Crucio

Although every turn in the bare stone corridors deep below Charmbridge Academy looked familiar, the warren of dark tunnels was confusing enough that Alexandra was sure she wouldn't have been able to find her way without the MMS coin. Her wand was the only source of light now, but she advanced determinedly through the darkness, too outraged to feel properly nervous.

She didn't want to believe what Tomo had told her, but the younger girl was obviously too terrified to lie. That Darla had actually tried to get at Charlie was bad enough, but stealing her own roommate's familiar seemed to be a sign of something even darker and more ominous. Alexandra had never thought of Darla as a malicious person, not even after her pathetic attempt at a Killing Curse, but now she was starting to wonder whether the other girl had been possessed or something.

When the coin showed her she was almost at the meeting place – Alexandra was certain now that it was that cavernous room with the Indian paintings – she saw a cloaked figure ahead of her, leaning against the stone wall. The figure started as Alexandra approached, and asked, "Who's that? Quick?" in a startled voice.

"Stupefy!" Alexandra shouted, not even slowing down. A red beam shot out of her wand and caught the surprised lookout full in the chest. He collapsed against the wall behind him and slid to the ground, legs splayed out at an awkward angle. She stepped over him and kept going.

She heard gasps and cries of alarm as she stormed through the doorway, and found herself facing over a dozen Mors Mortis Society members. John and Sue were in the center of the room. Alexandra felt sick fury when she saw that John was holding a knife, and Honey was lying on the ground at his feet.

"You psycho!" she shouted, pointing her wand at him. "Expelliarmus!" The knife spun away with a flash of light.

John stared at her. Sue was standing next to him, blinking in astonishment. "How did you – you shouldn't be here, Alexandra!"

"None of you should be here!" Alexandra snapped. She turned her head, to look directly at Darla, who was the most startled of all. "I can't believe you!" she exclaimed. "You actually took Angelique's familiar to sacrifice in some sick black magic ceremony?"

Darla opened her mouth, and stammered, "I – I didn't want to –"

"What, they made you?" Alexandra demanded, gesturing at John and Sue. "And I suppose they made you try to steal Charlie instead?" Her eyes blazed, and Darla swallowed nervously.

"You are so dead!" Alexandra hissed. She walked right up to John, and looked down at the jarvey. Honey was strangely stiff and motionless. "Did you kill her?" she asked, horrified.

"Petrified," John replied. His eyes glittered.

"What were you going to do with her?" She looked at the knife on the ground.

John's other hand lashed out and caught her by the throat, and she was so startled she almost dropped her wand.

John squeezed, and growled, "Turn around, walk out of here, and never come back, or –"

Memories from last year were flashing through Alexandra's mind, when Ben Journey had seized her by the throat while she was bound and helpless, just before his final attempt to kill her. It wasn't something she thought about often, though she had relived it more than once in her dreams. She felt a flash of rage, and John cried out and let go of her, thrown back by an invisible force. He shook his hand as if it had been burned, while she gagged and staggered away from him, clutching her neck with one hand and pointing her wand at him with the other.

"You're all crazy," she gasped. She looked around. The other Mors Mortis Society members were staring at her, all looking shadowy and sinister in the dim light shed by their wands. There wasn't even a fire lit in the room. She caught a glimpse of Maximilian's face, standing to the rear, and then she turned back to John and Sue.

"This is disgusting!" She looked down at Honey. "Sacrificing pets? This is what scary Dark wizards do? You're pathetic, you bunch of losers!" She reached down to pick up the petrified jarvey. "You're really, really sick! You're all going to be expelled, like you deserve!"

Alexandra loathed tattletales as much as anyone, and didn't much like the idea of being a snitch, but she knew someone had to do something. The Mors Mortis Society couldn't be allowed to keep doing things like this.

"You're forgetting about the magical contract you signed," Sue warned quietly. "Tell anyone, and you'll be struck dead."

"Hah!" Alexandra snorted. "Like I believe that! You're probably too lame to be able to put a real curse on it! Anyway, I don't care."

It was rash, spoken in the heat of the moment. She was so furious about Darla, and their desire to harm Charlie, she wasn't even really thinking about consequences. It only occurred to her belatedly that this might not have been the wisest thing to say under the circumstances, as all the other faces around her turned hostile and ugly. Suddenly the path to the exit was blocked by several older students.

She raised her wand, but John was faster: "Expelliarmus!" Her wand flew from her hand.

John pointed his own wand at her. "I don't think you're going to tell anyone, Quick."

She stared at his wand, and wondered whether her rashness might just have been the sort of fatal mistake that Anna kept warning her about.

Until now, she'd regarded the Mors Mortis Society as a bunch of particularly anti-social troublemakers. The possibility of being cursed or beaten up had crossed her mind, but she'd assumed they wouldn't dare go too far. Mrs. Murphy would turn a blind eye to minor jinxes and hexes while patching students up, but serious injuries would be reported to the Dean.

There was a line she assumed even her worst enemies, like Larry Albo and Billy Boggleston, wouldn't cross, though. As she looked around at the sullen, malicious expressions on the faces of the Dark Arts students, and then at John Manuelito, whose eyes were gleaming and malevolent, it finally dawned on her that she might be in real, serious danger.

She squared her shoulders, and sneered. "What, are you going to kill me? Do you really think you'll get away with that?" While the confidence she'd had a moment ago was slipping away, she tried to look unfazed. "Are you really that crazy, that you think you can kill someone and cover it up, and no one will talk?"

Privately, she was starting to think that some of them just might be that crazy. She could almost hear Anna saying, "Why don't you ever listen to me?"

"We don't have to kill you," said John. "You'll promise to keep your mouth shut. In fact, you'll swear an Unbreakable Vow on it."

She snorted. "Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah." He smiled cruelly. "Crucio!"

Alexandra staggered backwards, stayed on her feet for a second, and then fell to her knees. She felt her muscles twitching and her skin crawling as pain flared along all her nerve endings. She let out a silent, breathless gasp, and then John raised his wand and kicked her in the chest, knocking her flat on her back. Some of the other kids jumped. She lay on the ground, staring up at him.

"Here's an opportunity to see what the Cruciatus Curse can really do," he announced, his eyes shining eagerly. "Since you were asking us before what it's good for, Quick... it's good for breaking mouthy little girls. Crucio!"

This time the pain was worse. It was like white hot wires running under her skin, all over her body. Alexandra bit down on her tongue to keep from screaming, and arched her back, then tried to roll over. The pain ran deeper, searing into all her limbs, and her skull itself felt like it was on fire. She moaned and shook violently.

At last it stopped, and she heard John say, "Why don't you beg?" He leaned over her. "Or would you like us to bring your little Chinese friend down here, too?"

Her response was defiant and profane, as she rolled over and punched him in the face. He jerked back, rubbed his nose, and pointed his wand again. "Crucio!"

It was even worse the third time. Alexandra cried out once, then flipped over onto her belly, and then rolled back over, as if there were some way to escape it, and the torment just went on and on. She remembered Nigel twitching and writhing around, and she felt like her poor snake, thrashing and twisting in agony.

I'll never beg, she thought, but hot tears were blinding her and it was becoming hard to think about anything but the pain, and the thought of John doing this to Anna made her want to throw up as much as the pain did –

"That's enough!" someone yelled, and the pain stopped. Blinking, Alexandra lifted her head, to see that Maximilian had stepped into the center of the circle. His hand had grabbed John's wrist and yanked his wand away.

John gaped in surprise at the other boy. He was older, and a little taller than Maximilian, but Maximilian was broader at the shoulders and much more muscular. Physically, the Stormcrow was easily a match for him.

"This isn't necessary," Maximilian said.

John's mouth curled into a sneer. "Getting soft-hearted?" he asked quietly.

"I don't think you can break her. All you can do is drive her out of her mind, or kill her." And as Alexandra shuddered, Maximilian told John, "I'll take care of her."

There was a long pause. Alexandra was dragging herself to her hands and knees, but she was all out of heroic acts of defiance – it felt like it would take a heroic effort just to stand. She was aware of tears running down her face, and couldn't do anything about it.

"You'd better," John said, and then Maximilian was kneeling next to her.

"Walk with me," he whispered, putting an arm around her waist. "Don't make me Stun you. You won't like being dragged by your ankles."

She glared at him, noticed that he was holding two wands in his other hand – his and hers – and wished she could Crucio him. But his expression was devoid of emotion, reflecting none of the hatred and fury she was feeling.

She allowed him to help her to her feet, trying to hide how weak she felt. She looked around, and saw everyone staring at her. There were a couple who looked as if they weren't happy about what had just happened, but most just looked hostile. Her eyes met Darla's, and she saw a mixture of nervousness, resentment, and something dark and fearful and unpleasant on the other girl's face, and then Darla looked away.

Finally, her eyes settled on Honey, still lying petrified on the floor, and as Maximilian began pushing her towards the door, she looked up at him, and croaked, "Angelique's... jarvey."

He blinked at her. "You've got to be kidding."

"Please," she whispered, eyes pleading, though it killed her.

Maximilian stared at her for a moment, then shook his head. He turned and bent over to grab the jarvey, while Alexandra swayed unsteadily on her feet.

"How are we supposed to demonstrate the curse?" Sue protested.

"Use your own damn familiar!" Maximilian snapped, and led Alexandra out of the room.

"You'd better make sure she doesn't talk," she heard John warn ominously behind them.


Maximilian looked down at the unconscious body of Tony Masterson in surprise as they stepped over him. He and Alexandra walked in silence until they reached the first set of stairs going up. Alexandra was feeling a little better with each passing second, but her legs were still shaking, so she didn't try to push away the older boy's arm around her waist. When they reached the stairs, he let go, and then she felt his hand against the small of her back, as if to support her, and she finally turned on him in a fury.

"Give me my wand back!" she hissed.

He looked down at her impassively. "Even if you hadn't just been Crucioed, do you think you could take it from me?"

"You pig!" she sputtered, along with a few stronger words. "You lousy, rotten, stinking –"

"Not here," he said calmly, still with that expressionless face. "Upstairs, and you can yell at me and call me all the names you like. You want to carry something? Here." He thrust the petrified jarvey into her hands.

She was trembling as they climbed the stairs. The sub-basement below the main basement, where she and Anna had confronted Tomo, was still dark and unlit. Maximilian held up his wand to light the way for both of them. He led her down a long corridor, past a pair of bathrooms, and a metal door opposite them with an old stenciled sign hanging on it saying, 'Warning: No Students Allowed!'

"I don't think any of the others will come this way," he said, when they reached the end of the corridor. Alexandra heard the sound of running water on the other side of the wall behind him, and then the sound diminished to a gurgle, and then nothing.

He let go of her, then, and while she lunged away from him, he calmly said, "Muffliato." She stumbled a few steps, and then turned to face him. The adrenalin pumping through her was starting to ebb, and the realization of what had just happened was beginning to sink in. She felt the urge to yell and scream at him drain away.

"What are you going to do to me?" she asked. "To make sure I don't talk?"

"Kill you, cut you up into little pieces, and feed you to the Thestrals," Maximilian replied.

Alexandra almost took a step back, and then saw the sardonic smile on his face, illuminated by the glow of his wand.

She called him another bad word. He just smirked. Then his expression became serious, and he walked forward until he was standing over her again. She glowered at him, until he handed her her wand.

"Aren't you afraid I'll hex you?" she snapped, grabbing it.

"Do you have any self-control at all?" His tone was very patronizing. "You are brave and headstrong as a blue bull, and about as smart. Why don't you think, for once, instead of just blustering and threatening?"

She hadn't been expecting a lecture like that, so she just stared at him, while he knelt in front of her, and looked at the hand clutching her wand.

"Put your wand away." Though he said it in a normal tone of voice, it was unmistakably a command. Alexandra started to bristle, and then, slowly, she tucked it into her pocket.

"Let me see your hand," he ordered, in the same tone of voice. He held out his hand, and Alexandra, now too disoriented and confused to argue, held out hers. His fingers closed around her wrist, in a surprisingly gentle grip, and he instructed, "Make a fist."

She did. Then he said, "Now open and close your fingers."

She obeyed, and he nodded, then held his wand up to her face. She flinched away from the bright light. "What –?"

"Just hold still, and open your eyes wide." His voice had actually become softer and gentler. Not sure what to make of this, and not sure why she was suddenly doing what he told her, she held still, and tried to force her eyes open. It was a lot like being at the optometrist's office, with a light shining in her eyes, and just like when the optometrist held up a penlight and moved it around, her eyes followed Maximilian's wand as he did the same thing. But she doubted Maximilian had studied Muggle optometry, so when he lowered his wand, she frowned at him.

"What are you doing?" she demanded.

"Long-term damage from the Cruciatus Curse includes impaired dexterity in the hands, and eyes that have trouble reacting to light and movement," he replied, sounding as if he were reciting something from a textbook. "You seem to be tracking fine, though. I didn't think you'd been subjected to it long enough to do any permanent damage, but I wanted to be sure."

She stared at him, not sure what questions to ask. Everything had become so confusing now.

"I can't believe you did that," he said, shaking his head. "Just charged in there like an avenging Power. Did it never occur to you that these fools are dangerous? After everything you've seen, did you think you could just barge in, tell them off, and walk away? A twelve-year-old girl against a Dark coven? And you did this to save a jarvey?" He looked down at the large, stiff rodent in Alexandra's hand, with an expression akin to disgust.

"Why do you care?" she asked. "You're one of them." Suddenly his soft tone and his gentle hold on her wrist seemed creepy and threatening, and she pulled away from him. He let go of her wrist, and she backed away, until she bumped into the wall behind her, but he remained where he was, on one knee. With his wand held out between them, she couldn't see much more than a shadowy outline and his half-lit face. She thought about drawing her wand again, but Maximilian still wasn't moving. Logic told her that if he meant her harm, he could have done something already, but common sense told her she should be worried about his intentions.

"What do you want? Do you think being nice to me all of a sudden will make me promise not to say anything? You've been bullying me and Anna all semester, and secretly practicing Dark Arts while you pretend to be a good JROC officer! Do your friends from Blacksburg know what you do at midnight? Does Ms. Shirtliffe?"

"There you go again," Maximilian replied calmly. "If I were a Dark wizard, how smart would it be to threaten me like that?"

"If you were a Dark wizard, would you believe me if I just acted like a scared little girl and pretended to do whatever you say?" she retorted.

She couldn't see his expression, but after a moment, the Stormcrow chuckled. "No, meekness doesn't suit you," he admitted.

"Stop acting like you know me!" she snapped. The anger was returning. "What do you want? You know I'm not going to just pretend like none of this ever happened, so you can drop the nice guy act. Either let me go, or do whatever you're going to do to me." She found herself curiously unafraid.

He stood up and whispered something that dimmed the light at the end of his wand, though it didn't extinguish it completely. "I'm not going to do anything to you," he sighed. "But you should be aware, that blood oath you signed wasn't entirely a bluff. You're right about them not being able to write a curse into it that will strike you dead. A Mortal Contract is far beyond the abilities of these posers. But if you do go rat out the Mors Mortis Society to an adult, you probably will be afflicted with something nasty."

She wrinkled her nose. "And you think that will stop me?"

In the near-darkness, she could see his head moving; shaking side to side, she thought. "Would you believe me if I told you that I'm actually on a mission?"

She blinked. "A mission?" She remembered Mr. Thiel, the undercover Wizard Justice Department agent who had pretended to be a janitor last year. "Do you work for the WJD? You're not really a BMI student?"

He shook his head again. "No, I don't work for the WJD, and I am a BMI student. But I came here hoping that the Mors Mortis Society would invite me to join them."

"So you could learn their secrets? You wanted to study Dark Arts?"

"The Dark Arts can be useful, but those aren't the secrets I'm after."

"What, then? Stop being so mysterious!" she snapped. "You want me to believe you're on some secret mission and you're not Dark, but you aren't really telling me anything! Why should I believe you, and why would you trust me?"

He cleared his throat. "Why do you think the Mors Mortis Society invited you to join them, Alexandra?"

She frowned, though she knew he couldn't really see her face. "I think you know why."

"Yes. Everyone knows. You're Abraham Thorn's daughter. Which, if all the rumors about him are true, means you could become a very powerful witch. And some of these blaggards were probably hoping that being friends with you would be worthwhile, because you could connect them to your father."

"I've never even met him," she said. "And I'm not Dark!" She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "You're starting to sound an awful lot like a WJD agent. Are you trying to trick me into admitting I know more than I do?"

There was a long pause, and then Maximilian chuckled. "No. But I know how you feel."

This only made her more confused and angry. "What's that supposed to mean?"

He stepped forward, and held up his wand so it shined light onto both of their faces. "Have you been interviewed by Diana Grimm, yet? Or do they have someone else assigned to you? Maybe that creepy bald warlock, Raspire?"

She stared at him. He looked down at her, his face serious and his tone earnest.

"The Mors Mortis Society invited me for the same reason they invited you. Because Abraham Thorn is my father."

Her mouth opened, but she couldn't find words. Having endured one shock after another tonight, she could only listen wide-eyed as Maximilian said, "I'm your brother, Alexandra."