The kitchen in Gaunt's shack seemed to fade into the background.Images of people he had loved and lost rushed through Harry's mind in a violent torrent of good and bad memories, as the voice of Voldemort's Horcrux continued to taunt him to put on the ring…the first time he'd kissed Ginny…a trembling Hermione being consumed by a flash of green light…"Put on the ring…" Ron grinning at him and clapping him on the back… Bellatrix's Killing Curse striking Ginny down…"Put on the ring…" Hermione hugging him after the first task of the Triwizard Tournament…Ron glaring at Voldemort in defiance…"You can see them again, if only you put on the ring…"
He struggled to clear his mind, but new images kept replacing the old ones…Remus asking him to be Teddy's godfather…Sirius falling through the veil in the Department of Mysteries…meeting his parents the night Voldemort was resurrected…Voldemort telling his mother to step aside…
No! Harry shook his head vigorously. He'd seen his parents just a few hours ago. They were not dead.
The layer of fog obscuring his thoughts began to lift, and he repeated the motion. None of them were dead—not yet!
Awareness flooded back to him, like a dam breaking.
Stepping back in horror, Harry pulled his hand towards himself abruptly. He'd come so close to touching the ring with his bare hands…
But there was no time to worry about that now; in the corner of his eye, he saw Dumbledore. The older wizard had, in an attempt to lessen temptation, backed up to the far corner of the room, before the barrier had fallen. Now, however, he stood with his outstretched hand approaching the edge of the pedestal—and he was still advancing, still under a Horcrux-induced trance.
With a sharp warning cry, Harry lunged – just as Dumbledore's fingertips stretched for the ring – and sent them both tumbling to the grimy floor in a tangle of limbs.
There was an audible crack and Dumbledore moaned, prompting Harry to hurriedly disentangle himself and roll off of the older wizard.
The headmaster's eyes shot open, and he groaned once more, shaking his head, as awareness returned to him, and he took in his current position, "What happened? Did we fall?”
"The ring ensnared us," answered Harry, his voice filled with disappointment, and self-disgust, as he pushed himself up from the grime-covered floor. "Even though I was ready for the Imperius Curse, this was much stronger than anything I've known. It nearly had us. Sorry, I pushed you so hard..."
"Quite alright, child, quite alright," reassured Dumbledore, smiling kindly and somehow managing to give off an air of authority despite his position on the floor, surrounded by filth. "Am I to assume, then, that you managed to break free of the ring's effects on time?"
Harry nodded grimly, "Yeah, I can still hear the voice, but it's faint now; I'm in control." He wiped his hands nervously on his robes, "Can you hear it?"
The headmaster nodded, his eyes twinkling, "Indeed, it is quite loud…Arianna…" the last word emerged a whisper and his smile flickered, but for a moment, "However, my Occlumency shields seem to be holding, for the moment. All the same, I would feel more comfortable if you, not I, were the one to collect the ring."
He tried to push himself to his feet, but only got half-way before a sharp pain in his right ankle caused him to fall back onto his haunches. Laughing at his own weakness, he held up a hand to the younger wizard, "It would seem that these old bones aren't what they used to be... Help me up, will you, Harry?"
However, even with the other man's help, Dumbledore found himself hobbling painfully, and ended up lowering himself gingerly into the cobweb-covered armchair by the empty fireplace. "It seems I might have broken something."
Harry frowned; he hadn't meant to hurt the headmaster. "Sorry."
"No, no need to apologize, dear boy," said Dumbledore, eyes still twinkling, despite the pain, "the fate that you saved me from is far worse than a few broken bones. My ankle can be mended, though, given the complexity of the joint, I think it best to only bind it and leave the task of repairing it properly, to Poppy, once we get back to Hogwarts.
Harry continued to stare glumly at the headmaster, not moving.
"Go on, collect the Horcrux," the older man prompted.
Though his eyebrows remained furrowed in consternation as he did so, he did finally stoop to collect the charmed magical stasis evidence bag from the floor, where it had fallen during the scuffle, and, enclosing his hand in it once more, reach for the ring—quickly, before it could ensnare him again.
Unsurprisingly, this time he encountered no resistance—the barrier truly had fallen…
Wordlessly, he sealed the bag, and slipped it into his pocket, turning back towards the headmaster just in time to see the older man stand up, wincing as he did so, but able to hold his own weight, at least.
Despite the slowly rising sun now illuminating the way, the pair progressed at a snail’s pace up the potholed dirt track leading back to the country lane, and Dumbledore found himself leaning increasingly on his companion with each step. To shorten the journey, and not knowing the exact range of Voldemort's defensive wards, they kept trying, every few yards, to Apparate back to the edge of Hogwart's wards—without success…
Nearly fifteen minutes had passed and they were less than halfway up the dirt road. Far ahead, the gap in the hedge was just barely visible beyond the tall, scruffy hedgerows that bordered their path. Harry froze. His eyes had landed on something that caused all colour to drain from his face. Squeezing through the gap was Bellatrix Lestrange, wand raised, and looking just as crazy as he'd ever seen her. Dumbledore tugged Harry's sleeve and they quickly sidestepped into the wild hedgerow.
Damn! Harry had no interest in battling Bellatrix—particularly not now, with the headmaster injured, and with the final un-destroyed Horcrux in their possession; not now that she was in possession of the recipe for the resurrection potion…
He cursed himself for not thinking to bring his Invisibility Cloak. So far she hadn't noticed them, but that wouldn't last long; she was heading straight towards them…
In an act of desperation, he concentrated one last time on attempting to Apparate away. It didn't work. Not that he'd really expected it to… He was starting to suspect that the wards extended as far as the country lane.
Turning to Dumbledore, he whispered frantically, "Can you fight?" barely keeping the panic from his voice.
"Child," Dumbledore's tone was patronising, "I have fought under far worse odds, in much worse condition than I am in, at present." If he was nervous, Harry certainly couldn't tell. "She has yet to notice us; perhaps if we use a concealing charm –" The headmaster had raised his wand.
He didn't get to finish the sentence, for in the next moment Harry lunged, narrowly avoiding an incoming Cruciatus Curse, and dragging the headmaster down, onto the dirt path, with him, effectively cutting off whatever the older wizard had been about to say.
"Change of plans!" shouted Harry, rolling them both deeper under cover. He struggled to his feet, desperate for a glimpse of Bellatrix through the thick branches. "We get her, before she gets us! Then hightail it out of here, even if I have to levitate you!"
"Very well," Dumbledore didn't argue. Instead, not bothering to attempt to stand, he directed his wand at the overgrown hedgerow, causing it to grow rapidly, but before he could animate it to attack and bind Bellatrix, the Dark witch's next spell struck the barrier, setting it on fire.
Smoke filled the narrow passage, and Harry found himself coughing, choking, unable to breathe, to see… He struggled to get a Bubblehead Charm up; it was getting hard to concentrate, to think…The fire was closing in on them, the heat overwhelming…What was the crazy witch trying to do!? Kill them all, herself included?
By the time he finally managed to cast the spell and take in a refreshing breath of smoke-free air, the ferociously-hot air had been cooled slightly by a stream of ice from the headmaster's wand, with which he was battling the wall of flames.
The smoke, however, continued to thicken, and Harry could barely see more than ten feet in front of him. Bellatrix was nowhere in sight. He searched the smog desperately, where was she? In front of them? Behind them? Ten yards away? Or four?
A flash of red light gave her position away, but there was no time to dodge. The feeling of his very bones catching on fire replaced the very real but diminishing fire around them. Harry screamed; writhing through the smoky air like a drowning man.
And then it stopped.
Panting, still trembling with aftershocks, Harry forced his eyes open, and took stock of the situation. To his right, still caught on the ground, Dumbledore had finished battling the flames, and was now locked in a heated duel, exchanging spellfire with Bellatrix, matching her spell for spell.
Harry forced himself to his feet—time to end this. His wand arm still trembling, he struggled to aim, directing a Stunner—the first spell to come to mind—towards her. He missed.And now she had noticed him again.
Her next spell—thankfully not an Unforgivable this time—came rushing towards him. Harry threw up a shield just in time, effectively blocking her first curse. But the shield, under the power of her second, collapsed and Bellatrix's next spell was already on her lips.
Desperately the young wizard threw himself to the side, just barely rolling out the curse's path. Up against the charred hedgerow now, with nowhere left to run, Harry brought up his wand, determined to defend against her next attack.
It didn't come. Instead, he watched as Dumbledore's next spell miraculously struck her, and she collapsed on the spot.
Keeping his wand drawn, Harry pushed himself to his feet. She still wasn't moving. He allowed himself a brief sigh of relief, then cast a few more binding spells for good measure.
The two of them looked around, assessing what to do next. They'd take her with them, for delivery to the authorities. The Aurors might even manage to keep her in custody this time, though with her husband and his brother still at large it didn't bode well…