Alexandra had been here before. The cold, the darkness, the whispering that always seemed to come from right behind her no matter which way she turned. She was in the Lands Beyond.
This time, however, she was not riding a Thestral and she was not carrying an obol. She clutched the silver thread like the lifeline it was, and willed herself forward. The silver thread was her tether to Anna, and both their tethers back to the land of the living. Warmth and life flowed through the silver thread, and she knew if she let go even for an instant, she would be lost forever.
Don't let go, Anna, she thought. She pleaded with Magnificent and Awesome not to let go either. Her life was literally in their hands. And the Governor-General was sitting there, watching them. Probably with Richard Raspire. Alexandra had no doubt they could make the two Radicalists let go of the silver thread. No one could do anything about it. She could only hope they wouldn't do it in front of so many witnesses.
She couldn't see any of the golden threads tethering the other champions' companions. She supposed once she was through the Veil, physical proximity was meaningless. Everyone else could be across the world, across the universe, as far as she and Anna were concerned.
The whispering increased in volume. Faces took shape in the blackness, faces with only darkness where their mouths and eyes should be. They swirled around her and seemed to be sneering, howling, trying to get at her yet unable to touch her. They were skins without flesh behind them, hostile and empty, terrifying in their unlife.
"Chindi," Alexandra said, horrified. She had seen these malevolent spirits before, unleashed at Charmbridge Academy. She knew Banishing Spells, but they were in the Lands Beyond now — where could she banish them to?
They drifted around her, radiating malice, but they didn't touch her. She could feel their envy and anger, their desire to take from her the one thing she had that they did not — life. She felt her courage failing.
Though all her previous efforts to cast a Patronus Charm had failed, she raised her wand, tried to focus on a happy memory — her and Anna, at Charmbridge — and said, "Expecto Patronum!"
A wisp of silver smoke curled around the tip of her wand. The chindi continued circling around her, as if mocking her effort.
Seemingly, they couldn't harm her, but her presence was an affront to them, and their presence was a constant reminder that there was nothing between them but a silver thread. The more they howled and whispered, the more she felt as if she belonged with them.
"Anna," Alexandra said, and willed herself onward, through the endless void. The silver thread spun off into infinity, and Alexandra had little sense of movement, yet she left chindi moaning behind her, while more of them gaped and glowered and flew into her path, reaching out with hands that never quite touched her. There was no need for her to pull herself along the line — for the living, thoughts were actions in the Lands Beyond.
A luminescent figure appeared ahead of her in the darkness; not a featureless shadow like the chindi, but a more familiar spirit, glowing with the pale, ghostly reflection of life.
"You've made a mess of things again, I see," said the ghost.
Alexandra almost let go of the silver thread as she recoiled from the figure in front of her.
"You," she said.
"Why do you look so surprised?" asked Darla Dearborn.
Darla was still fourteen. She was still dressed in the robes she'd worn when she'd stepped through the Veil into the Lands Beyond, two years earlier. She regarded Alexandra with that familiar, condescending haughtiness.
"Are you here to help me?" Alexandra asked.
"You don't need my help," Darla said. "Just follow the silver thread. That's why you're here, right? To save Anna?" She laughed coldly.
"Yes," Alexandra said. "Why are you here, then?"
Darla's eyes flashed white, and then turned black. "Because I have no choice!" she said angrily. "I'm here because of you!"
Alexandra shivered as she held onto the silver thread. "You're here because of the choices you made."
"You're wrong, Alexandra. I died because of the choices I made. I'm trapped here because of the choices you made."
"What choices? You sent yourself to the Lands Beyond!" Alexandra didn't even know why she was arguing. There was nothing she could do for Darla, and evidently nothing Darla could do for her. "I'm sorry, Darla. I really am. I didn't want you to die. I tried to save you."
Darla smiled. It was the coldest, cruelest smile Alexandra had ever seen on the face of her former frenemy. "Oh, Alexandra," she said. "You'll never save anyone."
Like dissipating mist, Darla dissolved into the darkness and was gone.
Alexandra blinked back tears, and clenched her teeth. The chindi were whispering at her again, but she forced herself onward, squeezing her eyes to narrow slits so that all she could see was the glow of the silver thread. If the evil spirits couldn't hurt her, then there was no need for her to pay attention to them. Maybe that was true of Darla as well. For all she knew, that hadn't been Darla at all.
When she saw a soft, silver glow ahead, brighter than the dim aura around herself, she thought it might be another ghost. Or perhaps Darla again, or the thing that had pretended to be Darla. But this glow was at the end of the silver thread.
Anna floated in darkness, curled up into a ball. Her cloak hung around her, moving slightly in an invisible ghostly wind.
"Anna," Alexandra said.
Anna looked up. Her face was silver, aglow. Her entire form was a ghostly silver aura. It was beautiful and terrifying, and Alexandra knew she probably looked the same to Anna.
"I was alive, and then I wasn't," Anna said in a small voice.
"You're still alive," Alexandra said. This wasn't the time or place to explain what had happened. She took Anna into her arms. "Anna, I know you're mad at me. I know I hurt you, and you can say anything you want to me when we get back. I deserve it. But please, put your arms around me now."
Anna did. She pressed her face against Alexandra's shoulder. "What's happening, Alex? Are we dead? Please don't lie. I'd rather know the truth."
"We're not dead. I came to get you."
"You came to get me." Anna held onto her tighter.
"Of course I did. I'll always come for you, Anna. No matter what happens, I will find you."
"What happens now?" Anna asked.
"Now we go back."
Alexandra concentrated on Magnificent and Awesome at the other end of the silver thread. It wasn't like she could tug on the line and signal them to pull her back. All she could do was try to will herself back the same way she'd willed herself here. With barely any sense of motion, she couldn't even be sure they were actually traveling anywhere. They were suspended in an infinite darkness, filled with other lost souls.
Alexandra and Anna held onto each other for a very long time. Or maybe it was a short time. Alexandra knew from her last journey into the Lands Beyond that time and distance weren't the same here. She might pop back out of the void a moment after they'd left. Or maybe hours later. Would Magnificent and Awesome wait that long? Would Professor Haster and the wizards from the Research Office, and the Governor-General, let them?
"Those voices," Anna moaned, as the whispers became almost deafening around them. "It's like there are people here, but I can't see them, but they're just behind me and I can't quite understand what they're saying but I know they're saying terrible things —"
"Shh," Alexandra said. Perhaps what Anna saw and heard wasn't the same thing as what she did. But Anna seemed on the verge of panicking, and Alexandra was afraid she might let go if she did. "It's all right. They can't hurt you. I promise. Keep your eyes shut, and hold onto me."
Anna shivered, and did as she was told. She clung to Alexandra like she was clinging to life itself.
Surrounded by baleful wraiths who wanted only for the living souls to join them, Alexandra felt her hope and courage slowly ebbing. It was impossible to tell whether they were actually approaching the end of their journey. Or whether there was an end to their journey. They seemed fated to endure an eternity of torment from the angry spirits.
Alexandra didn't know if Anna would hold onto her forever, or if she could hold onto the silver thread forever. But either they would both come back, or neither of them would.
Light exploded against her eyes. She and Anna both cried out, in joy and shock, as they fell to the wooden stage. Magnificent caught Alexandra and helped her up. Someone else was helping Anna stand.
"That was righteous!" Magnificent said.
"You were fabulous!" said Awesome.
"Thank you," Alexandra said. "Thank you both." She looked around.
All of the champions stood in a circle around the Veil. They were all staring at her, along with their companions. Everyone must have made it back, having solved whatever puzzles they'd been given, unlocking the Mysteries designed for them. Some looked shaken, and the champions from Columbia Territory, Baja, and Texarcana were shame-faced. But everyone was back.
No, not everyone. Alexandra looked across the stage, and saw Larry, looking bleak and stricken.
"Where's Adela?" she asked.
As the contestants all looked over at the Central Territory champion, an argument broke out between several of the Analysts and the wizard in brown and gray robes who'd been carrying the stone tablet.
"There's nothing I can do about it," said the wizard with the tablet.
"You and your infernal accounting," said one of the Analysts. "You've completely ruined the experiment!"
"I didn't ruin it. Someone else's meddling…" The wizard looked up and pointed in Alexandra's direction. "A thread was severed. Magic abhors an imbalance. Therefore—"
Richard Raspire stalked quietly over to the squabbling wizards and spoke in a low voice. Whatever he said silenced them immediately.
Alexandra shook off the congratulatory hands of Magnificent and Albert-Louis and Vanessa, and gently disengaged from Anna. She walked around the circle of darkness to where Larry stood alone.
"I had her," he said numbly. "She was arguing with me, like she always does, and then she threw her damn ring at me. I told her to stop acting like a child, and that's when the golden thread disappeared."
Silver will save her, Alexandra thought. "You have something that belongs to Adela?"
Larry stopped rambling, and his eyes gained focus. "What?"
"Something of hers. A ring? Something with feelings."
"Feelings?" Larry blinked. Then he reached into a pocket of his robes and pulled out a silver ring. "She definitely has feelings about this."
Alexandra stared at the ring, then at Larry. "You and Adela were engaged?"
Larry sighed. "For a few months. We were fourteen. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My father convinced me I was being an idiot, but her family —"
"Never mind." Alexandra snatched the ring from him. "Do you want to save her?"
Larry opened his mouth, then nodded.
"Even if it's dangerous, and you could die too?"
Larry closed his mouth, and gave Alexandra a long look. "Like you did for Chu, you mean?"
"Yes. Like that."
He managed a small smile. "If you can do it, I can."
"Forget about me. This isn't about your ego. If you don't care about her — I mean, really care about her — it won't work and you'll both be lost. Any feelings you still have for her, they have to be real." Alexandra held up the ring. "Does she still feel anything for you?"
Larry swallowed. "I'm not still in love with her," he said. "But I guess I care. Yes. And she definitely has feelings. A lot of them. Angry ones, mostly…"
Alexandra grabbed Larry's hand, pressed the ring into it, and closed his silver fingers around it.
"Focus on those feelings," she said. "This is your connection to her. You're going to go through the Veil, following the silver thread that will lead you to Adela, and you're going to bring her back."
Larry was silent. Alexandra raised her wand, took a deep breath, and pressed one hand over Larry's clenched fist, holding her wand over it with the other. Around her, the other champions were gathering. They had circled around the Veil, and listened quietly as she spoke to Larry.
"Cast the ring through the Veil," she said. "Go ahead."
Larry held up the ring and looked around, as if hoping someone would stop him, or intervene, or explain that this was all just an experiment, a test. But even the judges and the Analysts were silently watching.
He tossed the ring into the darkness. It fell, and fell, and behind it trailed a silver thread. Larry clutched at it.
"Follow that thread to Adela," Alexandra said. "Don't let go of it, no matter what. Don't let Adela let go of you, no matter how angry or scared she is. You'll see things. Spirits of the dead, maybe ghosts you know, maybe just phantoms. They want to get at you, and they'll be frightening, but as long as you don't let go of the thread, they can't hurt you. Make sure Adela understands that too."
"How do I get back?" Larry asked.
Alexandra took her hand away from Larry's. She had fashioned a silver thread the same color as the metal of his fingers, and she held it in her hand.
"You follow this thread." She looked right and left. "I need help."
Anna reached for Alexandra's hand. Magnificent took Alexandra's other hand, the one holding her wand, and closed his fingers around hers. Awesome took Magnificent's other hand.
Vanessa and her boyfriend looked at each other. Then Vanessa took Anna's hand, and held her boyfriend's hand. "I don't understand this spell," Vanessa said.
"It's not Dark, but it's not Light either," said Albert-Louis. He and his sister linked hands. "What you're about to attempt is madness."
"But she already did it once," said Anna.
One by one, all of the champions and their companions joined hands. Even Hela Punuk and the ancient woman who looked like her grandmother. Offstage, Professor Haster and the judges watched with astonishment.
Governor-General Hucksteen just sat in his seat and stared, expressionlessly, his beady eyes sunken into the fleshy folds of his face.
"Well, you've got more help than I got," Alexandra said to Larry. She nodded to him.
Larry looked at the ring of witches and wizards on the stage, over two dozen of them, and closed his eyes. "Right. Anything you can do…" He stepped into the void, and disappeared.
Minutes ticked by. No one said anything. Alexandra held onto the silver thread, trying to clear her mind because there were too many distractions and too many implications here. She could feel Anna's eyes on her. She could feel everyone's eyes on her, including the Governor-General's.
"This can't possibly work twice," said one of the blue-robed Analysts.
"What about your so-called imbalance?" asked another Analyst. The wizard with the stone slab scratched something on it. He muttered something Alexandra couldn't hear.
Richard Raspire walked to the edge of the stage, standing on the lower level of the basement floor, so he was only visible from the waist up. Alexandra kept an eye on him, waiting for him to say something, or possibly pull out his wand and scatter them all. But he just watched her.
"You sure you know what you're doing, chickee?" Magnificent whispered.
"I didn't know what I was doing the first time," Alexandra whispered back. "And stop calling me chickee."
A ripple of light pierced the Veil. Then there was a glow, and then Larry rose out of the darkness and stepped back onto the stage, holding Adela Iturbide in his arms. He was wide-eyed, looking much like Alexandra imagined she'd looked when she emerged from the Lands Beyond. Adela's eyes were squeezed shut; she huddled against Larry's chest and shivered, as he told her she was all right, they were back.
Alexandra smiled, and slowly unclenched her fist. The silver thread connected to Larry's hand slipped out of her fingers, but before it even spooled to the floor, it was gone. She turned away from Larry and Adela, and found herself facing Richard Raspire, and behind him, the Governor-General.
Their faces were cold masks. Their eyes were dark, as if they were reflecting the lightless abyss of the Lands Beyond. Neither man said anything, but their silence spoke fury and terrible threats.
Off to the side, the wizard with the stone ledger hurried off, surrounded by Analysts who were frantically arguing about something.
Alexandra fixed her own face into stone, and without waiting for the judges to pronounce an end to the Mysteries challenge, she walked off the stage. The champions and their companions followed her.
"What was that? What was that?" demanded Magnificent.
"It was incredible and wicked and fabulous!" said Awesome. "Um, do you forgive me now?"
Alexandra turned and bent over so she was almost eye-level with Awesome.
"You helped save my life and Anna's," she said. "And Larry's and Adela's too. Thank you for that. I'm really, really grateful." She smiled at Awesome. Her voice didn't change. "If you ever again do anything like what you did last night — if I find out you so much as touched Amortentia — I will put your liver and spleen in bottles and sell them in the Goblin Market, I will decant your blood and bile into the darkest schadenfreude pudding anyone has ever seen, I will make a cover for my wand sheath out of your skin, and I will use your skull as a planter for mandrakes, and then I'll turn you inside out."
Awesome's face was colorless at the end of Alexandra's speech. Magnificent pushed Awesome behind him, looking rather pale himself.
Albert-Louis said, "Alexandra Quick, the things they say about you are true."
Alexandra turned to look at the champion from Louisiana Territory. "Who's they, and what do they say about me?"
Albert-Louis was a solemn young man, but there seemed to be no animosity or accusation in his tone. "The newspapers, the faculty here at New Amsterdam Academy, even in Louisiana the rumor mill speaks of the Enemy's youngest daughter, who causes trouble wherever she goes."
"I didn't cause this," Alexandra said.
"They also say that you're reckless, headstrong, and the bravest witch one is ever likely to meet." Albert-Louis smiled. "Actually, Angelique Devereaux told me that."
They emerged from the basement and ascended the stairs up to the main library floor, where they all gathered in the back entrance hall. And there was Archibald Mudd. Alexandra hadn't seen him during the challenge at all, but now his Eye-Spy and Snitch floated over their heads.
"I'm with the Junior Wizarding Decathlon champions, following the completion of the Mysteries challenge, from which, as you know, they banned journalists," Mr. Mudd was saying into his microphone. "But they have just emerged from the basement of the New Amsterdam Arcanum Library, and as you can see, once again it appears that the Enemy's daughter has drawn attention to herself — hey, would any of you like to tell our audience about the challenge?"
Alexandra wanted to tell Mr. Mudd she didn't give a damn about the Decathlon anymore. She was surrounded by her fellow competitors, and all the people they had brought with them, young and old, who'd been thrown beyond the Veil and left there to be rescued by the teenage champions. She didn't think any of the volunteers had known what they were signing up for, and none of the champions looked like they'd enjoyed the challenge at all. Larry stared at her, still holding Adela's hand. Adela's eyes were downcast — since emerging from the Lands Beyond, she had not said a word or looked directly at anyone. But everyone else's eyes were on Alexandra, ready to hear what she had to say. She even had the Worldwide Wizarding Wireless focused on her.
Then Richard Raspire ascended the stairs, stood at the edge of their gathering, and stared at Alexandra, as if silently daring her to make a speech denouncing him and the Confederation.
"Hello? Did something happen during the challenge?" asked Mr. Mudd. "Did things go awry again? Did someone cheat? Who'd like to give an interview?"
Professor Haster emerged next, and all the other judges filed out behind him. Governor-General Hucksteen exited last. He did not join Mr. Raspire, but kept walking past the champions, out toward the front of the library. He didn't look at Alexandra or the Decathlon champions or his personal assistant at all. They all brushed off Mr. Mudd and his questions.
Alexandra exchanged a look with Anna. What would happen if she started ranting about the Deathly Regiment, and accused Mr. Raspire of trying to kill Anna? She had no doubt it would never see print in the Wizard World Weekly. And if any of the other champions believed her, what would they do? Would anyone listening believe her word over the Governor-General's?
She met Raspire's eyes again. It was if he could read her thoughts. He smiled.
This wasn't the time, Alexandra thought. This wasn't the audience. Some of them might believe her, but they'd just be more "rabble," as Mr. Raspire had called them. Alexandra would be putting their lives at risk just to vent her spleen.
She had a lot of venting to do, but not here, and not now. She stared back at Raspire, and imagined his bald ruddy head igniting like the sulfurous head of a matchstick.
Everyone else noticed the two of them staring each other down. Several people cleared their throats. Mr. Mudd called, "Miss Quick! What did you do this time? Excuse me, sir, what can you tell us about the Mysteries challenge? Was someone hurt? Is anyone missing?"
Alexandra turned her back on Raspire and Mudd.
"I'm hungry." To her surprise, she was. So was everyone else, it seemed. The Mysteries challenge, grueling ordeal though it was, had ended before lunch, and everyone wanted to eat. They all walked away, leaving Mr. Mudd trying to corner Mr. Raspire. Alexandra didn't wait to see what became of that.
Anna sat with Alexandra in the dining hall, eyes still downcast.
"Anna," Alexandra whispered, as she saw Magnificent and Awesome approaching their table.
Anna looked up. Her face was pale and she still wore a mixture of shock, fear, and resentment.
Alexandra swallowed. "Please forgive me."
"You came for me," Anna said.
Alexandra didn't know if that was absolution or not, but then Magnificent and Awesome and Angelique all sat down at the table. Alexandra was surprised when Albert-Louis and his sister joined them, and then Vanessa and her boyfriend approached the table as well.
"Can we join you?" Vanessa asked.
Alexandra nodded. Her table was becoming nearly as popular as the senior table near the window where most of the other champions sat. Larry was there with Adela, but when Alexandra looked in their direction, she could see that Adela and Larry were arguing, again. She shook her head.
"I would really like to know how you created a silver thread to travel through the Veil and return," Albert-Louis said. "That sort of magic isn't taught in any school, not even the advanced Dark Arts classes we had at Baleswood."
"You had Dark Arts classes at Baleswood?" Anna asked. "Isn't that illegal?"
Albert-Louis waved a hand.
"Baleswood's charter gave it the exclusive right to teach Dark Arts," said Angelique. "But it was all for purely defensive purposes, wasn't it, Albert-Louis?"
"Of course," said Albert-Louis.
"Alexandra's spell was some righteous craft, but I want to know how Anna's tether got broken in the first place, right?" said Magnificent. "They said that couldn't happen."
Alexandra didn't see the CNN Snitch anywhere, but nonetheless, she slipped her hand over her wand, and murmured, "Muffliato." Then, looking around the table, she said, "Don't trust them."
"Don't trust who?" asked Vanessa.
"The Confederation," Alexandra said.
"We defend the Confederation," said her boyfriend. "Against all enemies, human or inhuman. But especially forces like the Dark Convention, and —"
"Damien—" Vanessa tried to interrupt him.
"— your father," he finished.
Alexandra looked at the two of them, in their BMI uniforms. They were both members of the Junior Regimental Officer Corps, like Maximilian had been. As she had been, briefly. They had probably known Max.
"I didn't say you should trust my father," she said. "I don't. My brother did, and now he's dead."
She had everyone's attention now.
"It was Richard Raspire who tried to kill Anna," she said. "The Governor-General's deputy. He did it because Governor-General Hucksteen wanted to get to me, and because Anna's father opposes the Deathly Regiment."
Anna gasped. The other teens stared at her, confused.
"The Deathly Regiment is the real secret of the Confederation," Alexandra said. "Not your stupid stories about Atlanteans and wars with giants, Magnificent." Magnificent frowned at her.
"What exactly is this Deathly Regiment?" Albert-Louis asked.
"Ask a member of the Elect," Alexandra said. Now Angelique frowned. "Ask someone in the Wizards' Congress. Ask Governor-General Hucksteen. But none of them will tell you. They can't tell you, and I'm not ready, yet. I know how this sounds. I'm only telling you this much because if something happens to me, someone else has to know."
"You sound paranoid," said Damien.
"You know what they say: just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you, right?" said Magnificent.
"Right," Alexandra agreed. "But I know most people aren't ready to hear this, and everyone thinks I'm a menace. Either I'm reckless and stupid, or I'm a Dark sorceress doing my father's bidding. So I don't expect you to believe me. But remember what I told you. If I survive, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to blow all the Confederation's secrets wide open."