A Life for a Life

She didn't fall very far.

Alexandra was ready this time. She knew what lay beneath Charmbridge. It was a long drop into a deep underwater lake, but unlike last time, she expected to fall and she was already on her broom, so she brought herself to a halt after only a few yards.

It was completely dark. She listened, and could hear only the faint sound of water dripping off of stalactites.

In the lake below dwelled an underwater panther — an enormous, fire-breathing beast with a golden hide that was impervious to spells.

That was the momma cat — if she was lucky, it wasn't here right now. It had a litter of cubs. Last year, they'd been the size of mountain lions. Alexandra had no idea how big they'd have grown by now, but she didn't want to encounter any of them.

Which meant she had to get out of here as quickly as possible.

She descended a little further, and a little further, watching the darkness below for any signs of glowing, lantern-like eyes. She didn't know how close she was to the water's surface — it was hard to judge distance in absolute darkness. She descended as low as she dared, and then drew a quiet breath.

"Lumos," she said, and her wand illuminated the vast cavern, reflecting light off the black water ten feet below, and revealing numerous tunnels and caves all along the edges of the lake. On the far side of the cavern, the lake simply disappeared into shadows, too far away for the light of her wand.

Alexandra had been hoping she'd recognize the tunnel she and Maximilian had taken last time, but she didn't. They all looked alike. She didn't waste time studying them; she picked one, and zoomed into it without looking back.

She relaxed a little after she had flown for a full minute, following several twists and turns in the tunnel, and heard no noise behind her — no angry roar, no scrabbling of claws on stone, no sounds of pursuit. Either the cats were all away, or they hadn't noticed her, or she'd come and gone before they could emerge from the water.

Or they were waiting for her somewhere ahead.

Anna might not have had quite so much faith in her if Alexandra had admitted how unplanned and unprepared she was. Her Lost Traveler's Compass was still lying on the floor of her room, along with her Skyhook and all the other things that had been in her backpack. She forced herself onward, hoping that memory and intuition would guide her. It was all she had.

She continued flying, and crossed over a deep chasm that split the tunnel; it was much too far to leap. No one without a broom would have been able to cross it, and it seemed bottomless. Alexandra kept flying. She almost ran into a stalagmite barrier rising in her path, and for a moment, feared she had hit a dead-end. She could only see more darkness on the other side of the stalagmites, beyond the circle of light cast by her wand. She got off her broom and squeezed through the largest gap between them. It wasn't easy and she almost got stuck, but she pushed and grunted, and ancient stone crumbled around her fingers before she tumbled through, landing on top of her broom.

Fifty paces past the stone formations that had almost blocked her path, she emerged from the tunnels at the foot of a tall cliff that stretched from one end of the horizon to the other, beneath a black, starless sky. Before her, the ghostly gray landscape of the Lands Below rippled like a vast blanket. It was indistinct and almost featureless, at first glance, but Alexandra knew that there was terrain out there — there were cracked mud flats and gray marshes and huge black lakes, and a seemingly endless plain cut with long, twisting ravines, and somewhere, far in the distance, mountains.

The mountains were where the Generous Ones lived, and that was where Darla had gone.

Darla, however, had the bone flute, which had transported Alexandra, Maximilian, and Charlie there instantly.

When Alexandra had flown back from the mountains to this cliff, it had taken — hours? Days?

Time is different in the Lands Below, she reminded herself. She and Maximilian had spent three days in the Lands Below, but when Alexandra had returned, a week had passed. For all she knew, Darla had already made whatever bargain she intended to make with the Generous Ones, and Innocence was already dead —

No.

She mounted her broom and took off.

It had taken her longer to return last time because she'd been hurt. After her escape from the Generous Ones, she had been bruised, beaten, and burned, exhausted beyond measure, and overwhelmed with grief and guilt, having just seen her brother die.

She was hurt now, too — she could still feel pain throughout her body, and there was still dried blood on her face — but at least she was clear-headed. She was also tired; she tried to ignore that, and the numbness in her fingers and toes from the first curse Darla had hit her with, through Charlie. She started to wonder whether she'd ever see Charlie again, and then forced that thought out of her mind as well.

She zoomed across the Lands Below, pushing the Twister as fast as it would go. She was careful to stay close to the ground — so close that her feet almost brushed rock outcroppings or little dunes that suddenly popped up from time to time. The sky above wasn't really a sky — it was the ceiling of an immense cavern, the size of the Lands Below itself, and anything that flew too high attracted the attention of hordes of fierce bats.

Alexandra and Maximilian had walked, when they had first come to the Lands Below, because they hadn't known where they were going. This time, Alexandra knew her destination vaguely — she recognized the changing terrain beneath her, if not the precise locations — and she didn't care about attracting attention. So she let the Lands Below speed past beneath her.

She crossed mud flats inhabited by strange, stunted plants and large, multi-legged creatures. She passed over desert plains filled with sand that suddenly launched itself into the air in spinning, sandy whirlwinds without any wind, and cacti that moved when you didn't look directly at them. She recognized the rocky ravines that flashed past beneath her, and occasionally saw rabbit-like creatures hopping about, and once a snake that looked big enough to swallow a car whole.

The Lands Below were strange and dangerous, but Alexandra didn't fear anything that lived here as much as she feared where she was going — the Gift Place of the Generous Ones.


Time is different here, she thought again. She didn't have a watch and she had only a vague idea of how long she'd been on her broom. Long enough that her hands hurt and her butt was sore, and she badly wanted to land and take a break, but she didn't. She thought about all the laps Ms. Shirtliffe had made her do on bare broomsticks. It was starting to hurt like that.

But there were mountains ahead of her.

The geography of the Lands Below, she suspected, was not strictly linear. She wasn't sure she could have really passed over all the regions she'd seen in the relatively short amount of time she'd been flying, but the surreal, dreamlike quality of the landscape and the unchanging, gray light had a way of messing with one's sense of time and distance.

It didn't matter now, though. She was here. She saw a particularly tall mountain, with a narrow path winding around and around it, descending into the valley below. There were tiny stone houses here and there, and caves.

And Alexandra had no idea what she was going to do.

She had literally been flying by the seat of her pants. She'd sworn to Nat that she would save Darla and Innocence. She wasn't even sure she'd be able to save herself. She had barely escaped from the Generous Ones last time, and she had been fighting for her life when she got away. What was to keep them from simply killing her now?

Nothing, she thought. So what am I going to do, turn around?

She descended into the valley between the mountains, and noticed something odd. There were no Generous Ones anywhere in sight.

When she and Maximilian had arrived here last year, the elf-like Generous Ones had been moving about all over these mountains where they dwelled. But now the mountainsides were empty; she saw no movement anywhere.

She dropped lower, and saw a large, circular stone house, sitting in front of a tall, carved wooden pole. But there was no smoke coming from the hole in the roof of the Place of Exchange. The Generous Ones weren't gathered there.

Alexandra felt a chill — there was only one other place she knew of where they might gather.

She rotated about on her broom, hovering high in the air with sheer drops and jagged cliffs all around her. Finally, her eyes settled on two peaks that looked familiar. There was a deep, deep chasm between them; it went down farther than she could see. It was pitch black at the very bottom.

She swallowed, and dived into the chasm.

Cliffs rushed past her. She angled almost straight down, and it was like staring into an enormous tunnel, larger than any of those below Charmbridge. The darkness was waiting to swallow her whole. Like it had swallowed Maximilian.

Her instincts were screaming at her to get out of there — instead, she kept going, until she was in the darkness and could see only a dim, gray light above her. Once she was in the shadows, she realized that it wasn't really completely dark at the very bottom of the chasm — there was light down there.

She dropped faster, until the air was whistling past her ears. There was a fire burning in front of a large rock, and there was a pinpoint of light from a wand... there were at least a hundred elves gathered around a flat black depression at the very bottom...

The blackness in their midst was total and all-consuming; no light from the fire or the wand reflected from its surface. Alexandra heard whispers.

The gate to the Lands Beyond had been opened.

She was directly overhead before anyone noticed her. The first to spot her were some of the Generous Ones. They pointed and uttered startled squawks.

Darla was standing before the black pool of darkness, with her back to the fire, and next to her stood Innocence.

Alexandra was still decelerating when she slammed into Darla. Her broom hit hard enough to jolt her, and she felt a solid thump as Darla cried out in pain. Darla and Innocence had been standing on a slight rise between the depression where the portal was located, and a wider, flatter depression where dozens of Generous Ones were sitting or standing. Alexandra and Darla both went tumbling together into the midst of the elves, scattering them like bowling pins before sliding painfully across the ground. Alexandra ignored the burning sensation in her knees and elbow from skidding across rock, and the new pains from the collision, and even as Darla cried out and tried to rise, Alexandra clenched her fist and punched the other girl in the face.

Darla screamed in pain. Alexandra staggered to her feet. Darla rolled over and groaned.

Dozens of pairs of eyes blinked at her. Darla's face was a ghostly mask as firelight flickered across it. Alexandra put her foot on the wand Darla had been holding, now lying just out of her reach, and pointed her own wand at her.

"Petrificus Totalus!" she said.

Darla twitched as the curse hit her, and then she became as stiff and unmoving as the rocks around her.

Alexandra turned to face the large boulder on which, she assumed, the leader of the Generous Ones would be perched.

It wasn't Cejaiaqui, the ancient, wizened elf whom she remembered, who was gazing down at her now. It was Tiow, the first of the Generous Ones to greet her and Maximilian. He was not as old as Cejaiaqui, and didn't wear as many beads and trinkets as Cejaiaqui had, though he did have several feathers dangling from his ears, and he held a carved wooden stick.

"Alexandra Thorn," Tiow said. "Daughter of Abraham Thorn." His expression was hard to read. "You have returned."

"Yes." Alexandra stood there for a moment, and when the Generous Ones didn't immediately attack her, she walked over to Innocence.

Innocence had not moved since Alexandra had arrived.

She was wearing one of Darla's borrowed robes, and her hair was tied in a pretty bow, but her blue eyes were vacant. She stared blankly ahead, and did not respond when Alexandra waved a hand in front of her face, shook her, and called her name. Alexandra spun to face Tiow.

"What did you do to her?" she demanded.

Tiow raised his hairless eyebrows. "We? Did nothing to the child." He pointed a dry, leathery finger at Darla. "Darla Dearborn bewitched this one."

Alexandra scanned the assembly in front of her. All of the Generous Ones were gathered here, like last time. After their initial exclamations when she had dropped out of the sky and assaulted Darla, they had been mostly silent, but they were all staring at her. They wore beaded vests and sandals and snakeskin belts, and some of them glittered with metal jewelry and polished stones attached to their fingers and wrists and necks. There were small, elongated skulls hanging from the belts of a few; others held sharp stone knives or long spears tipped with polished stone points, and a few, like Tiow, held wooden sticks. Alexandra remembered being burned by those.

She had no idea what they were thinking. In the darkness, most of their faces weren't visible, and only Tiow spoke.

"You are very brave to return," he said. "Your need must be great."

She looked at him.

"I can't play your word games," she said. "I don't want to exchange gifts with you. I just want to take Darla and Innocence and go home. Please — we've done nothing to you. Let us go."

Tiow's eyes narrowed. "You have done a great deal to us, daughter of Abraham Thorn. Or do you not recall your most inhospitable departure from our lands when last we saw you?"

"I remember. I remember that you tricked us, and you sent my brother to the Lands Beyond." Alexandra fought to keep her voice steady. "And now you're planning to do the same thing to Innocence?" She took Innocence's hand. Innocence didn't resist, and didn't respond, but Alexandra realized the younger girl was holding something — she took it from her fingers, and looked at it. It was a metal disk, stamped with the Seal of the Confederation. Confused, she looked up at Tiow. "What kind of monsters are you, that you sacrifice children?"

"We?" Tiow smiled unpleasantly. "If you think we are monsters, Alexandra Thorn, then you truly know nothing of the Generous Ones. We did not bring this child here to be sent to the Lands Beyond — she did." Tiow pointed at Darla again. "We do not sacrifice children — you do."

"What are you talking about?" Alexandra shouted.

"Every seven years," Tiow said. "It is your Deathly Regiment. Every seven years, you wizards send us one of your children."

"No," Alexandra said.

Tiow still wore that malevolent smile. "Your Confederation wanted the gates to the Lands Below closed. You wanted all creatures who dwell here to stay here. You wanted the Powers propitiated, and you wanted the wizard tribes of this world powerless to undo the magic of the world your people came from — what you call the 'Old World.'" He chuckled contemptuously. "So you came to us and treated with us. Such powerful magic you desired, and still desire, to control the Lands Below for yourselves. We did not set the terms of the bargain; you offered. We do not demand children; you send them."

Alexandra shook her head, sickened. "How could you — how could we — how could they do that?"

Tiow shrugged. "Such are the ways of wizards."

"Not all wizards." Alexandra glared at him. "You don't have to accept what they offer!"

"Why should we care about the lives of human children, if you place so little value on them yourselves?"

Alexandra stared into Tiow's inhuman face. "And what did Darla want, in exchange for Innocence? What were you going to give her?"

Tiow looked surprised. "I just told you, human child." He pointed his finger at the still silent, motionless Ozarker girl. "She is the sacrifice under the terms of your Deathly Regiment."

"What?" Alexandra shook her head. "That doesn't make sense — Darla can't do that!"

"Seven years have passed, and Darla Dearborn brought us the next child your Confederation has chosen."

"Are you crazy?" Alexandra shouted. "Darla's just a teenager! She can't choose anyone! Do you really think she speaks for the Confederation?" She gestured at Darla, who was still lying paralyzed on the ground, with blood trickling out of her nose.

Tiow shrugged again. "We do not question whom you choose to send — she brought us a seal."

Alexandra looked down at the disk in her hand. She shook her head and looked up again.

"You can't have her," she said, taking Innocence's hand. "You can't have any of us."

Tiow peered at her. "Did you not see the blackness?" he asked. "Do you not hear the whispers calling from the Lands Beyond?"

Alexandra did hear them. The back of her neck was crawling; she forced herself not to look over her shoulder.

"The gate has already been opened," Tiow said. "Only a living soul can close it."

Alexandra shook her head. "Leave it open, then."

Tiow laughed harshly. "That cannot be done. The Lands Beyond are not meant to remain open. The Most Deathly Power must be satisfied. The gate must be closed." His eyes narrowed. "And we certainly will not send one of our own through it." He pointed at her. "You choose, daughter of Abraham Thorn."

She stared at him. She was surrounded. She had no illusions that she could fight off all the Generous Ones a second time. She doubted she could even escape by herself — there was no way she'd be able to escape with Innocence and Darla.

Tiow gestured at Darla. "If this one has deceived and meant to send your friend, let her be the sacrifice. We shall not object."

Alexandra shook her head. "No."

"Then choose — yourself or the yellow-haired child."

Alexandra turned around slowly. The gate to the Lands Beyond yawned in front of her, the horrible black void that Maximilian had disappeared into. She heard the whispers and felt the cold.

The Generous Ones were silent behind her, though she thought she heard a gasp or a sob, followed by a brief scuffle.

No, she thought. Why is it always like this? How do people get forced to make these kinds of choices? Why are the Generous Ones so cruel — why is Death so cruel — ?

Death.

She reached into her pocket, and found the coin Death had given her.

She held it in her hand, studying it. It glimmered a little in the firelight. She closed her fingers around the humble, ordinary-looking pigeon, and squeezed her eyes shut.

"DEATH!" she shouted. She opened her eyes. "You already took my brother — you don't need to take anyone else!"

She raised the coin over her head, and with a scream, flung it through the Veil.

The Generous Ones murmured behind her.

Alexandra felt a wave of numbness that almost washed away her fear, as the Deathly coin disappeared into the void without a sound.

Nothing happened, at first. She didn't really know what she was expecting.

Then the blackness began to solidify. The murmurs of the Generous Ones changed to astonishment, as the black void disappeared, replaced by cold, hard clay. In moments, the portal to the Lands Beyond was closed.

Alexandra stared at it, knowing in her heart that it would never open again — not for Maximilian.

She turned back around, and faced the Generous Ones.

"No one needs to die," she said quietly. "Let us go."

Tiow was speechless. All of the Generous Ones were silent.

Then Tiow's face darkened. "Why should we, Alexandra Thorn?" He crouched, and rested his slender hands on the rock in front of him, staring at her with his eye level just above hers. "You are in our power, now, and you owe us a debt. Why should we let any of you go?"

"A debt? You took my brother! What more do you want from me?" She clenched her wand. "I won't accept any of your gifts." She gestured at the girl next to her, who still had not moved the entire time, and seemed completely unaware of what was going on around her. "Did she or Darla accept any of your 'generosity'?"

"No," Tiow said. "But you, daughter of Abraham Thorn, you insulted us and attacked us."

She pointed her wand. "I know I'll lose if I fight you, but I will fight —"

Tiow laughed, and Alexandra's wand flew out of her hand, tumbling end over end into the darkness, landing somewhere out of sight with a clatter. She stared in dismay at her empty hand.

"You escaped last time thanks to the treacherous help of one of your 'house-elves.'" Tiow sneered, and Alexandra saw the Generous Ones turning scornful gazes at one of their number, standing near the back of the gathering. Alexandra gasped when she recognized the elf, whiter and smaller than the Generous Ones surrounding him, unadorned with feathers or trinkets, wearing only baggy, makeshift pants and a worn, oversized, denim jacket. His head was bowed, and Alexandra could see the scar where one of his ears should have been.

"Quimley will not help you this time," Tiow said. Indeed, there were now several Generous Ones crowding around the former house-elf, who simply stood in their midst and shivered.

Alexandra locked her eyes on Tiow. "If you take my life, then you'll owe something for it, won't you?" She tried to sound commanding and confident, though inside, her guts were twisting in knots. "I think my father, Abraham Thorn, might collect on that debt."

Tiow laughed again. "You threaten us with your father?" Despite his laughter, though, his expression became thoughtful as he regarded her. "I think your words are empty. Your father sent you to be the sacrifice last time."

Alexandra held the elf's gaze, and kept her face impassive. She didn't really know herself whether what Tiow said was true.

"Nonetheless," Tiow continued, "even the mighty wizard Abraham Thorn cannot protest the taking of a life for a life. You do owe us a debt, Alexandra Thorn."

"What are you talking about?" she demanded.

"Have you forgotten Cejaiaqui?"

"Cejaiaqui?" Alexandra blinked. "He's your leader."

"He was our leader." Tiow's eyes narrowed. "Until you slew him."

Alexandra's mouth dropped open. "I did not!"

"But you did!" Tiow rose to his full height — which was only a little more than half Alexandra's, but standing atop the boulder, he towered over her, with firelight flickering against the rocky cliffs behind him. "Have you forgotten how you struck him down, with your wand and the wand of your brother?"

"I didn't kill him! He almost killed me after I blasted him!"

"He was grievously injured by his wounds, Alexandra Thorn. Cejaiaqui was old, even for us." Tiow fixed her with an accusing stare. "We could not heal him. He perished soon afterwards."

Alexandra stood there, feeling a deep sense of confusion and unease.

Am I a murderer?

She still thought the Generous Ones were murderous tricksters — but she hadn't intended to kill anyone. Hadn't she been fighting for her life?

Not when you blasted Cejaiaqui — you were just angry.

She'd been almost out of her mind with anger and grief. She had just seen Maximilian die.

She looked up at Tiow. "What do you want?" she asked quietly.

"A life for a life," Tiow said. "That is the way."

"Revenge? That's it? I was trying to escape, and all of you were trying to kill me —" Alexandra sniffed, and wiped at her eyes. It was so unfair. Everything was always unfair. She had tried so hard — but she was always outmatched, and playing by rules she didn't understand.

I probably should have died already, she thought. That almost made her laugh.

"Fine," she said quietly. She lifted her empty hands, and let them drop back to her sides. "If you just want to kill me, what's stopping you?" There was a lump in her throat, but she faced Tiow bravely.

"Murder is the wizards' way, Alexandra Thorn," Tiow said. "No — we will not slay you where you stand. We want a life given freely — not with a Seal, not in exchange for a token to be given to your father, but offered up as repayment of your blood debt. We will accept that as your gift to the Generous Ones."

"Gift." She snorted. Then a chill went through her. "You want me... to go to the Lands Beyond."

"I will not see you again before your time," Death had said. She hadn't expected that to be so soon.

"It does not have to be you," Tiow said.

Alexandra felt another chill. Trading lives again. Like we're all just coins.

"I won't give you anyone else's life." She glowered at the elf leader. "What if I refuse? Will you just kill me then?"

"No." Tiow smiled slyly. "But you and your friends will never leave the Lands Below."

She looked at Darla and Innocence, both of them still immobile and helpless, then turned back to Tiow. "You want my life, given freely?" Her voice was barely a whisper. "All right." She swallowed past the lump in her throat, as Tiow's eyes gleamed triumphantly. "But you have to gift me something in return."

Tiow squinted at her. "And what is that, Alexandra Thorn?"

Alexandra took a deep breath. "First, you have to let Darla and Innocence go. No debts, no tricks — they get to leave freely."

Tiow nodded. "They have accepted none of our gifts. They are free to go."

"Second," Alexandra said, "you have to give them a way to return home. No counting that as a debt — it's part of letting them go free."

Tiow's smile faded. Alexandra clenched her teeth. She knew the sneaky elf had been trying to trick her! Sure, say they're free to go, but of course they don't have any way to leave — and you'd just indebt them again.

"Agreed," Tiow said, a little less amicably.

"Lastly," Alexandra said, "you have to let me go with them. Just for a little while."

Tiow frowned. "You seek to trick us. Are we fools, Alexandra Thorn?"

"I just want a chance to — to say good-bye." She closed her eyes, as she felt tears blurring her vision. "I won't trick you. I'm not like you." She said the last part with an edge in her voice, and the Generous Ones sensed it, and muttered and whispered to each other.

She opened her eyes. "I only came here to save Innocence... and Darla. Now you're going to take my life. I'm only fourteen!" Her voice wavered unsteadily. "You can't even give me just a little more time? Is that too much generosity for you?"

Tiow blinked, and exchanged looks with the Generous Ones who sat in a circle by his rock. They were the elders of the elven tribe, and one of them said something in their language. Then another one spoke. Tiow squinted and responded.

There was a chorus of voices as the Generous Ones began talking amongst themselves. Alexandra looked at Innocence, while her fate was being debated.

"Innocence," she whispered. She shook the girl. "Innocence, please wake up. Snap out of it!" She sighed. "What did Darla do to you?"

Innocence didn't respond, and Alexandra glared at Darla. Darla was still frozen by her Body-Bind Curse, though Alexandra knew she could see and hear what was going on around her.

At last, Tiow spoke. "Seven years, Alexandra Thorn."

She looked up at him in shock. "What?"

Tiow's smile was neither kind nor cruel — it was a calculating smile, but he sounded grudgingly respectful when he spoke to her. "We can be as patient as we are generous," he said. "Come here, and hold out your hand."

Alexandra stepped forward, until she was standing at the base of the rock, looking up at Tiow, and she held out her hand. She didn't flinch when Tiow produced a sharp stone knife.

"Do you swear, Alexandra Thorn, to repay your debt, a life for a life, in no more than seven years' time?"

Seven years, Alexandra thought. She hadn't been expecting that much time. She supposed that for them, this was generous.

"I swear it," she said. "On my honor as a witch."

Tiow slashed downward, and Alexandra felt a sharp pain across her palm. She winced, but didn't move, as blood flowed from her hand, trickling down her arm and dripping onto the boulder at Tiow's feet.

Tiow nodded and seemed satisfied. Alexandra lowered her arm, clenching her cut hand. Blood continued dripping from it. It hurt a lot.

The Generous Ones were all staring at her, with varying expressions: anger, curiosity, amazement, pity.

She walked over to retrieve her wand. None of the Generous Ones tried to stop her. Some began disappearing, popping out of sight one by one, while Tiow remained seated on his rock, watching her.

She picked up her broom, leaving Darla's lying on the ground. She hurt all over, she was tired, and now she had bargained her life away. Alexandra rarely gave in to despair and she had fought so very hard, all year, not to break down, but right now, she wanted to cry.

"How do we get home, Tiow?" she asked, without looking at him.

"Quimley will take you, Miss," said a quavering voice.

Alexandra turned to find Quimley standing in front of her, hands clasped together. None of the Generous Ones were clustered around him, now — in fact, they seemed to be giving him a wide berth, those who were still lingering in the Gift Place.

"Quimley." She knelt next to him. "Did you... did you get in trouble? I thought the Generous Ones might hurt you for wanting to help me..."

Quimley shook his head. "Quimley is sorry... Quimley wanted to help Abraham Thorn's daughter, but the Generous Ones would not allow it." He looked up at her — it was rare for Quimley to look anyone in the eye — and his expression was woeful. "Alexandra Thorn has sworn a terrible oath."

"I know," she said quietly. "But I didn't have a choice, did I?"

Quimley looked down and didn't say anything.

"Anyway, seven years is a long time." Alexandra sighed, then she gave him a forced smile, and rose to her feet. She looked at her bleeding hand — the cut was long but shallow. She pointed her wand at it and cast one of the first aid spells Maximilian had taught her. It didn't close the wound, but the blood began oozing and congealing around the cut, instead of continuing to drip out of it. She turned to Innocence, who was still standing quietly in the same place.

"Finite," she said, trying to dispel whatever curse had been put on the girl. Nothing happened.

"Finite incantatem," she said. She went through every other counter-curse she knew. None of them worked.

Gritting her teeth, she pointed her wand at Darla, and said, "Finite." Darla's stiff posture collapsed, and she rolled onto her side and gasped.

"Get up," Alexandra said.

Darla slowly brought herself to her hands and knees, and then stood up. She kept her eyes on Alexandra the whole time.

"What did you do to Innocence?" Alexandra asked. "Undo it."

Darla wiped her bloody nose with her sleeve, then smiled.

"Give me a wand," she said softly.

"I don't think so." Alexandra glanced at where Innocence's wand was still lying among the rocks, and said, "Accio wand." The white oak wand flew into her hand. She pocketed it, along with the Confederation seal, and then pointed her wand at Darla again.

"What did you do to Innocence?" she repeated.

Darla stared at her sullenly.

"WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?" Alexandra screamed. She strode forward and seized the front of Darla's robe, holding her wand up so it was pointed down at the other girl's face. "This is all your fault! Do you have any idea what you've done?"

"What are you going to do, Crucio me?" There was no fear on Darla's face. She just gazed steadily back at Alexandra. "Nothing you do to me matters now."

Alexandra's rage was spent as quickly as it had come. She released Darla, and pushed her away, panting. She turned to Quimley, who had cowered with his hands over his head when Alexandra began screaming.

"I'm sorry, Quimley. I didn't mean to scare you."

Quimley looked up. "Alexandra Thorn will not hurt the bad girl?"

Darla snorted. Alexandra gave her a venomous look, and said, "No." She took Innocence's hand. "Not unless she tries to do something stupid — if she does, I swear, I will."

Darla looked away.

"Can you take us to Charmbridge Academy, Quimley?" she asked.

Quimley nodded. "There is a way from the Lands Below to there. Quimley must take your hands."

Alexandra let Quimley wrap his fingers around the hand that was holding her wand, while her other hand held Innocence's. The elf looked at Darla, who folded her arms in front of her chest.

"Does she have to be conscious for you to bring her with us?" Alexandra asked Quimley, with an ominous look at Darla.

Quimley stammered, and Darla glared at her, then thrust a hand out at the elf, looking away disdainfully.

Quimley took Darla's hand. A moment later, they were yanked through space, and then they were standing in pitch darkness. Alexandra immediately lit her wand, and saw the cavern she had left, in the tunnels beneath Charmbridge. She recognized the clay floor beneath her.

She knelt, and put her arms around Quimley's neck, still keeping a wary eye on Darla.

"Thank you, Quimley," she said, kissing the elf's cheek. "Thank you so much."

"Alexandra Thorn is welcome," Quimley said, sounding amazed at her gratitude. "Quimley remembers Alexandra Thorn's father. Quimley has seen that Alexandra Thorn is brave and good."

Alexandra squeezed her eyes shut. "I don't know about that."

"Quimley knows."

Alexandra opened her eyes, and smiled gently at the elf. "Can I ask you one more favor?"

He nodded.

"Just call me Alexandra. Or Alexandra Quick, if you have to. But not Alexandra Thorn."

Quimley looked a little puzzled, but nodded again. "As Alexandra Quick wishes." He looked down, wringing his hands. "Alexandra Quick's father is a mighty wizard. Perhaps... perhaps he can help her..."

"Perhaps," she said quietly. "Quimley... are you sure you don't want to stay here, instead of returning to the Lands Below? They could probably find a place for you at Charmbridge — even as a free elf."

Quimley shook his head. "Forgive Quimley, Alexandra Quick, but Quimley will not live among wizards again, even as a free elf."

What had his former masters done to him, Alexandra wondered, that made living among the Generous Ones preferable to living among wizards? "Do you really have to return to them?"

Quimley gave her a feeble smile. "It is where Quimley belongs now." He blinked, and looked at Innocence, then Darla. "Take care of your friends, Alexandra Quick." He looked back at her. "If Alexandra Quick summons Quimley, Quimley will come, though perhaps not right away."

She nodded. "Thank you."

The elf gave her one last, sad look, and then disappeared.

Alexandra stood up. "And you," she said to Darla. "You're going to go to —"

Darla slammed into her with a scream.

Alexandra stumbled back and fell against the wall behind her, as the other girl's sudden lunge knocked the wind out of her, and then Darla was grabbing her hair. Alexandra cried, "Ow!" and reached for the other girl's hand, and then her head was slammed into the wall. Stunned, Alexandra tried to raise her wand, and Darla smacked her head against the wall a second time. Alexandra saw stars. She tried to push Darla off. Her head struck the rock wall a third time, and her vision became fuzzy and the world swam and spun around her. She slumped to the ground. She felt hands rummaging through her pockets, but all she could do was groan in protest.

She tried to get up, as she heard footsteps retreating. She was too nauseous and dizzy. She took several deep, shuddering breaths, until the dizziness faded enough that she was more aware of the pain. She extended her hand, feeling rough stone beneath it, and her fingers brushed against something. Her hand closed around a wand — her wand.

"Lumos," she mumbled. The light that flared in front of her face blinded her and hurt her eyes. She winced and rolled onto her back before opening her eyes again.

She heard music.

She forced herself to a sitting position. The music came from not far away. It wasn't any kind of a melody — in fact, it was barely music at all. Just a series of notes, one after another, windy and discordant.

Alexandra knew that sound.

She lurched to her feet. Nausea made her double over and almost brought her to her knees again. She took deep breaths and straightened up, slowly.

Her head was throbbing. Innocence and Darla were both gone. But she knew where they were, and she followed the sound of the bone flute.

She found them in the room with the cave paintings. Darla was blowing into the bone flute. Innocence's wand was at her feet, glowing softly. And the portal to the Lands Beyond had opened.

Innocence was holding something in her hand, and walking towards the doorway through the Veil.

"Innocence!" Alexandra screamed, amplifying the pain in her skull. She kept screaming: "Innocence! Stop!"

Innocence didn't respond, but something else did. Smoke curled around the edges of the black void, and then the smoke became a shadowy figure — something vaguely human-shaped, but featureless except for darker spots in what would have been its face. It drifted free of the void, brushed past Innocence, and floated towards Alexandra.

Alexandra pointed her wand, trying to remember the spell Ms. Shirtliffe had taught, through the throbbing pain in her head. "Anathema Anima!"

The shade made a hissing sound and halted in mid-air, but did not retreat. Innocence was almost to the portal.

"Anathema jibay!" Alexandra shouted, and the spirit was sucked back into the void like a ring of blown smoke.

More were emerging from the darkness. Darla was still blowing on the flute, wide-eyed and desperate. Her face was sweaty, and she sounded almost out of breath.

"INNOCENCE!" Alexandra screamed. Another step, and Innocence would be through the Veil.

Alexandra pointed her wand at the girl, and squeezed her eyes to narrow slits, summoning all the anger she had left, and for one instant, forcing all other thoughts from her mind.

"Crucio," she said.

Innocence staggered, and for a moment Alexandra's heart stopped, as she thought Innocence might stumble forward through the gate.

The metal coin Innocence had been holding dropped from her fingers, and she cried out. More shadowy spirits were drifting around her. Innocence shrieked as one touched her, and she fell to her knees.

"Innocence!" Alexandra yelled.

The girl turned her head in Alexandra's direction and looked at her with enormous, terrified eyes.

"COME TO ME! NOW!" Alexandra's voice was a command, and she held out a hand, repeating it. "Don't think! COME! HERE! NOW!"

Innocence half-rose, and staggered towards her.

"Anathema jibay!" Alexandra shouted, banishing another one of the spirits. Innocence flinched as one of the shades suddenly loomed between them, and Alexandra repeated the incantation and sent it whirling into the void as well. "Keep coming, Innocence! Just close your eyes and follow my voice!"

Innocence obeyed. Alexandra banished another spirit, even as two more emerged from the gate. She reached a hand out and grabbed Innocence and pulled her close.

"Anathema jibay!" she said again, as another shadowy wraith lunged in their direction. Innocence was trembling and crying, and Alexandra said, "Keep your eyes closed and hold onto me."

Darla had stopped blowing into the flute.

She and Alexandra stared at each other, across the small dark cave, and then Darla stumbled forward. The wraiths turned on her.

"Darla!" Alexandra said. "Come here!" She pointed her wand at the nearest spirit and banished it.

Darla knelt and picked up the Confederation seal that Innocence had dropped.

"DARLA!" Alexandra was shouting again, as Darla rose to her feet. The jibay were flocking around her.

They looked at each other; Alexandra saw emptiness and despair in the other girl's eyes.

"I never wanted to hurt anyone," Darla said.

"DARLA!" Alexandra screamed. "COME HERE!"

Tears ran down Darla's face as she took two steps backward, still holding the seal. Her expression turned to one of terror as she fell through the Veil, and Alexandra heard her scream, the same scream that had haunted her dreams, even after Darla vanished from sight.

Innocence screamed, and Alexandra whispered, "Keep your eyes closed!"

The remaining jibay did not disappear as the gate to the Lands Beyond closed, but Alexandra banished them, one by one, even after the black void had become solid rock again and the painted figures on it moved back into place.

Only then did she collapse to her knees, still holding Innocence. Pain, shock, and horror swept over her, and she could do nothing but hold onto the other girl and rock her back and forth as Innocence trembled, crying for her sisters and her ma.