Without a Wand
Alexandra was not alone in the infirmary. There were others, too weak or terrified to leave their beds. The students who had been attacked by crows were scratched and bloodied, but few had been seriously hurt, and Mrs. Murphy was able to attend to most of their wounds with healing salve and charms. Those who had been attacked by Chindi, however, lay in their beds shivering and jumping at shadows, even when there weren't any.
Four students had been sent to the Queen of Chicago Sanatorium. Two of them were members of the JROC who'd tried to protect younger students from the angry birds and malevolent wraiths that had swarmed the school. One was Larry Albo.
More students trickled into the infirmary all day, afflicted with chills and weakness, dread, and other, vaguer symptoms. They described feeling like someone was treading on their grave. Mrs. Murphy gave them Soothing Potions and told them there were no charms to banish a malady she didn't even understand. Healers from Chicago had told her that there was little they could do either. They were hoping everyone would simply recover on their own.
Alexandra was kept in a partitioned corner of the infirmary, isolated from everyone else. Supposedly for her privacy, but she knew better. She heard the whispers.
Mrs. Murphy was not as cheery as usual, but she was kindly as she checked Alexandra's bandages. After a night's sleep, the bruises and swelling in her wrists and ankles were fading, and while the skin was still raw, it no longer hurt quite so much. A half-cup of Fudd's Grow-All had mended her jaw, with a great deal of discomfort that kept her awake all night and unable to eat a thing. Fudd's Grow-All didn't repair broken noses, so the nurse used some magic to straighten it, but told her it would have to finish healing on its own.
The Fudd's Grow-All and Mrs. Murphy's efforts had mended most of Alexandra's loose and broken teeth, but one was gone, and teeth could not be regrown from scratch.
"There are Artificers who make the most amazing replacement teeth," Mrs. Murphy said encouragingly. "No one can tell they aren't the real thing, and a Sticking Charm will hold one in place indefinitely."
Alexandra looked in the magic mirror that Anna had brought from their room and touched the gap where John Manuelito's fist had knocked out one of her cuspids. There wasn't a lot that even a magic mirror could do to improve the look of a missing tooth. The bandages wrapped around her face were also hard to make decorative, though her reflected image did for an instant take on a rugged piratical look, complete with an eyepatch and a black pirate's hat, in which her injuries became proud wounds of war.
Alexandra couldn't smile. "What about fingers?" she asked.
Mrs. Murphy's smile faded also. "Fingers removed with Dark magic can't be reattached."
"Oh," Alexandra said.
Mrs. Murphy replaced the bandages on Alexandra's face. "These cuts will heal, if you don't open them again. I don't mind telling you, it took some pretty work, and I need to keep an eye on them. Without magical healing, you'd have more scars to match that one on your neck."
The cuts had been fairly deep, but Ms. Shirtliffe and Mr. Grue had examined the broken pieces of John Manuelito's black stone knife and declared that there were no curses on it. Alexandra touched her cheek and winced, earning a tut-tut from Mrs. Murphy.
"I guess I look pretty messed up," Alexandra said.
"Pretty bird," said Charlie.
The nurse had allowed Alexandra's familiar to sit in a cage by her bed, with the strict understanding that it was to stay there. Charlie's input reminded Alexandra of her other familiar, the one she had not found curled up against her body or hiding in any pockets or sleeves when she came to. Mrs. Murphy didn't know what had happened to Nigel, and was not very pleased about the possibility of a snake loose in the infirmary. Alexandra didn't think Nigel was hiding anywhere nearby, though.
"Well," Mrs. Murphy said, "your friends are here, right on schedule. I told them I'd be letting you out this morning."
Alexandra slid off the bed. She put on the clean robes Anna had brought her, and when she emerged from the small curtained enclosure around her bed, she found a small crowd waiting for her.
"Damn," David said, "you look messed up." He tried to sound flippant, but the huskiness in his voice belied his attempt to make light of her appearance.
Anna stood in front of Alexandra as if afraid to touch her in her bandaged, battered condition. Alexandra smiled, and Anna hugged her. Alexandra allowed Constance and Forbearance to embrace her, too. The twins were on the verge of tears. Along with David, hovering over their shoulders and crowding the corner of the infirmary were Innocence, Sonja, and Torvald.
"So, hear any good rumors?" Alexandra asked Sonja.
Sonja smiled nervously. "You were attacked by some kind of shapechanger, and you lost your hand. Also you were trying to resurrect the Mors Mortis Society, and you've been performing human sacrifices in the woods."
"Yeah, everyone's asking if I knew about that, since you and I were doing it out in the woods," Torvald said with a grin.
While Anna clapped a hand to her mouth, Constance and Forbearance's hands went to their cheeks.
Alexandra grimaced. "People are saying that?"
"That bothers you more than people saying you're performing human sacrifice?"
"It's more unbelievable," Alexandra said.
Torvald sighed, while David and Sonja snickered.
"All of you, return to your rooms," said Mrs. Murphy. "There are too many people here for you to be standing around chatting."
Innocence said, "I'm real glad you're mendin', Alex. I'll see you later, alright? I gots to check on William."
Alexandra sucked in a breath. "What happened to William?"
"He weren't struck bad as some, but..." Innocence's lip trembled for a moment.
"The boy's a hero," said Constance. "Him an' all the other regimenters what gallivanted about an' helped drive away them crows an' evil spirits."
"Innocence was right brave, too," said Forbearance.
Innocence shuffled her feet in an 'aw shucks' manner, but there was a blush of pride on her cheeks. "All I did was fetch that cymlin-head Ouida Noel outter the lavatory, since she got trapped there 'stead o' fleein' outside like a sensible person. William din't dare go into the ladies' room." Then she added in a mumble, "But my Banishin' Spell din't work quite proper. William was the one who done fended off the nasty spirits."
"Hush, Innocence Catharine," said Forbearance. "We'uns are very proud of both of you." She gave her sister a kiss on the cheek.
"I want to see William too," Alexandra said. She followed Innocence through the infirmary, with her friends trailing after her. Mrs. Murphy frowned at them, but she was too busy trying to calm a hysterical sophomore to chase after them for the moment.
William lay on a cot beneath a fluffy quilt that didn't look like one of the simple wool blankets Mrs. Murphy had been distributing. Innocence drew up short when she saw that her roommate, Ouida, was seated on a little stool next to him, looking quite out of place with her fancy robes and ribbon-bedecked hair. She turned to Innocence and the older teenagers, and said, "Oh, hello Innocence." Her gaze flickered to Alexandra nervously. "I was just keeping William company."
"She brought me muffins," William said.
"It was the least I could do. After all, he saved my life." Ouida turned back to William with a sigh. There was a tray on her lap with muffins that must have come directly from the kitchen, as they were still steaming.
"We done saved your life," Innocence said. "Did you bring a muffin for me?"
"It was no big deal," William said, as he began trying to sit up.
"Nonsense – it was the bravest thing I ever saw," Ouida said. "Oh, you must lie still! You need to rest." She tore a chunk off of one muffin, as if intending to offer it to William by hand.
"He hain't that limbered," Innocence said, bustling around William's bed to stand opposite her roommate. "William, is you gonna lie there like a scape-gallows?" Despite her words, there was concern in her voice, though something more than that in her expression as she regarded William and Ouida.
"I told all of you that there are too many people in the infirmary already," said Mrs. Murphy, who had come up behind Alexandra and her friends. "Everyone who's not sick or injured needs to leave, now."
The seventh grade girls both looked pleadingly at the nurse. Alexandra said, "Please let Innocence and Ouida stay with William, Mrs. Murphy. We're going." She leaned over William and said, "I'm glad you're all right, William. Just do what you're told, and heal up." She patted him on the shoulder, and left the infirmary, fighting off the queasy, wretched feeling that had not gone away since she'd first woken up.
As she walked toward her room with the rest of her friends, she said, "William... a hero. And Innocence."
"Speaking of heroics," David said, "I thought we all agreed that you weren't going to run off on some crazy mission all by yourself without telling us what you're up to?"
Alexandra glanced at Anna. "It was an accident that it happened the way it did. I didn't mean for things to go that way, or for it to happen last night."
"No," said an adult voice in a slow measured drawl that brought everyone to an immediate stop. Dean Grimm stepped through the archway ahead of them that separated the main corridor from the dorms and regarded Alexandra and her fellow students with a weighty, punishing stare. "You never do, do you, Miss Quick?"
The youths were all silent.
"I am pleased that you've been released from the infirmary," the Dean said. "Did Mrs. Murphy tell you that you require further healing?"
"No, ma'am," Alexandra said. "Not at the moment."
"Very good. Come to my office."
Alexandra and her friends all exchanged uneasy looks.
"That was not a request, Miss Quick. The rest of you may stop lingering about congesting the hallway."
Dean Grimm was an intimidating presence at the best of times, but there was a sharpness in her expression and an edge in her voice that communicated very clearly that she wasn't to be crossed now. Alexandra gave her friends a little nod, and reluctantly, eyes averted, they dispersed. Alexandra followed the Dean back to her office.
There was no sign of Galenthias. There was, however, a glass bowl on the Dean's desk, in which lay coiled a small, brown snake.
"Nigel!" Alexandra stepped past Ms. Grimm to lean over the bowl. Nigel was trying without success to climb the smooth interior of the glass. When she reached for the screen over the top of the bowl, Ms. Grimm flicked her wand. Sparks crackled around Alexandra's hand. She jerked her hand back, stung.
"Your serpentine familiar," Ms. Grimm said. "How long have you had it?"
"Two years," Alexandra said.
"It came from John Manuelito's wand – is that not so?" Ms. Grimm walked around her desk and sat down in her great leather chair, placing her hands on her desk with her wand in front of her.
"Yes," Alexandra said.
"Yes, ma'am." Ms. Grimm's voice was steely.
"Yes, ma'am," Alexandra repeated. She sensed she was in trouble, but she wasn't quite sure what had aroused the Dean's wrath to this degree.
"And it never occurred to you to wonder what sort of creature Mr. Manuelito conjured?"
"He's just a common brown snake," Alexandra said. "A storeria dekayi."
"According to Mr. Fledgefield, it's a rather uncommon brown snake. Native to Australia."
"Australia? That's impossible."
"I think it's far more possible that you need to spend more time studying herpetology before you make pets of snakes you rescue from Dark Wizards. Mr. Fledgefield and Mr. Grue have both confirmed that your 'Nigel' is extremely venomous. Mr. Grue tells me that besides anti-venom, he can make several rare potions from it–"
"No!" Alexandra said. Bad enough having the Magizoology teacher examine Nigel; she was outraged that Mr. Grue had touched him.
Ms. Grimm's fingertips touched her wand. It was an amazingly sinister gesture for such a small motion. Alexandra sucked in a breath, trying to stay calm. "Nigel has never bitten me."
"Nigel has never bitten anyone – except John. And that was when he was defending me."
"A snake has no conscience, no awareness of its mistress, no ability to distinguish between friend and enemy." The hard lines around Ms. Grimm's mouth softened, just a tiny bit. "You can't have it back. Venomous pets are forbidden at Charmbridge Academy, and it would be criminal to allow you to take such a creature back to your home."
Alexandra was surprised at the emotions she felt, and fought them as she said, "He's my familiar."
"You have a familiar. Sit down, Miss Quick. Nigel isn't the only thing we have to discuss."
Alexandra sat down in the chair opposite the Dean's desk, still keeping her eyes fixed on Nigel.
"Do you have any idea what you've done?" Ms. Grimm asked.
Alexandra lifted her eyes to look at the Dean. "I survived another murder attempt."
"You created a weakness in the protective wards around the school. You allowed a Dark creature to enter the grounds. In so doing, you gave John Manuelito cover to follow, after he sent a murder of crows through the breach you created. For weeks you have been going out of bounds and creating a secret passage into the forbidden tunnels beneath this school, which we sealed off for reasons you know well. Everything that happened afterward – all the students who were injured, cursed, terrorized – was a consequence of that."
"I – I didn't mean for any of that to happen," Alexandra said.
"Oh, well, you didn't mean for it to happen. That makes everything better, then. Cleopatra Dupree lost an eye, but you didn't mean for that to happen. Perhaps Larry Albo's fingers will grow back because you didn't mean for that to happen." Without raising it, Dean Grimm's voice became a whip. Her words lashed Alexandra more severely than she'd lashed her hands in sixth grade.
"I had a plan –" Alexandra said.
"A plan. A plan to lure an abomination into the tunnels, where you would open a gate that you of all people should want to remain closed forever, using magic you barely understand and certainly can't control. You had no idea what you were doing! Do you really believe that if things had gone according to your 'plan' that there would have been no danger to anyone else, no collateral effects?"
Alexandra blinked rapidly and tried to steady her breathing. "What other choice did I have? You weren't doing anything to find that Nemesis Spirit –"
"Don't you dare tell me I wasn't doing anything!" Ms. Grimm did raise her voice now, and Alexandra shrank back in her chair. "We searched the woods. We cast more protective spells. We were making arrangements to protect you this summer when you returned to Larkin Mills. You weren't supposed to lure the creature to attack you! You foolish, foolish girl. Just because you can't see something happening doesn't mean no one is doing anything. Plans are made that are not shared with you."
Bitterness welled up, and Alexandra lashed back. "Well, that's nothing new. But I should share my plans with you."
She expected Ms. Grimm to become angrier, possibly even to finally afflict her with one of her long-threatened curses. Instead, her aunt sat back in her chair and looked very tired.
"The owls I've been receiving today are coming from all over Central Territory and beyond – including the Governor's office. Given your record, the conditions of your probation, the considerable leeway you have been allowed in the past, and the consequences of your actions... I'm sorry. I can't protect you this time, Alexandra." The Dean slowly swiveled her chair about to regard the paintings of former deans on the wall behind her. All of them looked on with expressions of great seriousness, as if they, too, were sharing in this judgment. She rotated back to face Alexandra. "I have no choice but to expel you from Charmbridge Academy."
Alexandra sat very still. Shock and indignation were her first reactions. This was followed by a leaden feeling in her throat that spread to the pit of her stomach. She curled her fingers, feeling the way the raw skin around her wrists still ached a bit when she moved her hands.
"Dean Grimm," said Miss Marmsley from the small picture frame on the Dean's desk, "your, er, other visitor is here."
"Thank you, Heather. A moment." Ms. Grimm rose from her seat and walked to the door. "Stay there, Miss Quick." She walked out of her office.
Alexandra sat still a moment, then she got up and walked to the desk and reached for the glass bowl containing Nigel.
"Young witch, the Dean told you to stay there," said one of the former deans hanging on the wall, a plump old man in mutton-chops, with a green wizard's hat that had long since lost its shape and hung limply over his forehead.
"Don't touch that!" said another elderly painted warlock. "Aren't you in enough trouble already?"
"What is Dean Grimm going to do, expel me?" Alexandra held up the glass bowl and looked at the brown snake inside. Nigel's tongue flickered against the glass.
She pulled off the mesh screen and reached her hand inside, picking the snake up gently as she always had. She held Nigel in her hands, and let him twine around her fingers. Nigel did not hiss or bare the fangs that she had never quite paid attention to. Her familiar was as peaceable as he ever was in her hands.
She kissed the snake's head. "Thank you for saving me, Nigel," she whispered.
Nigel's tongue flicked the air indifferently.
The door behind her opened. "Miss Quick," the Dean said, in a tone of mixed outrage and dismay.
Alexandra turned to face her with a defiant expression, but her defiance melted when she saw the man behind Ms. Grimm. "Mr. Tsotsie?"
Ms. Grimm took several careful steps into the room, eyeing the snake in Alexandra's hands, and Henry Tsotsie followed. The Navajo was wearing a red Auror's vest beneath a dark wizard's robe, something Alexandra had never seen any Indians wear back in Dinétah. Underneath the robes, though, he was wearing jeans and the same dusty Western boots he'd had on when she last saw him.
"Auror Tsotsie came here to collect the body of John Manuelito," Ms. Grimm said.
"The body?" Alexandra was conscious of Nigel twisting about in her hand, but she didn't look at the snake, still could not consider her familiar a threat.
"He was one of ours," Tsotsie said.
"I read that Navajos are afraid of dead bodies," Alexandra said. "Because of Chindi."
"You read that, huh?" Tsotsie's eyes were nearly as stone-like as Ms. Grimm's, but Alexandra realized that whereas Ms. Grimm's cold, implacable expression masked what she didn't want to show, Henry Tsotsie was showing his true face. At least the truest face he'd show any belagana.
"In the case of an 'Ánt'įįhnii, a Chindi is a real possibility," he said. "We'll perform the necessary ceremonies to ensure that John Manuelito's Chindi does not come back, and then I'll have to spend a long time being purified. This is not a pleasant duty."
Alexandra wasn't sure what to say to that. Then she thought of all the students down in the infirmary, and the ceremony in the sweat lodge back in Dinétah. "Mr. Tsotsie, can you help the people who were struck with ghost sickness?"
"I'm sure Charmbridge Academy can call on the best Healers around."
"Not for this. Healers don't even believe in Chindi. But I know your people can cure ghost sickness."
Tsotsie shrugged. "I'm just an Auror from the Indian Territories. I came here to collect a dead man and see that his Chindi does no more harm."
"There are a lot of kids sick, Mr. Tsotsie," Alexandra said. "They were made sick because of John Manuelito. You said he was one of yours."
The Auror said nothing, for such a long time that it was Ms. Grimm who spoke up next. "If you could give any relief to our children, Mr. Tsotsie, I would be extremely grateful, and I assure I would make sure proper credit is given –"
"You think I care about the gratitude of all those Colonial parents?" There was no scorn or meanness in Tsotsie's voice, just flat dismissal.
"I think you care about people who've been hurt by witchery," Alexandra said. "You're a sheepdog."
Tsotsie ran a hand slowly down his sleeve. "I'll call Billi Tewawina. She could bring a couple of medicine singers up." He glanced at Ms. Grimm. "Charmbridge Academy allows 'non-standard magical traditions'?"
"I am Dean here," Ms. Grimm said. "It will not be a problem. Thank you, Mr. Tsotsie."
Tsotsie nodded minutely.
"Miss Quick, put the snake back in the bowl," said the Dean.
Reluctantly, Alexandra did so. Nigel had lain quiescent in her hand during the entire conversation, but twisted a bit as she set him back inside the glass bowl on the Dean's desk.
Tsotsie said, "Dean Grimm told me about your 'familiar,' and your problem. I'll make a proposal to you. I'll take your Nigel." The Auror patted the small bulge beneath his robes where Alexandra knew he carried a leather satchel. "There's room enough in here for two snakes."
Alexandra looked from the snake to the wizard. "You'll take care of him?"
Alexandra swallowed. "Thank you."
The Auror walked to the Dean's desk. He showed no great interest in the office or the furnishings or the men and women studying him curiously from the wall. He picked up the bowl, lifted his robes to reveal the leather pouch on his belt, opened it, and paused a moment as Nigel hissed. Then he tilted the bowl, and Nigel fell into the dark interior of Henry Tsotsie's leather pouch.
"He says you're welcome," Tsotsie said, as he closed the pouch. He set the empty bowl back on the desk and straightened his robes. Then he turned and gave Ms. Grimm a nod before exiting her office.
Alexandra had been planning to tell Ms. Grimm about what John told her. Someone else had been trying to kill her, all these months. Before, she'd hoped she could reason with her aunt and explain Mary Dearborn's involvement without getting her expelled.
Now, she knew that was hopeless. What good could she do by dragging Mary down with her as well? She kept her mouth shut and returned to her room to get her belongings.
Dean Grimm didn't say good-bye to her, nor was Alexandra given time to do much more than pack her things and meet Ms. Fletcher in front of the school. Anna followed her out, of course, tearfully swearing that her father would make Dean Grimm change her mind. By the time they got to the entrance, everyone had heard the news, and Alexandra was seen off by a solemn crowd: Anna, the Pritchards, David, and several members of the JROC, though not Torvald or Stuart.
Even David hugged her as he said, "This is bullshit."
"Yeah. Take care, dork. Don't get yourself in trouble." Alexandra patted him on the back.
"We'll talk as soon as I'm back in Detroit," he said.
"Oh Alexandra, we will miss you," Sonja said. Alexandra allowed her to hug her too.
Constance took her hands, and then Forbearance.
"This hain't good-bye," said Constance.
"Not for good," said Forbearance.
"I know," Alexandra said.
Innocence was wiping her eyes. She had been alternately bursting into tears and raging at the indignity of Alexandra's expulsion all the way down the stairs and out the door. Alexandra told her, "Don't get in trouble, Innocence. Not on my account."
"It hain't fair!" Innocence said, for probably the seventh time. She stamped her foot this time for emphasis.
"Maybe not," Alexandra said, no longer able to share Innocence's outrage. "But you can't do anything about it."
"Not here," Forbearance said, and laid a hand on Innocence's shoulder. Innocence quieted and blinked away tears.
Constance and Forbearance hugged Alexandra together. Constance whispered, "You 'member what we'uns told you, 'bout the Grannies?"
"I really don't know how I'm going to get to the Ozarks," Alexandra said. "Running away will be even harder without a wand."
"Din't say nothin' 'bout runnin' away, Alexandra Quick." Constance shook her head while Forbearance tsked. "We done told you, it's a Jubilee year. You is all invited to the Five Hollers."
"Really? All of us?" David asked.
"Din't we'uns just say all?" Constance said.
"I don't think my father will let me," Anna said. She was crying as much as Innocence, though less loudly. Alexandra pulled away from the Pritchards and put her arms around Anna to hug her tightly.
"Don't forget phone and email," she murmured. "It's going to be a long summer without you guys."
Charlotte Barker and Ermanno DiSilvio shook her hand. "Keep in practice," Ermanno said.
"Sure," Alexandra said, thinking, That'll be tough without a wand, too.
"I really wish you were going to be here next year to compete," Charlotte said.
"Thanks." Alexandra thought of her last sight of Larry, after the Nemesis Spirit had stabbed him in the stomach with its bloody, pointed beak. Any enthusiasm she once had for trouncing Larry Albo was gone now. "Take care of William, okay?" She looked at Innocence. "You, too."
She waved to everyone as she followed Ms. Fletcher through the woods. She kept an unconcerned expression on her face all the way to the bus, and then sat stone-faced for the entire ride home.
So, sent packing, literally, hurried out of the school in disgrace. An end to her wizarding career. She didn't even have a wand.
When they came to a stop in front of 207 Sweetmaple Avenue, Alexandra walked up the aisle of the bus, which felt eerie when she was the only passenger in its spacious interior. Would she really never again ride this bus filled with other Charmbridge students, exchanging taunts with Torvald and Stuart, Larry Albo and Benjamin and Mordecai Rash, sitting at a table playing games with her friends?
Mrs. Speaks sounded sympathetic as she said, "Good-bye, Miss Quick. Best of luck to you."
"Thank you." Alexandra got off the bus and walked to her front door.
Claudia met her there. Alexandra didn't know how the Dean had informed her, but her sister had been told, somehow.
The two of them stood there facing each other, Alexandra with bandages over her nose and cheeks and wrapped around her wrists, looking like she'd been worked over in a fight.
"I got expelled," Alexandra said, and the tears started. She couldn't stop them.
"I know," Claudia said. She took Alexandra in her arms and held her as if she were her daughter, while Alexandra cried on her shoulder.
Alexandra sat in her room that night, listening to the Wizard Wireless. At least she'd been allowed to bring all of her magical possessions home – though she wasn't sure how long she'd be allowed to keep them. Would an Auror – or worse, an Obliviator – show up tomorrow and tell her that she had to live like one of the Wandless from now on?
She had never realized how much she would miss the wizarding world until she'd been kicked out of it.
The Wyld Hunt concert broadcast from Yellowknife was interrupted by news from Louisiana Territory. Alexandra listened with growing dismay as a Confederation News Network spokeswizard described with tones of shock and horror that didn't quite conceal his melodramatic glee the destruction of Baleswood, the elite wizarding school located deep in the swamps near New Orleans.
" – although the Dark Convention is certainly involved, already the name of one Dark Wizard in particular is being whispered, the Enemy of the Confederation. Last year's destruction of the New Amsterdam Academy for Witches and Wizards was evidently only the first in the Enemy's latest plan to sow terror and chaos throughout the Confederation, a plan that Governor-General Hucksteen vows will not succeed. The Governor-General has announced the formation of –"
Alexandra's first impression was that the swamp had simply swallowed Baleswood all at once, causing it and everyone inside to disappear without a trace, but as she listened past the announcer's breathless hyperbole, she learned that the process had in fact begun slowly, proceeding inexorably over a period of several hours despite the best efforts of the school's faculty and wizards from New Orleans to stop it. By the time Baleswood actually disappeared beneath the water, the students and staff had been evacuated – though there were a few missing.
She thought about Angelique Devereaux, who had withdrawn from Charmbridge Academy to get away from her and her father. Now Abraham Thorn had struck directly at the place where Angelique had taken refuge, and Alexandra could only hope she was not one of the missing.
Father, what are you doing?
Anna's first letter arrived the next day, sent before the news about Baleswood had reached her. It was delivered by a Confederation Post owl because Anna had sent Jingwei to take a letter to her father.
Alexandra knew Mr. Chu wouldn't be able to make Dean Grimm change her mind even if he wanted to, and she couldn't imagine that the Congressman would think it was a good idea to try to use his office to help the daughter of the Enemy of the Confederation, especially now. She said as much to Anna in her reply, hoping Anna would see sense, or at least not be too angry at her father when he said 'No.' The last thing Alexandra wanted was for Anna to feel divided loyalties, or to get in trouble on account of her.
She sent Julia an owl also. Julia would be taking her SPAWNs at the Salem Witches' Institute now, like Alexandra's friends at Charmbridge. She hoped she would get to see Julia this summer as Ms. King had promised. She didn't think the Kings would shun her even if she were disgraced and wandless, but she couldn't help being worried while waiting for her sister's reply.
She didn't know what she was supposed to do now. Would she ever be allowed to have a wand again? Was there a day school somewhere she could attend? Claudia didn't know. Claudia had asked Livia for help.
While her sisters dithered over what to do, Alexandra decided she would have to start making her own plans.
The first day that Claudia and Archie were both at work, Alexandra bundled up her Seven-League Boots, her books and potions, her Skyhook, and all the remaining artifacts she still had from the Lands Below, stuffed them into the bottom of her magical backpack, and headed for Third Street. Her broom she left behind in her closet. If they came for her and her remaining magical items, the broom was something they already knew about.
The Regal Royalty Sweets and Confections warehouse looked as it had in January, still a spooky, abandoned building ignored by everyone who passed by it. Alexandra took a moment to clear her head, and the broken windows, graffiti, and debris fell away, along with the barbed wire fence, leaving only an old, abandoned but intact building before her.
She was relieved that she could still see through the Muggle-Repelling Charms. Even without a wand, she was still a witch.
The old, rusted metal door creaked as she entered the building. It was still full of old storage bays and pallets and offices, mostly dark even with sunlight coming in through the windows. She paused when she reached a dried brown stain on the floor. If she had had her wand, she would have scoured it away.
"Hello?" she called. "Is anyone here?"
Livia had said she was going to do something with the property, but it didn't look like she'd done anything yet. Alexandra didn't know if the Dark Convention would have replaced Martha and resumed using the warehouse for its own purposes, but if there was another hag here, she would just have to deal with her.
She walked up the stairs to the second floor, where the corridors had no exposure to windows and it was pitch dark. She opened the stairwell doors and tried to switch on her flashlight. It didn't work, and she cursed.
"Goody Pruett?" she called, as she took out a box of matches instead. She was going to have to acquire a lantern.
A dry, brittle voice replied, "Who is that?"
Alexandra lit a match and approached the end of the corridor.
"It's me," she said. "Alexandra Quick. Has anyone been here since I was here last?" The match flame cast enough light for her to see the old woman, flickering shadows playing over paint.
"Only a rude young man who called himself a Cursebreaker," Goody Pruett said. "He barely said a word to me."
"So no hag has come to replace Martha?"
"Certainly not! Livia promised me no more loathsome creatures like that would trespass here."
"And the offices back there where Martha used to store things?"
The portrait sniffed. "I don't know."
Alexandra's match had almost burned down to her fingertips. She dropped it, lit another, and proceeded down the corridor.
"Wait, where are you going?" Goody Pruett asked.
The offices were dusty and abandoned, containing old furniture and mouse droppings and little else. Alexandra wandered from room to room, holding matches up to look into every corner and examining spaces under desks and inside filing cabinets. It had been emptied. It did not seem that the Dark Convention or anyone else was still using this place.
One more match burned out. Standing in the middle of a dark room, Alexandra listened, and let the feel of magic brush against her.
She put everything from her backpack into an old wooden filing cabinet, then returned to the portrait of her sister's ancestor, holding up another match.
Goody Pruett had become plaintive while Alexandra left her alone in the dark. "Livia promised I wouldn't be left alone here forever."
"Don't worry," Alexandra said. "I'll be back."
She walked upstairs to the third floor. The open space dominating half the floor, which she had used as her private training studio, remained empty, with the burns and scars and split wood still visible. She walked to one of the windows and opened it, and Charlie flew in.
"Hagar," said Charlie.
Alexandra cast her eyes about the property below and the sky overhead. She saw no other raven, but suddenly felt a faint breeze against the back of her neck.
"I know you know how to call my cell phone," she said, without turning around. "You don't have to sneak around to talk to me."
"Do you not prefer to speak to me in person?" her father asked.
She turned. Abraham Thorn wore his usual dark robes and cloak. He was alone. There was no sign of either Hagar or Medea. Something passed across his stern countenance when he saw her face, still bandaged. Alexandra said nothing as he stepped closer to her, but when he reached a hand out to touch his fingertips to her chin, she spoke.
"What will we talk about this time?" she asked. "How I got expelled from Charmbridge Academy? How you destroyed Baleswood? Whether or not this place is still being used by the Dark Convention? Or maybe we should talk about the Stars Above."
Her father lowered his hand slowly. "Yes, we should talk about all of those things. Your expulsion was unfortunate, but Lilith Grimm really didn't have a choice. There are other options, however."
"Like what? Joining you? Enrolling in the Salem Witches' Institute? I hope you'll let Julia graduate before you destroy that school, too. What are you doing?"
"We can't discuss this if you're going to be loud and irrational," her father said.
"I am not irrational, I'm angry! One of my friends goes to Baleswood!"
"All of the Confederation's schools are built upon places that the Confederation uses to access the Lands Below, and other realms," he said. "Where do you think the Deathly Regiment originated?"
"You think you can destroy every gate to the Lands Below and that will steal the Confederation's power?"
"Something like that. Alexandra, where is the token I gave you?"
She opened her hands, as if to demonstrate that she didn't have it. "In the Lands Below."
"What?" It was rare to see Abraham Thorn taken aback, and equally rare for Alexandra to know something he didn't.
She savored the moment for only a second, because there really wasn't any triumph in it. "I used it to send the Nemesis Spirit to the Lands Below – without me."
He sucked in a breath. "That is not what it was supposed to be used for."
"Maybe you should have told me what it was supposed to be used for. I'm so sorry I had to save myself. But you didn't exactly come to my rescue when I needed you – just like you didn't come to my rescue when John Manuelito tried to kill me."
Thorn's face twitched. "I regret that I did not. You were supposed to be safe at Charmbridge. If you had waited –"
"Waited for what? Waited for the adults to do something? Waited for someone else to get killed, maybe one of my friends? What are you saying, that everything is my fault? Well, maybe it is, but if you didn't expect me to do something myself, then you really don't know me very well, do you?"
Her father's face showed his slowly losing battle with his temper. Alexandra could tell that she was pushing the limits of his patience again.
"What was I born for?" she asked.
For the second time, Abraham Thorn was caught by surprise. "Excuse me?"
"What was I born for? John said that the Dark Convention believes I was supposed to be sacrificed to destroy the Confederation."
"You believe the ravings of a journeyman warlock like John Manuelito?"
"The Stars Above said you knew before I was born that you were going to refuse them, or something like that." Alexandra watched as her father's eyes slid away from hers. "There was some kind of prophecy, wasn't there?" He didn't answer. "Did it say I'm supposed to die?"
He looked back at her. "Prophecies don't dictate actions, Alexandra. Only results. No prophecy can make you or I or anyone else do anything."
"But they do come true, don't they?"
Abraham Thorn was silent.
"Did you think I'd be better off if you just didn't tell me?"
"Yes, Alexandra, I thought that. I still think that – if you allow yourself to believe you're doomed, you will be. But we will find a way. I defied the Dark Convention, my child. I defy the very Stars Above, because I refuse to surrender to any preordained fate."
His face was half-lit by a sunbeam shining through a window, and the rest of him was captured in shadows surrounded by dust swirling in the sunlight. Alexandra heard his words and believed him – almost. But it wasn't enough to release her anger or unclench the knot of distrust in her stomach.
"I've been thinking a lot," she said. "I told you last time that I didn't want to be lied to anymore. I said I wanted you to teach me something, and I've asked you to be more involved in my life if you want to be my father. And you know what? You really suck at both. You only tell me what you think I need to know, and you only visit me once in a while, usually after something bad happens. And I've decided that I don't want anything to do with you or your plans. I don't want anything from you. As long as you're killing people and terrorizing the Confederation, you're threatening my friends and family – your family – and I just don't trust you. Everything you do has some hidden motive. Maybe you really do have my best interests at heart and I'm just too young and naive to understand, but from what I can see, all you've done is make your children suffer. If destroying the Confederation and getting revenge on Governor-General Hucksteen is the most important thing in the world to you, then you'd better go do that. Maybe you can be a father when you're done."
When she had rehearsed this speech in her head, she delivered it with dignity and conviction that would mortally wound Abraham Thorn with her righteous indignation. But actually saying the words, she stammered over them, didn't feel she was at all as clear or certain as she had been in her imagination, and when her father merely stood quietly without reaction, except for a certain sadness in his eyes, she didn't feel triumphant or vindicated, only empty and alone.
Deep down, she wanted her father to choose her and her sisters over his ambitions and his vengeance. And deep down, she knew he never would.
"You told me you wanted me to teach you to become great," he said.
"And you told me no one can teach me that."
"You have no wand now."
"I'll get one." She swallowed past the lump in her throat. "I don't want your wands and brooms and artifacts." She held up the CBNW bank book he had given her. "You can take this back if you want."
"No." Abraham Thorn shook his head, and drew his cloak around him. "I will not take back anything I have given you. If this is how you feel, daughter, I will respect your wishes, but I am still your father and you cannot dismiss me so easily."
There was a long pause. Alexandra was conscious of wanting to say something, and wanting her father to say something, and knowing that he felt the same way.
"Someone is still trying to kill me," she said. "It wasn't just John Manuelito."
She wouldn't ask her father for protection for herself, but she worried about Claudia, especially now that she had no wand.
"I know," he said. "But I will allow no harm to come to my daughters."
Alexandra held her tongue.
Abraham Thorn disappeared, not with a pop, but with a silent gust of wind, as if he had been dismissed and dissolved into the air.
Alexandra sat down in the center of the warehouse floor, rested her elbows on her knees, and buried her face in her hands. She didn't cry, but she felt as empty and exhausted as if she'd been crying for hours. She heard Charlie hopping across the wooden floor a few feet from her.
"Alexandra," said the raven.
She took her hands away from her face and reached for her familiar.
"Charlie," she said. The raven perched on her arm – not on her wrist, where the skin was still red and bruised, but higher on her forearm. "I think we could set up a pretty nice roost for you here. We're going to be spending more time here."
"Charlie," Charlie repeated.
"Fly away home now," she said, giving the raven a little toss. Charlie flapped to the window and took off though it. Alexandra got up to close the window, looked around one more time, and went downstairs and exited the Regal Royalty Sweets and Confections warehouse.
Taking the shortcut across the park on the way home, she saw two people sitting on the very same park bench where her fight with Billy Boggleston had begun last summer. There were kids and adults all over the park – it was a hot summer day – but Billy was nowhere in sight. It was just Brian and Bonnie Seabury.
"Hi, Alex," Bonnie said.
"Hi," Alexandra said. It was the first time she'd seen the younger girl since the night after her accident, in the hospital. "You're looking pretty good."
"Better than you," Bonnie said, eyes wide at the sight of Alexandra's bruised and bandaged nose and face.
Brian had half-risen from his seat. "What happened to you?"
"It's a long story. Don't worry, I'm fine." Alexandra was uncomfortable with Brian's show of concern, so she asked Bonnie, "How are you doing?"
Bonnie said, "I still have a limp, and I have to see a physical therapist once a week, but Mom finally let me leave the house with Brian." She added the last part with disdain, as if Brian's presence was completely unnecessary and undesirable, though all they were doing was sitting on a park bench eating ice cream.
"So are you back for the summer?" Brian asked.
"Yeah," Alexandra said. Maybe longer.
Bonnie grinned. "Do you two want to talk?" She said the word 'talk' with teasing emphasis. Brian made a fake swipe at her with the back of his hand, and she stuck an ice-cream coated tongue out at him.
"I'm stuck with her. Mom'll kill me if I let her out of my sight," Brian said.
"So annoying," Bonnie said. "It's not like I can't go to the park and back by myself."
"Don't get yourself in trouble, Bonnie," Alexandra said. She gave Brian a half-smile. "Well, see you later." She stuck her hands in her pockets and continued on toward Sweetmaple Avenue.
"Alex, wait." Brian stood up, and pointed at Bonnie. "You stay there. I mean it." Bonnie rolled her eyes, but didn't move.
Brian walked over to Alexandra, and gestured at the ice cream cart, where young children and teenagers alike were thronging about. "Can I buy you an ice cream?"
"Buy me an ice cream?" She started to tell him she could buy herself an ice cream, but there was something at once anxious and hopeful in his expression, as if an ice cream represented something much more.
She really didn't make it easy on those who tried to get close to her, she thought. She knew she was hard on her friends. Had she treated Payton unfairly, and Torvald, and her father? Perhaps even Claudia and Archie? Self-doubt and bittersweet memories swept over her all at once.
She had no idea what her future held. But summer in Larkin Mills could be lonely without friends.
"Okay," she said.
They walked over to the ice cream cart. Alexandra slipped an arm around Brian's. Surprised, he gave her a little smile. Overhead, a raven cawed raucously, and Alexandra smiled back.
End Year Four
Author's Note: I hope you have enjoyed the fourth book in the Alexandra Quick series. Thank you to everyone who read it, and especially to those who have left reviews. I really appreciate them, and hope you'll consider leaving one now, even if you aren't a regular reviewer. I won't be writing book five immediately, but I have begun outlining it, and rest assured, the Alexandra Quick series will continue. If you would like to stay updated, please visit my LiveJournal, where I will soon post a lengthier Author's Notes for AQATSA, and where I will keep fans posted on my progress with book five: AQATWA.