Standard Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters in this story; they all belong to JK Rowling. This is a work of fan fiction, produced solely for enjoyment. No infringement of rights is intended.

Thanks must go to Sonicdale for beta'ing for me .


Final Preparations

Friday evening found Harry and Hermione zealously practising detection spells in the Room of Requirement. Hermione would enchant an object, sometimes simply disillusioning it or sometimes so that an action had to be carried out before it became visible. Harry would then try and find it. His spell work was still a bit inconsistent, but it was still a vast improvement on the previous evening.

The day before Harry hadn't been able to detect anything, however simple Hermione's enchantment, and at one point, had thought he needed to do a cartwheel for the object to be revealed. Compared to that, Harry was fairing a lot better tonight. He'd managed to detect over half of Hermione's hidden objects and was in the process of searching for another.

'Hermione, are you sure this spell works better than the other one?' Harry asked while waving his wand in complex motions and frowning when nothing happened. Hermione sighed.

'Yes Harry, I'm sure,' she replied. 'You just need to concentrate harder on what you're trying to find.'

Harry scowled and waved his wand again, rather more energetically than before, but this seemed to have no effect. 'Remember, at this point, it's not the Horcrux you're looking for,' she prompted. 'Just try to relax and focus everything on finding the hidden object.'

Harry closed his eyes and took a deep breath before exhaling slowly and moved his wand in an almost lethargic manner. He opened his eyes just in time to see the faint afterglow of a book's outline fade away. He grinned and flicked his wand at where the book was concealed, but nothing happened. He frowned when he noticed Hermione barely concealing a smirk.

'You'll have to do better than that Harry; you didn't think I was going to make it easy for you, did you?'

'Well it would have made a nice change,' he grumbled, before turning his attention back to the hidden book. He pointed his wand at where it had appeared and started muttering a long list of spells, trying to determine what he needed to do to reveal the book.

After several minutes, Harry at last smiled and approached the concealed book. Performing the first spell again to see exactly where the book was, he grasped the binding and gently stroked it. Almost instantly, the book reappeared and Harry heard Hermione clapping behind him.

'Well done Harry, I didn't expect you to find that one so soon. You're improving really quickly, and I think you'll have that one learnt fully after a few more tries. Shall we do it again?'

Harry nodded and turned away from Hermione while she grabbed one of the objects the Room of Requirement had supplied and performed another enchantment on it, probably more complex than the previous one. Harry nodded and turned away from her as she took another object to enchant. The Room of Requirement had given them several miscellaneous objects to practise with. 'She's probably making it more complex and harder to detect this time,' Harry mused.

After a few minutes, Hermione announced that she'd finished and Harry turned around, before starting the long process again.

'Harry, you did really well tonight,' she said. 'I don't see how you could improve any more, apart from maybe taking less time to find out what you have to do to reveal the object.'

The two were walking down the corridor towards the Common Room after having practised for another couple of hours, having worked over the list Harry had made. Hermione had shown him a few others, and Harry now felt that however complex Voldemort's defences were, he would at least be able to get a general idea of what he'd need to do to cross them.

'Thanks Hermione,' Harry said. 'You've been a huge help. I just hope that it'll be enough — otherwise I could be in for rather a lot of pain tomorrow.'

Hermione stopped and stared in disbelief at Harry. 'Tomorrow?' she squeaked. 'You want to go tomorrow?'

Harry frowned. 'Well yes, unless you can think of something else I need to do before I go. Are there any more spells you think I need to learn?'

Hermione shook her head. 'Well where's the problem then?' Harry turned back towards the Common Room.

'Harry, there are a million things you could learn and it might not be enough. You shouldn't go tomorrow, you should prepare more,' she said, ticking her reasons off on her fingers. 'Perfect the spells you know, read up on all you can on the First War to know what kind of creatures Voldemort uses, learn a few healing spells.'

'Please Harry, don't go tomorrow,' she implored, but saw that Harry wouldn't listen.

'Hermione, you just said I can't improve those spells much more, and I should go as soon as I can,' He said. 'People are dying every day, I don't want to have to see another person being taken from a classroom to be told they're orphans, and know that I could have done something about it.'

Hermione flinched. Just yesterday, Lisa Turpin had been taken out of Potions to be told that her parents and ten year old sister had been murdered. She hadn't been seen since.

'The sooner I go, the quicker I can finish him; I can't sit here doing nothing anymore. Not when people are dying, and not when everyone expects me to kill him,' he finished lamely.

The two had come to the conclusion long ago that anyone could kill Voldemort if they were skilled enough. It was only because of the prophecy that everyone expected Harry to do it, and therefore wouldn't try themselves.

Hermione nodded and turned her face to hide the single tear that was sliding down her cheek. 'OK Harry, but I'm coming with you then,' she said, firmly.

'What? No!' he exclaimed in indignation, ignoring the portraits on the side of the corridor telling him to keep quiet. 'Hermione, you're not coming with me, I'm not risking your life as well as mine. It's far too dangerous, and I'm not willing to see anyone else get killed or seriously hurt chasing after these things.'

Hermione glared despairingly at him for moment before answering. 'Harry, I know you think you're perfectly capable of retrieving them by yourself, and to be honest you probably are, but I can help, I want to help.'

Harry had been on the verge of arguing back, but shut his mouth after Hermione's last comment.

'Anyway, if you're not going to bother reading up about the First War and everything else, you should at least take someone who has,' she huffed, crossing her arms.

Harry sighed, and spent a few moments thinking hard about the decision he was about to make. Eventually, he sighed too and gave in.

'Fine, you can come,' he said, 'but you're going to have to make the same promise Dumbledore made me take before going. You must obey any command that I might give you, immediately and without arguing, alright?'

Hermione nodded. 'Of course Harry.'

'I mean it Hermione, I've been in a situation like this before, but you haven't. If I tell you to run, hide, or go back, you must do it. Can you do that?'

Hermione seemed to hesitate, but only for a fraction of a second. 'Yes, Harry,' she said quietly.

'Alright then,' Harry said, barely above a whisper. He didn't want to have to think again about the last person to have insisted upon those conditions. 'Let's get back to the Common Room and have a lie in tomorrow. We'll probably need all the energy we can get.'

Hermione nodded sadly, unhappy about the promise Harry had made her make.

They entered the Common Room in silence and said their good nights before climbing the staircases to their dormitories, but Harry didn't go to bed immediately. Instead, he stayed up and pulled Dumbledore's pensieve out of his trunk. Concentrating, he swirled the contents with his wand until he found what he was looking for, and without a moment's hesitation, he dived in.

He felt his feet leave the dormitory floor and the familiar sensation of falling through whirling darkness. Before long, he found himself standing on a very familiar-looking dirt path. Standing before him was what used to be the Gaunt home, although the dilapidated building before him could barely be called a building any more. If Harry had though it had looked run down and uninhabitable when he visited it in Bob Ogden's memory, it was nothing compared to the state it was in, in Dumbledore's far more recent memory.

Most of the roof had caved in, leaving rafters sticking out of the ceiling in odd places, and where the nettles had once reached the windows, there were no longer any windows visible having been covered up by wild plants long ago. The front door still had the remnants of a snake nailed to it, although all that was left was its small skeleton and patches of skin still clinging to the rusty nails.

Harry watched as Dumbledore, his wand hand still intact, approached the cottage cautiously. He stopped a few meters in front of the door and stared at it intently, much like how he had focussed on the cave wall last summer. Recognising what he was doing this time, Harry focussed on the door too, hoping that he'd be able to discern any traces of magic like Dumbledore could, but try as he might, all Harry could see was a rotting door with a snake skeleton nailed to it.

After a few moments, Dumbledore smiled softly to himself and pulled out his wand, pointing it at the nearest tree. A long, knobbly branch suddenly severed itself from the tree and flew towards Dumbledore, stopping dead before his outstretched hand. Dumbledore grasped it, and, placing his wand gently on the ground, advanced on the door. Harry wanted to yell at him not to leave his wand behind, but knew it wouldn't do any good; after all, this was just a memory.

Opening the door slowly, Dumbledore peered inside and drew back suddenly. Harry raced over and looked inside without hesitation, knowing that nothing could harm him here. But even that knowledge didn't prevent him from recoiling in shock and surprise. The whole building was, quite literally, crawling with snakes. The floor was covered in all kinds of snakes. Harry realised that almost all of them were poisonous — no wonder Dumbledore had jumped back so quickly.

Harry turned around to see Dumbledore retreat to his wand, and for a moment, thought he was going to try and enter the cottage with it. To Harry's surprise, all he did was light the end of his branch, place his wand back on the ground, and walk confidently back towards the door. Harry followed Dumbledore nervously, knowing something was about to go terribly wrong, knowing that he was powerless to prevent it.

Dumbledore strode through the front door, waving his branch this way and that. Harry had to marvel at his ingenuity. The snakes were slithering away from the fire as fast as they could, leaving enough space for Dumbledore to move about as he please. He began searching through the cottage for Slytherin's ring. Having only three rooms, it didn't take long for Dumbledore to search the cottage, but after a couple of minutes he returned empty handed. Frowning slightly, he paced the room, while Harry began to search for the ring himself, wondering where the young Riddle could have hidden it.

Harry returned to the living room after about ten minutes, not having found the ring either, He decided to wait for Dumbledore to find it, wondering only how long it would take. After what seemed like an age, but was probably only about half an hour, Dumbledore stopped his pacing, and turned towards the fireplace, focussing on it. Striding towards it, he leaned the branch against the wall, and began running his hands over the mantelpiece. Finding nothing, he leaned under the ledge, and reached into the bottom of the chimney.

Within seconds, he gave an exclamation of triumph and pulled out an old, battered shoebox. Harry ran forward to examine it, but found it to be just an ordinary cardboard box. He decided to wait and followed Dumbledore outside.

Once Dumbledore had retrieved his wand, he lifted the lid cautiously with his left hand, pointing his wand at the box with his right. He was clearly expecting Voldemort to have done something to Slytherin's ring, or the box containing it, and wasn't disappointed. Harry yelled in surprise when a small, steel-grey snake sprang from the box and sank its fangs into Dumbledore's hand. Startled, Dumbledore took a step back and pointed his wand at the small snake, which Harry instantly recognised as a Common Adder, and threw it off with a loud bang.

Inspecting the snakebite carefully, Dumbledore waved his wand quickly, and a hazy cloud of venom floated out of the bite. Dumbledore vanished the venom with a lazy flick of his wand, and turned his attention back to the heavy ring lying at the bottom of the shoebox.

Apparently, he could not see anything wrong with it, because after a second's hesitation, he pocketed his wand and reached in to pick it up. But as Dumbledore's fingers closed around the ring, Harry's feeling of unease intensified sharply. Dumbledore gave a cry of pain, retracted his hand still holding the ring, but the damage was done. Acid seemed to be appearing out of thin air over a spot on his hand, and was rapidly eating away at Dumbledore's skin. It was only seconds before Harry could see muscle tissue, and the sight made him want to throw up.

Dumbledore dropped the ring to the ground, but the acid didn't stop eating away at his flesh, so quickly pocketing it again, he apparated away, dragging Harry with him. The sensation was rather odd, much like a Side-Along apparition, but without the feeling of having his chest crushed by iron bands. When Harry found his footing again, he found himself before an unfamiliar door in a cobbled street full of dilapidated brick houses.

Dumbledore knocked gently on the door, and waited patiently, although his hand must have been in agony. The door was opened by none other than Severus Snape. Harry wanted to throttle the traitorous professor, but watched as Snape's eyes widened at the sight of Dumbledore's hand.

'Professor, what on Earth happened to you?' he asked in what was undeniable shock.

'I'm sorry Severus, but I do not have the time to answer that properly, I was collecting an item which was rather unexpectedly cursed, and left my hand in this condition when I touched it. Do you think you can remove the curse?'

Snape hesitated, looking over his shoulder and waved his wand towards a wall of books muttering 'Muffliato', before letting Dumbledore in. Harry followed quickly, and watched as Snape held Dumbledore's right arm with the utmost care as he examined it.

'Did this only happen on contact Professor?' Snape asked.

Dumbledore nodded, a grimace of pain flashing across his face for the first time. Harry noticed that the acid was still spreading, slowly, and had almost reached Dumbledore's wrist.

Snape hurried down a narrow corridor after a few more minutes, and returned quickly, carrying an old, battered book. He flipped through the pages rapidly, his nose so low it was almost touching the pages as they flew past his face. He stopped suddenly and gave a cry of triumph.

'Ah ha! I knew I'd seen this curse before,' he said. 'Professor, I want you to stay very still, there really isn't any room for error with this.' Dumbledore nodded, his face pale and breaking into a light sweat, and held out his hand for Snape to try and break the curse.

Snape, taking a deep breath, and checking the page again, focussed intently on the now dead looking hand before waving his wand in a fast, almost violent motion and crying out, 'Absolve Zanies Article'. A thin beam of light shot out of his wand and encompassed the entire of Dumbledore's hand, changing colour from a dark blue to blood red in a matter of seconds, before fading slowing. Dumbledore exhaled slowly, and inspected his hand, trying to gently flex his fingers. He winced a bit, but seemed satisfied with Snape's work.

He gave him a weak smile. 'Thank you Severus, sometimes I do not know what I would do without you.'

'Surely find another Potions Master who also happens to be a reformed Death Eater, and an adept of the Dark Arts, Professor,' Snape replied coldly.

Dumbledore snorted.

'Hardly, you are a very rare commodity Severus. I would find it very difficult to replace you.'

Now Snape snorted, and muttered a retort. 'Something that you might have to do by the end of the year.' Dumbledore frowned and leaned towards Snape, laying his unhurt hand on Snape's shoulder.

'What do you mean Severus?' he implored. Snape didn't answer, only hanging his head lower. 'What have you done?' Dumbledore whispered, almost to himself.

At that moment Dumbledore's memory ended, and the scene faded around Harry, who found himself back in his dormitory, wondering what Snape could possibly have done to feel so dejected. The curiosity did not purge Harry of his loathing of the former Hogwarts professor, but the look on Snape's face did imbue Harry with a sense of pity for him.

It also had the effect of almost driving Dumbledore's visit to the Gaunts' home out of Harry's mind — almost.

A/N - I apologise for the ludicrously long time this has taken to write, but the start of Uni has not been anywhere near as easy or smooth-going as I expected it to be, and I've had very little time to devote to fanfic writing. I'll try to write more often in the future, as things are starting to settle down, but I can't promise miracles unfortunately. Realistically it's going to be a while before my next post, but don't worry, I haven't given up on it, and I don't intend to.

On another note, I'm just going to explain my line of thought regarding the obstacles in Dumbledore's memory of collecting Salazar's ring, as I've been told that it's not exactly clear how I came up with the scenario when first read. I was trying to build on the notion that Voldemort makes his obstacles from things that he considers threatening or frightening. In the cave (in HBP), the payment was blood, and then the lake was dark and full of dead bodies,
displaying a clear fear of death and the unknown (represented by the darkness). So for the ring, I had Voldemort make the tresspasser relinquish his/her magic (represented by the forgoing of a wand) as that is something
that Voldemort treasures more than anything else. The snakes were a continuation of the theme of fear, as most people fear snakes, and when Voldemort placed the Horcrux there, he would have been the only Parlsemouth
(apart from his uncle Morfin) alive, and therefore, he believed, the only one who could get into the cottage without a wand and unharmed.

I hope that clears up any questions anyone has about that scene, but if you still see a problem with it, do tell me, as it's more than possible I overlooked a detail.