Alexandra had been here before. Last time, it had been Maximilian she'd followed into the woods. He'd been going to meet their father in the Thorn family crypt.
Only a couple of red lights blinked in the trees as Valeria passed beneath them — Alexandra guessed most of the clabberts had found somewhere to hide from the rain. By the time she reached the same spot, they had scattered. She saw no lights flashing down at her, but the rain was pouring so heavily that she could barely see the golden glow ahead of her through the trees. She was beginning to shiver — her cloak was waterproofed, but it didn't repel rain like an Umbrella Charm, and rain running down her neck had already soaked through her clothing. Her charmed boots kept her feet from sticking in the mud, but it was hard to keep up with someone she could barely see. The frequent flashes of lightning were of little help once they were into the woods. The only advantage she had was that Valeria couldn't hear or see her either.
Once off the path leading up to Croatoa, the woods became dense and overgrown, and passage was made that much worse by the weather. Alexandra wondered how Valeria was navigating them so easily. Perhaps she knew a spell to part brush before her. Alexandra wasn't so lucky — she almost lost sight of the golden light ahead of her, and then yelped as a branch she'd pushed out of the way snapped back and hit her in the face.
She stumbled away from the brambles, wiping at her face. That had stung. After blinking rainwater out of her eyes, she realized she could no longer see Valeria.
Cursing, she hurried her pace. She went around a large thicket, and then had to double back when she found her detour blocked by a deep but narrow ravine, which she almost stepped into. The other way around the thicket led down a short slope, at the bottom of which was a newly-formed stream. Alexandra walked along it until she could hike back uphill, where she again found herself facing a longer, wider ravine. She couldn't figure out how she had gotten here — it didn't look anything like the path to the Thorn family crypt, nor could she figure out which way Valeria had gone.
She thought she was being careful as she tried to work out where she'd gone wrong, but after another few minutes of stumbling around, she had to admit to herself that she'd gotten lost.
Stupid, stupid, stupid! She cursed herself, and once more wished that she hadn't left Charlie back at Charmbridge.
While she tried to reverse her course and find her way to somewhere recognizable, she continued berating herself. She'd left her Lost Traveler's Compass in her backpack; having been through these woods a couple of times, she hadn't thought she might get lost while following Valeria.
Lightning struck, only a dozen yards away. Startled, Alexandra dropped into a squat, almost falling over as she covered her ears. An instant later, a tree crashed to the ground, so close to her that its outermost branches shivered directly above her head.
The storm was showing no signs of weakening. She knew calling for help would do no good; the thunder and the rain would drown out any noise she made. There wasn't much point in trying to hide now, so she cast a Light Spell, as she stumbled to her feet. It made it easier to avoid tripping over roots and rocks, but she doubted anyone would see it.
The trees were becoming smaller and more stunted. She realized she must have completely bypassed the crypt, somehow, because the woods were beginning to look more like a marsh. When lightning flashed, she could see higher ground to her left, and what looked like more marshes to her right, so she began heading towards the rise on the left, and stepped into mud up to her knees.
This sucks, she thought, struggling to pull her boot free. If not for its Mud-Repelling Charm, she might have had to slip her foot out of the boot entirely. She was now utterly miserable — soaked through, shivering cold, lost, frustrated, and, though she wouldn't admit it yet, beginning to get just a little bit worried.
It's an island, she told herself. How lost can you get? She had to reach the ocean eventually, no matter which direction she went.
Bolstered by this thought, she almost didn't notice the tug at her ankle. When she looked down, she saw only some unusually bright green plants — certainly greener than one expected to find in November. She jerked her foot loose, and continued heading away from the marsh behind her. There were more plants in her path, and as she continued walking, they tangled around her feet some more. Her steps slowed at first, and then after a few more yards, she found herself being seriously impeded. Thinking that she might be getting caught in a tangle of vines, she pointed her wand at the ground, to shine a light on the vegetation — and saw dozens of small, hinged mouths lined with little teeth gaping at her.
She jumped with a startled yell, and more mouths snapped at her feet. Some were already attached to her boots. She stepped back, pulling away from them, and they came loose with a ripping sound. Everywhere she stepped, more toothy plants were snapping at her, sinking their teeth into her boots and her cloak. She curled her lip as she kept trying to back out of the sinister patch of plants, and then a much larger shape rose up at her — another large, hinged mouth, gaping wide enough to close around her head.
"Flagration!" she yelled, pointing her wand, and a jet of fire engulfed the plant and turned it into a withered black stem in an instant, but more mouths attached to thick ropy tendrils were popping up and snaking towards her, wide open and hungry. Alexandra frantically backpedaled away from them, throwing more Conflagration Spells, and then she felt both her feet sink into something soft and spongy. Abruptly, she was in mud past her knees, and when she struggled to find something solid to push against, she fell backwards with a squelch. The ground was sticky and viscous and sucked at her as she tried to right herself. She was in it up to her chest before she realized what it was.
Quicksand! Don't panic! Don't panic! she told herself, feeling herself very close to doing just that. She tried to hold her breath and not move.
The carnivorous plants lining the quicksand didn't seem able to reach her; they just bobbed there at the edge of the pit. When she didn't move, she didn't sink. But she was helpless, and had no idea how to get out.
What a stupid way to get yourself killed, she thought.
She began trying to think of magic that might save her, but for all the spells Maximilian had taught her, apparently neither he nor Charmbridge Academy had foreseen the need to escape from quicksand. She had no broom, even if she thought a Summoning Charm would summon one all the way from the house. She wished she could conjure furniture out of thin air, as she'd seen some teachers do — a ladder would be very handy right now. She was sure there was some spell that would turn quicksand solid. But spells she didn't know were useless to her.
Her cloak felt heavy around her, as if it were about to entangle her and drag her under. She began trying to shrug her way out of it, and felt something in one of the pockets.
Carefully, she slid her hand into the pocket, trying to move without sinking further into the quicksand, and withdrew the Skyhook.
She was in a terrible position to cast a line. She raised her arm up as high as she could, and began swinging the hook around, letting out more rope until it was spinning in a tight circle around her. Even that motion made her rock back and forth slightly, and she could feel herself slipping a little deeper into the quicksand.
She held her breath, and then changed the direction of her spin and hurled the hook straight up, as hard as she could using only the strength in her arm. The effort caused her to sink a few inches further into the quicksand, and for a moment she almost panicked, when she felt it slide past her neck. She pulled on the rope, and gasped in relief when it held.
She finished shedding her cloak and thrust her wand under her shirt, and then began pulling herself hand over hand up the rope. It was hard, especially once she had pulled herself free up to her waist — the quicksand clung to her and tried to suck her back under, and she knew she had to move slowly and carefully, without kicking or struggling. She was shivering cold, her fingers were numb, and the rope was wet — it was slow, painful, and difficult. Several times she slipped back down the rope.
Eventually, she dragged herself up to the Skyhook — which had seemed much higher when she was pulling herself up the rope, but was in fact only about five feet above the surface of the pit. Her feet were still in the quicksand as she dangled there.
For a moment, she was grateful for all those cold mornings Ms. Shirtliffe had forced the JROC to run, crawl, jump, and climb ropes. But she didn't have any strength left. She didn't know how long she could hang there, dangling over a quicksand pit, surrounded by carnivorous plants. She thought about trying to curl her body to lift her legs up, and then swing her way to the edge of the pit, but that would only land her right into the midst of all those toothy plants.
She closed her eyes, willing herself not to panic and not to despair. It wasn't easy. And then a bright light shined in her face, and she heard a voice call, "Alexandra?"
She opened her eyes. Someone was out there in the marsh, shining a beam of light from a wand.
"Stars above!" exclaimed another voice, much closer. "However did you get yourself into this predicament, girl?"
Alexandra turned her head, and saw a witch wearing long, brocaded robes and a bonnet, much fancier than those Constance and Forbearance wore, standing on the quicksand as if it were solid earth. It took a moment, as Alexandra blinked and shook her head a little, to realize that she could see through her — the witch was a ghost. More ghostly figures were now drifting through the vegetation surrounding the quicksand pit, to line up at its edge and stare at her.
"Alexandra!" called Valeria, from the other side of the quicksand pit and the plant patch, trying to shout over the rain and the thunder.
"Watch out for the plants!" Alexandra yelled back, though her voice was so hoarse that she wasn't sure Valeria could hear her.
One of the ghosts went gliding back towards Valeria, then returned and floated out over the quicksand to stand in front of Alexandra. He became almost invisible when lightning flashed behind him. He was wearing a uniform and carrying a sword — Alexandra remembered him, from her previous visits to Croatoa, though she didn't know his name.
"Can you hold very tightly onto that rope for another minute?" he asked. "Do not let go, no matter what."
"Ok-kay," she stammered.
He nodded, and retreated across the pit. Alexandra wanted to ask what was going on, but then she heard Valeria shout, "Accio Skyhook!"
The Skyhook shot through the air. It pulled Alexandra with it, jerking her feet out of the quicksand and then dragging her along the wet, muddy ground, right through the carnivorous plants. She yelled and kicked as they snapped at her. Some of them clamped onto her arms and legs, then were torn free of their stalks and dragged along with her. She came to an abrupt halt at Valeria's feet, still holding onto the rope. She looked up, to see her sister standing there staring down at her, holding the Skyhook in one hand and her wand in the other. Above her head, her golden Umbrella Charm was warding off the pounding rain.
"Merlin and Circe!" Valeria said. "What are you doing out here?"
"W-what are y-you d-doing out here?" Alexandra replied. Her teeth chattered. She let go of the rope, groaning with relief.
Valeria knelt and helped her to her feet. Several toothy plants were clinging to Alexandra; she felt so numb, she thought perhaps she just couldn't feel whether or not they'd actually drawn blood, and so was a little startled when Valeria simply pulled them off of her and threw them on the ground.
"What were you thinking, Alexandra?" Valeria asked. "Don't you know these woods are dangerous?"
"You went alone," Alexandra said. "And I've been here b-before." She saw that ghosts were gathering all around them, watching the two witches with curiosity and disapproval.
"I had a guide," Valeria said. "Our Great-Great-Uncle Joshua."
The uniformed ghost bowed slightly and tipped his wide-brimmed hat. "Joshua Norwood Thorn," he said, in a soft voice. "We met before, Alexandra." He looked younger than the other ghosts — he appeared to have died when he was barely Valeria's age.
"I r-remember," Alexandra mumbled. "Where's our great-great-great—?"
"Pacifying the Red savages," Joshua Thorn said.
"I'll go tell him that his descendants are safe and returning to the crypt," said one of the female ghosts, with incongruous cheer. She was elderly, like most of the ghosts, but she was barefoot and bareheaded, with her ghostly gray hair spilling down over her shoulders, which were covered only in a nightgown. None of the other ghosts seemed scandalized by this, nor by the conspicuous bloody wound in the center of her chest.
"Thank you, Hecuba," Joshua said, and the ghost in the nightgown flew off into the night.
Valeria shook her head. "You tried to follow me, didn't you?"
"Yes." Alexandra didn't see any point in lying. She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. Valeria put an arm around her.
"It's a good thing one of the Indians spotted you," Valeria said. "You're a very foolish girl!"
"An Indian ghost told you where I was?"
"They were watching you," her Great-Great-Uncle Joshua said. "They told us a living girl had strayed into their territory. Speaking of which, we must leave now — we're breaching the treaty by being in their territory ourselves."
"Is that why they didn't warn me I was about to walk into a patch of man-eating plants?" Alexandra muttered, as they began walking.
Valeria chuckled. "Giant flytraps aren't really very dangerous, unless you panic and let them herd you into quicksand or a ravine." But then her humor vanished. "Why were you following me, Alexandra?"
"I... thought you were going to the Thorn family crypt."
"I was. That doesn't answer my question."
"Why were you going there?"
Valeria turned her head to look at her. "I think you should be answering my questions right now, Alexandra."
They began treading up a soggy hill, and Valeria had to let go of Alexandra to keep her footing; Alexandra, despite her recent ordeal, was more nimble and in better shape than Valeria, and she held a hand out a couple of times to help her sister up the slope.
"Do be careful, my dears," said another ghost, this one wearing traditional wizard robes and sporting an enormous handlebar mustache and a Faustian beard.
"I'm fine, Great-Great-Grandfather," Valeria replied. "Thank you for your concern." She smiled at the ghost, then turned her attention back to Alexandra. "Well?" she demanded.
"I thought you were meeting with our father," Alexandra said.
Valeria stared at her, and didn't say anything for a few minutes, as they reached the top of the hill. There was a dense thicket of trees blocking their way, but the ghosts led them through, finding spaces between the trees that corporeal hikers could navigate. Soon, a familiar-looking stone edifice rose before them.
Alexandra didn't understand how she'd gotten so lost — she'd been within shouting distance of the Thorn family crypt all along.
Shouting distance, if anyone could hear me, she thought, as lightning flashed overhead and thunder roared across the island. She was still soaked to the skin, despite Valeria's spell keeping the worst of the downpour off of them. They walked to the front of the crypt, and then Valeria turned to face her, as half a dozen ghosts gathered around them.
"Why would you think I was meeting Father here?" Valeria asked. She shook her head. "I haven't spoken to him since before the Roanoke Underhill crash."
"Maximilian met Abraham here," Joshua Thorn said quietly. Both witches turned to look at the ghost, whose disapproving gaze was fixed on Alexandra. "She followed him into the woods, much as she followed you. Though she wasn't following him in a thunderstorm."
Valeria pursed her lips. "You shouldn't have done that."
They entered the crypt. Valeria dispelled her Umbrella Charm, and then cast a Light Spell. Alexandra lit her own wand to add to Valeria's light, and looked around, now shivering not just from the cold.
There it was, on a flat gray stone that was newer than the rest, set in a niche close to the entrance: In Memoriam. The words inscribed by Ms. King above the name of her son: Maximilian Alexander Thorn.
Valeria stepped behind her, and laid a hand on her shoulder. They stood there silently for a few moments, as several other ghosts drifted in, and then Valeria said, "Let's see if we can warm you up a little. Triss?"
With a pop, the elderly house-elf appeared, standing on the floor of the crypt holding a silver tray with hot coffee, a glass of warm milk, freshly-baked donuts, bacon, and sliced apple wedges. The delicious aroma was completely out of place here, but Alexandra's mouth began to water. Triss was trembling in fear and kept her eyes firmly fixed on the floor.
"It's all right, Triss," Valeria said gently. "Our ancestors have kindly given permission for us to seek refuge here."
"You don't m-m-mind us e-eating h-here?" Alexandra asked. Her teeth were still chattering, as she stood there in soaking wet clothes, caked with mud.
She remembered that one of the things Simon Grayson had complained about in his book was the thoughtless way in which the living enjoyed food in the presence of ghosts, who could no longer do so. At the time, she'd thought Grayson was being a little ridiculous, but the incorporeal witches and wizards were gazing at the tray full of food with longing, and Alexandra thought that coming into their 'home' to eat did seem a little inconsiderate.
"Under the circumstances," said the older ghost whom Valeria had called Great-Great-Grandfather, "we are prepared to make allowances."
"Speaking of which," Valeria said, "did you bring some clean clothes for Alexandra, Triss?"
"Yes, Miss Valeria," Triss mumbled. She seemed to be trying not to look anywhere near the ghosts, as she set the tray down atop a stone sarcophagus, and Alexandra saw that the elf had been holding a change of clothes — her clothes — neatly folded under the tray.
The only thing Alexandra wanted more than that coffee and a donut was warm clothing. The prospect of changing in front of her dead ancestors, however, kept her from reaching for the latter.
"Jared," said one of the witches in a bonnet and robes, "I do believe we should allow your great-great-granddaughter some privacy."
The ghost with the handlebar mustache and pointed beard nodded. "Very well, Leola." He nodded to the other ghosts, and they began drifting back out of the crypt. "Please cover yourself quickly — you know how Grandfather feels about his descendants using our crypt for their own convenience."
"We are sorry," Valeria said.
"Yeah, s-sorry," muttered Alexandra. She was already taking a cup of coffee from the tray, and slurped it eagerly, despite the fact that it was hot enough to burn her tongue. Her stomach growled as the aroma of bacon and donuts reached her nostrils; she was very hungry, she realized.
"Thank you so much, Triss," Valeria said. The house-elf relaxed a tiny bit after the ghosts were gone, but still looked tense and anxious. Her expression when she gazed up at Valeria, however, was one of adoration.
"It is Triss's pleasure to serve Miss," the house-elf said.
Valeria smiled, a little uncomfortably. "You may return to the house, now. Don't worry about us — we'll be back before you left."
"Yes, Miss Valeria," Triss said. Valeria took the house-elf's hands in hers and squeezed them gently. Triss looked as if she might collapse in a puddle of tears right there. Then she disappeared with a pop.
"I'm very uncomfortable with house-elf servants," Valeria said.
Alexandra nodded. She was now shivering so much that she was hardly paying attention to what Valeria said. Her sister turned away as Alexandra peeled off her clothes, letting them hit the stone floor of the crypt with a wet slap. Triss had brought a warm, fluffy towel, some underclothes, a nightgown, and a thick robe. Alexandra wiped the rain and mud off of herself as best she could, and then changed into the clean clothes. It was still miserably cold in the crypt, but Valeria took a jar out of her robes and conjured a blue fireball in it. She set it next to Alexandra, where it radiated a bit of heat; Alexandra held her hands over it and shivered.
"Well," Valeria said. "I don't appreciate your spying on me, Alexandra, nor your following me, not least because you nearly got yourself killed. If Deezie hadn't checked on you and found your window left open —"
"So Deezie already knows I'm gone?" Alexandra groaned. "She'll tell Julia and her mother for sure."
"No. I talked the elves into letting me bring you back."
"Wait a minute." As the fire and the coffee began to warm Alexandra's body, she began thinking about what had just happened. "I was right behind you! I wasn't lost in the woods that long! How did you go all the way back to the house and find me missing and then go looking for me?" She looked down at the food Triss had brought them. "Why are we sitting here? Why don't we go back to the house? Wait — how did Triss know to bring food and clothes?"
A crack of lightning lit up the entrance of the crypt, and something large and heavy fell with a crash, just outside. Valeria didn't look startled at all.
"You are too clever for your own good," Valeria said. "And much too curious. We'll go back to the house shortly, after we straighten out a few things." She took a deep breath. "Can you keep a secret, Alexandra?"
Alexandra swallowed the rest of her donut, and set down her coffee cup, very slowly.
"I've kept lots of secrets," she said.
Valeria regarded Alexandra thoughtfully. "Yes, I imagine you have." She looked towards the entrance to the crypt. "I didn't come here to meet Father. I came here to meet our Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandfather Absalom."
"I've met him. Why would you have to meet our ancestors' ghosts in secret?"
"Because I don't want the Bureau of Historical Oversight to know what I'm researching, or how. And I'd rather not distress Julia or her mother — I'm not sure how they'd feel about my being here."
Alexandra narrowed her eyes. "So you're lecturing me, when you've been up to something yourself!"
Valeria narrowed her eyes in return, but the corners of her mouth turned up a bit.
"I did want to see you and Julia, and Ms. King," she said. "Truly, I did. But I had an ulterior motive in coming to Croatoa. We planned this trip, you see, since the Meteorologimancy Department predicted this storm —"
"The Academie de Magie, where I work."
Alexandra's face showed her confusion.
"My job is to study history, Alexandra. Especially history that's hard to uncover by reading old letters and censuses. There are some very interesting stories hidden in the founding of the Confederation, and Absalom Thorn played a key role in some of them."
Alexandra picked up the coffee cup again, and let it warm her hands a bit, before she sipped from it. "You came to Croatoa so you could ask Absalom Thorn about history?"
"Absalom and some of our other ancestors. But I also came to observe history." Valeria had been watching Alexandra carefully, and when Alexandra didn't say anything immediately, she got up from where she'd been sitting, on a stone shelf running along the inner wall of the crypt, and moved to sit next to the younger girl.
"You need to keep this a secret, Alexandra," she said. "I'm only showing it to you because, thanks to your misadventure in the woods, I need to... fix things, to avoid letting anyone else know. But this is something that could get me into a great deal of trouble."
"I won't say anything," Alexandra said, very seriously.
Valeria opened her hand, to reveal a very fine, gold pocket watch, with several extra dials.
"What is it?" Alexandra asked.
Valeria smiled slightly. "I think you already know."
Alexandra nodded slowly, staring at the pocket watch.
"A Time-Turner," she whispered.