The next morning, Alexandra's name was listed on the eighth grade bulletin board again: 'Alexandra Quick — Report to Mrs. Minder in the library for detention: 6:30 p.m.'
Normally, Alexandra preferred library detention, but now it meant that she wouldn't be able to search the basements. She feared there was little chance of her finding the ghost before Ms. Gale did.
"You sure you want to be seen with me?" she said to Anna, only half-joking, as they went to breakfast.
"Don't be ridiculous," Anna said, very seriously.
Alexandra felt a surge of warmth for her friend, who had not scolded her once the previous night. She put an arm around Anna's shoulders, and Anna cracked a small smile.
Alexandra dropped her arm before they entered the cafeteria. A hush fell over the room as a hundred students stopped eating and stared at her.
Into the sudden lull, Alexandra announced in a loud voice: "I did not curse Benjamin Rash, okay?"
Anna looked nervous, as she felt all that attention focused on her, too, but she stood fast next to Alexandra.
"Please get your breakfast without the theatrics, Miss Quick," said Dean Black, who had cafeteria duty that morning, along with Mr. Newton, who just frowned at her.
Conversations awkwardly resumed, and Alexandra saw most of the students averting their gazes from her as she walked to the eighth graders' table.
"I believe you, Quick!" said a familiar voice from the table where the Rashes normally sat. Neither of them was at breakfast this morning, but Larry Albo and the other Old Colonials who usually joined the Ozarkers were all staring at her.
"I don't think you know any Dark magic," Larry said, leaning forward. "I think you're a posturing little brat who hides behind your brother or your father, and likes letting people think you're scary." He held his hands up, waggling his fingers mockingly. "Ooh, look, it's the Enemy's daughter!"
Alexandra felt Anna tensing next to her, as if about try to grab her, should she do something foolish.
"That's enough, Mr. Albo," Dean Black said. "Get in line if you're going to eat, Miss Quick."
"Have you heard about the special Regiment that's going to hunt your daddy in the Lands Below, Quick?" Larry called, as Alexandra walked on.
"One more word and you'll be serving detention, Mr. Albo!" Dean Black snapped.
Alexandra said nothing as she got her breakfast and sat down. If Anna noticed how tightly her fists were clenched, she didn't say anything.
Constance and Forbearance didn't come to breakfast, and neither did Innocence.
Alexandra began to worry a little when they weren't in Charms class that morning either. It was five minutes after the start of the period when one of the Pritchards walked into the classroom.
Mr. Newton scowled at her. "Miss Pritchard, why are you late to my class?"
"We was in the infirmary, Mr. Newton," she said meekly, eyes downcast.
The Charms teacher regarded her sternly for a moment through his thick spectacles. "Where is your sister?"
"She's still there, sir."
He squinted at her, then said, "Take your seat," and continued his lesson on Illusions, Disillusionment, and Glamour. Today he described their semester project. Anna took copious notes, but Alexandra barely paid attention, since she knew she could copy Anna's notes later. She looked at the bonneted Ozarker at the table next to her, wishing she could ask her what was going on. Constance (or was it Forbearance?) wore a serious expression and seemed to be paying attention to Mr. Newton, but her body language was stiff and unrevealing.
Alexandra waited until class was over and they were outside. She was embarrassed to realize that she had never seen one of the Pritchard twins alone before, and she couldn't tell them apart, so she said, "Constance," figuring she had a fifty-fifty chance of guessing correctly.
Behind her, David snorted. "That's Forbearance, dummy."
Forbearance paused, as they walked towards their second period Transfiguration class.
"You know I didn't curse Benjamin, right?" Alexandra said, deciding to just ignore her gaffe.
Forbearance's pale blue eyes reflected doubt for a moment, and then she smiled. "If you say you didn't, I believe you, Alexandra," she said softly.
Forbearance nodded. She looked relieved.
"You really thought I might have?" Alexandra asked.
Forbearance looked down. "We'uns didn't know what to think. There's enough bad blood 'twixt you an' the Rashes..."
"I wouldn't do something like that!" Alexandra said, annoyed, but then she lowered her voice. "How is he? And why didn't Constance come to class?"
"She agreed to sit with Mordecai an' Benjamin a bit. Mrs. Murphy gave permission." Forbearance looked up at her friends. "Benjamin hain't woke up yet."
"Could it be... ghost sickness?" Alexandra asked.
Anna started to say something, and held her tongue.
"Mrs. Murphy reckons Benjamin caught himself a curse, messin' with somethin' or someone he ought not've," Forbearance said. "But if he weren't cursed, it must've been a shade."
Alexandra thought about that, as the day continued. In every class, only her friends spoke to her, while whispers and stares followed her everywhere she went. Rumors were flying around the school, and Alexandra knew that nearly everyone at Charmbridge believed that she was responsible for what had happened to Benjamin. And she supposed, in a way, they were right.
JROC drills were that afternoon. This time, they met in the JROC's 'headquarters' — a large classroom on the second floor — and the atmosphere was tense.
"Today," Colonel Shirtliffe said, "we'll review some basic defenses against Dark Arts."
"We'll need them, with Quick around," muttered Theo.
Alexandra turned to glare at him, but with the teacher watching, she kept her mouth shut.
"First, let's talk about ghosts," Shirtliffe said. "How many of you have actually met a ghost?"
Alexandra raised her hand. Several kids who'd been raised in the wizarding world did also. Snickers rippled through the group when William hesitantly raised his hand, too.
"Well, I've met dozens," Shirtliffe said. "Including Mage-General Sheridan Crowley, whom you have probably heard about in your American Wizarding History class. I know General Crowley personally."
Alexandra didn't remember anything about Mage-General Crowley from American Wizarding History, but it had only been a month; they'd barely gotten past the Plymouth-Salem Election.
"Ghosts may be forbidden here at Charmbridge Academy," Shirtliffe said, "but in many places they are welcome. No one I know has ever been struck with 'ghost sickness.'" She surveyed the uniformed students in front of her. No one said anything.
"However," she continued, "there are other sorts of spirits, conjured by Dark magic, and some of those can be harmful. That's why I'm going to start teaching you Banishing Spells." She pursed her lips, as if debating something. "You won't learn them in your regular P.M.E. class, or in your weekly magical self-defense lectures, because it's not part of the standard SPAWN curriculum. But I run the JROC, and I can teach what I see fit. That said, Banishing Spells don't distinguish between friendly spirits and unfriendly ones — and if you ever use it against another wizard's ghost, I hope you spend your afterlife as a ghost and are treated just as poorly."
With that admonishment, Colonel Shirtliffe began to show her rapt flight of JROC wands the Banishing Spell. Alexandra was as fascinated as everyone else — but she felt a chill go through her when Shirtliffe pronounced the words that accompanied the spell:
They weren't quite the same words that Sue Fox, one of the seniors in the Mors Mortis Society, had used the previous year when banishing an evil spirit from the Lands Beyond, but they were close. And Alexandra had a terrible feeling that she knew what had struck down Benjamin.
She waited until JROC was over before she approached the JROC commander. Colonel Shirtliffe was talking to Mage-Sergeant Major Strangeland. She saw Alexandra waiting, and scowled at her until Alexandra assumed a proper position of attention. Alexandra was made to wait while Shirtliffe finished her conversation with Strangeland; finally, as the senior walked away, the Witch-Colonel turned to her. "What is it, Witch-Private?"
Still at attention, Alexandra said, "I think I know what happened to Benjamin, ma'am."
Shirtliffe looked her up and down, giving her uniform a quick inspection. Apparently finding no faults, she said, "At ease."
Alexandra relaxed, and Shirtliffe said, "What happened to Benjamin, Quick?"
Alexandra took a breath. "I think he was attacked by a jibay, ma'am. From the Lands Beyond."
Shirtliffe clasped her hands behind her back, and studied the young witch in front of her.
"I spoke to some of the students who were expelled last year," the teacher said. "They told me about summoning spirits from a cave in the sub-basement. But the basements are sealed now, and I checked that cave last night." When Alexandra's eyes widened, Shirtliffe nodded. "Yes, I went down there. The rock wall is solid, and I found no traces of Dark magic or ghosts around it." She frowned. "Do you know anything else, Quick? Like how an evil spirit might have been summoned from the Lands Beyond? Or by whom?"
Ms. Shirtliffe sighed. "Dean Grimm and I questioned her last night also. Her wand was safely locked in Dean Cervantes's desk, and her roommate can account for her whereabouts. Incidentally, the Delta Delta Kappa Tau hall monitor, which, you may have noticed, is directly outside of Dearborn and Devereaux's door, won't be falling asleep any more, either. If you or Dearborn think you'll be getting away with the sort of sneaking around you did last year, think again."
Alexandra frowned, unconvinced.
"Aurors and professional ghost hunters from the Bureau of Hauntings will be here on Friday," Ms. Shirtliffe said. "Just to make sure."
"But there is a ghost down there," Alexandra said quietly.
"If there is, the ghost hunters will find it."
Shirtliffe raised an eyebrow.
"If there is a ghost down there," Alexandra said slowly, "it's a person. A former person, anyway. Not an 'it.' Ma'am."
The teacher studied her long enough to make Alexandra uncomfortable.
"Alexandra," Ms. Shirtliffe said at last, "it's not Maximilian."
Alexandra kept her gaze steady. "How do you know that, ma'am?"
"If it were your brother, don't you think he would have spoken to you?" Shirtliffe said gently. "I don't think Maximilian would skulk around hiding in the basements, even as a ghost."
Alexandra didn't think so either. Max wouldn't hide from her.
Unless he was angry at her. Unless he blamed her.
"If it's an Indian spirit that's somehow escaped from the Lands Beyond," Shirtliffe went on, "the Aurors and ghost hunters will find it, too. In the meantime, would you please try to stay out of trouble?"
"I have been trying, ma'am."
"Try harder. Dismissed."
Alexandra gave a salute with the bare minimum level of effort, and stalked out of the room. She paused when she heard a muffled thumping sound, and looked up and down the hallway, which was lined by lockers.
"Hello?" she called out. Ms. Shirtliffe had gone out the other door from the headquarters classroom, and the other JROC students had already dispersed. The hallway was empty, and the sound didn't repeat itself.
Frowning, Alexandra descended to the main floor, planning to change out of her uniform and do her homework before dinner. She found Innocence waiting at the bottom of the stairs.
"Hi, Alex," Innocence said. "Is William behind you?"
"No," Alexandra said.
"Oh." The younger girl frowned. "But I been waitin' here since all y'all came downstairs, an' I hain't seen him."
"Why are you waiting for William?" Alexandra asked.
"It's a secret," Innocence whispered.
Alexandra raised her eyebrows. Innocence shook her head rapidly beneath her blue and white bonnet. "Oh, no, t'aint nothin' like that, Alex! He's a nice enough feller, but he ain't my type."
"I see," Alexandra said slowly, amused.
Innocence wrinkled her nose, and her face flushed with indignation. "I'm teachin' him hexes!" she whispered, more loudly.
"I see," Alexandra repeated, suddenly a little less amused. She looked over her shoulder, and then turned around to go back upstairs, to the hallway outside the JROC classroom. Innocence followed.
"William?" Alexandra called out.
There was no answer.
"William, is you hidin'? We hain't got time for hide'n'seek!" Innocence said.
Alexandra listened, but the hallway was perfectly quiet. She pointed her wand.
"Accio William's wand pin," she commanded, and a rattling sound came from one of the tall lockers. She marched over to it and tried to open it, but it was locked. The thumping sound she'd heard before was now definitely coming from behind the locker door, along with the sound of a piece of metal knocking against the other side.
"Alohomora," she said, and locker clicked and opened.
William tumbled out and sprawled on the floor in a state of complete disarray. His shirt and jacket had been pulled up over his head and wrapped around his face, blindfolding and gagging him while also binding his arms behind him like a straitjacket, and exposing his tubby white belly. His bootlaces were wrapped around his ankles, and his underwear looked as if it had been jerked almost up to his armpits. His wand had been stuck down his pants.
"Oh, my stars above!" Innocence gasped.
Alexandra had to use a counterspell to undo the jinx tying his jacket up. As soon as William freed his arms, he rolled away from her, turning his face away from both girls as he desperately tried to pull his shirt and jacket down and cover himself up, while pushing his underpants back below his waistband. He looked horribly uncomfortable and undignified.
"Why didn't you kick the door or something when you heard me calling?" Alexandra demanded.
He didn't answer. Alexandra and Innocence looked at each other, and back at the boy, and Alexandra saw his shoulders were shaking.
"Are you okay?" she asked. "Do you need to go to the infirmar —"
"NO!" he yelled. "Just leave me alone!"
"Leave you alone? Well, that's a fine thankee for fetchin' you outter a locker," Innocence said.
"William, who did this to you?" Alexandra asked.
"It doesn't matter!" William stumbled to his feet, once he got his boot laces untied, and ran for the stairs. His face was red and streaked with tears.
"Hey!" Alexandra called, standing up.
"William!" shouted Innocence.
He kept going, and disappeared down the stairs.
"You know," Alexandra said, "teaching him hexes might not have been the best idea."
"But he really wanted to learn!"
Alexandra sighed, and began walking back downstairs herself, with Innocence in tow. She didn't have much time to do her homework, and then she had detention again right after dinner. She wasn't about to chase after William.
"He hain't learned even the simplest hexes," Innocence said, as Alexandra walked towards Delta Delta Kappa Tau hall, hoping Innocence would head towards the sixth graders' dorms. "I can't 'magine how Muggle-borns ever catches up when they comes to school so untutored!"
"We manage," Alexandra said dryly.
"Oh, well, you hain't really Muggle-born —"
"David does okay, too."
"That's true." Innocence frowned. "I'll just have to tutor William harder..."
"Maybe you shouldn't."
They reached the juncture where Innocence would have to separate from Alexandra if she was to return to her own room, but they found Constance and Forbearance waiting there.
"There you are, Innocence!" Constance said. "Where you been, girl, and who you been tutorin' what?"
Innocence bit her lip, and looked at Alexandra.
"Well?" Constance demanded.
"We hafter go to the infirmary," Forbearance said. "The Rashes are waitin'."
"I still want to know what you were talkin' 'bout just now," Constance said. She looked at Alexandra, who shrugged. As far as Alexandra was concerned, this was between Innocence and her sisters.
"Answer me, girl!" Constance said, grabbing Innocence's wrist.
To Alexandra's surprise, Innocence pulled away.
"I been tutorin' William Killmond how to throw hexes!" she said. "On account 'a Alexandra wouldn't!"
"Wait a minute," Alexandra said.
"You been what?" Forbearance exclaimed.
"He didn't even know how to wish a teeny little booger-hex, or unjinx his laces..."
"Teachin' hexes? You know better 'n that!" Constance was aghast. "An' who's this William Killmond?"
"Just a boy in my class. He's sweet on Alexandra —"
"Wait a minute!" Alexandra said.
"— an' he gets laywaid an' greened awful 'cause he's Muggle-born —"
Constance's face twisted in disapproval. "We'll talk 'bout this later. Now come 'long, we're goin' to see Benjamin an' Mordecai."
Innocence shook her head. "I hain't goin'. You'uns go be nice to 'em! I don't prefer to."
"Innocence!" Forbearance said.
Constance stepped closer to her younger sister, eyes flashing angrily.
"That's enough 'n more'n enough, Innocence Catharine!" she snapped. "You are gonna come with us an' be mannerable—"
"Am! Not!" Innocence said, stamping her foot. "I don't care if Benjamin Rash dies! Stick a needle in my eye if I'm lyin'!"
"Innocence!" Forbearance looked shocked now.
Constance grabbed Innocence again, with as furious an expression as Alexandra had ever seen on her. "That is a horrible, hateful thing to say! I'm shamed at you! You done turned into a wild wampus since you set foot out the holler!"
"Better'n turnin' into biddable li'l raggedy dolls like you'uns!" Innocence shouted back. "I'm surprised you don't ask 'em permission to pee!"
Alexandra heard the slap before she even realized what had happened. Innocence staggered back and raised a hand to her cheek slowly, in shock.
Constance stared at her younger sister, and at the hand with which she'd just struck her across the face. She looked nearly as shocked as Innocence.
"Connie," Forbearance whispered. Her eyes were wide. Her hands fluttered at her sides, helplessly. She looked from Constance to Innocence.
Alexandra watched, as Innocence took one step back, then another, still rubbing her cheek. Her eyes overflowed with tears, but she didn't make a sound as she turned and ran back down the hallway.
"Innocence!" Forbearance called, but the younger girl kept going.
Constance stammered: "I... I didn't mean to... she just vexed me so..."
Forbearance took her arm. "C'mon... we best go see if Benjamin is woke up yet. We'll set things right with Innocence after." She looked at Alexandra. "We're terrible sorry you saw that, Alex."
Alexandra shrugged, not sure what to say. She didn't know what to make of Innocence's rebelliousness. The girl was being horribly bratty, and yet Alexandra sympathized with her. "Don't worry about it."
"We'll see y'all at dinner," Forbearance said softly. The Ozarkers turned about and walked back the way they'd come, towards the infirmary, Forbearance still holding her twin's arm. Alexandra watched them go, and wondered what it would be like to grow up with a sister always at your side. That made her think of the Rashes — like the Pritchards, she almost never saw the Rashes apart. She knew how much losing a brother hurt, and she hadn't even grown up with Maximilian, and that weakened her loathing for Mordecai and made her feel guilty again, and none of those feelings were welcome, so she pushed them out of her mind.
She went upstairs to her room and tried to focus on her schoolwork, but after a few minutes she tossed aside the scroll she was supposed to write on how Glamours differed from Transfigurations, and opened Rules and Principles of Temporal Apparition instead.
These books were much more difficult than anything she was reading for class. She struggled to understand the Law of Subjunctive Observation and the Grandfather Theorem, then turned to the back of the book, where it actually talked about magic, but it was becoming apparent to her that time travel was like flying to the moon.
When she was eight, Alexandra had become obsessed with going to the moon. She wanted to build a rocket ship in her backyard. She and Brian had begun the project, but Alexandra was not going to be satisfied with some plywood simulacrum of a rocket — she wanted a real spaceship. She had checked out every book she could find in the library about space travel and rocket science, and though most of it went way over her head, she'd actually learned quite a lot about astronauts and space and how rockets worked.
It had taken her many months, though, to accept that she couldn't build a rocket ship to the moon just by reading enough books. She'd have to grow up to become an astronaut.
Of course, by the following summer, she had abandoned her dream of becoming an astronaut — she wanted to be a neurosurgeon instead. (Brian had been much less enthusiastic about her new project.)
Alexandra was never going to abandon her dream of bringing back Maximilian. But as much as she wanted him back now, she realized that it might actually take her a long time.
Her library detention was uneventful. Mrs. Minder had her straighten desks and tables, remove gum and ink stains from the furniture, and start cleaning the carpets. Alexandra didn't get a chance to speak to Bran and Poe. She did, however, wander over to the locked rooms where the Reserves and Restricted Collections were kept, and spend several minutes contemplating the locks that kept all those volumes of forbidden lore, uncensored histories, and advanced magic out of the hands of students.
Two things happened the next morning: William Killmond didn't come to JROC exercise, and Benjamin Rash was released from the infirmary. Alexandra arrived in the cafeteria with Anna, and saw Benjamin with his brother sitting at the tenth graders' table, and William sitting with the other sixth graders without his uniform.
Innocence was also sitting among the other sixth grade girls, rather than with her sisters, and when she finished eating, she hurried out with her classmates before Constance or Forbearance could talk to her.
The events of the past few days seemed to be affecting their schoolwork. Uncharacteristically, Mr. Newton gave his Charms class a free period in which they were allowed to practice making pidges disappear, in preparation for their test on Friday. About half the students had no difficulty, and began a competition to see who could make the most coins disappear with one charm. Alexandra and Anna did well enough, but Forbearance was unable to manage more than one, and Constance, after trying several times to cast a Disillusionment Charm over her pigeon, ended up melting it instead.
She stared in horror, as smoke curled up around her. Mr. Newton walked over, frowned at the burning hole in Constance's desk, and shook his head.
"I suggest you spend more time practicing before the test, Miss Pritchard," he said, repairing the desk with a wave of his wand. "Preferably outside."
Way to be encouraging, Alexandra thought, but Mr. Newton was mild compared to Mr. Grue, who took a sip of the Pritchards' preparation in Alchemy class and spat it out.
"Are you brewing potions or moonshine?" he snapped at the two Ozarkers. "If you cannot prepare a proper Unbittering Blend, you certainly can't prepare poison antidotes, nor make swallowable any of the Unswallowable Potions you need to know for your eighth grade SPAWN, which means I might as well just give you both Hocus Pocus marks now!"
They both hung their heads. Alexandra burned with fury at her friends' humiliation, but Anna put a hand over her clenched fist, and she remained silent while Mr. Grue came to sample their joint effort. Anna fairly trembled with nervousness; Alexandra just glared at the bearded teacher.
He sipped, grunted, and moved on.
"I'm only passing because of you," she said to Anna afterwards, but Anna shook her head.
"You do know what you're doing — when you study," Anna said.
"And when I have your notes to copy."
Anna smiled slightly at that.
"You want to study together tonight?" Alexandra asked. "If we go to the library, you can keep studying while I do detention..."
"Actually, I'm meeting someone else in the library tonight," Anna said. "But I'll wait until you finish detention and walk back with you."
Alexandra raised her eyebrows in surprise. Anna bit her lip and looked down. "Can I tell you about it later?"
"Sure." Alexandra nodded, nonplussed.
Anna did sometimes join other study groups, particularly before SPAWNs. Alexandra didn't like hanging out with the so-called 'wyrms,' who were obsessed with grades and test scores, and Anna had been doing less of it herself this year. Alexandra wondered briefly whether Anna had a boyfriend, and then dismissed the idea — surely her friend would have told her.
So she went to the library to study on her own that evening, combing the stacks for more books about ghosts, Temporal Apparition, the Lands Beyond, Indian spirits, and resurrection... as her search expanded, so did the number of books she had to pore over, looking for something useful. There were legends of wizards who'd traveled to the land of the dead and returned, and wizarding fairy tales about Death and magical stones that could raise the dead, and a tedious transcript of a trial from 1632 in which a Dark Wizard in Plymouth Territory was tried for necromancy and 'disturbing spirits' and sentenced to deportation to England, which didn't sound so bad until she read in a footnote that the Confederation stopped doing that in 1710, after they raised their own Dementors.
I should probably find out what Dementors are, she thought, but it was almost time for her to report to Mrs. Minder for detention. She put the books back on the shelves and walked to the front desk, and stopped when she saw Anna sitting at a table all the way in the back of the library — with Tomo Matsuzaka.
Last year, the two girls had been bitter enemies. Alexandra didn't really understand why there was such enmity between Japanese and Chinese wizards in California, but Tomo was the last person she expected to find Anna meeting. Anna looked up and saw Alexandra, and Tomo swiveled her head around to look at her. Both of them looked a little nervous, but Anna gave her a small smile and a wave. Alexandra nodded to them, and continued on to the front of the library.
She spent that evening helping Bran and Poe erase pencil and ink marks from books — a tedious chore, but one that the elves undertook with meticulous care. Alexandra hesitantly broached the subject of the Reserves and Restricted Collections, and the two library elves winced as they looked at each other.
"Alex wants to get into trouble again," Poe said dolefully.
"No, I don't!" Alexandra said. "But why have books in the library if we're not allowed to read them? It's unfair to put them in a locked room and say, 'Sure, there's all this information, but we're not going to let you have it, you're only allowed to be interested in what we say you should be interested in'!"
Bran and Poe squinted at her. "What information is Alex looking for this time?" Bran asked.
Alexandra hesitated, then answered, "Time travel."
The elves blinked.
"Time travel?" they repeated, and looked at each other.
"It's really interesting," Alexandra said. "And advanced magic! I think I might want to be an Artificer someday..."
The elves groaned and shook their heads.
"We will not help Alex get into more trouble," Bran said firmly.
"Okay." She dropped the subject, and Bran and Poe breathed sighs of relief — though they were obviously suspicious at how quickly she acquiesced.
Alexandra had not, of course, given up so easily. But guilt and uncertainty kept her from pressing the issue. She didn't think she'd find a book behind those locked doors that just happened to have the very spell she wanted. It was going to take time to learn everything she needed to learn; sneaking into the Restricted Collections once or twice wouldn't be enough.
And she didn't like using her friends.
But another voice whispered in her head: You said you'd do anything to bring back Maximilian. If making a couple of elves do your bidding is what it takes, will you let that stop you?
Anna was waiting for her at the same table she'd been sitting at earlier. Tomo was gone. Alexandra sat down with her, though they'd have to return to their room soon, as it was almost curfew time for middle schoolers, who weren't allowed to remain in the library as late as the upperclass students.
"What were you and Tomo talking about?" Alexandra asked, unable to hide her curiosity and puzzlement.
"Tomo knows what's happening in California," Anna said. "She asked her father to find out more for me."
Alexandra raised her eyebrows. "You're friends now?"
"Not exactly." Anna sighed. "The Majokai aren't happy about my father being arrested, even though they don't vote anyway."
Alexandra frowned. "I don't understand."
"Tomo's father is the head of one of the most powerful Majokai families," Anna said. "Some of them want to become regular members of the Confederation, like us, instead of being a Culture. My father was talking to them — making promises, I guess, if he gets elected."
"Do you think that could have something to do with why he got arrested?" Alexandra asked.
Anna shrugged. "I don't know. It's politics. Tomo and I have both heard all kinds of rumors — like the Chinese might withdraw from the Confederation and become a Culture, too, or the Majokai and us might go to war, or we might secede together and try to kick the Colonials out of California..." She looked down. "Xaoming and Tammy have heard a little bit, but their families don't want to get involved. Tomo is the only one here at school who can actually find out if he's been charged, if there's going to be a trial... What if there is a trial? I'll have to go back to California!" Suddenly agitated, Anna picked up a letter from the stack of papers and parchments on the table in front of her. "My mother says she's fine, but I know she's not, Alex! I should never have let her send me back to school..."
"Anna, calm down." Alexandra leaned over and put a hand on Anna's arm; Anna's hands fell back to the table, still clutching the letter from her mother.
"It will be all right," Alexandra said, while feeling helpless and frustrated. She cared — she wanted to help. But she could do nothing, and she felt as if her friends' problems were insoluble dilemmas distracting her from her own. "I think your parents both want you to stay here."
"Nobody in San Francisco replied to my letters." Anna looked down. "The Governor's Office sent me a form letter, and the WJD told me I have to send all inquiries through my parents!" She laughed bitterly. "I guess you're the only juvenile who gets to talk to Governors and Special Inquisitors personally."
"Lucky me," Alexandra muttered.
Anna bit her lip. "Are you sure there's no way you can ask them...?"
Alexandra sighed. "Maybe..." As Anna's eyes widened slightly, and her expression became hopeful, Alexandra whispered, "Ms. Shirtliffe told me there are Aurors and ghost hunters coming to the school at the end of the week. They're going to find the ghost who's haunting the basement, and make sure there really isn't anything evil down there." Alexandra scratched her chin, thinking. "I wouldn't be surprised if they decide to question me while they're here. And... maybe I can tell them I kinda sorta know a little more about what happened last year, but I want them to tell me about your father first."
"Will that work?" Anna whispered. "Do you know anything you haven't told them? Your father Obliviated your memories of the Lands Below..."
Alexandra hesitated. She almost told Anna, then, that she remembered everything, that her father had returned her memories to her — but then Mrs. Minder's voice sounded over the Wizard Address system: "Attention all students, grades eight and below. It is now time for you to return to your dorms. Don't let me catch you still in the library when I make my rounds, dears."
Anna scooped up her homework, books, and letters, and together she and Alexandra exited the library. Other sixth, seventh, and eighth graders trickled out with them — Alexandra paused, and Anna tensed a little, when Darla and Angelique appeared near the exit and glanced their way.
Back in their room, Alexandra fed Nigel, and gave Charlie some owl treats, while thinking about the upcoming Aurors' visit. Everyone was always assuming Alexandra knew more than she did — could she take advantage of that? Or would they just force Veritaserum down her throat if she admitted to knowing more than she'd told them?
And how was she going to find the ghost in the basement before Friday?
William did not wear his uniform and did not join the JROC the next day for sixth period P.M.E.; instead, he retreated to the far side of the gym and played plunkballs with another group of sixth graders. Colonel Shirtliffe looked in the boy's direction and frowned, but unlike Alexandra, William had joined the JROC voluntarily. Alexandra was slightly disappointed that the Muggle-born boy had decided to quit, and she was incensed at the smug expressions on Theo and Jordan's faces, but William wasn't her problem.
That didn't stop her from 'accidentally' knocking Theo off his broom during aerial drills that afternoon, though.
"Oops," she said, as Theo lay on his back, twenty feet below, seeing stars. "Sorry."
"You'll be sorrier if I see any more carelessness like that, Quick!" barked Shirtliffe. She looked around at all the students on their brooms, and ordered, "Dismount!"
As they landed and got off their brooms, Shirtliffe waved her wand. Instantly, two dozen bare broomsticks without brushes or handles or any decoration at all rose from the ground. "Twenty laps around the academy on these!"
The entire JROC groaned — Shirtliffe's 'bare broomsticks' were enchanted with only the minimum charms necessary to make them fly. Steering them was difficult and required maintaining a death grip on the shaft. They had no Cushioning Charms or anything else to make it easier to stay on them. They were hard and wobbly, and sometimes produced splinters. Shirtliffe insisted they'd be better fliers after drilling with them, but the JROC considered them pure punishment. Twenty laps would be tiring and painful.
"Thirty for Quick!" Shirtliffe added.
Alexandra landed nearly half an hour later, tired and sore. Most of the other JROC students had already gone inside. Colonel Shirtliffe watched, with folded arms, as Alexandra tossed her unfinished broom to the ground with the others and angrily limped inside.
She was in no mood to be confronted by Innocence, who had lingered after the end of sixth period to watch the JROC drilling.
"Did you know William done quit the JROC?" Innocence asked.
"Yes, I noticed," Alexandra said, brushing past her. Innocence ignored her short tone, and walked by her side.
"You can't let him do that!"
Alexandra stared at her. "Excuse me? I didn't let him do anything. I'm not his big sister."
Innocence frowned. "But he can't just up'n quit like that! He can't let them suggins whip him! You gots to talk some sense to him, Alex! He confidences you —"
Alexandra turned on the girl. "I don't gots to do anything!" she snapped, and this time Innocence did notice her tone, and took a step back, eyes widening. "William isn't my responsibility, and he's not yours either!"
"Don't you care none?" Innocence asked. A note of disappointment crept into her voice. "I thought you did."
Alexandra put a hand over her face. "Don't you Ozarkers have a saying about killing your own snakes or something?"
"William just needs a mite a' couragin'."
Alexandra dropped her hand and glared at the girl. "Then you encourage him!" She paused, and looked at Innocence more closely. "Are you wearing makeup?"
Innocence's lips were unnaturally bright, her cheeks were rosy and glowing, and her eyelids glittered slightly. She batted her lashes several times, and smiled bashfully. "Darla showed me how —"
"Darla? Are you nuts?" Alexandra shook her head. "Your sisters will love that."
"I don't rightly care what my sisters think." Innocence turned away, with her nose in the air. "We hain't on speakin' terms at the present time."
"Constance feels terrible, you know."
"And if you still have a crush on David, Darla is the last person you should be taking advice from."
Innocence turned red. "I do not! An' Darla's been nice to me! Actually, nicer'n either you or certain bossy older sisters!"
Alexandra shook her head, and resumed walking back towards her dorm. "You know, it's kind of ironic that you want me to tell William what's best for him. Do you know what hypocrite means?"
Innocence stopped in her tracks, and stared at Alexandra, with her mouth hanging open indignantly. Alexandra kept walking. She had enough problems without worrying about the antics of sixth graders with crushes.
She lingered in the library after her detention that evening; she caught up halfheartedly on her homework, and then, when Mrs. Minder's curfew announcement sent all the other middle schoolers back to their rooms, she retreated to a secluded table on the third floor, behind a row of collected Mixed Poetry. ('Mixed,' she'd learned from Bran and Poe, was how schools and libraries were euphemistically referring to the introduction of Muggle arts and sciences into wizarding literature.) Aside from a few students taking Muggle Studies, no one ever disturbed the shelves of Shakespeare and Milton and Yeats.
Long after she was supposed to be in her room, she snuck out of the library, unnoticed by the few older students who were still studying late. She approached the portrait of the bearded warlock hanging at the entrance to Delta Delta Kappa Tau hall, staying close to the wall, and pressing herself behind the archway at the bend in the corridor. Sure enough, when she peeked around the corner, the warlock was quite awake, with his hands folded across his expansive belly, twiddling his fingers and looking rather bored. Alexandra didn't know how Dean Grimm had done it, but Ms. Shirtliffe was right — their hall monitor wouldn't be as easy to sneak past as in previous years, when he could frequently be found napping after hours.
Her next action, she knew, was very likely to break that thin ice Ms. Shirtliffe had warned her about: but it was better to find out now whether or not it would work. With one quick motion, she leaned into the corridor, pointed her wand at the portrait, and said, "Pictogel!"
The warlock froze in his frame, as if he were a still Muggle painting. Alexandra rushed past him, and hurried to her room, where she found Anna had already changed into her nightgown and was about to go to sleep.
"It's past curfew," Anna said quietly.
"I know. I had to check on something," Alexandra replied.
Anna looked at her sadly, and Alexandra thought she would scold, or ask questions, but she just shook her head and climbed into her bed.
When there was no notice on the bulletin board the next morning summoning Alexandra to the Dean's office, she smiled to herself. Her Freeze-Frame spell had gone undetected.
That meant she just might get away with going into the basements one more time, to find the ghost before the ghost hunters did.
Constance and Forbearance joined her and Anna at the bulletin board. They both still looked downcast and worried, not at all their usual cheerful selves.
"Have you talked to Innocence?" Alexandra asked.
Constance shook her head. "We're fixin' to. Girl's been avoidin' us, but not today — we're gonna set ourselves down with the other sixth graders if we have to."
Alexandra and Anna looked at one another. Alexandra wasn't entirely certain that taking a hard line with Innocence was the right approach — but she wasn't her sister.
When they reached the corridor into which sixth, seventh, and eighth graders spilled on their way to the cafeteria, they all paused to wait, and watched other students hurry past on their way to breakfast. Most averted their eyes from Alexandra — some went so far as to veer to the other side of the corridor. Darla and Angelique went by, and politely said, "Good morning." Only Alexandra did not reply. David gave a sardonic wave to the girls, with the look of someone trying to act cool in the presence of his peers, as he and Dylan walked past with several other eighth grade boys. Alexandra was not the only one who rolled her eyes. William hurried past, and flushed and looked at the floor when he saw Alexandra. Alexandra didn't say anything to him.
And finally came a gaggle of sixth grade girls, giggling and shuffling their way down the corridor, in no particular hurry — and Constance and Forbearance's mouths dropped open in mirrored expressions of astonishment. For a moment, Alexandra thought their jaws were both going to hit the floor.
"Innocence Catharine Pritchard!" they both exclaimed together. All down the hallway, other kids turned around.
Innocence was walking with her classmates — wearing a brightly colored witch's robe with shimmering cuffs, and matching slippers. Her bonnet was gone; instead, her hair was tied with a red and white ribbon. Alexandra had never seen any of the Ozarker girls' heads bare, so even to her, it was almost shocking to see Innocence's blonde curls uncovered. Innocence's face was more made up than it had been the previous day; her lips were a delicate, glistening shade of cherry pink, and her eyes, deeper and bluer than her sisters', sparkled in a way that Alexandra knew only came from Glamour Charms. She looked very pretty, and completely unlike the eleven-year-old who'd first arrived at Charmbridge.
The girls with her were made up similarly. Alexandra had seen them before, but taken no notice of the other girls in Innocence's grade. Now, they paused and looked a bit fearful as the older girls bore down on them, Constance and Forbearance in the lead.
"Innocence. Catharine. Pritchard!" Constance repeated. She and Forbearance both looked as appalled as if Innocence had decided to walk down the corridor stark naked. "What have you done to your face? What are you wearin'? Where is your bonnet?"
"Oh, Innocence," said Forbearance, sounding almost tearful. In her distress, her Ozark accent emerged more thickly than usual. "You cain't feist about dressed like that, you just cain't!"
"I can so!" Innocence declared. "I can wear what I want so long's it's in the dress code!"
"You look shameful!" Constance sputtered. "You look foreign! Your head's bare! Why if Ma and Pa saw you —"
"You gonna tell 'em? Then you'll be made to stay home 'long with me!" Innocence gave her stunned sisters a haughty look, and then frowned briefly at Alexandra.
"What's the hold up here?" demanded an Assistant Dean, moving through the hallway, parting students ahead of him. "You girls, you know you aren't supposed to stand around in the hallways gabbing. Move along now."
"Come long, y'all." Innocence thrust her nose into the air, and marched forward. Her young friends nervously followed her. "Don't worry none 'bout them, Ouida."
Though the rift with Innocence obviously weighed heavily on her sisters, Alexandra felt unable to say much — she had mixed feelings about Innocence's 'rebellion,' and it wasn't really her business anyway. So she halfheartedly suggested they all do something that Saturday, to celebrate her first weekend without detention, even knowing that what she was going to do that night might get her more detention, or worse.
Tomorrow was Friday — the ghost hunters from the Bureau of Hauntings would arrive. No doubt they had magic more sophisticated than Ms. Gale's spectrescope, and the ghost would be unable to remain hidden from them.
Alexandra knew that Ms. Shirtliffe was almost certainly correct — it wasn't Maximilian. She'd been told last year by the ghosts who haunted the Thorn family crypt on Croatoa that Maximilian had passed on, not lingered on Earth as a ghost.
She and Julia had agreed that that was for the best. They didn't want Maximilian to be trapped on Earth forever as an unhappy spirit.
Yet a tiny part of her, a tiny, selfish part that she tried to silence and wished she could ignore, hoped that her ghostly ancestors were wrong, and that Maximilian had remained behind — here, at Charmbridge.
The library closed at midnight, except during the last two weeks of each semester, when it was open around the clock; most nights only a few seniors were still there after ten o'clock, and Alexandra knew Bran and Poe wouldn't come out until after closing. There was only the occasional teacher or Assistant Dean on nighttime duty to worry about, and they rarely did more than walk around on the ground floor of the library.
An older student, wearing a braided belt and leather jacket that she associated with one of the Western wizarding communities, saw her as she snuck out of her third floor retreat, to descend the stairs towards the library's entrance. He just frowned at her, and she pretended not to notice him. If he recognized her, if he chose to report her, she'd be in trouble, and that was that.
No one stopped her as she exited the library, and no one intercepted her as she made her way towards the nearest basement stairwell.
Please, please answer me, she thought, as she stepped out into the cold stone floor of the main basement corridor, with lamps providing just enough illumination to walk down the corridor without bumping into walls. She did not light her wand — encountering Em or another elf would bring an abrupt end to her adventure.
"Hello!" she called out in a loud whisper. "It's me — Alexandra!"
She walked around a corner — more dim corridors. Soon she'd reach the unlit parts of the basement, and she'd have to light her wand.
"I'm Alexandra Quick!" she whispered, more loudly, her words sounding raspy as she tried to make them carry down the corridor without actually vocalizing them. "I'm looking for the ghost who's been hiding down here! Please come out! I want to help you! The Bureau of Hauntings is coming tomorrow!"
It could be a Dark spirit, she knew, in which case she'd have to hope that what she'd learned in the Mors Mortis Society and from Ms. Shirtliffe would be enough to keep it at bay. But irrationally, despite what had happened to Benjamin, she told herself that it was not.
Finally, she returned to that same corridor that she had walked so often over the past few weeks, the one with the locked and warded door, behind which might be her only chance of knowing what — who — was hiding down here. She felt frustrated and helpless. If only she knew more magic! If only she could Apparate, or undo the alarms! She had so little time — it wasn't fair!
When she reached the door, it was open.
Alexandra paused and did a double-take, but there was no mistake — the door to the stairwell that led down to the first sub-basement was several inches ajar.
She reached a hand out and laid her fingers on the door. No alarm sounded.
She pushed it open further, and it swung inward with a slight creak. She felt cool air blow past her.
Looking around, she saw no one. So she stepped through the doorway, and descended the stairs.
After half a dozen steps, it was almost pitch black. The doorway above was just a dimly lit outline. Alexandra thought about lighting her wand, but felt her way with her feet instead. Her heart was beginning to beat faster. By the time she judged herself to be almost at the bottom of the stairs, she could not see her hand in front of her face.
She held up her wand, and started to say, "Hello?" in a soft voice, when her foot, searching for the next step, struck something soft and bulky in her path.
Alexandra froze, and nudged the obstacle at her feet, while her heart began pounding in her chest and her mouth went completely dry. Whatever it was, it did not budge, and it was blocking her from taking another step.
She took a deep breath, and said, "Lumos!"
Light filled the stairwell from the tip of her wand, and she let out a startled cry.
Ms. Gale was lying on her back at the foot of the stairs, her eyes wide open, staring back at Alexandra with an expression of frozen horror. She wasn't moving. She didn't even blink when Alexandra cried out.
Alexandra's mouth hung open for a second, as cold chills went through her, and then she sucked in a breath and screamed, "HELP!"
She screamed twice more, before two elves appeared in the cramped space of the stairwell with her, shivering fearfully. They both jumped and let out little shrieks when they saw Ms. Gale, and then they spun about to stare at Alexandra in horror.
"What has Miss done?" squealed one elf, and then they disappeared again, leaving Alexandra — for the moment — alone in the near-darkness with the head custodian.
Alexandra flattened herself against the cold stone wall, shivering, until she forced herself to kneel at Ms. Gale's side and put a hand on her neck.
The woman's skin was slightly warm to the touch, but Alexandra could not feel a pulse. She swallowed, and with a grimace, pressed her ear to the custodian's large, flabby bosom. There was no heartbeat.
"Oh, God," Alexandra whispered.
Ms. Gale was dead.