It could smell the emotion before it was even close – the scent drifted on the breeze, tantalising and tempting the Dementors closer. It tinged sweet and savoury, promising delights as wholesome as fresh baked bread, still warm from the oven and awaiting fresh butter or sweet as velvety chocolate, whipped light and ready to melt in the mouth. Together the Dementors dropped down, surrounding the unlucky human and feeding greedily.
It dropped with the others, and for the first time it ate, desperate for anything that might at least start to fill the gaping hole inside it. At first it was eating too quickly, too frantically, to even taste the memories and emotions that it was so eagerly gulping down. It was only after the edge had been taken off its hunger than it could slow down enough to savour the flavour.
When it did though, what a flavour there was! Fascinated, the Dementor drifted for the first time through memories of someone else's childhood. Through its victim's eyes it tasted the joy of a life filled with gifts and love, kind words and praise, as much as any boy could possibly want, all cinnamon and spice, and chocolate toned liquor. It was three years old and filled with the joy and self-importance of knowing its family loved it best, a memory as satisfying as a hearty roast dinner still steaming hot and full of texture; it was eleven years old and squirmy with sweet candy floss anticipation and delight at getting its first wand; it was sixteen years old and revelling in tart lemon flavours of the triumph of learning a new trick; it was twenty-one years old and puffed up with a pride in a friend's new baby that was as rich and filling as a dense plumy fruitcake spiked with sherry…
There were other memories too – less pleasant ones – but those were quickly discarded and left behind, the bones and… no. The human could keep those – there was no warmth to them, no satisfaction in consuming them.
It was – the Dementor searched for the word for the unfamiliar feeling, and picked it out of its victim's memories – happy.
And yet, still hungry. Delicious as they were, the memories faded away almost as soon as it had absorbed them, as insubstantial as mist . It had touched the flavours, an impression of sustenance, but it was still hollow, still carved out into a black shape in the world by a hunger made sharper by what it had tasted. It sought more, delving deeper into its victim, but the man had fallen into despair and could only offer up memories of pain, betrayal and unhappiness. There was no food here, and after a few more seconds of trying to hopefully seek some out the Dementor lost interest and drifted away. There would be other food elsewhere, and it was still too ravenous to stay where there was none.
Most of the people on Azkaban had been emptied of their best and most pleasurable memories long ago, and had little left to offer the Dementors except crumbs of memory they horded. New arrivals were squabbled and fought over as a potential feast, each Dementor trying to get as close as possible to take what it could from the new victim. Only those who had just reached the island still had real pleasures to offer up – the delicate piquant champagne taste of the anxious delight of a first love; the complex truffle wonder of beholding your child for the first time, a different flavour unique to each one; the steady constant comfort-food reassurance of knowing you were loved. All these things the Dementor felt second-hand, and yet that never made the experience any less sweet. The more it tasted, the more it craved, greedy for the experiences these humans seemed to take for granted.
There were never enough people arriving to satisfy anyone, and again and again it found itself returning to old victims, hopeful for something it might have missed the first time. Sometimes it was lucky, sometimes someone might have a cherished memory – at the time only a minor event, but now treasured as though it was the most precious of jewels – that had been missed at first. Sometimes it was unlucky, and those were the worst days. Hunger could be kept damped down with enough memories, but with nothing to satisfy it, it grew into a ravening beast. On those days, the Dementor would have taken anything – even a memory so simple as a joke with friends – just to make it stop hurting so much.
Even the prisoners got fed daily. The Dementors had no such guarantee of when they might next find food. Sometimes it could be weeks and they would become darker, twisted around their own emptiness, drifting over the edges of the sea, searching the waves for reflections of sustenance in the restless tides.
When they were finally allowed off Azkaban it was like being released into a paradise that was far beyond anything it had been able to see in anybody else's mind.
There had been an agreement – it was not sure of the details, it had been hungry when they were explained – that they should leave the island in order to search for an escaped prisoner. It had followed the others when they left, accepting this, and had arrived at Hogwarts to find itself in the middle of a larger feast than anything it could ever have imagined.
Everywhere, there were people, untouched as yet by Dementors, too young to understand true fear or despair. The emotions that came from them were almost maddening in their intensity. It was like a feast wafting tantalising promises on the wind, promising memories marinated in sweet and sour emotion, golden and succulent and ready to be carved up between them. They were excited by sugar and sherbet Quidditch matches; hopeful about crushes with all the sweetness of fresh strawberries and cream; warm and bubbly as butterbeer; thrilled by good grades or house-points, the bread and meat of their existence. Not old enough yet to have learnt to take a matter-of-fact approach to the world, or to have become too cynical to delight in the small things, they almost glowed when they were happy. To a Dementor that had grown used to the jaded emotions of those capable of committing crimes bad enough to be sentenced to the prison island, such emotions were almost unbearable in their simple beauty, lighting up the world in a way it had never felt before.
But they were also unreachable. The same agreement which had allowed the Dementors to leave Azkaban had also bound them with terms and rules of whom and what they were allowed to touch. Thus, they might be among the children of Hogwarts, they might be constantly conscious of the emotions burning bright as a flame drifting their paradisiacal scents from only a short distance away, but they were not allowed to feed on them. It was an exquisite torture, like locking a starving man in a room filled with cream-cakes, all of them locked safely away in glass cabinets. The Dementor watched, yearned and hungered after the memories which seemed so close, and yet could not be touched.
It was almost inevitable that at some point the strain would become too much. That kind of temptation could simply not be fought forever. There had been fuss already and a tightening of the restrictions after some of the others had given in to it on a train somewhere, but after that no-one fed them, and the days stretched on. Every minute without food was an eternity, starving slowly to death with a banquet only just out of reach.
The Quidditch match was the worst of all.
Who knew that humans could feel so many things about a game? Sweet caramel anticipation, crackling fresh popcorn excitement, intoxicating fire whiskey triumph as their team gained a point, wholesome sizzling pride in a particularly good player. They seemed to almost feed on each other, their emotions multiplying as the people around them cheered, surging to their feet together as one giant body.
It was too much, far too much, for ravenous Dementors to resist. One by one, they felt the pull and surrendered to it, swooping and soaring towards the Quidditch field.
The Dementor hovered there with the others, forbidden from feasting on the children but unable to keep away from them, trying to just suck some warmth from the glow of the emotions, trying to find sustenance in the scent of what it was denied.
A player diving for the Snitch was the final straw – although the Dementor didn't know it. All it knew was the sudden surge and crackle of honeycomb elation, sweeter than any wine, flooding its senses, cutting away any willpower it had left. Rules were forgotten, abandoned, and it surged towards the pitch with the others, feasting with a neediness it hadn't felt so badly since that first newborn hunger. There was family, there was love, there was security, there was friendship, and the Dementor wanted all of them, urgently, now!
It was a meal of the like of which it had never known before, and perhaps never would again. The shame of it was that for all the desire the memories had held there was still no substance to them, no satisfaction to be gained from eating them. Afterwards there was only a vaguely unpleasant nausea, such as might be experienced by a human who had eaten far too much sugar, and still the aching need for more. Sugar could never fill anyone, could never make up a proper meal, and yet if it was all you had, and you were hungry enough it was impossible not to crave more.
There was no more to be had however. After that, the restrictions were tightened yet again, with more controls place on where Dementors could be. The humans, it seemed, wished to provide a reoccurrence of the incident, and they did so by trying to keep the Dementors away.
Yet, they didn't send them home, they didn't send them back to Azkaban. The Dementor might have wondered about that, had it had enough mind to think of anything other than a constantly-nagging appetite. Home was hunger, home was never enough food, but home at least was not being kept side by side with food they were never to be allowed to eat. That was a cruelty used here alone.
Time can lose all meaning in such a situation. There are no days, there are no weeks, there is only time since I last ate and that is always an eternity. The Dementor would not have been able to judge how long it was until three humans ventured into the forest, one of them – finally! – the one person in the entire school that they were allowed to feast on. It only knew that it had been far too long and now, at last, there was food.
How could anyone have expected any of the Dementors to show anything like restraint after waiting so long? The prisoner or the children with him – there was no difference in a Dementor's mind, for surely helping an escapee would see the girl and boy to Azkaban as well in the end. But waiting for them to be sentenced to that, for someone to say it was allowable to feed from them, that would take time. Already they had waited for too long without food, and now they would wait no longer. The Dementor pressed forward with its fellows, fighting for whatever nourishment it could get.
And yet it found itself blocked. Down it rushed with the others, pushing eagerly to get closer only to be brought up hard against a shield. Had it had a voice, it might have wailed, instead it battered against the shield in helpless frustration, trying again and again to get through. Too unfair, too unkind to get this close at last to an allowed meal only to be cut off from it.
In its life it had felt plenty of hunger, desperation and impatience. Through other people's memories it had tasted the emotions of love, hope and joy. Now, for the first time it learnt what rage felt like. This was not right! This was a meal that had been promised to them months ago. Whatever it took, it would get through.
Again and again it threw itself with the others at the shield, and slowly the shield's light receded, melting further and further back. It was slow progress, and seemed all the slower for knowing of the food that awaited once they were through, but it was progress nonetheless. Faced with the combined efforts of so many determined Dementors, the light dwindled and died. They were through.
There was no room for being choosy in creatures this ravenous. No-one tried to get the most delicious memories any more, instead they fought for anything at all – for the merest crumb of happiness.
Still, it was not enough. The Dementor pushed and struggled with the others, and yet still found itself frustrated. It had had enough of food which melted away only a moment after it was eaten, enough of knowing happiness only through other people's eyes. It wanted more – it wanted to feel. Finally it managed to shove the others away, making it to the boy's side. For the first time in its life, it pushed its hood back, reaching to take the boy's head in its hands. For a moment, it paused, feeling the strangeness of that sensation. They were so warm these humans – even its skin felt warm under the Dementor's hands. It was a warmth the Dementor craved, a completeness it needed, and after a moment it leaned forwards, moving to close its mouth over the boy's.
If it wanted that completeness after all, if it ever wanted a cessation to that hunger, surely that meant taking everything of a life, and not just the best and brightest parts. Humans could hold onto memories perhaps because they held onto all of them, the good and the bad together. Perhaps that was what it took to be satisfied for more than five seconds at a time. Perhaps, for that, it had to take everything.
It didn't get the chance to take everything. Even as it moved to suck the last thoughts from the boy, something was bounding through the forest, disturbing them, sending Dementors flying away in every direction. The Dementor tried to resist it, but had to drop the boy's head, backing away reluctantly. There was the normal warmth of everyday human emotion, and then there was this – a fierce blast of intense joy that sent it backwards with its force; too sharp, too stinging, choking and fire all over. It was too much, it burnt, and eventually the Dementor turned to flee with its fellows.
It was hard, after waiting so long and so patiently, to be chased away. They were given slight consolation however by humans who promised them that the meal had not been confiscated for good, but only delayed. They were to be allowed their prisoner back, indeed, they would be allowed to take all they wished from him. They had only to wait a little longer, and he would be theirs.
They waited. They waited patiently. But it seemed the humans had lied. They were banished back to their island, without food or explanation, sent away without even being allowed to take the human they had waited so long for.
It was almost a relief to be home. At least on Azkaban, children weren't waiting around every corner, their mere presence a taunting reminder of what a Dementor was never to be allowed to take. At least on Azkaban there was food, however scanty it might be at times.
Yet somehow, once home, the memories didn't taste quite as sweet as they once had. There was less pleasure to be found than there had been in feeding on the memories of the prisoners – who were after all, the worst kind of nothing. The happiness of murderers and torturers compared to the joy of the young and innocent tasted much the same way as dry bread and water when one has fed on rich wines and meats.
It was a long time before the Dementor was offered a chance to escape the island again. This time, it was promised, there would be no waiting for months on end for a meal that never came. There would be food, straight away, without waiting. No-one would take the food away from it this time, no-one would shield the victim from it or tell it that it could not finish its meal. And it could go alone, without anyone to fight for its food.
A starving man struggles to turn away any meal, no matter how he might distrust the hand that offers it. It went.
This time the Dementor didn't wait before it feasted, didn't even try to content itself by drinking mere memories. It knew what it wanted now, it had tasted it briefly and it felt right. It was a craving so intense that it had echoed in the Dementor's hollow existence until that was all it lived for – the possibility that this would stop the hunger, the torment of having starvation rule everything it did. As soon as its victim was indicated it went to him, inhaling a fluttering breath. It brushed back its hood, leaning intimately over him, hunger spiced with the scent of bitter salt fear. Its lips brushed the man's; soft, burning, hunger-passion pulling it in, sealing the kiss from feather-light to iron vice as its hollow mouth clamped tightly around the man's and drank deeply. Certainly, it had been promised that it could finish its meal but that didn't prevent the fear that this too might have been a lie. It fed so deeply that its mouth swelled. It feasted on the memories of that which had been seen by engulfing the eyes; that which had been heard, through swallowing the ears; those associated by smell through the nose; tasted memories by plundering the mouth and touch by letting its mouth expand over skin like a lover's kiss.
What a meal it was! The Dementor lived an entire lifetime in the time it took to suck it all out out. It remembered, it felt, it was!
It was a small child, secure in a mother's love and a father's pride. It was a teenager, bright and proud of its magical achievements. It was leaving school, growing up, taking on an independent life of its own.
It was a young man, deciding for the first time that its parents perhaps were not always right. It was a wizard, casting Unforgivable after Unforgivable, watching dispassionately as the people in front of it sobbed and begged. It was a son, pleading with its father for another chance. It was a betrayed child, sent away and punished. It was an adult, heart light with relief, given one more chance thanks to a mother's love. It was a betrayer, taking advantage of that love and going back to its Master once given the slightest opportunity.
The Dementor tasted bitterness and pain, anger and fear, joy and love. Such a bittersweet meal, the different sides balancing each other out to create a whole. Even a Dementor cannot be satisfied by sweetness alone. A full life requires that balance, just as a full diet does – even if bad memories, like vegetables, can be hard to swallow.
It straightened slowly, opening its hand and allowing its victim to fall limply to the floor. It turned towards the human that had led it into the room, feeling the warmth of the man's emotions and for the first time not feeling the ache of temptation on seeing someone it was not allowed to feed from.
For the first time in its life, it was full. For the first time in its life, it had a life rather than an existence. It had memories that stayed with it for longer than mere moments – memories that felt real rather than like half-remembered dreams. It was hollow no more, and inside its darkness a light now burned and blazed.
For the first time in its life it had a soul.
If it had had eyes rather than the memory of sight, it might have seen the Minister smile narrowly at it, might have suspected some betrayal. If it had had eyes, it might have realised that something was wrong, rather than revelling in that new wholeness; might have noticed before it let go and experienced its first and only moment of human delight; might have had time to feel anxiety and fear instead before it exploded.
For a Dementor body was never made large enough to hold a soul; was never designed to be large enough to hold the full depth of human emotion, the greatest peaks of happiness and the worst depths of misery inside it. They died in the moment they became more than a vessel of hunger. A Dementor was never meant to survive such things, and all Dementors died in the fulfilment of their deepest desire.
Consider it a mercy that the Dementor did not know that, and so in that moment the blazing stolen soul gave it one glorious pyrrhic moment of genuine ecstasy. It died still wondering at the magic of the first and last kiss it would ever have.