What You Were Born For
When Alexandra regained awareness, it was in a haze of numbness and pain. Her face hurt, which didn't surprise her, but she could barely feel her hands and feet. She was on her back, and she couldn't move. Other than her extremities, she felt discomfort all over her body. Her nose seemed to have closed completely, so she sucked air between her teeth. Her teeth hurt, too; probing with her tongue confirmed that some of them were loose and at least one was broken. She coughed and spit out a mouthful of blood.
Steady light from a single source illuminated the stone ceiling above. She was still in the cavern with the clay floor. She couldn't guess how long she'd been unconscious.
Someone was moving about in the shadows at the edge of the circle of light, mumbling something – no, chanting – and making gestures with his hands that Alexandra couldn't quite make out, even when she turned her head to look at him.
A glowing wand lay on the ground within arm's reach. But when Alexandra tried to move, she realized something was holding her wrists and ankles in a grip so tight that it was cutting off blood circulation. She rolled her head about to see her hands, then lifted her head to see her feet, and made a choking sound. She was spread-eagled across the clay center of the chamber, stretched as far as she could be stretched without breaking her limbs. Stone hands rising out of the floor pulled her arms and legs in four directions. She struggled briefly and only succeeded in causing herself more pain. Her stretched muscles and tendons screamed in protest, and her joints, from her shoulders to her knees, felt close to snapping.
She closed her eyes and tried breathing slowly, searching for calm and rational thought. It was very hard, with her heart thumping so loudly.
She tried to think of a rhyme. Doggerel verse might be her only hope.
"Stone hands on me, let me go –"
The other person stopped his chanting. Alexandra's eyes snapped open.
"Release my –"
John Manuelito slid closer to her, still crouched low. He was wearing only those brown rawhide pants and boots. His chest was bare and his face was decorated with black and red streaks that made him look ghastly in the shadows cast by his wand.
He punched Alexandra in the stomach, and she wheezed in agony. For several terrible seconds, she thought she would suffocate, unable to take a breath and very close to throwing up.
"What do you think you're going to do without a wand?" John asked.
Alexandra's first response after finally drawing a breath was an inarticulate cry as she jerked her entire body in an effort to free herself, willing with all her might for the stone hands to shatter.
Where the bones in her wrists and ankles ground against unyielding stone, stabs of pain shot through the numbness, and her spine felt as if she were being twisted on a torturer's rack, though in fact she was barely able to move at all despite all her squirming.
John laughed. "Keep it up. Feel free to scream, too."
Alexandra stopped struggling. It was cold down here, but she was soaked in sweat and panting. Finally, she said, "Ms. Grimm. The wards –"
"Yes, I'm a trespasser, aren't I? Except that you already triggered the alarm for me. I've been trying to figure out for days how to slip past the wards without that bitch noticing, and all I had to do was follow the Nemesis Spirit after you let it in. The crows will keep Dean Grimm and her staff preoccupied for a while." John laughed again, low and sinister. "You got me in here, and then you delivered yourself right where I wanted you. I couldn't have planned this better if I'd tried."
Alexandra groaned. Something was crawling around in the sleeve of her robe. Nigel. Her poor familiar. She hoped Charlie hadn't followed her. She struggled to form a more coherent sentence. "They'll know... we're in the tunnels."
"Oh, they'll figure it out soon enough, but not in time to save you. I also opened the Veil. There's a protective circle around us, but not around the portal to the Lands Beyond, so the deans and teachers are going to be busy trying to save all the other little brats up there."
As if to confirm his words, something black and spectral glided through the air near the ceiling, indistinct in the wand light, but radiating malice. It hovered there for a moment, then faded insubstantially back through the rocks above them.
Alexandra gasped. "You unleashed – Chindi – in the school?"
"I wish I could be up there to see it. But I'm hoping killing you will cause even more chaos." Alexandra had not noticed the knife before, but John held it in front of her face now. It was made of polished black stone, with a shiny, glass-like edge. "It's what you were born for."
"What?" Alexandra was all out of clever words or ideas.
"You were supposed to be sacrificed. That's what everyone in the Dark Convention says. Abraham Thorn was told that before you were born. He was going to use you to destroy the Confederation's power. But apparently the great Enemy couldn't bear to sacrifice his little girl." John sneered. "I don't know if any of that is true. I don't think much of soothsaying. But enough people believe in some stupid prophecy that I figure it's worth trying. At the very least, I'll get credit for killing you and doing what your daddy wouldn't. And who knows, maybe sacrificing you really will break this seal over the Lands Below wide open."
Alexandra gulped. "That's... that's bullshit. There is no prophecy."
John shrugged. "Who cares? I win either way." Idly, he jabbed the point of the knife into the underside of her arm. Alexandra held very still, swallowing the cry of pain that almost escaped her, though she couldn't prevent the tears leaking from her eyes. Nigel was close to where John's knife had stabbed her, and absurdly, she was worried about her familiar. She feared John would find the snake and kill it out of spite before using the knife on her.
Hold still, Nigel! she thought desperately, feeling the snake squirm beneath her robes, but John didn't notice.
"I was going to skin you alive," John said, "but I'm afraid I don't have enough time. How about cutting off your face and palms and the soles of your feet?" He laid the point of his knife against her cheek, just beneath her left eye.
Nausea wracked Alexandra's body, and that made the pain worse. She fought to suppress a shudder. John was watching her face with something akin to lust – not lust for her, but a desire to see her terrified and pleading. Her throat felt like a rock was lodged within it, and she forced herself to stare back at him.
"Ms. Grimm will be here any second," she said. Her voice was like a dry heave. "Or my father."
She had no reason to believe this. She was sure John didn't believe it. She was trying to gather her courage. Whatever he did to her, she would not scream.
"I doubt it," John said, "But I do hate to work in a hurry; it spoils the effect if it's not done properly. So, I'll settle for another traditional method." He raised the knife and flipped around so its point was downward. "I'm going to cut out your beating heart."
"That's not even a Navajo tradition!" Alexandra squirmed in spite of herself, painfully grinding her wrists and ankles against the stone hands. "That's, like, Aztec or something!"
His leer was ecstatic, demonic. "A witch uses whatever works, and so much the better if we spit on tradition in the process."
"Why? Why are you doing this?" Alexandra asked hoarsely.
"Playing for time?" John cut through one of the knots tying the front of her robe. He showed teeth again, then without warning, he slashed her face with an angry gesture. Alexandra gasped at the shock and suddenness of it; the pain only came an instant later. "Why? You came to Dinétah to meddle in Indian affairs. Meddling in the affairs of witches –" He slashed again. Alexandra felt a sharp sting, but couldn't tell how deeply he'd cut her. She bit her lip to keep from screaming. " – meddling in the affairs of the Dark Convention!" Another slash. "You made me look pretty damn stupid. I lost a lot of face among my fellow witches. They blamed me for our plans being disrupted by a belagana girl. And the Dark Convention wasn't amused either. You have no idea what I've done to prove myself, to be able to lead a coven, and I got foiled by a ninth-grader?" With each angry word, he cut her again. Alexandra shuddered and felt blood flowing across her face and trickling down her neck. Finally he laid his knife against her cheek again. "You've caused me a lot of trouble. You shouldn't have interfered."
Alexandra forced herself not to flinch, trying not to think about the point of the knife only an inch from her eye. "You tried to kill me!"
"I didn't care about you after I left Charmbridge, until you came after me. What were you trying to do, avenge your brother? I'm not the one who killed him."
"You..." Alexandra licked her lips, and tasted blood. "You and Mary tried to kill me as soon as I got here. The murder of crows and the mandrakes and –"
"Mandrakes? Mary?" John lifted the knife away from her face. "What are you talking about?"
"Mary Dearborn!" Alexandra couldn't understand why John was feigning ignorance when he gloated about everything else.
"You mean Darla's little sister?" John shook his head. "I knew Darla's older sister when she was still in the Mors Mortis Society, but what does the younger one have to do with anything?" He grinned. "Has she taken up Dark Arts too? Did she try to kill you? That's beautiful. It's a shame I couldn't bring her down here to watch you die."
Alexandra's voice trembled, and she knew her self-control was slipping away from her. "She wants you to pay for killing Darla."
John laughed. "Didn't you kill Darla?"
"No! It's all your fault!" She was almost raving now. "You got her involved in Dark Arts. You... manipulated her, made her do things –"
"I didn't make that stupid little bitch do anything. Oh, I enjoyed watching her descent, but believe me, she was willing. She told herself, and me, that it was all for her sister, but she wanted to be Dark, she wanted it all."
"You're insane." Now Alexandra's body wouldn't stop shaking. Tears mixed with blood on her face.
"I guess we've run out of things to talk about." John slashed the front of her robes with his knife. "Just as well – someone will come looking for you once they banish the Chindi."
He tore open the front of her shirt in one violent gesture. Alexandra screamed and tried to twist away from him and only caused herself more agony. Her back groaned in protest and pain flashed through her wrists and ankles where the crushing grip of the stone hands threatened to break them. John clamped one hand around her throat and pinned her to the ground, making even the minimal amount of movement she was capable of impossible. Her chest, covered only by a thin bra, was exposed to John and his knife. He held the point above the bare flesh over her beating heart, then said, "What?"
"What?" Alexandra echoed, though with his hand squeezing her neck it came out as an inarticulate gulp. Something was sliding against her skin, coiled over her chest.
Nigel hissed and struck. John cried out in astonishment more than pain as the snake bit him in the neck. With a furious gesture, he grabbed the snake and hurled it across the cavern, then clamped a hand to his neck.
"A snake?" he said. "What is it with you and snakes?"
"Nigel," Alexandra rasped. "His Name is Nigel. You conjured him. You tortured him. Remember?" She concentrated with all her might – which was not much, in her present circumstances. As before she had no way of knowing what it might accomplish, but with the last of her willpower, she said, "Face your Nemesis, asshole."
A monster with a head as large as Alexandra's body filled the chamber and hissed fiercely.
John had already snatched up his wand. He pointed it at the snake and said, "Crucio!"
Instantly, the giant snake began thrashing wildly. One enormous coil rolled over Alexandra, bruising her ribs and crushing what remaining breath she had out of her. John stumbled backward to avoid being rolled over as well, and Nigel's tail caught him beneath the knees and knocked his feet out from under him. Rather than trying to stand up, John rolled quickly to the nearest rock wall and crouched there in the corner. The snake began to coil up again.
Alexandra felt, more than saw, the snake's head hovering over her, with the light from John's wand now moving about and causing shadows to flicker and rotate crazily about the chamber.
Something flicked over her, and Alexandra realized it was Nigel's tongue, which was now larger than his body normally was. Nigel was tasting her and the air around her.
"Reducio," said John.
Nigel shrank, disappearing from Alexandra's sight.
John struggled to his feet. "I don't know how you did that, but –" He put a hand to his neck again. Alexandra couldn't see his expression, as the light from his wand was dimming, so his face was now entirely shadowed, but he seemed less steady then before. His voice wavered. "What... Ugh."
As his wand dimmed, so did the grip on Alexandra's wrists and ankles. She didn't know if John was weakening somehow, or if Nigel had perhaps cracked one of the stone hands while rolling over them, but with desperate strength, she yanked hard, ignoring the screaming pain in her shoulder and the burning as her wrist slid free of the manacle-grip of the stone hand, scraping off layers of skin in the process.
"Your snake... bit me," John said. He hissed. "I can feel the venom."
That wasn't possible. Nigel was just an ordinary brown snake. But John was stepping toward her. Light reflected off dark volcanic glass from the knife lying where he had dropped it.
He stood over Alexandra and pointed his wand at her. Alexandra snatched up the knife and slashed the only part of him she could reach: his ankle. He screamed as its razor-sharp edge sliced through the rawhide pants and boots and cut him to the bone. Blood spattered on her as he fell to one knee. Alexandra slashed at him again. She didn't see where she cut him, just felt the knife slice something, and he dropped his wand and rolled away.
"Bitch!" he gasped.
Still held by three stone hands, Alexandra raised her one free arm and brought the knife down as hard as she could, point-first, on John's wand. The stone bit deeply into the wood, bit through it and into the clay floor beneath, and the blade broke. Alexandra's hand spasmed and she lost her grip just as the wand's light went out.
The stone hands released their grip in the same instant, as if they had simply fallen away. With her other wrist and ankles free, Alexandra rolled onto her side with a groan.
"Now you don't have a wand," she gasped out. "And I have the knife."
It was pitch black, so John couldn't see that the stone blade had snapped. Did he see it break before the light went out?
In the darkness, she heard John dragging himself to his feet.
Even if he was poisoned and bleeding, she wasn't in much better shape. So she held very still, not making a sound. She held her breath, and in the tense silence, a fierce hiss filled the room. Was that Nigel, or a Chindi?
John made a noise deep in his throat, and Alexandra heard him slide away from her. He grunted as he stumbled into the wall, and then he was in the tunnel outside.
He was getting away.
Alexandra coughed and turned her head to spit weakly, a mixture of blood and vomit. She forced herself up onto her knees. This caused such a wave of dizziness that she almost pitched forward again headfirst into the floor. After a moment, she felt strong enough to rise unsteadily to her feet, where she wobbled and swayed before once again regaining some equilibrium. Her body hurt all over and her face was a bleeding, swollen mess, what she could feel of it. She thought she might have a concussion.
Down the tunnel, she heard John's shuffling footsteps. She thought it was in the direction of the outside and the valley, though she was uncertain of her orientation now.
Pulling her torn shirt and robes together and holding them with one hand, she staggered after John, dripping blood in her wake. She didn't know how she could stop him without a wand, but she wasn't going to let him get away, and that one irrational thought drove her forward.
He can't get away.
John might have heard her following after him down the tunnel, but he didn't stop or turn to fight her. Maybe he feared Charmbridge faculty members arriving soon. Maybe he was more badly hurt than she was. Maybe he really was poisoned. Alexandra liked to think he was afraid of her. She told herself he was a coward, and she thought about Darla, and Mary, and Max, and she kept going.
It was an eerily silent chase. Neither of them said anything. She knew they were at the end of the tunnel when she heard dirt and rocks rolling to the floor as John crawled back through the passageway she had excavated. She followed, despite knowing that John could ambush her there or when she emerged.
But when she half-crawled, half-fell onto the rocky slope overgrown with bushes overlooking the river, she saw John standing in the moonlight down on flatter ground, with his back to her. She made it onto her hands and knees, but when she tried to rise to her feet again, her strength gave out, and she ended up tumbling and sliding down the slope, collecting more scrapes and tears in her clothing and skin.
"Alexandra! Alexandra!" In the black of night, stars went out above her as Charlie passed overhead.
"Bring help, Charlie," Alexandra whispered. Her voice was so weak, she wasn't sure if her raven could hear her, but John must have. He turned his head toward her. She could only see his teeth and his eyes, which gleamed madly. Then he leaped into the air and transformed into a raven.
In raven form, he was larger than Charlie. He flapped skyward, reaching the treetops and quickly ascending toward the height of the cliffs above. Charlie cawed and swerved toward the other bird, and Alexandra cried, "Charlie, no!"
Something else descended from the sky. Powerful black wings beat the air and with a chilling screech, the thing struck the larger raven. The two of them plummeted straight down, the raven that was John in the claws of the other bird. Charlie screeched and veered away.
Only a few yards from Alexandra, the other bird spread its wings, released its prey, which struck the ground with a thump, and landed next to it.
It was a large black owl. It stared at Alexandra with round, yellow eyes as inhuman as any she'd ever seen.
Then the owl stretched and grew. Its head narrowed, its feathers became hair and clothes.
The raven, too, was transforming. It lay at the owl's feet in broken, feathered form, but slowly regained the form of a man – a man with a broken back, staring lifelessly up at the sky, at the feet of Diana Grimm.
Alexandra stood up, trembling. When Charlie descended to land on her shoulder, the slight weight of the bird almost drove her to her knees, and Charlie immediately took off again and perched on a nearby bush, croaking, "Alexandra."
"You killed him," Alexandra said, staring with horror at John Manuelito.
"He was an enemy of the Confederation," the Special Inquisitor said, with no trace of emotion.
Alexandra was never sure afterward if Diana Grimm caught her when she fainted. Although she was told that it was her aunt who carried her back to Charmbridge Academy and brought her to the infirmary, the only image she could remember was Diana Grimm standing over the body of John Manuelito with an expression of icy coldness, unmoving even as Alexandra toppled to the ground, unable to stay on her feet any longer and surrendering to unconsciousness.