Title: The Haunting of Shearwaters Return
Pairing: RL/SS (pre-slash)
Word Count: 13,367 total
Characters: Remus Lupin, Severus Snape, Percy Weasley, a right wrong'un and a host of suspicious villagers
Warnings: horror, death, suicide themes
Summary: Remus Lupin is sent to investigate a haunting in the muggle village. It all seems to be turning into a Hammer horror film.
Notes: I went to see The Woman in Black and this happened.
Beta'd by the ever diligent and delightful drachenmina.
Lower Perdham sits, outwardly a charming rural idyll, on the east coast of England. Quite what it is lower than is anybody's guess but it is posited that, like so much of the land area, Upper Perdham long ago fell into the sea, crumbling with the steadily eroding cliffs. The sea has certainly played the main role in the shaping of the village. Harsh waves long ago carved out the cove around which the settlement sits and thick sea mists still descend to stifle the village in choking whiteness. To modern muggles, living in their global village, this place would seem backward and cut off. This is an old village, full of families who can trace their line generation by generation and full of old superstition.
It was to this sheltered hamlet that Remus Lupin came, feeling a little like he had stepped back in time, Ministry briefing in hand. It was Autumn, a few years after the end of the war. Lupin, miraculous survivor and single father, worked for the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. He had come to Lower Perdham on behalf of the Spirit Division to investigate reports of a haunting. The Ministry had grown concerned at the tale sent to them –hauntings might be common in the Wizarding world at least, but there were few even there where people were actually killed by the spectre.
The train, a one-carriage affair that should probably have been retired years ago, dawdled into the tiny station, not even the end of the line but merely a bend in the track. Lupin was the only passenger alighting and no one came to collect his ticket. He walked through the station building, finally spotting the stationmaster sprawled in a chair at the back of the ticket office. The rather rotund man's mouth was open and quiet snores snuffled from it.
'Excuse me?' Lupin knocked on the window to the office. The stationmaster turned a little in his chair but remained otherwise somnolent. Lupin glanced out of the door. The station was not close to the village and he could see mist creeping in. Gritting his teeth, he rapped harder on the glass. 'Excuse me,' he called once more.
There was a grunt, followed by a snort and then the slow rising of the stationmaster's head. He stared balefully at Lupin, who smiled back awkwardly.
'Um, are there any taxis here?'
The stationmaster lifted a hand and jabbed a flabby finger to his right. Lupin looked. An elderly payphone clung to the wall on his left. A hand-written note was pinned over it, rust gathering round the pin, reading 'Carne Taxi' followed by a number.
'Thank you,' Lupin called but the stationmaster had already gone back to sleep.
The taxi took ten minutes to arrive, during which time Lupin sat on a bench at the front of the station, his well-used leather case beside him. He heard the taxi before he saw it, the ti-ti-ti of an old engine beyond its best, before a battered Vauxhall Cavalier in a unique shade of brown rolled up the road and turned in. If he hadn't known this was a purely muggle settlement Lupin might have thought magic had been keeping it on the road but as it was he assumed it was either good care or sheer bloody-mindedness. A painted sign reading 'TAXI' was tied haphazardly to the roof. Lupin forced himself to smile as the door opened.
'You'll want to sit in the front,' the driver said. 'Been carryin' crates in the back.'
There was a distinctly fishy aroma as Lupin got into the car, having placed his case in the boot between some grubby sacks and a pair of very muddy boots.
'Name's Carne,' said the driver as he coaxed the engine back to reluctant life. 'Where can I take you?'
'Remus Lupin,' Lupin introduced himself in return. 'I'm heading for Shearwater's Return House.'
Carne's fingers tightened significantly on the steering wheel. His nostrils flared as he took in a sharp breath. 'You don't want to be going up there,' he said slowly. 'Bad things happen.'
'Well, I understand that it's haunted,' Lupin said, smiling cheerfully, 'but that's why I'm here.'
'Ghost-hunting, is it?' Carne scowled, Lupin's smile clearly having had no effect on him. 'You'd better take care not to see her, if you know what's good for any of us.'
''Cause she don't like to be seen. When she's seen she … takes one of the children.'
They were passing some houses, small for the most part and old. Lupin hadn't yet seen another car on the road, only an old woman on a battered bicycle who stared curiously at him as they went by. She had a carrier bag swinging from one handlebar, which she balanced the weight of by leaning almost fully over the other side.
'Takes them how?' he asked.
'Kills 'em.' Carne's jaw was set. 'Or rather … well, John Taylor's boy up and stepped out of his bedroom window on the first floor and smashed his head open. Spalding's daughter tied a brick around her neck with her skipping rope and drowned herself in the pond. My brother's lad … he jumped in front of the combine when old Giles was doing his field.'
'I'm sorry,' Lupin offered, feeling a little useless. He thought of Teddy's bright smile and couldn't imagine the desperation he would feel if something like that happened to him.
'She calls 'em, mister, calls 'em to the grave to join her.'
Lupin felt a shiver run along his neck. Carne sounded entirely sincere in what he was saying.
'She lost her own lad, they say,' Carne continued, 'not sure how, though. Some have it he tumbled from the cliff, others that he was poisoned, even that he drowned in his own bath. Anyhow, she couldn't live without him and killed herself. Only she can't find him, see, so she's been taking the village kids instead.'
Lupin watched the village go by outside the car window. It seemed quiet and peaceful: children played on bikes without supervision while ducks bobbed on the pond – probably the pond, Lupin realised, where the girl Carne had mentioned had died. He pulled his gaze away hurriedly.
'You don't want to be going up there,' Carne said again.
'Nevertheless,' Lupin said lightly, 'I still have to go to the house. Ghosts don't tend to show in daylight anyway.'
His eyes were suddenly drawn to a man standing by the road. The old-fashioned suit – jacket, trousers and waistcoat all in dusty black with an unusually high-collared shirt - seemed out of place and out of time compared to the modern dress of all the other villagers, if curiously perfect in that little village. While the other muggles wore what all muggles did, from jumpers and jeans to tracksuits and trainers, he alone matched the age of the buildings. The man watched Lupin with sharp eyes that lurked under what used to be called devil's eyebrows, upswept and iron grey, and his mouth was a smirk under a neat beard. Lupin had the absurd thought that he was the only one who could see the man, that the fellow was some sort of spectre from the past.
Carne raised his hand to the man, who nodded in return dispelling Lupin's fanciful notion.
'I can't talk you out of it?' Carne asked gruffly, slowing at a junction.
'Hmm.' Carne turned the car up the hill. 'You be careful, Mr. Lupin. She don't only walk in darkness.'
No amount of persuasion could make Carne take him any further than the bottom of the hill. The sea mists had rolled in and as Lupin got out of the car, pulling his case with him, he found he could only see a few feet in front of him.
'Y'just follow the drive,' Carne told him, 'keep an eye on y'feet. There're posts marking your way.'
Before Lupin could protest Carne backed the car up, turned it and vanished off down the road in seconds. The sound of its engine, too, was quickly swallowed up, leaving Lupin alone in the shifting not-quite-silence of the mists. He shivered, peering out into the stifling white fog but saw only passing shadows that were probably half-imagined anyway. Turning up the collar of his coat he began the walk up the drive.
It was odd to be surrounded by so much silence. Several times Lupin was convinced he had heard some voice - only for it to fade into nothing when he tried to locate it. Once or twice he almost lost the path, stumbling on the neglected drive. It had been gravel but erosion had carved it into channels and trenches that caught his feet. The stones themselves had gathered into humps, which ground and shifted beneath his soles as he stepped on them. Dark posts emerged at irregular intervals; eerie sentinels guarding a blind path. Lupin was all too aware that his destination stood at the top of a cliff; any wrong step could send him plunging into the chilly North Sea.
The path seemed to go on uphill forever, apparently designed to sap the strength of anyone who climbed it. Trees began to loom through the mists, and then a human figure. Lupin leapt back in shock, only to laugh when he realised it was a statue. A marble angel, arms raised to the heavens, stood over him. Others stood behind it in various attitudes of despondency, becoming visible through the thinning mists. Grave markers, all of them, each with its own inscription.
Beneath This Stone Lie The Mortal Remains Of Edgar Wickham. Gaudeamus igitur.
In Loving Memory Of Richard Wickham, And Also His Devoted Wife, Mary May Wickham.
Under These Stones The Tiny Bones Of Samuel Louis Wickham. Little Man, God Took Thy Hand And Took Thee With'im.
Louisa Frances Wickham. Felo De Se. Requiescat in Pace.
A private graveyard, then, in the grounds of the house, which was itself now showing through the clearing mist. Shearwater's Return was stately and gothic, its cornices and eaves all overgrown with choking plants intent on strangling any life left in the place – if indeed there were any. Lupin stopped before it, studying the building he had come to exorcise. It certainly looked like the kind of place to be haunted.
He decided to check the outside first, taking a stroll round the forbidding walls. The plants were thick and tangled in what had been the back garden, creating a jungle for Lupin to push through. He thought idly how much fun Teddy would have exploring such a place – and then abruptly changed his mind when he discovered that the garden ended at the edge of the cliff, as did the house. There was no boundary: Lupin merely thrust aside a bush to find himself on the edge of a precipice, waves crashing on the rocks far beneath his feet.
He stumbled back quickly, tripping on the overgrown grass in his anxiety to get away from that great yawning cliff. His gaze swept across the house as he tumbled and a chill shot through him as he caught sight of someone watching him from a high window. A white, odd-looking face flashed across his vision and then he was sprawling on damp grass.
Breathless, Lupin pushed back up to his feet and gaped upwards - but the face was gone. He blinked, suddenly unsure whether he had seen it or not. It could have been a flash of light on glass, he supposed, though he remained uneasy. He couldn't shake the feeling that there had been eyes on him.
Deciding that he had seen quite enough of the garden for the time being, Lupin walked back to the front door. It opened easily, if with a loud creak, into a wide tiled hall. Even for someone who had gone to school in a castle, the faded grandeur of the place was striking. The tiles were in an elaborate black and white pattern repeating across the floor until they met wood-panelled walls. An umbrella stand made from an elephant's foot stood by the door, two abandoned walking sticks still leaning idly in it. The hunting theme was continued round the walls where glass-eyed trophy heads gazed balefully across the hall. The stags wore cobwebs strung between their antlers while their does were grey with dust. One of the Wickhams had clearly been a keen slaughterer of animals, Lupin surmised, pulling a face.
He found a portrait of the likely suspect in the front parlour: William Walter Wickham standing rather smugly over an unfortunate tiger. The tiger itself appeared to be lying in front of the fireplace and now rather flat. There were paintings hanging on all the walls, eerily still to Lupin's eyes but apparently watching him all the same.
'Right,' he said, dropping his case onto a worn-looking desk, 'how does one go about flushing out a ghost?'
His words died into silence with no one to answer him. William Walter Wickham continued to give him a superior stare, which was of little help.
'I don't think I'll be following your example.' Lupin imagined himself creeping through the house armed with gun and net like some big game hunter. 'Hmm, and now I'm talking to myself. That's a good start. At least Percy'll be arriving tomorrow.'
He wandered through the rooms on the ground floor, taking a mental inventory as he did. Most of the furniture was draped in dust sheets, many of which he pulled aside if the shapes beneath looked particularly interesting. He found a fair amount of woodworm and an awful lot of dust. A locked bureau tucked in a corner of the long dining room proved to be a trove of papers and he levitated them all through to the parlour for later study.
The whole house had the distinct feel of being abandoned and empty but unease nagged at Lupin as he remembered the face he was sure he had seen from outside. The Ministry report had noted sightings of that sort, the mysterious black-clad woman being seen at a window, while other times she had been spotted in the grounds or on the drive. Once she had been seen, as Carne had described, there came the unexplained death of one of the village children. If that had been her he had seen and not some trick of the light – as he had half-convinced himself it was – then he would have to take quick steps towards exorcising her before another child paid the price.
The first floor was much the same as the ground floor: several dusty rooms filled with old furniture. There was a nursery was at the east end of the house, its window directly over the cliff. Lupin opened it with some difficulty and stuck his head out, getting a blast of cold air with the sharp scent of the sea. A cormorant sped along the coast like a black dart, skimming the sea far below. Waves crashed heavily onto the rocks, turning the grey-green waters white with spray.
Lupin pulled back, tugging the window shut. It stuck slightly, its frame warped by years of neglect. He abandoned it and turned to study the rest of the room. It was hard to imagine any child being happy in it. Everything was dark and grimy, untouched for years, and the toys themselves looked more like horrors. Glass eyes leered at Lupin from all angles. Figurines of musical monkeys, probably popular a century ago, grinned at him over their instruments, their smart velvet waistcoats long faded into shabbiness. A dolls house against one wall seemed to have faces at every window and one caught his eye.
The house itself was a replica of the one Lupin stood in, from the bird-shaped gargoyles perched on the highest cornices to the tiny bootscraper by the front door. What had taken Lupin's attention was the attic window, behind which was a very white face. The chilling similarity to what he had seen earlier arrested him, drawing his hand towards the catch that fastened the front of the house and moving him to open it.
The doll plunged downwards as the front swung open, jerking to a sudden halt and swinging like a hanged man.
Lupin jumped back in surprise then laughed at himself self-consciously. He bent to examine the dangling toy. A thread had come loose from its collar and caught on a splinter, suspending the doll halfway down the house front. He caught it on his palm, the figure barely two-thirds the length of his hand. It seemed fairly crudely made, its face bare white fabric with tiny jet buttons for eyes. Tangled black yarn formed its hair over which a scrap of old net provided a veil. Its black silk dress had moth holes through the skirt and bodice. He put it carefully back into its attic, laying it on the little bed and shutting the house front again. All in all, he decided while straightening up and glancing around the nursery again, not a place he would ever think of putting Teddy in.
By the time he had investigated all the rooms he could get into – some, such as the attic, were firmly closed even against magic, though he intended to try them again later – he had a fair stack of papers. He took them down to the study to examine with the others he had found, settling himself at the desk by the window.
It was dark by the time he finished. A late flash of the evening sun had sent long shadows across the room but they soon crept away to join the growing dusk. Twilight passed quickly, vanishing into the west and leaving Lupin in only candlelight. It was by that wavering glow that Lupin found the final piece of his studies: the ghost's death certificate. A faint chill ran through him as he saw the morbid facts in clear black ink.
'Louisa Wickham, nee Hegley. Cause of death: self-murder.' An additional hand-written note read, 'Body discovered washed up at Lych Cove. Deceased appears to have leapt from nursery window.'
Combined with the other documents he had found Lupin managed to delineate the series of events leading to the tragic act. Louisa Wickham, wife of Lieutenant George Wickham, had given birth to a baby boy, Samuel Louis Wickham, one February some one hundred or so years ago to the joy of all. Louisa, though, seemed to have taken ill shortly after the birth, judging by the number of doctor's bills Lupin had found. Tragedy struck before the boy reached the age of two when he was found floating face-down in the bath. The verdict given was drowning but later letters seemed to imply a more sinister turn.
A missive from Victoria Wickham-Stanley to her brother George accused Louisa of having been 'looking at the child as if it were responsible for all the evils in the world,' and further encouraged George to 'look to his wife and ensure she receives the care and supervision a poor woman like her requires.' George had been heartbroken, imploring his sister to know that Louisa 'meant no harm to anyone nor any creature,' and described how she spent her days 'sitting in the old rocking chair in the nursery, as if baby Sam still sat on her knee gurgling his joy.' He agreed, however, to bar her from the nursery, 'to aid the recovery of her mind from this grief.' Two nights after that letter was written, Louisa hurled herself from the nursery window, having stolen the key while her husband slept.
Lupin rubbed wearily at his eyes. The story was sad, no doubt about it, but he wasn't sure if it could be the reason for the unfortunate woman's murderous afterlife. Maybe it would make better sense tomorrow in daylight and with another pair of eyes. Percy Weasley was a sensible chap who could generally be relied on to take a clear view on things.
Yawning, Lupin stood and picked up his candle. A few hours of sleep would probably do him a world of good and some of the beds upstairs had looked to be still in good shape.
Shadows leapt and danced around him as he made his way up the staircase. The numerous hunting trophies looked half-alive in the flickering candlelight, their eyes gleaming down at him. Lupin could see the nursery door at the end of the corridor and an involuntary shudder ran through him. He imagined the bereaved Louisa stealing through the house, fumbling at the keyhole and finally committing her last act while her dead child's toys watched her with staring eyes.
A noise made him jump and he swung round towards it, trying to pinpoint the rustling sound. Just a rat, he chastised himself. Stop acting like a muggle.
A small bedroom on the first floor seemed adequate. He pulled the dust sheet from the bed and pushed at the mattress to test its structural soundness. Satisfied, he transfigured the dust sheet into a sleeping bag – having first managed a cleaning spell Molly Weasley would have been proud of - and laid it across the bed. He sat down to toe off his shoes, staring at his socked feet for a moment while deep in thought. He was about to lie down when a notion occurred to him. He dismissed it at first as foolish but it nagged until, rather sheepishly, he stood and leaned down to check that nothing was hiding under the bed, thinking as he did of how he did that to humour Teddy when he was back home.
Finding only a few stray bits of paper lurking beneath the bed, he straightened up with an almost shameful feeling of relief and looked around. The room itself was mostly unremarkable. No curtains hung in the windows but the sky beyond was black, stars blotted out by cloud. A chest of drawers stood beside the door while a battered dressing table was against the wall opposite the bed. The only thing out of place was a grubby porcelain doll, clad in a lace-frilled Victorian dress, which leaned against the clouded mirror like a sentry. Lupin, too tired to investigate, climbed into his sleeping bag and dozed off. Rain started to patter down outside, light irregular taps that faded as Lupin fell asleep.
When he woke again it was still raining but much more heavily, great droplets cascading down from the sky. He climbed from the bed, slipped on his shoes and walked over to look out. Water poured in heavy torrents from the eaves of the house and battered against the window. The trees and bushes in the overgrown grounds shuddered under the force of the downpour, bending under the violent beating. Lupin could see the white shapes of the stone angels among them and imagined the rain running down their graven faces like tears. He shivered, feeling the chill drifting from the window. In the dark it was all too easy to imagine horrors such as strange women in black creeping through the shadows.
He looked away, glancing across the room where the cracked porcelain doll stood on the dresser. It stared in a disconcerting manner, eyes gleaming in the candlelight as if it was watching him. There were too many eyes in the house: the mounted stags, the paintings on the walls, and the toys in the nursery. These eyes, though, brought the hairs up on Lupin's neck. They were larger than seemed natural, widened still further by painted eyelashes that splayed out like spider's legs, and had an eerily hypnotic quality that seemed to suck Lupin in.
He pulled his gaze away with difficulty, returning it to the storm-lashed outside. His reflection looked back at him, ghostly and insubstantial, darkness creating shadows under his eyes and hollows in his stubbled cheeks. He raised a hand to rub his eyes, pressing at tired eyelids before opening them again.
The chalk-white face that stared back at him was not his own.
Startled, his heart suddenly pounding against his ribs, he threw his hand up and screwed up his eyes in a childish attempt to escape. The face that had stared back at him had been so horrible: a corpse with black pits for eyes, dead skin stretched over bones. He stumbled back with the shock, curling away and shielding himself uselessly with his arms. The sight had burned itself onto his eyes, a horrific vision of ugly death.
A bump to his thigh startled him anew, causing him to fling his arms out in flailing panic. Bedclothes met his quivering fingers and he opened his eyes to find the empty bedroom just as it had been. He leant both hands on the bed for a few moments, legs still trembling in fear and breath heaving in and out of his chest.
Slowly, unwillingly, he turned. His eyes ran across the fading wallpaper, the doll with its glassy stare, the dusty shelves and, finally, the window. The glass was empty, showing nothing but darkness and rain, thankfully free of any corpse-like face. He collapsed back onto the bed in relief, still keeping his eyes on the window in case a momentary dip in his vigilance allowed the thing to return. He forced his breathing to slow, trying to calm his racing heart. A particularly loud gust of wind rattling the window startled him anew but the continued emptiness of the glass panes reassured him that the spectre had gone.
Given its horrible countenance, Lupin could well imagine that the thing had evil intentions. He thought of the death certificate he had found downstairs with its damning indictment of self-murder and chills ran up his spine. That a woman could be driven to such an act was bad enough but for her agonies to continue beyond the grave and affect so many others was beyond belief.
Screwing his courage to the sticking point and drawing his wand for good measure Lupin rose to his feet and made his nervous way back across the room. He held his breath as he reached the window, expecting at any moment for that horrific face to spring at him again, but let it out again when that failed to happen. Seeing nothing lurking around the edges of the frame he pushed the window open, jerking it past the rust and paint. The rain poured in, slicking his hair to his forehead as he stuck his head out. There was nothing in sight that wasn't expected and he pulled back with an easier mind.
As he tugged the window firmly shut his gaze fell again on the doll on the dresser. It seemed to glare back – the open window had set the candle flame guttering wildly and shadows now wavered across the porcelain face.
'I think you had better join your friends in the nursery,' Lupin said, his voice sounding hoarse and odd in the empty house.
He picked up the doll, its body cold beneath the frills of its dress. Holding the candle in one hand, having tucked his wand back in his pocket, he crept along the corridor, shoes painfully loud on the floorboards. Dark wooden panels framed his path, sucking in the light from the candle and giving little back. Shadows darted into corners like live beings. The nursery door stood half-open at the end of the corridor, only darkness beyond it. Lupin found he was slowing his pace and inwardly chastised himself for the fear he was betraying.
He stopped dead a few feet from the open door when he heard a thud from upstairs. It was out of place in the supposedly empty house and, given the sight he had witnessed earlier, Lupin was not going to let it go uninvestigated despite the dread thudding again in his breast. He turned abruptly, marching back down the corridor towards the source of the noise. It had been from above and that could only mean the attic, which Lupin had utterly failed to access earlier in the day. Halfway up the stairs, pausing by a large vase filled with dried plants and dusty peacock feathers, he looked up.
The attic door, previously an impenetrable barrier of solid wood, stood open. The doorframe caught the gleam from the candle in Lupin's hand but the darkness that yawned beyond it was far more forbidding than that in the nursery. Fearful questions raced through Lupin's mind. Had something gone in there? Or, worse still, had something got out?
He bent to place the doll on the floor, its eyes still staring as he laid it on its back. Wand in one hand and candle in the other he straightened up, checking down the stairs to be sure before taking the next step up with a boldness he didn't really feel. The boldness deserted him in a rush when he saw that the attic door was suddenly closed again.
Blinking in disbelief, his heart in his throat, he raced up the remaining stairs two at a time. The door handle rattled as he tried it but the door was as obstinately shut as before.
'Alohamora!' he murmured, trying it again louder when this failed.
Just as earlier, nothing could induce the door to so much as shudder. He huffed in frustration and started down the stairs again. Perhaps tomorrow he could find an axe or something similar and physically hack the door down. Percy would arrive in the morning and he would probably be of some assistance.
The rain was louder when he reached the first floor and the cold draught made him realise that a window must have come open somewhere. Irritation still overriding him after his failure to pry open the door he thought of little else as he stormed towards the source of the noise. It was in the nursery, one of the tall windows flapping open into the gale. Rain had splashed inside, spattering the floorboards with water and wet leaves. Lupin seized the handle, yanking the window awkwardly shut and fastening it angrily. The whole house seemed designed to antagonise him, sending him place to place and giving no answers. He glanced around without really looking before striding from the room in a temper.
His brain caught up with his eyes a few seconds later and he stopped dead in the corridor. There had been a flash of white in that room: God, it had been that face! In the window again but – he pushed at his thoughts frantically – not outside, instead reflected in the glass. Sweet Merlin, the ghost had been in the nursery with him, looking over his shoulder!
He backed up the few steps he had taken down the corridor, feeling like a coward in the flat eyes of the paintings lining the walls, and stopped just before the doorway. He didn't dare to turn around, keeping his back to the room. The sound of his own breathing was loud in his ears, unnaturally so, but above it he heard a hiss from behind him that chilled him to the marrow. It resembled a death rattle but contained one word that frightened Lupin more than anything else.
The word was distorted, elongated and painful.
'Wolf…' it repeated eerily.
Lupin stared ahead in horror, not seeing the empty corridor in front of him, just hearing the accusatory word. Whatever was behind him, it knew what he was. Taking a deep breath he turned, thrusting the candle ahead of him into the nursery.
The flame flickered wildly, creating strange jumping figures, but no ghost leapt out at him with a white face and holes for eyes. He looked to where the figure must have been standing to be reflected in the window before. The floor was wet and his heart rate rose as he realised that there were footmarks, still damp and dark on the floorboards. He followed their trail with apprehensive eyes, feeling something like relief as they vanished on meeting the threadbare rug in the middle of the room.
Fear suddenly gripped him again, though, on realising that they led on beyond it towards the bed. The sheets were undisturbed, layered in thick dust. Lupin bent slowly, one hand going to lift the edge of the bedspread, which hung nearly to the floor. Shadows lurked under it. His fingers, faintly shaking, brushed the fabric.
A crash echoed through the house from somewhere downstairs, startling Lupin away from the bed, and was followed immediately by a piercing scream from the same place. Lupin cast one look back at the bed before rushing from the room. He took the stairs two at a time as he leapt down, feet thumping loudly on the bare wood. The door to the library, a room he had investigated previously and found unremarkable, stood open, which was not how he had left it.
With his heart pumping madly he was too fired up for caution, bursting through the door with his wand straight out in front of him. Shadows fluttered wildly around him, cast here and there by the shuddering flame of the candle he held. He could see no one in the room, only the half-empty bookshelves, but his over-stimulated mind showed him all sorts of potential hiding places.
The sheet-covered shape in the corner – which he knew to be a stuffed bear, having examined it earlier – now seemed to conceal all kinds of malevolent beings let alone the bear itself, which Lupin's imagination was insisting would at any moment come to life and spring at him with ferocious claws outstretched. He tugged its dust sheet aside, feeling that its dead stare was preferable to a thousand imagined horrors behind it.
The library door suddenly slammed shut with an almighty bang, causing Lupin to leap in shock. He ran to it, jiggling the doorknob frantically but unable to make it budge. He grunted in frustration. The whole house seemed to be against him, fighting his every move. As with the attic earlier the door wouldn't yield even to an iAlohamora/i, remaining stubbornly closed against him.
'What is going on in this place?' he snapped in irritation. 'Let me the hell out of here!'
He kicked at the door, rising panic overcoming his rationality, but it didn't even rattle. Groaning, he leant forward against the wood but bolted upright when a tapping noise sounded behind him. His eyes stopped on the bear first, half-convinced that he saw it twitch, but then looked beyond to the window. He could see nothing but the reflection of his candle, a golden blur on cold black glass, and thought about extinguishing it but realised that if anything was out there then it must have already seen him.
The floor creaked under his feet as he slowly crept forward, wand held before him in a slightly shaking hand. He hadn't thought – after Hogwarts and all the supernatural things he had encountered in his life – that he could be scared of a ghost but here he was, tiptoeing towards an apparently empty window in terror of what could be behind it. When he was within reach he squared his shoulders and with a flick of his wand sent the sash flying up.
The candle was instantly snuffed out by the wind, plunging him into complete darkness.
'Merlin!' he muttered, wanting to relight it but also to keep his wand free for defence.
Something brushed against his face and he panicked, striking out only for it to wrap around him. Pulling desperately, he fought to free himself until there was a sudden crash and whatever was holding him went limp. He struggled out of its grasp, panting hard, and cast a hurried lumos.
The curtain, pole and all, lay defeated at his feet. He laughed in hysterical relief, kicking it aside and advancing on the open window.
'Branches,' he said dumbfoundedly, seeing what had been tapping for his attention.
They waved at him through the opening like beckoning fingers. Following their invitation he peered out. The neglected flowerbed below was only a few feet from the sill, solid and firm-looking, the library thankfully being the other side of the house from the cliff edge. He cast a quick look back but the library door was still closed. Seeing only one way of escape he climbed onto the windowsill and swung one leg over.
The house was a dark looming bulk above him as he dropped onto the flowerbed, the climbing plants waving fronds at him from the walls. There were no flowers around his feet where he had landed, only scrubby weeds and bare earth. He kicked the leaves and stalks aside, struggling against their tendrils in order to reach the grass. It was still raining, if a little less heavily, and his hair was quickly plastered to his head. He pushed it irritably from his eyes, squinting against the wind and ever fearful that he was somehow walking the wrong way and his next step would be over the cliff.
He sighed with relief when there was finally the crunch of gravel under his feet signifying that he had reached the drive at the front of the house. Shielding his eyes with one hand he peered up. Nothing but the dark lines of the building could be seen, which he supposed was a relief. He didn't know what he had expected to see otherwise: eerie lights from locked rooms or even the ghost herself at every window, each copy of her staring at him accusingly with those black holes for eyes. He thought of Teddy, safe with his grandmother, and the thought warmed him. Once he was finished in this forsaken place he could go home, home to his son and the happiness there.
I'm sorry you lost your boy, he thought at the dead Louisa, but even if I lost Teddy I wouldn't be … doing all of this.
The front door opened easily to his touch, swinging inward with a loud creak. Silence otherwise prevailed in the house and Lupin winced at the noise closing the door made. He paused to spell himself dry as he was already starting to shiver – just from the cold, he told himself. Stepping fully into the hall he cast iLumos/i and raised his wand.
Footprints that were not his own gleamed wetly on the floor, fresh on the tiles.
'Hell …' Lupin whispered, following their trail with his eyes.
They led towards the stairs, evenly spaced until they stopped abruptly halfway. Lupin took several heaving breaths, searching desperately for more but finding nothing. The trail had simply vanished.
It was too much. Lupin fled to the study. He closed the curtains first, making sure there was not the merest crack between them for anything to see in. The door he pulled shut but didn't lock, not wanting to be trapped again. He shifted the desk so he could sit with his back against the most solid-seeming wall with both the window and door in his view. Finally he lit all the candles he could find and settled into the chair with wand in hand, determined to wait out the night.
That was where Percy Weasley found him the next morning: slumped in a chair at the desk with papers strewn across the surface. The multitude of candles he had lit had almost all burnt out. Lupin woke to Weasley blowing out the last of them, pinching the wicks with brief hisses.
'Good morning, Mr. Lupin,' he said, diplomatically choosing not to mention the man's unshaven and rumpled state.
'Is it?' Lupin rubbed a hand across his eyes, blinking at the daylight filtering through the filthy windows. 'I suppose it's better than last night, at any rate.'
'Was it bad?' Weasley asked. 'It doesn't look like it was particularly restful, sir,' he added apologetically.
'Bad doesn't begin to describe it. And it's Remus, not sir.' He stood slowly, brushing dust from his cardigan.
'You saw the ghost then?'
'Saw her?' Lupin shuddered. 'I don't think I'll ever stop seeing her.'
'I think,' Weasley said, with the practicality he had learnt from his mother, 'that it'll probably look better after breakfast. The pub in the village apparently serves a good one and the fellow with the car is waiting at the bottom of the drive.'
Lupin told Weasley what had happened over some fairly limp bacon and eggs as they sat at a corner table. Putting it into words seemed hollow in the light of day and painted his own fears as rather pathetic. Weasley took it seriously though (not that he had ever seemed capable of taking anything any other way) and didn't interrupt Lupin's narrative.
'Rather knocks the Bloody Baron into a cocked hat, doesn't it?' he commented once Lupin had finished.
'I've never come across such a malevolent spirit,' Lupin agreed despondently, the half-hearted breakfast doing nothing to buoy him up. He poked the egg with his fork: it wobbled. 'And the locals aren't happy about the intrusion either. They're not exactly welcoming.'
'You're telling me. One child did the devil horns at me this morning.' Weasley demonstrated with his fingers, tucking the middle two under his thumb and sticking index and little fingers up. 'I thought muggles were over that kind of thing – both the symbol and the irrational fear of ginger hair.'
'Considering that they correlate the ghost being seen with the death of a child I'm surprised I've not been drummed out of town yet.'
Weasley cast an uneasy glance over his shoulder to where the publican, Si Wilson, stood staring at them from across the bar.
'I can certainly imagine them pulling out the tar and feathers,' he murmured.
'Let's go for a walk,' Lupin suggested, pushing his plate away. 'We need a plan.'
Their feet took them to the cliff path on the other side of the village. Looking back they could see Shearwater's Return half-shrouded in trees, a lurking monster hiding above the tiny settlement below.
'Looks awfully close to the edge,' Weasley said.
'It's right up on it,' Lupin told him. 'Any more cliff falls and the house will go with it, I think. The nursery window – the one she jumped from – is sheer with the cliff. It's a straight drop down to the rocks.'
'And that's the room where you saw her?'
'Her reflection.' Lupin tugged his collar up against the wind gusting off the sea. 'She was behind me. And she knew me, Percy, knew what I am.' He shivered. 'I don't think I've ever actually been scared of a ghost before.'
'What are we going to do?'
Lupin shrugged. 'Not sure. I think we should head back up to the house to try to get more of an idea as to why she's such a restless spirit.' He tried to hide the uncertainty in his voice for Weasley's sake. 'And I want to try getting into that attic again.'
They walked back along the cliff, following the path down as it dipped into the cove. The village lay a little further inland, away from the damage of storm-driven winds and flood tides. Some children were playing at the water's edge, spinning stones with agile wrist-flicks to make them skip across the surface. One small boy lacked the necessary skill to imitate his fellows and was contenting himself with hurling the largest stones he could lift as far as he could throw them for the joy of creating a splash. He turned to solemnly watch Lupin and Weasley as they passed, a rock clutched between two pudgy hands. They had turned up the road to the village before they heard it splash but stopped abruptly on hearing a second, louder splash immediately after. They were already running when a child's voice rose in a high scream.
The children were gathered at the edge of the sea, staring at a white shape bobbing under the cliffs a little way round from them. A red stain was spreading into the grey water. Lupin plunged into the sea without hesitation, scrambling over submerged stones only to find his worst fears confirmed. The little girl was floating facedown with her arms outstretched, legs straight behind her. Her dress billowed weirdly in the gently rocking waves.
He hauled her up, cradling the limp body in his arms. Water lapping around his thighs he sought for signs of life but the crushing wound on the girl's forehead made the conclusion morbidly obvious. Scarlet blood was trailing from the crater in her skull and dribbling down one of her pigtails to drip ceaselessly into the sea.
'Remus!' came Weasley's voice.
He was standing over by the other children, who all stood staring sombrely at Lupin and his cargo. Lupin caught his eye and briefly shook his head. Other people started arriving, presumably fetched by one of the children, as he waded back to shore. The girl was yanked from his arms the moment he reached it, her floppy limbs jerking as a wailing man clasped her tight.
'Jenny! My Jenny!'
Lupin pulled away, feeling a little sick. He staggered away a little, while elsewhere on the beach parents clutched their own children fearfully. Weasley touched his shoulder nervously, his expression sympathetic.
'She walked up that way,' a little boy was saying, pointing to a path that was little more than a sheep track winding up the very cliff edge. 'An' then she jumped.'
Lupin shuddered at the little boy's matter-of-fact recital. The children, over the initial shock, just seemed curious. There had been so many deaths recently; he supposed their young minds had simply adapted to it.
'Was it the ghost, daddy?' A girl tugged her father's sleeve. 'Did the ghost take her like Lucy?'
Her father looked down at her, white-faced, before taking her shoulders and pulling her away from the beach. Other parents followed suit, their eyes lingering on Lupin and Weasley in accusation.
'You saw her,' one man hissed at Lupin. 'Y'sought her out and brought this on us!'
'Whenever the ghost is seen, she kills another child.'
The quiet voice came from behind them. Lupin turned abruptly to see the gentleman he had seen the day before. The man was observing him calmly, one finger stroking his neat goatee. He wore the same suit, well-cut and dusty black.
'You did see her, I assume, Mr. Lupin?'
Lupin ran a hand through his untidy hair a little self-consciously. 'Aren't we a little old to be believing in ghosts – I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name?'
'No need to believe in things that are real.' The man smiled. 'Julian Masters. I'm afraid everyone in the village knows who you are and why you are here. News gets around in a place like this. If you take my advice, Mr. Lupin, you'll leave Lower Perdham on the next train. Don't go back to the house.' Master's teeth were fully bared. 'We wouldn't want another dead child on your conscience.'
It was a long way from full moon but Lupin felt his hackles rise.
'I'm not the type to leave a job half done, Mr. Masters,' he said, 'and as such we must wish you good day.'
He flashed a quick, hard smile before heading for the track away from the beach with Weasley following in his wake. Behind them they could hear Masters addressing the villagers still on the beach.
'It is time we got rid of this threat,' he declaimed, 'this evil spirit, taking our children from our arms. We need to expel it from our home, to exorcise it!'
They allowed his peroration to fade into nothing, walking in silence until they were on the rutted, unsurfaced road leading to the house.
'If there's anything fishy going on,' Weasley commented, 'I'd bet galleons against knuts that man's behind it!'
'What makes you say that?'
'Well, he looks like the type.'
Lupin looked disbelievingly at his colleague. 'Honestly? That's your argument: 'he looks like a wrong 'un, guv'?' He shook his head. 'I refuse to just believe he's a villain – it's just too obvious, for one.'
'Can you not imagine him in full robes hurling curses around?'
'Well, yes, but that's not the point.' L was feeling irritable. His unshaven chin was prickling uncomfortably and there was blood drying on his shirt. 'You can't judge someone for looking a bit evil. Take … take Severus Snape for an example: as unfortunate a countenance as you could wish on your worst enemy but in the end, a good man.' He stared out over the sea. Gannets were diving far out, white specks dropping from the sky. 'Yes … a good man.' Pulling a rueful face, he turned back to Weasley. 'Sorry, Percy, I didn't mean to get all worked up. Lack of sleep and dead children apparently make me cranky.' He could still remember the girl's dead weight in his arms and he pushed the thought away hurriedly.
'That's all right.'
They carried on, passing the posts that marked the start of the driveway. Shearwater's Return itself was already visible through the trees that surrounded it.
'This walk's a lot shorter without the mist,' Lupin said, though the comment fell flat in those dead surroundings.
'What got Professor Snape on your mind?' Weasley asked.
'Don't know,' said Lupin after a pause. He had, a little while ago, taken a sort of pilgrimage to the Shrieking Shack. There had been dried blood on the floor – where Harry Potter had seen Snape apparently die and from where the body had mysteriously vanished. Lupin had half-expected to see Snape as a spectre there, the same irascible git in death as in life. 'I've too many ghosts,' he added eventually, eyeing the angels that decorated the overgrown graves.
They said nothing, too concerned with their silent prayers.
The house loomed ahead of them, a grey granite gravestone. Lupin barely dared look at the windows, too afraid that there would be a ghostly face peering out. Even the wild garden seemed sinister, bending and rustling in the sea breeze. Gulls were caterwauling from somewhere unseen. Lupin kept his hand on the wand in his pocket as he unlocked and pushed open the front door. It creaked in a way that would have made a film director proud.
'I bet Gilderoy Lockhart would have loved writing about this place,' Lupin said, stepping into the dusty hall. 'Screaming with Spectres or something.'
'I don't think he'd have dared walk in the door.' Weasley looked around. 'Whew! It certainly looks like a haunted house. I can never get over the way muggle paintings don't move – it's like they're dead.'
'That's a cheerful thought,' Lupin remarked. 'Come on, we'll start upstairs.'
He tried to keep his tone light, not to dwell on the tragedy while they still had a job to do, but even in the day the house had a dark, menacing feel to it that turned any mood sombre. Dust and cobwebs stifled everything, thick and grey, except the staircase, which was suspiciously clear. Lupin thought of the wet footprints that had vanished halfway across the hall and instinctively checked behind him. He saw only Weasley's pink face, the other man looking about him with keen curiosity. Lupin smiled at him weakly.
'This is where I first saw her,' he said, leading Weasley into the room. 'Outside that window.'
Weasley went over to have a look, opening the window and sticking his head out. Fresh air rushed past him, carrying the smell of the sea and crying of gulls.
'You know,' said Weasley thoughtfully, 'I think someone could stand outside this window, if they weren't too heavy and clung to the ivy.'
Lupin wasn't listening. He was staring across the room in disbelief at the thing that was staring straight back at him.
'Merlin's beard,' he breathed, 'how did that get here?'
Weasley pulled his head back in, turning to see what had so perturbed the other man.
'The doll that I left on the stairs last night, yes,' Lupin finished, nodding grimly.
'How did it get there?'
'I don't know.' Lupin drew his wand, levitating the eerie toy. 'But I'm putting it in the nursery where it belongs.'
He marched from the room, the doll bobbing in the air before him. The nursery was still dim, even in daylight. He set the doll on the mantelpiece between a floppy clown and a monkey with half its fur rubbed off. With Weasley behind him he flicked his wand at the counterpane on the bed, raising it with an abrupt snap. Dust billowed across the room, which Weasley dispersed with a swish of his wand.
'No one's slept in that for a while,' he said.
Lupin dropped into a crouch, peering under the bed. As he'd expected – and hoped, he admitted silently to himself – the space was empty save for a few odds and ends. A single slipper, stitching half-unravelled, lay beside a spinning top and a few dry dead leaves. He straightened up, feeling a little easier.
'Just the attic to go then,' he said. 'Come on.'
The door was closed when they reached it. Lupin found himself half relieved by this and half dreading what they would find behind it, supposing they could even open it. Wand in one hand Lupin reached out the other nervously and took hold of the door knob. It turned but to no effect; the door remained firmly closed. He released the knob and stood back, regarding the obstinate door.
'You've not seen a key anywhere, I suppose, si- uh, Remus?'
Lupin rolled his eyes. 'I think there's a drawer full downstairs, not to mention any number of hideyholes throughout the house.'
Weasley shrugged and raised his wand. 'Alohamora.'
'I already…' Lupin began but stopped as the door clicked open, swinging inward on silent hinges. 'Well, I'll be…'
He nudged the door with his foot, pushing it fully open and nodded for Weasley to follow him. The attic seemed to be empty both of living things or spectres, though both men kept their wands in hand just in case.
It was a mess. The remains of an iron bedstead stood in one corner, bent and broken, while a pile of ragged blankets against the opposite wall seemed to have been formed into a kind of nest. The door, when Lupin turned back to examine it, had scratches on the inside that looked disturbingly like they had been made by fingernails.
'Someone was locked up in here,' he said.
'Louisa Wickham?' Weasley asked, wandering to the window.
'Maybe.' Lupin shivered a little. A cold breeze seemed to be blowing down his neck. 'It would go some way to explaining why she's such a restless spirit.'
'Restless seems a little tame a descrip- oh my God!'
Lupin looked over sharply, having just tugged aside the curtain that was hiding the source of the draught. Weasley had jumped back from the window, his face white.
'She's in the garden,' he said, the edge of panic quickening his breathing.
Lupin strode over and examined the view. The trees bent in the wind, their remaining leaves fluttering madly, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. Weasley came to stand behind him, peering over his shoulder.
'She … she was right there,' he said, sounding shaken, 'staring at the house. All in black with black holes for eyes.'
Lupin felt the fear return. He moved from the window, rubbing his arm in an unconscious nervous gesture. Not even daylight deterred this ghost, it seemed.
'What happened to that window?' Weasley asked, pointing behind Lupin.
The curtain Lupin had pulled aside earlier had revealed a tiny window, barely wide enough to perhaps fit a man's shoulders. The glass pane had been smashed and the remaining shards were tipped or even smeared with red. Lupin walked briskly over and ran a finger through the stuff.
'It's fresh,' he said, examining the liquid on his fingertip.
'Blood?' asked Weasley.
Lupin nodded. 'Ghosts don't bleed.'
A thundering bang interrupted him, echoing through the house from below. Lupin and Weasley exchanged a panicked look.
'The front door,' Lupin muttered and rushed from the room.
Weasley was hot on his heels as Lupin hurried down the stairs and stopped, somewhat breathlessly, on the first floor landing. The wide hall was beneath them. On the tiled floor was a figure clad in black, stumbling towards the stairs with lurching steps. Lupin's heart leapt to his throat in fear. Skeletal hands were reaching out but before the apparent apparition could reach the banister it fell, landing with a thump on the tiles and lying there stunned.
'That's her, isn't it?' Weasley breathed. 'And she's … not a ghost?'
'Only one way to find out,' said Lupin, dragging up a bravado he didn't really feel.
He descended the last flight of stairs warily, eyeing the heap on the floor as it jerked spasmodically trying to push itself up. Details resolved themselves as he drew closer. What he had taken for a veil was its hair, falling long across its face and shoulders in unkempt dirty straggles. The grasping hands were smudged with blood, confirming to Lupin that whatever had been locked in that attic was in front of him now. He stopped when he reached the ground floor, a few feet from the twitching shape.
'Is it human?' Weasley asked in a low voice.
'Don't know,' Lupin replied, starting nervously when the thing's head swung round towards the sound of his voice. 'Um, hello?'
It put probably-human hands to the floor and pushed itself up, white face staring at Lupin from under strings of hair. Lupin, who had experienced a lot of shocks already since arriving in Lower Perdham, received the biggest yet on seeing that face.
He dropped to his knees with a gasp and reached out a hand to push aside the long strands.
'It can't be…'
Like a darting snake a hand shot out to grip Lupin's, using him to pull its thin body up. Lupin was yanked off balance and fell, managing to push himself up in time to see the black-clad figure knock Weasley aside as it stumbled up the stairs.
'No!' he yelled as Weasley raised his wand. He threw himself at the other man, pushing the wand firmly down. 'You mustn't…'
'It's Snape,' Lupin said breathlessly, pointing at the struggling figure ahead of them. 'It's Severus Snape.'
'What?' Weasley squinted up. 'You can't be serious!'
'It's him.' Lupin laughed nervously and a little hysterically. Warmth was spreading inside him – Snape had survived. 'Poor man, he always has had the most distinctive nose.'
Weasley's mouth flapped for a moment, full of too many questions to articulate – not that Lupin thought he could have answered them anyway.
'Where's he going?' Weasley asked eventually, apparently deciding on the practicality of sticking to the most immediate query.
'No idea,' said Lupin. 'We'd better follow him, though.'
Snape, staggering and slow, led them to the room Lupin had inhabited the previous night. He paused in the doorway, clutching at the frame with fingers that were little more than bones and swaying uncertainly. Lupin, still perturbed by his former colleague's awful appearance, crept cautiously closer.
'Severus?' he called.
There was no response from the other man. Snape was scanning the room, his head slowly craning round. With an abrupt jerk he suddenly pushed himself away from the door, stumbling until he crashed into the dresser. He held himself up with one skinny arm, already shaking from the strain as his other hand scrabbled on the dusty surface. A distressed cry ripped from his throat; a harsh, raven's croak.
'Is he looking for something?' Weasley wondered.
'The only thing I've moved from there is … that doll.' Lupin lapsed into thought, staring at Snape with troubled eyes.
'What's wrong with him, Remus?' Weasley asked. 'It's like he's, I don't know, not human or something. He's not shown any sign of recognition, has he?'
'He has,' said Lupin with sudden realisation. 'He knew me last night. "Wolf," remember?' He moved forward. 'Severus, can you hear me?'
Snape's shoulder was formed of stark lines under Lupin's hand, like bones wrapped in a shroud. Lupin imagined that if he so much as squeezed his hand the bones would simply crumble to dust. He slid his hand to Snape's waist, supporting him to stand. Snape went with him, apparently lacking the strength to do otherwise. Lupin cringed at the feel of the cadaverous body against his.
'Come on, Severus,' he said, talking more to distract himself and his urge to run as far away as possible. 'You know me: Remus Lupin. You've known me since we were boys.' He manoeuvred Snape through the door, coaxing him with gentle words. 'Are you looking for that doll that was in there? It's in the nursery, just this way. I must admit, though, the idea of you wanting something to cuddle is an odd one, which may – oh, watch it!'
Snape stumbled in the corridor, almost crashing into the wall. Weasley reached out to steady him and Snape shied away, pressing closer to Lupin. Lupin couldn't help but shudder as that skull-like face, its skin stretched tight and dry over bone, came within inches of his own. He kept his gaze firmly ahead, pulling Snape on but trying not to look at him. He felt guilty for it but the physical aspect of what Snape had gone through was too painful to see.
'Easy now, Severus, easy. We're nearly there. A few more steps.'
It was like coaxing along an animal: a wild, frightened one who could snap at any second. Lupin's fear had not gone away despite knowing that the apparently murderous spectre was his old acquaintance. The man's figure was no less horrible for being human. He could feel the edge of every bone against him, could hear each of Snape's laboured breaths.
He let go of him when they reached the nursery, leaving him standing in the centre of the room while he went to the mantelpiece. When he turned, doll in hand, he was taken aback by the intensity of Snape's stare. The dark eyes were fixed hungrily on the porcelain figurine. Snape's mouth was open, crooked teeth showing, while the hollows around his eyes and in his cheeks were deepened by the tension in his face. Lupin held the doll out gingerly, flinching back as it was snatched from his hand. Snape clutched it close, his forehead against the porcelain one and his fingers tight over the frilled dress.
He then raised the doll high above his head, his spindly arms emerging like sticks from his sleeves, and dashed it violently to the floor.
Lupin leapt back in shock as porcelain shards flew across the room. The doll shattered on the floorboards, its face lying like a crushed egg on the blonde curls. Snape collapsed to his knees among the debris, pieces splintering further under him. Lupin had instinctively drawn his wand. He took a cautious step forward towards the huddled figure, wand held out against any further outbursts, but stopped abruptly as something other than dust began rising from the doll's remains. Silver strands rose like steam, winding around Snape in fine filigree strands. He remained still while they surrounded him, allowing them to creep through the hair surrounding his downcast head.
'What is that?' Weasley asked, staring in disbelief.
'Looks like … memories.' Lupin stooped to get a closer look at the shifting mass of silver. 'Like you'd put in a pensieve.'
'That's more than a few stray thoughts, I'd say.'
'Why would he keep his … well, I suppose his mind in an old doll?'
Weasley fiddled with the bridge of his glasses, pushing them up and down his nose. 'I presume he didn't,' he said, 'and that someone else did.'
Lupin stared at Snape. The silver was dispersing, absorbing into Snape's bowed head.
'Merlin …' he breathed eventually. 'That's a horrific idea.'
'I was only presuming,' said Weasley hurriedly, 'but he did seem rather desperate to find it and I assume that's why he was peering in your window last night and why he headed straight for that room just now. I suppose someone hid it from him.'
The last silver wisps had vanished. Snape remained hunched on his knees wrapped in his threadbare black robes. Lupin couldn't tear his gaze away, horror and pity warring within him. He shuffled forward, tucking his wand away and reaching out a tentative hand. The back he touched felt like bare bone under the robes, hardly moving as Snape breathed.
'Who would do that?' he asked. 'Why would anyone do something like that to someone?'
'It would have made him easier to control,' Weasley suggested apologetically.
'Seems like an awful length to go to.' Lupin could feel Snape's heart beating with sharp fast beats beneath his palm.
'And then just to keep him locked up in the attic,' Weasley said thoughtfully. 'Why go to all that trouble just to keep him here?'
A rustling noise came from Snape's hunched body, his back shifting under Lupin's hand. Lupin jumped back, watching the kneeling figure warily. There was no telling whether this would be the man they had known or something else entirely. The dusty rattle continued for some time while Lupin and Weasley both stared in horror at the shuddering man, before it slowly and painfully resolved into words.
'Because … it … amused … him,' Snape rasped eventually.
'Amused who?' Lupin asked.
'Masters,' was the hissed reply.
Lupin paced a few steps around Snape, stopping before the downcast head.
He felt like a demonologist of old, demanding answers of a creature summoned from the very pits of hell. Snape looked up at him, eyes burning like the devil's own flames.
'He had … a wizard,' he croaked, 'under his power, a captive. Mindless, caged … he enjoys the superiority. And it fit the story.' Snape coughed horribly from somewhere deep in his chest. 'With the story, he had the entire village under his control.'
'He's been committing the murders,' Lupin said, realisation breaking over him. 'Using the Imperius, I suppose. Those poor kids.'
'Can't convict … a ghost.' Snape braced a hand on the floor among the porcelain shards, tendons sharp as knife-blades beneath the skin. 'Can only exorcise it.'
'Masters has been preaching an end to all this,' Lupin commented.
Snape's head bobbed down in a slow nod. 'Your involvement forces him to end the game.'
'Percy …' Lupin began but Weasley was already rummaging in his bag.
'I've got binoculars,' he said, 'I'll go and keep a lookout.' Pausing in the doorway he looked oddly defiant for a moment, his ears flushing pink. 'I had hoped to do some birdwatching out on the cliffs.'
Without further comment he hurried through to the next room, taking up a position where he could see the approach to the house. Lupin knelt beside Snape, reaching for him with a nervous hand.
'Come on,' he said, when touching the stick-like arm produced no reaction but a flinch, 'let's get you off the floor.'
Snape moved passively under Lupin's assistance, eyes staring blankly over the other man's shoulder. Lupin steered him easily to the rocking chair and settled him in it. The thin body flopped, Snape's chin dropping to his chest and his hair covering his face with filthy strands. Lupin stood back quickly, still afraid to take his eyes from the man. He half-expected Snape to suddenly fly from the chair with murder in his eyes but Snape made no move, barely even breathing. Lupin fidgeted restlessly with the handle of his wand.
'Mind … healing itself,' Snape whispered after a long silence. 'Been torn in two for … so long.'
Pity flared in Lupin, though it was tempered with worry. A mind that had been divided for such a time, a mind that had been ripped to pieces – that was a mind that could never fully heal. It might seem mended, knitted together with time and the best of medical help (which he fully intended Snape to receive, once they returned home), but there was no saying when it might break again.
He watched Snape for a while, neither of them moving. A gust buffeted the window, rattling it in the frame. Far below, the waves were still pounding the rocks.
He would take Snape home with him, Lupin decided, weighing up what would happen to the other man once this was over. Snape had no family that Lupin knew of, no friends that he had not betrayed one way or another in doing Dumbledore's bidding, and he could hardly return to Hogwarts should he even want to. It would be far better for him to live with someone who would care for him and who had mourned him when he had been thought dead. Lupin vowed then to do whatever necessary to nurse Snape back to health. Perhaps then Snape would be able to look at him and see beyond the past and beyond the wolf.
'The villagers are coming up the hill,' Weasley reported from the other room where he was peering through his binoculars. 'Masters is with them.'
Snape looked up from the chair where he sat slumped, arms and legs as limp as a broken puppet's. 'Are they carrying pitchforks and scythes?' he rasped, lips curling back from yellow teeth with a sneer.
Lupin suppressed a shudder that manifested itself despite his intention to ensure Snape's recovery. Snape still looked like a barely-animated corpse, a spectre of horrible countenance, and he was perfectly in place with the decrepit dolls and frightful figurines that populated the nursery. He was another discarded toy, dropped into the rocking chair and left to decay and wither away.
'I don't think so,' Weasley answered faithfully, 'but they look rather angry.'
'As well they might,' Lupin said, thinking of his own son. 'It's not their fault. We can't let them get hurt.'
'They'll be up the path soon.'
The rocking chair swung forward as Snape tried to pull himself to his feet, only to sway back as he failed. He snarled in frustration. Lupin couldn't bring himself to look at the wasted face but held out a hand, feeling with revulsion as the deathly cold fingers wrapped it in a claw-like group. He wanted to draw Snape into his arms, to hold him close and soothe the hurt away, but the man felt like nothing more than a skeleton and this dragged childish horrors from the depths of Lupin's mind. Guilt and selfishness warred within him until he pushed it aside to tug on Snape's hand. Snape was no weight at all to pull up.
The chair continued to rock as Snape stumbled from the nursery, Lupin not waiting to see it slow as he followed him. The rumble of its wood on the floorboards continued as they hurried down the corridor, Weasley glancing back at it as he joined them. Snape led them to one of the front rooms, a room whose windows stood over the porch.
'They'll be too scared to come in if they see me,' he said, 'too terrified of the "woman in black." He won't be, though. He'll think I'm still his mindless little creature. He'll come and I'll rip the flesh from his bones.'
Lupin, thinking of the girl from the beach dead in his arms and Carne's tales of the other children's deaths, could only nod in approval.
'And what then?' Weasley asked, his face pale.
'We'll end the curse, once and for all.' Snape's eyes were suddenly like those of the doll, shining and impenetrable like coloured glass. 'I'll need to borrow your wand, Lupin.' He held out a thin hand.
Lupin hesitated, clutching the smooth and familiar wood but finally relinquished it. He stiffened instinctively as Snape raised the wand, eyeing the man as he examined it then tucked it into his ragged robes. The tension remained across Lupin's shoulders, anticipation and horror in equal measures.
'They're coming up the path now,' Weasley advised.
He had taken up position behind a curtain, peering through a large moth hole. Lupin hastened to follow his example, though he turned instead to watch Snape.
The cadaverous man stood in the central window, strings of hair obscuring his face like a veil just as when Lupin had first seen him. He stared out with hollow black eyes. Lupin could not hold back a shudder this time. Fear still coursed through him – no matter that he had known the man since boyhood. He could see the skull beneath Snape's skin and expected at any moment for those eyes to swivel in their vast sockets and the bony hands to come reaching for his throat.
'They're stopping,' Weasley said.
His voice pulled Lupin from his self-induced terrors, forcing him to turn from Snape's still figure to peer outside. The majority of the villagers had, it was true, stopped at the gates, several pointing at the apparition of Snape in the window. Some were already in full flight down the hill. A few, however, were reluctantly following Masters towards the house.
'He's bullied some into following him,' Lupin said with frustration.
'I've got an idea, actually.'
Weasley raised his wand, muttering an incantation. Two stone angels, one on either side of the path, twisted into sudden life, angling towards those approaching with outstretched hands and contorted faces. They had changed too fast to see, one moment beatific and the next demonic. This proved too much for the men following Masters and he was suddenly alone approaching the house.
The moment they heard him turn the door handle Snape dropped to the floor, effectively vanishing from any remaining villagers' sight should they look back, and crawled across the floor. Once he was far back enough to not be seen by the villagers outside he stopped, leaning on trembling arms. Lupin, realising that Snape was trying to stand, hurried over and offered a hand. Snape stared blankly at it for a few moments, face expressionless, before taking it and allowing Lupin to pull him to his feet. His eyes fixed on Lupin's, still black and unfathomable.
'Are you … still afraid of me?' he rasped.
Lupin was saved from having to answer by the noise of the front door screeching open from below. The side of Snape's mouth twisted upwards before he pulled away from Lupin, striding with only faintly wavering steps from the room. Lupin and Weasley followed to find Snape standing in the corridor facing them, drawing Lupin's wand from his robes. Lupin's heart leapt to his throat, suddenly realising that he was unarmed and vulnerable, and a cold sweat began pricking his palms.
'Severus…' he began.
Snape jerked his empty hand in a quick, cutting gesture.
'Stay back,' he warned, his voice low and hoarse. 'He's mine.'
Weasley started forward as Snape turned but Lupin laid a hand on his arm to hold him back.
'After what Masters has done to him,' Lupin murmured, 'and those poor children – I'm not getting in his way.'
'But the Ministry …'
'Don't need to know.' Lupin pulled a face. His conscience was making a valiant effort but the memory of Snape staggering and mindless was filling him with fury. It wasn't as if he had never killed anyone himself. This might not be wartime but Masters was as deserving of it as much as any Death Eater. 'We can always say Severus wasn't quite in his right mind at the time.'
They watched Snape's robes, threadbare as they were, flap as he strode down the corridor. He stopped just past the stairs on the landing where it formed a gallery overlooking the hall and stood there, still and silent.
'Hello, Louisa.' Masters's voice rose up from below, dry and amused. 'Been escaping again, have we?'
Snape remained motionless. His hand, holding Lupin's wand, was hidden behind the banister.
'No matter, my dear. I'm afraid the time has come to terminate our relationship.' Shoes tapped on the floor. 'It's been fun, Louisa, but it's time to say goodbye.'
Things happened so fast that Lupin could barely follow them. A flash of light exploded where Snape had been standing, smashing the wooden banister, but a split second before it hit Snape leapt over the rail – no, not leapt, flew. Lupin gripped Weasley's arm tighter, struggling to follow his own advice of staying put. He heard Snape speaking, his voice quiet and controlled as it always was when he was angry.
'How will you fare,' Snape hissed, 'against a grown wizard with a wand in his hand? I think you'll find it a little more difficult than imperio'ing helpless children.'
Lupin closed his eyes, glad that he wasn't watching the confrontation. Weasley was trembling faintly beside him, his face pale. They heard Masters scream and both flinched. It ended mercifully quickly, cutting off abruptly with a choke. There was no sound but their breathing for several moments, and then a thundering boom echoed through the house.
Ears ringing, Lupin stumbled for the stairs and stopped at the top. Snape looked up calmly, arms folded across his chest, Master's twisted body beside him.
'It's finished,' he said simply.
Lupin stared at him for a minute before the floor beside Snape caught his attention. A long crack stretched across the tiling, smaller ones fracturing from the sides. It widened as he watched, splitting tiles apart with splintering crunches. Lupin shook himself from his stupor and began leaping down the stairs.
'What have you done?' he demanded.
Snape's mouth quirked up. 'I'm bringing the house down,' he replied, staggering a little as the floor under his feet shifted. 'The "curse" needs to be broken.'
The crack reached the wall and began dragging it apart with an ominous creak. Lupin's blood suddenly ran cold as he realised that Snape was on the other side to him. The whole house was starting to shudder, ornaments falling from the walls around them.
'Get out of here!' he shouted to Weasley, not stopping to see if his advice was taken.
Lupin launched himself across the shifting floor, scrambling on fractured tiles before leaping across the growing chasm. He landed awkwardly, falling to one knee before pushing himself back up. Snape was watching him curiously, his expression guarded.
'I could have flown myself out,' he said faintly.
'I know,' Lupin said with a shrug, before diving forward to catch Snape as he started to collapse. 'I was afraid that you weren't going to.'
Snape looked at him then, really looked at him with his eyes full of the desperation Lupin had feared would be there.
He pulled Snape against him, supporting the trembling man while the house fell apart around them. Weasley still stood on the stairs, watching with wide eyes. Floorboards began pinging up around him, snapping as they were wrenched free.
'Go!' Lupin yelled, feeling relieved as Weasley finally obeyed and vanished with a pop.
Snape's hand landed on Lupin's chest and Lupin looked down to see his wand being offered back to him by stick-like fingers. Snape looked exhausted and small and Lupin finally lost the last trace of his fear under the wave of sadness he felt for the state the man was in.
'It's over now,' Snape said tiredly. 'The killings will stop, the ghost will be a story that fell into the sea with the house.' He leaned fully against Lupin. 'And I can … I can …'
'You can be free,' Lupin told him.
Snape smiled but his eyes were unsure. 'Lupin … I ...'
'It's all right. I'll take us home.'
Lupin, holding the other man close, did just that.