The Deathly Regiment
They found the two girls sitting on the floor of the cave. Innocence was still incoherent, and Alexandra was barely conscious. She knew they needed to leave, but her head hurt and she didn't really want to move, so she was relieved when Dean Grimm arrived with Miss Gambola, Ms. Fletcher, and Mrs. Murphy. That meant they would take care of Innocence.
She struggled briefly when Mrs. Murphy levitated her.
"I'm not a baby," she mumbled. "I can walk."
"Hush," said Ms. Grimm. It was a command, spoken in a gentle tone.
"Darla," Alexandra said.
Ms. Grimm looked down at her. "Where is she?"
Alexandra didn't answer, at first.
"She's dead," she said at last. "She went to the Lands Beyond." She looked at Ms. Grimm. "Why did she do that?"
"Hush." The Dean took her hand. Alexandra turned her head, and saw Aurors in red vests rushing past, into the room with that awful doorway.
Fingers were gently cradling her skull, and Mrs. Murphy tsked.
"Give her a sleeping potion, Mrs. Murphy," the Dean said.
"No," Alexandra said, but a potion was held to her lips, and she coughed a little as it went down, and then she fell asleep and didn't dream.
When she woke up, she was lying in a bed in the infirmary. Daylight was streaming through the windows.
She sat up. She didn't feel as sick and tired and sore as she remembered. She was wearing a simple robe with only a shift beneath it. She sighed. Waking up in the infirmary was becoming depressingly familiar.
She found her personal belongings on the stand next to her bed, including her wand and her watch, which told her the time (almost one p.m.) but not the date.
She heard a voice squawk, "Alexandra!"
"Charlie!" She rose from the bed, and felt dizzy for a moment. Rubbing her head, she walked around the small partition that separated her from the cage sitting on a table on the other side of it. Charlie was fluttering inside the cage, and began squawking noisily: "Alexandra! Alexandra! Alexandra!"
"Charlie, you're all right!" She took Charlie of the cage, and held the bird in her arms. Tears rolled down her cheeks and fell onto the raven's glossy black feathers. Charlie's squawks became soft warbling sounds as she stroked her familiar and walked back to her bed and sat on the edge of it.
Mrs. Murphy walked over to her and smiled. "I should have left that bird in your room, or the aviary, but since both of you had been jointly cursed, I thought putting you close together might help."
"Thank you," Alexandra said, wiping at her eyes.
"You had a nasty bump on the back of your head," the nurse said. "And I thought you must have had another injury, with all the blood on your face and the front of your shirt, but all I found were more scrapes and bruises, and residual traces of Dark magic. I don't think there's a curse still on you. That must have been one hell of a bloody nose."
Alexandra mumbled, "Yeah, you could say that."
"I'll let the Dean know you're awake." Mrs. Murphy sighed. "Her sister is somewhere around. I believe she's going to want to talk to you, too."
"I figured." Alexandra looked up at her. "How long have I been gone?"
"You slept for an hour and a day. Standard formula sleeping potion."
"How long was I gone? In the Lands Below?"
Mrs. Murphy's eyes wrinkled around the corners, as she regarded Alexandra, and she suddenly looked older despite her cheerful demeanor and her bright red hair.
"Merlin's ghost," she murmured. "You really did go back there."
Alexandra just stared at her, waiting for an answer.
"You went missing two days ago," Mrs. Murphy said. "The Dean kept the details quiet, but —"
"Rumors. I know." Alexandra petted Charlie. "Is Innocence okay?"
Mrs. Murphy's expression was no longer cheerful. "Yes. She recovered once we discovered the... source of her condition."
"What was it?"
Mrs. Murphy glanced at the raven sitting in Alexandra's lap. "Her familiar."
Alexandra frowned. "You mean her toad? Misery? She disappeared months ago."
"The poor creature was in a box Darla Dearborn had hidden in the basement," Mrs. Murphy said quietly. "Miss Dearborn was able to use some crude Dark Arts to exert power over Innocence through her familiar."
Alexandra sat quietly on her bed, receiving the news numbly.
"Miss Gambola and Mr. Grue broke the curse and restored the toad to health. Miss Pritchard was also ill from contact with those... things from the Lands Beyond." Mrs. Murphy shuddered. "She's better now, though she's obviously... distraught."
"Speaking of which, I need to check on her, and Miss Devereaux," the nurse said.
"Angelique? What's wrong with her?"
Mrs. Murphy looked at her sadly. "She hasn't taken Darla's death well, Alexandra."
Darla's death. Alexandra looked away.
"Ms. Grimm is meeting the Dearborns now," Mrs. Murphy said. "She'll probably come talk to you afterwards. I'd like you to stay here for the time being."
"And please don't let your raven fly around indoors." The nurse gave Alexandra a small smile, and bustled off with her box of potions and salves, leaving Alexandra alone.
Charlie began to fuss, and Alexandra got up and put the raven back in the cage.
"Just for a little while, Charlie," she whispered, as the bird complained. "We'll go back to our room soon."
One of the windows to the infirmary was open, to let in a warm spring breeze, and Alexandra heard voices carried in from outside. She walked over to it and looked out onto Charmbridge's front lawn.
There were some students sitting singly or in groups here and there, talking or studying, no doubt preparing for SPAWNs, but Alexandra's attention was drawn to the five figures standing just beyond the steps of the academy. Dean Grimm, in formal black witch's robes, was speaking to a man and a woman who were also wearing dark, somber robes.
Alexandra recognized them. She'd seen Darla's parents at the Goblin Market, the previous summer.
With them was the younger girl who had also been with Darla. The fifth person was a much older girl who also looked vaguely familiar. She was dark-haired and rather pretty, like her sisters; Alexandra had been a sixth grader, she realized, when Hilary Dearborn had been a senior. She had probably seen Darla's older sister around school that year. The oldest Dearborn girl was standing as far from her parents as she could, while keeping a hand on her sister's shoulder. Alexandra could see that the younger girl's eyes were red, even from the second floor.
Mary Dearborn looked up, and for a second, their eyes met. Alexandra stood there for a moment, motionless, and then she backed away from the window, out of sight.
"Wicked!" squawked Charlie. It sounded like a warning, and Alexandra turned around, then jumped and almost let out a startled gasp.
Mr. Journey was standing in front of her. It was difficult to see him in full daylight, but she could make out the ghost's outline.
"You came back," he said quietly.
"Yes, I am." His translucent expression was serious. "I'm glad, but I'll be honest, Starshine, I didn't expect to see you again. I don't think anyone did."
"What will it take to get you to stop calling me 'Starshine'?"
"Sorry." She could just make out the corners of his mouth turning up in a slight smile.
She walked around him, heading back to her bed. "Aren't you worried about being seen?"
"Your friend Anna told Lilith about me." The ghost let out a mournful sigh. "I don't hold it against her. She didn't really have a choice. But the Aurors are already here, and I'm sure the ghost hunters will be along shortly."
Alexandra sat on her bed again. "What will happen to you?"
"I'll be made to haunt somewhere else. Probably somewhere lonely and dark."
She was tempted to tell him that he deserved it, but she realized that whatever anger she had felt towards Benedict Journey was gone.
"I guess you can't just move on and join the Deathly Regiment, after all," she said. She noted his startled expression. "Is it true, Mr. Journey? Does the Confederation really sacrifice a child every seven years? The Deathly Regiment isn't something you join, is it? It's something the Confederation does."
The ghost stared at her, and even in the sunlit infirmary, she could feel a sudden chill.
"Where did you hear that?" he asked quietly.
"From the Generous Ones. Never mind — is it true?"
He stared at her in an unnerving manner until Charlie croaked, "Wicked!" and he turned away.
"Yes," he murmured. "It's what your father has been fighting against. What we fought against."
"Before you turned traitor, you mean?"
"Yes." The ghost turned back to face her. "I did oppose the Deathly Regiment, Alexandra — I still do. But I never knew the details, or why the Elect choose one of their own children every seven years. Your father, he knows a lot more, but he kept secrets even from his inner circle. He would never tell us everything." Journey's voice sounded bitter.
He drifted closer to her. "Alexandra, I do know this — the Confederation uses Unbreakable Vows, Obliviation, and worse to keep its darkest secrets. Don't let on that you know about these things."
"Everyone should know about these things!"
"What do you think they'll do to you if you start talking about the Deathly Regiment?" he asked. "Why do you think even the few ghosts who know about it don't talk about it?"
Alexandra was silent.
Neither of them spoke for several long moments, and then they heard footsteps, which came to an abrupt halt as a cold voice broke through the silence: "I told you to stay in the basement until the ghost hunters come to collect you, Ben." Alexandra and Mr. Journey both turned to see Dean Grimm standing there, arms folded, with a severe scowl on her face. "I don't want you haunting my school or my students, especially not Miss Quick. I will Banish you myself if I have to."
"I just wanted to say good-bye to her, Lil—"
"You have no right to say good-bye to anyone," Ms. Grimm said, in a frosty tone. "You can say good-bye to the sun, when the Bureau of Hauntings is through with you."
Mr. Journey hung his head, and began sinking through the floor.
"Ms. Grimm," Alexandra said quietly, "why can't Mr. Journey stay here?"
The ghost stopped, still sunk though the floor up to his knees, while Ms. Grimm turned and stared at Alexandra in astonishment.
"You want him to stay here?" she asked. "After what he tried to do?"
"He can't hurt anyone now, can he?"
Journey's eyes were wide, and Ms. Grimm looked almost as surprised.
"If he's imprisoned somewhere by himself, he'll probably just sit there forever, getting more and more bitter and feeling sorry for himself," Alexandra said.
She looked at the ghost. "You saw Darla try to Avada Kedavra me." Ms. Grimm's mouth dropped open — it was as close to shock as she'd ever seen on the Dean's face — but she kept speaking. "You went to get help, but you got Anna. Not the Dean or another adult. You were hoping me and Anna still wouldn't tell on you."
"I brought help when you and Darla came back," Journey said. "Not in time, but I brought them as fast as I could."
"After they already knew you were here." Alexandra's voice was calm, but accusing. "While you thought there was still a chance to keep your being here a secret, you went to get another kid, instead of an adult." She sighed. "I'm glad you did." She glanced at the Dean. "None of you would have saved Innocence — you'd have just sent me back to my room." She looked back at Journey. "But if you were acting like a responsible grown-up who was more concerned about kids being in danger than you being exposed, you'd have told Dean Grimm what was going on."
Journey frowned. Ms. Grimm's eyebrows were arched as she studied Alexandra.
"You need to earn forgiveness, Mr. Journey," Alexandra said. "You can't just ask for it."
Ms. Grimm regarded Mr. Journey with a frown. "Are you sure, Alexandra?"
"If someone wants to be forgiven," Alexandra said quietly, "they should at least get a chance to earn it. And nobody deserves to be trapped somewhere forever."
Journey was speechless. Ms. Grimm tapped her fingers against her arm, then said at last, "I would have to sponsor Mr. Journey for a Haunting Permit." She sighed. "Very well. I will see what I can do — but even with my signature, it will still need to be approved by the Department of Magical Education and the Bureau of Hauntings. I make no promises."
"Thank you, Lilith," Journey said quietly. He looked at Alexandra. "Thank you, Alexandra."
"Until and if your haunting is approved, you are to stay in the sub-basements," Ms. Grimm said. "I imagine my sister will have some questions for you, as well. And you will show me each and every one of those tunnels."
Journey nodded. Ms. Grimm waved a hand in dismissal, and he disappeared.
She turned back to Alexandra.
"Troublesome, troublesome girl," she said, shaking her head.
"Troublesome!" echoed Charlie, from the cage on the other side of the screen.
Alexandra looked down. "What happens to me now?"
"Diana will be questioning you. I can't speak for my sister, Miss Quick, but I think if you are cooperative and truthful, she won't be inclined to charge you. From what we have pieced together, Miss Dearborn appears to be the main culprit here, and you —" Ms. Grimm shook her head. "What you did was stunningly brave and stunningly foolish. But you saved Miss Pritchard."
"I didn't save Darla," Alexandra whispered. She looked away, towards the windows. "I promised I would — but I couldn't."
"Alexandra." Ms. Grimm laid a hand on her shoulder. "Some people can't be saved."
"I guess Darla was more clever than you after all," Alexandra said quietly.
Ms. Grimm pursed her lips. "If it makes you feel better to share your sense of guilt — yes, I underestimated Miss Dearborn even more severely than I've underestimated you. She was remarkably cunning. And I didn't think anyone could persuade a house-elf to Apparate back and forth between its home and Charmbridge without the master of the house knowing about it." She looked out the window, much as Alexandra had earlier. "Even an elf won't be able to Apparate into the basements without us knowing about it, now. And effective immediately, personal brooms will be kept in storage, not in your rooms."
Alexandra nodded. Maybe those were good precautions, but she knew you could always find your way around obstacles with magic.
"Do you need some extra time to prepare for your SPAWNs?" Ms. Grimm asked.
"No." Alexandra shook her head. "I'm fine."
"You are not fine, Alexandra." Ms. Grimm looked down at her. "Please believe me, child. I have extended as much protection and forbearance as I can on your behalf. You cannot continue your previous behavior. You've become a danger to yourself and others. I am not saying this to threaten you. I have to act in the best interests of the school. The pressure to expel you is greater than ever before."
"I'll be better," Alexandra said.
Ms. Grimm studied her for a long time, then nodded. "Don't disappoint me, Miss Quick."
The Dean turned and left the infirmary, and Alexandra sat alone with her thoughts, for a little while.
Mrs. Murphy had some of Alexandra's clothes brought to her so she could change. The nurse told her that her friends were waiting for her outside the infirmary, so Alexandra was eager to leave. That was when Diana Grimm arrived.
The Special Inquisitor looked scarier than her sister. She was wearing snug black robes with a hood thrown back over her shoulders, and long sleeves and pants underneath. The effect made her look rather like an executioner, or a distaff Grim Reaper.
Ms. Grimm sent the nurse away and sat down in a chair opposite Alexandra. Alexandra sat on the edge of the bed. She waited expectantly.
"So," Ms. Grimm said. "You went to the Lands Below again."
"Anna Chu says you and Darla Dearborn were involved in something down in the Veil cavern, a couple of weeks ago. Performing some Dark Arts ritual intended to bring back your brother?" Grimm gave Alexandra a flat stare. "She was reluctant to give me details, even after I threatened her with Veritaserum. She was remarkably hostile."
"You put her father in prison and threatened to Obliviate her mother," Alexandra said. "And you're surprised that she's hostile?"
"I had no involvement with events in California. What's this about threatening to Obliviate her mother?"
"A Special Inquisitor told Anna that if she didn't become an informant and spy on me for you, they'd Obliviate her mother."
Ms. Grimm's icy expression wavered a little. "Alexandra, we don't do things like that."
"Even under the WODAMND Act?"
"We're not monsters, Alexandra. Whoever spoke to Anna was out of line, trying to scare a child like that."
Alexandra studied Ms. Grimm, wondering whether she believed her. Then she sighed. "Please leave Anna alone. I'll answer all your questions."
The Special Inquisitor nodded, and Alexandra spent the next hour describing both her trip to the Lands Beyond and her trip to the Lands Below.
She was cooperative, and mostly truthful. She left out only those things that Ms. Grimm couldn't verify by speaking to Mr. Journey. She did not mention Death — she told Ms. Grimm that she and Mr. Journey had come back without learning anything. She didn't mention the bargain she'd made with the Generous Ones, and she didn't repeat what they'd told her about the Deathly Regiment.
If she bent the truth a bit in those parts of her story, she left nothing out when she described the final, fatal confrontation in the room where Darla had opened the doorway to the Lands Beyond. The emotion in her voice was real, and her eyes stared off into space as she described Darla falling through the Veil.
Diana Grimm was silent, until Alexandra looked at her, and asked, "Why did she do that?"
Ms. Grimm shook her head. "I don't know." She looked troubled herself, then her expression became cold and businesslike again. "How did you return from the Lands Below?"
"We used the bone flute again," Alexandra lied. She maintained her calmest, most sincere expression as Ms. Grimm studied her face. She didn't even know whether the flute had fallen through the Veil with Darla; if not, the Aurors surely had it now.
"You know about what your father did in New Amsterdam and Atlanta," the Special Inquisitor said.
"He needs to be stopped, Alexandra."
"If I could help you, I would. But he had nothing to do with any of this."
Ms. Grimm was thoughtful again for several moments. Alexandra tried to relax.
"Do you still have the card I gave you?" Ms. Grimm asked.
"Yes. If I hear from my father, I'll use it."
She couldn't tell whether or not she was convincing. She kept worrying that Ms. Grimm's long, thoughtful looks meant she was using Legilimency, but finally, the Inquisitor said, "Your friends are waiting for you. You may go join them now."
"Thank you." Alexandra stood up, but then paused.
Ms. Grimm raised an eyebrow. "Is there something else?"
"What is the Deathly Regiment, Ms. Grimm?"
Both of the Special Inquisitor's eyebrows went up, very slowly.
"Where did you hear about it, Alexandra?" she asked.
"Old books. Someone told me that Maximilian joined the Deathly Regiment. And — Darla said something about it. Before she died." She was watching Ms. Grimm's face very carefully, but she was unable to read anything from the woman's expression.
"It's an archaic reference to the Lands Beyond." Ms. Grimm stood up. "Some warlocks seem to think there is more to it. They weave conspiracy theories about the significance of wizards who go there, along with fairy tales about Death. Haven't you dabbled enough in those sorts of tales, Alexandra? They're nonsense at best, and dangerous at worst."
Alexandra nodded. "Yeah, that's what I thought."
She had no idea, as she left Ms. Grimm's presence, whether the Special Inquisitor had been telling the truth or not.
She walked to the cage where Charlie was confined, and let the raven out. Charlie fluttered onto her arm as she walked to the window.
"Back to our room, Charlie," she said. "I'll be there in a little bit."
"Fly, fly!" Charlie said, and took off through the window.
In the hallway outside, she found Constance and Forbearance standing together whispering, Anna seated by the door, and David leaning against a wall.
David stood up straight when he saw her. Anna rose to her feet, smiling. The Pritchards turned around immediately, and exclaimed, "Alexandra!" together.
"You came back," Anna said softly.
Alexandra took her hands and smiled back. "Told you I would."
"Hey, Alex," David said. He cleared his throat uncomfortably.
"Hey," she said back.
She let Anna's hands drop, as she turned to face the Pritchards. Constance and Forbearance stood there staring at her for a moment. Then the two of them both wrapped their arms around her, kissed her, and pressed their cheeks against hers.
"Thank you, Alexandra! Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Constance said breathlessly.
"We'uns can't never repay you!" Forbearance said.
"Never in a thousand years!"
Forbearance was weeping. "You saved Innocence."
Alexandra swallowed and nodded, putting an arm around each of them. "How is she?"
"Scared awful, an' still knackered," Constance said. "But Mrs. Murphy let her go back to her room."
"I know she wants to see you," Forbearance said softly, pulling away and wiping at her tears. "She asks after you every time we'uns goes to see her."
Alexandra nodded. "I'd like to see her."
The five of them walked through the halls together. Other kids stopped and stared. Some took detours to avoid Alexandra, but Charlotte Barker gave her a little wave.
At the entrance to the sixth grade girls' dorm, the hall monitor looked them over and scowled when her eyes fell on David. "Where do you think you're going, young man?"
"Nowhere," he grumbled. He looked at Alexandra. "I was just waiting to see that you were all right, anyway. Guess I better go."
Alexandra patted him on the shoulder. "How's Angelique?"
He looked away. "Not good."
Alexandra didn't know what to say to that. David left, and the girls walked on to Innocence's room.
Innocence was sitting up in bed, scribbling notes as her roommate practiced wand movements for their Charms practical exam. Innocence dropped her quill and Ouida spun around when Alexandra knocked on the door, with the other three girls behind her.
"Alex!" Innocence exclaimed. Alexandra noticed that she still wasn't wearing her bonnet. She started to get out of bed, and Constance and Forbearance hurried inside.
"Oh, no you don't!" Constance said.
"Mrs. Murphy said you're to rest yourself up!" Forbearance said.
"She was just here, and all she said was I'm s'pposed to rest, not lie in bed all durned day!" Innocence was struggling to rise, while her sisters tried to push her back onto her pillows. Ouida shrank away a little and cast her eyes downwards as Alexandra walked in.
Sighing in exasperation, the twins let Innocence stand up. The younger girl stared at Alexandra, and then gave her a fierce hug.
"You saved my life," she said.
Alexandra ran a hand over Innocence's uncovered hair. "I guess I did."
"That means I owe you my life."
"No." Alexandra shook her head. "Just stay out of trouble, okay?"
Innocence nodded. Her eyes filled with tears. "I been the most horrible, awful, wickedest witch ever," she said. "I been nothin' but trouble and a malady."
Alexandra smiled. "I wouldn't say that."
"Let the child speak, Alexandra," said Constance.
Innocence rolled her eyes at her sister. "You'uns know I was bein' goomered by Darla, right?"
"Innocence," Forbearance said, in a scolding tone. "Mrs. Murphy said Darla done muddled your memories and led you 'bout, but that don't mean you don't own the corn for what you done on your own account."
Innocence nodded, expression downcast.
"Could I... could I speak to Innocence in private, just for a minute?" Alexandra asked.
Innocence looked as surprised as everyone else. Constance and Forbearance exchanged looks between themselves, then exchanged looks with Innocence, and nodded.
"Of course, Alexandra," Constance said.
Anna also nodded. "Sure."
Innocence looked at Ouida, who said nothing, but retreated wordlessly from their room, followed by the older girls, who shut the door behind them.
"How are you, really?" Alexandra asked.
Innocence turned to the stand by her bed, where her familiar was sitting in a little glass terrarium. She reached inside and picked up the toad and held it in her hands.
"I was terrible grateful they found Misery," she said. "Poor critter was half-dead... that awful Darla was bleedin' her an' cursin' her and doin' other awful things to her."
Innocence didn't reply. She rocked the toad gently side to side.
"Innocence." Alexandra put a hand on her shoulder. Innocence kept her attention focused on her toad.
"You're going to have nightmares," Alexandra said. Innocence looked down. Alexandra continued: "And maybe you'll blame yourself. Maybe sometimes you'll be afraid."
Innocence turned away, and set Misery back in her terrarium. "I'll be fine, Alex. Mrs. Murphy said —"
"Your sisters love you." Alexandra stood behind Innocence. "You are so lucky, to have them around. And you have friends. Like me."
Innocence turned around slowly. Her eyes were glistening.
"You will be fine," Alexandra said. "But not right away. And pretending you're fine when you're not — it will mess you up. Let Constance and Forbearance worry about you and take care of you. Even if it annoys the heck out of you. It will make them feel better. And it will make you feel better."
Innocence blinked rapidly, and then nodded, with her head bowed.
Alexandra didn't say anything for several moments. She glanced at Misery, who had crawled into a dish of water and was now happily soaking in it.
"I'm sorry about what I did," Alexandra murmured. "In the cave."
Innocence looked up at her. "What do you mean? You saved my life!"
"I know. I had to do it. But using C-Crucio —"
"Oh, you din't do no such thing." Innocence shook her head.
Alexandra frowned. "What? You must remember —"
"No, Alex," Innocence said firmly. "I told Ms. Grimm — not Dean Grimm; her sister, the Special 'Quisitor — I told her 'bout that, but Ms. Grimm, she said I must've been mis'memberin', on account 'a I was in shock. She 'splained me. See, if'n you wished an Unforgivable, even if 'twas necessary, it be a crime an' she'd have to persecute you."
"Yeah, prosecute. 'Cause Unforgivables is unforgivable, and you oughtn't know such things anyhow." Innocence's voice was earnest, and her deep blue eyes were full of sincerity. "So Ms. Grimm, she said I prob'ly couldn't rightly 'member what happened, 'cause've bein' in shock and traumer-tized. So I allowed as she must be right an' I was just addled, so you definitely din't use no Crucios or no works like that."
Alexandra stared at her, then nodded slowly.
Innocence smiled, and gave her another hug. "You really is the bravest, fiercest girl I ever knowed," she said.
"Thanks." Alexandra patted her on the back. "Remember what I said."
"I will. I promise." She frowned. "Still don't mean Connie and Forbearance can boss me like I'm a l'il child."
Alexandra laughed softly. "I think you'll all cope."
She was about to open the door again to let the other girls back in, but paused a moment.
"Innocence," she asked, "did you ever let Darla borrow your wand before she started bewitching you?"
"'Course not! Ozarkers don't never lend their wands!" Innocence picked up her white oak wand, which had been lying next to Misery's terrarium. "I feel plumb dirty, just knowin' what wickedness Darla put it to."
Alexandra nodded. "I was just wondering."
She left Constance and Forbearance with their sister, and was quiet as she walked with Anna back up to their room. Anna walked side by side with her, not breaking the silence.
Everything looked as it had been when she'd left, except that Anna had picked up the contents of Alexandra's backpack and put them back in the pack, and replaced it under her bed. Charlie was sitting on the windowsill outside, and Alexandra opened the window to let the raven in.
Alexandra looked at the door to the bathroom. "How is Sonja?" she asked.
"She's okay, too," Anna said. "She'll probably come in any time now —"
Alexandra reached over and locked the door. "I don't want to deal with her right now."
Anna nodded. "Are you okay, Alex?"
Alexandra looked at her. "Darla's dead."
Anna's brow wrinkled. "I know," she said softly.
"I couldn't save her. I still don't know why she did what she did."
"It wasn't your fault," Anna said.
"Max is dead, too."
Anna paused. She looked worried and a little confused.
"Max is dead, and he's never coming back," Alexandra said. "I couldn't save him, either."
Anna was very quiet. Then she said, "I'm sorry."
Alexandra began crying.
Anna put her arms around her. Alexandra's knees shook and she sank to the floor, Anna with her, and Anna continued to hold her as she wept, and all the grief and sorrow of the past year spilled out of her.
In the days that followed, Charmbridge Academy tried to carry on as usual despite the wild rumors swirling around the school, as well as the witches and wizards from the Territorial headquarters in Chicago who continued to scour the grounds, inside and out. Three other wizards joined the Aurors who were stalking the halls. The newcomers didn't wear red vests or uniforms, only nondescript black robes and hoods. No one knew exactly what they were doing, but they spent a great deal of time in the basements. They didn't interact with the students or staff at all, and even the Aurors seemed to find them creepy. Alexandra overheard Mr. Grue call them "unspeakable" in a whispered conversation with another teacher.
She spent some of her time in the library going back over every book and newspaper she'd found that mentioned the Deathly Regiment. She looked up the two obituaries she remembered reading.
Hesperia Zill had been six years old when she'd 'joined the Deathly Regiment.' Wendell Rusch had been ten.
Did their parents even know? Alexandra wondered. Or did they just get Obliviated? People must have known, once. But then it became just an old story, a legend, then a euphemism for death, and it fell out of fashion...
Hesperia had died in 1835; Wendell in 1856. Alexandra did the math, subtracting each year from the current one and dividing by seven. She hadn't noticed the pattern before, and she hadn't noticed that they were both children. But then, she hadn't been looking for it.
Twenty-one sacrifices since 1856, she thought. How many before that?
She thought she would have a hard time studying now, but in fact she found it was easy to clear her mind of everything except magical theory, or Ptolemy's Transfiguration Solutions, or the seventeen different Charms they had to demonstrate for their SPAWN. Even in her least favorite classes, Alchemy and American Wizarding History, she felt reasonably confident about her final exams, though she knew that given how many homework assignments she'd skipped, it would take a miracle for her to get better than 'C's.
She was also resigning herself to her reputation as a Dark Wizard's daughter. Already, rumors were circulating that she had killed Darla and tried to sacrifice Innocence. With everyone busy studying, few students had the time or inclination to persecute her, but she remained on guard.
If there was anyone having a harder time than Alexandra, though, it was Angelique, who seemed always on the verge of tears, and broke down completely during their Magical Theory final and had to be led out of the classroom by Miss Hart.
Alexandra sat down with her in the cafeteria, the day after their SPAWNs. Angelique often ate alone nowadays. Sometimes David joined her, but he didn't seem to know how to cope with her, and that afternoon, he was out on the Quidditch field.
Angelique looked up at Alexandra, and her eyes became wide and fearful.
"You didn't know, did you?" Alexandra said quietly.
Angelique shook her head rapidly. "I didn't — I swear!"
"I believe you." Alexandra turned her attention to her plate, and the two girls ate quietly for a few minutes. She could feel other people watching them, but she ignored the stares.
"It wasn't your fault," Alexandra said suddenly.
"You couldn't have saved her." Alexandra met Angelique's eyes. "If Darla was determined enough and willing to hide secrets from her best friend, there's nothing you could have done."
Angelique stared at her, with tears welling up in her eyes. "I should have known," she whispered. "I knew she was up to something. I even suspected, when Mr. Whiskers — when Mr. Whiskers disappeared. B-but I didn't want to believe..."
Alexandra nodded. "Do you have any idea why she did it?"
Angelique shook her head slowly. "She lied to you about her sister dying, Alexandra. I think she was put up to something Dark by the folks she was hanging around with, like John Manuelito." She scowled, before sadness crept back into her voice. "But I just don't understand..."
"I don't either." They ate in silence again for a while, and just before Angelique got up to go, Alexandra asked, "Did you ever lend her your wand?"
Angelique looked startled. "No! I —" Her eyes darted away. "She asked, a couple of times, during the first couple months of school. She didn't tell me what she meant to do with it, of course, but she tried to talk me into letting her use my wand. I said no."
"So you're sure she never borrowed it when you weren't looking or when you were asleep?"
"I'm sure." Angelique looked down. She spoke in a very quiet voice. "I... I didn't trust her." She pushed her tray away, stood up, and hurried out of the cafeteria.
How did Darla Stun me in the basement? Alexandra wondered. She only had a mistletoe wand until she stole Innocence's familiar.
That was the part she still couldn't figure out. She supposed Darla's methods would probably remain as mysterious as her motives, but it was an unanswered question that bothered her.
Colonel Shirtliffe, back from her temporary duty with the Regimental Officer Corps, held a promotion ceremony on the last day of school. Most of the new wands, including William, were promoted to Mage-Private or Witch-Private. Charlotte Barker, Ermanno DiSilvio, and Supriya Chandra were all promoted to Sergeant, and it was announced that Daniel Keedle would be next year's Mage-Sergeant Major.
"This is usually where I give my speech encouraging you all to continue with JROC next year," Ms. Shirtliffe said. "Frankly, I expect that we're going to need more mages in the Regiments in the years ahead. So all I can promise you is that next year, we'll be training even harder than this year, and I'll expect nothing less than one hundred-percent dedication." She eyed the uniformed students all standing at attention. "Dismissed!"
"Quick!" she called, as Alexandra started to leave with the others. Alexandra turned around to face the teacher, standing at attention.
Ms. Shirtliffe clasped her hands behind her back. "You know, you're one of the best witches in the JROC. Attitude problems aside. It's because of those attitude problems that I couldn't justify promoting you."
"I understand, ma'am." Alexandra hadn't really expected a promotion.
"You could easily make Witch-Private First Class before the end of the fall semester," Ms. Shirtliffe said.
"Are you expecting me to get in trouble again next year, ma'am?"
"No," Ms. Shirtliffe said. "I'm expecting you to join voluntarily."
"You've done this for two years now," the JROC commander said. "And we both know you're good at it. You can keep acting like a rebellious brat just because that's what's expected of you, or you can grow up and start excelling. Think about it, Quick. Dismissed."
Alexandra saluted and walked away, thinking over Ms. Shirtliffe's words.
She saw a few adults who weren't part of the faculty walking through the halls. This year, amidst all the security concerns, some parents were coming to pick up their children personally. She knew of at least two students in her grade who were not coming back to Charmbridge next year.
When she returned to her dorm, she found a man in the room with Anna.
Alexandra stopped in the doorway, surprised, as the visitor turned around slowly. He was tall and imposing, like in the picture Anna had hanging on her wall. He wore red and gold Chinese-style robes with several colors of fabric lining his collar and cuffs, and a great deal of jewelry hanging around his neck. On most wizards, it might have looked a bit effeminate, but on Geming Chu, it just made him look more regal. He studied Alexandra with an air of haughty scrutiny, while Anna looked between them nervously.
"You must be Alexandra," Mr. Chu said.
Alexandra nodded. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Chu." She paused. "Should I call you Congressman?"
"Mr. Chu will be fine." He laid a hand on Anna's shoulder. "I've decided to take Anna home myself, since I had to return to North California from New Amsterdam anyway."
Alexandra nodded. "I see." Anna wouldn't be riding the bus with her, then. She felt disappointed, and wondered if Anna would be returning to Charmbridge at all.
Mr. Chu turned to his daughter. "Anna, I would like to speak to your friend in private."
He spoke softly in Chinese.
She nodded. "Yes, Father."
He squeezed her shoulder, and Anna walked past Alexandra, giving her a small, anxious smile, before going out the door. Mr. Chu gestured at it, and the door closed, leaving him and Alexandra alone in the room, except for Nigel.
Guess a Congressman can ignore the 'No Boys Allowed' rule, Alexandra thought, but she didn't say that. Instead, she asked, "Are you going to let Anna come back to Charmbridge?"
The Congressman paced around their room, looking at the books on Anna's shelf, and the empty cage where Charlie slept when not flying around outside, and glanced at Alexandra's snake, curled up around the magical warming rock in his terrarium.
"I was worried, when Anna came here," he said at last. "Charmbridge Academy is one of the finest wizarding schools in the country, where many of the children of the Elect attend, so of course it was a great honor to send my daughter. But — I feared that Anna is too much like her mother." Mr. Chu turned to face Alexandra. "Anna's mother is very mild of temperament, which makes her a pleasing wife, but at times, she is a bit too... meek. Anna is much like her. I wondered whether she had the strength of spirit to persevere in a difficult academic and social environment. She needs to be strong. She will need strength and courage in the coming years, for I believe the Confederation has hard times ahead, and I feared that Anna was just too... weak."
"Anna isn't weak," Alexandra said, keeping her voice low. "Anna is a lot braver and stronger than you think she is."
Mr. Chu's expression was unreadable.
"Anna's my best friend," Alexandra said. "She's loyal and caring and smart and wise. You should be proud of her. Don't punish her because you think I'm trouble. And don't punish us for being friends because of who my father is."
He smiled. "You live up to your reputation, I see."
Alexandra almost gave him another retort, but kept her mouth shut, before she made things worse.
Anna's father resumed pacing around the room. "Since Anna began attending Charmbridge Academy, I have seen a change in her. She has become more assertive. She is more responsible. She shows the stirrings of confidence." He smiled wryly. "I have even seen hints of rebelliousness." He turned to face Alexandra again. "I believe much of that is because of you."
"You should give Anna more credit," Alexandra said.
He stood in front of her and looked her up and down, eyeing the JROC uniform she was still wearing. "Don't you learn to address adults, especially Congressmen, as 'sir' in the Junior Regimental Officer Corps?"
Alexandra's jaw tightened. "Yes, sir."
"Anna is a Congressman's daughter now," he said. "She needs to be mindful that what she does reflects on me, and on our family. So do her friends." He smiled. "I hope you will be mindful of that as well. It's clear that she follows you. Please try to keep her, and yourself, out of trouble next year."
Alexandra blinked in astonishment, and then said, "Yes, sir."
He nodded. "Good."
He turned towards the door. Apparently he had decided the conversation was over. Alexandra was still standing in a respectful posture, almost at attention. She licked her lips and said, "Sir?"
He turned back towards her. "Yes?"
"Do you know what the Deathly Regiment is?"
Geming Chu turned pale. Alexandra's eyes narrowed as she watched his composure crack.
"You do know," she whispered. "It's true, isn't it? A child every seven years — how can you do that?"
"Ssh!" he whispered frantically. He took out his wand and said, "Muffliato!" then stared at her. "How did you learn of this?"
"How could you keep it a secret?" Alexandra demanded, her voice rising now that their conversation was made private by Mr. Chu's spell.
"We have no choice!" he said. "All those who learn of the Deathly Regiment are sworn to secrecy by Unbreakable Vows! Obliviation is used on those who learn of it by accident. Did your father tell you? Does the Wizard Justice Department know that you know?"
Alexandra shook her head. "No. Are you going to tell them, and have me Obliviated? I'll find out again — I know I will."
Mr. Chu pointed a finger at her and tried to sound as commanding as before, but he was clearly shaken. "You must not speak of this to Anna! You must not speak of this to anyone! You have no idea the grave danger you will put yourself in, and anyone you tell about it!"
"Anna is so proud of you," Alexandra said. "No, I won't tell her that her father is part of a secret plot to sacrifice children."
"I OPPOSE THE DEATHLY REGIMENT!" Mr. Chu bellowed. "IT IS AN ABOMINATION!"
Alexandra stood still, shocked, and Mr. Chu lowered his voice. He took a deep breath. "I was ashamed when I learned the price my great-great-grandfather agreed to pay, on behalf of our entire community, for us to join the Confederation. My great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my father all knew the cost of being among the Elect, but they continued to submit to the Deathly Regiment. There are many of us in the Wizards' Congress, Alexandra, who wish to abolish it."
"Like my father did," Alexandra said, with sudden realization.
The Congressman nodded slowly. "Yes. But your father chose the path of insurrection and chaos when he could not change things from within. That is not the way."
"So you're going to try to change things according to the rules, and in the meantime, someone still dies every seven years."
He looked down. "Hopefully, we will succeed before the next child is chosen."
"Who dies this year?" Alexandra asked quietly.
Mr. Chu raised his head and stared at her. "The sacrifice has already been made. If you know about the Deathly Regiment, I thought you knew — you saw it happen, didn't you?"
Alexandra's stomach turned to ice. "Darla," she whispered.
He nodded. "She stole a Confederation Seal... I understand she originally intended to sacrifice another pureblood girl, but —"
"Why?" Alexandra asked. "Why would she do that?"
Mr. Chu gave Alexandra a long, appraising look. "You know less than I thought."
"I want to know why she did it," Alexandra said. Her voice became pleading. "I need to know, Mr. Chu."
He closed his eyes, and seemed to be deep in thought. Then he opened them. "You already know too much," he said. "If you know of the Deathly Regiment, the curses do not prevent me from discussing it. Still..." The wizard slowly reached into his robe, finding something in a pocket in its inner lining.
"One of the Elect — a pureblood child, one too young to have a wand — is chosen by secret lottery every seven years," he said. "Only those of us who are charged with the secret of the Deathly Regiment are told of it. But somehow, Darla Dearborn found out. Her uncle, Congressman Dearborn, is being investigated now."
He withdrew a slip of parchment. "Once we see the name, we cannot speak it aloud," he said quietly. "That is one of the curses put upon us."
He waved his wand over the parchment. Alexandra watched as words formed on it.
"Oh, Darla," she whispered, as she saw the name:
Mary Elizabeth Dearborn.
She looked away, while Mr. Chu flicked his wand and the parchment crumbled to ashes.
"You cannot speak of this to anyone," he repeated. "I place myself at risk by telling you. I am sure you would not put Anna in danger by telling her of these things."
Alexandra shook her head. "No... sir. I wouldn't."
"We will end the Deathly Regiment, Alexandra. I swear to you, that is my goal."
"If you don't," she said slowly, "someone has only seven years to live."
Mr. Chu regarded her with a tight-lipped frown, and nodded.
"A pureblood," she said. "It has to be a pureblood?"
"That is how the Elect justify their entitlement to their powers and privileges. But most don't actually know what cost they are paying for those entitlements."
Alexandra stood quietly in thought, and Mr. Chu turned to go again.
"Is that why you married a Muggle?" she asked.
Mr. Chu paused, with his back still to her.
"Anna's a half-blood," Alexandra said. "Your children wouldn't be eligible for this lottery, would they?"
Anna's father stood there a moment, then said, without turning around, "Only pureblood children can be chosen."
He opened the door. Just before going outside, he said, "You will not speak of this — any of this — to Anna."
He left her standing there. Down the hall, she heard him speaking to Anna in Chinese, sounding firm and fatherly. She walked to the window and looked out across Charmbridge's lawn, warm and sunny on this bright spring day.