As they got up and left his office once more, Hermione was conscious of a thick culmination, as though things were about to tumble to an end. She knew that the moment she had been waiting for, when Snape would finally tell her what they would be working on, was about to come. As the thought flitted through her sub-conscious, she was reminded of another fact: it wouldn't be a culmination so much as the beginning of a whole new process.
'Where are we going?' she asked, as she jogged lightly behind him. His strides were wide, and impossible to keep up with at a normal pace. He glanced down at her, his gaze piercing her from the corner of his eye, and seemed to note her flushed face and shortness of breath. Two bright points of amusement shone at the corners of his mouth, and then he slowed down.
'To the classroom in which you were poking about yesterday,' he said, slowing to a halt in front of the door. It was bolted and locked today, Hermione nodded.
'Is that key meant for this lock?' she asked, pointing.
Snape raised his eyebrows. 'I would have thought that obvious, Miss Granger,' he said, coolly. Hermione flushed and he continued, 'I aways keep it locked. It was sheer carelessness that it was open to your prying eyes yesterday.'
He pushed the door open, and Hermione again tasted the thick, cloying steam of the second cauldron on the roof of her mouth. She thought of the cup of blood, and resisted the urge to gag as Snape guided her between tables to the desk with the cauldrons. They remained as they had been yesterday.
'As you have guessed,' said Snape, gesturing towards the cauldrons, 'These are the objects of my study.' His voice was protective, proud, like a mother nurturing her baby. His gaze fell fixedly on the cauldrons, and the hint of a smile tugged at his mouth.
Hermione's tongue felt like cotton. 'What are they?' she asked.
Snape took a moment to answer. Oh, sorry, excuse her. He took a moment to guide her through the question.
'These cauldrons,' he said, pointing with affection, 'Have been here for many months. I always keep them in a fixed state. The first cauldron has always had a fire under it. The third never has. They've remained steaming in the same manner all these weeks. What does that tell you?'
Hermione cleaved her tongue from the roof of her mouth. 'I'm not entirely sure,' she said, doubtfully, 'But it seems to indicate that they're incredibly powerful. When we brewed- er- learned about the Polyjuice Potion, it took months and it's changes were very gradual. But some of the more- trivial potions that we attempt in class change rapidly and evaporate quickly. Is that right?'
Snape smiled. 'Good, Miss Granger,' he said, and she felt a flash of pride. 'You're right, more powerful potions are more stable. Their power is a result of slow conditioning, eons of brewing. They are not quick fixes. They are carefully prepared masterpieces with the imbibed strength of time.'
Hermione wondered whether he was always so poetic about his potions.
'Yes,' she said, uncertainly.
'What we have learnt, from several Potions Masters,' continued Snape, 'Is that powerful potions have several ingredients, that the cooperation and combustion of the ingredients gives the potion its power. However, I have decided to brew it in a different way. I've tried to use the minimum number of ingredients for my potions.'
Hermione frowned. 'Excuse me, but isn't that horribly difficult?'
'Be more precise, Miss Granger.'
She stifled a frown. 'I meant that when you're composing a potion of your own, with a specific purpose in mind, you need a huge variety of ingredients to achieve it. It's only very basic potions that have relatively few components.'
Snape inclined his head. 'That's true,' he said, 'However, I'm trying to work on an opposing principle. I brewed these potions with a huge variety of ingredients- you saw the list in my office, Miss Granger. Now, I'm trying to trim and prune wherever possible. If I do succeed, it will alter the very basis of Potions Making. It will inverse Waldorf's principle immediately.'
'You'd prove that simplicity leads to power,' Hermione said, slowly. The idea took a slow, but powerful root in her head, and she realized that it was brilliant.
Snape nodded. 'That's one of my goals. It's hard word, and a very long road, but I believe I can find fulfillment.'
Hermione bit her lip. She was still struggling out of her text-book mentality. It sounded near impossible to her.
'What is this potion?' she asked, hoarsely. She glanced down at the three potions again.
Snape inhaled deeply. He seemed to be wondering how best to respond. Finally, he moved closer to her and lifted his arm to gesture towards the first cauldron. The movement shuddered through his robes, and suddenly Hermione felt enveloped with the same woodsy smell she had noticed earlier in the morning. She inhaled deeply.
'This cauldron,' said Snape, loudly, and she jerked back to attention, 'Notice the steam and the color and texture of the potion. You've seen my ingredients on that tray. Do you know what makes the potion roil?'
'Human blood,' said Hermione, immediately. She was glad that he had brought the topic up. This was something they needed to clarify.
Snape's eyes narrowed, but in an amused manner. His cheek twitched.
'That was fast, Miss Granger.'
'I'm not an idiot,' said Hermione. She wondered whether he knew she had one to the library to look up that particular point.
He was silent for a moment, and then said, 'Good. If you know that, then we need not waste too much time with this potion. We can move on to-'
'Hold on just one minute,' said Hermione, holding up a hand. She glanced at the potion and then fastened her eyes on him. 'I have a few questions about this potion.'
Snape looked weary. 'Obviously.'
'It is human blood, then?'
'That's what I just said, Miss Granger.'
'Well,' said Hermione, 'That doesn't make me comfortable at all. I saw how much blood was in that cup, and I'm sure you've used gallons more in the potion, not to mention all the versions of this potion you've brewed before this. I don't- I don't know whether you're getting it from Hogwarts medical supplies, or, I don't know- Stunning students and bleeding them while they're out, or whatever it is you're doing, but I'm really not comfortable with this!'
Hermione had seen Snape amused several times before, and contemptuous almost all the time. For the first time in a long time, she saw another emotion ghost across his face, and recognized it immediately: it was anger.
Actually, she mused, it was much more than anger. Although his face didn't betray anything more than a sudden tightening, his eyes narrowing and glimmering and his mouth hardening into a rigid line, she knew that inside he was seething; Snape was livid. He was silent for a slightly longer span of time, and when he spoke it was with thick difficulty.
'I can assure you that I haven't been employing any of the methods you mentioned off the top of your head,' he said, his voice a raspy whisper. Hermione couldn't help it: she shrank slightly back against her chair, her eyes widening just a bit. She knew that these involuntary movements were enough for Snape to know she was scared. She also knew that chances were he wouldn't give a damn.
'Um-' she squeaked.
'It is enlightening, though, to know your estimation of my methods.'
His voice was still light and grating. His last sentence, she knew immediately from the tone, was not an expression of disappointment that she had such a low opinion of him, but rather disgust that she was so stupid.
'I-um- I'm sorry,' she muttered. 'I didn't mean to- mean to insinuate-'
'No, you didn't,' His tone was better now. More even. She knew he was regaining control, suppressing his anger. 'You were very direct, Miss Granger. However, let me assure you that I have neither raided Madam Pomfrey's supplies nor knocked out students and drained them, tempting though that sounds.'
Hermione cleared her throat, embarrassed. Beyond the humiliation, however, was solid curiosity.
'So then- then how did you get the blood?' she asked, hesitantly. She didn't know if her question was permissible after her recent faux-pas.
Snape said, dryly, 'I draw it from myself.'
Hermione's eyes widened, and she choked.
'You- you what?'
Snape cocked an eyebrow. 'Don't look so shocked,' he said, in a bored tone. 'I merely draw the blood from myself.'
Hermione remembered her previous comment about gallons of blood, and suddenly felt she understood why Snape always looked so pale.
'You- you draw it from yourself,' she repeated, uncertainly. This felt wrong, so wrong. 'Do you- do you use a medical procedure? I mean- syringes-'
Snape looked amused. 'Miss Granger, don't display such stupidity,' he said, cocking an eyebrow. 'You know yourself that the properties of the blood are preserved only when drawn with a silver blade.'
Hermione shrank back further in her seat. 'You mean you cut yourself?' she whispered.
He eyed her with a strange expression. He seemed to be trying to understand why she was so horrified. 'That's right, Miss Granger,' he said, his tone experimental. He eyed her carefully, in a way that made her acutely uncomfortable. She shook her head, and tried to rid herself of her misgivings.
'Don't worry,' he said, suddenly, and she looked up at the strangely gentle tone of his voice. His expression was shadowed. 'I won't be asking you to do the same.'
Hermione opened her mouth. She wanted to tell him that hadn't been her concern. She wanted to let him know that the thought of any human doing that to themselves horrified her, and yes, she considered him human. She wanted to ask him if his research was really worth that.
Instead, she said, 'So what exactly are these potions?'
'What exactly are you doing?' asked Ron, as he entered Harry's office. The latter was poised in the act of shrugging on his coat. 'Are you headed out for lunch, somewhere? It's barely half past eleven.'
'I thought we could try and meet Hermione for lunch,' Harry said, evasively.
Ron cocked an eyebrow.
'Okay!' said Harry, throwing up his hands. He checked to make sure the door was shut, and then said, 'I want to go down to Hogsmeade, and find the portal from which Everard supposedly drew out the money. There has to be some sign there.'
Ron looked doubtful. 'Like what?' he asked, 'How do these portals work, anyway?'
Harry shrugged. 'There like ATMs.'
Ron blinked. 'AT- what's?'
'Devises to draw out money,' Harry explained, 'Anybody from the Department who needs cash for an official purpose has a PIN number, that's linked to their specific ID-cards. They just have to enter it, and they can draw out as much money as they want. They have to account for it later, thought. Everything goes into the records.'
Ron frowned. 'So what you're saying is that if someone had Everard's PIN number, they could draw out money in his name?' he asked.
Harry nodded. 'If we go down to the portal, we might be able to find out who that was.'
Ron was silent for a moment, and then he said, 'I'm coming with you.'
Although Hermione was still ill-at-ease, Snape seemed to have switched gears from insulted to Resident Teacher in no time at all. He cleared his throat, and then asked Hermione, 'Can you tell me any other potions that employ the use of human blood.'
Hermione flinched at the last two words.
'Um-several,' she said, absently. She heard Snape click his tongue impatiently, and struggled to focus. 'Well, blood can be used in Polyjuice Potion as a more motivated core. It's used in several hereditary potions, as well as-'
'No,' Snape interrupted. 'That's not what I meant. Try again. Where have you heard, from a first-hand source, of a potion containing human blood.'
Hermione quirked an eyebrow and pointed to the cauldron behind him. He shook his head.
'Nowhere else,' she said, bewildered, 'We never studied about such- Oh!'
Her words cut off and her eyes widened, a hand raising involuntarily to her mouth. Snape looked encouragingly at her. He knew from her shocked expression that she had found it.
'Yes?' he asked, a faint smile easing the corners of his mouth.
'Harry,' Hermione breathed. 'He told us. That's- that's what you're talking about, isn't it? His potion?'
'You're going to have to be more clear, Miss Granger,' said Snape. Hermione had an inkling that he was enjoying himself immensely.
She cleared her throat, and tried to keep her voice steady as she answered. 'The potion that Wormtail made to bring Voldemort back to life,' she said, calmly. It was fake, forced. She noticed that Snape's face remained smooth and impassive at the mention of Voldemort's name. He didn't flinch anymore.
'Correct,' he said, nodding, and she felt a flash of pride under all her disconcertion. 'I came across that memory when I was taking Potter's Occlumency lessons, along with the tidbit about the Basilisk. Now, can you tell me anything about that potion?'
Hermione racked her brains. Truth be told, she hadn't spared much thought to that particular part of the story. But now that she thought about it, she realized that the potion had been unfamiliar, and potent, something definitely worth researching. Trust Snape to pick up on it.
'I don't think it's a potion anyone's ever used before,' she said, quietly.
Snape nodded. 'Quite right,' he said, 'It's a concoction of Voldemort's.'
'And he used it to bring transform his Horcrux into a full body again?' she asked, slowly.
Snape took a moment to collect his thoughts. His pale face drew in a little, faint lines appearing on his brow. When he spoke, his thin lips moved slowly, deliberately.
'Not exactly,' he said, 'Although the process of making a Horcrux has been detailed in several books pertaining to the Dark Arts, there are practically none on transforming a Horcrux into a full-bodied human. You see, Horcruxes were never meant to bring someone back to life. They were merely meant to tether them to this world. The scarce other people who have created Horcruxes for themselves have remained in that particular state that Lord Voldemort was in during his stay in Albania: ghosts, mere whispers of life.'
'But- but then what's the point?' Hermione asked, perplexed. 'Why would people go through such lengths to merely tether themselves to the world? Wouldn't it be simpler to just come back as ghosts?'
Snape nodded. 'It might seem that way,' he conceded, 'But you've forgotten that ghosts can only roam in areas that they've imprinted on during their lifetime. If Sir Nicholas were to leave the castle boundaries, he would cease to exist. In the Horcrux form, a spirit- if you can call it that- can roam wherever it chooses to. I rather suspect that the few people who selected Horcruxes as an option for the afterlife were rich, petty feudal lords. The sort of people who would want to stay back after they die to make sure their wives do not crawl into the beds of others, or bear illegitimate children. It is a- a surveillance medium, more than anything.'
Hermione choked down her embarrassment at the mention of wives and their lovers, and instead chose to say, disbelievingly, 'Creating a Horcrux requires murder. Why would someone go to such lengths just to spy on someone after they die?'
'It hasn't been employed in the last century or so- save for Lord Voldemort,' said Snape. He leaned back against the desk, his dark robes stretching against his long frame. 'But I highly doubt any feudatory would have minded killing a serf or two in the sixteenth century. Of course, most of them did not really know what they were getting themselves into. By Voldemort's admission, we know that to reside as a Horcrux entity is extremely painful. They presumably regretted it deeply after they died.'
Hermione blinked. It sounded horrible.
'How did Voldemort bring himself back to a full-bodied form?' she asked.
Snape pursed his lips slightly, and then drew them back. 'I believe the Dark Lord suspected before hand what agony residing as an entity would be. Of course, he never intended to remain like that forever. His ambition was always to be immortal, in a full sense. He was immersed in research at one point of his journey- around the time he applied for a teaching post in Hogwarts. I suspect that was when he drew up plans for his treatments, in case he should die.'
Hermione registered the time frame. She remembered Harry saying that Voldemort had looked ill and only half-human when he had come to see Dumbledore, that he had hidden a Horcrux in the castle on the way up or down. It made sense, she realized.
'What did he do?' she asked. Her voice was barely a whisper. She snuck another look at the row of cauldrons.
Snape inhaled deeply. 'Nobody can say for sure,' he said, 'But one can harbor a guess. I believe he ingested plenty of Unicorn Blood to gain strength. His most fool-proof method for returning to life, of course, would be the Philosopher's Stone. But when Dumbledore had that destroyed, he reverted to his original research. He had concocted a potion, and he chose those ingredients that he believed would give him the most strength: his father's bone, his servant's flesh, and his enemy's blood. This potion took his soul, and gave him back life and his body.'
Hermione nodded. She couldn't speak.
'Essentially,' said Snape, 'What this potion does is give life. It transformed a part of him into his whole. That's what I've premised my research on.'
Hermione frowned. 'I don't understand,' she said, slowly, 'What exactly are you trying to do?'
Snape was silent for a moment. Then, he said, 'Can you tell me what magic it is we've been taught all our lives is impossible?'
Hermione shook her head, bewildered. 'Plenty of things,' she said, 'I don't understand what you-'
Her voice broke off. For the second time in ten minutes, her eyes widened. This time, her face also turned completely white, and when she spoke her voice was a deathly rasp.
'Life,' she whispered, 'You're trying to bring people back to life.'
Author's Note: So, finally another chapter up. Sorry I took such a break from updating. I think I have the worst case of writer's block ever known to mankind.
Thanks to everyone who reviewed. Hope you like this chapter =D