Raking leaves was tedious, and endless. Soon there were piles as high as Alexandra's head and they seemed to have made little progress. The Clockworks, of course, had infinite patience, but after two months, Alexandra was weary of constantly spending her evenings watching the golems perform menial labor.
Out on the athletic fields, some kids were still playing games, and she could see David over near the aviary, unhooding Malcolm and letting the falcon soar into the blood-red sky. As the raptor passed over the woods bordering the academy's lawns, Alexandra saw a great black cloud ripple and swarm amongst the trees, accompanied by a cacophony of shrieking and cawing. Crows by the hundreds had settled into the branches, but Malcolm's passage overhead had unsettled them.
Alexandra wondered if Charlie might be among them – ravens did socialize with crows sometimes, she knew. And then she wondered if Charlie had anything to fear from Malcolm, but decided not. Malcolm might be swift and powerful, but Charlie was cleverer by far.
As it got darker and students retired indoors, Alexandra had her Clockworks begin filling bags and wheelbarrows with leaves, and marched them to a large brick-lined pit where Journey had started a bonfire. Here she found Larry leading his Clockworks, similarly laden, and they stopped, glaring at each other in front of the steps that led down into the pit. The pit was about twenty feet across, and sunk into the ground with only the one set of stairs providing an easy path to the fire in the center. They both wanted to be close enough to the fire to supervise the leaf-burning, and also to be warmed by it, as the evenings were becoming increasingly chilly. They couldn't both occupy the pit without standing at opposite sides, though, and it was also apparent that either could effectively block the other from entering or leaving, unless one of them were willing to turn them both to rats again.
"I was here first!" Larry said sharply.
"You wait while I burn my leaves, then you can go down and burn yours."
"You wait!" Alexandra countered stubbornly.
Larry glared at her, and then began walking belligerently forward towards the steps, as if to force Alexandra to back away.
Of course she didn't. With an equally determined glare, she walked forward as well.
It was the same unyielding expression she'd worn when they played chicken on their brooms, and Larry recognized it. Alexandra would turn them both to rats again before she'd turn aside. With a curse, he backpedaled, and Alexandra triumphantly walked down into the pit, her Clockworks following behind her.
"I hope you fall in the fire!" he yelled at her.
Alexandra smelled like smoke and burnt leaves when she finally returned to her room, but she was feeling quite pleased with herself.
The next evening was much like the last. Journey told them they'd probably be raking leaves daily until the end of November (which was when their detention would finally end), but at least now Alexandra could see the piles getting smaller.
At sunset, she saw the crows flapping around in a great multitude out in the woods, as she urged her Clockworks towards the fire pit. She was prepared to confront Larry again, but this time she'd beaten him handily, as his Clockworks were nowhere to be seen. Smugly, she marched down the steps into the fire pit. The fire Journey had started was burning as intensely as on the previous night, almost white at its center. It was sustained by magic as far as she could tell, as there was no fuel for it other than the leaves her Clockworks dumped into it. The custodian wasn't around, so Alexandra held her hands out to feel the warmth while the golems carted one wheelbarrow after another down the steps and upended their contents into the blaze. She watched as the leaves ignited and added to the heat and glow of the fire. Some of them rose into the air, smoldering and leaving a trail of red embers that fell back into the flames, and some of the ashes blew into Alexandra's face and settled in her hair. Anna had complained about the smell last night, so Alexandra knew she'd have to take a bath tonight, but right now it didn't bother her. She was entranced by the fire and the simple pleasure of watching things burn.
Soon, though, her Clockworks ground to a halt, having finished burning that evening's haul. With a sigh, Alexandra backed away from the fire and moved towards the stairs, and found the Clockworks blocking her.
"Move," she said. Clockworks being nothing more than animated metal, she felt no need to be polite to them. "Up the stairs."
So surprised was she by their failure to obey that she didn't move in time to avoid being grabbed by a pair on either side of her. Their metal fingers closed around her upper arms with slow but inexorable grips.
"What are you doing?" she exclaimed. And then, "Let go of me!"
It was only when the two Clockworks lifted her off the ground, letting her feet dangle in the air, that her astonishment turned to alarm. "Hey!" She began struggling and kicking, but she couldn't struggle free of their grasp, and kicking the metal golems did no good.
"Let go of me now!" she ordered. "Put. Me. Down!"
Two more Clockworks bent over with a grind and a whir, and grabbed her ankles. Now she was being held by her arms and legs, completely unable to wriggle free, and, she realized, they were walking towards the fire!
"What are you doing?" she yelled. Her wand was tucked into a jacket pocket, and reaching it was quite impossible. She closed her eyes, struggling to think of a rhyme to extricate herself. She could feel the heat of the bonfire against her face as the Clockworks moved to the edge of the fire pit itself.
"Clockworks, you've gone wrong," she gasped.
"Umm, stop moving... put me down –"
It occurred to her belatedly that she might have done better to just cry for help, much as it would gall her. She was stammering and failing to produce anything that rhymed. She felt herself swaying back and forth, and the heat along one side of her body was broiling. She opened her eyes, in as close to a true panic as she'd ever experienced. Fearlessness was one thing, but she felt a sudden certainty that the golems really meant to throw her into the fire. As she twisted and writhed in their grasp, she saw Larry's face silhouetted against the evening sky overhead. He was at the edge of the brick-lined pit, looking down at her.
The shadows cast over his face by the roaring flames made his expression impossible to read, but for one moment, they made eye contact. Alexandra didn't know if Larry was somehow responsible for this, but she knew she would never beg him for help. So she just stared at him, and then the Clockworks swung Alexandra back, preparing to heave her forward into the fire.
Larry clenched his teeth, and leapt down into the pit.
He didn't land as a boy, but as a rat. Alexandra was suddenly free of the Clockworks' grasp, falling to the ground at their feet. She wasted no time in scurrying away from them, seeking the darkest corner of the pit that she could find. Larry was right behind her. She feared the Clockworks might chase her and try to crush her, but they didn't seem bright enough to realize what had happened. They merely stood around the fire, motionless now that she had escaped.
Singed, shaken, and miserable, she and Larry tried to squeeze themselves into a crack beneath one of the stone steps, and they stayed there until Journey came looking for them, nearly half an hour later.
This time, Journey actually seemed shocked and concerned by what Alexandra and Larry told him had transpired, after he turned them back to normal.
"Clockworks don't do that," he said.
"Clockworks do whatever you tell them to do," Alexandra said. "Obviously someone told them to kill me!" She cast a suspicious look at Larry, who was once again standing across the room, well out of range.
"Don't you dare accuse me, Troublesome!" he said hotly. "Or are you forgetting that I'm the one who saved you?"
She hadn't forgotten that, much as she would have liked to.
"Now, let's not get overly dramatic," Journey said. "Obviously something's gone wrong here."
"You think?" Alexandra retorted, without thinking.
The custodian frowned. "Now, Starshine, don't be forgetting your manners just because you had a bit of a close call."
"A bit?" she exclaimed. "I almost got barbecued!"
"Well, I reckon the Dean is going to need to hear about this," Journey sighed. Larry blanched and Alexandra grimaced. "The important thing is, you're both all right now. So get along back to your rooms. I'll have a talk with Lilith tomorrow."
Once again, Alexandra had to edge her way out the door, while Larry waited for her to get clear and well ahead of him. But she was waiting for him at the top of the stairs leading from the basement to the residential hallway. His eyes were cast downward so he almost didn't see her until she said, "Larry!" and he jerked to a halt and looked up at her, still ten steps and about fifteen feet below her.
"Why did you do that?" she demanded.
"I didn't do it!" he sneered. "You're the one who sabotages Clockworks, in case you think I've forgotten. Maybe your own jinxes backfired!"
"I meant –" She scowled. It was an effort to admit it to herself, much less say it aloud. "Why did you save me?"
He stared at her silently, then said at last, "I hate owing you." He sounded disgusted. "You and your stupid bird. Now we're even."
Alexandra stared back at him, then nodded slowly, and turned away, disappearing from view. Larry's mouth curled up in annoyance, and very cautiously he made his way up the rest of the stairs. Alexandra was nowhere in sight, so he headed back to his own room.
"You smell like burnt hair," Anna said, wrinkling her nose, when Alexandra returned to her room.
"I'll take a bath," Alexandra muttered.
Anna noticed Alexandra moving gingerly as she emerged from their bathroom and got ready for bed. "How did you get those bruises on your wrists?" she asked. Her eyes widened. "Did Larry do something to you?"
"No," Alexandra groaned. She hadn't even realized her wrists and ankles were sore where the Clockworks had grabbed her and swung her, until Anna pointed out the bruises. In fact, the left side of her face and neck was also tender, from having been so close to the bonfire. She couldn't stand Anna's worried look, so she told the other girl about the Clockworks' attack.
Once again, Anna's hands covered her mouth as she listened in horror.
"Oh, Alex, someone is trying to kill you!"
Alexandra couldn't help sounding frustrated and sarcastic. Anna looked guilty, but said, "I still don't understand why Dean Grimm would want to kill you, and you'd think, well..."
"That she could do a better job of it?"
"I don't know," Alexandra sighed, plopping down on her bed and staring at the ceiling. "Maybe I'll just ask her." She ignored Anna's aghast expression, and pulled the covers back to crawl under them.
The next morning, Mr. Newton's class was interrupted by the sudden arrival of a Hall Pass. The cream-colored piece of paper flapped its way into the room and fluttered in front of the Remedial Charms teacher's nose until he snatched it out of the air and opened it.
He said, "Huh," and then his eyes fell on Alexandra. "You're wanted in the Dean's office, Miss Quick."
Everyone was staring at her. Alexandra gathered her books. "I didn't do anything!" she whispered to David. He looked skeptical. She hadn't told him about the latest incident.
With her bookbag slung over her shoulder, she followed the fluttering Hall Pass through the corridors and back to the administrative wing.
"You can go right in," said Miss Marmsley perfunctorily from her usual portrait. "The Dean is expecting you."
Alexandra hesitated at the door to the Dean's office, and then opened it. She saw Larry inside and yelped as she hastily backed away.
"Come in, Miss Quick," called the Dean from within. "The transfiguration jinx will not affect you while you're in my office."
Cautiously, Alexandra pushed the door open again and entered, feeling a little foolish. She and Larry both looked nervous as she came within the proximity that usually turned them both into rats, but nothing happened. She saw that Ms. Grimm was seated behind her desk, and Mr. Journey was sitting in a chair to the side, where he could see both the Dean and Alexandra and Larry.
"I didn't do anything. It wasn't my fault!" she said immediately. Larry rolled his eyes.
"Offering defenses before one has been accused is a sign of a guilty conscience, Miss Quick, and I did not invite you to speak yet," the Dean said coolly. She looked at Journey.
"I take it you have thoroughly examined the Clockworks for jinxes and curses?"
"As best I could," the custodian/groundskeeper said. "I know some basic jinx detection and removal charms, that's how I removed that little jinx she put on them before –" He looked meaningfully at Alexandra, who maintained an innocent expression, with effort. "But I'm not a licensed dejinxer."
"I'm aware of that, Mr. Journey. However, the nature of this accident does not suggest a high degree of skill or sophistication."
"It wasn't an accident!" said Alexandra, and simultaneously, Larry said, "It wasn't me!"
"I did not invite either of you to speak yet!" Ms. Grimm snapped, and they both fell silent.
She laid a finger on her chin and her eyes narrowed as she regarded them from beneath long dark lashes.
"It is most likely," she said at last, "that your earlier tampering with the Clockworks – yes, I know about that, Miss Quick – resulted in their unpredictable behavior. However, to be on the safe side, we're going to have to have them all thoroughly inspected, and until then, I'm afraid I cannot allow them to operate near students."
"That'll be a problem in the cafeteria," said Mr. Journey. "Unless..."
"Yes, I know. Kitchen elves," sighed Ms. Grimm. "I am not looking forward to the owls." She turned her attention back to Larry and Alexandra. "But you, Mister Albo, can lend a hand in the kitchens."
"You... you're going to make me work in the kitchens?" Larry repeated, sounding appalled. "With elves?"
"Yes. Do you have a problem with that?" She smiled at him, and something about her expression was very reminiscent of Galen when she did. Larry gulped. "No, Ma'am," he said weakly.
"You'll work the morning shift... beginning at four o'clock," she said. Larry looked as if he were trying to swallow curdled milk. "Now, don't look at me like that, Mister Albo. It means none of your classmates will see you, and you'll have your evenings free at last. Although I suspect you're going to have to get to bed much earlier. A shame, that will probably preclude the Dueling Club, won't it, since now the only time you'll have to do your homework is immediately after class." She sighed, and turned her attention to Alexandra. "As for you, Miss Quick, obviously you and Mister Albo need to be kept even further apart, so you'll continue to do detention in the evening, in the library."
"The library?" Alexandra wondered if she'd heard correctly.
"Yes. Students are in there all day and Mrs. Minder tells me they leave books scattered everywhere, not to mention an appalling assortment of gums and candies left stuck beneath chairs and tables. You'll have plenty to do."
Alexandra opened her mouth, and Ms. Grimm said, "That will be all. Both of you may return to class. Mister Albo, you leave first."
Larry murmured, "Yes, Ma'am," and backed his way to the door before exiting.
"Someone tried to kill me," Alexandra said, staring defiantly into Ms. Grimm's eyes, after Larry had left.
"That's highly doubtful," said Ms. Grimm.
"Whoever it is has tried three times," Alexandra said.
Ms. Grimm arched her eyebrows. "Three times?"
"At the Invisible Bridge, when Galen tried to eat me and Larry, and last night."
If Alexandra had been hoping to surprise Ms. Grimm, she was disappointed. The Dean maintained her cool expression.
"You have an unfortunate habit of being wherever trouble happens, Miss Quick, and quite often, you are the cause of said trouble. I assure you, no harm will come to you from anyone else. I take the safety of all my students very seriously. But I cannot protect you from yourself."
"Or from your cat, apparently," Alexandra replied.
Ms. Grimm's eyes narrowed to slits as her forehead creased into a downward 'V.' "Once again, you are rapidly exhausting any latitude I'm willing to give you as a result of your unfortunate experience. Please return to class, Miss Quick." Her tone did not brook further discussion, so Alexandra silently turned around and marched to the door.
"Guess it will be harder to kill me in the library, at least," she muttered, just loud enough for the two grown-ups to hear her, before she exited the Dean's office.
Although David and Anna were now taking her more seriously, they still weren't convinced that Ms. Grimm was trying to kill her, or indeed, that anyone was.
"The Invisible Bridge could have been an accident," Anna said, in study hall that night.
"And you said yourself you're the one who opened the windows in the attic so that cat could get at you," David pointed out.
"And you did tamper with the Clockworks, with your dogger – I mean, your made-up charm," added Anna.
"So it's all a coincidence? You think these things keep happening to me just because I'm troublesome?"
Her friends looked at each other.
"Not exactly," said David hesitantly.
"We're certainly not saying you deserve bad things happening to you!" Anna added quickly.
"Fine!" Alexandra said. "Well, I'll behave myself and I won't cause any more trouble. Then you'll see."
"That would be something to see, all right," David said.
Alexandra glared at him, and caught Anna trying to stifle a giggle.
"In the meantime," she declared, "I'm going to be researching the Dark Convention."
She left her friends staring after her, as she left the study hall to head for her first detention in the library.