A/N: Welcome to the story of Alexandra's second year at Charmbridge Academy! Alexandra Quick and the Lands Below is a sequel to Alexandra Quick and the Thorn Circle. While I hope that this story stands up on its own, it does refer to characters and events that were introduced in the first book, so I encourage you to read AQATTC first.
Many thanks to my betas, SwissMiss and Hermoine Jean Granger.
For more information about the Alexandra Quick series and the author, see my profile.
The heat of late August made Alexandra Quick's bedroom a hot, stuffy cell, even with the window open and a fan blowing. It had been a very hot summer in Larkin Mills, and the previous day, the air conditioning in their unit had gone out. The apartment superintendent had called the maintenance contractors, but said they might not get it repaired until later that day, or even the next.
Normally, Alexandra would have escaped the stifling heat of her room by going outside, where at least she'd be able to feel a breeze, and possibly go hang out at the bookstore or the SuperMart, or even the mall, but she was grounded – again.
She'd actually been very good this summer. She'd been grounded for two days, back in July, for back-talking her stepfather, but after that, she'd managed to stay out of trouble for almost two months, until now. Of course, that was in large part because she spent so little time interacting with her parents. Her stepfather was a police officer, and her mother was a nurse, and usually one of them was at work while the other was at home sleeping. Alexandra took every opportunity to get out of the small, cramped apartment they'd been living in since their house burned down last Christmas, so she usually only saw her parents in the morning or in the evening.
Now, however, she was grounded, and Archie was home, which meant she couldn't get away with sneaking out, and she had nothing to do.
Not even allowed to practice my magic, she thought bitterly, twirling her wand between her fingers as she lay on her bed. It was so tempting to cast one little spell, just to reassure herself that she still could. She hadn't been able to do one bit of magic all summer! But she knew that one little spell would likely result in the Trace Office sending her another nasty letter for violating the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, possibly followed by a Howler from Ms. Grimm, the Dean of Charmbridge Academy. Alexandra didn't want to think about what a Howler would sound like in this tiny apartment.
There was a black flurry of wings at her window, and then a large raven swooped past her head and landed on a bedpost, squawking.
"At least you can go out, Charlie," she said sullenly. The raven squawked at her again – a little smugly, Alexandra thought. Then she saw that there was a small gold chain dangling from Charlie's beak.
"Not again!" she yelled. She sat up and lunged for the dangling jewelry. Charlie went flapping up to the ceiling, then fluttered to the top of a bookcase. Alexandra chased Charlie around the room, slamming the window shut so the bird couldn't fly back out, until she accidentally knocked the fan over trying to snatch the chain away. It hit the floor and made a horrible sound as its blades went 'Whack! Whack! Whack!' against the inside of the wire safety cage, and then the cage split open and the fan died.
Alexandra cursed, set the fan back up, snapped the wire cage back into place, and tried to turn it on again, but something must have broken during its fall. The motor just hummed ineffectually, while the blades refused to move.
She beat her fists on her desk, and turned to glare angrily at her familiar.
"Isn't it bad enough I'm grounded?" she yelled. "Now you're stealing stuff, and I'm going to die 'cause it's so hot in here!"
She was interrupted by a fist pounding on the wall. "Alex, what's all that noise? I'm trying to sleep!" her stepfather yelled from the next room. "I just got off a twelve-hour shift; is it too much to ask that you give me just a little peace and quiet?"
Alexandra rolled her eyes and gritted her teeth. "Sorry!" she yelled back, not sounding very sorry. "I accidentally knocked something over." She turned her head and glared at Charlie. "See?" she whispered. "You're already getting me into more trouble!"
She raised her arm to her forehead, wiping away sweat and brushing her bangs out of her eyes, and then threw herself angrily back onto her bed.
Charlie did not appear moved by Alexandra's imminent demise, but after a moment, the raven tilted its head, and then Alexandra heard a jingle as the chain dropped onto her desk.
Staring up at the ceiling, she said, "You're going to get me into so much trouble if you do that at school."
Charlie squawked, a little more softly this time. It might have been an apology. Alexandra closed her eyes and sighed.
Then she heard footsteps, followed by a knock on her bedroom door. "Come out here, Alex," called her stepfather.
Alexandra frowned. Now what? She was already grounded. Was Archie planning on yelling at her some more? That wasn't going to help him sleep any better, she thought, but she knew better than to say so. She sat up, gave Charlie another glare, and snatched the gold chain off her desk with one quick motion. Charlie squawked angrily, but Alexandra ignored the bird's protest as she pulled open a desk drawer and dumped the chain with all the other trinkets and baubles her familiar had 'collected' over the summer. She slammed the drawer shut, and then went to open her bedroom door.
Her stepfather stood in front of her, in shorts and a stained white t-shirt; broad, ruddy-faced, sweaty, and annoyed. Archie Green had married her mother when Alexandra was only a few years old, and he was as much of a father as she had ever known. Now, he looked tired, but mostly he looked exasperated, as he usually did when trying to deal with his unusual and troublesome stepdaughter.
Alexandra just stared up at him, waiting for another lecture.
Instead, to her surprise, he handed her a wad of folded-up twenties.
"Go to the mall," he said. "Get your school clothes."
Stunned, she took the money as if she weren't sure it was real. She looked back up at him.
"School clothes?" she repeated, in disbelief.
"You'll need new clothes for school, right? You've been talking about it all week. Do you need your mother along?"
Several thoughts went through Alexandra's head at once. The first was that Archie was right, except he hadn't been paying enough attention – what Alexandra had been talking about all week was her upcoming trip to Chicago to buy school supplies. Charmbridge Academy would be sending a bus to take her and other students whose parents weren't able to bring them to the Goblin Market. Of course, Alexandra didn't mention the Goblin Market by name, but she had been talking about buying her school clothes and supplies in Chicago, not here in Larkin Mills.
Her second thought was that Archie was only willing to let her go on her own so he could sleep. Well, maybe there was another reason. He probably didn't want to accompany her while she bought underwear and things, and she certainly agreed with that sentiment.
Her third thought was that she was supposed to be grounded, but she decided not to point that out either. As if reading her mind, Archie said gruffly, "Make sure you're back before your mother gets home. I don't want another argument with her. But she's not going to have any days off until late next week." He pointed at the handful of bills. "And that's to cover all of your clothes and school supplies, understand? Anything that's not covered by your scholarship."
Alexandra nodded. That meant she needed to hold onto the money until next week, when she could convert it to wizard money at the Goblin Market, but for an opportunity to get out of the apartment, she certainly wasn't going to argue. And she did need new underwear, which she could just as easily buy here as in Chicago.
"Can I buy a cell phone?" she asked.
"No!" Archie snapped. Alexandra had asked this about a dozen times this summer, and the answer was always the same. Until getting grounded this week, she had had hopes that if she managed to keep herself out of trouble long enough, the answer might change.
"Fine," she muttered. She stepped back into her bedroom, and closed the door.
Despite Archie's refusal to bend on the cell phone, Alexandra's mood had gone from sullen and bored to gleeful. She smirked at Charlie, and pointed at the large birdcage hanging by her desk. "Get in," she commanded.
Charlie squawked indignantly. The cage was for travel, and a place to sleep, but rarely did Alexandra actually lock the bird inside it. But Alexandra pointed again, adamantly. "Now you're grounded!" she said. "If I leave the window closed, you'll probably die in here, and I'm not leaving the window open for you to go flying out and steal more junk. So get in your cage!"
The raven made a rude noise that very eloquently said, 'You can't be serious.' In response, Alexandra brandished her wand, and growled, "Charlie," in her most ominous voice.
Looking highly offended, Charlie hopped into the cage, and gave Alexandra a resentful, beady-eyed glare, and another angry squawk as she pushed the cage door shut and latched it. Alexandra was relieved that Charlie had never called her bluff. Even if she weren't worried about the Trace Office, she didn't think she could bear to actually punish her familiar.
"You have to stop stealing stuff," she said quietly, as she opened the window to let a little air back in, and made sure Charlie's cage was positioned in the shade, and that the bird's water bottle was full. Huffily, the raven fluffed its wings in response, and seemed to be ignoring her.
Alexandra put on her shoes and socks, then pulled her backpack out from under her bed, carefully put the money Archie had given her in one of the interior pockets, and pushed her wand all the way to the bottom. She then went to the kitchen and added a juice bottle, some cookies, and a SnackPac lunch to her bag, and hurried out the door, before Archie changed his mind about letting her go. As she left, she almost laughed at the irony: she was grounded because she had gone home and stayed there without parental supervision, and now she was being released and sent to the mall without parental supervision because her stepfather didn't want her at home.
Her grounding was totally unfair to begin with. Why did her parents think she couldn't be left alone during the day? Alexandra was twelve, which meant she was almost a teenager, which meant she didn't need anyone to watch her.
At least, that was how she saw it. Unfortunately, her parents saw it differently. While Alexandra had always been an extremely independent child, and had spent more than a few afternoons at home alone because of her parents' work schedules, they had decided that leaving her unsupervised all summer wasn't acceptable. They were no longer living on Sweetmaple Avenue, with her friend Brian Seabury and his stay-at-home mom down the street, and nearby parks and fields for the kids to play in. Instead, they were stuck in an apartment in downtown Larkin Mills. The superintendent didn't appreciate children running around unsupervised in the complex, and Alexandra's mother didn't trust her not to get into trouble, hanging out on the streets all day.
That was how Alexandra wound up going to Vacation Bible School.
This was, in her opinion, the dumbest idea her mother had ever had. It was like a bad joke. Alexandra had never been to church in her life, and she doubted her mother or stepfather had either. If she'd known what the alternative was going to be, she might have said yes to soccer camp or the YMCA summer daycare program, but she wasn't really interested in soccer, and she knew Brian and Bonnie Seabury, along with Billy Boggleston and his annoying friends, were going to be at the YMCA program. Alexandra foolishly thought that refusing those two options would mean her parents would have no choice but to just let her stay home unsupervised.
Instead, her mother had enrolled her in the Larkin Mills Baptist Church's Vacation Bible School over the summer. Alexandra was horrified.
She did make an honest effort to behave herself, though. She really wanted a cell phone.
The first day, she was sent home with a note saying that shorts weren't allowed; girls had to wear long pants or dresses. So Alexandra wore long pants, even in the sweltering heat of summer. One of the other girls whispered confidentially to her that skirts were much cooler, which Alexandra supposed was probably true, but she'd wear a dress when hell froze over. Saying that aloud got her sent home with another note.
After that, she managed to avoid getting sent home with any more notes, but Larkin Mills Baptist Bible School was week after week of unending misery. She wasn't overtly defiant, but the Bible school teachers were very concerned about her soul nonetheless; she refused to pray or memorize Bible verses or sing hymns, and she was resistant to all their 'counseling' attempts. She counted down the days until summer would end and she could go back to Charmbridge Academy, whose teachers were sometimes just as crazy as those at Larkin Mills Baptist Bible School, and not always as nice, but at least they taught things that made sense to her. She wanted to do magic again so very badly.
Then, in the last week of Vacation Bible School, came the Evils of Witchcraft.
It was Alexandra's unchurched upbringing that made her Bible school teachers' sudden assault on magic and witchcraft so shocking. She didn't think Muggles believed in magic; she never expected to find out that some of them did, and thought it was all dark and evil. The Evils of Witchcraft lessons started with a condemnation of a popular children's book series, which Alexandra had read and found entertaining, albeit completely wrong in every detail when it came to magic. These books, the teachers told them, encouraged witchcraft, which led to devil worship.
Alexandra spent the next couple of days aghast and appalled. She knew that if she argued, they'd just think she was lying or crazy. Unless they actually believed her, which might be even worse. So she folded her arms and glowered silently, while the teachers talked about all the other things that constituted 'witchcraft.'
But the last straw was when Amy Gavello raised her hand and asked if it was true that the Bible said that witches should be put to death, and one of the teachers immediately replied, "Yes, thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."
A couple of the other teachers hastily clarified, adding that the Bible also said Thou shalt not kill, which meant they weren't allowed to go around burning witches. But then during lunch, Amy and her friends started talking about witches' familiars, which according to Amy were actually demons in disguise. Then Davan MacLeod (who made quite a show of his love for Jesus during Prayer & Confession) said he thought cats were evil anyway. Then he started talking about the stray cats and crows he'd shot with his air gun, laughing as he dramatically described the noises they made.
While the other boys laughed, and the girls just made faces, Alexandra felt something snap inside her. Her wand was always in a pocket or in her book bag, because she didn't like leaving it at home, but she'd never been so tempted to use it on a Muggle before.
Davan suddenly made gagging noises and spit up the milk he'd been drinking. Amy did the same thing, choking on the fruit juice she had just swallowed. Then one of her friends shrieked and dropped her sandwich as if it had bitten her.
"There are worms in my sandwich!" she screamed.
Around the lunch table, milk instantly curdled, juice went sour, and food became inedible, rotten and crawling with bugs. Alexandra's erstwhile classmates ran for the restrooms, or threw up right there at the table.
Wordlessly, Alexandra stood up and marched out of the classroom where they all ate lunch, and left Larkin Mills Baptist Church before any of the teachers noticed she was gone.
Of course, they noticed after lunch, and frantically called both her parents at work. Once Archie and Claudia Green determined that Alexandra had simply gone home, they told her to stay there, and then her mother and stepfather both yelled at her, in turn, when they got home. Alexandra declared that she wasn't going back to Vacation Bible School, that they'd have to tie her up and drag her there if they intended her to go, and that if they did, she'd run away from Larkin Mills Baptist Church as soon as she was able, so they shouldn't even bother.
Since there were only two days left in the week, her mother told her, furiously, that if she really wanted to stay home that badly, she could, but she was grounded until she went back to school.
That was how Alexandra came to be grounded, and she still thought it was unfair. What was worse was the fact that she couldn't really tell her mother why she'd pitched a fit over the stupid Vacation Bible School in the final week, after having endured it for almost two months. Her mother and her stepfather still didn't really know that Alexandra was a witch, didn't quite grasp that Charmbridge Academy was not a normal school, and Alexandra had yet to figure out how to explain it to them, or whether she should.
She waited nervously all the next day for an owl from the Trace Office to arrive, or a Howler, but nothing happened as a result of her spontaneous magical outburst. Maybe they could tell when it was an accident and wouldn't count it against her, she thought, but she suspected she was going to hear about it, sooner or later.
The Larkin Mills Mall was a new addition to the downtown area. It had only opened a few years ago, and had become a favorite hangout of the town's teens. Alexandra didn't intend to buy much (except underwear), but the air-conditioned interior would be blessed relief from her stuffy bedroom, and she could easily spend the few hours she had until her mother got off work wandering around in the mall courtyards, window shopping, or perhaps using a few dollars from what Archie had given her to play video games at the arcade.
She spent about an hour just walking around, looking in windows, occasionally venturing into the more interesting stores, and standing in front of the large water fountain in the center of the mall. Finally, she decided she might as well get her actual shopping over with, so she headed into one of the two large department stores in the mall.
Buying underwear, a few extra pairs of socks, and a hair band (she'd let her straight black hair grow a little longer over the summer) didn't take long. She carefully tucked the bag with her purchases into her backpack, making sure the receipt stapled to the bag was on top, in case someone challenged her on the way out of the store. As she straightened up, preparing to lift her backpack off the chair in front of her, she found herself looking directly at Bonnie Seabury.
Bonnie was Brian Seabury's little sister. When Brian and Alexandra had hung out together – which they had done constantly, until last summer – Bonnie had often tagged along. Alexandra liked her well enough, but hadn't spoken to her or Brian since December. Brian and Alexandra were no longer friends.
Alexandra looked around, trying to spot Brian or his mother, since she knew Bonnie couldn't be here by herself. When she didn't see them immediately, she looked back at Bonnie, and thought about going over to say hello, and then saw what Bonnie was doing. The younger girl was standing in front of a display of clips and combs and other hair ornaments, and as Alexandra watched, Bonnie stuffed a sparkling green and silver scrunchie into her pocket, followed by a black and red satin one.
Alexandra blinked, amazed. It had always bemused her, how straight-laced the Seaburys were. In fact, it was Alexandra's own reckless disregard for rules that had contributed to the demise of her friendship with Brian. (Though a Kappa almost drowning Bonnie, for which Brian blamed Alexandra, had a lot more to do with it.) So she was shocked to see Bonnie shoplifting. She looked around again, and saw the nearest clerk was at a counter on the other side of the lingerie section, and there was still no sign of Brian or Mrs. Seabury. She glanced quickly overhead, and saw one of those black plastic bubbles in the ceiling that hid a security camera. No telling if it was pointing at Bonnie right now, but the other girl clearly hadn't noticed it, or thought about store surveillance. They were in a far corner of the department store, with tall shelves separating this section from the women's shoe department. Racks of women's accessories separated them from the rest of the store on the other side, so it seemed like a relatively unobserved area.
Alexandra walked quickly across the aisle, between two racks of sunglasses, and tapped Bonnie on the shoulder. "What do you think you're doing?" she hissed.
Bonnie squealed and jumped almost a foot in the air, before spinning around to stare at her, red-faced. "A-A-Alex...andra?" she squeaked.
"Put them back, now!" Alexandra whispered. "Don't you know there are store cameras overhead?" And when Bonnie went white and started to look up, Alexandra hissed, "Don't look at them! Just put the scrunchies back, now! Are you crazy?"
Trembling, Bonnie reached into her pocket, and pulled out not two, but half a dozen scrunchies, and hastily put them back on the rack. Alexandra shook her head. "What were you thinking?" she demanded.
Before Bonnie could answer, Alexandra heard Brian say, "Bonnie? What are you doing?" And then Bonnie's brother came striding towards them, walking between shelves displaying women's underwear and pantyhose, looking annoyed and flustered, both at Bonnie and at where he was. "Mom's looking for you. We –" He stopped, as he saw Alexandra. "Alex?" Now he looked completely flustered.
Alexandra looked down at Bonnie. Bonnie looked back at her pleadingly.
"What are you doing here?" Brian muttered, unable to think of anything else to say.
They had been best friends, since they were old enough to walk. They'd grown up on the same street, they'd gone to school together, they'd explored Larkin Mills together. Alexandra realized, with a pang, how much she missed being friends with Brian.
But he'd turned his back on her and called her a freak. So she narrowed her eyes, and replied, "Buying underwear. What are you doing here?" She looked pointedly at the women's undergarments surrounding him, and felt a bit of satisfaction as his face turned red.
"She's buying panties!" someone said gleefully, and Alexandra turned around, to see possibly the only person she wanted to see here less than Brian: Billy Boggleston. He was with two of his friends, and she realized they must have seen her in the department store and followed her, since she couldn't imagine they'd venture into the women's wear department out of idle curiosity.
Or maybe they'd followed either Brian or Bonnie, since Billy and his friends were bullies who liked to pick on other kids. And Billy tended to avoid Alexandra. He wouldn't admit it, but she knew he was afraid of her. Indeed, at the moment, Billy was attempting to swagger confidently, while actually looking quite nervous. But he was unwilling to just walk away while accompanied by his friends.
Normally, Alexandra would have said something withering and vaguely threatening, and enjoyed watching Billy squirm, but she forgot about snappy retorts when she saw that Billy's friend Tom had picked up her book bag, which she'd left sitting on a chair.
She looked quickly in all directions, and saw there were no adults in sight.
"Maybe she's buying a bra, too!" sniggered the third boy, as if he'd suddenly thought of something enormously clever and witty. Billy and Tom both made snorting noises, and for a moment Alexandra felt nothing more than astonishment at how idiotic and juvenile they were.
Then Billy sneered, "What for?" with an exaggerated leer at her chest.
Tom started to open her bag, crowing, "Let's see what color panties she wears!" Alexandra began turning red, but not just for the reasons they thought. She was less worried about Tom pawing through her underwear purchases (which were still wrapped in plastic), than she was about him laying hands on her wand, at the bottom of the bag.
"Give me my bag," she demanded, advancing on them angrily and speaking in a voice that was calm, quiet, and very menacing. Billy sensed the edge in her voice that conveyed more than mere embarrassment, and looked as if it was taking an effort of will not to back away from her, but Tom just laughed, and turned on his heel. Alexandra realized with dismay that he was about to take off – probably he'd make a run for the exit, carrying her book bag with him, and she'd have to chase him all over the mall unless she were lucky enough to persuade an adult to intercept him.
Then the female store mannequin behind him reached down and caught his wrist.
Tom started, looked up to see who'd grabbed him, and then his jaw dropped. He opened his hand and dropped Alexandra's book bag immediately. Billy and his other friend looked as if they might wet their pants.
"Ow!" whimpered Tom. Alexandra thought he was about to cry.
The plastic mannequin, clad only in a lacy thong and matching brassiere, raised its other hand, held up one finger, and slowly and deliberately waggled it in front of the terrified boy's face, shaking its head. Then it released him. Tom took one step backward, grabbing his bruised wrist with his other hand. All three boys stared at the mannequin as if expecting it to step off its stand and come after them, but it merely returned to its previous pose and became rigid and motionless again. Then they turned and ran.
Alexandra dashed over to where her book bag had fallen, keeping her eyes on the mannequin at all times as she stooped to pick it up. It didn't move. Then she turned around, to see Brian and Bonnie both staring at her and the mannequin behind her, wide-eyed.
She took a breath. "Brian... Bonnie..." She stepped towards them, and Brian backed away, pulling his sister with him. "I swear, I didn't do that!" she said.
"Right," Brian gulped. He swallowed as he continued backing away from her. His face was white. "It's totally normal for store dummies to move by themselves."
Alexandra shook her head. She met Bonnie's eyes, then Brian's again. "I can't even do that!" she protested.
"Like it matters?" Brian shouted. "Stuff like this always happens around you! Stay away from us, okay?"
Bonnie, though scared, didn't have the same angry, horrified look as Brian, but she didn't resist as her brother took her by the hand and dragged her away. She glanced over her shoulder at Alexandra as they left. Brian didn't look back.
Alexandra was thinking that Brian's expression, for a moment, had reminded her of the Bible School teacher who'd told them Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, when someone behind her asked, "Is there a problem, young lady?" She turned around, to see that the store clerk had finally heard the commotion and made her way over to this section. She was now looking down at the preteen suspiciously.
Alexandra started to stammer something, and then another voice asked, "Yes, is there a problem, Alexandra?"
The saleswoman turned around, and so didn't notice Alexandra's gasp when she saw the tall, imposing woman who had just appeared. With her straight black hair, much longer than Alexandra's, and her high, chiseled cheekbones and sharp nose, she had a striking profile, and her presence was such that the clerk actually took a step back, unconsciously.
"We'd prefer that you not leave your daughter unattended in the store, ma'am," stammered the clerk. "We've had some problems with unsupervised children lately."
"She's not my daughter," said the other woman. "But we were just leaving. Weren't we, Alexandra?"
Alexandra was still staring at her, until the clerk turned around, and then Alexandra managed to nod. "Yes, Ms. Grimm," she mumbled.