Harry exited the Hall and, climbing over the bloodstained rubble, headed up the partially destroyed marble staircase to the first floor. Deep in thought, he continued upward and across the castle in silence, stepping absently over and around fallen rubble—and a few corpses.
Finally, he reached the entrance to the Headmaster's office on the seventh floor. The stone gargoyle that usually guarded the spiral staircase had been knocked on its side, but Harry paused briefly to ask permission before stepping over it and making his way up the stairs.
As he climbed, Harry continued to mentally rehearse his speech, but the loud and enthusiastic standing ovation that greeted him at the top startled him out of his thoughts. The jumble of applause and congratulations was impossible to decipher as every former Headmaster and Headmistress tried to have their say, mindless of one another.
It took a good five minutes before Harry could get a word in edgewise, and address the portrait that he’d come to see. He chose his words carefully, "After I died, we talked a bit, and you told me that I could maybe start over if I wanted to, called it creating an ‘alternate universe’. It’s why I decided to come back. But you didn’t explain it very well. Do you think...?” The question remained unasked.
Dumbledore's portrait raised its eyebrow. "Oh? I did? And why ever would you want to do such a thing, Harry?"
There was a trace of anger in the younger wizard’s voice as he answered, "Because my whole life has been about killing Voldemort, ever since Trelawney made that stupid prophecy. I've never had a real life. And now Voldemort’s dead, but so is almost everyone I care about. There's nothing left for me here; I'd rather be dead than live like this. Maybe that makes me selfish, but after all I’ve been through, I think that I deserve better.
"If I could travel back in time, I could change things, stop the prophecy from ruling my life; maybe another version of me could have a better life. I could finish off Voldemort before so many people have to die; he would never have come back if the Horcruxes had been destroyed when I was still a child."
Dumbledore's portrait seemed to consider his words. Certainly, he hesitated for a long while before he finally answered. Unfortunately, his answer was not quite what Harry had been hoping for. Instead of answering the implied question he merely remarked, “The ritual to which I was probably referring to is called the Ritual of Merlin's Choice, but it is not something to be undertaken lightly...”
Harry, for his part, was not that easily dissuaded. Rather than back down, he quoted back Dumbledore’s words from their earlier conversation and assured the portrait that he possessed both strong convictions and virtuous intentions in spades.
"Very well, Harry, I will tell you what I know..." the former Headmaster relented, "The ritual requires an artefact, Merlin's Ring, which can only be accessed with unanimous consent of the International Confederation of Wizards…"
Suspecting he was in for a long lecture, Harry took advantage of a brief pause in Dumbledore's speech to conjure himself a comfy chair and plop down into it.
"Merlin's Ring was first discovered, in a cave system in Somerset by wizards local to the area, sometime in the late 9th century. At the time they were unable to determine its use, and knew only that magical analysis both proved it was magical in nature, and suggested that it predated the existence of wizard-kind. So they sealed the area off from Muggles, and no further thought was given to the artefact until a couple of centuries later.
"Only when a forty-year-old Merlin was found wandering naked in the King's private woods in Camelot, claiming to have used the Ring to travel back in time in order to prevent some great calamity, was any further thought given to the artefact. Merlin bore a striking resemblance to an eleven-year-old Slytherin by the name of Myrddin Wyllt—a fact that lay credence to his claim, though he never acknowledged the young wizard as being his former identity. The great calamity of which he’d spoken never came to pass as far as anyone could tell..."
When the former Headmaster started to expound on Merlin’s work protecting Muggles, Harry started to huff and tap his left foot in annoyance. The history of the Ring was one thing, but Merlin’s many accomplishments were common knowledge—even with Binns teaching History of Magic.
“I digress,” Dumbledore admitted, but did not apologize, “After Merlin's claims were made known, the International Confederation of Wizards, then in its infancy, claimed jurisdiction over the artefact and set up protections to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Many applied for permission to study it, and many made use of Merlin's notes on the subject, but there is no record of any other wizard ever getting the Ring to work. For most it simply remained inert, failed to react to any stimulus. However, those who have attempted the Ritual with nefarious intentions—or at least that has been the conclusion drawn from circumstantial evidence after the fact— have been engulfed by a burst of magical fire that spits forth from the Ring.”
“Is it still there, then? In Somerset? Have you seen it?” Harry prompted, when the portrait paused in his narrative.
Dumbledore shook his head, “No, the Ring was moved to Antarctica, in the late nineteenth century, when the frequency of Muggle exploration of Somerset started to threaten its secrecy, and after Dark Lord Philip’s attempt to use it resulted in several dozen collateral deaths. Strong Muggle repelling wards were placed on the section of Antarctica where it’s located, a place the Muggles call Marie Byrd Land. As I understand it, the wards still hold today, and no Muggle nation has ever attempted to lay claim to Mary Byrd Land, though a few have explored parts of it. Certainly no Muggles have been able to breach the wards protecting the Ring.
"And to answer your last question, I’ve never laid eyes on it myself, though I admit I may have briefly considered applying for permission to use it, back when I first heard of its existence."
Harry tried to hide his disappointment, "So you have no proof that it actually exists or that it will do what you say?"
"No proof, no," confirmed Dumbledore, "The only records that exist regarding its use are Merlin's journals about it, but even they are vague. That’s why I'm baffled at the fact that I would have suggested using it, Harry. I may not have always been fully honest and open with you over the years, but I can think of no reason to give you false hope, at this juncture in time. Unless...” He paused as though reflecting, but didn’t elaborate.
“What?” Harry prompted.
“Perhaps the me you spoke to knew something that I don't—something that I didn't know before I died—that led him to believe the tale was worth mentioning..."
"So you think there might be a chance, then?" Harry asked.
"Yes, a chance," the portrait responded, delicately, "Though it certainly won't be easy."
Harry brightened, "And you'll help me?"
Dumbledore nodded, though he seemed reluctant to do so, repeating once more that Merlin’s Choice wasn’t a ritual to be undertaken lightly, and that the task that Harry planned to accomplish would not be an easy one. He went on to point out that even if Harry succeeded in convincing Merlin's Ring to grant him passage, he would still have to contend with reaching his destination naked and without a Knut to his name, as Merlin had on his arrival in Camelot. He wouldn't be able to take anything with him—not even his wand—for death's veil, through which he would pass it twice on his way to his destination, would strip him of all material goods.
"Although... perhaps...maybe... yes, almost definitely..." Dumbledore seemed to reconsider his previous statement, almost as soon as the words escaped his lips, but didn't explain.
"Maybe, what?" asked Harry, frustrated at how evasive and runabout Dumbledore had gone back to being in his explanations.
"The Hallows, if they truly are gifts from Death itself, might survive a trip through the veil between worlds. And since they seem to consider you their true Master for uniting them, they'll probably agree to follow you if you invite them along. Of course I offer no guarantees. But..."
"Your guesses have usually been good," completed Harry "How exactly do I 'invite' them along?"
"Just projecting your desire should suffice. Much like wands, when magical artefacts bond with a wizard or witch, they do not always need a clear command to react to his or her will. Perhaps you have already noticed as much about your cloak since it has been in your possession.
Harry thought back to the moment in Hogsmeade when the Cloak had kept him hidden, despite a Death Eater attempting to summon it from him. Perhaps it had been responding to his will, for it had responded perfectly well to his own attempt to summon it, mere hours later.
"So I should plan on bringing the Hallows with me, but have a contingency plan that does not rely on them, just in case?"
"Exactly, my boy, exactly," the older wizard responded. "Now I suggest that you start by reading Merlin's journals. Check my personal library; should be on the second bookcase to the left of the stairwell, third shelf from the bottom—unless Severus completely reorganized my reading material."
Harry crossed over to the bookshelf and found two aged leather volumes, exactly where the Headmaster had indicated. He held them up to the portrait for inspection, "These?"
"Yes, indeed. They might help you with formulating your plan, before you draft your letter to the International Confederation of Wizards. Oh, and you should probably research the time you're planning to travel to, current events, dates of attacks, dates of arrests... I suspect the Carrows may have destroyed any useful Daily Prophet articles in the library during their censorship sweep, but the originals are probably still on record at the Prophet's main offices— much harder to destroy, and not worth Voldemort's effort...
"Don't hesitate to return if you have any questions. I'm sure Minerva won't mind."
Harry turned back towards the stairwell, journals in hand. When he reached the stairs, he glanced back a final time and gave Dumbledore a half-smile, "Thanks, Headmaster, I will."