Dark Arts

Normally, the magical chimes now echoing throughout the school were used only to signal the start and end of class periods. They had an emergency evacuation drill once a year, though Alexandra had always wondered why they couldn't just use magic to put out fires or divert a tornado. But it was obvious to everyone that this was not a drill.

Students were spilling into the hallways in a sleepy daze. The chaos helped the returning Mors Mortis Society members. Alexandra mingled with the other girls pouring down the stairs from Delta Delta Kappa Tau hall, and hardly anyone seemed to notice that she was fully dressed.

Anna did, however. Wearing a robe tightly wrapped around herself, and fuzzy red slippers, she shuffled towards Alexandra with an odd expression. "Where have you been?" she asked.

"Just out, with some other kids," Alexandra muttered.

Anna looked confused and a little hurt, but there was no opportunity for her to question Alexandra further. Janet Jackson was loudly demanding to know what was going on, almost in a panic. Sonja Rackham rubbed her eyes sleepily and told Janet to quit shouting. Constance and Forbearance, wearing heavy robes over their long sleeping gowns, walked barefoot down the hall, hastily pushing loose strands of hair back up beneath their nightcaps. They looked worried as they caught up to Alexandra and Anna.

"What in heaven's name's goin' on?" asked Constance.

"Is anyone hurt?" asked Forbearance.

"What makes you think I know?" Alexandra snapped, a little too sharply. Both girls jumped at her tone, and Anna stared at her.

"Where's Angelique?" Alexandra asked suddenly.

"Darla said she's a heavy sleeper," Anna replied, frowning.

"She'd have to be, with a pet jarvey," Alexandra grumbled.

"But Darla... she hain't there to wake her up," Constance said.

"Could she really saw wood through all this?" Forbearance sounded incredulous, as they looked around at the commotion filling the hallway.

"You guys go on, I'll get her," Alexandra sighed, and ran upstairs, to her room. She entered, walked through the bathroom, and banged her fist on the door to Darla and Angelique's room.

In response, she heard Honey scream: "Quiet! Lazy blob sleeping!"

"Angelique, wake up!" Alexandra shouted, and banged on the door again.

Honey shouted back, "Crawl into a hole and die!"

Alexandra gritted her teeth and opened the door.

Angelique was just a lump under her blankets. Her half of the room was a mess, with books, clothes, Halloween candy wrappers, and a plate full of cookie crumbs sitting on the floor. In contrast, Darla's bed was neatly made, and her entire half the room, decorated in pink and yellow and silver, looked clean and untouched.

"Mudblood go home!" shrieked Honey, from her cage at the foot of Angelique's bed.

"How would you like to be flushed down the toilet, you big talking rat?" Alexandra snapped at the jarvey.

Honey's response was a string of words that made even Alexandra blush. She shook her head and yanked the covers off of Angelique. "How can you possibly sleep through all this?" she yelled.

Angelique was lying on her stomach, with a soft velvet mask covering her eyes. She stirred a little, and one hand flopped around by her side, trying to grab the blanket that had suddenly been pulled from her. She didn't make a sound, though, and Alexandra realized that she must have put a Silencing Charm on herself, rather than Honey.

"Wake up, you idiot!" Alexandra shouted. The sleeping girl's buttocks were sticking up in the air, so Alexandra pointed her wand and muttered something she'd learned at one of the Mors Mortis Society meetings. Angelique practically flew upright, standing up on her bed and shrieking silently. She tore her mask off with one hand and rubbed her bottom with the other. When she saw Alexandra, her eyes went wide.

Alexandra smirked, but then felt guilty almost immediately. The other girl didn't just look startled and angry – she looked terrified. She grabbed her wand from under her pillow, and a moment, Alexandra thought she was going to hex her back, but she merely flicked it rapidly in front of her face, dispelling the Silencing Charm.

"What do you think you're doing, Alexandra?" she shouted, and then she froze, as she heard the bells ringing.

"Look at that booty jiggle!" snickered Honey.

"We have to line up outside now," Alexandra told her. "It's pretty stupid casting a charm so you can't hear anything going on around you."

"Stupid as a troll!" agreed Honey.

Angelique stumbled off of her bed – Alexandra almost had to catch her to keep her from tumbling to the floor – and staggered towards her closet. "You didn't have to hex my behind!" she mumbled indignantly.

"Stars above, what a behind! It's the size of Texarcana!" exclaimed Honey.

"I can't believe what you put up with from that thing," Alexandra muttered, glaring at the jarvey.

Honey uttered a particularly foul-mouthed retort. Alexandra looked at Angelique, who was yawning and digging through her closet. "Angelique, hurry up!"

"Stop shouting at me!"

"I'm not shouting!"

"Yes you –"

The door to the hallway outside suddenly opened, and Alexandra and Angelique floated off the ground. They both cried out as they were tossed out into the hallway by an invisible force. Most of the other seventh grade girls had already gone downstairs; a few who were trailing the rest looked over their shoulders, and snickered. Angelique had been wearing nothing more than a skimpy halter top that left her belly exposed, and a very tight pair of underpants, and now she was sprawled out half-naked in the hallway.

She shrieked and tried to cover herself up, then jumped to her feet and tried to run back into her room, but the door slammed shut and wouldn't reopen, despite Angelique's desperate pounding and screaming.

"Guess Miss Marmsley wasn't bluffing." Alexandra was amused in spite of herself.

"Honey!" Angelique cried. "What if it's a fire or a tornado?"

"We should be so lucky," Alexandra muttered, as Honey screamed more abuse from behind the door.

Angelique turned and gave her a furious scowl. "Look at me! I'm practically naked!"

"I can see that." Alexandra smirked. "So will everyone else in a minute." Angelique was rather proud of having more curves than most girls her age, and she'd made a snide comment or two about Alexandra still looking like a boy. Her smirk faded when she saw the other girl was on the verge of tears. With a sigh, she shrugged her jacket off and held it out. "Next time, Silence Honey instead."

Angelique glared at her, and took her jacket. They were about the same height, but she struggled to zip up Alexandra's jacket. They walked together downstairs, while Angelique tried desperately to pull the jacket down low enough so it would cover her underwear, without success. On the ground floor, students of all ages were now packing the corridors, and Angelique's bare legs set off a chorus of cheers and whistles from the boys. Angelique flushed and her face turned even darker.

Alexandra noticed that Angelique wasn't the only student who'd apparently not been fast enough in getting out of bed and getting dressed. The Assistant Deans were walking up and down the hallway, conjuring robes and tossing them at boys and girls alike who apparently liked to sleep in something less than a full set of pajamas. This was cause for a lot of laughter and rude humor. Vice Dean Ellis saw Angelique and, shaking his head, conjured a white robe. "Line up with the other seventh graders, Devereaux and Quick," he instructed, as Angelique hastily slipped into the offered robe.

They joined Anna and the Pritchards in line. Alexandra covered her mouth to stifle laughter, as she saw David wearing one of those thin white robes. It came down to his knees; below it, his feet and legs were bare. He gave her a sour look. Constance and Forbearance were blushing furiously, and seemed to be trying to keep their eyes fixed on the ceiling, rather than at all the half-dressed students around them.

"This better not be just a drill," David grumbled.

"You'd rather it be a real emergency?" Anna asked.

"If they dragged us out of bed naked for a drill, I'm gonna be PO'ed, is all."

"You sleep naked?" Alexandra raised an eyebrow, and Constance and Forbearance both turned even redder, while Angelique giggled. David glared at her.

"Not naked!"

"He was in his underwear," said Dylan Weitzner, David's roommate.

"And what are you laughing for?" David snorted at Angelique.

"Quiet, everyone!" Laughter and conversation died, as Dean Grimm's voice boomed out loud over the chaos. "You will all line up by grade, and you will cease all conversation immediately!"

Conversation didn't cease, but it became hushed whispers, fading abruptly to silence as Ms. Gale or one of the teachers walked by. The line of seventh graders, like the sixth and eighth graders next to them, seemed to be moving slowly into the entrance foyer, but they couldn't see what was happening ahead.

"What do you think is going on?" whispered Anna.

"I don't know!" whispered Alexandra back, a little too vehemently.

Anna blinked at her, and then Mr. Grue, looking more unhappy than any of the students at having been dragged out of bed, bellowed, "Quiet, Quick!" loudly enough to echo up and down the hallway they were in and the next ones over as well. Alexandra fumed as she heard snickers, though those died rapidly as well when Grue glared in their direction. She spotted Stuart and Torvald, still fully dressed like her, standing in line with the other eighth graders. They exchanged glances, and then looked away.

The front doors opened, letting in a gust of chilly air. Everyone craned their heads, to see Ms. Shirtliffe, Mr. Fledgefield, and Miss Gambola marching in, all carrying brooms. They disappeared into the interior of the academy, without speaking to anyone else.

When the students reached the foyer, they saw that Dean Black was at the head of the seventh graders' line. Likewise, the Deans of all the other grades were waiting for every student to come before them, one by one. As they got closer, Alexandra could see the Deans taking each student's wand, holding their own wands in the other hand, and repeating the same incantation over and over. It seemed to cause flickering light and occasionally a misty image to emerge from the students' wands. Alexandra couldn't quite hear the spell they were casting, and it didn't sound familiar.

Alexandra's friends each walked up to Dean Black, who did the same with their wands, seemed satisfied, and handed them back. When it was Alexandra's turn, he held out his hand, and wordlessly, she handed her hickory wand over.

Dean Black touched the tip of his wand to Alexandra's. "Prior Incantato."

A familiar-looking sparkly flash of light emerged from the tip of her wand, and he looked at her.

"That's not a school-approved spell, Miss Quick," he said. "Where did you learn a Snapping Hex, and who were you hexing?"

Alexandra looked guiltily at Angelique, who glared back at her, unconsciously rubbing her bottom.

"From Maximilian King," she blurted out, with a burst of inspiration. "He was teaching us a few dirty tricks in JROC. You know, for when someone isn't dueling fair."

Dean Black looked at her and frowned. "I'm not sure Ms. Shirtliffe would approve," he muttered. He checked her wand again for the spells she'd cast previously, which were nothing more than light and fireworks charms, and then handed it back and waved her away. "Get back in line."

Feeling smug, Alexandra rejoined her friends. She knew that even if Dean Black did check her story, Maximilian wouldn't dare tell on her.

Everyone was left standing in the hallways for over an hour, while every single student's wand was examined. Alexandra now knew what they were looking for. She wasn't sure which of the Mors Mortis Society members had cast that Dark Mark, but she spied Dean Price talking very sternly to Tomo, and wondered what the wands of other MMS members would reveal.

At a quarter to two, Dean Grimm announced over the Wizard Wireless PA that they were all to return to their rooms, and that all off-campus privileges for the weekend were suspended, even for seniors. Amidst general grumbling, muttering, and yawning, the Charmbridge student body flowed back to their dorms and fell into their beds.

The next morning, the bulletin boards announced a school-wide assembly immediately after breakfast. Since this was a Saturday, there was much groaning and protesting. But there were also murmurs and hushed conversations, as news of the Dark Mark had finally gotten around the school.

"Great, so we've got some wizard supremacists right here at Charmbridge!" David declared angrily. "I hope they find whoever's responsible and boot them out permanently!"

"Yeah," Alexandra mumbled uncomfortably. Anna was quiet, occasionally glancing at her with a troubled expression. She tried to ignore her roommate's worry as they ate breakfast and then trudged from the cafeteria to the auditorium, where Dean Grimm was dressed in formal witch's robes, and joined by all the other Deans on the podium at the center of the circular amphitheater.

"I'd like to talk to all of you about history, hatred, and the Dark Arts," Dean Grimm said, once everyone was seated. She looked particularly severe this morning, and her voice cut through all conversations immediately. The room fell silent.

"Ten years ago, Lord Voldemort was killed, in a battle that took place at a school much like this one, where students your age fought and died. He and his forces were defeated, after seizing control of the British Ministry of Magic and inflicting enormous suffering on the wizarding and Muggle communities alike in that country." Grimm looked around, her expression daring anyone to be looking away or whispering to a neighbor, but all eyes were on her.

"Sadly, the prejudices that led to the rise of the Death Eater regime are not confined to Britain. We have pureblood supremacists here, too, as well as radical separatists, integration extremists, and various other political dissident groups in the Confederation. We also have Dark wizards, from mentally disturbed loners with grudges to cabals of would-be Voldemort imitators."

Alexandra shifted in her seat. Was it her imagination, or did she feel many eyes on her suddenly? A lot of people thought her father was a would-be Voldemort.

"You have a right to believe what you like, of course," Dean Grimm went on. "You receive a multicultural education here at Charmbridge because, presumably, your parents believe in the Confederation, and the diversity of wizarding cultures that it represents. It would disappoint me greatly to learn that some of you believe in the sort of barbaric nonsense that has led only to bloodshed and wizard-wars in the past."

For a moment, her eyes seemed to be lingering on Alexandra, which made her bristle, and then Anna shrank back in her seat, and Alexandra realized Ms. Grimm was not looking at her at all. She glanced forward, and could barely see the top of Tomo's head – she, too, seemed to be cringing where she sat.

"Whatever you may believe, you may not express hatred or threaten violence, nor, as I told you at the beginning of the year, may you practice Dark Arts, regardless of your motives. Last night two students were found to have been casting spells that violate the Charmbridge policy against Dark Arts. They are already on their way home. We have evidence that other students have also been dabbling in forbidden magic. And those of you who've been sneaking around after curfew – you know who you are – should know that several of your classmates were caught and are now on probation, and if you continue, you all will be."

"Let me make this very clear – if you practice Dark Arts, you will be expelled! If you know about someone practicing Dark Arts and you don't report it, you will be expelled. Every year, some of you think you're clever enough to get away with it. You are not, I assure you."

Eventually, the Dean finished lecturing them, and they were released. Alexandra caught sight of John Manuelito as they were leaving the auditorium, and she was certain he was smirking.

Alexandra didn't like the way Anna, Constance, and Forbearance seemed to fall silent suddenly when she joined them for a game of Witches' Whist in the rec room. And in the cafeteria at lunch, their whispered conversation with David ended abruptly when she sat down next to them.

There was a Quidditch game that afternoon, and though Alexandra would rather have practiced flying on her own, or watched the Quodpot game, she and Anna and the Pritchards had once again acquiesced to David's plea to come watch the game.

As usual, he didn't play, but that didn't prevent him from correcting all the errors both teams had made, as he verbally replayed the entire game while they walked back to the academy. Alexandra was barely paying attention, until Anna cleared her throat, and asked, "Alex, are you all right?"

Alexandra paused, and everyone slowed to a halt. Even David stopped talking about Quidditch.

"I'm fine," Alexandra replied, frowning. "Why?"

Anna exchanged a look with the Pritchards, and Alexandra felt her temper give way, aggravated by her guilty conscience. "Is there something you want to say?" she demanded, in a belligerent tone that made Anna take a step back.

"I heard what you said to Mr. Black." Anna was having trouble meeting her gaze. "Maximilian's never taught us any new hexes in JROC."

Alexandra frowned.

"You were out late Halloween night, just like you've been out late lots of other nights –"

"Maybe I've actually been studying. Maybe I actually have some other friends besides you." Alexandra immediately regretted saying that, as Anna looked stung and hurt. But she was angry.

"All right, Alexandra," Forbearance sighed. "Let's just put it on the table."

"And if we got the wrong inferrin', you can be raged as you like," said Constance.

"We'll 'pologize," Forbearance said.

"And hope you can forgive us." Constance looked down.

"But you got us all a'fretted for you," Forbearance finished, with a deep breath.

"You don't need to worry about me," Alexandra told them. "Whatever you're worried about –"

"Did you have anything to do with that Dark Mark?" David demanded.

The other girls winced. Constance and Forbearance seemed to be holding their breaths. Anna looked fearful.

Alexandra stared at him, then finally broke the silence. "I can't believe you're asking me that."

David met her gaze, his jaw twitching nervously.

Her voice rose. "I'm a Mudblood too, or have you forgotten?"

"So you aren't involved with the Mors Mortis Society?" Anna swallowed, and looked pale.

"Alexandra Quick, are you practicin' Dark magic?" Constance asked.

Alexandra looked at them. Her first impulse was to say, "No," but she just couldn't lie to her friends' faces. Maybe, technically, she hadn't actually performed any Dark magic yet, but the memory of the words she'd almost shouted at the Boggart replayed over and over in her mind.

"I am not Dark!" she protested. "I am not into wizard supremacy or anything like that! That's stupid! I'm not doing anything wrong."

Her voice quavered a bit with the last statement, and she knew they could all hear it. She struggled to meet their gazes and not look away.

"Then," said Constance quietly, "tell us you hain't been practicin' Dark Arts, and got no truck with them that do."

"Tell us you hain't got no part in that fearful mark and you got no truck with them who did it," Forbearance insisted, just as quietly.

"Just tell us that, on your witch's honor," Constance implored.

"And that'll be the end of it," Forbearance agreed, nodding.

Alexandra's mouth was as dry as dust. She swallowed, and it felt as if her tongue were caught in her throat. She met their eyes, but no words would come out.

"Alex," Anna pleaded.

"Alex," David groaned.

Alexandra looked down.

There was a long silence. Then Constance said, in a tight voice, "We best get inside." She and Forbearance bowed their heads and walked away with hurried steps.

Alexandra looked up at David and Anna. David looked at her, shook his head, and turned to follow the Ozarkers.

"Alex," Anna begged. "Just say you're done with them. You'll quit, right?"

Alexandra frowned at her. She knew she should. What kind of idiots conjured a Dark Mark just to freak out the school? But being put on the defensive, having her friends ambush her like this, angered her, and it was her stubbornness that ruled the moment.

I'm doing this to protect you! she thought angrily, but she didn't know what would happen if she told Anna about Tomo. She was skeptical about the 'cursed' secrecy contract, but being unsure, and angry at being cornered, she said nothing.

Anna sniffed, wiped at her eyes, and hurried after David and the Pritchards, holding back tears.

At dinner, Alexandra started to sit down with her friends. Constance and Forbearance immediately moved down the table, without looking at her. David got up and moved his tray to sit on the other side of Anna, who didn't move, but didn't look at her.

Only Angelique remained sitting where she was, across the table. Everyone had learned that afternoon that Darla had been officially expelled; she had, in fact, been sent back to Chicago on the Charmbridge bus the night before. Now Angelique looked a little lonely and forlorn. She managed a halfhearted smile. "Hi, Alexandra."

"Hi," Alexandra replied. "Sorry about the hex."

Angelique grimaced, looked down at her plate, and pushed her half-eaten dinner away.

"You're not fat, you know," Alexandra told her. "You really shouldn't listen to Honey."

Angelique sighed, and got up from the table. "I need to pack Darla's things," she mumbled, and left. Alexandra ate the rest of her meal alone, in silence.

She thought Anna would continue giving her the silent treatment when they turned in for the night. Anna was quiet, at first, and then, while Alexandra was feeding Charlie and stroking the raven's neck, Anna asked, "Why, Alex?"

Alexandra turned around, eyes flaring, but Anna just looked sad and worried.

Alexandra forced herself to relax. "I didn't put up that Dark Mark. I didn't know it was going to happen." She didn't think that was revealing any secrets of the Mors Mortis Society. Nothing happened to her when she said that, anyway.

Anna nodded, but persisted. "That doesn't answer my question."

Alexandra sighed. "Can't you trust me?"

There was a very long pause, as Anna stared at her, and then to Alexandra's surprise, Anna walked forward and put her arms around her roommate.

"I do," she whispered. "I trust you not to intend anything bad. But I worry about you!"

"You're not my mother," Alexandra sighed, with a mixture of affection and exasperation, patting Anna on the back.

"Why can't you trust me?" Anna sniffled, her face still pressed against her. "Why can't you tell me what's going on?"

Alexandra hesitated.

"I just can't."

Anna slowly stepped back, and looked up at her, very seriously. Then she nodded slowly.

"All right, Alex." And she climbed into bed, while Alexandra set Charlie back in the cage. As Alexandra got into bed, Anna said, "Good night."

"Good night, Anna."

The Pritchards continued giving Alexandra the cold shoulder. They were never rude and never said a bad word about her; they simply didn't talk to her. Alexandra's heart was heavy, but she didn't try to force the issue. Likewise, David merely glared at her, and occasionally muttered things under his breath. He was busy with ASPEW and Quidditch, and had made more friends among the other boys, but Alexandra still felt the loss of his friendship acutely. It reminded her of when Brian turned against her.

I should quit, she told herself, and resolved that that was what she was going to do. The Mors Mortis Society wasn't worth losing her friends. She would go to one more meeting, she decided, just to find out what sorts of things they really taught – the "real Dark Arts" that they had promised, after initiation – and then her curiosity would be satisfied. She hated the thought of Maximilian's smirking face when she finally gave up, and she worried a little about Tomo, Stuart, and Torvald all learning curses that she wouldn't know about, but she'd just have to find another way to defend herself – and Anna, if need be.

A week passed without any more messages from her MMS coin. She saw John and Sue and all the other Mors Mortis members around the school – in fact, she learned that of the two students who had been expelled after Halloween night, only one of them had been in the Mors Mortis Society, and he was the eighth grader who'd quit after failing to face the Boggart. So whoever had created the Dark Mark had somehow avoided detection afterwards.

It was not until the following week that the coin signaled another meeting, that Saturday night. Alexandra could tell that Maximilian was tense about it; he had eased off a bit on the new wands since Halloween, but that week he was back to harassing Alexandra and Anna relentlessly, and shouting at them until even Colonel Shirtliffe told him to back off a little, after Anna nearly collapsed in tears one afternoon.

Alexandra chased him down after JROC drill that day. He was walking down the corridor with Martin and Adelaide. A gaggle of Charmbridge girls was following, flirting with the two BMI boys as they always did.

Alexandra rolled her eyes, and shouted, "Max!"

The Stormcrows stopped and turned around. The older girls stared at Alexandra, while Maximilian looked furious.

"We're still in uniform, Quick!" he barked at her.

"Sorry, Mage-Sergeant – oops, Mage-Corporal King," she sneered, stressing his newly reduced rank. "I want to talk to you!"

"Quick –" Witch-Sergeant Speir growled, but Maximilian shook his head and held up a hand.

"It's all right, Ade," he muttered. He closed the distance between them in two long strides, grabbed Alexandra roughly by the elbow, half-lifting her off the ground, and marched her away from the others.

"Ow!" she hissed, struggling in his grip. "Let go of me!"

"Don't you ever shout at me like that again, Quick!" he hissed back, and practically threw her against the wall of the corridor. He leaned over her, his eyes blazing. Furiously, he grabbed her by the front of her uniform and yanked her up onto her toes, so her face was directly below his, and for a moment, she thought he might actually start choking or beating her. "Don't you ever mock me like that in front of my fellow mages again, and don't you ever, ever disrespect me in public!" He shook her with each word. "Do. You. Understand. Me?"

Too stunned to say anything else, she just nodded, as her head was jerked back and forth. "Y–yes."

He stopped shaking her. She stared up at him in shock. He'd completely lost it.

Maximilian looked into her wide, startled eyes, and the rage that had radiated from him a moment ago seemed to dissipate. He exhaled slowly, and released her. She rubbed her neck, where her collar had been constricting her.

"What did you want to talk to me about?" he grated, through his teeth.

She licked her lips and cleared her throat. "If you want to beat me up or take out your anger issues on me, fine, but leave Anna alone."

He blinked, and stared at her. She stared back.

"Go ahead," she dared him, lifting her chin. "I can take whatever you can dish out, you big fat bully. But Anna doesn't deserve it."

Maximilian continued staring at her, then his mouth curled into a small smile. "And you do?"

That response wasn't what she'd expected, so now she was the one blinking in surprise.

"I don't care if you've got a problem with me because of my father, or because you don't like girls, or whatever," she said, and she almost backed away, when his face suddenly clouded over again. "But I want you to stop picking on Anna."

He regarded her for several moments, as his face regained its normal color. Then he said, "Chu is a weak little whiner."

"She is not!" Alexandra shouted. "And don't you ever talk about her like that again!" Now it was her eyes blazing with fury. Maximilian paused at that, and then he smiled.

"You want me to ease up on Chu?" He lowered his voice. "Quit the Mors Mortis Society."

"Why?" she whispered. "Why do you care what I do? And if you think it's so bad, why are you there?"

"Max, are you done with the new wand yet?" called Adelaide, from down the hall. They both looked up, to see the BMI girl watching them, with her hands on her hips. "Drag her off to another Saturday remedial training session if she needs more attitude adjustment."

"I may do that," Maximilian muttered, and he stalked away to join the waiting Stormcrows.

Alexandra stewed over her confrontation with Maximilian for the next few days, trying to decide what to do, and wondering just what his issues were.

Friday morning, she found her name on the bulletin board again, summoned to the Dean's office after breakfast.

"I didn't do anything," she said to Anna, automatically, as they stood in front of the board. Anna just sighed and didn't say anything, which left Alexandra feeling even more put out as they proceeded on to breakfast. Constance and Forbearance still weren't talking to her, and David just rolled his eyes and shook his head at her from down the table. Angelique had been very quiet for the past couple of weeks, and simply nodded to Alexandra and Anna as they sat down.

You'd think she'd enjoy having a room to herself, Alexandra thought, but she knew that Angelique probably missed Darla.

After breakfast, she went to the Dean's office, and sat down stiffly at the bench where Miss Marmsley told her to, looking like a proper JROC witch in her freshly pressed uniform. A minute later, Dean Grimm opened her door and called Alexandra into her office. Alexandra marched in, but paused when she found Darla there, standing in front of the Dean's desk. Startled, she looked at Ms. Grimm, who had walked back behind her desk and was now sitting down in her brown leather chair.

"Good morning, Miss Quick," the Dean greeted her pleasantly, which immediately put Alexandra on guard. She glanced at Galen. The black cat was sitting on the Dean's desk, and was giving Darla a narrow, cat-like stare, almost completely ignoring Alexandra.

"Good morning, Ms. Grimm," she replied, eyes narrowed suspiciously. She looked at Darla again, who was wearing much more stylish clothes than the dueling outfit Alexandra had last seen her in. The other girl seemed to have styled her hair again recently; it was now hanging in tight black spiral curls around her face. What was most noticeable about her, though, was her red eyes; she looked like she'd been crying.

"Miss Quick, Miss Dearborn has something to say to you," Dean Grimm prompted.

Alexandra frowned, and turned to look at Darla, puzzled.

Darla raised her head and met Alexandra's gaze, tearfully. "I'm sorry, Alexandra," she said. "I'm really, really sorry! I wasn't trying to kill you, honest! I'm so sorry if I scared you or hurt you. I was so stupid and irresponsible. It was the most awful thing I've ever done, and I'll never do anything like it again."

Alexandra stared at her, looked at Ms. Grimm, who was watching the two girls expressionlessly, and at Galen, whose tail was flicking this way and that, and then looked back at Darla.

"If you weren't trying to kill me," she asked, "then why did you try to cast a Killing Curse?"

"You have to be a grown witch to actually kill someone with it, and you have to be really good at magic, and you definitely have to have practiced with it," Darla replied. "That's what I read, anyway." She looked down. "I thought when I cast it, I'd probably just scare you, or maybe give you a nosebleed at worst. I just wanted to beat you, for once."

Alexandra stared at the other girl some more, then turned back to the Dean, confused.

"Miss Dearborn is not entirely correct, as I've already explained to her." Ms. Grimm's tone was sharp. "It's true that it's very unlikely that an untrained twelve-year-old would be able to throw an actual Killing Curse. But that spell is one of the most dangerous of all Dark Arts. There's a reason it's known as an Unforgivable. No one should ever, ever attempt it, because there is no defense against it. With enough power behind it, the Killing Curse will strike anyone dead."

Alexandra just continued looking at the Dean, while Darla sniffled.

"That apology was one of the conditions of Miss Dearborn returning to Charmbridge Academy," Ms. Grimm said, lifting Galen and setting the cat down on her lap, and then straightening some papers on her desk.

Alexandra gaped. "You mean she's not expelled anymore?"

The Dean looked up. "Her parents appealed her expulsion, and after hearings before the Board of Magical Education, the Juvenile Magical Offenses Division, and a meeting with the Governor, it was determined that her actions were reckless, irresponsible, and showed willful ignorance, but she did not have murderous intent. It has been decided that Miss Dearborn will be placed on probation for twelve months, and conditionally reinstated at Charmbridge. Any further offenses, of course, will not only result in immediate expulsion, but possible criminal charges as well. Miss Dearborn understands that, don't you, dear?"

Darla nodded. "Yes, Ms. Grimm," she murmured, in a small voice.

"She'll also be serving detention for the rest of the semester, and is forbidden to participate in any extracurricular activities," Grimm went on. She nodded at Darla. "That's all, Miss Dearborn. You may return to your room now. I'm sure Miss Devereaux will be delighted to see you."

"Yes, ma'am." Darla glanced at Alexandra, and then shuffled out of the Dean's office, head down.

Alexandra was dumbstruck, and said nothing even after Darla had left.

"You don't look happy, Miss Quick," Grimm said, in a pleasant tone. "Are you not satisfied with the sincerity of your friend's apology?"

Alexandra frowned. Right now, she was not at all sure that 'friend' was even remotely accurate in describing her relationship with Darla.

"I'm just wondering," she responded, trying to match Grimm's light, conversational tone, "if you'd let me back into Charmbridge after I tried to cast a Killing Curse at someone."

Grimm stared at her without blinking, then replied, in a much flatter tone, "If you cast a Killing Curse at someone, Alexandra, I think it's much more likely that someone would be dead."

Alexandra frowned. She wasn't sure how to take that.

"I guess it's a good thing Darla has parents who can appeal to the Board of Magical Education and the Governor," she said. "Since my mother is just a Muggle, I don't suppose she'd be able to do that. And I'm guessing an appeal from my father wouldn't help me much."

"No," Grimm replied dryly. "It probably wouldn't." She folded her hands on her desk. "Life is unfair, Miss Quick. If you're afraid of Miss Dearborn, I can arrange –"

"I'm not afraid of Darla!" Alexandra protested scornfully, and paused, as Ms. Grimm's eyes flashed angrily for a moment at the interruption. But the Dean didn't say anything, so Alexandra continued. "And I know life's not fair. Your sister dropped by to remind me of that, this summer."

Ms. Grimm narrowed her eyes. "Is there anything else you'd like to say?"

Alexandra opened her mouth, then closed it. "It has been decided," Ms. Grimm had said. Not, "I have decided." Had the Dean been forced to allow Darla back, against her wishes?

"No, Ms. Grimm."

"Are you sure?" Grimm raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps you have concerns about Dark Arts?"

Alexandra tensed. "Why – why would you think I have concerns about that?"

"Why, because of Miss Dearborn's foolish attempt to use an Unforgivable Curse, of course," the Dean replied. "I thought perhaps you might be worried that others could be learning magic they shouldn't be learning, and the danger that would pose to you, and your friends."

Alexandra stared at her, swallowed, and shook her head. "No, Ms. Grimm. I'm not worried about that."

Grimm was silent for a long moment, while her hand idly scratched Galen's ears, and then she said, "Well then. How are you enjoying JROC?"

"Not so much," Alexandra muttered.

"Really?" Grimm half-smiled. "Well, it's character-building. Dismissed, Miss Quick."

Alexandra almost offered her a sarcastic JROC salute, but thought better of it, and pivoted about and departed the Dean's office without another word.

Darla's return to Charmbridge generated gossip throughout the school. Alexandra had never realized how wealthy and influential the Dearborns were, but apparently they were major shareholders in Grundy's, her father was a Colonial Bank of the New World executive, and she had an uncle in the Wizards' Congress.

Alexandra wasn't sure how she felt about Darla's return. She wanted to believe that Darla hadn't really intended to kill her. She couldn't help thinking that the rich girl looked a little smug at dinner, though – as if she had gotten away with something. Constance and Forbearance had politely said hello to her, but stopped short of saying, "Welcome back," and Alexandra wondered if they were suspicious of Darla's Dark affiliations as well. She and Angelique were chattering as they usually did; Darla was bemoaning the fact that she had detention every evening for the rest of the semester, even on weekends.

"Well, if Alexandra could survive it, you can," Angelique joked.

"Hah hah." Alexandra didn't sound amused. Darla just looked at her.

"Is it just me, or are Constance and Forbearance being kind of cold?" Darla asked quietly, looking down the table at the Pritchards, who were talking to David.

"I suppose some people might be a little wary of someone who tries to throw a Killing Curse," Alexandra replied. "I know, it seems totally unreasonable, doesn't it?"

Angelique and Anna both froze. Darla blinked at Alexandra, then sighed. "You didn't really accept my apology, did you?"

Alexandra looked back at her, and the tension must have been palpable – up and down the table, and at adjoining tables as well, students were all looking at them, while pretending not to.

"No, I do," she replied. And in a slightly louder voice: "We're friends, right? So if you say you didn't mean any harm and aren't practicing Dark Arts, I should believe you, right?"

Darla blinked again, looked confused for a moment, and then smiled hesitantly. "Right," she echoed.

Constance and Forbearance were both very still, and David was staring at her.

"Detention's not so bad," Alexandra said, getting up from the table. "As long as no one is trying to kill you. I'm sorry I won't be seeing you at any extracurricular activities, though."

As she walked away, she felt Darla's eyes following her, and Constance and Forbearance both looked down as she passed by.

The next day, she spent the morning trying to help Anna do wand drills so Maximilian wouldn't shout at her so much. After Anna tired of that, they spent the afternoon using their wands to create little whirlwinds that scattered the fall leaves outside, playing wizard chess, and then studying for their Alchemy exam the following Monday. Anna was happy, and Alexandra wanted to put her at ease, hoping she would forget to worry about her, and feeling guilty all the while, knowing she was planning to sneak out that night.

In their room that evening, they heard Honey gleefully abusing Darla once again, while Anna fed owl treats to Jingwei, whom she'd brought down from the aviary. Charlie kept trying to steal some of Jingwei's treats, but Anna's great horned owl was becoming impressively large, and formidable enough to intimidate the raven with a remonstrating hoot.

"You know what? I should teach Charlie to talk," Alexandra said.

Charlie looked at her disdainfully.

"What? I know ravens can talk. You're not going to tell me a parrot is smarter than you, are you?"

"Charlie's not going to tell you anything," said Anna. "Charlie only does what Charlie wants to do, like someone else I know."

Alexandra gave her a narrow look, but Anna just smiled.

Alexandra shook her head and rolled her eyes. "If you talk for me, Charlie, I'll give you lots of owl treats. How about, 'Be quiet, Anna!'"

"How about, 'Behave, Alex!'" Anna suggested.

Charlie seemed to be considering this, while Alexandra snickered and Anna giggled.

"Just as long as Charlie doesn't learn to talk from Honey," Anna whispered, as they heard Honey calling Darla a fat... something bad. Alexandra shook her head.

"Charlie would never be a jerk like that, would you, Charlie?"

"Alexandra," said Charlie.

Both girls jumped, stared at each other, and then at the raven. Even Jingwei blinked her large golden eyes at the smaller bird in surprise.

Alexandra grinned. She reached for a handful of Jingwei's owl treats, withdrawing her hand quickly to avoid the owl's snapping beak, and held them out to Charlie. "How about, 'Alexandra is brilliant, awesome, and wonderful...'"

"... stubborn, troublesome, full of herself..." Anna commented.

The two of them went to bed laughing, feeling better than either of them had in weeks. Anna let Jingwei fly out the window, knowing the owl would go hunt and then find her way back to the aviary on her own. Alexandra smiled as she curled up under the blankets, but her smile faded as she remembered her secret meeting, in less than an hour.

When the time came, she listened carefully to the sound of Anna's breathing, and only began to throw her covers back when she was sure that her roommate was really asleep. Charlie stirred in the cage hanging by the window, and cooed, "Alexandra."

"Shh," Alexandra whispered pleadingly. The raven did some feather-fluffing, and then became still again.

With the utmost stealth, Alexandra opened the door to the hallway outside, slipped through, and shut it again. She then took out her MMS coin and followed it to the same stairwell she'd taken to go to their first meeting, in the lowest basement. Her feelings were decidedly mixed when she found Darla going down those same stairs.

"So, you haven't given up Dark Arts after all," Alexandra accused.

"You haven't either," Darla whispered back, as they began descending the stairs.

"I'm not practicing Dark Arts!" Alexandra retorted. "I just want to find out what the Mors Mortis Society teaches. I want to find out if they actually know anything. I'm certainly not going to be casting any Unforgivable Curses!"

Darla looked at her. "I told you –"

"Yeah, I know." Alexandra waved a hand dismissively. "Fine, you were being stupid. Like now. If you get caught, you're going to be expelled."

"We'll all be expelled if we're caught," Darla pointed out.

They went deeper into Charmbridge's basements, and lowered their voices to whispers. "The house-elves are down here," Alexandra whispered, as they reached the first basement level.

"But not in the levels below," Darla whispered back. "They're afraid of the lower levels, especially the room we met in."

"How do you know that?" Alexandra asked.

"John told me."

Alexandra frowned, as they crept down another set of steps. It was dark and quiet, and Alexandra and Darla both looked at their coins occasionally, in the light shed by their wands. When they reached the rocky corridor they'd followed last time, Alexandra looked ahead, and saw once more a pair of figures wearing robes and cowls.

"I thought we're already initiated," Alexandra objected, as the two girls reached the Mors Mortis lookouts.

"You are," said a muffled voice that Alexandra nonetheless recognized as that of Tony Masterson, a tenth grader. "We're here in case non-members or elves show up."

"And you'd do what, exactly?" Alexandra demanded.

Tony just shook his head and gestured for her and Darla to continue on.

The meeting was in the same bare stone room as before, with the disturbing cave paintings on the far wall. Alexandra and Darla weren't the last arrivals; some of the older kids followed them in, and Tomo once again arrived last. John Manuelito and Sue Fox waited, and Alexandra risked a glance at Maximilian, who didn't seem to be paying her any attention at the moment. He was staring at the drawings of human and animal figures on the wall.

Once everyone was there, John addressed the gathering. "Meetings will be less frequent now – the teachers are more wary, and Ms. Grimm is looking for us. They have magical alarms at all the exits, so they'll know if kids are sneaking in and out after curfew. Tucker and Mindy were careless idiots," he said contemptuously, referring to the two students who had been expelled after Halloween, "which is why Tucker never made it past initiation. You all need to be extra careful."

Alexandra thought it was interesting that John didn't even look at Darla, let alone direct any pointed comments her way, though other kids were certainly looking at her.

"Tonight," he went on, "we learn our first true Dark Art."

Alexandra felt both excitement and wariness. All her reassurances to Anna came back to her, as well as the denial she'd uttered to Darla. She did want to see this. Part of her wanted to learn anything she could learn that would make her more than the equal of other kids. What was a 'Dark Art' anyway, but magic that wasn't approved by the Department of Magical Education?

She saw that some of the other kids looked as apprehensive as she did, or more so. Others just looked eager.

John brandished his wand, and said, "Serpensortia." A large brown snake uncoiled from the end of it, and flopped to the ground in front of him.

Everyone waited. They'd already seen this spell. The snake lifted its head and began swiveling it side to side, sticking its tongue out to taste the air.

Then John pointed his wand at the snake, and said, "Crucio!"

The snake immediately flipped over, and began squirming as if it were on a hot griddle. Its body jerked and spasmed, and it emitted a loud, anguished hissing noise that Alexandra had never heard a snake make before.

Everyone stared. John and Sue's eyes were gleaming. Maximilian wore a cold, unreadable expression. Stuart and Torvald were wincing; Tomo was pale and her eyes were wide, though her face was otherwise a mask. But Alexandra felt a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, especially when she saw some of the other kids watching with what could only be described as glee.

Finally John lifted his wand, and the snake stopped twisting frantically about. It coiled up, slowly, as if in great pain.

"Tonight, we're going to start learning the Cruciatus Curse," he told them.

"What is that?" Alexandra asked.

"One of the so-called Unforgivables," John replied casually, as if he were discussing a Color-Changing Charm. "It inflicts pain without actually causing injury. Intense pain, but no marks, no matter how long you apply it. You can vary the strength somewhat, but even a 'light' touch with the Cruciatus Curse is agonizing."

He pointed his wand at the snake again. "Now, everyone point your wands with me. You have to hate this snake! We're going to –"

"Stop it," said Alexandra.

John paused, and scowled at her. "What?"

"Are you serious? You're teaching a spell to torture animals?" Alexandra was still staring at the snake. Its tongue flickered in and out, feebly, as if hoping to find a way to escape whatever had just hurt it so badly.

"We have to practice on animals," John replied slowly, as if explaining something to a small child. "It's just a damned snake, Quick. What is it with you and snakes?"

Several kids snickered. Alexandra lifted her gaze to stare directly at him.

"Practice for what?" she asked.

John blinked. "What?"

"If snakes are just for practice, what would you use that spell on normally?"

The snickering stopped. A few kids shifted restlessly.

"Alexandra, if you don't want to learn the Cruciatus Curse, you don't have to," Sue said impatiently. "But stop wasting everyone else's time."

"Right, I wouldn't want to waste your time when you could be spending it torturing things!" Alexandra shouted the last two words, making Darla, next to her, jump. She looked around the room. "This is what you all want to do, practice torturing animals, so you can, what, torture people? Are you crazy?"

"You're a mouthy little brat, Quick," John sneered. "What did you think Dark Arts were, conjuring flowers and bunnies?"

"Look, some magic isn't very nice," Sue said, in a slightly more placating tone, looking around. "But to really understand what magic can do, you have to study the dark stuff too, not just a few school-approved charms and transfigurations."

Alexandra stepped forward, and looked down at the snake. It didn't have a rattle. She hoped it wasn't poisonous. She knelt next to it.

"You've got to be kidding me," John snorted, as Alexandra reached out and carefully grabbed the snake's neck, then picked up the rest of it. It jerked away from her touch, then coiled around her wrist once she had hold of it, as if seeking something warm and soft to cling to.

"I didn't join this stupid club so I could torture and kill things," she declared. She stood up.

John folded his arms across his chest, still holding his wand, and smirked at her. "Fine, take your new pet back to your room, Quick. I'll just conjure another one."

Alexandra looked around. "Any of you who do this, you're sick. You really should be kicked out of school. And I'll remember all of you." She stared straight at Darla, who looked down, and then at Maximilian, who met her gaze with an unchanging expression, and then at John, who looked incredulous.

"Give me your coin and get out of here, Quick," he snarled.

She untangled one hand from the snake, reached into her pocket, grabbed the red-gold coin that had guided her to the Mors Mortis Society's meetings, and flung it at John, hard. He flinched and raised his hand, to deflect the coin from hitting him in the face, and gave her a look that made her think he was thinking about using the Cruciatus Curse on her. She just sneered at him, but her heart was hammering and her face was flushed. She held her head up, and didn't look at anyone as she left the basement.