The rats didn't pursue Alexandra from the strange theater-like chamber. When she felt she'd gotten far enough away, she cautiously examined her magic mirror again. The Eye-Spy was now following Albert-Louis, who was shooting down a tunnel on a broom, surrounded by a swarm of bat-like creatures with glowing red eyes. Alexandra saw tracks beneath them; he was in a Muggle subway tunnel, and flashing spells that burned the creatures out of the air around him.
"Jeez," she muttered.
Her parchment showed one fast-moving blue dot accompanied by the red dot representing the Eye-Spy. Albert-Louis was far from her and moving in another direction. There were at least three dots within shouting distance. She proceeded more stealthily, moving only when the nearest dot moved ahead of her. She entered a square corridor with walls, floor, and ceiling that looked made of single blocks of solid stone. Embedded in the stone ceiling, just out of her reach, was one of those silver-blue coins Professor Haster had displayed before the challenge.
"Accio Coin," she said.
The coin wiggled, and then the entire stone block dropped. Alexandra didn't even have time to utter an incantation. The descending ceiling struck her head and she fell. She landed on her back, staring directly at the stone surface inches from her nose. Dazed, she wondered why it hadn't crushed her.
"Quick!" someone said. "Get out of there!"
She sucked in a breath.
"Merlin's balls, hurry up!"
Alexandra began pushing herself with her legs along the smooth floor, dragging her pack behind her, keeping her wand in one hand. She crawled on her back for several yards before her head emerged from beneath the fallen stone ceiling. She found herself staring up at Larry.
He reached a silver hand down to help her up. She stood, rubbed her head, and stared at the stone block filling the corridor. Larry held his wand level in his other hand.
"Levitas," he said, raising his wand. Slowly, the stone block rose, and kept rising. Alexandra was impressed in spite of herself. She had never lifted such a massive weight with her Levitation Spell.
The block settled back into the ceiling, rumbled, and became motionless.
"Careless, Quick," Larry said. "Very careless. Don't you know a death trap when you see one?"
"They aren't supposed to be setting death traps for us!" Alexandra said. The irony struck her only after she said it. "Uh, thanks."
The ember glow of one of Larry's cigarettes bobbed in the darkness. He exhaled wizard tobacco smoke in her general direction.
"So, how's Adela?" she asked.
"Fine. She hates me again." Larry turned and began walking along a concrete tunnel that looked like it had been made by Muggles, rather than the featureless gray square corridor Alexandra had foolishly entered. She hesitated, then followed him.
"That Radicalist hobgoblin was right," Larry said. "You need looking after."
"Wait — Magnificent said what?" Alexandra stopped. Larry turned back and gave her a pitying look.
"He said 'they' are out to get you." Larry held up his fingers to make exaggerated quotation marks in the air. He still had a wand in one hand and a cigarette in the other. "Somehow he got the idea that we're friends, so he asked me to help keep you from getting killed. Merlin!" He threw his cigarette on the ground and stepped on it.
"How did you know where I was?" Alexandra demanded.
Larry smirked. "I put a Trace on you."
"You what? How?"
"My uncle works for the Trace Office. I learned a little from him. Don't worry, it's temporary. I had to touch you to put it on you."
They both heard the sound of stone grinding against stone, followed by a shriek.
Alexandra said, "Oh, crap!" She ran back to the death trap corridor, with Larry behind her.
The stone ceiling had fallen again, though only half-way. Alexandra projected the light from her wand down the corridor, and saw Hela Punuk squatting beneath the massive stone with her arms outstretched, somehow bearing the weight of it on her back and shoulders. Her entire body trembled, her knees looked about to buckle, and when she looked up, her face was twisted with pain.
Alexandra tried to raise the stone block with a Levitation Spell. It inched upwards, but then Hela collapsed and it fell again. She reached for her yew wand, but Larry sighed and cast a Levitation Spell also, and their two spells together pushed the block back up into the ceiling.
"How did you do that?" Alexandra asked, as Hela staggered out of the corridor and fell against the side of the tunnel beyond, catching her breath.
"Strength… of an elk," Hela said. "Not… enough."
"Why not strength of a mastodon, or strength of an Arctic Re'em?" Alexandra asked.
Hela gave her a disgusted look. "I would have to eat the heart of a mastodon or an Arctic Re'em."
"This entire challenge seems designed to kill someone," Larry said.
"I'm afraid it might have already," Alexandra said. "Rebecca Good was mortally wounded."
"Only Colonials would think this is entertaining," Hela said.
"Then why are you here?" Alexandra asked.
"I have my reasons." Hela straightened up. "Thank you," she said stiffly.
"Whatever." Alexandra belatedly tried looking with her Witch's Sight, but the trap seemed to be mechanical in nature. Trying to Summon the coin from safely outside the corridor didn't work, so she pointed her wand and said "Dreadmors." A glowing red skull and crossbones appeared on the stone floor, beneath the silver coin.
"What is that?" asked Hela.
"Something to warn any other idiots who try to get that coin, hopefully," Alexandra said.
Hela's expression was sinister in the dim red glow of Alexandra's Warning Mark. Larry was silent.
"What now?" Alexandra asked. "This isn't a team challenge."
"Maybe you're wrong," Hela said. "I think the judges want us to fight each other for their entertainment. The rules don't say we can't cooperate, and clearly many of these challenges are difficult or impossible to do alone."
"We're scored on how much treasure we bring back," Larry said. "How do you plan on splitting the loot?"
Hela shrugged. "We can figure that out if we find any. Or at the end."
"You mean when you turn on us, like you turned on me the last time I cooperated with you?" Alexandra said. "No thanks."
Hela gave her a flat stare, then reached into one of the pouches she was carrying and withdrew her stone Portkey. She handed it to Alexandra.
"Take it," she said. "Without it, I will be disqualified."
Alexandra regarded the outstretched hand for a moment as if Hela were offering her a curse. Then she took the Portkey and put it in her backpack. "Just because neither of us trusts the Confederation doesn't mean I trust you." She turned to Larry. "She's sneaky and I'm sure she's up to something."
"Really," Larry said.
"No one has been sneakier than you," said Hela. "I only tricked you when I had to. You're the one desperate to win at all costs."
"I don't even care about winning!" Alexandra snapped.
"Oh? Then why are you here?" Hela demanded.
"Why are you here? It's not like you have a chance — you're not even in the top ten."
"You don't care about winning, but you obviously care about our rankings," Hela said.
Larry shook his head. "Why am I here? To get between you two? Witches be crazy."
"Shut up," Alexandra and Hela said together.
They all looked at each other. Larry said, "Well, we can stay together, we can separate, or we can duel it out. It's all the same to me."
Alexandra took out her parchment again, and oriented it to their current location. She didn't show Larry and Hela the mirror, not wanting to reveal that she had cast her own spells on Mr. Mudd's Eye-Spy.
"No one has gone this way," she said, pointing in the direction where their tunnel narrowed.
The three of them walked in silence until they came to the top of some stairs that descended out of sight into darkness.
"You first, Quick," Larry said.
Alexandra looked at Hela. "I don't think so."
"Fine," Larry said. "You watch my back, then." He descended. Hela glanced at her, then followed Larry. Alexandra followed Hela.
Their Light Spells showed stairs that could not have been created by Muggles. They looked nothing like any of the regular subterranean architecture of New York. Alexandra wasn't even sure how deep it was possible to go beneath the city, and suspected this was a wizard-spaced construction. If so, however, it would have taken a prodigious amount of magic just for the Junior Wizarding Decathlon.
They went down over a hundred steps before they reached the bottom, a tiny stone-tiled courtyard in the shape of a half-crescent. It faced a very large grate, with black iron bars like a portcullis except they appeared to be solidly anchored in the stone. The barred opening was large enough for a tall man to walk through with his arms extended, if not for the grate. They could only see darkness through it. At either end of the mini-courtyard were open stone doorways leading into dark chambers beyond.
"Obviously we're supposed to go through the grate," Larry said, looking through the bars, when Alexandra and Hela joined him before it.
"Are you sure?" Alexandra asked. "If it's that easy, just Apparate — Hela, what are you doing?"
Hela walked around the curve of the courtyard and into the next chamber. Alexandra saw light from her wand shining from another grate between the black interior before them and the neighboring space Hela had entered. Then Hela cast a spell that sent the glow from her wand flying into the central gated-off chamber in a little ball of light. It showed a large circular stone-tiled chamber, with four grates spaced around it, and a large hole in the stone floor in the middle. As Hela's ball of light floated over the large hole, reflections from piles of glittering coins lit the darkness below.
"That's a lot of treasure," Alexandra said. "I'm sure there's nothing keeping us from just Apparating down there and making off with it, right?"
As if in reply, a massive head suddenly shot up through the hole in the middle of the central chamber, followed with incredible speed by a serpentine body that squeezed through it in the time it took the three teens to blink and step back.
With a roar, the enormous beast surged forward and slammed into the grate in front of Alexandra and Larry, baring teeth almost the length of Alexandra's forearm. She saw claws and wings in a flurry of motion, and then it whirled and snapped at the iron bars between it and Hela. The other girl uttered something that sounded like a curse in her language.
The dragon reared back, and its mouth glowed.
"Watch out!" Alexandra yelled.
Fire streamed from between its jaws and lit up the bars where Hela had been standing. Flames splashed through the doorway she'd exited.
"Hela!" Alexandra yelled.
"I'm all right!" Hela called, now from farther away.
The dragon roared, making a teakettle-like screeching noise, and its head snaked around until it was facing Alexandra and Larry once more.
"You can't just Flame-Freeze dragon fire!" Larry said.
The two of them retreated up the stairs, with both of their Shield Charms deflecting the worst of the dragon's breath, but they were red-faced and sweating by the time they ascended high enough that the dragon could no longer see them.
Hela Apparated to the bottom of the stairs and shrieked as flames from the dragon's last exhalation washed around her. She came running up the stairs with the edges of her fur coat and the cuffs around her boots glowing with tiny sparks and trailing black smoke. She slapped at a charred, glowing spot on her cloak.
"Did you see how much treasure they piled up down there?" Larry asked. "They really made an effort to create an authentic dragon hoard."
"Which we're supposed to loot," Alexandra said.
"I have an idea," Hela said.
"Dragon hide is pretty tough," Larry said. "It'll be hard to kill that thing."
"We don't need to kill it," Alexandra said.
"Do you want to hear my idea?" Hela asked.
"Aren't dragons an endangered species?" Alexandra asked.
"You're. Insane," Larry said.
"Would you listen to me?" Hela said.
"How did they even get a dragon down there?" asked Alexandra.
"Who cares?" Larry said. "What are you going to do, make a pet out of it?"
"SHUT UP!" Hela yelled.
Larry and Alexandra stopped talking. From below, they heard the dragon hiss, and another burst of flames lit the bottom of the stairs.
"It's obviously easy to provoke," Hela said. "Albo and I can hold its attention while you Apparate down there and fill a sack with coins. If it comes back down into the lower chamber, you Apparate away."
"Why me?" Alexandra asked.
"Because you don't trust me," Hela said, as if the question was obvious. "How do you know I won't just Apparate away with the coins?"
"How do we know Quick won't just Apparate away with the coins?" asked Larry.
"Do you want to go?" Alexandra asked.
"Right, and rely on you to keep it busy instead of just letting it come after me," said Larry.
"Fine, I'll do it," Alexandra said.
Hela said, "See, this is an easy challenge if we cooperate, but you'd have to confront a dragon by yourself if you attempted it on your own."
"Right," Alexandra said. "It's a foolproof plan. I'm sure nothing can possibly go wrong."
Hela and Larry fortified themselves with flame-proofing charms, and prepared to charge down the stairs and split in two directions, both casting hexes to distract the dragon. Alexandra would then descend the stairs and Apparate into the chamber below.
"I still say we should just try slaying it," Larry said.
"You can try," said Hela.
Larry cast a look back at Alexandra, then he and Hela rushed the alcove, weaving Shield Charms as they dashed right and left. Alexandra saw the little crescent courtyard light up with dragon fire.
She descended the steps after them. The dragon was indeed occupied with trying to get at its two tormentors. Before it noticed her, she concentrated: Destination, Determination, Deliberation. She Apparated with a crack, and landed on a pile of coins that made a distressingly loud jingling sound as she stood up.
Down here in the dragon's den, it stank with an odor Alexandra wasn't familiar with. It was damp and surprisingly warm for being so deep underground, making the chamber unpleasantly humid. Alexandra eyed the circular opening in the roof through which the dragon moved between its den and the grated prison up above, but the dragon did not come down after her. She could hear it roaring up where Larry and Hela were baiting it with hexes.
There was just enough light from above to see what she was doing, but not to peer into the recesses of the den, and she didn't want to cast a Light Spell for fear the dragon would notice it. She began scooping coins into her backpack.
She paused when she realized she no longer heard the dragon raging. She stood and listened. There was only silence, and it had also gone dark above.
"Lumos," she said, lighting her wand.
She was alone in the dank dragon's den. She saw that one of the things she'd smelled was a half-eaten cow carcass. Against the wall were piles of rotting refuse. There were also scales everywhere, and where the dragon's claws had raked the stones, they were black and filthy.
Hesitantly, ready to Apparate the moment the beast's head reappeared, she called out, "Larry? Hela?"
A pop ten feet from her made her jump. Hela appeared, holding her wand.
"What's going on?" Alexandra asked. "Where's Larry?"
Hela spoke an incantation Alexandra didn't recognize. A crippling wave of nausea and despair washed over her. Her knees buckled along with her will, and she fell to the ground, unable to defend herself as Hela cast a Disarming Spell that sent Alexandra's wand flying. Then Hela said, "Incarcerous," and bound Alexandra in ropes, before kneeling next to her to rummage through her backpack.
When she stood, she was holding the Portkey she'd given Alexandra. The black tide of sickness lifted, like a wave that had rolled over her and then pulled back, leaving Alexandra still shaken but once again able to think and speak.
"I knew it," Alexandra said. "You are such a bitch!"
"You don't know half as much as you think you do, Alexandra Quick."
"You set me up. You put a curse on your Portkey before handing it to me."
"Yes. I also put a counterspell on it so that when your Portkey activated, it wouldn't pull you back to the Gringotts basement."
Alexandra struggled against her ropes. "So you can leave me to get eaten by a dragon? You b—"
Hela kicked her, cutting her off. "You are not going to get eaten by the dragon. I used Universal Solvent to dissolve the bars and release it."
"Larry," Alexandra said, gasping from Hela's kick.
"I did nothing to him. I just waited for him to disappear when they activated everyone's Portkeys. The Dark Convention is attacking New Amsterdam at this moment. He's probably fleeing with everyone else."
Alexandra blinked, and tried to sit up, or at least roll over where she could face Hela. "You," she said. "You're part of the Dark Convention."
"Oh, no. We just share their loathing of the Confederation. But you should thank your father. He's behind this." Hela smiled without humor. "I was not to harm you."
"Why are you attacking New Amsterdam?" Alexandra asked.
"Ask your father. I'm just doing what my elders told me to do. Really, I assumed you and your father were planning this together all along." Hela shrugged. "Anyway, now I can go home and leave this terrible city. Good-bye, Alexandra Quick. It really wasn't personal, you see?"
"This is," Alexandra said. Squeezing her eyes shut and forcing all her concentration through the yew wand under her shirt, she projected a Porcupine Quills Curse at Hela. The other girl screamed as spines erupted all over her body, puncturing her skin and tearing her clothes. Quills also sprouted out of Alexandra's body, but they tore through the ropes Hela had conjured around her, and while Hela fell writhing on the ground, screaming in pain as the quills stabbed deeper into her flesh, Alexandra managed to loosen her bonds enough to pull them off of her and stand up. She was in pain also, but once her hands were free, she grabbed the yew wand and made her own quills disappear.
While Hela thrashed around on the ground, Alexandra retrieved her black hickory wand. She raised it and sent a Cutting Spell winging through the air at Hela. Hela screamed and closed her eyes, shuddering as the magical silver blades flashed past her head with a "snick" sound.
Slowly, Hela opened her eyes. She held up her hands, which still had all their fingers. She looked down at her blood-soaked body, still skewered from knee to shoulder with sharp black spines. Then she saw that Alexandra's spell had sliced off both of her long, black braids. They lay severed in the dirt next to her.
She opened her mouth and screamed again, this time in rage. "You… BITCH!"
"Takes one to know one," Alexandra said. "Why did you let the dragon loose?"
Hela could hardly speak for several moments. Finally, she took deep, gulping breaths and said, "Chaos. Confusion. Distraction."
"What if it eats someone?"
"Muggles? Who cares?" Hela raised her head to glare at Alexandra, with tears running down her scarred cheeks. "I told you — blame your father."
Before Alexandra could reply to that, Hela Apparated away.
Alexandra shook her head, then spun and raised her wand when she heard another pop. It was flaring when Larry held his hands up, gripping his own wand, and holding a broom in his other hand. "Stand down, Witch-Private!"
Alexandra lowered her wand. "Witch-Private? I'm not in the JROC anymore. What are you doing here? What happened?"
"New Amsterdam is under attack by the Dark Convention," Larry said. "There are warlocks fighting Aurors and ROC officers, practically out in the open. Even the Muggles are going to notice lightning and tornadoes in the middle of their city."
"They're about to notice something else in the middle of their city." Alexandra reached into her pack, and pulled out her broom and Lost Traveler's Compass. As an afterthought, she said "Accio braids!" and Summoned the long black braids she'd cut off of Hela's head, which flew through the air and into her pack. "How did you get back here? Why did you come back here?"
"I told you, I put a Trace on you. I saw Hela was up to something, just before I got yanked back. Then neither of you showed up. Where is she?" Larry watched the braids disappear into Alexandra's pack with a puzzled frown.
"Gone. She was up to something." Alexandra turned to face Larry. "What are you doing? You should be helping get the kids out of there. And Adela, and Anna, and Angelique..."
"Why aren't you going back to help your friends?" Larry asked.
"I have something else to do." Alexandra got on her broom, and rose into the air. "Hela freed the dragon. If it gets up into the sewers and tunnels, or worse, reaches the street, people are going to die."
Larry got on his broom and rose alongside her. He grabbed Alexandra by the arm. "Just how are you going to stop it?"
"I have a plan." In fact, she had just conceived of a plan, so fresh and so crazy she doubted she could pull it off. Except she didn't have any better ideas.
"You're insane!" Larry said. "Leave the dragon to the Department of Magical Wildlife, and the Muggles to the Obliviators."
Alexandra looked down at the silver fingers on her arm. Slowly, Larry released his grip.
"Why are you here, Larry?" she asked.
He stared at her. Then he asked, "How did you create that silver thread?"
She opened her mouth, confused by the sudden shift. "What?"
"You created a connection to Adela with the ring I gave her and took back. You said I had to feel something for her."
"Yes…" Alexandra said slowly.
Larry's eyes were shadowed, in the dim light cast by their wands. She was grateful that he couldn't see her expression clearly either.
"You created another thread connecting us." He held up his silver fingers.
Alexandra closed her eyes. "Just kill me now," she muttered.
When she opened her eyes again, Larry was still hovering next to her, studying her.
"I have to stop that dragon," she said. "Go back to New Amsterdam Academy." She pointed her broom upward, climbed almost vertically through the round hole in the ceiling, and immediately shot through one of the large openings in the round cell above that had once been blocked with iron bars. She flew up the stairs she and Larry and Hela had descended, following the trail of stone scored by massive claws.
When she reached the tunnel above, she sat on her broom a moment, trying to figure out which way the dragon had gone. From somewhere even further up above, she heard a screeching, teakettle roar.
"Okay," she said. She'd failed to think of a better plan before now. She was going to have to go with what she had. "It's time for your exclusive, Mr. Mudd."
She waved her wand, tugging at the Eye-Spy and the Snitch, wherever they were.
Larry came shooting up the stairs and stopped alongside her.
"Merlin," he said. "You're really going to chase a dragon to save a bunch of Muggles."
"You don't have to come." A flush still burned her cheeks, and her eyes were alight in the darkness. She took off again.
"What's your plan?" Larry yelled, following after her.
The dragon's roar echoed down to them again. Alexandra gripped her broom and shot upward, flying through wider and wider tunnels until she reached a branch that terminated in what had once been an old stone wall reinforced by wooden beams. The beams were now charred and aflame, the stone wall smashed and battered down, revealing a gap through which a vehicle, or a dragon, could pass. Beyond, Alexandra saw electric lights, and heard screams.
"This is bad," Larry said. "Wait — Quick!"
Alexandra was already flying through the gap.
She rocketed across a subway station, scattering people in her path. She stayed as close to the ceiling as she could, but it wasn't a very tall station. There were more claw marks on the tiles, and a wall with advertising banners had been set aflame. The turnstiles at the platform's entrance had been smashed aside.
Everyone was screaming, and now they were pointing at her. At least she didn't see any bodies. From her elevated height, she could see down into a ticketing booth where a uniformed agent behind melted plexiglass was cowering and speaking into a phone.
"Quick!" said Larry, catching up to her. "Are you insane? We're violating so many laws — Alexandra!"
Alexandra flew on.
They shot up a stairwell, mercifully free of pedestrians. But when they got to the top level, they saw it.
They were in a subway station courtyard, surrounded by glass-fronted stores, vendor booths, and ticketing counters, and it was chaos. People ran screaming in all directions.
The dragon plodded clumsily over the tiled floor, its claws raking whatever they touched, its wings extending and retracting, breaking storefront windows and knocking over food stalls and trees in cement planters. Its lashing tail came down on a new car that was parked in the middle of the station for some sort of promotion, and crushed its roof.
"This is really bad!" Larry said.
The dragon suddenly roared and charged. Alexandra chased after it as it ran beneath fluorescent lights, almost trampled a mother and her baby carriage along with a dozen other people, and then threw itself at the freedom it saw through a floor-to-ceiling glass display between the station and the street outside, shredding banners and smashing mannequins and windows.
It exploded onto the street in a spray of glass, spread its wings, and glided over traffic to land on a parked SUV. Its weight crushed the vehicle with another spray of bursting glass, and it sat there, looking around and blinking.
Alexandra and Larry emerged onto the street as well, and gasped at the spectacle.
They were at a traffic intersection. There were stores on every corner, and enormous five-story billboards lit up with neon, with skyscrapers towering over everything. The dragon seemed momentarily dazed by it all. So did Larry.
The sky was heavily overcast, rapidly turning from gray to black, with ominous rumbling and flashes of lightning. Heavy mist filled the streets, so the cars that had come screeching to a halt before the dragon were blocking lines of traffic. The cars behind honked angrily at the vehicles in front of them, unable to see what was causing the blockage.
But the dragon was clearly visible to the hundreds of Muggles at the large intersection. There was a great deal of screaming and stampeding away from the creature, but not everyone was doing that. Dozens of people were pointing their phones at it and taking pictures, and then some of them noticed Alexandra and Larry hovering on their brooms, and turned their cameras on them too.
"This," Alexandra said, "is bad."