A Deal with Darla

"I'm sorry!" Anna cried. "I'm so sorry!"

Alexandra's lips moved, but she couldn't form words. She felt like she'd been kicked in the stomach. She was filled with outrage, betrayal, fury, and most of all, sadness.

Anna doubled over and began sobbing.

"Kill me!" she wailed. "Oh, I wish you would just kill me!"

Charlie made soft cooing noises. Slowly, Alexandra's fists unclenched.

"Stop it," she said quietly. "I'm not going to kill you." She turned away, and shrugged off her cloak.

"I'm so sorry!" Anna said again. "I hate myself! I know you hate me, but I hate myself more!"

"Stop it!" Alexandra said, raising her voice this time. Anna sniffled and fell silent. Alexandra turned to look at her roommate. "So how long have you been... informing on me?"

Anna looked up. Her eyes were huge and pleading. "Only this once!" She gulped and bowed her head again at Alexandra's cold, hard stare.

When she spoke again, she was practically mumbling into her lap. "They tried to trick me this summer, after my father was arrested. Said I could help keep you out of trouble, and maybe help my father, if I just told them what you were up to." She made a hoarse sound, like an attempt at a laugh. "But I never told them anything! Then, during the winter break, an Inquisitor came to my grandparents' house and scared them and intimidated my mother, and threatened me..." She choked. "And I was so angry at you, I felt like you had already betrayed me — oh, Alex, I didn't want to, but I was scared!" She gulped down air and buried her face in her hands.

Alexandra shook her head. "You never told me any of that."

Anna shuddered, and didn't answer.

"We should go to bed," Alexandra said. Betrayal and hurt were giving way to numbness. She didn't feel able to discuss this right now, and Anna was too frightened and miserable to say anything else. Alexandra crawled into bed after undressing, and curled up under her blanket, listening to Anna sniffle piteously.

Anna was curled up in a ball under her own blankets when Alexandra woke early the next morning. She didn't know if her roommate was awake or not as she put on her exercise clothes. By now, Anna usually slept through it when Alexandra rose early for JROC exercise, but usually she stirred and muttered a bit — this morning, she was suspiciously still and quiet.

Alexandra stared at the lump under the blankets for a moment, and then quietly left their room to go to morning exercises.

Outside, in the cold air, some of the other JROC students looked surprised to see her. William stared at her and licked his lips, as if he wanted to say something, and then Theo said, "I heard you got arrested."

"You heard wrong." Alexandra met their gazes with a flat stare of her own that deflected any further questions.

Colonel Shirtliffe came striding out, and glared at the students shivering beneath a dark February sky, with only a pale glow yet visible on the eastern horizon. Alexandra was sure that Ms. Shirtliffe knew everything that had happened last night, but the teacher's gaze swept across her and the other students indifferently, and then she said, "I see a lot of wands standing around talking, Mage-Sergeant Major!"

"Fall in!" Eric Strangeland yelled, and he led them on wind-sprints to the woods and back, with Shirtliffe sending brooms to chase after them and make them duck out of the way or run faster when they lagged. They did this all morning, and when they went back inside, everyone was too tired and out of breath to do anything but stagger back to their rooms to shower.

Anna was gone when Alexandra returned to her room. She walked to breakfast alone.

A hush fell over the cafeteria when Alexandra entered. News of her father's battle with a team of Aurors the night before had already circulated the school, no doubt with many dramatic embellishments as to her own role. She glanced at Larry's table; he was glowering at her, along with all of his friends.

Before she could say anything, Innocence brushed past her. The younger girl looked disconsolate, and didn't even glance in her direction. On her heels were Constance and Forbearance.

"Mornin', Alexandra," Constance said, as she hurried past.

"Beg pardon," Forbearance said, following her sister.

William was trailing after them, but he shuffled to a halt in front of Alexandra, looking past her at the retreating Ozarkers.

"What's going on?" Alexandra asked, nonplussed.

William looked down. "Innocence's toad disappeared last night, while we were at the Sweetheart's Dance."

"Misery?" Alexandra said. "Again?"

William nodded. "But we couldn't find her this time. And, you know, with all the commotion and everything..." He sighed. "There's no sign of her." He opened one of the pockets in his JROC jacket and peeked inside. Alexandra heard a croak. "She's pretty upset."

Alexandra looked over at the eighth graders' table. Darla was there with Angelique, and Sonja and Carol and Janet and Lydia. No Anna. "I guess she would be," she said.

"I wasn't much help," William mumbled. "It's not like we were really allowed to go looking, last night —"

"I'm sure she doesn't blame you," Alexandra said. "Keep a close eye on Anthony." She walked over to the breakfast line. There was an awkward silence. Alexandra ignored the stares, and kept watching the entrance, but Anna did not appear.

There was another pause in conversation when Alexandra sat down with the other girls, and then they resumed talking, after a few nods and mumbled greetings. Some of the other girls had also noted the Pritchards' departure, and were discussing the missing familiar.

"Well, at least it was just a toad," said Lydia.

Sonja agreed, then looked taken aback when her roommate glared at her.

"I suppose Wocky is just a rat," Carol said.

Alexandra's gaze wandered down the table, past Lydia and Sonja, to where Darla and Angelique were sitting.

There was no reason to think Darla had anything to do with Misery's disappearance, but Alexandra found herself staring at the other girl, until Darla looked up and noticed. Angelique looked back and forth between them nervously. Darla and Alexandra stared at one another a moment longer, and then they both turned their attention back to their breakfasts.

Anna didn't come to Charms class. She was also absent from their second and third period classes. Mr. Grue stared at Alexandra more balefully than usual, but Alexandra doubted it was because he was wondering where Anna was.

"She wasn't feeling well this morning," Alexandra said to Constance and Forbearance after they left Alchemy class. "I'll go see if she's in the infirmary."

She didn't think Anna would be there, but she was glad when the twins apologetically told her that they'd promised to help Innocence look for Misery some more during lunch. She went to the infirmary alone, but Mrs. Murphy hadn't seen Anna.

Anna never cut class, so Alexandra didn't know where she might hide. She tried the most obvious place she could think of, and on the third floor of the library, in a study nook hidden far in the back of the Ancient Wizarding History section, she found Anna hunched over a desk, her head buried in her arms.

Alexandra asked, "What were you planning to do, hide here all day?"

Anna jumped, and stared at her with eyes that were still red and swollen. She swallowed, but didn't say anything.

Alexandra sat down next to her. Anna watched her silently, trembling a little.

"I would have told you," Alexandra said. "If I'd been contacted by my father earlier... if I'd known anything that could help your father. We could have played them... let the WJD think you were spying on me, while I gave you information."

"I'm sorry," Anna whispered. "You can do anything you want to me. I won't tell."

Alexandra rolled her eyes. "Right, cursing you will make me feel better."

Anna winced. "You must hate me."

"Stop it!" Alexandra snapped. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself!" Those words echoed in her ears, and she put a hand over her face. Anna didn't move or say a word.

"I guess I can't blame you," Alexandra said. "For not trusting me."

"I did trust you," Anna said. Her voice was tiny, as if it hurt her to speak. "I just..." Fresh tears rolled down her cheeks. "The Inquisitor said if my father were convicted of collaborating with the Dark Convention, they'd assume my mother was involved, too, even though she's just a Muggle." Her voice began to break apart. "He said they'd Obliviate her! He said they'd take me away from her and I'd never see her again! He said she wouldn't even remember she had a daughter!"

Alexandra removed her hand from her face, and stared at Anna. "They said that?"

Anna nodded, and looked down. "I would never have given you up. But I thought you were back to keeping secrets and you were going to get in trouble and my m-mother..." Her voice trailed off as she squeezed her eyes shut.

"They threatened to take your mother away," Alexandra said.

Anna bowed her head, and her shoulders began to shake.

Alexandra closed her eyes. Then she leaned over slowly, and put her arms around Anna.

"It's all right," she said, and Anna burst into tears.

Alexandra held her, and waited until Anna had cried herself out, rocking slowly back and forth.

"I don't blame you for being angry," Anna whispered. "I know you can't trust me any more. If you hate me, it's okay."

"I don't hate you. I'm not angry — not anymore."

That last part wasn't really true — but it wasn't Anna she was angry at.

Anna shivered, and Alexandra continued to hold her until she finally lifted her face. It was a mess — red and streaked with tears, and more miserable than Alexandra had ever seen anyone look.

"Come on," Alexandra said. "You're going to get in trouble if you cut any more classes."

Anna sniffed, and Alexandra stood up and took Anna's hand. She led her downstairs, keeping an arm around the other girl's shoulders until they entered the girls' bathroom, where Alexandra watched as Anna wiped at her eyes and cleaned her face.

"Lunch is almost over," Anna mumbled.

"Tell Constance and Forbearance you weren't feeling well," Alexandra said. "I'll see you after sixth period." Their schedules were different for the rest of the day — Alexandra had Principles of Magic next, while Anna was in the more advanced Magical Theory class with the Pritchards.

"I'm sorry," Anna repeated. She still looked pale and apprehensive.

"Me, too." Alexandra shook her head and gave Anna a small, forced smile.

Anna trembled. "Do you really think they'll let my father go?"

"If they don't," Alexandra said, "then I'll find a way to make them."

It was an empty promise. How could Alexandra possibly make a Governor do anything? But Anna stared at her with wonder and hope, despite her tears and her shame. As if she believed that Alexandra could do anything she said.

"Later," Alexandra said softly. "We'll talk more later."

Anna swallowed and nodded. She still looked small and frail as she left the bathroom, while Alexandra remained.

She was leaning over a sink when she heard someone else enter. She stood up quickly, ostensibly straightening her robe and running a hand over her hair, while she looked in the mirror to see who it was — there were girls who would hex her in the restrooms if she let herself be caught unawares.

She froze when she saw that it was Darla.

"Your brother was more careful," the other girl said.

For a moment, Alexandra was speechless. Darla looked nervous, and Alexandra wondered if she'd imagined her speaking. She turned around slowly.

"He always cast that Muffliato spell of his," Darla said. "I never knew what the two of you were talking about."

Alexandra stared at her, then took one step towards her, then another.

"I know what you've been trying to do," Darla said. Her eyes became a little wider, and she shrank back against the wall as Alexandra advanced on her, but she didn't stop talking, though her voice rose to a higher pitch. "I know you know about the Lands Below!"

Alexandra grabbed the front of Darla's lacy blue and white robes while she raised her other hand in a fist. "You must have a death wish!"

Darla closed her eyes. "Go ahead! Hit me! That's just what a savage little Muggle would do, isn't it? Do you think threatening me will bring your brother back?"

Alexandra stood there in amazement, with her fist still clenched. "What is your problem? Are you trying to see if you can get me expelled?"


"What do you want?" Alexandra shouted.

"Stop shouting!" Darla opened one eye and took a nervous breath. She lowered her voice to a whisper so faint that Alexandra had to lean towards her, as she said, "I know how you can bring back Maximilian."

Alexandra stared at her in disbelief.

"Do you think you're being funny?" she growled. "Do you think I'm stupid?"

She reached for her wand, but Darla said, "If you think I'm joking, then you are stupid! Was the Mors Mortis Society a joke? Was getting an obol a joke? You think you're so smart — do you know anything about where the dead go? Do you know anything about necromancy? Or the Deathly Regiment?"

She glanced down at Alexandra's hand, still poised over her wand. "Look at you," she said. "You want to hex me because that's all you know how to do. I know I couldn't beat you in a duel even if I had a wand, but at least I know how to find out things. You're great at magic as long as it doesn't involve too much thinking."

Alexandra's eyes narrowed. "Why would I want to listen to you? Even if you do know something I don't, why would you tell me about it? What makes anything I do your business?"

Darla relaxed slightly. "Do you really want to have this conversation here?"

Alexandra was about to retort that she didn't want to have any conversation with Darla, when another girl entered the restroom. She was older, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, and she looked at the two eighth graders curiously, then almost took a step back when she recognized Alexandra.

"What's going on?" she asked warily.

"Nothing," Alexandra said. She pushed past the other girl and marched out. Darla followed.

"Will you meet me here in the library tomorrow night?" Darla whispered.

Alexandra looked over her shoulder at the other girl. She knew she should refuse — but she nodded slowly. "All right." She lowered her voice. "But if you're messing with me —"

"I'm not." Darla gave her a tense smile. "Tomorrow night, then."

She looked relieved to be walking away. Alexandra's eyes followed Darla as she retreated out of the library, and then she trailed after her to their fourth period class.

She didn't mention her conversation with Darla to Anna.

There was nothing the next day in the Chicago Wizard Times about an incident at Charmbridge Academy; no mention of Abraham Thorn visiting the school. The front page story was about Wartime Alternative Route Plans: the Department of Magical Transportation was trying to persuade the wizarding public to take classes in Navigating Muggle Transit. Gringotts was renovating all of their American branches for 'added security.' There were also articles about arrests in Louisiana, Texarcana, and Hudson, and continuing turmoil in North and South California. The Majokai were debating a revote over their status as a Culture; some Chinese wizards were threatening to form a Culture of their own. Alexandra tossed the paper aside — Anna's father was barely mentioned.

Darla remained cool in class, paying Alexandra no more attention than usual. Alexandra watched her as she tried to cast a Colloportus Charm in Mr. Newton's class. Most of the class could now seal a doorway, though Mr. Newton was able to open the door with a tap of his wand. Darla's collared wand only succeeded in making it jam a little; Mr. Newton pulled it open without even using magic.

Anna continued to accompany Alexandra from class to class as she usually did, but with such a dejected, guilty countenance that Alexandra was afraid her friend might burst into tears at any moment. She hoped Mr. Chu was released soon — she didn't think either of them could take any more guilt or worry.

She didn't bother changing out of her JROC uniform that afternoon; rather than having to make excuses to Anna, she simply avoided returning to her room and headed straight to the library.

Darla found her there, far back in the Wizarding Philosophy and Magical Law section. Alexandra closed the heavy Illustrated Guide to the Afterlife According to Muggles Through the Ages, and waved a hand to banish the smell of brimstone. She regarded Darla with an impassive stare as the other girl sat down.

"Do you know how to cast that spell your brother did?" Darla asked.

Alexandra snorted. "Paranoid much?"

Darla held up a small vial. "We all learned how to make aural amplifying drops last semester, remember?"

Alexandra's eyes widened. "You little sneak! How long have you been spying on me?"

Darla looked back at her evenly. She twitched when Alexandra drew her wand, but didn't say anything.

Alexandra hesitated, just long enough to make Darla start to fidget, and then said, "Muffliato." She slid her wand back into its sheath and glared at the other girl. "This had better be good. If you're just trying to prank the Mudblood, or trick me into getting in trouble..."

"Oh, for Merlin's sake, Alexandra! Some people would say I'm a Mudblood. Even though technically I'm a pureblood, I have a Muggle grandmother." Darla sighed. "I'm sorry I called you that last year."

"How about using Crucio on me? Are you sorry for that?"

The other girl looked away. "If I hadn't, what do you think John would have done?" As Alexandra opened her mouth, Darla said, "Do you want to threaten me some more, or do you want to hear what I have to say?"

Alexandra folded her arms, and leaned back slowly in her chair. "Fine," she said in a mocking voice. "Tell me about necromancy and bringing back my brother."

Don't believe a word she says, she told herself. I just want to find out what she thinks she's up to.

"It's not like what you're thinking," Darla said. "There are no spells to raise the dead. Wizards have been trying to do that forever."

Alexandra gestured at the shelves around them. "These books could tell me that."

Darla nodded. "But you won't find a lot of things in the library. Not even in the Restricted Collections. They keep the really powerful and crazy stuff away from us."

"You mean Dark Arts."

"Not just Dark Arts." Darla fidgeted with her sleeve. "You read The Master of Death, didn't you? Innocence told me you took it from her."

"Yeah. It was boring and ridiculous."

Darla shook her head. "You're so simple, sometimes. Didn't you read the part about wizards who challenged Death and lost? Souls trapped with Death for all eternity? Most wizards, when they die they... move on. No one really knows where they go. A few stay here as ghosts. But those who go into the Lands Beyond..." Darla lowered her voice. "I overheard my father and my uncle talking about your brother. They said he joined the Deathly Regiment." She was studying Alexandra very intently. "That means he didn't just die and move on. I think he's still there, in the Lands Beyond."

Alexandra tried to hide her surprise. She didn't understand how this involved the Dearborns at all, or how they could have known anything about Maximilian.

She forced down most of the questions she had, and instead asked, "Why do you care about what happened to my brother?"

Darla gave her a very long, very thoughtful look, as if she, too, were trying to decide how much to reveal.

"My sister died," she said at last.

Alexandra stared at her. Darla looked back at her with a flat expression.

"You never said anything," Alexandra said. "No one told me —"

"Like you went around telling everyone about your brother?" Darla's face was unnaturally still. "I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't even tell Angelique, at first."

Alexandra thought about that. Darla sat unmoving in her seat. An older student wearing a feathered green cloak — Alexandra had no idea what Culture he came from — walked down the aisle near their table, perusing books in the Magical Law section. He glanced at the two girls, and smiled. His smile faded when neither of them smiled back, and he grabbed a book and retreated.

"What happened?" Alexandra asked, as if they hadn't been interrupted.

"Hilary was in the Mors Mortis Society before she graduated. My parents didn't know, of course, until too late. Just like they didn't know about me. Last year —" Darla swallowed. "She tried to do something, with necromancy. I don't know what, exactly. But it went badly... and she went to the Lands Beyond."

Alexandra felt a rush of disbelief, anger, sympathy, and — shamefully, but burning foremost in her mind — curiosity.

"I wanted to bring her back," Darla said. "That's why I paid John to get an obol for me. That's why I stayed in the Mors Mortis Society."

"That's why you've been prowling around in the basements cursing people?" Alexandra's voice rose sharply. "You killed Ms. Gale!"

"I did not!" Darla turned pale. "I swear, Alexandra, I wasn't down there! Even if I was, how could I have cursed anyone? Mr. Cervantes takes my wand every day after sixth period!"

"You have another one. Don't tell me you're not rich enough to buy an extra wand."

"Minors can't buy wands without their parents' approval, no matter how rich they are." Darla's tone became patronizing. "Do you really think my parents are going to buy me a second wand so I can get into more trouble? And even if I did have another one, do you think Dean Grimm hasn't thought of that?" She frowned. "Every time something happens — even when it's you responsible — they search my room again. I think Angelique is regretting being my roommate."

Alexandra bit back a sharp retort. She glared at Darla. "What about Innocence's toad, and your cat?"

"I don't know what happened to Misery! Or Mr. Whiskers!" Darla wiped away a tear. "You should know by now that there are a lot of people up to no good around here. And some kids are sure there's an evil spirit haunting Charmbridge — so is Ms. Fletcher. Maybe a poltergeist."

"A poltergeist?"

"Usually they're just annoying, and very noisy, but sometimes they're cunning and murderous."

"Wouldn't they have found a poltergeist by now?"

"You'd think."

Alexandra stared at Darla. She didn't want to believe her. If Darla wasn't responsible for anything that had happened, then who was? "Someone Stunned me in the basement."

"It wasn't me!"

Alexandra drummed her fingers on the table. "What do you want?"

Darla took a deep breath. "The same thing you do."

"You want to bring back your sister?" Alexandra regarded the other girl, trying to read something in her expression. "You just told me that's impossible."

"No, I didn't." Darla leaned forward, and there was something about her gaze, the intensity and seriousness of it, that made Alexandra lean forward, too, without realizing she was doing it. "I said there are no spells to raise the dead."

"I tried using a Time-Turner. Even if someone hadn't Stunned me —" She paused. Darla was listening attentively, but if she was hiding anything, she was hiding it very well. "— it wouldn't have worked. At least, that's what everyone says." She did not add that she wasn't fully prepared to accept this yet — but she doubted that Darla had a Time-Turner of her own.

Darla shook her head. "I wasn't thinking of Time-Turners." Her eyes were still fixed on Alexandra's. "Those who've joined the Deathly Regiment can be returned... by Death."

Alexandra opened her mouth. Closed it. Opened it again.

Darla waited.

"Death," Alexandra said.

Darla nodded.

"You mean, an actual Death. Like, Death is a real person. A skeleton in a robe who goes around collecting dead souls."

Darla's brow creased. "Not a person, and I don't know if the skeleton in a robe part is true. But... yes. There are Powers that aren't human, and maybe they're not even living beings like us, but they exist."

"They haven't mentioned these 'Powers' in any of our classes."

"Nobody talks about Powers anymore — it's unfashionable, pre-modern. They're from the days before we even used wands. Most people think they're just old myths, nowadays. Everyone thinks The Master of Death is supposed to be a metaphor, you know? Or is that allegory?" Darla frowned. "But it's real. At least, some wizards still think Powers are real."

"So they're, what, gods?"

Darla made a face. "Maybe that's what Muggles would call them. They're just magical beings. But they're very powerful."

"And Death can return dead people to life." Alexandra did not want to admit that despite her skepticism, she was drawn in by Darla's tale, wanting to hear more... wanting to believe.

"Not just anyone. Only if they went to the Lands Beyond. Someone who just dies normally, I don't think that's the same."

Alexandra stared at Darla some more. Was this just a big prank? Darla might think Alexandra was an ignorant Mudblood, but why would she make up a story like this?

"So," Alexandra said. "Let's say all this is true and I believed you. How do you find Death and get him to return someone from the Lands Beyond? What am I supposed to do, challenge Death to a duel?"

Darla seemed unfazed by Alexandra's skepticism. "Well, that's what some wizards have tried to do. You read The Master of Death."

"Yeah. Everyone loses." She couldn't even beat Larry Albo in a duel — how was she supposed to defeat Death? She gave Darla a contemptuous look. "Don't tell me that was your plan?"

"Of course not. I'm not stupid." Darla looked annoyed. "I read other books. There are lots of stories... wizards have gone to the Lands Beyond on quests to bring back their loved ones —"

"Nobody returns from the Lands Beyond."

"If you believed that," Darla said, very slowly, "you'd have given up, wouldn't you?"

Alexandra closed her mouth again, and waited.

"Supposedly, Death will sometimes let you return," Darla said. "And sometimes, bring someone back. But there's a cost."

"A cost."

Darla nodded. Her hands had been sitting in her lap, out of Alexandra's sight. Now she set one hand on the table and turned it over, revealing what she held there.

Alexandra stared at the tarnished, silver coin, and sucked in a breath.

"An obol." She lifted her eyes from the coin to Darla's face. "How did you get another one?"

"That doesn't matter." Darla's eyes were cold and distant for a moment, then she focused on Alexandra again, as her fingers closed around the obol. "You used my other obol to go to the Lands Below. That's never where I intended to go."

"You were going to go to the Lands Beyond? You mean, you were going to walk into that black void where those... jibay come from — Are you crazy?"

"Other wizards have done it, Alexandra." There was a look of fierce determination burning in her eyes — a look that Alexandra recognized. "But you need an obol. And a guide."

"A guide?"

"A spirit guide. Or, you can summon Death. But I think you have to be really powerful to do that."

"So I guess 'Accio Death' didn't work?" Alexandra was beginning to wonder if Darla had lost her mind.

"Don't make fun of me!" Darla held up the hand clenching the obol. "Do you think it was easy for me to get another one of these after you stole my first one?"

For a moment, Alexandra felt a twinge of guilt. Then she remembered everything else that had happened the previous year. Her expression hardened. "You still haven't told me what you want from me."

"I want you to tell me what happened in the Lands Below," Darla said. "I want to know exactly how Maximilian died. I want to know everything."

As mingled fury and disbelief caused blood to rush to Alexandra's face, Darla pulled something else from beneath her robes — a small, thick, black book.

"I'll give you this," she said. She pushed it across the table.

Alexandra's eyes fell on the cover: Deathly Conjures and Power-ful Workes for the Wizard Who Desireth to Speake Across That Threshold (Known by Some as the Lands Beyond), Whereby One May Command Spirites and Seek Even That Most Deathly Power.

It looked very old. She opened it, and saw diagrams, formulas, and text written in a dense, handwritten script. There were headings at the top of each page: "On Seeking the Spirit of One Known to the Wizard In Life"; "On Calling A Proper Ghost With Regarde for Domaines and Circumstances"; "On Spirites Not Favorably Inclined to the Wizard, Which Requireth Warnings and Precautions."

She turned another page, and found herself staring into a pitch black void, yawning at her from the page. For a moment she heard whispers and felt the hairs on the back of her neck stir, before Darla reached across the table and shut the book.

"Don't stare at that page too long. It's kind of creepy." Darla pulled the book back, with Alexandra's fingers clinging momentarily to it before she relinquished it. "It gave me nightmares."

"Where did you get that?" Alexandra asked.

"Some things you can get that you're not supposed to, when you're rich." Darla's smug expression faltered. "But it doesn't do me much good, without a wand." She looked at Alexandra, who was still looking at the book.

"I know you're better than me," Darla said, and Alexandra's eyes snapped back to her.

"Even if I had my wand, you would still probably have a better chance than me," Darla said, as if it pained her to admit this. "So I'll give you the book. And if you think you can do it, if you find a way to go the Lands Beyond, and treat with Death..." She opened a trembling hand, to reveal the obol again. "I'll give you this to take with you."

Alexandra stared at the obol. "You'd let me do that, to save my brother?"

"If you can do it, you have to promise..." A tear rolled down Darla's cheek. "You have to promise you'll teach me everything you learn, and then help me do the same thing for my sister."

Alexandra stared at Darla.

"And you have to tell me what happened," Darla went on, "because I know that Maximilian joined the Deathly Regiment, but I don't know how. There's only so much I could learn from a book. A lot of it doesn't make sense. Plus, I can't test anything without a wand."

"I don't see how what happened in the Lands Below will help you."

"Because you already know what is and isn't important, right?" Darla looked at her haughtily. "I'm just asking you to exchange information. You discovered something in the Lands Below... you know something about the Lands Beyond that I don't." Her voice softened. "I know you don't want to talk about it — I'm sure it was terrible. But I told you about my sister. And..." She shrugged. "You could just tell Ms. Grimm about my book, and my obol. Then I'll be expelled, and almost certainly have my wand broken. You can finally get your revenge. If that will make you feel better, go ahead."

She met Alexandra's gaze with an almost eerie calm. All the fear she had shown earlier whenever Alexandra stared her down seemed to have vanished.

Alexandra held out her hand. "Give me the book."

Darla placed the black book back into her hand.

Alexandra took it, and flipped through a few of its pages again. Banishements of Leaste Severity. Banishements of Great Severity. Deathly Spirites. She knew this was a book of the sort she might find only in the Restricted Reserves, and possibly not even there. She looked back up at Darla, who was waiting quietly.

She set the book down.

"Where do you want me start?" she asked.

"From the moment you knocked me and John unconscious." Darla leaned forward. "I want to know everything."

It took over two hours, with Darla constantly asking questions. She sounded as skeptical as Alexandra did at times, but every time Alexandra glared at her, she bowed her head and mumbled, "Sorry."

Maximilian's sacrifice — his Most Terrible Gift — was the hardest part. Alexandra spoke in a flat, emotionless voice, looking through Darla at some distant point behind her, as she related the tale of how Maximilian had fallen through the portal to the Lands Beyond.

She told about her escape from the Generous Ones in a rush, all the way until she returned to Charmbridge, passing through the lair of the Underwater Panthers and encountering her father deep in the basement, in the same cavern from which they had left.

"He took the locket from me," Alexandra said. "And he took my memories from me, temporarily. I really didn't remember what had happened, at first. They thought he'd Obliviated me, but he'd just stored them, like in a Pensieve, and he had them returned to me later."

Alexandra leaned back, feeling drained. "I told Dean Grimm's sister, the Special Inquisitor, all of this on the night of the Sweetheart's Dance. The WJD knows everything now. So if you go telling people, it won't matter."

"I'm not going to tell anyone. Why do you think I would?" Darla frowned. "So I guess you left the bone flute and that other stuff the Generous Ones gave you behind?"

Alexandra hesitated. "Yeah. I only escaped with my broom and the locket. And Charlie."

"Too bad," Darla murmured. "They might be useful."

Alexandra shrugged. "Maybe."

"We could work together," Darla said. "You can cast spells right now, and I can't." She lightly tapped the knuckles of her fist still clenching the obol against the table. "But I can get things."

"Where do you get them from?" Alexandra asked.

Darla's eyes took on that cold, far-away expression again. "Does it matter?"

Alexandra sat there for a long time, thinking.

"Thanks for the book," she said at last, rising to her feet.

Darla's face twitched. Her smugness vanished, and her voice became plaintive. "But you'll tell me, won't you? If you find a way..." Tears gleamed in her eyes again. "I just want my sister back. You promised —"

"Yes." Alexandra nodded. "If I bring back my brother, I'll tell you how I did it. And if I need the obol, I'll tell you."

"I am sorry," Darla murmured, looking away. "About your brother."

Alexandra paused, as she lifted her backpack off the floor by her chair and set it on the table.

"I'm sorry about your sister," she said. "I wish I'd known."

Darla looked back at her, and nodded slowly. She watched as Alexandra dropped Deathly Conjures into the magical pack and then shouldered it.

"You'll get in trouble if anyone sees that book, you know," Darla said.

Alexandra nodded. "I assume you managed to keep it and the obol hidden when your room was searched."

"Of course."

"And Angelique doesn't know about any of this?"

"She knows about Hilary. I made her promise not to speak about it. But she doesn't know about the book, or the obol, or the other stuff." Darla looked back at her evenly. "And Anna?"

"Anna..." Alexandra was suddenly as uncomfortable as she had been when talking about Maximilian. "Don't worry about her."

Darla nodded.

Alexandra didn't know quite what else to say. She and Darla weren't friends now. She didn't trust her enough to think of her as an ally.

"See you later," she said.

"Good luck," Darla said softly, and watched her walk away.