The next morning, Alexandra was joined for breakfast by Anna, Angelique, Magnificent, Awesome, Vanessa, Damien, and Albert-Louis and his younger sister. Everyone wanted to talk about Alexandra's duel with Harriet. Her table was nearly as crowded as the one where Larry, Rebecca, Seimei, and most of the other champions sat. Alexandra didn't see Adela anywhere.
Anna produced that morning's Wizard World Weekly. There was no mention of the duel at New Amsterdam Academy, and the reporting on the Junior Wizarding Decathlon only briefly mentioned the Mysteries challenge, then listed their respective scores. There were no libelous pictures or headlines about Alexandra.
After seven challenges, Larry was still narrowly in the lead, but Alexandra had moved up to fourth place, behind Magnificent and Albert-Louis.
"You've become popular," Anna said.
"I don't know about that," Alexandra said. "All the girls seem to be blaming me for the line at the bathroom on the lower floor."
"I can't imagine why," said Angelique.
"Why don't they blame Harriet?" Alexandra grumbled.
"Oh, Alexandra, I was teasing." Angelique took a sip of pumpkin juice. "Anyway, Harriet and her friends were expelled. Aren't you satisfied?"
"Sure. Three murder attempts and permanently Blood-Sealing a bathroom, and she gets kicked out of school." Alexandra stabbed the fried plimpy on her plate. "I got expelled from Charmbridge for less. I got sent to wizard prison for less. Just saying."
"That chickee had some squirming eels in her head, right?" Magnificent said.
"Right," Alexandra agreed.
As breakfast ended, Albert-Louis said, "Good luck today, Alexandra. I hope you do well in the Beasts challenge. Not as well as me, of course. But better than them." He gestured at the other champions, and winked.
"Yes, good luck," said Vanessa. "I'm going to beat you, but I hope you don't get eaten by a dragon."
"That was heartwarming," Alexandra said, as the other champions headed for the elevators.
"Are you actually going to fight a dragon, Mag?" asked Awesome.
"That's just the name of the challenge, right?" said Magnificent. "No way they'd bring a dragon to New Amsterdam."
"Sure," Alexandra said. "Be careful, rooster. You don't know what they might do."
Magnificent grinned at her, patting a nervous-looking Awesome on the shoulder as they walked away.
"We can't actually watch your next challenge," Anna said, when they were momentarily alone in the lobby between the dining hall and the elevators. "Only what Mr. Mudd shows us."
"I know," Alexandra said.
"Have you figured anything out?" Anna asked.
"I've figured some things out." Alexandra gave her friend a pained look. "Other things, not so much."
Anna looked into her eyes a moment, then put her hands on Alexandra's face, and leaned in to kiss her on the lips.
"For luck," Anna said. Her expression was wistful.
Alexandra smiled sadly, then took the elevator, this time down to the street instead of back to Crown Hall.
For the Beasts challenge, the champions were directed to the busiest street in New Amsterdam, just down the block from the Governor-General's mansion. The site of their challenge turned out to be an enormous pit yawning between several tall buildings of newer and more magnificent architecture than the bricks that made up so much of older New Amsterdam.
Alexandra looked around at the shattered remnants of marble columns and huge, cracked blocks of granite, and realized that this had once been the New Amsterdam Gringotts branch. The largest bank in the New World, until her father destroyed it last year — emptying its vaults in the process, or so it was rumored. The Gringotts goblins had never confirmed or denied this.
There were goblins here now, and other little people who looked rather like the dwarves Alexandra had encountered in the Ozarks, all digging, clearing away rubble, and cutting stone. When Alexandra walked down the steep sloping path to the bottom of the pit, she felt their eyes on her, and suspected they knew who she was.
New Amsterdam Academy Proctors at the bottom of the pit directed Alexandra and the other champions to an intact stone stairwell, which led down into what had once been the Gringotts basement. From there, they had to take a very old-fashioned hand-cranked elevator operated by Clockworks to descend even deeper.
Alexandra assumed there must be more stairs somewhere, but the elevator was the only exit she could see when they reached a gray concrete tunnel, which was damp and musty and looked much more like a sewer than the cold, stone corridors of Charmbridge Academy's basements.
Professor Haster once again faced the assembled champions with a cheerful smile, but Alexandra noticed that everyone was tenser now, more suspicious. The other champions seemed uneasy.
Maybe they're starting to feel like someone's out to get them, too, she thought.
She had brought her magical backpack with all her gear this morning. She wasn't the only one who was prepared for an expedition; almost everyone had at least a belt pouch, a sack, or in Rebecca Good's case, a bulging purse, full of whatever extra items they thought might help them.
"I hope you feel adequately recovered, Miss Quick," Professor Haster said.
Surprised and suspicious at the show of concern, Alexandra said, "I'm great, thanks." She looked past him to the other judges. She didn't see Richard Raspire, which made her more wary. Governor-General Hucksteen was pretending not to notice her.
"Excellent," Professor Haster said. He cleared his throat and addressed the rest of the assembled champions. "This challenge is the first of two today, with your next challenge being 'Brooms' this evening. Traditionally two of the most exciting events, leading up to the final duels tomorrow." He seemed to be speaking for the benefit of the Snitch and Eye-Spy again, which were both hovering overhead. Archibald Mudd stood behind the judges, seemingly paying no particular attention to Alexandra or any other champion.
"Over the past week, wizards from the Department of Magical Wildlife, assisted by the Magical Masons Guild, have constructed a labyrinth beneath New Amsterdam. The labyrinth starts here, beneath the once and future site of Gringotts, but it extends further, into the sewers and subterranean tunnels of the Muggles."
Professor Haster held out one hand and opened it, revealing a pile of coins in his palm. They were of various colors, but they didn't look like Confederation Pigeons, Eagles, or Lions.
"Your challenge is a treasure hunt. You are looking for coins that the Magical Masons Guild has hidden about the labyrinth. They are, of course, guarded by a variety of Beasts you will have to overcome or outwit." He smiled. "There may be some tricks and traps to negotiate as well.
"You will lose points for any contact with Muggles that requires the intervention of Obliviators, as well as any damage you cause to Muggles or their property. Remember, Muggles are Beings, not Beasts."
"Muggles are people, right?" said Magnificent.
"Right!" said Alexandra. Magnificent grinned at her, and she smiled back. Larry snorted, but several of the other champions clapped their hands. This didn't seem to sit well with the judges.
"Thank you once again for sharing your views, Mr. Blaze," said Professor Haster. "You are each to go through that archway." He pointed at a hole in the tunnel ringed with stones that looked newer than the stone around it. "Take one stone out of the archway when you go. These special temporary Portkeys provided to us by Selene's Magical Moon Minerals will transport you to a random location in the labyrinth. Find as many coins as you can before you're recalled. Your Portkey can bring you back here if you say the word 'Redire.' Lose your Portkey stone and you will be disqualified."
One by one, the champions walked into the tunnel entrance. The stones embedded in the arch came loose easily, and each challenger disappeared in the darkness.
"So, basically we're going into a dungeon to kill monsters and search for treasure?" said Rebecca Good, as she took a stone. "What a stupid challenge. Who came up with this?" She vanished as she went through the archway.
Larry put a hand on Alexandra's shoulder and pushed past her. "Watch your back, Quick."
Still a jerk, she thought.
She was sixth in line. She took one of the temporary Portkeys. It was round and gray and smooth; to all appearances, an ordinary river stone.
She took another step, and was jerked through space before falling into cold, black water with a splash.
She sputtered and surfaced, and realized after kicking her legs that the water came up almost to her chest. She could see nothing; it was absolutely dark. She held her wand over her head while tucking the Portkey stone into one pocket, and cast a Light Spell.
She was in a large tunnel, with an arched ceiling high above her head. Water filled a canal running through the middle of the tunnel, but there were walkways above the water line on either side. It didn't smell great, but the water didn't stink of sewage either. She was grateful for that. If Governor-General Hucksteen could have arranged to have her dropped into raw sewage, she was sure he would have.
Something bumped her, hard. She spun around, and saw a white shape moving through the water, quickly retreating past the circle of light cast by her wand.
She began edging toward the side of the tunnel. There were no ladders or handholds, so she figured she'd have to pull herself up out of the water. Then she saw a glitter near her feet.
Something came rushing at her. She touched her wand to the surface of the water and said, "Frigia!"
The water in front of her froze into a giant mass of ice, and the thing coming at her slammed into it, shattering the miniature iceberg into pieces. Alexandra hastily backed away toward the concrete side of the channel, while chunks of ice bobbed and tumbled around her. She saw a gaping pair of jaws, and then a thick, scaly tail whipped past her. She had her backpack against the wall now, but she was afraid to turn around to crawl out; the pack slowed her down and the thing was too fast.
When the monster came torpedoing at her again, she held her wand underwater and said, "Caedarus!"
A green ball of light exploded beneath the surface, and the concussion almost threw her out of the water.
While she regained her footing, something pale white and massive floated to the surface and twisted slowly, bobbing with the chunks of ice. Alexandra stared at it for a moment, then realized it was stunned, and turned around, placed her hands on the elevated portion of the tunnel, and pulled herself onto the concrete walkway. It was difficult, chilled and shaken as she was, but those huge jaws gave her motivation. She hauled herself up, kicked her legs out of the water, and rolled as far from the edge as she could squeeze herself before twisting around to put her back against the tunnel wall and stand up.
The beast was an albino white alligator, at least fifteen feet long. As Alexandra shivered from the cold and adrenaline, the alligator blinked and opened its jaws, emitted an eerie hissing growl, and thrashed the water with its tail before diving again.
Alexandra looked in the dark water where the beast had disappeared, then searched for the glittering reflection she'd seen before.
"Accio coin," she said.
With a little splash, the coin flew out of the water and into her hand.
"Well, that was easy," she said.
The water exploded a yard from her, and the alligator came surging up onto the walkway, jaws gaping wide. Alexandra had no time to hex it; it was almost upon her, so there was nowhere for her to go but back into the canal. Behind her, she heard a deceptively tiny splash as the alligator slid in after her.
When it came at her again, its jaws were already snapping shut on her before she regained her footing. With those terrible teeth coming down on her outstretched arm, the arm grasping her wand, she cast an Engorgement Charm on the wand itself.
It expanded vertically to the size and thickness of a staff and immediately bent beneath the crushing pressure of the alligator's jaws. Bent, but did not buckle. The alligator's head thrashed violently and it tore the wand out of Alexandra's grasp, then continued rolling and thrashing, trying to dislodge the spear of wood holding its jaws open.
Alexandra swam to the side of the tunnel and hauled herself out of the water again. She drew her yew wand, pointed it at the alligator, and hesitated. In her anger and near-panic, she'd been about to kill it. But the creature was just acting like the dumb animal it was, and it wasn't its fault she'd been dropped into its den as part of some stupid challenge. She remembered feeling manipulated by Sees-From-Laurel and his kith, and now she was about to do the same thing, kill something for the entertainment of others, in a contest that no longer mattered to her.
"Petrificus Totalus," she said. The alligator abruptly stopped thrashing, and floated stiffly on the surface of the water.
"Accio wand," she said, and her oversized wand jerked free of the gator's jaws and flew into her hand. It almost knocked her over when she caught it, but she quickly reversed the Engorgement Charm and took her black hickory wand into her other hand.
"Later, gator," she said, and began walking down the tunnel, dripping wet and cold and not very happy about this challenge.
She cast Drying Charms on herself as she walked, until she was merely damp and no longer freezing. After about fifteen yards, she found another tunnel that veered to the right and away from the water. She went that direction, and once she was far enough from the underground canal that she'd at least have time to react if the alligator came slithering after her, she sat down and opened her backpack.
She spread out a piece of parchment on the ground, took out her Portkey stone to weigh down the top edge, and laid her magic mirror on the bottom edge.
Her reflection in the flattering magic mirror managed to look adorably bedraggled even in the poor light. Alexandra shook her head at it, and said:
"Mirror, mirror, on the ground,
Show me what the Eye-Spy's found."
The mirror flickered and showed white and black bands of static, before resolving into a picture of another stone tunnel. Alexandra was pleased that the charms she'd cast on the Eye-Spy before returning it to Mr. Mudd were working. The Eye-Spy seemed to be following after Seimei Kamo, the Majokai champion, who kept glancing over his shoulder at it with an annoyed expression.
Seimei slowed his pace as he approached a branch in the tunnel with a soft glow of light illuminating it from down the bend. He snapped a fan open, peered at some characters on it Alexandra couldn't make out, snapped it shut again, and tucked it back onto the sash around his waist. Then he began moving more stealthily, creeping toward the tunnel opening with his wand held before him.
Curious, Alexandra leaned forward, wondering who or what Seimei was sneaking up on. The Eye-Spy floated closer until it was just over Seimei's shoulder and swung about a split-second after he did, showing a view down a smaller tunnel. At the end of it was a small figure crouched next to a backpack, illuminated by the glow from the end of her wand, which reflected off of something on the ground in front of her.
"Oh, crap!" Alexandra exclaimed, and dropped and rolled just before the curse zinged over her head.
She rose, casting a Shield Charm that deflected Seimei's next spell. Angrily, she cast a Porcupine Quills Curse at him, followed by several Blasting Curses. The Majokai wizard deflected these, but spun in the air and slammed into the side of the tunnel when Alexandra cast a Levitation Spell. Dazed, he was unable to prevent her from Summoning his wand into her hand, so when he staggered to his feet, Alexandra was advancing on her disarmed rival with her own wand at the ready.
"What's the big deal, trying to ambush me?" she asked. "Not very honorable, is it?"
Seimei snorted. "Honor? I'm trying to win like everyone else."
"Jerk." Alexandra cast an Incarcerous Spell, wrapping Seimei up in magical ropes, and gagged him out of spite. Then she took his Portkey stone and hurled it down the tunnel as hard as she could. It bounced and clattered until it went into the canal with a little splash. Seimei's eyes went wide and angry.
"You're lucky I don't break your wand," she said, tossing his wand down the tunnel in the opposite direction. She looked up at the Eye-Spy, which was now accompanied by the eavesdropping Snitch. "I'm racking up points ruthlessly, again." She waved her wand at the floating spheres, and they both shot backward down the tunnel at high speed. She wished she could see the look on Mr. Mudd's face as he tried to figure out why his spy devices weren't obeying him.
She collected her backpack and other items and dragged Seimei back the way he'd come. The underground tunnel he'd snuck down to find her was much larger than the canal she'd fallen into. There was a tiny bit of light shining down from slots up in the roof, and Alexandra heard the distant rumble and honking of traffic.
"I'd stay put if I were you," she said to Seimei. "And beware of alligators."
She moved on, until she came to the end of the large tunnel. It tapered, becoming narrower and narrower. No more light filtered down from above, so she had to use the illumination of her wand again. Once safely out of sight of Seimei, she took out her mirror and parchment again and resumed what she had been doing.
In the mirror, she saw that the Eye-Spy seemed to be moving through near-pitch darkness, with only occasional alterations in the shades of gray indicating motion. But on her unrolled parchment, a red dot moved in a straight line. She cast another spell while holding her Portkey stone, and fifteen blue dots appeared on the parchment. She muttered an incantation for the other Portkey she had touched besides her own — Seimei's — and one of the fifteen blue dots turned green. She muttered an incantation for her own, and a second dot turned yellow, not far from the green one.
"Got you," she said. She was now tracking both the Eye-Spy and everyone else on the blank map she had enchanted the night before. The map did not show her the labyrinth itself, but it showed her where everyone was relative to one another. With that, and the spell she'd cast to look through Mr. Mudd's Eye-Spy in her mirror, she wasn't about to be surprised again.
"Hey, chickee." The voice came from behind her. Alexandra jumped and almost let out a strangled cry. She whirled and pointed her wand at Magnificent, who held his hands up, palms outward.
"How did you do that?" she demanded.
"What, find you? You and Seimei weren't exactly quiet, right?"
She looked down at her map. There was no blue dot next to her yellow one. "Where's your Portkey?" she demanded.
Magnificent leaned over to look at the map. "Well, that's some clever craft. 'Course everyone else is using every trick they can, too, right? So I guess you're just as crafty as them."
"What about you?" Alexandra said.
"Oh, I ditched the stone. 'Course I know where to find it again." He smiled, looked around, and said, "Muffliato." Then his expression grew more serious. "I believe you, chickee. They're out to get you. There's something seriously not righteous going on here. That Mysteries challenge was seven shades of black, right? You want to tell me why the Gov hates you so much?"
"It's a long story," Alexandra said.
"I'd like to hear it," Magnificent said. Pops, booms, and crackling echoed through the underground. "Maybe another time, though, right?"
Alexandra turned, still keeping an eye on Magnificent. "Sounds like someone else is trying to take out the competition."
"That Mudd warlock, with his Eye-Spy and Snitch, has turned this into a hexing spectacle, right?" Magnificent said. "We're not showing our craft, we're just putting on a show for the audience. And you notice how Professor Haster keeps mentioning all those wares?"
"It's called advertising." Alexandra sighed and lowered her wand. "I don't know what to do with you, Magnificent. You helped me, and I'd really like to believe you're not going to betray me."
They both heard a skittering sound, then a soft pattering like many small bodies moving quickly. This was followed by a scream off in the distance.
Alexandra knelt and picked up her map and mirror. In the mirror, she saw Vanessa Lightwood and Jonah Crawley dueling. Jonah was retreating as Vanessa blasted ancient, rusted iron pipes loose from crumbling brick walls. One wall almost collapsed on Jonah.
On the map, she saw another blue dot not far from her, which she presumed was the origin of the scream.
"I think that was Rebecca." She tucked the map and mirror into her backpack. "Do you want to see if she's all right?" She waved him forward.
"Right, you'd better let me go first so I don't betray you." Magnificent walked ahead, but drew his wand as they passed through a doorway and entered a corridor narrow enough for only one person at a time. "You are kind of paranoid, chickee."
"You admitted they're out to get me," Alexandra said.
"They are, not me, right?"
The two of them walked quickly down the corridor, with those scurrying sounds echoing ahead of and then behind them. Magnificent had lit his wand also. When they emerged into a larger chamber, he stumbled, then immediately yelped as something yanked him off his feet. Alexandra saw him disappear, and cast a Shield Charm before stepping cautiously into the open space he'd just vacated.
Tiny arrows, visible in the light cast by her wand and a dozen little torches, whipped through the air and bounced against her magical shield. Alexandra saw what seemed to be a swarm of large rats charging her, while Magnificent yelled from overhead. She spared a glance upward; he was caught in a net that hung from a ledge fifteen feet up. The chamber they were in was slanted toward a raised dais at the bottom, and resembled nothing so much as an ancient movie theater without seats. The ledge Magnificent dangled from could have been a balcony.
Alexandra cast a Nettle Hex, and the rats rushing at her scattered, screaming and chittering angrily as a cloud of black needles flew into their midst. Alexandra realized with horror that they were alternating between scampering about on all fours and standing up to wield tiny weapons. She saw now that there was a pile of gold coins on that raised dais. And something else.
Another arrow slashed through the air and grazed her cheek. Angrily, Alexandra conjured a noxious cloud of choking, stinking gas that sent the rats scurrying for the shadows.
With a thump, Magnificent landed on the ground next to her. "Ow," he groaned.
"Don't you know how to cast a Falling Charm?" she asked, helping him up. Charred strands of netting fell away from him.
The two of them continued magically deflecting rat-sized arrows and javelins as they proceeded down the slanted floor toward the stage-like elevation at the front of the chamber.
"Where did these rat-things come from?" Alexandra asked. "You know, it's really messed up for them to just… stock a labyrinth with creatures we're supposed to kill, especially if they're not just animals."
"Right," Magnificent agreed. Then he drew a breath. "Oh, Merlin."
Rebecca Good, still in her Salem Traditionalist garb even for this subterranean expedition, lay on her back next to the pile of coins that had been laid out as an obvious lure. Her eyes were open, and her mouth was filled with blood. A barbed shaft much thicker than an arrow had penetrated her from behind and gone through her body. The bloody point jutted out from below her ribs. Her black dress did not show the blood that soaked it, but Alexandra could see it spreading around her in a growing pool.
Alexandra yelled in fury and hurled fireballs across the room as Magnificent knelt next to Rebecca. The fireballs exploded with a flash, casting dozens of rat-shaped shadows against the walls. The rats were in full retreat now. The rain of arrows stopped.
"Merlin, she's bad," Magnificent said. "I'm pretty good with healing craft, but…"
"How's your Apparition?" Alexandra asked. "Can you take her back, since you went and threw away your Portkey?"
Magnificent nodded. "Easy, chickee," he whispered to Rebecca. Gently, he slid his arms under her and lifted her off the ground. Blood pattered on the floor. Rebecca let out a long, soft sigh, and closed her eyes.
"What about you?" Magnificent asked Alexandra.
Alexandra frowned. What about her? She was no longer interested in the Decathlon — in fact, she wasn't even planning to finish it. She had begun making other plans. But she hadn't figured out how to execute them yet, and in the meantime —
Magnificent chuckled and shook his head. "I get it, chickee. You still want to win, right?"
"It's not like that," Alexandra said.
"Watch your back," Magnificent said. He and Rebecca disappeared with a pop.
"And stop calling me chickee," Alexandra muttered to the empty space he'd left behind.