The pirate fleet appeared suddenly, emerging from the thick fog bank that blanketed the small stretch of coastline. Only half an hour earlier, the weather had been clear enough to see the trees on the island across the sound. Now, from the vantage point of a long, high pier, the people on the beach were wraiths shrouded in mist, and the pirate ships were hulking shadows bearing down on them without warning.
At the end of the pier, where it thrust out over the water, stood a tall boy with short red hair fringed by a few unruly curls, and a girl with straight black hair falling just to her shoulders. The two teenagers wore robes like everyone else on the beach and the pier, but theirs were plain and loose, thrown over the clothes they wore underneath. The boy's robes flapped open as he waved his arms at the pirate ships, revealing blue jeans and a striped polo shirt.
“Awesome!” he said, as people began screaming. The pirate ships did not run aground. Instead, the phantasmal vessels plowed unimpeded right through the sand and directly over the people on the beach. Some of the spectators scattered in alarm, but most just stood there transfixed.
The teenagers found themselves looking right down the barrels of a row of cannons as one of the ships drifted past the pier. Pirates leered and waved swords and pistols, and then the cannons fired. The pea soup fog swallowed the booms and the billowing smoke, so the teens didn't realize they had been fired upon until a ghostly gray shape came hurtling directly at them.
“Holy crap!” said the boy, and he grabbed the girl, much to her consternation, and threw her and himself both to the wooden deck at their feet.
A high-pitched shriek pierced the fog from a little way down the pier. The girl pushed her companion roughly off of her and leaped to her feet. “Julia! Are you all right?”
“Eek!” Another girl, slightly older than the other two teenagers, was dancing about in the fog, her summer yellow robes flapping around her as she hopped and shivered. “Eek! Eek! Eek!”
Alexandra Quick ran to her sister, who was shuddering and wrapping her arms around herself. “A cannonball went right through me! It was cold! And creepy! Like someone walking on my grave!” With one more dramatic shudder, Julia King dropped her arms and tossed her curly brown hair. “And,” she said, with an aristocratic Virginia drawl, “I didn't have anyone gallant enough to save me!”
Coming up behind Alexandra, Payton Smith flushed. “Sorry. You were too far away...”
“Nobody needed saving.” Alexandra straightened her robes. “You know they're just ghosts. They can't hurt anyone.”
The pirate ships had come to a halt far up on the beach, sitting in the sand at the edge of the wizarding town of New Roanoke. With roars and cries and a chorus of “Arrrs!”, the ghostly pirates began descending from their vessels, floating through the air until they reached the ground. Some charged up the shore and into the town, while others began pursuing the sightseers on the beach, who either screamed theatrically and ran or took pictures.
Abashed, Payton said, “Come on – don't tell me you didn't flinch a little. I didn't know they were going to fire cannonballs at us!”
“Ghost cannonballs.” Alexandra shook her head, ignoring Julia's wink.
The annual pirate fleet invasion was a major tourist attraction. Wizards came from all over the Confederation to see it. As the popularity of the event had grown, so had the number of ghosts required, and the Bureau of Hauntings was allowing even ghosts who had never set foot on a ship during their lifetimes to leave their usual haunts and join the 'pirate fleet.'
“This is better than a movie,” Payton said. “You know, you could make a lot of money filming stuff like this.”
“You could also get yourself arrested for violating the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy,” Alexandra said. “And get any Muggles you show it to Obliviated, thanks to the WODAMND Act.”
“I know,” Payton said. “I wasn't planning to actually do it. But don't you wish our friends could see this? And our families could come visit when it's not Muggle Awareness Week?”
Alexandra shrugged. Unlike Payton, who lived with his Muggle family year-round, Alexandra spent most of the year in the wizarding world. When she went home for the summer – home in Larkin Mills, not here in Roanoke with Julia and Ms. King – she hardly talked about magic at all.
Alexandra wasn't as excited by ghosts as Payton, and neither was Julia, but Payton didn't seem to be in a hurry to join the others in rushing off the pier to watch the pirates 'plunder' the town. He was shuffling along rather slowly, causing Alexandra and Julia to slow down as well.
“Oh, dear,” Julia said, noticing the young man's bashfulness. “This is your last date, isn't it? And I've been tagging along with you all day! How dreadful of me!”
“It's not a date, and you aren't tagging along,” Alexandra said. “We came to see the pirate fleet together.”
Payton was chagrined, but Julia smiled. “You two should have some time alone. Who wants their older sister around as a chaperone?”
“You're not –” Alexandra said, but Julia gave her a kiss on the cheek and said, “Shush! I'm going to go into town. Maybe I'll find some chivalrous young man to protect me from being ravished!”
“Ghosts can't ravish you,” Alexandra muttered.
Julia gave another shudder. “I can still feel that cannonball passing through me.” She held out a hand to Payton. “If I don't see you again before you leave, Payton, I hope you have a wonderful school year, and hopefully Alexandra and I will see you again the next time she comes to visit.”
“Thank you,” Payton said, shaking Julia's hand. “Same here. And thanks for inviting me to your house. That was really cool. Especially the winged horses. Tell your mother I said thanks, too.”
“I shall.” Julia gave Alexandra another wink, then turned to walk away down the steps to the beach, leaving Payton and Alexandra alone on the fog-shrouded pier.
After a moment, Payton said, “I thought this was a date.”
Alexandra watched her sister disappear into the mist. In the direction of the town, pirates were arrring and singing pirate songs.
Payton cleared his throat. “Take a walk?” Without waiting for an answer, he took Alexandra's hand.
She allowed him to lead her back down the pier, toward the end that jutted out over the water. This wasn't the first time he'd held her hand, but it was their first real time alone together. Julia's teasing notwithstanding, she and her mother had been rather steadfast chaperones.
In the month that Alexandra had been staying with the Kings, she'd had several chaperoned 'dates' with Payton. Usually, she and Julia took the Muggle ferry from the island to a small seaside town that was next door to New Roanoke. The townspeople were supposedly unaware of their wizard neighbors, though Alexandra wondered how ignorant they really were, living next to a place that conjured fog banks in the middle of a sunny summer morning. She'd also seen wizards in the town dressed in Old Colonial garb.
Payton lived in another town not far away. He was actually more familiar with New Roanoke than Alexandra; during the year, he attended a wizarding day school there. He had taken her to the Magibotanical Gardens, and they had attended the Summer Cotillion together.
She had to give him credit – he hadn't realized how much attention he'd get for dating the youngest daughter of the notorious Dark wizard Abraham Thorn. But when purebloods and traditionalists made cutting remarks or gave him the evil eye, he just returned a cocky smile. (Or, when it was other kids, rude gestures, which had almost resulted in him and Alexandra getting into a wizard-duel with a bunch of Old Colonials at the Cotillion.)
The previous week, Alexandra and the Kings had brought Payton to Croatoa to show him the Kings' winged horse ranch. Alexandra was a bit jealous at how easily Payton was able to ride a Granian; while it was his first time on a winged horse, he had ridden non-magical horses before.
Today, Ms. King, who had seen the pirate ghost invasion many times, was waiting for the girls with her Thestral-drawn carriage at Astoria's Cafe. Alexandra was returning home in just a few days, so this was the last time she and Payton would see each other this summer.
Payton seemed nervous as they walked along the pier. The fog swallowed the sound of their footsteps and muffled the pandemonium from the pirates.
“So, you're going home on Sunday,” he said.
“Yeah,” Alexandra said.
“It'll be easier, in some ways. To stay in touch, I mean. You can use your cell phone at home, and get online.”
“Yeah. I wish Julia could get online, too.”
That answer didn't seem to be what he was hoping for. Alexandra wondered what was wrong. They reached the end of the pier and stood there over the gray choppy water. Payton's hand felt very warm around hers. He was a gangly boy, just beginning to fill in, and he had a pleasant, square face with a mop of rust-orange hair that he'd been trying to gel, style, and do other things with all summer. He had been slightly taller than Alexandra when they'd first met at the Roanoke Spring Cotillion the previous year, and now he was almost a head taller than her. He complained about growing so fast that his knees and elbows hurt.
“So, um, are we a couple?” he asked.
Alexandra blinked in surprise. “I don't know. Do you want to be a couple?”
She had enjoyed her time with Payton. She had even thought about whether Payton wanted to do more than hold hands with her – she knew he probably did – and whether she wanted to. Assuming they were ever out of sight of Julia and Ms. King.
They were out of sight of everyone now. Half an hour earlier, they'd been in full view of hundreds of witches and wizards, but now they had the pier all to themselves, and they were cloaked in the densest fog Alexandra had ever seen. Even sounds were dampened and distorted; she heard a flapping sound from some sea bird that might have been just overhead or far across the water.
Payton let go of her hands, and said, “Check this out.” He drew his wand with one hand and produced a crumpled up piece of paper with the other.
She eyed the paper. “Okay.”
With dramatic gestures, he moved his wand in what Alexandra recognized as a simple Transfiguration. He finished the spell with a look of intense concentration. The paper curled and twisted, darkened into a deep crimson, burst open, and became a stiff, papery flower. He presented it to her with a flourish.
She took it. “Thank you.”
“I've been practicing all summer.” When Alexandra failed to be duly impressed, he added, “I'm one of the best in my class at Transfiguration.”
Alexandra held up the not-quite-living flower. Most Charmbridge students could do better than this by eighth grade. “It's very nice,” she said, trying to sound appreciative. “Wait – how do you practice at home? Don't you get warnings from the Trace Office?”
“Minor Transfigurations are on the list of approved spells Muggle-borns can practice at home.”
Payton shrugged. “Every Territory has its own rules. Maybe Central is stricter than Roanoke?”
Alexandra felt a flash of anger and jealousy. She wasn't allowed to cast so much as a Light Spell at home! Then Payton took her hands again, pressing them together over the flower. She looked down at their hands and back up at him.
“So, uh, I like you,” he said.
“I like you, too.”
He smiled and opened his mouth, and she said, “But –”
His smile faltered, and he closed his mouth.
“But,” she continued, “it's not like we'll be able to keep...”
“Yeah. I mean, I don't know how often I'll be able to visit Roanoke, but at most we'll see each other a couple times a year.”
“We can talk on the phone, and chat online.”
“Not while I'm at school.”
She wasn't sure this was realistic. How could you even call it 'dating' if you only saw each other a few times during the summer? But Payton was looking at her in a way no boy had ever looked at her before, and even though it made her confused and uncertain, she also kind of liked it, and she knew that he'd be crushed if she tried to be all pragmatic. And it wasn't as if there were any boys back home or at Charmbridge whom she was going to date.
“We can talk on the phone and chat online,” she said. “And send owls.”
He smiled, and then he leaned forward and kissed her.
Alexandra hadn't been expecting that. Of course she should have. Her heart raced and she felt ridiculous at her fluttering nerves. Technically, it wasn't her first kiss, but it was the first time a boy had kissed her.
After holding her breath for one startled moment, she closed her eyes and forced herself to relax. Payton was trying to kiss her with assurance, as if he knew exactly what he was doing, but his hands had suddenly gone sweaty. All things considered, though, she thought it wasn't a bad kiss. She kissed him back.
They separated after a few seconds. Her face was flushed and her heart was beating much too fast.
Payton studied her while trying to be cool – assessing her reaction, she realized. She must have seemed inviting, or at least not uninviting, because he slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her closer to him.
Feeling him pressed against her made her heart beat even faster, and she wondered if he could feel it. She laid a hand on his shoulder – whether it was a staying gesture or an encouraging one, she wasn't quite sure. She fought to suppress the impulse to swallow, or lick her lips. She did not want to appear nervous. She also didn't want to seem ready to make out with him after one kiss.
“I wanted to do that at the Cotillion,” he said.
“Why didn't you?”
He turned a little red. “Well, everyone was watching us all the time, including your sister.”
“Yeah, she was waiting for you to kiss me.”
Payton's mouth twitched. “What about you?”
“Arrr! Well, look what we have here!” growled a sepulchral voice. Payton and Alexandra both jumped and whirled around. A ghost had emerged from the mist. He wore a wizard's hat, but his clothes were ragged nautical garb and there was a cutlass hanging at his belt. Alexandra guessed that this particular ghost actually had been a pirate, because his translucent flesh had a mottled, drowned texture, and there was ghostly seaweed in his hair.
“Up to no good, the two of ye!” said the pirate. “Don't ye have proper parents? No decent witch would be lettin' some dogleg of a wand paw her!”
Payton said, “I wasn't –”
“Why don't you mind your own business?” Alexandra snapped.
The ghost glowered, and mist curled around him. “Arr, yer a mouthy little hussy!”
Alexandra drew her wand. “What did you call me?”
“Alex! Jeez!” Payton whispered.
The pirate roared with laughter. “What're ye gonna do, little girl?” He blew a ghostly exhalation that frosted the air in front of him. “Ye can't threaten a ghost, strumpet!”
Alexandra turned red, and spat Latin as she gestured with her wand.
The force of her spell sent streams of vapor billowing away from the ghost. He spun around and began fading, turning ever more insubstantial.
“Call me a hussy or a strumpet again,” she said.
The ghost's horrified expression was the last thing visible before he dissolved into the mist.
Alexandra breathed out heavily, then turned to Payton. His eyes were as wide as the ghost's.
“What the hell was that?” he asked.
“A Banishing Spell,” she said. “Just a lesser one.”
He stared at her. “Where'd you learn a Banishing Spell?”
“We don't learn anything like that.”
“It was kind of extracurricular.”
“You're a little scary sometimes,” he said.
“Hey – kidding.” He leaned in to kiss her again. She received the kiss willingly enough, but she was thinking about the ghost who'd made her lose her temper.
“Payton,” she said, after their lips separated, “I don't want this to be a big deal, okay?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just... remember, we're only fourteen. We're both going to see other people sooner or later. It's not like we're going to grow up and get married.”
“You're already planning our break-up and thinking about who you're going to marry?” Payton sounded amused and hurt at the same time.
“No!” She shook her head and sighed. How could she explain that she was never going to marry anyone?
“Who thinks that far ahead?” He put his arms around her again. She didn't object, and they didn't leave the pier until the mist began to thin and they heard the ghosts returning to their phantom ships on the beach.
Julia repeated Payton's question when Alexandra told her about their conversation on the carriage ride back to the island. Julia wanted to hear all the details about the time the couple had spent on the pier. Alexandra let Julia think that she was reluctant to talk about it in front of Ms. King, but the incident with the ghost and Alexandra's words to Payton made Julia tsk and shake her head.
“Poor boy – what a thing to say! You have all the time in the world, Alexandra.”
Alexandra smiled at her half-sister.
No, she thought. I have seven years.
“All we did was kiss,” Alexandra insisted in Julia's room that night.
“That's all?” Julia was sitting on her bed, while Alexandra sat in front of a full-length three-sided mirror with Nina, one of the Kings' house-elves. Alexandra watched, fascinated in spite of herself, as beneath Nina's fingers her hair fanned, curled, straightened, flattened, braided, and arranged itself in ways Muggle stylists could only dream of. From three different angles, her reflections in Julia's enchanted mirror preened and batted their lashes while Nina worked.
“We were only alone for a few minutes,” Alexandra said. “What did you expect us to do?”
Julia sighed, disappointed. “At least you have a beau.”
“I guess.” Alexandra felt bad for Julia, who was two years older than her and much prettier. But here in Roanoke, being Abraham Thorn's daughter was worse than being a half-blood. There had been few Muggle-borns besides Payton at the Summer Cotillion, and very few boys had asked Julia to dance. No one but Payton had asked Alexandra.
Julia leaned forward and threw her arms around Alexandra's shoulders from behind, causing Nina to step aside and wait patiently. “My dear Alexandra. Why, if I didn't know better, I'd say you're turning into a girl!”
Alexandra gave her sister's reflection a sour look, which the magic mirror translated into a pout. Alexandra rolled her eyes, and her reflection held a hand to her cheek and blushed girlishly. Alexandra started to turn red, and Julia giggled.
Alexandra had let her hair grow a little longer since the last time she'd been to Croatoa, and this summer, Julia had finally talked her into letting Nina pierce her ears. She didn't see what the big deal was about earrings and a hair style, but she did look like a very different girl in the mirror – and she had changed in many more ways that were less visible.
All last year, she had been consumed by grief and denial over the death of Julia's brother – her half-brother – Maximilian. She had thought of little else. Her obsession with trying to bring Maximilian back to life, despite everyone telling her it was impossible, had almost led to her own death.
That she was now doomed herself after having come to terms with her brother's death was a bitter twist of fate. Sometimes she thought she should be more worried that she only had seven years to live. She wondered if something was wrong with her. Wouldn't most people be freaking out with a magical oath hanging over their head like that?
She did think about how to escape it sometimes, though her ideas were rather vague. Maybe it just hadn't sunk in yet. Also, having been so obsessed and single-minded the previous year had almost cost her everything – her friends, her family, even her place in the wizarding world. Her half-sister Valeria still wasn't speaking to her. She didn't want to let a new obsession turn her into a crazy person again. She'd figure out what to do eventually.
She hadn't told anyone else, though. She was sure Julia would freak out. So would her best friend, Anna. And what could they do about it?
“I'd like to visit the Thorn family crypt before I leave,” she said.
Julia raised her eyebrows. “To speak to our ancestors? Or to say good-bye to Max?” Behind them, Nina stood silently, her expression solemn.
Alexandra turned away from the mirror. “I've already said good-bye to Max.”
Julia considered a moment. “Very well. I'll ask Mother.”
“Actually, I was hoping I could go alone.”
Her sister frowned. “I don't think so, Alexandra. Those woods can be dangerous.”
“You're telling me you and Max never in your life went into the woods on your own?”
“Max certainly did.” Julia's mouth twitched. “All right, I suppose I may have gone exploring a few times myself – but never very far! There are giant flytraps and strangle-vines and Dugbogs and Boggarts and Will-o-wisps and other nasty things, and you never know what sort of people may be hiding there as well.”
“The ghosts can lead me to the crypt and back.”
“Why do you want to go alone?”
Alexandra hesitated, then told her the truth: “I think our father will be there.”
Julia's eyes widened. “He's contacted you?”
“No. He hasn't contacted me at all, despite everything that happened...” Alexandra paused. Julia knew some of what had happened at the end of last year – Alexandra's second visit to the Lands Below, ending in the death of Darla Dearborn – but not the full extent of what Alexandra had learned, and what had happened to her. “I have a feeling he's waiting for me. I can't explain it. I just think he'll be there. It's where he used to meet Max.”
And where they planned the mission that got Max killed. She could see that Julia was thinking the same thing. “I need to talk to him again. There's nothing you need to worry about. But it's better for you if you're not there, just in case.”
“Just in case an Inquisitor asks me when was the last time I saw my father, like they do all of us?” Julia's eyebrows were arched now, and her tone was not as soft. “Alexandra, I do believe you're trying to protect me.”
Alexandra didn't say anything.
Julia glanced at Nina, who was watching both girls with concern. Then she touched Alexandra's cheek. “I'll accompany you,” she said, in a firm voice. “We can do it without telling Mother.” Nina twitched. “But I am most certainly not letting you go into those woods by yourself, not even with our family ghosts. It's not as if they could pull you out of quicksand.”
Alexandra twitched at that, but as far as she knew, Valeria had never told Julia about the quicksand incident. She nodded reluctantly. “All right.”
Julia smiled. “It didn't occur to you I might have a thing or two to say to Father as well, did it?”
“No, I guess not,” Alexandra admitted.
Julia patted her cheek, and told the patient house-elf, “I'm sorry, dear Nina, we've quite interrupted all the lovely things you were doing with Alexandra's hair.”
“Is all right, Miss Julia.” Nina stepped back up onto the stool next to Alexandra. “Nina thinks this style is most prettiest –” She wiggled her fingers, and Alexandra's hair curled into tight, neat ringlets falling all about her face. “– but she is afraid Miss Alex will wear her own way as soon as she gets home.”
“It's pretty,” Alexandra said, to placate the elf, while her reflections began pursing their lips and winking again. But she was thinking about Julia's words, and the sudden firmness in her voice. Julia's soft manner could be deceiving – she was still a daughter of Abraham Thorn.
They sneaked out of the house together two nights later. Charlie, Alexandra's raven familiar, sat on her shoulder, and Olina followed at their heels, wringing her hands and looking around nervously. Bringing one of the house-elves along was the only way Alexandra and Julia had been able to persuade them not to tell Ms. King.
The Kings' mansion sat at the top of the highest point on the island, a large hill that overlooked the ocean on one side and dense, swampy woods on the other. The two girls and the house-elf descended toward the wooded side, and as they reached the trees at the bottom of the hill, Alexandra and Julia lit their wands. Above their heads, monkey-like Clabberts scurried from branch to branch, flashing the luminescent red nodules in their foreheads in warning. Charlie cawed, and croaks, hoots, tweets, and less identifiable noises answered from deep in the woods. Julia clung to Alexandra's arm and shivered melodramatically.
“If you're scared, you can turn back,” Alexandra said lightly.
Julia stopped shivering and swatted Alexandra's shoulder. “I'll do no such thing!”
Alexandra's smile faded when she noticed how Olina was trembling. The house-elf wasn't playing at being scared. “You really don't have to follow us, Olina,” she said. “We'll be fine.”
Olina mumbled something inaudible, then said, a bit louder, “Naughty misses needs elveses to keep them out of trouble.”
“How old do we have to be before we don't need supervision?” Alexandra asked.
“Old enough to not be doing foolish things,” Olina said.
Julia laughed and took Olina's hand. The three of them continued deeper into the woods, following a trail that soon vanished. The dark, silent trees hunched over them, hiding the sky, and they often stumbled through mud and vines and dense undergrowth. The lights of Croatoa were far behind them when they came to a stone crypt rising in a small, slightly elevated clearing surrounded by the thickest woods. Mist clung to the ground all around it. Charlie took off from Alexandra's shoulder and cawed loudly, as if to challenge any creatures in the night, though the raven did not venture far, merely lighting atop the entrance to the crypt.
“It is rather spooky, isn't it?” Julia said. “I know ghosts like to be out of the way of mortal traffic, but I think if I were dead and still lingering about on earth, I wouldn't want to live somewhere so dark and dismal.”
A muffled voice drifted out of the darkness. “You, if the fates are kind, will never linger here with us, Julia.” Out of one of the trees ahead of them stepped a ghost with a sword at his hip.
“Hello, Uncle Joshua,” said Julia.
Joshua Thorn had been a handsome young man who died in a Regimental Officer Corps uniform. He tipped his hat to the two girls. “Does your mother know you're here?” To Alexandra, he said sternly, “You promised you would not sneak out here again without Thalia's permission, Great-Grandniece.”
Julia turned to her. “Did you?” She pursed her lips.
A deep, familiar voice said, “Allow me to remonstrate with my daughters, if that is necessary, Great-Uncle.”
Julia's grip tightened on Alexandra's shoulder. Alexandra stared at the shadows by the entrance to the Thorn family crypt as a tall, bearded man in a black cloak stepped out into the small circle of moonlight that reached the clearing. A raven much larger than Charlie sat on his shoulder.
“I'm pleased to see you both, my dears,” said Abraham Thorn.
Behind him, other family ghosts trailed out of the crypt, including the patriarch of the Thorn clan, Absalom Thorn, Alexandra's four-times-great-grandfather. She wondered what her father had been talking about with his ancestors.
Joshua Thorn said, “You're not surprised to see them, Abraham.”
Abraham Thorn smiled. “Olina. How are Nina, Deezie, Rolly, and Gun-Gun?”
Alexandra realized guiltily that she had almost forgotten the house-elf. Olina stuttered: “T-they is well, M-Master T-Thorn, sir.”
“I'm pleased to hear it. I appreciate your seeing to my daughters' safety. I couldn't ask for more conscientious guardians. But you may return to the house, now. Alexandra and Julia will be fine with me.”
“Yes, Master Thorn,” Olina said, and disappeared with a pop.
Abraham Thorn turned back to Alexandra and Julia. “I suppose a hug would be too much to ask for?”
Alexandra and Julia looked at each other. Then Julia slowly walked over to him. He put his arms around her as she leaned against his shoulder. He stroked her hair and murmured something in her ear, and she seemed to relax a little in his embrace.
They spent several moments standing together like that, and then Julia stepped aside and their father looked at Alexandra.
She locked eyes with him as she walked forward, and stopped just out of reach.
“We have things to talk about,” she said.
He paused, and his eyes darted in Julia's direction. Then he nodded. “Yes, we do.” He held out a hand. Alexandra hesitated, and took it.
Time stopped. There was no breeze. There were no sounds from the woods. Julia stood absolutely motionless, Charlie was as still as stone, and even the ghosts were frozen in place.
“We have only a short time,” Abraham Thorn said.
“This must be a pretty powerful spell,” Alexandra said.
“It's a very powerful spell. But if either of us moves more than a few inches, or uses magic that extends beyond our bodies, it will end, so it's not quite as powerful as you might think. Nonetheless, it's very useful. Did you want to speak to me about Time-Stopping, Alexandra?”
She turned her attention back to him. “No. I wanted to speak about the Deathly Regiment.”
“Absalom told me that you've learned the truth about the abominable Regiment.”
“It's why you're trying to overthrow the Confederation, isn't it?” Without waiting for an answer, she said, “Why couldn't you tell me? Why can't you tell everyone?”
“I swore the same oaths everyone else does before being initiated into the dark secret at the heart of the Confederation. Even I can't break an Unbreakable Vow.”
“I didn't swear an oath,” she said. “And I know the truth.”
Her father squeezed her hand, and there was approval in his smile, but the smile became fixed when she said, “They need to be stopped. But not your way.”
“And how would you stop them, Alexandra?”
“Anna's father says there are others like him in the Wizards' Congress who want to end the Deathly Regiment.”
“Geming Chu still believes that you can vote evil out of office. I tried that path, and I was not the first. Do you really think the Wizards' Congress actually controls the Confederation?”
“Who does, then? The Elect?”
“Yes. The old families, the ones with the power, the money, the influence...”
“Families like the Thorns.”
“Once, yes. Our names are registered among the Elect.”
“Not me. I'm a half-blood.”
“You are no less than any of my other daughters, my dear.”
“I want to ask you a question,” Alexandra said, “and I want you to promise to tell me the truth. No matter what.”
“Another boon, Alexandra?”
“I'm your daughter. Do I need a boon to demand the truth from you?”
He fixed his penetrating gaze on her, and she bit her lip and tried not to shiver. She was conscious of seconds ticking by. She had to ask these questions, and she could never ask them in front of Julia.
“What is your question?” he asked.
“When you sent me and Maximilian to the Lands Below, did you know one of us was going to die?”
Abraham Thorn's expression became ice cold. His fingers that were closed around hers now felt like stone – not squeezing her hand, not releasing it, but hard and ungiving.
“You truly believe that of me?” he asked softly.
His countenance was dark and her every instinct was to look away, but she forced herself to meet his gaze without flinching. “I'm asking you.”
He held her gaze a moment longer. She wondered if he would curse her. No, that was unlikely. But she had just asked her father: Did you send your son to die? Did you send me to die? Whatever the answer, she knew the question had cut him to the core.
But she had to know.
“No,” he said, “I did not.”
She should have felt relief. Instead, she came to the wrenching realization that she wasn't sure whether she believed him. And she thought he knew it.
Then the wind stirred Julia's hair, and Absalom Thorn moved toward them, and two ravens cawed alarms. Her father's spell had ended, and someone was hurling a curse from the shadows of the trees.
Abraham Thorn raised his arm and his cloak acted as a shield, though Alexandra didn't hear him cast a spell. A streak of golden fire rebounded off of it and scorched a path through the thick vegetation growing near the crypt. He spoke an incantation aloud, something Alexandra didn't recognize, and the trees from which the attack had come ignited, throwing explosive heat and flames that outlined a dark silhouette for one moment before it vanished.
Julia screamed and ducked; a white bolt of electricity flashed past her and cut through Abraham Thorn's robes as he spun. A soft glimmering outline appeared around him and deflected most of the lightning. Alexandra felt an electrical tingle from its proximity, and then her father stumbled back.
Alexandra moved toward her sister. “Julia, get down!”
A woman appeared out of nowhere and cast another hex at Abraham Thorn. He deflected it and sent it flying back at her, splitting and multiplying in a spray of green and white fireballs. One passed dangerously close to Alexandra's head. She ducked, and then Julia grabbed her and threw them both to the ground. “You get down!” Julia said.
Alexandra raised her head and her wand and said, “Protego!” Then she gasped when she recognized the witch who'd just Apparated out of sight.
Alexandra's Shield Charm covered her and Julia, and their father bellowed, “You dare attack me on my family's burial grounds! You dare endanger my daughters?”
“You, Abraham, claiming to respect the dead?” The witch's voice came from above, as if she were on the roof of the crypt. “Concern for your daughters' welfare? Don't make me laugh!”
“Who is that?” Julia whispered.
“Diana Grimm,” Alexandra whispered back. “Dean Grimm's sister.” Spells flashed back and forth in the night. “Charlie!”
Julia clung to her. “Stay down, Alexandra! Charlie knows to stay out of the way!”
Diana Grimm was Apparating from one location to another, gone before Abraham Thorn could blast her and casting curses from another position.
“What's she doing here?” Alexandra asked.
Julia winced as a hex showered them with mud. “Obviously, trying to arrest Father.”
“No.” Alexandra watched a thick, ancient tree fall after being split in two by a Severing Charm. “She's trying to kill him.”
She felt like she should do something.
“Stay down,” Julia repeated. “All we'll do is get in the way.”
“Don't look for help from your second,” Diana Grimm yelled. “He wasn't as watchful as he should have been.” Her wand flared red and gold and fire blossomed from its tip.
Abraham Thorn dispelled the fireball she threw at him as if he were batting away a moth. “Do you actually believe I need help to deal with you?”
The air was suddenly full of owls – black owls that dove at him in an endless column, hooting and screeching and heedless of the spells he cast that blew them into feathers, which quickly dissipated like smoke. Then he slashed the air with his wand, and giant invisible fingers tore white streaks in the air with a terrible ripping sound. Where they tore, dirt, trees, owls, and the air itself vanished into nothingness.
Diana Grimm Apparated away from the unnatural tears in space, and they disappeared as if they had been illusions. Alexandra blinked away the unsettling blind spots in her vision. Her father cast a Shield Spell to block a triple-forked spear of green lightning.
Alexandra gritted her teeth as the two combatants exchanged curses. There were no signs of either her familiar or her father's; the ghosts were zipping all about, shouting angrily at Diana Grimm, until Grimm pointed her wand at one of them and Cordelia Hallowell disappeared in a cloud of vapor. Then the ghosts fled from the Special Inquisitor. But the distraction kept her from Apparating before Thorn snarled something and raised his fist, and suddenly the earth itself rose up around her.
Diana Grimm only had time to let out one startled cry as mud and dirt embedded with stones and roots wrapped around her. Her face turned red, as if she were being squeezed, hard.
Abraham Thorn said, “This has gone on long enough. This is your end, Diana.” He made a flattening gesture with his hand, and the column of earth sank back into the ground, pulling the witch with it. Alexandra caught a glimpse of the Inquisitor's arm waving in the air, just for an instant, before she was gone.
Julia gasped. Alexandra stared at the ground where Diana Grimm had been standing a moment ago. Then she was on her feet, running to her father before she had time to think. She grabbed his arm and said: “Don't!”
His eyes were alight with terrible, bloody triumph. He seemed almost inhuman when he turned his gaze on her. “What?”
“Let her go,” Alexandra said. “You don't have to kill her.”
“You want me to spare her?” Fury and astonishment mottled his face. “You have already used your boon, Alexandra.”
“I shouldn't need a boon – you're my father!”
He stiffened. Alexandra remembered what she had said – what she had just accused him of – moments ago. But his rage was already dimming.
“Please,” she said, “I've seen enough people die.” She swallowed and glanced over at Julia, who had risen shakily to her feet and was staring at the two of them.
“Julia can't see Thestrals yet,” Alexandra said softly.
Abraham Thorn looked at his other daughter, and back at Alexandra. The hard iron in his expression softened, ever so slightly. He glared at the patch of earth where the Special Inquisitor had been entombed, and lifted his hand.
With a sound like an enormous, hacking cough, the ground belched up a huge clod of earth and stone, in which arms and legs were visible like large, unearthed bugs. Alexandra ran to the disgorged body and found Diana Grimm lying still and unbreathing. Her long black hair was plastered to her head, and her face was covered with mud.
Alexandra knelt to wipe the mud away from the woman's mouth and nose. She jumped when Grimm coughed once, rolled over, and began gasping and spitting up dirt.
Abraham Thorn strode slowly over to them, and studied the two of them with an unreadable expression.
Diana Grimm lifted her head, but she couldn't quite breathe. She made more choking sounds, and her outstretched hand clutched at the dirt.
“You owe Alexandra your life.” Abraham Thorn looked at his daughter. “Be mindful of the things you ask, my child.”
He turned to face Julia, who was standing behind him, pale and shaken. He stepped toward her and reached out a hand. She turned her face away.
He dropped his hand. “I'm sorry, my dear,” he said. “I'm sorry our meetings must be disturbed like this.”
“They always will be,” Julia said, “as long as you're the Enemy of the Confederation.”
He stood still a moment longer, and then Apparated away. Alexandra heard wings flapping in the night.