Although the dueling competition was foremost in Alexandra's mind, there were plenty of other contests and games during the week leading up the Halloween weekend. The Quidditch and Quodpot teams played some sort of hybrid of the two games against each other. David entered the wizard chess competition, and there was even a Plunkballs tournament for the younger students.
Anna, Constance, and Forbearance all entered the Magical Theory essay competition, and even Alexandra participated in the Academic Magic Bowl. The Saturday morning before Halloween, the ninth graders were milling about in the hallway waiting to learn who had won various competitions and would move on to the school-wide finals when someone called Alexandra's name.
All the other freshmen were as surprised as Alexandra to see the tall black girl who approached her. Bathsheba Anderson gave her a polite smile. "Can I talk to you?"
Nonplussed, Alexandra said, "Sure."
Bathsheba looked at the other ninth graders. "Somewhere else?"
Alexandra shrugged and walked with the junior down to the end of the hallway.
"Alexandra," Bathsheba said, once they were out of earshot of the other students, "this 'wizard duel' you and Larry are planning is stupid."
"Afraid I'm going to hurt your boyfriend?"
Bathsheba eyed her with something like amusement. "No, I'm afraid he'll hurt you. I know you have a reputation for being fearless, but we both know he's better than you."
"Did he send you?"
Bathsheba put her hands on her hips. "Larry didn't send me to do anything. He'd be angry if he knew I was talking to you. I don't know why the two of you have this stupid rivalry, but it's going to end in bloodshed if you don't grow up. I've already tried talking sense to him, but he's hard-headed and proud."
"Listen," Bathsheba said in a more reasonable tone, "we can call this duel off if neither of you has to admit you're backing down. So how about I threaten to turn you in for being out after curfew, and I'll tell Larry that I'm not going to put up with him beating up a freshman? That way you can both blame me and save face."
"You want me to believe that you care about a Mudblood getting hurt?"
Bathsheba's face twisted in anger. "How dare you! I've never called anyone that in my life!"
Alexandra was taken aback. "I..."
"Will you agree to let it go and forget this duel or not?"
Alexandra couldn't detect any insincerity in the older girl. Perhaps Bathsheba was trying to trick her. Perhaps this was a scheme of Larry's. But regardless, her mind was already made up. "No. Sorry. And Larry's not better than me. You've never seen me duel outside the club."
"You've never seen Larry duel outside the club." Bathsheba shook her head. "Fine. I tried to warn you. Don't expect me to be there – whether you kill each other or not, I'm not getting suspended for either of you." She spun on her heel and stalked off.
Alexandra slowly walked back to her friends. Constance and Forbearance politely kept silent, despite their obvious curiosity.
Anna was more direct. "Isn't that Larry's girlfriend?"
"Yes." Alexandra knew Anna was not going to be pleased about the planned duel, but she hadn't thought of a way to bring it up yet. "Later, okay?"
Anna nodded. It was easy enough to rely on her being distracted by the Academic Bowl. A few minutes later, Dean Calvert announced the results: Alexandra, despite her score in potions identification being thrown out, had taken fourth place, just behind Thomas Klaus. But only Anna and Constance would move on to the finals. She congratulated her friends. "Go win."
Anna grinned. "See you at the dueling competition."
"Yes, we'uns'll be there, to cheer you," Forbearance said.
"You and..." Constance sighed, "Innocence."
Halloween was clear and cold. Alexandra wore her JROC uniform to the dueling competition, because Ms. Shirtliffe required it. The JROC took pride in winning most of their contests – last year was the first time in several years that a non-JROC member had won the Charmbridge championship.
Alexandra was tense and excited, but not nervous. She enjoyed dueling. She had ever since Maximilian had begun teaching her.
Ms. Shirtliffe announced that the dueling competition would be held indoors because it was raining.
Good, Alexandra thought. Rain would make it easier to sneak out later that night.
Most of the school crowded into the gymnasium. There were no rails or ropes around the raised wooden platform where duelers squared off. Dean Grimm sat with Vice Dean Ellis and the assistant deans in a row of chairs; other teachers stood or sat as they pleased. Students had to stand if they wanted to watch.
Alexandra suspected a lot of them were waiting to see her get trounced by Larry. Won't you be surprised? she thought.
She waited with the other ninth grade competitors. In a separate line, Larry and Bathsheba stood with the other eleventh graders. Larry looked entirely too cocky and confident. Bathsheba was smiling, but she didn't really seem very pleased.
The first round of dueling was by grade level. A winner from each grade would then face the winners in other grades, until there were two finalists: one from the middle school grades, and one from high school. Last year, Alexandra had won the middle school competition, and then lost to Larry. This year, she'd have to beat Larry before facing whoever won in the middle school ranks.
Sixth graders went first, and Alexandra realized that she'd been expecting to see Mary Dearborn among them. But Darla's sister was nowhere in sight among the nervous eleven- and twelve-year-olds. Alexandra searched the crowd, and finally saw Mary standing with some other sixth grade girls, in bright blue and yellow robes. She was a safe distance away from the dueling platform, a spectator only. Alexandra looked away quickly.
There were few sixth graders who knew enough magic by October to attempt dueling; with only four competitors, there were only three matches. The winner was a Radicalist witch who used a surprisingly effective Sleep Charm to drop both her opponents soundlessly to the ground.
The seventh grade competitors were more numerous. Most of the JROC was cheering for William; Alexandra felt torn between rooting for him and Innocence. She hoped one of them would be eliminated before they had to duel each other, but both of them performed quite well. William mostly relied on the same Stunning Charm that other younger duelists used, but he had improved a lot since last year; he defeated three opponents, even the one other boy (also a JROC member) who knew how to cast a Shield Charm.
Innocence fought two matches, using a Full Body-Bind Charm to paralyze one opponent and distracting another with a cloud of flies before she Stunned him. This left her and William to duel for the seventh grade title.
Constance and Forbearance had pushed themselves to the front ranks of the spectators, only a few feet from Alexandra. Constance clasped her hands. "Oh, I hope Innocence wins."
"I hain't sure I want her given the encouragement," Forbearance said.
Innocence hadn't taken losing to William very well the previous year. The stout uniformed boy looked more nervous than he had against his other opponents. The JROC cheered as he bowed. Alexandra did too, but she also applauded for Innocence.
Innocence threw a spell they'd all seen before: a Croaker. A loud croak echoed in the air, but William knew the reversal and dispelled it.
Next Innocence threw a Jelly-Legs Jinx. William's legs almost collapsed beneath him, but he immediately reversed this also.
When Innocence cast a third hex, Sonja, who was standing next to Alexandra, whispered, "He's panicking – he can't remember any counter-curses."
Alexandra didn't think so. William did look nervous, but he was defending himself too effectively to be in a panic. He finally cast a Stunning Charm, but his aim was terrible. Innocence flinched even though the red beam came nowhere near her.
"Oh, William," Alexandra muttered, as Innocence attacked him again.
After another half-hearted attempt to Stun her, William was in the middle of casting a Shield Charm when Innocence said, with very slow and careful enunciation: "Petrificus Totalus!"
William was immediately frozen in place, then fell over. Ms. Shirtliffe declared Innocence the winner.
Innocence did not look at all triumphant as she stalked off the platform. She looked furious. Ms. Shirtliffe unparalyzed William with a tap of her wand.
"I've seen you do better, Killmond," she said.
So have I, thought Alexandra.
The eighth graders dueled next. Alexandra was unsurprised when Tomo Matsuzaka won.
The middle school grades – six through eight – then pitted their winners against one another to determine the middle school champion. It was rare for a younger student to beat an older one, and Innocence, though obviously still angry and flustered, easily defeated her sixth grade opponent. When she faced Tomo, she cast only one hex. She'd barely uttered the words when a Stunner struck her in the chest. She collapsed backward; the hex she had flung was a buzzing, golden swarm. Tomo stood stock still and didn't flinch or even attempt to deflect it as it rippled past.
Ms. Shirtliffe helped the dazed Ozarker to her feet. Still shaking, Innocence made a clumsy curtsy, and Tomo bowed. Innocence stumbled down the steps to be caught by her sisters, who consoled her as the ninth graders began preparing for their matches.
Alexandra's first opponent was Sonja. Sonja dueled every year, but had stopped attending Dueling Club meetings. She winked at Alexandra, and Alexandra smiled back at her. They bowed, straightened, and Alexandra Petrified her while the other girl was still raising her wand.
"Sorry, Sonja," she said.
After that, Corey McCluskey and Thomas Klaus dueled. Corey was a Dueling Club member, and beat the shy, smaller boy easily.
There were four more duels before Alexandra had her next match, against Saul Sather. She had never dueled Saul. He wasn't a member of the Dueling Club. She'd never exchanged a word with him in her four years at Charmbridge, though occasionally she caught him looking at her as if she were a bug he was hoping someone else would step on.
With all the animosity showing on his face even before they bowed, she thought he might prove to be a serious opponent, but he wasn't. He obviously hadn't practiced dueling very much, and she Stunned him easily.
This left her and Corey to duel for the ninth grade title. She'd defeated the Druidic wizard in last year's competition. His uncertainty showed on his face, and Alexandra felt completely confident.
But he attempted something novel – he attacked her wand, rather than her, using a spell she was completely unfamiliar with. Her wand twitched and bent in her hand as Corey concentrated on his own wand, foiling her attempts to cast any spells at him. For a moment, a sense of dread overwhelmed her – she was helpless! Corey would strike her down while she held a wand that had been rendered useless.
It took her a moment to realize that Corey couldn't do anything except attack her wand. She felt the foreign magic disturbing the core of her own wand, but she also sensed that Corey was barely preventing her from throwing it off.
Willpower alone wasn't sufficient, not without knowing the magic Corey was using, but she concentrated, keeping one eye on her opponent. Around the dueling platform everyone watched in hushed silence at what had proven to be one of the most dramatic duels of the afternoon, for all that it was lacking in any magical pyrotechnics. Corey couldn't keep it up indefinitely, she was certain. Sure enough, there came a moment when he lifted his wand and stepped back. He pointed it at her again hoping to catch her with a Stunning Charm or a hex, but in that instant, he was no longer controlling her wand, and she blasted him off his feet.
There was a lot of cheering as Ms. Shirtliffe declared Alexandra the ninth grade champion. It wasn't just the JROC and her friends; Sonja whistled approval and Torvald grinned at her as he applauded. Tomo looked very serious as she clapped her hands together.
David and Dylan had pushed through the crowd to stand close to where the duelists lined up, and David gave her a thumbs up as she jumped off the platform.
"Now you just have to take out Larry," he said.
"Assuming he wins the eleventh grade competition." But she knew he would – it was as inevitable as her own victory. Neither she nor Larry had ever doubted for a moment that the two of them would end up facing each other.
The tenth graders were more sophisticated duelers than the ninth graders, and Alexandra wasn't sure whether to root for Torvald or for Adela Iturbide, whom she despised but would have loved to duel. Adela lost her first duel, however, and when Torvald beat Karina Knutzen, he was left facing his best friend, Stuart, for the tenth grade title.
Alexandra expected Torvald to win – after all, he was a member of the Dueling Club, and Stuart wasn't. The two boys exchanged a fierce volley of hexes, each trying to sting and burn and shock the other with little thought given to defense. It looked more like a particularly vicious game of hexem than a duel. Stuart was the first to pronounce a proper incantation without being interrupted by tufts of hair bursting out of his ears or his fingernails catching on fire.
"Stupefy!" he said, and struck Torvald right in the face with a Stunner. For the first time that day, Mrs. Murphy had to treat a defeated duelist.
The tension increased as the eleventh graders squared off. Larry was in the first match, pitted against Bathsheba in what Alexandra thought was an amusing irony.
Bathsheba wasn't bad, and Alexandra, who had watched Larry practice often enough and knew what he was capable of, could tell that he was holding back. But only a little. He might not want to hurt his girlfriend, but he wasn't going to let her beat him. After they exchanged a few hexes, Larry iced the platform at her feet, then hurled her back with a magical push. Bathsheba couldn't resist the charm pushing against her and keep her balance at the same time, and she fell.
Larry held his wand pointed at her. Technically, a duel wasn't over until a duelist was either disarmed, incapacitated, or had surrendered, but courtesy required allowing someone at a disadvantage to yield before hexing them again. Bathsheba surrendered. Alexandra was a little disappointed.
Most of the remaining eleventh grade duelers were in the JROC. Supriya Chandra and Charlotte Barker both defeated their opponents, then they and Larry each won their second matches. This left the three of them to duel for the eleventh grade title. Ms. Shirtliffe chose the first pair randomly. Alexandra was hoping Larry would have to fight both Charlotte and Supriya, but to her disappointment, the two JROC witches had to duel each other first.
Supriya and Charlotte were both skilled, and they knew each other well. They were friends, so they observed every courtesy and exchanged spells and counter-spells in a formal manner, showing off their skill and finesse and provoking Larry to roll his eyes impatiently. Charlotte eventually succeeded in Disarming Supriya.
Alexandra knew what the outcome of the final match would be before it started. Charlotte had tried to hide her best techniques during her preceding duels, and she attacked Larry with an aggressiveness that might have deceived the spectators who'd only been watching her today. But Larry also knew Charlotte from dueling her in the club. He didn't hold back as he had with Bathsheba, and their duel was brief. There were flashes and sparks and flames, and then Larry said, "Caedarus!" and Charlotte went spinning off the platform, almost landing in the front row of deans.
Mrs. Murphy and Dean Cervantes helped her to her feet, with Mrs. Murphy tilting her head back to stem the flow of blood. She put a wand to Charlotte's crushed nose, and said, "Episkey."
Larry stepped off the platform and folded his arms, waiting for the twelfth grade matches to begin. Across the platform, his eyes met Alexandra's, and his mouth curled into an arrogant smile. She stared flatly back at him, and they spent most of the next twenty minutes trying to stare each other down, even as the seniors dueled. Daniel Keedle won, but that was immaterial to Alexandra – she'd be dueling Larry before she faced Daniel.
The first inter-grade high school match was Alexandra against Stuart Cortlandt.
Stuart was a pureblood from a respected New Colonial wizarding family, or so Alexandra had heard. He was far more handsome than his roommate, with a pleasant face beneath tousled blond hair, and while he was good-natured like Torvald, he was quieter and more dignified.
She was rather surprised that he'd turned out to be the tenth grade champion, and since she'd only been able to observe him in a few matches, she wasn't familiar with his style of dueling.
The two of them took up positions, and when Ms. Shirtliffe signaled the start of the duel, Alexandra immediately cast a Disarming Spell.
Stuart blocked it and quickly flung a hex at her face. He whipped several more hexes at her, using the same speed and energy he'd used in his duel with Torvald.
None of the hexes were powerful ones, Alexandra realized, and she braced herself and pointed her wand straight at him. Tiny fireballs struck her and she winced, and a ghostly hand slapped her hard across the face, bringing tears to her eyes, but her Stunning Charm blasted right through Stuart's Shield Charm, which he cast too late, and he crumpled to the ground.
Alexandra squatted and slapped at her arms and legs where wisps of smoke were curling from burnt holes in her clothing. Her face felt swollen.
Mrs. Murphy examined her and applied another healing spell to her face, before proclaiming her fit to continue dueling.
This was the disadvantage of being younger, she thought, and perhaps another reason why older students usually won the dueling competition. Larry was fresher than her, and Daniel Keedle would be more rested than either of them. But that was just the way the rules worked. She stepped onto the platform again, to face the opponent everyone here had come to see her fight.
She and Larry Albo could have been statues. Her wand angled toward him; his pointed just above the extended, invisible line extending from the end of hers. They were feeling each other out even before the duel began, like fencers. There was a way of knowing what your opponent was doing, of feeling the magic in your wand's core and his. Ms. Shirtliffe said that was superstition, something duelists told themselves to make themselves believe they could anticipate more than they could, but Alexandra believed she could feel it sometimes, and she was pretty sure from the way Larry was standing and holding his wand that he did, too.
Ms. Shirtliffe's wand cut the air. Alexandra was going to Disarm Larry. Starting the duel with a Disarming Charm rarely worked. Someone ready for an attack was much harder to disarm, but by keeping her wrist straight and timing the second syllable – "Ex-pell-i-arm-us" – with the secondary accent – so that it fell just as her opponent was about to cast a spell, Alexandra had won duels even against opponents who'd seen her use that trick before.
She was going to cast a Disarming Charm, but she didn't. She cast a Shield Charm instead. Larry's Caedarus Spell, which he knew how to cast so that his wand was still at his side while he began the incantation and he only lifted it at the last possible instant, just as the last bit of the word left his tongue, would have beat her Expelliarmus. He had known what she was going to do.
The solid sphere of light shivered and dissolved against her Shield Charm.
He didn't repeat his attack. Her Shield Charm kept her from counter-attacking, and he waited. Out of the corner of her eye, Alexandra saw Ms. Shirtliffe nodding with approval. She was always telling Alexandra that she attacked too eagerly and didn't defend herself enough.
Larry said, "Levicorpus!" as Alexandra dropped her Shield Charm and cast a Stunning Charm with the same motion of her wand. Her Stunner would have hit him if not for the sudden jerk on her feet, but he couldn't concentrate on yanking her upward while he was evading it. She allowed herself to hit the wooden platform hard with her arms extended in front of her, clutching her wand in both hands, and she thought she'd get him, but he blocked her hex and while she was rolling and casting another Shield Charm, he said, "Serpensortia!"
She rolled onto a long, green snake that immediately hissed and bit her.
Dirty trick, she thought. Mr. Grue would have to give her anti-venom. Larry might get points for that spell – it was difficult, and a favorite of traditionalists – but no snake venom took effect immediately. That's why it was allowed in duels, even though Muggles would consider throwing a venomous snake at someone a deadly attack.
Larry didn't think he was going to win that way. He'd just done it to annoy and discomfit her.
"Caedarus!" Larry said, with perfect timing as Alexandra rose, and a ball of light smacked her in the face hard enough to flip her backward head over heels. She landed on her back, her head struck the boards, and the angry serpent struck her a second time. She was too dazed to notice anything but a little sting, while blood spurted out of her nose. Larry had hit her with the same spell he'd opened the duel with, the same spell he'd used to beat Charlotte. She felt like an idiot. How had she lost?
"There's really no reason to feel badly," Mrs. Murphy told her in the infirmary afterward. "Mr. Albo is two years older than you, after all."
The nurse held the cloth she'd used to wipe the remaining blood off of Alexandra's face over a waste basket and incinerated it with a wave of her wand.
Back in the gymnasium, Mr. Grue had made her lie on the ground in full view of everyone while he took his time extracting vials from the pockets in his long, black, wool robe to mix and imbue an anti-venom solution. She hated feeling vulnerable and helpless. Her arm and shoulder where the snake had bitten her felt numb, and the rest of her body was breaking into a sweat and her heartbeat was skipping erratically before the Potions teacher finally held a vial to her lips and told her to drink. She wondered if he'd done something special just to make it taste awful as well. Poor Anna looked as if she'd been the one bitten, she was so pale.
After drinking the antidote, Alexandra walked to the infirmary with help from Anna and Charlotte, dizzy and dripping blood all the way because she refused to be levitated there.
Mrs. Murphy held out a cup. "Drink this blood replenishing potion. It will flush out the last of the venom, but it will take twenty-four hours."
Alexandra drank it. Surprisingly, it didn't taste nasty. It had a slight metallic flavor, but was otherwise watery and bland. "So can I go now? This was just a routine dueling injury, easy to fix, right?"
"I wish you children wouldn't take it for granted that anything you do to each other can be patched up – that's not always true. But yes, you can go."
Alexandra walked into the hallway, fighting off the lingering dizziness. Her friends were waiting outside, along with Torvald and several members of the JROC. Torvald and Charlotte were the most sympathetic. Charlotte took hold of Alexandra's collar and shook her head. "A Cleaning Charm won't get all the blood out," she said, waving her wand over the dark stain on the front of Alexandra's blue JROC jacket, "but the house-elves should be able to get the rest."
"You did really well, Alex," Anna said.
Innocence said, "You was spectacular!"
"Hain't no shame in bein' humbled a bit," said Constance.
"I lost," Alexandra said. All of her friends' consoling words couldn't change that.
"Well, if you're going to lose, lose spectacularly," Torvald said. "That was some backflip – I felt you land from across the gym. And getting bit twice, that was a bonus."
"Thanks, Torvald. Would you like to rub it in some more?"
"Seriously, Troublesome, the odds against you were three-to-one."
"That high?" Alexandra was stung.
David nodded. "I lost two eagles on you."
"Wait a minute – you bet on me?"
"Well, I admit, it seems kind of stupid now."
Constance and Forbearance looked scandalized. "Gamblin'! On duels?"
"So, how did the rest of the duels go?" Alexandra asked.
There was an awkward silence. Charlotte was the one who answered. "Larry won. If it's any comfort, Daniel lost faster than you did. And that poor eighth grader didn't have a chance. She tried, though."
"So Larry is Charmbridge Dueling Champion for the second year in a row."
"I'm afraid so." Charlotte clapped Alexandra on the shoulder. "One of us will get him next year. C'mon, I know it sucks to lose, but brighten up, Witch-Private! You're just a freshman and you did better than most of the seniors. You should be proud."
"When isn't she proud?" asked a voice from down the hall. "It's that big head of hers that made her think she had a chance against me in the first place."
Everyone turned. Larry was wearing a smug, triumphant expression.
"Buzz off, Albo," David said.
"You're sure mouthy when you're surrounded by people who will keep you out of trouble," Larry said, as David tensed. "Go ahead, pretend like you're going to jump me so your friends can hold you back."
"All right, knock it off, Larry." Charlotte stepped between Larry and Alexandra and her friends. "You won. Congratulations. You don't have to be a pig about it."
Larry colored a little, but he said, "I didn't know Troublesome had her own personal retinue." He looked over Charlotte's shoulder. "I want to talk to you, Quick."
"Later," Alexandra said. What the hell did he want? Did he think she was going to chicken out of their duel that night?
Larry sighed loudly. "I swear, I'm not here to cause trouble or start a fight." He made an elaborate, sweeping bow and spoke in a voice that dripped condescension. "May I please speak to you, Miss Quick, without your friends around? If you're afraid of me, you can have them stand guard down the hall."
Alexandra made a disgusted sound, then pushed through the group toward him. "Whatever." She turned back to her friends. "I'll see you at dinner, okay? Thanks, everyone – I really appreciate you cheering for me. And Charlotte, Anna, thanks for bringing me to the infirmary." She looked at Anna. 'Don't worry,' she mouthed silently. She smiled at the rest, who reluctantly let her walk away with Larry, down the hall away from the infirmary and in the general direction of the main corridor.
"Congratulations," she said in a flat voice.
"Thank you." Larry sounded perfectly pleased with himself.
"You know in a wizard duel I would have banished that snake and taken out your knees which you couldn't have protected while I was on the ground."
"In a wizard duel, you wouldn't have moved after you hit the ground."
"We'll find out, won't we? This afternoon was just for a stupid trophy – tonight is the real thing. So you've had your little moment. Are you done gloating? I'm hungry and I don't want to miss the Halloween feast."
She turned away from him, and Larry said, "Wait," in a tone that made her pause. She turned around slowly.
Larry took a deep breath. He looked vexed.
"Bathsheba is riding me about our duel," he said. "She doesn't like it, and beating you up twice is frankly not worth an angry girlfriend." He folded his arms, looked down at the floor as he scuffed at it with his shoe, then looked up at her with a flat expression. "I'm satisfied with beating you this afternoon. If you want to walk away, we can call off our duel tonight. I give you my word I won't say anything about it to anyone else. No one has to know. One-time offer."
Alexandra met his flat gaze with her own. Anna would have said that her answer was inevitable, but she really did think it over. She knew breaking curfew to duel Larry in the woods was foolish, and that Anna would have an opinion much like Bathsheba's.
She still thought she could beat Larry in a real duel. But when he was actually acting – for a moment – almost human, the attraction wasn't quite as compelling as when all she could think of was wiping the smirk off his face.
Briefly, it occurred to her that maybe Larry was actually afraid to duel her. Maybe he knew, deep down, that he'd lose a real duel. But no, she thought, as she studied his face. He was too arrogant to think he'd lose.
He probably would keep his word, but he would know. They would both know, forever afterward, that she'd backed down.
"No," she said.
He continued staring at her for several seconds. Then he smiled, as if this was what he'd been hoping for.
"Well, I can tell Bathsheba I tried," he said, "when I see her tonight after trouncing you."
"Hope she's good at healing charms." Alexandra gave him a narrow smile that she hoped looked confident and certain of herself, and walked away.
"You're crazy," Anna said flatly.
"Crazy!" Charlie repeated.
Alexandra had waited until after dinner and they were back in their room to tell her, reasoning that Anna would have less recourse to try to talk her out of it while she was already putting her cloak on.
"I'm going to beat him, Anna. I know I lost the Dueling Competition, but trust me, wizard-dueling is different –"
"WHO CARES ABOUT THE DUEL?" Anna shouted. Alexandra stopped putting on her cloak and stared at her friend. Charlie flapped about the room, startled. Anna's voice was loud enough to be heard in the next room – and probably in the adjacent rooms as well. "This stupid duel is just the kind of stupid thing I'd expect you two stupid idiots to do, but that's not the stupid part!"
"Anna, please." Alexandra held her hands out pleadingly, trying to quiet her. She looked nervously at the door to the bathroom.
Anna barely lowered her voice. "Have you forgotten that someone is trying to kill you?"
"But you're going to go into the woods after dark like an idiot just so you can duel Larry Albo!"
Alexandra paused. When Anna put it that way, it did sound kind of... stupid.
Anna laughed incredulously. "You actually didn't think about that, did you?"
"Sure I did." Alexandra tried to think of something else to say. "I'll have Charlie with me –"
"Crazy!" Charlie said.
Anna pressed her hands to her face. "I know I'm not going to talk you out of this. So I'm coming along. I think we should bring Constance and Forbearance, too, and David if we can find him."
"Great, let's sneak into the woods with as many people as possible."
"Fine. Just me, but I'm going to send Jingwei to Constance and Forbearance's room to tell them where we're going so if we don't return by midnight, they should go tell someone."
"You're being dramatic. Of course we'll be back by midnight."
"And I suppose you've considered what will happen if you and Larry hurt each other in this wizard-duel and have to go to the infirmary this late?"
"Anna, if I beat him, Larry will leave me alone for the rest of the time he's at Charmbridge! And you, too."
"He'd leave us alone if you'd let it go!"
"What? Do you think I'm the one always starting things with him?"
Anna hesitated. "Well, no. But still – this is a stupid, bad idea and you know it."
Alexandra slowly slid her cloak off her shoulders and dropped it on her bed. "Okay, Anna. If you tell me not to go, I won't."
The two of them stood there silently facing each other. Charlie didn't make a sound.
Then Anna said, "You'll stay here? Just not show up at the duel?"
"And Larry will spread it all over school that you chickened out."
Anna bit her lip. "That's not fair, Alex. You can't make me responsible."
"What do you want me to do, Anna?"
Anna closed her eyes. After taking a deep breath, she opened them again and turned to her desk. "Let's go. Just let me write a note first and run upstairs to the aviary."
They didn't say much as they left the academy. Anna wasn't as accustomed to sneaking out as Alexandra. She looked around nervously, expecting to be caught at any moment.
The rain was coming down in a steady drizzle. They didn't get far from the academy building before it was just a blurry light behind them. Once they were halfway to the trees, Anna said, "The wizard-dueling you did with Maximilian and Martin and Beatrice still wasn't real dueling. They weren't trying to kill you."
"Larry isn't going to try to kill me."
"What if Larry is the one trying to kill you?"
Alexandra thought about that. Then she shook her head. "No. He doesn't want to kill me. He just wants to humiliate me."
Charlie suddenly cawed in alarm and flew away from Alexandra's shoulder. Alexandra scanned the shadows around them, holding her wand out, but Anna said, "It's just Jingwei."
The great horned howl hooted as it swept by Anna's head then glided on toward the shadowy tree line.
"Charlie's smart, but Jingwei can bite someone's nose off. And she won't run away from other owls," Anna said.
Alexandra smiled. "Charlie will keep an eye out from above." Though with the rain coming down the way it was, Charlie wouldn't be able to see much either.
Alexandra cast a spell to detect alarms or wards at the edge of the treeline. She didn't find any. The two of them crept cautiously forward. Anna wanted to light her wand, but Alexandra stopped her. "It'll ruin our night vision."
"What night vision?" Anna muttered. "I can't see anything."
Their feet squelched in the wet, cold dirt and leaves. Alexandra's weather-proof cloak kept most of the rain off, and Anna's did the same. Alexandra wished she could cast an Umbrella Charm, but that would create a visible glow too.
They found their way to the same clearing in which Alexandra and Anna had encountered Larry and his friends three years earlier. Alexandra expected Larry to be waiting for them. He wasn't.
"Are you sure he's not setting you up again?" Anna asked.
Alexandra peered around suspiciously. With a chill, she spotted a dark shape lying in a heap on the ground. She stepped over to it and knelt, and put her hand on the warm, still form. Then with horror, she saw a much smaller form lying next to the cloaked figure – a black owl.
She stood quickly. "Anna! Get out of here!"
"What?" Anna gasped and then cast a Light Spell. She squealed when she saw Larry lying on the ground at Alexandra's feet.
"Go!" Alexandra said.
"Not without you!" The whites of Anna's eyes were all Alexandra could see in her wandlight; Anna was looking in all directions, jumping at every hoot and breeze, but Alexandra's eyes fixed on a small figure stepping out of the trees.
"You," she said, pointing her wand.
Mary Dearborn trembled as she held a light golden wand extended toward Alexandra. Her other hand clutched a glossy wand of mistletoe.