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Chapter Nineteen: The Absence of Alrister

By the end of Transfiguration on the next Monday, Harry's brain felt like a wrung sponge. They had been trying to turn coconuts into rabbits for some reason, and hardly anybody had anything that resembled a rabbit except Hermione, and even then, Professor McGonagall had given her a disappointed look and commented if she had wanted a hare, she would have asked for a hare. All in all, it was quite a relief to Harry when break came, and they all managed to head off to lunch.

As always, nobody really ate much. There had been no further outbreaks of Gryffindor or Slytherin Risotta, but most of Slytherin house was still in the hospital wing for food poisoning, and everybody was still very wary of the food. Anything that tasted even remotely odd was treated with the greatest suspicion, and if anybody got even a flicker of pain anywhere in their body after eating, a huge fuss was in order. Colin Creevey broke out in a rash after eating the fruit salad on Saturday night, and the whole of Gryffindor house was scared stiff until Colin came back from the hospital wing an hour later to announce he was just allergic to kiwi fruit.

After half a plate of pasta and a few breadsticks, Harry couldn't eat anymore, and neither could Ron. They both left the hall, pulling on their thick cloaks for warmth, heading out into the grounds for a walk. There was still quite a thick layer of snow under their feet, which crunched as they moved along, giving a nice rhythm for them to talk to.

"I don't believe I have to have Magical Creatures in this," said Ron, bitterly. "And Hagrid said we'd be doing something 'interestin' today, so it's probably going to be big, hairy and dangerous." He dug his hands into the pockets of his cloak, shivering. "I can't wait to get home for Christmas."

"Lucky you," said Harry.

"What's up with you?" said Ron.

"I was thinking about Christmas," Harry admitted. "And what I'm going to do. I mean... I've got Grimmauld Place now. I could go... well, home."

"You could come and stay with us," Ron offered.

Harry shook his head. "Nah. It's not that I really want to go home, as in, just sit in the dark at Grimmauld Place and be happy. I want to know what's going on. I don't know whether it's fallen into desrepair again, or whether the Order still use it or anything." He sighed. "I can't help but think that things have been too... safe. It's as though all the sinister stuff has just... I don't know, been shut out."

"What, you're worried about being safe and happy? Geez, Harry. I never thought you'd get You-Know-Who withdrawal symptoms."

Harry rubbed his head. "Neither did I. It's not that though. I can't help but think I'm being lulled into a false sense of security somehow. Last year, I was having pains in my scar all the time, nightmares, everything. All the time, I was worried about something. And now... it's like I'm in this little bubble of calm and everything's happy." He turned his face towards the ground. "The fact that Voldemort's not doing anything makes me more nervous than if he was."

Ron shrugged. "Go see Dumbledore or Lupin or somebody if you're worried. They might be able to give you some information on what's happening." He smiled slightly. "Or you could just be happy and accept that things are fine, like the rest of us. I know I'd prefer how things are now to having headaches all time."

Harry nodded slightly, though deep down, he couldn't help but feel still worried. His scar felt completely normal. So normal, in fact, that it was not normal - even though that didn't make sense. He decided he would take Ron's advice though, and go and see Professor Dumbledore or Lupin after school, just to calm his worries.

Ron said he had to get across the grounds to Magical Creatures then, so Harry said goodbye, and they parted company. Ron went off across the snowy grounds, his red hair making it look as though the snow was glowing orange, and Harry made his way back up to the school courtyard for his Pure Arts lesson to start. Today, they were doing more work on slightly less controlled raw magic. Last lesson, Alrister had set up huge piles of old papers and garbage for them to practice on at various distances, and at the end of the class, everybody had been absolutely delighted to see Alrister blow the lot up at once. Harry quite hoped he'd do it again, just for some excitement to his deadly dull day so far.

The courtyard was empty when Harry got there. Usually, Blaise Zabini would be lounging across one of the stone benches with Pansy hanging onto his arm and his bodyguards all clustered behind him, but he was still in the hospital wing with Draco and the rest of the Slytherin Risotta victims. Harry sat down to wait, feeling rather alone. Something was just wrong with today. He had an odd feeling somewhere in the pit of his stomach. For a while, he'd wondered whether the Risotta had got him, but it wasn't a feeling of pain or sickness. It was a strange feeling of paranoia, not that he was being watched, but somebody else near him was, and he'd had it all day. Snape had shot him a few suspicious looks during breakfast, but Harry didn't think that Snape was really the person to go to when he was a weird feeling. Who did he have to confide in? He'd always written to Sirius, but now, there was nobody he could tell without worrying them sick.

Gradually, more people drifted into the courtyard, and dead on time, when the bell rung for afternoon lessons to start, Alrister swept out into the courtyard in a fur-lined black cloak. "Afternoon everyone. Are we all here? Minus the Slytherins of course." Everybody nodded. "Excellent. Follow me then."

The class trooped out of the courtyard after their professor. Alrister lead them across the grounds, passed the lake, and a few minutes later they stopped just at the edge of the forest.

"Right then - can you all hear me? All see me? Good." He gestured into the darkness of the trees. "If you look through the trees, quite some way in, I've set up several targets. Can everybody see that?"

Harry squinted through the blackness, and after a moment or so, his eyes adjusted enough to be able to see large white spots charmed onto the trees, glowing a silvery grey in the dark.

"Those trees have recently died, and I thought that to help with our work and to also do a favour for the headmaster, we would destroy them. However, and I want to make this absolutely and utterly clear. NOBODY is to go a step into the forest, not even one, not even leaning just a teensy little bit past the first tree, nothing. Are we quite clear?"

Everybody nodded solmenly.

"Good," said Alrister. "Now, behind you is another pile of old papers and tests, you can practice on that if you need to. Once you feel ready, start aiming for the targets. Any problems? No? Off you go then!"

Harry wriggled his fingers a little, getting them ready, and unlike most of the class, he decided to go straight for the trees. It was so dark within the forest, he could hardly make out the targets. For a moment, he wished he'd already done his Charms homework ("Research and write an essay about Sense-Heightening Charms"), but seeing as though it wouldn't help him now, he stretched out his fingers, concentrating hard on the target and the feeling of excitement he got at the thought of the approaching Quidditch match...

But nothing happened.

He screwed up his eyes, his fingers stretched to the absolute limit, but there was nothing, not even a spark.

"Come on... oh, come on..." he muttered, his arms shaking from trying so hard. "Please..."

Still, nothing happened. Alrister seemed to have noticed he wasn't getting on very well, and so left Justin Finch-Fletchley with the paper pile and hurried over. "Something wrong, Harry?"

"It won't work," Harry said, dejectedly, staring down at his fingers. "I can't do it."

Alrister took his arm, pulling up the sleeve of his robes and studying his wrist for a moment. He laid his fingers there and thought, then said, "Harry, Harry. Another block."

"Sorry," said Harry, looking down at his feet.

"Nothing to be sorry about... you just need to calm down a little. All this frustration isn't good for you, you know." Alrister gave him a rather paternal smile. "What's bothering you today?"

"Just... everything," said Harry, quietly, still looking at his feet. "It's kinda hard to explain..."

"I've got time," said Alrister. "And you have too. Tell me what's the matter." He snapped his fingers, conjuring two chairs. Harry sunk gratefully into one of them, his wrist still extended as Alrister studied it.

"It's... I'm safe."

Alrister looked up at him. "And you're not pleased?"

"I'm too safe," said Harry, quietly. "I've... I've had a weird feeling all day. Like things are getting too good for me. I haven't had any pain in my scar at all, and I got it all the time last year. It's like... I'm being tricked into a false sense of security." He shook his head. "I can't explain it."

Alrister patted his shoulder consolingly. "I can understand that, Harry. No matter, we'll just shift this block and get you blowing things up again in no time, hmm?"

Harry tried a weak smile, which came out as more of a grimace.

"So you're worried that you've had no news of what Voldemort's up to," said Alrister. Harry nodded - that was basically what was worrying. "Well... I can't really give you much information on that, Harry. I'm not exactly an active Voldemort Enthusiast. However, if I'm not mistaken, Professors Lupin and Snape are part of that... Order that Dumbledore has. Order of the Falcon."

"Order of the Phoenix," Harry corrected.

Alrister smiled. "Yes, yes, I was thinking that. I'm not a member and I try not to have anything to do with it. But Lupin and Snape do, as far as I know. You should talk to them. If I might make a suggestion, Lupin could well be a... friendlier person to talk to." He smirked slightly as he lightly ran his fingers in a circle over Harry's wrist.

Harry watched him for a moment, and then said in a quiet voice that was still slightly confused, "Why aren't you in the Order?"

"I distance myself from anything and everything to do with the Dark Lord, Harry," said Alrister, sagely. "Before you deem me a coward, I would like you to know that... events in my past have given me a far greater fear of Voldemort than a lot of people. I prefer to have nothing to do with him at all. Sometimes facing our fears for no reason other than to prove we can proves nothing but that we are fools."

The lesson didn't improve after that. Even though Harry tried his hardest to be calm and let go of his worries, he just couldn't, and he didn't produce even a spark throughout the entire class. The more he failed, the more frustrated he got, and by the time the end bell went, he was in a foul mood. Ron wasn't helping either by bragging over and over about how little effort it took to set fire to one of the targets. All Harry wanted to do now was go up to Gryffindor Tower and beat his head against a wall, but as the class filed out, Alrister called his name from the other side of the class.

"Harry! Come and see me for a second please."

He wandered over idly, standing with his hands in his pockets. Alrister was distractedly sending fireballs through the trees, finishing off the class's work, not even paying attention to what he was doing.

"Still no luck, Harry?" he said.

Harry shook his head. "No, Sir..."

"Hmm... I think we're going to have to shift that block somehow. Don't want it to get any worse." There was a whoosh of flames as another fireball melted out of his hand and went shooting off through the trees. "Come down to my office right after dinner, and - "

"I can't," said Harry. "I've got occ- remedial potions."

"Ah, shame... how long will that last for?"

"Quite a while... it depends... sometimes three or four hours..." He idly pressed his footprint into the smooth clean snow. "I could come to your office afterwards though."

Alrister nodded. "Yes, I think that would be best. We'll get rid of that blockage then. Off you go up to school, it's getting cold and your friends will be waiting for you."

"Alright," said Harry. "See you tonight, Sir."

"See you, Harry. Enjoy your remedial potions."

Harry snorted.

"What was that, Harry?"

"Nothing, Sir, I sneezed."

He glanced over his shoulder and saw that Alrister was beaming from ear to ear. "I'm sure you did, Harry. I'm sure you did."

"Something wrong with you today, hmm, Potter?"

Harry glanced up wearily, his head still lying on Snape's desk. For some reason, he just couldn't summon the energy to stop the professor getting right into his mind. So far, Snape had forced him to relieve four of Aunt Marge's visits, being told by the sorting hat that he would be good in Slytherin, and then nearly drowning in the second task last year.

"No," he said, glumly.

Snape gave a disdainful snort. "You really are the most terrible liar."

Harry was dying to say that Snape was the most terrible nosy git, but thought better of it, averting his eyes to the desk again. "I can't concentrate."

"I could have guessed that myself." Snape sat down in the chair before his desk, idly setting down his wand. "Well?"

"Well what?" said Harry, quickly adding, "Sir," as the Potions master's eyes flashed.

"Well why can't you concentrate, precisely?"

"I got a block in Pure Arts," said Harry, vaguely. "And I'm worried about Quidditch. And Grimmauld Place. And the Order. And Voldemort. And I have a Potions exam tomorrow that I'm going to fail, so you might as well just give me a T anyway."

"Let's start at the beginning," said Snape, lazily. "A block in Pure Arts. Potter, you have a wand, you do not need to know how to set things on fire that badly. Secondly, I do not care for Quidditch, if I were you, I'd forget all about it and just not play it. Grimmauld Place. Why on earth anybody in the right mind would worry about that ramshackle old house is beyond me."

"I don't know what's going on there though," said Harry. "It's my house. Is the Order still using it? And what's happening with the Order? What's Voldemort doing? What was the point in all the castle defences? Nothing's happening. And what was all the fuss about the Heliopaths?"

"Potter, stop. One question at a time. You're talking faster than I can think." Harry fell silent, and Snape said, "Thankyou. Yes, the Order is still using Grimmauld Place but only for meetings that are too well-attended to fit in the headmaster's office. I believe that Molly Weasley and Nymphadora Tonks go in to clean every few weeks. At the moment, the Order, to my knowledge, is simply gathering information and preparing the wizarding world for any possible attacks from the Dark Lord."

"What's Voldemort doing then?" said Harry, limiting himself to one question this time.

Snape considered him for a moment. "That, Potter, is classified information."

"Oh, come on," said Harry. "So I'm not allowed to know what the guy who cannot survive as long as I'm living is up to? I deserve to know, don't I?"

"It is not a question of whether you deserve to know," said Snape, silkily. "It is a question of how much you would stay quiet about. Believe it or not I was sixteen once myself and I know very well that everything I tell you is more than likely splashed about the Gryffindor common room that night."

Harry shook his head vigorously. "No, it isn't. I haven't told anybody about the guardian thing, I haven't told anybody about the Gryffindor Risotta stuff, I haven't told them about the butterfingers hex, or anything I've seen in your pensieve or anything."

Snape scanned his eyes for a moment. Harry looked back, defiantly, letting Snape see that he most definitely was not lying. The Potions master thought, then said, "My inability to catch is nothing compared to the activies of the Dark Lord."

"Maybe so," said Harry. "But I know that Ron would rather hear about you being humiliated than what Voldemort's doing. If I wanted something to tell my friends, I've already got it. I'm not asking for gossip. I'm asking because I'm worried."

Snape looked directly at Harry, considering him and his arguments. Harry didn't know whether it was because of the guardian bond or because of other things, but he could tell what Snape was asking inside his head. "You can trust me," he said.

Snape drummed his fingers idly on the desk for a moment or so, then said, "Planning."

"Planning what?"

"Planning his conquer of the world around us as we know it. He has no short term goals anymore. He only knows his long term outcome and vague ideas of how to get there."

It was very odd to hear Snape talk about Voldemort as though he was a person rather than an evil force. Most people spoke about him as though he was something far darker and more terrible than anything human.

"What does he want?" said Harry, with wide-eyes. "What's his long term goal? To... to take over the world?"

Snape snorted softly. "Nothing quite so cliched... power, Potter. Total and never ceasing power. He wants to break out of the label of human and rise to something far greater."

"Like... a God..."

"More than that." Snape searched Harry's face for a moment. "To the Dark Lord, power makes us who we are. There are muggles - the lowest form of life in his eyes. They have to do everything themselves, they work for everything they need and desire. He sees them as little more than insects. Beings driven to acquire what they need, but never able to get it without pain and suffering. Then there are wizards. Though even we can only do so much. Magic has its boundaries. He has a fascination with the Pure Arts and how much more powerful the masters of the subject are than the common wizard. His powers rival Dumbledore's, and I have seen this for myself. For a while, when he was still more or less human, he tried to form a new brand of magic. God-like powers. He imagined a race of pureblooded creatures, the perfect race, stronger than any human had ever been before, with him at the head, the greatest of them all. Though he knew to accomplice this would take him beyond the lifespan of even wizards. He would need thousands of years. And so he started on immortality. That's where he is now, Potter, and he's looking for the next step to becoming the most powerful creature ever to walk this earth."

Harry took a few moments to let all this sink in, and when it more or less had, he said, quietly, "So... he's not going to attack... because he's busy. Like a research period."

"Indeed," said Snape. "Nobody is quite sure when he will decide to take action once more. He sees no reason to attack the wizardin world except to cause fear. Deaths to him are pointless."

"So... what's he researching now?" said Harry, quietly, as though Voldemort could hear them talking.

Snape toyed with the information for a moment, then replied in just as quiet a voice. "There are various beings in the magical world aside from wizards. Mermaid, centaur, werewolf, ghost... his current fascination is in two of the most feared beings. Vampires and necromancers. True vampires with no human influence in their blood lines are immortal, and necromancers have the natural ability to revive a corpse to some extent. The person revived is never anything like their living self. They have no memories, no thoughts, no emotions - just a body, running by its own accord. The Dark Lord's current project is to create a half-vampire, half-necromancer he can teach the Pure Arts too. As close to perfection as he can get at this stage. I believe that is what is keeping him... occupied."

Snape looked up into Harry's face, directly, as though looking not at him but right inside him, down to the mind. "Though it is only so long before he gets bored, Potter. Imagine a muggle dog with a chewtoy. Sooner or later, the chewtoy loses its novelty and the dog has nothing to do but... destroy the furniture." His black eyes were lit by a shower of dark sparks for a moment.

Harry looked down at the floor for a moment, and then Snape said, lazily, "We shall continue tomorrow night, Potter. I expect you to try harder."

Feeling rather numb, Harry nodded, getting to his feet and picking up his bag. "Thanks, Professor."

"Try not to dwell on the information too much, Potter." Snape's eyes flashed again. "You wouldn't want that block to become permanent."

Harry opened the door and slipped out into the dark corridor. His mind was buzzing with all this information, though strangely, it was an odd comfort to him to know what was happening and that they weren't under immediate danger. At least he knew now... even though he got a horrible thrill of fear when he realised it was only so long before Voldemort's distraction ran out and he needed entertainment again. He remembered what Snape said - "To the Dark Lord, power makes us who we are". And then he remembered from his first year, when he had faced Lord Voldemort, and the words he had spoken were all too clear in Harry's mind - "there is only power, and those too weak to seek it".

He was still deep in thought when he knocked on the door to Alrister's office, only awoken from his memories by Alrister's call of, "Come in, Harry".

He pushed open the door carefully. The whole room was rather murky, lit only by a single candle on Alrister's desk, flickering gently in the darkness. The Pure Arts master was sitting between his desk, eyes closed, his tunic rolled up to his elbows to expose his wrists.

"Take a seat," he said, without opening his eyes.

Harry put his bag down carefully by the door, and slipped into one of the chairs in front of Alrister's desk, trying to be as quiet as he could. He could see the candlelight swimming lazily across the gold chain around the professor's neck, somehow fascinating him.

"How was your remedial potions?" Alrister asked. His voice was oddly calm and quiet.

"Good," said Harry. "Professor Snape talked to me about the Order."

"Marvellous," Alrister replied, his voice still soft and calm. Harry had no idea how he managed to stay awake with his eyes closed, looking so serenely relaxed. "I consulted Professor Dumbledore about your predicament."

"What did he say?" said Harry.

"He recommended that I transfer a little of my own magic to you." Alrister took a deep breath, inhaling the glittering amber coloured smoke from the candle before him. "This should help give your body the boost to remove the blockage naturally."

Harry took a tentative breath in. The smoke wafted dreamily into his face, down into his lungs, giving him a sudden great feeling of peace and tranquility. A hint of a smile curled Alrister's lips.

"Try not to take in too much of that," he said, quietly. "It's powerful stuff."

"What is it?" Harry asked, leaning back away from the worst of the smoke.

"A serenity flame," Alrister replied, dreamily. "I have to spend some time with them quite often to prevent my magic getting out of hand. However... to business, Harry." He opened his eyes, and Harry saw that instead of their usual deep brown, they had changed colour to a bright, liquid bronze, glimmering in the candlelight. He suddenly looked a great deal like Cupid. "Transferring magic from one wizard to another is a relatively harm-free process, though it takes a lot of well controlled raw magic... far more than most wizards could ever conjure... however, without meaning to sound big-headed, I think with a little extra effort we should be able to do this fairly easily..."

Harry nodded, leaning back a little more as a whisp of smoke tickled gently at his nose, beckoning to him to come closer. Alrister smiled again, moving the candle gently across the desk, away from them. In the corner, Cupid the hawk fluttered gently on his perch, sending great black shadows flapping across the walls.

"Hold your wrist towards the far wall, Harry," said Alrister. "Once enough magic has gotten to your body to remove the blockage, we're likely to get some... explosive effects."

Harry did as he was told, making sure to angle his fingers away from anything that looked expensive or flammable. Alrister laid his fingers calmly over the pulse point, closing his eyes again, biting his lip. Harry could almost see his mind working, as his breathing started to increase in pace, his chest rising and falling. A single amber spark jumped from Alrister's fingers into Harry's wrist, and he couldn't help but jump slightly as it zipped inside him.

"Relax, Harry..." said Alrister, calmly, swallowing. His face fell into a frown, his breath shallowing, fingers shaking ever so slightly on Harry's wrist. Another spark jumped out with a crackle, then another, followed by a third and then a gentle shower of bronze sparkles. Harry's hand shuddered, feeling as though a shiver had shot all the way from his wrist up his arm and down his spine.

Alrister's face tightened, and almost all of him was shaking by this point, sprinkle after sprinkle of sparks and stars fluttering into Harry's wrist. Harry's skin was prickling and buzzing, his wrist starting to shudder violently of its own accord, and then he felt something seemingly inside his arm just give way. There was a huge bang and fire rushed from his fingertips, blooming into a huge sphere of fire the size of a cannonball that went speeding towards the wall. There was another bang, a roar and the flames sunk into the wall, spreading outwards to create a huge burn that nearly covered the whole surface from ceiling to floor.

Harry felt a surge of horror. "I'm sorry! Professor, really, I didn't mean to - "

"That's alright, Harry," said Professor Alrister's voice.

There was an odd note in his voice that made Harry stop in his gabbled apologies, turning around to look at the professor - and to Harry's surprise, he saw tears trickling slowly down Alrister's face.

"Professor...?" he said, uncertainly.

"It's okay, Harry, I'm okay," said Alrister, getting to his feet and turning away to grip the window ledge. He was still shaking slightly.

Harry stood up, worriedly, and said, "Did something go wrong...?"

"No," said Alrister. "No, it went fine... I expected this... damn it all..." He wiped his eyes hastily with the back of his hand. "Memories for the raw magic. Don't ask me, Harry. Just don't."

Harry sat down again, feeling incredibly guilty now, frightened there was something wrong. He took out his wand, muttered a charm Hermione had taught him and watched the burn vanish slowly, leaving the wall just as it was.

"Thankyou," said Alrister, softly. Harry could still hear the tears in his voice.

"Look, Professor, I - "

He never finished his sentence, for at that precise moment, the door opened behind him. He turned around, and came face-to-face with Albus Dumbledore. Harry opened his mouth to greet the headmaster, but he hadn't even started to speak when -

Harry bolted up in bed with a gasp of panic. There was sweat on his face again. He looked around the darkened room - he was in his dormitory, fully-clothed under the covers, his wand still in his hand... but he couldn't remember what had happened at all.

He put his hands over his face, thinking desperately. He remembered getting the magic from Alrister, creating the fireball, saw tears on Alrister's face, fixed the burn and then... Dumbledore came in. And after that, he couldn't remember a single thing. He didn't know how he'd left Alrister's office, how he'd gotten back to Gryffindor Tower... nothing.

"Ron?" he said, uncertainly. "Dean? Neville? Seamus?"

They were all asleep in their beds. He could hear Neville snorting softly. Harry found he was shaking with fright by this point. He looked at Ron's sleeping face for a moment, wondering whether he dared wake his cousin up...

He had to know.

He got out of bed, crept over and touched Ron tentatively on the shoulder, shaking him gently. "Ron," he hissed. "Ron."

"Gerroff," came the sleepy reply. "Don't... g'way..."

"Ron, wake up," Harry repeated, firmly, shaking him again.

"G'way 'arry... gerroff me..."

Harry gave him another good shake, and Ron groaned, trying to swat him away.

"Wassamatter?" he said, vaguely, rubbing his eyes.

"What happened after I got back from seeing Alrister?"

Ron frowned sleepily. "Dunno... you got back really late... just walked in and said you were tired and went to bed... why... what's up?"

"I don't remember anything," said Harry.

Ron rolled over, squinting up at him in a very suspicious way. "What?"

"I went to my remedial potions class, then to see Alrister. And he fixed my block, then Dumbledore came in... and I can't remember anything." Harry could feel his fingers shaking, still gripping Ron's shoulder. "Did I say anything else when I walked in? Anything at all?"

Ron shook his head, rubbing his eyes. "No... go and see Dumbledore, I guess... ask what happened..." His weary gaze flickered onto something over Harry's shoulder, and he frowned, rubbing his eyes. "What's that?"

Harry glanced around. Cupid the hawk was holding onto one of the poles of his bed, and tied around his neck was a letter. He gave a soft 'fweeeeeee' of greeting, then fluttered over, landing on Harry's shoulder and nuzzling his temple affectionately.

Harry sat down on Ron's bed, taking the letter from the ribbon around Cupid's neck and easing it open, reaching over to turn on the bedside lamp next to Ron. They both leant in to read the delicate inked handwriting.

Dear Harry - look after Cupid for me. I'm sorry. Professor R D Alrister.

Ron frowned, rubbing his forehead. "What's he sorry for?"

Harry shook his head. "I don't know... I don't like this. I don't like this at all. Why can't I remember what happened? It's just... blank, it's just nothing. Anything could have happened at all."

Cupd trilled softly and nuzzled against his temple again, his claws squeezing gently for a moment. Harry reached up, stroking the little bird's feathery chest gently, trying to calm the rising feeling of panic within him.

"Do you think he's alright?" said Harry, nervously, biting his lip. There was no answer from Ron. He glanced down, and saw that his cousin was fast asleep again. Harry didn't want to wake him up. There would be time for this in the morning.

He changed quickly, slid into bed, and sat back, holding Alrister's letter in his hands. Cupid was still perched gently on his shoulder. Wishing he understood, wishing he knew what had happened in the hours he lost, he placed Cupid gently on the perch he usually left for Hedwig, then laid down, closed his eyes, and tried to sleep. It took him hours to finally drift off, and when he did, his slumber was troubled and full of nightmares that when he woke in the morning, he couldn't remember.

When Harry walked in through the doors of the Great Hall at breakfast the next day, there weren't many people around. He'd woken in a cold sweat again, tried to sleep, and found he couldn't. He'd dressed and then, accompanied by Cupid, made his way down to breakfast without waking Ron. Every person turned around to look at him as he walked in, with the little hawk perched on his shoulder, though he tried to ignore them as he went to the Gryffindor Table and sat down. Cupid hopped off and sat on the rim of the pumpkin juice jug, dipping his head to drink noisily from the bright orange liquid.

Harry watched him silently, wondering what Cupid knew. He must have seen everything that happened.

"If only you could talk..." he murmured, reaching out to pet the hawk's neck gently. Cupid sat up from the jug, gave a small burp and settled back on his shoulder like a parrot.

Gradually, more people came into the hall. Harry kept a close eye on the staff table, and everytime the door opened, his heart jumped, hoping it was Alrister who would come over and explain everything. But it never was. Eventually, everybody was in the hall apart from the Pure Arts professor. Dumbledore didn't seem to wait for Alrister. He clapped his hands, and the tables filled with the usual breakfast cuisine. Everybody tucked in, except Harry. He didn't feel like eating.

Alrister didn't appear at all through breakfast, and Harry took the long way round to Potions so that he passed his office. The door was locked. Nobody answered when he knocked.

When he finally slumped down to Potions, knocked on the door and entered, his new hawk still perched pleasantly on his shoulder, Snape looked up suddenly. Harry could have sworn he looked relieved, though the Potions master's tone didn't show it.

"Potter! Where in the name of Salazar Slytherin have you been? This class started ten minutes ago!"

"Sorry," he said. "Got caught up in the traffic."

"Five points from Gryffindor. Sit down, get out your ingredients and hurry up. Do not be late again." He sat back in his chair again, picking up the next essay on his To Mark pile, and then added as an afterthought, "In fact, Potter, see me after the lesson."

Harry glanced up. Snape looked back at him for a moment, nodded ever so slightly and started to mark again.

Harry's potion did not go well. He was so preoccupied with thoughts about Alrister that he just couldn't concentrate, no matter what he did, and when he was finally finished, he took a sample jar from the side and put it on Snape's desk, blissfully oblivious to the fact that everybody else's was green, and his was a cheerful shade of red. Snape frowned. "Potter, is that what you call bright green?"

Harry looked at his feet. "Sorry, Professor."

Snape glanced around at the rest of the group, called, "Class dismissed!", and then turned his attention back to Harry as they all filed out. "What the devil is wrong with you today?"

"I... couldn't sleep last night," Harry said. He knew this was a pretty lame excuse, but didn't feel like revealing he had lost a chunk of his day. "Professor?"

"Mmm, Potter?" Snape said, vaguely, as he emptied Harry's potion into the drain.

"Do you know where Professor Alrister is?" Harry asked.

Snape looked up at the hopeful note in his voice. "Nobody does, Potter."

"But... what's happened to him? Where is he?"

Snape continued to sort through the jars absent-mindedly, jotting down grades in his notebook, speaking in a very casual tone. "Alrister has been linked with prominent members of the Dark Lord's forces. He hasn't been seen since yesterday evening."

Harry's eyes widened. "He's been linked with the Death Eaters?"

Snape nodded. "He disappeared at some time yesterday between the hours of eight o' clock and midnight. His office was found practically empty - it appears he had time to pack." He glanced up disapprovingly at the little hawk warbling merrily on Harry's shoulder. "His hawk wasn't found, though I suppose it has been now. Where did you get that, Potter?"

Harry searched in his pockets for a moment, then handed the letter to Snape. "He came to my dormitory last night with this on a ribbon round his neck."

Snape took the letter disdainfully, reading through it, then droning, "Hmm... well, Potter, I daresay somebody will have more news for you in a few days. Whether it is me, the headmaster or the Daily Prophet remains to be seen. Now hurry up, you'll be late for your next class as well."

"Okay. Thanks, Professor." Cupid copied him with a cheery 'fwee' of goodbye for Snape, then together, they left the cold dungeon classroom into the hustle and bustle of the school. Even though Harry knew there was no chance of seeing anything, he couldn't help but scan the corridors for any sign of a tall man in pirate-style clothes. If he'd been looking properly, he would have noticed that the hawk on his shoulder was too.


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