Snakes in the Grass

Most of Charmbridge's attics were full of old furniture, broken pieces of Clockwork golems, moldering books, ancient brooms whose charms had worn off, and other accumulated junk, but the Mors Mortis Society had either found, or cleared out, an empty space. Almost thirty kids were crowded into the large room at the end of the hall. The light came from half a dozen lit wands.

A pair of students wearing those ridiculous hooded robes and cowls – Alexandra couldn't tell whether they were the same boys as last time – were standing by the door. She saw several older kids who hadn't been at the previous meeting. The tall boy and the girl who had done most of the talking last time stood in the center of the room, waiting. None of them had introduced themselves yet, but during the week, Alexandra had asked careful questions of older students, and learned that the long-haired, dark-skinned boy was named John Manuelito, and the blonde girl was Sue Fox. They were both seniors.

Maximilian was there already, and he looked extremely unhappy to see Alexandra. She glared at him defiantly.

Darla and Angelique were the last to arrive; they came rushing in, almost out of breath.

"In the future, if you're late, you won't be allowed in," Sue warned them. The two girls looked chastened, and stood next to Alexandra.

John drew his wand and conjured a table in the middle of the room, which Alexandra knew was fairly advanced magic, but certainly nothing spectacular. Sue then produced an old brazier, which she set on the table. It appeared to be made of bronze, and had some inscriptions running along its edges, but it was otherwise unremarkable. She next pulled out a small pouch, and from it dumped several lumps of hardwood charcoal into the brazier.

"This is a Mayan Brazier of Visions," she announced. "It allows you to see the future."

Everyone looked interested, as Sue ignited the charcoal and brought it to a red-hot glow with her wand. Alexandra watched skeptically. A 'Mayan Brazier of Visions' sounded like some powerful, ancient artifact, but she wondered how a bunch of students had gotten hold of such a thing if it were really that impressive.

"It's old and powerful, and like a lot of old, powerful magic, it takes more than an incantation and a gesture to invoke its gifts," the older girl continued. White, slightly fragrant wisps of smoke were curling out of the charcoal blocks now.

She stared into the glow, and then John offered, "I'll do it if you don't want to this time."

Sue shook her head. "I can do it."

Murmurs went around the room from the newer members as she suddenly thrust her hand out over the coals, not close enough to touch them, but definitely close enough to feel the heat. She licked her lips, then dipped her hand slightly lower. Everyone, including Alexandra, stared, fascinated, as Sue kept her trembling hand only inches above the glowing coals, and tears began to run down her face, while she stared at the far wall. Then suddenly she exclaimed, "Ah!" and pulled her hand back.

Everyone was silent as the blonde girl inhaled deeply, and shook her hand. Alexandra could see that her palm was now red and blistered.

"Pain is what fuels your visions," she gasped. "You'll probably only see glimpses. But you have to hold your hand over the heat long enough to see something. We'll know if you didn't."

All of the new members were staring at the red-hot coals, and then Alexandra spoke up. "First we have to sign in blood, now we have to burn ourselves. Is all this hazing just for kicks? I thought we're supposed to learn something here!"

Everyone looked at her. Darla and Angelique seemed to be trying to pretend they didn't know her, while Torvald and Stuart were grinning, albeit a little nervously.

John and Sue had more appraising expressions.

"You will, Quick," promised the dark-haired boy. "Starting tonight. But first you have to pass this test."

Alexandra folded her arms, remaining skeptical. The spirit they'd summoned last time had been mildly impressive, but she wasn't volunteering to stick her hand in a fire first.

The new members lined up, and one by one, thrust their hands over the lit charcoals in the brazier.

"The longer you endure the pain, the more the brazier will allow you to see," breathed Sue, as a ninth grader gritted his teeth and made a little whimpering sound, before his eyes widened and he gasped, then pulled his hand away.

"A Grim!" he exclaimed. "I saw a Grim!"

Alexandra glanced around. Some of the students seemed to think that was ominous, while others looked as confused as her.

One girl's hand was shaking as she put her hand almost a foot above the brazier, lowered it slowly, held it there for only a few seconds, then pulled it away.

"I saw something!" she insisted, as the two senior Mors Mortis Society members stared at her.

"What?" asked John.

"There will be a big snowstorm next month," she stammered. "Winter will come early."

"Try again," he snorted, pointing at the brazier. "Or give us your coin and leave."

Everyone watched, tensely, as the girl tried, balked several times, and then shook her head. She took her MMS coin out of a pocket in her robes and flung it into the brazier.

"I don't believe any of you actually saw anything!" she declared, and turned and slunk out of the room.

The older Society members shrugged. "We haven't even started doing things that will really scare you," John warned. "Anyone else who's bothered by a little pain might as well leave now."

Alexandra frowned. Most of the newer members looked increasingly nervous. Even Torvald and Stuart didn't look so cocky.

When it was Tomo's turn, the sixth grader thrust her hand directly over the coals without hesitation. Immediately her arm began to tremble, and Alexandra could see in the girl's eyes that it was taking all of her willpower not to show pain. She held her hand there for several seconds longer than most of the older kids had, and when she pulled it away, she was pale and sweating. John and Sue nodded approvingly, and didn't ask her what she'd seen.

Alexandra was both appalled and intensely curious. Was everyone really seeing a vision of the future? Torvald and Stuart went before her, and both boys hissed as they subjected themselves to the burning heat of the brazier. Stuart muttered something about crows when he was done, and to Alexandra's dismay, gave her a narrow look. Torvald looked considerably distressed after his own turn. He whispered something in Stuart's ear about his grandmother.

Another girl and a tenth grade boy balked when it was their turn before the brazier, though the boy was almost in tears before he finally gave up. By now, all the kids who'd already passed the test were looking smug, and they snickered as their less brave peers retreated from the attic room. When Alexandra's turn came, she knew there was no way she was backing out. She saw Maximilian, who was still awaiting his turn, glowering at her, and meeting his eyes, she held her hand over the brazier.

At first, it was just hot, and she quelled her immediate impulse to jerk her hand away. She'd played with fire before, even challenging Brian to hold his hand over a candle flame longer than her once. She had won, of course. Her mother said it was sheer dumb luck that she'd failed to burn their house down when she'd discovered a box of matches when she was six, and begun testing the flammability of various household items.

As she held her hand above the brazier, though, the smoke began stinging her nostrils, and the pain increased. With every heartbeat, she thought she'd reached the point at which she wouldn't be able to bear it any longer. But with her eyes locked on Maximilian, she refused to surrender, even though her eyes were now stinging too, with tears, and her hand was shaking.

And she no longer saw Maximilian. Instead, she saw that wall in the basement, painted with bears or cats, and people and birds. Even as the painted stone wall filled her vision, her skin continued blistering; the pain hadn't lessened at all. She wanted to remove her hand, but then the pictures began moving and she wanted to see this, too, though she didn't know what it meant.

The terrible thing with wings, looking more like some flying monster than a bird, opened its mouth and screamed as it descended from above and carried one of the hapless human figures away. The four-legged beasts chased the other humans, who ran for their lives.

Alexandra blinked away even more tears. Now she could see the room full of students in front of her again, and Maximilian still staring at her, and yet in her mind's eye she could also see the moving cave paintings, and almost hear the shrieking of the bird-monster and the screams of the terrified humans. She also thought she could smell burning flesh, and the pain made her want to scream herself. She knew the vision would end as soon as she withdrew her hand, and she wanted to so badly. Surely she had passed the test by now. But she gulped, even as Maximilian's expression changed from disapproval to what looked like genuine alarm. Then his face faded, and all she could see was the painted rock wall again. The painted figures were fading, the wall was becoming pitch black, as it had during the ceremony downstairs, and suddenly Alexandra felt as if she were down there, standing in front of it, staring into a bottomless void.

Someone was screaming. It was a girl's terrified scream. It was loud at first, but it became fainter and fainter. Alexandra had the sense of someone falling, tumbling, receding somehow into that endless darkness, and she screamed too, and staggered away.

Someone caught her, and she realized she'd finally pulled away from the brazier. Her hand was in agony. She saw red, blistered, bubbling skin, and might have fallen to her knees if the boy behind her weren't holding her up. There were pale, shocked expressions all around the room.

Sue came forward and conjured bandages, which she began wrapping around Alexandra's hand.

"You can't go to the nurse," she cautioned, speaking loudly so everyone could hear. "Burn potions and simple healing charms won't work on these burns. Show them to Mrs. Murphy, and she'll know they were caused by Dark magic."

Alexandra was hissing as the pain in her hand burned and burned. Tears ran down her face. What had she just seen? Everyone was still staring at her.

She thought the older girl would ask her about her vision, but she didn't. She just smiled at her, and turned around. "Next."

Darla was pale and trembling as she held her hand over the coals. She flinched and whimpered, then squeezed her eyes shut, enduring the pain for several long seconds, before she opened her eyes wide and backed away. "My sister!" she cried out.

Angelique swallowed. Alexandra watched, remembering how the girl from New Orleans had been bragging about the counter-curses she'd learned at Baleswood. Angelique stared wide-eyed at the brazier, tried to put her hand over it several times, and pulled her hand back each time. In the dimly-lit room, her dark skin made her eyes seem unnaturally white and gleaming.

Finally, she turned to Darla. "I can't," she whimpered in a small voice. "I'm sorry."

Darla moaned in dismay. "Angelique!"

"If you're not going to do it, then give us back your coin, and leave," said Sue.

"Angelique, please," Darla pleaded, catching her friend's hand. Her eyes were still shining wetly.

Angelique took a coin out of her pocket and handed it to the older girl. Then, head down, she fled the room. Darla was left standing by herself, with tears running down her face. Alexandra felt sorry for her, and almost moved over to comfort her (though with one hand in a sling, and the other burned and wrapped in bandages, she wasn't sure how). But then Darla sniffed and rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand, and raised her head to give Alexandra an almost accusing look, as if she had some reason to be angry at her. Alexandra just stared back at her, until Darla looked away.

None of the remaining new members held their hands over the coals as long as Alexandra had. Even Maximilian, with a stoic expression, waited only until his hand began to turn red. Alexandra saw his eyes cloud over, like the others, as the pain brought him some sort of vision, but his face revealed nothing else.

Everyone was now wincing, blowing on their blistered palms, or just waiting tensely. John, who seemed to be the co-leader of the Mors Mortis Society, spoke again. "Remember what Sue said. Students can't start showing up at the nurse's office with magical burns. You can use pain ointments and numbing charms for relief, but tonight I'll teach you something new: a Wound Relocating Charm."

Everyone paid rapt attention as John moved Sue's burn from her right hand to her left. It was a tricky bit of magic, and not everyone was able to imitate it immediately.

"Why is this Dark magic?" Alexandra asked, when she finally managed to move her own burn to her other hand. Her left hand now hurt just as much as her right had; she could see the charm's usefulness in moving the burn to a more convenient location, but it certainly wasn't going to make it heal faster or hurt less.

John gave her a creepy little smile. "Because," he explained slowly, "if you get really good at this charm, you can move your wounds to someone else."

There were several intakes of breath around the room at that. Alexandra saw Darla looking wide-eyed.

Torvald, after practicing several times, managed to move his burn to the back of his hand, and Alexandra saw that Maximilian had banished his somewhere out of sight. Darla was still struggling with the new spell when John announced: "We're going to teach you another charm now."

"This one is easy," Sue told them. "And it isn't a Dark Art, but it will still get you in trouble if the teachers catch you using it."

She reached into a bag, and pulled out a small framed portrait. A large, red-faced man dressed in a plaid shirt and blue jeans glared at them. There was an unremarkable room with a couch and set of windows behind him. He looked rather like a Muggle farmer, Alexandra thought, but he must have been a wizard because he moved in his portrait, looking around at the children gathered before him.

"You're all gonna come to a bad end, believe you me!" he shouted. "You listen to Sue and her no-good friends, and she'll get you all chained up or worse!"

"Shut up, Uncle," Sue responded, and pointed her wand at him. "Pictogel."

The red-faced man froze, mouth open.

Everyone stared at the portrait. It was now as static as a Muggle painting.

"Can he still see us?" Stuart asked, waving a hand in front of it.

"No," Sue replied, smacking his hand. "And the school portraits are larger and harder to freeze than my dear uncle. This spell won't freeze them for more than a few seconds. But if you're careful – and it shouldn't be too hard to sneak up on a painting, even for the clumsiest among you –" There were snickers at this. "– they won't even be aware that they were frozen when it wears off."

"Hooboy!" Torvald whooped. "We'll never be caught by those stupid hall monitors again!"

"Don't be a fool!" John snapped. "If you start using Freeze-Frame Spells indiscriminately, you will be caught! Before you cast it, you'd better make sure no one else is going to be walking down the hall when it wears off. The portraits will notice if people blink in and out of their view. And don't ever try it on Miss Marmsley."

It was almost a minute before the plaid-shirted wizard began moving again. Indignantly, he continued berating them, in the moments between being frozen by kids practicing the Freeze-Frame Spell. By the time everyone had cast it successfully, it was past one a.m.

"Remember," John warned them, as they began leaving, "try to use stairs and cross-corridors to avoid the portraits. The coins will help you, a little, but if you get caught Freeze-Framing a hall monitor, you'd better just take whatever punishment you get. Do not mention the Mors Mortis Society!"

But Alexandra was thinking about what John had said about the Wound Relocating Charm, as she made her way to the stairs, with other kids shuffling through the attic ahead of her and behind her. The thought of giving Larry Albo her burn was tempting – but besides the fact that it would obviously draw attention to her, it really did seem like a horrible thing to do to someone. Even Larry.

Although it would serve Max right to let him walk around with his arm in a sling, she thought.

She and Tomo found themselves together again on the stairs going down, and Alexandra gave the Japanese girl another dark look, wondering if Tomo was thinking about inflicting her burned hand on Anna. Tomo glanced at her only once, and Alexandra held up her own bandaged hand with an unmistakably threatening look. Tomo looked down again, and when they got to the second floor, she hurried away as quickly as she could to the sixth grade girls' dorm, while Alexandra snuck under the still-sleeping portrait hanging over Delta Delta Kappa Tau Hall, and back to her room.

Anna was asleep, and no sound came from the adjacent room. Alexandra felt both scorn and sympathy for Angelique, and only then, belatedly, did she wonder about Darla. The other girl had not accompanied Alexandra down the stairs, so she must have lingered behind.

It was hard to hide the burn the next morning, when Anna helped Alexandra put her uniform on. Mrs. Murphy had said the sling might come off in another day or two, but it was still hard to move her arm.

"What happened?" Anna asked, concerned. "How did you get burned? You should go to Mrs. Murphy."

"I will," Alexandra mumbled, thinking she might have to try to use the Wound Relocating Charm to put it on her leg or somewhere else where the nurse wouldn't see it, when she went to have her other injuries checked.

Anna was still looking at her expectantly, waiting for an explanation. Alexandra shrugged. "I got a little careless with a fire charm."

Anna frowned, and didn't say anything as she put on her own uniform. Alexandra knew Anna was too smart not to doubt her story, but she didn't say anything as they went to breakfast.

She cast the Wound Relocating Charm before going to see Mrs. Murphy, and tried to hide the limp it gave her when the burn on her ankle rubbed painfully against her pants leg. Mrs. Murphy took off her sling, but told her she was still forbidden to do sports or heavy exercise, including flying, for another week. Alexandra nodded, secretly pleased that this was another week she'd get out of JROC drills.

She saw other members of the Mors Mortis Society around school that day, exchanging meaningful looks with her. Now and then she noticed Darla wincing from the burn she was hiding. Darla and Angelique didn't seem to be speaking to one another, which made Alexandra worry about her friendship with Anna. She wished she could tell Anna about the Mors Mortis Society.

If Anna was worried about her, Maximilian was as critical as ever, berating both of them for their uniforms and posture, and shouting at Alexandra that having a 'sore arm' was no excuse for being lazy or careless. She glared at him, wondering where he'd put his burn. He didn't seem to be in any pain, but she knew he must be hiding it, because her burn still hurt a lot.

After he finished yelling at them, and Anna had already fled, head down to hide tears, he caught Alexandra by her uninjured arm, and whispered in her ear, "Now do you see that this Dark Arts stuff isn't something you should be playing with?"

"Why are you, then?" she retorted.

His jaw clenched. "Don't worry about me!" he hissed. "I don't want to see you at any more meetings!"

"Like I care what you want?" she hissed back. "Let go of me!"

His eyes were stormy, but he let go, and she jerked away from him, and stalked down the hall after Anna. She couldn't figure out why Maximilian King seemed to have taken a personal interest in her, but if he wanted her to quit the Mors Mortis Society, trying to bully her into doing so was exactly the wrong way to go about it.

She was surprised when the MMS coin tingled again the next night. By now Alexandra could recognize the most common astrological symbols, and deduced that the next meeting was Saturday, only four nights after the last one.

That Saturday night, they met outside the stables. It was chilly, and the Society posted lookouts, in case Ms. Gale or another member of the staff happened to check outside the building. Alexandra wondered what they were going to do that required being outside.

John announced: "Tonight, we're going to learn how to make a Snakestone."

Grinning at the sense of anticipation, he led them across the grass to the Quodpot field. Behind the stands there were several storage sheds where game equipment and other things were kept. Students weren't supposed to be able to open them, but John seemed to have no difficulty casting an Unlocking Charm on the padlock of one, and its small doors swung open with a wave of his wand.

Darla was the first to scream, as a great writhing, tangled ball of serpents came tumbling out. Everyone, including Alexandra, took several steps back. Her heart raced as she stared at the twisting, slithering, hissing mass of snakes, dozens of them. Then loud buzzing sounds drowned out the gasps and shrieks from some of the kids, and Alexandra's heart pounded even harder in her chest.


She'd been lucky, roaming the woods and fields around Larkin Mills; she'd never encountered a rattlesnake up close. Nonetheless, the instinctive urge to flee was strong. One boy looked as if he were about to pass out, and a sophomore, after unsuccessfully trying not to panic, finally broke and ran.

John ignored the flight of their newest former member, and said, "I put a Snakestone in the shed this morning. That's how many snakes it attracted. You leave one out in the forest, and in a few days you'll have a giant pit of snakes."

Alexandra stared at the reptiles, and tried to imagine how creating a giant pit of snakes would be useful.

"Snakestones actually aren't hard to make," John continued, blithely ignoring the continued rattling and hissing from the angry snakes. A few of them were beginning to slither in his direction, though most seemed to be staying where they were, by the shed. "And if you alter the charm a little, it can summon spiders or scorpions instead."

Shudders went through the group. Alexandra didn't shudder, but she was thinking that there weren't many good uses she could think of for a giant swarm of spiders or scorpions either.

"To make one, you need two things," he went on. "A stone, and a snake. So everyone grab a snake."

The older Mors Mortis Society members moved cautiously towards the snake-infested shed, while the new members stared at him as if he were crazy.

"Are you wizards or not?" John demanded. "If you can't handle some snakes..." He shrugged. "You all know the rest by now."

Alexandra saw that some of the veteran members seemed to know charms that brought a snake docilely to them, while others simply blasted one with a Stunning Spell. That seemed rather cruel to her. She frowned, and watched as Darla managed to separate a garter snake from the rest with her wand, and then looked unsure what to do with it. Tomo already had a black racer in hand. Determinedly, Alexandra approached a large copperhead that everyone else was avoiding.

"Petrificus Totalus!" she said, pointing her wand at the viper. It stiffened, and became unnaturally straight and rigid. Cautiously, keeping her eye on the other snakes, she reached for its tail and dragged it closer to her, before picking it up and holding it like a baton. She glanced at Maximilian, and saw that he was holding a rattlesnake by the neck. It was squirming angrily in his hand, but like several other students, he'd used his wand to cast a Silencing Charm on the buzzer at the end of its tail.

John waited until everyone had grabbed a snake, and then he walked into the now-empty shed, and retrieved a perfectly ordinary-looking round stone, which he held in the palm of his hand.

"All right. We're not all going to make Snakestones tonight. Having a couple dozen around the school, some of you are bound to let them out of your control. But I'll show you how to make one."

He tossed the Snakestone to Sue, then looked around, and set his eyes on the snake still crawling on the ground in front of Darla. She still hadn't quite figured out how to grab it. John walked over to her, and snatched it up.

"This one's not even poisonous!" he scoffed at her, before turning to the rest of the group.

"It's best to choose a smooth, round stone," he advised. "They're easier to get down the snake's throat." He pulled another stone fitting that description out of his pocket. He had everyone gather around to watch as he performed a series of incantations to charm the stone. Some kids were scribbling notes. Alexandra didn't recognize the words, or even the language – it wasn't Latin or Greek, like most spells they learned at Charmbridge.

Then Alexandra watched, aghast, as the older boy proceeded to force Darla's snake's jaws open, push the stone into its mouth, and stuff it down its throat. Alexandra could see the lump slowly traveling down the poor creature's body.

With a smirk, John handed the garter snake back to Darla, who stared at him.

"What am I supposed to do with it?" she squealed.

"In a day or so, the snake will die," John said. "Then you cut the stone out of its body, and the enchantment will be complete."

Darla looked as if she were going to be ill. Alexandra was more and more appalled. "Can't you get the stone out without killing the snake?" she asked.

John looked at her and snorted. "That's part of the enchantment, Quick. Didn't figure you'd be so soft-hearted over a snake. But the rest of you can let your snakes go, if it makes you feel any better."

Alexandra carried her petrified snake to the edge of the woods, and set it down carefully in the grass. She saw most of the other kids simply flinging their snakes into the woods, if they even brought them that far. Shaking her head, she returned to the crowd gathered around the equipment shed. Darla now had both hands around the snake's neck, though her arms were trembling.

"Where I am supposed to keep it?" she whined. "I have a cat, and my roommate has a jarvey."

"Then put it in a box. One that your cat can't get into," John suggested. "Oh, and once you've got the stone, make sure to keep a raptor feather tied to it, or it will attract snakes to your room."

Darla stared with horror at the snake, which was still undulating slowly as it dangled from her hands with that large lump in its belly, and then at John. Her eyes were wide and pleading.

"Did you really want to do this, or are you a little girl who wants to play with the big kids?" John mocked her.

Darla flinched. Alexandra again felt unaccustomed sympathy for her. The eyes of the entire Mors Mortis Society were on her now, and Darla's face twitched, before she took a deep breath and gathered her courage. She swallowed hard. "I can do it."

John smiled. "Bring the Snakestone to the next meeting." He looked around. "We'll practice some more snake magic next week. The big event, though, is Halloween. Those of you who make it through our Halloween ceremony will be ready to start learning true Dark Arts."

Alexandra walked back inside with Darla. The other girl had the snake in both hands, and looked a little green.

"Just let it go," Alexandra urged. "It'll probably throw up the stone, or something. You don't have to stay in the Mors Mortis Society."

Darla looked at her angrily.

"Are you quitting?" she demanded.

Alexandra frowned. "Dunno," she muttered. "They do know some cool magic, but..."

"Oh, but I couldn't possibly be as great a witch as you!" she sneered. "I suppose you think I can't do this!"

"Do you really want to keep a snake under your bed, and then cut it open? What are you going to tell Angelique?"

"I'm not going to tell Angelique anything, just like you're not telling Anna anything." They were back in Charmbridge's hallways now, sneaking back to their dorm, as the other kids did the same thing. Darla fixed Alexandra with a cold look. "Maybe you're just jealous, because I'm the one who will have a Snakestone. You're jealous because John picked me."

"I don't think so," Alexandra replied flatly.

Darla sniffed, and walked to her room, opening the door and slipping inside without another look in Alexandra's direction. Alexandra shook her head, and then opened the door to her room, once more crawling into bed as quietly as possible, so as not to wake up Anna.

"Darla asked me if she could have one of Jingwei's feathers," Anna remarked to Alexandra on Monday, after they'd been released from JROC drill. It had been another grueling day, with Maximilian riding Alexandra harder than ever, now that Mrs. Murphy had pronounced her healed enough to resume normal physical activities.

"Did you give her one?" Alexandra asked.

"She wouldn't tell me why she wanted it." Anna paused, and glanced sidelong at Alexandra. "She said it was just a charm she's working on, but she got all huffy when I asked questions about it, and told me, 'Never mind'."

Alexandra shrugged, and tried to look disinterested. She hoped Darla had enough sense to go to the aviary and find a feather. She didn't think Anna would react well to being told to check for snakes before going into the bathroom.

She lay awake that night for a while, but when she didn't hear Honey or Angelique screaming, she assumed Darla had procured a feather.

Anna knew something was going on. She didn't ask Alexandra questions, but she wore a worried expression the rest of that week. Another Mors Mortis Society meeting was scheduled for Friday night; Alexandra wondered if they'd continue to have weekly meetings. She didn't think she could keep sneaking in and out of her room at midnight without Anna confronting her. For that matter, it seemed risky to have so many students sneaking around after curfew; someone was bound to be caught eventually.

Friday night, Darla brought her Snakestone, looking quite pleased with herself. The Mors Mortis Society met outside again, and John Manuelito and Sue Fox taught them a charm to conjure snakes out of the air. Darla looked less smug when she wasn't able to learn it by the end of the evening. Alexandra found it a bit trickier than anything they'd learned in Charms class so far, and definitely more dangerous, but she knew it wasn't really Dark magic because in JROC, she'd heard Maximilian and Martin talking about using it in the Dueling Club. Maximilian was able to shoot snakes from the end of his wand with ease. Alexandra noticed Tomo conjuring several lethal-looking vipers. As the snakes multiplied, they slithered over to where Darla's Snakestone sat in the grass, and writhed around in a slithery mass.

Alexandra thought the Serpensortia spell was fun (she chose to conjure harmless grass snakes), until the end of the evening, when John pointed his wand at the growing pile of serpents and said, "Incendiero!" A fireball shot out of his wand and engulfed the snakes. For an awful second, Alexandra could hear their hisses, which in her imagination sounded almost like screams, and the smell of burning flesh filled everyone's nostrils, and then the snakes were all burned to ashes. She gasped, simultaneously impressed by the power of the spell, and horrified by what John had done.

"You didn't have to kill them!" she protested.

John wasn't the only one who stared at her in disbelief. Alexandra caught Maximilian frowning at her, before John asked, "What should I have done, left a bunch of exotic poisonous snakes to crawl off and hide on school grounds? You complain an awful lot, Quick."

Maximilian's loud snort silenced her, but she stewed on her way back to her room. She wondered if she was being stupid. They were just snakes, after all. It wasn't as if she wanted to keep one as a pet. But the casual way they had summoned the animals, and then simply destroyed them all when they were no longer useful, bothered her.

She was bothered by other things, too. Not all the kids who'd come to the first couple of meetings were still coming. Alexandra was having second thoughts herself; now that she was starting to recognize other Mors Mors Society members around school, she was beginning to realize that many of them were antisocial, creepy, or just plain mean. The club seemed to attract disaffected loners, misfits, and a few kids whom Alexandra suspected were genuinely disturbed. She was surprised Larry Albo hadn't been invited; she certainly couldn't imagine that he'd have turned down a chance to learn how to be an even nastier bully.

There were still a few members like Torvald and Stuart, who probably just wanted to learn more potent curses for their forbidden games of hexem, and others who were merely fascinated by learning things they weren't supposed to. (Alexandra had to admit this probably described her, too.) She wasn't sure why Darla persisted, though. This was not Darla's crowd at all, and she'd never struck Alexandra as being intellectually curious.

Besides a reluctance to be a quitter like Angelique, Alexandra had two other reasons for staying in the Mors Mortis Society. One was petty: Maximilian's bullying had made her determined not to let him win. The other was concern for Anna. Tomo Matsuzaka didn't seem bothered by anything they were doing, and if Anna's nemesis was staying, then Alexandra wanted to make sure she learned anything Tomo did.

Although Society members exchanged spells they had learned, and traded forbidden texts and bits of lore, most of it did not seem very dangerous to Alexandra. There were a lot of curses good for frightening and harassing people, but nothing as deadly as John's incineration spell. Alexandra's eyes smoldered when one evening she caught Tomo teaching an appreciative older student her Nail-Pulling Jinx, and muttered something about turning her hair into snakes next time. She felt a moment of vicious satisfaction when Tomo blanched, but she knew it was an empty threat.

The Mors Mortis Society continued to meet regularly throughout October. John and Sue kept talking about the Halloween party, and the older Society members grinned and smirked, which Alexandra guessed meant that new members were going to have to do something unpleasant again.

At their last meeting before Halloween, John and Sue said that only veteran members in good standing got to learn "real Dark Arts." Becoming a veteran member in good standing apparently involved going through more initiation ceremonies. Alexandra wondered, not for the first time, if this was just a hazing ritual the older members made all the younger ones go through for the sadistic joy of it.

A lot like the JROC, she thought, looking at Maximilian with a frown. He was examining an illegal mistletoe wand that a ninth grade girl had brought to show off to him, and when he caught her staring at him, he gave her the same angry, disapproving scowl he always did, before she looked away.