Harry gagged as he felt something horrid enter his mouth. Instinctively his head jerked back and it took him a moment to realize that Cho Chang was in front of him. He was back in the water during the second task.
He forced his head back to hers so that the bubble of air around his head enveloped them both. He'd have to ask Dumbledore about how to cast the spell on other people.;
A moment later he felt the explosions in the water as the aurors appeared. As they swam toward him, he thought he saw a distortion in the water behind them. It was difficult to tell; the bubble around his head itself distorted things a little.
Before he could say anything, he felt himself being grabbed by aurors and a moment later he was on the floor of Madam Pomfrey's hospital wing.
Harry's hand was spasming, and it took him a moment to remember why; he'd used a shocking spell in the water. He'd remember not to do that again, although he supposed there were situations where it might be useful. Getting a lot of Death Eaters to wade through water...
He waved Madam Pomprey away and she rushed over to help Cho Chang, who was probably a little worse off than she'd been the first time, since Harry had pulled away from her, letting her choke on more water.
Watching them take care of her, though, Harry had the sense that things were going to be all right for her even so.
Fleur's sister appeared a moment later, being carried by two aurors.
He wondered about the distortion he'd seen in the water. It hadn't shown up on any of the cameras used to film the scene for the spectators or someone would have commented about it. He suspected that it had been someone using a disillusionment spell. Those were more difficult to use in the water than in air.
It was possible that the person had just been out of the range of the cameras. That would mean that they knew enough about the position of the cameras to ignore them. Everyone had assumed that one of the aurors had been imperio'd, but it was possible that nothing had been wrong with the girls when they were checked.
Harry gestured frantically toward one of the aurors, a man he'd seen last time but still didn't recognize.
"I saw someone down there," he said. "Disillusioned, but badly. They might still be down there."
The auror nodded. He visibly tried to apparate, but nothing happened. Apparently Dumbledore had reinstated the wards that prevented people from moving freely about Hogwarts.
After all, that could have been Voldemort's plan all along. Harm the girls and when Dumbledore lowered the shields to apparate help in, apparate whoever he wanted onto school grounds. The truth was, it could have already been done and if no one found it, Harry would have no way of knowing.
The limitations of his ability were frustrating.
However, this time Harry had woken immediately, as he had all the times with the exception of the last. There had been no sensation of wrongness and no awareness of the passage of time. Did this mean that Voldemort hadn't gone back with him? Harry wasn't sure. All he did know was that he felt suddenly optimistic. If Voldemort no longer knew what was going to happen, then did that mean he finally had the advantage again?
Had it not happened because the Voldemort of this time didn't have his blood? Could he inject his blood into Dumbledore or Hermione or someone else and bring them with him? There were so many questions that had to be answered, and he wasn't sure that even Dumbledore would be able to answer them.
The one thing he knew was that he needed to go to Dumbledore sooner than later. He'd be sure to share his latest memory.
After all, how often did he get to call Dumbledore stupid and be justified?
As Dumbledore's face came out of the water, it was white as a sheet. He'd dealt with Harry's death better than potentially seeing his own.
"If you try to put the ring on again I'm cutting off your hand," Harry said. "I didn't the last time because I thought you might be able to get it under control but it didn't look like it."
He'd already given Dumbledore the memories of his previous deaths. This last one had affected him much more intensely.
Dumbledore shook his head and with a wave of his hand his face and head were dry. He staggered to his chair and sat down.
"It's odd to see yourself doing something you can't remember," Dumbledore said.
"I can't believe you were so stupid as to put the thing on," Harry said. "You had to know it'd be trapped."
Normally Harry would have never called the Headmaster stupid, at least not to his face, but under the circumstances he felt it was entirely justified.
Dumbledore sat silently, staring into nothing for almost a minute. Finally he spoke.
"Have you ever had something you regret, Harry?" Dumbledore didn't look at Harry. He simply stared off into space. "Something you'd give anything to change, but even with your remarkable circumstances were unable to do so?"
Adrian and Colin's faces flashed across his mind for a moment, and Harry nodded reluctantly.
"You've had losses," Dumbledore said. "I know; I've been watching. But those were the losses of people you'd known for months at most. Imagine they were family, people you'd known your entire life and loved. How much more powerful would the temptation be?"
"Can you destroy the horcrux without destroying the stone?" Harry asked.
Dumbledore shook his head. "It's impossible to know without trying again."
Glancing at the clock on the wall, Harry said, "Why not now? We haven't spent as much time discussing everything as we did last time, and I'm not eager to discover that I was wrong and Tom came back with me again and moves the stone."
"If this changes, our problems will go far beyond that," Dumbledore said.
Harry nodded grimly. Keeping Voldemort in the dark was their only chance of winning. They had to destroy every horcrux; leaving even one would be a victory for Voldemort and the Death Eaters. All he had to do was successfully save one.
"Let's go," Harry suggested.
Knowing exactly what to expect didn't make the experience of waiting any easier. It was more nerve wracking actually, because Harry was aware of just what the previously invisible lines of light behind him were capable of.
It was simple and effective. There weren't even muggle repelling spells outside, probably because they would draw attention. The other factor was likely that Tom didn't care if muggles actually died here. Given his attitudes toward them, it wasn't surprising.
Dumbledore was taking just as long this time as he did the last time. Harry suspected that he was being even more careful for fear that something might have changed. It wouldn't do to get overconfident.
Levitating the ring from the box, Dumbledore slipped it into another container. He made as though to drop the box back into the dirt, when Harry put his hand on his arm.
"Why not transfigure a copy?" Harry asked. "He's likely to come check on them at some point, and he might not check very closely."
It might buy them some time at least.
Dumbledore nodded. He levitated the skeleton of a lizard and a moment later a copy of the ring was dropped back into the box. The box went back into the dirt under the floor and the floorboards went back into place. He even managed to restore the dust as they left.
"There won't be any residual magic he can detect?" Harry asked.
"Not if it's not within the next three days," Dumbledore said. "And as far as I know he hasn't regained his form yet."
Harry nodded. Voldemort was hardly likely to take anyone else with him while he checked on the parts of his soul. As an infant, he couldn't do it on his own. They were likely safe for at least as long as Voldemort remained incomplete.
Of course, that was why Harry felt time was of the essence. The potion that was part of the ritual that was going to resurrect Voldemort had to take a long time or he would have been back already. However, Harry knew it would be ready by the end of the third Task, which meant they only had slightly less than four months to find as many horcruxes as possible.
"Maybe I'd better hold onto the ring," Harry said as he stepped carefully between the bent lines of light. Dumbledore followed him, and had to be even more careful because he was taller.
"You don't trust me?"
Harry shook his head. "Slughorn said that becoming too emotionally invested in the object that the horcrux is inside can let the portion of soul inside possess you, like Tom possessed Ginny Weasley."
"I'm capable of protecting myself for a few minutes," Dumbledore said shortly.
A wave of his wand and the lines of light became invisible again. Another wave and their tracks in the dust vanished. Everything looked as it had been the moment they'd arrived.
As the door closed behind him, Harry felt a surge of relief.
A moment later they were heading carefully off the property until they could get far enough away to apparate away without setting off any wards.
They apparated to a safehouse Dumbledore kept, and from there used the floo to go back to Dumbledore's office.
Dumbledore began to examine the ring almost from the moment they arrived back. It was almost ten minutes before he finally looked up.
"Nasty, nasty. The curse on this ring is insidious and incurable. I do believe you have saved my life Harry."
"How are we going to destroy it?" Harry asked.
According to Slughorn, the main soul wouldn't feel the destruction of the horcruxes which meant there was no reason to hold on to them. The horcruxes were dangerous to hold onto anyway as they could have a deleterious effect on the people closest to them.
Harry would hate to see Snape under the influence of one, and considering that he met with the Headmaster in this office every day, it likely wouldn't be safe for the students.
Dumbledore nodded grimly. He pulled a box from the shelf after waving his wand at it in an intricate manner.
"Your endeavor with Severus during your second year was profitable for the school," Dumbledore said. "I took the liberty of holding some of the venom for an occasion just like this."
Harry still had venom hidden in the depths of his vaults as well.
Opening the box carefully, Dumbledore turned and pulled out a pair of dragonhide gloves from a desk drawer.
Harry peered inside the box and saw a familiar fang lying inside. Apparently even after all this time the venom in and on the fang remained potent.
Dumbledore stared at the gloves, and then at the ring for a long moment before he sighed. He turned and handed the gloves to Harry.
"It might be better for you to do this," he said at last.
Harry wasn't sure whether this was because of Dumbledore's reluctance to destroy the Resurrection stone or out of fear of some last trap that might prove to be lethal when the horcrux was destroyed. Either way, harry had a vague feeling that he should be offended.
Instead he felt a sense of weary resignation.
He slipped the gloves on, then glanced at Dumbledore for permission before he took the fang. He was very careful as he did so; killing himself by being careless would be exhausting and embarrassing.
Of course, if he did die from his own stupidity, he might just omit that when he told Dumbledore what was happening the next time. The problem was that he would remember his own stupidity.
"So what do I do?" Harry asked. "Just stab it?"
Dumbledore nodded, although he took a hurried step back as Harry lifted the fang. That wasn't very flattering; it suggested that he thought Harry was going to hit the ring and the fang would go flying.
Actually, that wasn't a foolish though. Harry hurriedly grabbed the fang firmly in both hands. Staring at the ring, he lifted the fang, prepared to slam it down.
"If you kill me, you are killing yourself," a voice hissed from the locket. It took Harry a moment to realize it was speaking parseltongue. "After all, are we not the anchor that keeps you tethered to this world? How do you know that you won't simply drift away once we are gone?"
"Don't listen to it, Harry," Dumbledore said. "It will say anything to survive."
"The prophecy says that neither of us can truly die so longer as the other lives. Is that not enough to keep us alive?" The ring was silent for a moment, then said, "You have worked so hard to survive. Don't you want to be immortal?"
Harry scowled and slammed the fang down.
Everything seemed to vibrate around him; he heard a scream of agony that seemed to echo in his head. It was overwhelming, and he fell to the ground, the fang dropping out of his hand.
He saw a phantom image, and it lunged toward him, as though it was trying to enter him now that it had been deprived of its true home.
As it passed through him, Harry felt his muscles spasm. His back arched and he was suddenly somewhere else.
He saw images in a confusing jumble. He saw a wild haired woman, her lips looking strangely swollen. She had a sultry look on her face that made Harry vaguely uncomfortable.
Mounds of gold, gems and other artifacts lay everywhere.
Finally he saw Voldemort laughing. His plans were going well, better than he could have hoped. Potter would suffer, Potter would die, and he would be free at last.
A moment later he felt the soul disintegrate, a sensation that filled him with a a strange sense of visceral horror. He'd just destroyed part of someone's soul, an act of murder far worse than simply killing someone. From a certain perspective murder could be seen as simply helping someone along to the next plane of existence.
Killing their soul, though was killing everything they ever were. It was making it as though they had never been and sending them into the darkness of oblivion.
It was a horrible, horrible crime, and yet Harry didn't see any other choice.
"Are you all right, harry?" Dumbledore asked.
Harry nodded wearily.
"I saw some things," he said finally. "Things we have to discuss."
Harry continued to be disturbed for the next several days. The crime was Voldemort's; he'd mutilated his own soul beyond all recognition and he'd murdered multiple people to do it.
Still, Harry knew what it was like to fear death, and in a sense the horcrux had been right. Every horcrux he destroyed was one less anchor holding him to the world. He would be slowly but surely paving the way for his own inevitable death, especially since as a partial horcrux himself it was possible he might have to truly die for it all to be over.
Harry found himself fantasizing about various methods to deal with Voldemort without killing him. Petrifying him and dropping him into the ocean was his first plan, which was followed by others.
Transforming him into something else and sneaking him onto the American space station was a second though. Harry doubted that Wizards could apparate into space, and he'd heard about one astronaut hitting a golf ball off the space station.
Turning him into something able to withstand the forces of a Volcano and dropping him into one was a third thought.
All of the plans assumed he would be able to overwhelm Voldemort and beat him and that his followers wouldn't rescue him in the meantime.
Destroying the Horcruxes was absolutely necessary, and eventually Harry resigned himself to it.
In the meantime, everything else settled back into the pattern it had before. Classes went on as normal, although the Durmstrang students were missing of course, and his lessons with Moody continued.
Hermione's lessons continued as well, and after another three weeks with no word from Dumbledore about other Horcruxes, she finally met with him in the Room of Requirement.
She'd chosen the room, and for some reason the venue she'd chosen was what had to be the Gryffindor common rooms, at least from the colors and look of the room. It was empty of course, and he wondered if she'd chosen it as a way to put him off balance.
"I've been talking with Moody." Hermione said.
Harry felt a sudden sense of anxiety. She wouldn't be bringing it up unless it was something out of the ordinary. There was only one subject he knew of that she could be talking to Moody about, and it was one he had been procrastinating about desperately for a while.
"He says I'm ready."
Moody didn't know what she was ready for, of course; Harry had made sure that he had no idea of what secret he was planning on sharing with Hermione. For a moment he wondered if Moody had told her she was ready when she wasn't simply to find out what the secret was, but he'd had Dumbledore double check Hermione's occlumency shields and he'd confirmed Moody's assessment.
Harry didn't say anything. He just stared at her mutely. A feeling of heaviness was on his chest and he felt like it was difficult to breathe.
Hermione tapped her foot and scowled. "You promised you'd tell me if I mastered occlumency. I have. Are you going to keep lying to me, or are you finally going to tell me the truth?"
He hesitated for a moment, then said, "I think you're going to want to sit down."