The next morning, a momentary hush fell over the room when Alexandra entered the dining commons for breakfast. She sat down at an unoccupied table and waited for the Clockwork golems she saw serving food. She wanted to yell at the other students to stare at someone else. But it wasn’t like this was the first time she’d been in this situation. Always the Dark sorceress, the daughter of the Enemy, the —
“Hey, Quick.” Larry took a seat on the other side of the table. Ethan and Wade sat down on either side of him. “Heard you started the dueling event early last night.”
“What. Do. You. Want?” Alexandra was in no mood for Larry and his insults.
“Merlin, you’re touchy.” Larry held up his hands. “Just thought I’d share a meal with a former classmate from Charmbridge. So, where have you been going to school lately?”
“Is it true you were in wizard prison?” asked Wade.
Alexandra found she wasn’t even angered by their baiting. She just wanted them to go away.
A cheerful Louisiana drawl interrupted them. “Good morning, Alexandra.” Angelique sat down next to her. She seemed to notice Larry for the first time. “Oh, hello… what’s your name again?”
Larry smirked. “You know who I am, Devereaux. So, you two…” He pointed a finger at Angelique, then Alexandra. He wiggled it back and forth suggestively.
“Us two what?” Alexandra said.
“Are you a couple?” Larry asked.
“What?” exclaimed Alexandra and Angelique together.
“Well, I heard you came running to her rescue last night,” Larry said.
“I always assumed Quick’s squeeze was that little Chinese roommate of hers,” said Ethan.
Larry shrugged. “I guess if Chu’s not around…”
“You are such obnoxious trolls,” Alexandra said.
“Hey, I don’t judge,” Larry said. “I mean, I think Devereaux could do better, but —”
“You’re an ungentlemanly heathen, Larry Albo,” said Angelique. “And Alexandra and I are not… not like that!”
“I don’t know, that didn’t sound very convincing,” said Wade.
“You can’t blame her for wanting to keep it a secret,” said Ethan. Larry and his friends laughed, while Angelique fumed. A Clockwork set down a dish piled high with eggs and bacon, and the boys started shoveling them onto their plates.
Alexandra looked at Angelique. “They’re just trying to provoke us. Maybe he thinks if I lose my temper and attack him, I’ll get disqualified.”
“Listen to her, talking about attacking people,” said Wade.
“Sounds kind of like a dangerous felon to me,” said Ethan.
“Yeah.” Larry took a sip of pumpkin juice, eyeing Alexandra, as her eyes involuntarily went to the silver fingers holding his glass. “You think you can get through the Decathlon without maiming anyone, Quick?”
This barb landed more deeply than any of Larry’s other taunts. Alexandra just glowered at him as she tried to finish her breakfast.
Across the cafeteria, Harriet and her friends sat with a crowd of New Amsterdam students. Alexandra ignored their glares.
She saw adults for the first time that morning when a group entered the dining commons. A tall, gray-bearded wizard in pale yellow robes cleared his throat. Conversations came to a halt as everyone turned their attention to him.
With a magically amplified voice, he said, “Good morning, students of New Amsterdam, and to our guests from out of town. I am Professor Haster, the Dean of Students here at the New Amsterdam Academy for Witches and Wizards. I trust you’re all looking forward to an exciting first day, as the Junior Wizarding Decathlon will start in just under two hours.”
At this, everyone in the dining room burst into cheers and applause. It took a good several minutes for the students to subside, after Professor Haster, smiling behind his beard, raised a hand to make a shushing gesture.
“Excellent, excellent enthusiasm. And I know it will be an exciting series of events, with seventeen Champions from around the Confederation. As you know, the Junior Wizarding Decathlon is not a public event — generally there are only a few spectators from each institution invited to watch, though there will be a Worldwide Wizarding Wireless broadcaster reporting on each event, describing key moments throughout each day of competition.”
At this, he indicated a young wizard wearing a Muggle-style suit and a bowler hat with a slip of paper tucked into the hatband.
Alexandra started as she realized that he was the reporter who’d been present at her appeal hearing the previous summer in the Central Territory Headquarters Building.
Professor Haster continued: “This year, for the first time, the Confederation News Network will be broadcasting not just daily summaries, but the actual sounds and sights of the event, reported by Archibald Mudd!”
The CNN reporter reached his hands into the pockets of his robes and withdrew a small gold sphere in one hand, and a much larger dull ocher one in the other. He tossed the gold sphere into the air, and a pair of rapidly fluttering wings emerged from it and held it aloft.
“It’s the latest innovation by our partners from the Worldwide Wizarding Wireless network,” the journalist said. “A News Snitch. When it’s activated, I can have anything it hears broadcast directly thanks to the charms in this set.” He held up what appeared to be an antique crystal radio set. “Of course it will only be used during the most interesting challenges. The other device —” he held up the larger ocher ball “— is an Eye-Spy.” As he spoke, an iris dilated in the surface of the orb, revealing a pupil that began rolling around the hemisphere facing the students. “Accompanied by the Snitch, we hope to capture some exciting moments to broadcast directly to the spectators back home, at least those who’ve purchased a new crystal Wizarding Wireless viewer from our friends at Potgieter’s Wizard Widgets!”
Archibald Mudd went on for some time, sounding rather like an advertisement. Alexandra eyed the Snitch and Eye-Spy suspiciously.
Professor Haster spoke at last, when the journalist was done promoting himself and his widgets.
“We are also honored to have a very distinguished guest judge this year. The Governor-General himself will not only be observing the event, but he will be a member of our panel. Furthermore, as you know, the Academy has a shortage of event space, due to the despicable attacks on our institution two years ago.” He didn’t look at Alexandra, but she felt other eyes on her, and kept her own face impassive and her gaze locked on Professor Haster. He went on: “Therefore, Governor-General Hucksteen has generously offered to host the Junior Wizarding Decathlon Ball at the Governor-General’s mansion!”
There were gasps and exclamations of surprise, and then clapping, which swelled and grew louder as more and more students applauded, apparently realizing they were supposed to. Even Angelique joined in.
Alexandra alone sat quietly in her seat, saying nothing and keeping her fists curled on the table.
The first event was held on top of a building near the park where New Amsterdam Academy was currently headquartered. The roof was old orange brick, and mostly flat and featureless except where chimneys, vents, and a few stairwell doors emerged. Once this rooftop had probably towered over the streets below, but now it was a tiny parcel surrounded by immense Muggle skyscrapers.
The seventeen champions did not represent every Territory and Culture in the Confederation. There were no Plymouth Traditionalists, and no Voudons. Alexandra saw a Traveller in garish, colorful robes that looked more like a cyclone of sashes, and a New Reformed Druid, and a Majokai wizard. She saw no Indian wizards, though there was one girl with long black braids who looked like an Eskimo, wrapped in furs thick enough to face a blizzard.
Alexandra was probably the youngest one here. Everyone else looked a year or two older. The Roanoke champion from the Blacksburg Magery Institute wore a Witch-Sergeant First Class’s uniform. Angelique had pointed out the Louisiana Territory champion, a tall, stick-thin young man with ebony skin and eyes so dark they almost seemed pupilless, and told Alexandra he was also a former Baleswood student.
The Alta California champion was a Radicalist from the Sedona School for the Mystically Inclined. A long-haired blond boy in a tie-dyed shirt and bandanna, he also wore a skirt, and at first Alexandra thought he was a girl. He reminded her a little of Mr. Journey, so she immediately mistrusted him, despite his cheerful smile.
Aside from the Sedona and BMI students, the Traveller, and the Eskimo witch in furs, everyone wore robes, even Alexandra. Her dress-like robes were a concession to her role as Ozarker champion. She stood between a boy in flat brown and yellow robes from Texarcana, and the New England champion, a Salem Traditionalist whose black robes and tall pointed hat would have made her the very model of a witch posing in a Muggle Halloween shop.
On the edge of the rooftop were seventeen dark gray humanoid figures, all motionless and seemingly lifeless. The champions stared at them, trying to guess what it meant for their Arithmancy challenge. Suddenly there was a series of loud popping noises and a rush of air as the judges Apparated onto the roof.
Alexandra was stone-faced as Governor-General Hucksteen took his place before the other judges. A large, red-faced man with a beard that reached down to his enormous belly, he wore a satin waistcoat over velvet trousers, a frilly cuffed shirt with lace at the neck and collars, and a tall hat with a gold buckle on it. It had been several years since Alexandra had seen him. Unlike her, he didn’t seem to have aged at all. He still smiled with a forced geniality that never reached his eyes, and made Alexandra think of a Santa Claus who stole children instead of bringing them gifts.
There were eight other judges, for a panel of nine. One wizard was nearly as fat as Governor-General Hucksteen, and a head taller, but his beard was bushy and black and lit wicks or fuses were braided into it, smoking and giving off a not-unpleasant odor. The other judges gave him disapproving scowls. There was an Asian man in a shimmering golden kimono, at the sight of whom the Majokai champion bowed deeply. Another judge wore a Regimental Officer Corps uniform.
Distracted by the arrivals, and trying not to meet anyone’s eyes, Alexandra realized that Governor-General Hucksteen had been speaking for a while. He wound up his speech with, “… I look forward to presenting the Gringott Grail to the winner of the Junior Wizarding Decathlon!”
Everyone on the roof applauded politely, Alexandra excepted.
She had no doubt Hucksteen was aware of her presence, but so far he’d taken no outward notice of her. The judges all went to sit at seats they conjured out of the air, and Professor Haster faced the Champions and explained their first challenge, “Shimon Says.”
“The golems you see lined up on the roof have each been inscribed with incomplete Arithmantic equations,” Professor Haster said. “Your challenge is very simple. When the symbols on your golem activate, you must complete the illuminated equation. Complete the equation correctly, and your golem will take a step forward. Each time you make a mistake, the golem will take a step backward. As you can see, they start out rather close to the edge, so you don’t have much margin for error. The equations will become harder, so make mistakes later if you must make them. Your score will be based on how quickly you move your golem past the row of judges, marked by a line on the bricks.” He pointed with his wand to where the judges were sitting, and a glowing line appeared, running from about a foot past the Governor-General’s chair to the opposite edge of the roof.
What if we just levitate our golem over the line? Alexandra wondered. She looked around, and saw thoughtful expressions on the faces of the other champions. She was pretty sure some of them were having similar thoughts.
As if reading their minds, Professor Haster added, “You may not move your golem by any means other than as I have described.”
“It’s just an Arithmancy quiz,” Alexandra muttered. “We’re using silly props for an Arithmancy contest.” She didn’t realize until the boy from Sedona turned to look at her that she’d said it out loud.
“Well, it wouldn’t be any fun if we were just solving formulas on parchment, right?” the Alta California champion said. “The whole point of competing is to be awesome, right?”
“I guess.” Alexandra didn’t return his smile. She really didn’t like how friendly he was, and how much he reminded her of Mr. Journey.
“Champions, stand before your golems,” said Professor Haster.
Everyone walked over to stand before one of the silent gray figures. They appeared to be made of clay, and were almost featureless. Their heads sat like elongated cannonballs on broad, flat shoulders, with only faint indentations to suggest eyes and mouths. Their hands were wide and roughly shaped, with thick, stubby fingers. Alexandra guessed that not a lot of craftsmanship had been put into their Artificing. Why bother for a single use in a competition that might see some of them walking backward off a rooftop?
“Champions… ready… begin!”
Alexandra’s golem abruptly came to life — or rather, it unslumped slightly, and three sigils glowed on its chest. Alexandra recognized them immediately as three of the four prime factors used for all advanced Arithmantic proofs. Quickly, she traced the fourth prime on the golem’s chest with her hickory wand. The four-symbol equation glowed briefly, and her golem stepped forward. She glanced right and left, even as more symbols appeared on her golem. Everyone else’s golems were moving forward as well.
Arithmancy had never been Alexandra’s best subject. Anna was better at it by far. But Lucilla and Drucilla had made her keep up her studies, and shown her applications of Arithmantic equations she’d never grasped at Charmbridge. So when the next set of symbols lit up on the golem’s chest, it only took her a few moments to work out the missing sign that completed a formula for balancing somatic and vocal spell components. She wrote the sigil with her wand, and her golem stepped forward again.
She solved the third equation, but more slowly. She could see in her peripheral vision that she was already falling behind a couple of her competitors, but at least she wasn’t the last — the Majokai champion seemed to be deliberating too long over his third equation, and the girl in furs kept raising her wand and lowering it uncertainly.
A fourth equation appeared. Alexandra completed it, and readied herself for the next one, deciding she would spend less time overthinking whether she was right. Solving her equations faster and hoping she didn’t screw one up was the only way she was going to catch up to the Sedona and Baleswood champions, and Larry, all of whom were a step or three ahead of her now.
She heard a cry of dismay from the girl in furs as her golem stepped backward. It was now a step from the edge of the roof.
Alexandra’s fifth equation was far more complicated, and included a radical she’d never learned to solve. She was sure she’d seen it before, but… With a mental shrug, she took her best guess. At worst, she’d be another step behind. This probably wasn’t going to be her best event.
The sigil she traced on the golem glowed red, then faded. Not the right one. Alexandra frowned and waited for the golem to step back.
Instead, it reached forward with far greater speed than its previous clumsy steps, and its two massive hands closed around Alexandra’s neck. She didn’t have time to make a sound. It squeezed, and her eyes bulged.
She felt the life being choked out of her. She had no idea if anyone had noticed her predicament, but she knew immediately that she had only seconds before this thing strangled her unconscious, possibly to death. If she could have spoken, she’d have used a Blasting Charm or something on the golem, but she had neither the proficiency nor the clear-headedness to throw a non-verbal charm strong enough to make it release her.
She knew little about golems. They were precursors to Clockworks. Not used much in the modern wizarding world. Didn’t they usually have some kind of built-in shut-down charm in case they malfunctioned? That was supposed to be the great improvement of Clockworks, besides being shinier and faster and sleeker — they didn’t occasionally go rogue and try to kill you. Although Alexandra had her own experiences with that…
She almost closed her eyes, but she knew if she closed them she’d never open them again. Shut-down mechanism. Something to turn it off. It responded to Arithmantic equations etched on its surface… With her vision rapidly narrowing to a dark tunnel spotted with flashes of red and yellow at the edges, so she could just barely focus on the formless face of the golem, Alexandra raised her wand and wrote the Arithmantic null symbol.
The golem stopped squeezing. It stopped moving altogether. It did not release her, however, so Alexandra hung limply in its grip until Professor Haster and two more New Amsterdam faculty members, accompanied by a couple of the judges, ran up to her. Someone cast a spell that forced the golem’s fingers open. Alexandra almost fell to the bricks, but managed to stay on her feet, barely.
“What did you do?” demanded Professor Haster.
“Made a mistake?” Alexandra said. “I thought it was supposed to just step back, not try to kill you!”
As if to validate her, someone shouted, and a second later, there was a distant thud as something plummeted off the roof of the orange brick building. The girl with the long black braids stood at the edge of the building, looking disconsolately down at the street below.
Alexandra was unsurprised when they tried to blame her.
“You must have tampered with the golem somehow,” Professor Haster said. This, even after they had examined her wand and cast a Reverse Incantation to verify what spells she’d cast.
“How could I have done that?” Alexandra asked. Her neck felt bruised, but she didn’t touch it. “You all saw what happened. Did anyone else’s golem attack them when they made a mistake?”
Only the girl from the north had actually lost her golem over the edge. Most of the others had made at least one mistake before getting their golems over the finish line, but only the Alta California and Louisiana champions had completed every equation without error.
Governor-General Hucksteen approached with the insincere smile Alexandra remembered from her interview with him, years ago.
During their first encounter, in Dean Grimm’s office, Alexandra had been twelve, and new to Charmbridge Academy and the wizarding world. She had done her best to appear meek and easily intimidated, because Dean Grimm had told her not to appear too bright or too willful to the Governor-General.
But that was years ago, and too much had happened since then. Alexandra suspected that Hucksteen had never been fooled by her act. He had marked her as the daughter of his greatest enemy from the very beginning, and she more than half-suspected that he himself had cursed the golem to attack her, or he’d had someone else do it. She kept her expression neutral, but when she met his eyes, she poured insolence and spite into her unblinking stare.
“Well, Miss Quick,” he said. “It seems you managed to introduce a little unauthorized Dark magic into the event, hmm?”
“I did not,” Alexandra said, and then, because she was technically the Ozarker Champion and he was a judge: “Sir.”
Governor-General Hucksteen raised his eyebrows. “The golem surely didn’t act that way of its own accord.”
“Maybe someone’s trying to kill me,” she said. “Sir.”
He smiled. “I suppose that’s possible. I imagine there could be people who might want to kill you.”
“I cannot find any signs of tampering, by Miss Quick or anyone else,” said Professor Haster. “The judges will need to confer to decide how to adjudicate this most unusual situation.”
The other champions waited, separated from Alexandra by a few yards and a much greater gulf that she could sense by the way Harriet Isingrim stood among them as peers, and she did not. Harriet’s glare was pure hatred, but Alexandra detected no guilt or disappointment there. If Harriet was responsible for sabotaging Alexandra’s golem, she wasn’t showing it.
Larry stared at her, arms folded.
Archibald Mudd was speaking excitedly into his crystal radio widget. Alexandra heard him describing a “golem’s murderous rampage” and “Dark sorcery at the heart of an elite institution.” She frowned. What was he talking about?
After some heated discussion among the judges which Alexandra couldn’t quite overhear, Professor Haster returned, flanked by the other judges. Alexandra waited for them to tell her she was being disqualified and kicked off the grounds.
“Golems are known for being somewhat unreliable,” Professor Haster said. “But it’s been half a century since the last attempted murder by a golem. We cannot detect any proof of tampering, so we can only conclude that this was a freak accident.”
Sure, Alexandra thought, glancing at Governor-General Hucksteen, who didn’t look like he was happy with the outcome of the judges’ conference. It was just a coincidence that my golem tried to kill me.
“The decision of the judges is that your score for this event will be the event average,” Professor Haster said. “This is based on the precedent set in 1943 when Lyndon Batterswool was prevented from finishing his Divination event when a fight in the spectator stands resulted in a stray hex blasting his teacup to smithereens.” He addressed the CNN reporter, apparently speaking to a larger audience than the assembled champions. “That, incidentally, is when the Junior Wizarding Decathlon stopped being an open spectator event.”
It was better than what Alexandra had expected. She saw from the expressions of the other competitors that some of them didn’t think this was fair.
Well, she thought, what made them think this was going to be a fair contest?
For the next event, they took everyone inside. The interior of the building looked more like an old apartment building than a school, but they passed several open doors that contained what looked like classrooms, so Alexandra assumed this was another building that had been temporarily taken over by New Amsterdam Academy.
They were led to a large room on the ground floor, where heavy stone tables had racks of Alchemical materials and glassware lined up on them. There was also what Alexandra recognized as an Alchemical storage closet much like the one Mr. Grue kept in his classroom at Charmbridge Academy.
“Welcome to ‘Drink If You Dare.’ For the Alchemical competition, you will be brewing potions,” Professor Haster said to the seventeen champions. They were squeezed along the wall nearest the door, while the judges filed in and took seats at a long table opposite them. Mr. Mudd stood in a corner where he could view the entire room. Alexandra was forced to stand between Larry Albo and the Radicalist from Sedona. She folded her arms to keep from rubbing shoulders with either of them.
“As the name of this challenge suggests, you are allowed to drink the potions you brew,” Professor Haster said. “Some of them may be helpful.” He winked. “You’ll be given a list of potions you must complete, in exactly the order listed. You will be scored on both speed and the puissance of your potions. But there is also a negotiation aspect in this competition.”
Everyone glanced uneasily at their rivals.
“You all have mostly the same supplies,” Professor Haster went on. “But each of you is missing a few of the ingredients you need. You can trade ingredients with each other, or be as generous or as stingy as you like. You will lose points for each ingredient you acquire from another champion, and conversely, you will gain points for each ingredient you lend or give to someone else. It’s up to you to decide whether helping someone complete one of their potions is worth the points you’ll gain by helping them.”
Alexandra frowned. Great — at least two of her competitors wouldn’t lend her water if she were on fire. She’d just have to hope she could get by without anything in Larry or Harriet’s supplies.
They went to their tables, on each of which was a small scroll tied with a slender gold thread.
“On my mark,” Professor Haster said, “you may open your scroll and begin. And…. go!”
Alexandra opened her scroll and looked at the list of potions to complete. Gleefully, she realized that she recognized all of them. And most she had learned to brew, either at Charmbridge or with Lucilla and Drucilla. The two she hadn’t, however — well, she was pretty sure she knew how they were supposed to be made.
The first was a simple tincture for treating skin blemishes, and the second was gnome-killing poison. Very nasty stuff, but easy to make, and certainly nothing anyone would drink. Alexandra was looking ahead at all of the requirements for each of the dozen potions, trying to organize her tools, the two cauldrons they’d been given, and the ingredients, and working out the fastest way to finish each and begin the next. Naturally, they hadn’t chosen any potions that took a long time to brew.
Some of the competitors were already hurrying across the room to mutter to one another. Archibald Mudd wasn’t saying anything at the moment — Alexandra imagined this competition probably wouldn’t be very exciting to report on.
She had Meloncholia and a Fire Protection Potion both in preparation, and was lowering the flames beneath her Draught of Peace, just before adding the hellebore syrup, when the girl in furs who’d lost her golem in the Arithmancy challenge approached her. She’d pushed her hood back, revealing an angular face with high cheekbones and a prominent forehead. Her face was marked with scars that stretched across her cheeks to just beneath her eyes. If her expression hadn’t been so sullen, she would have appeared quite fierce.
She didn’t quite meet Alexandra’s eyes as she asked, “Do you have pixie wings?”
Alexandra didn’t want to be interrupted in her brewing, as she knew getting one stir wrong with the Draught of Peace would require her to start over. She pushed a jar across her table to the other girl.
The Eskimo witch seemed surprised. “Just like that? You don’t want anything in return?”
“I want you to stop bothering me,” Alexandra said.
Her rival stared at her a moment, then shook out some of the pixie wings into a small silver cup and walked back to her bench. She wasn’t hurrying nearly enough, Alexandra thought.
She was almost finished with the Draught of Peace when she encountered her first missing ingredient. Amortentia needed crushed pearls, and she had none. She rummaged through all the other gem ingredients on her table, then gritted her teeth and surveyed the room, trying to decide who she could ask. Her obvious first choice was the girl from the north, to whom she had lent pixie wings. She walked over to her.
The other witch was struggling with her third potion. Alexandra could see she was quite far behind the other competitors.
“You’re adding too much nettle,” she said.
The girl looked up at her balefully, but said nothing.
Alexandra, glancing at her rack of gems and metals, saw crushed pearls. “I need some crushed pearls,” she said.
She was already reaching for it when the other girl said, “No.”
Alexandra stopped. She stared at the scarred girl, who was trying to water down her potion to make up for the excess of nettles.
“Seriously?” she said. “Look, I’m sorry if I was rude before, but —”
“I can’t help you.” The other witch dropped a dusting of arrowroot into her cauldron, and finally looked Alexandra in the eye. “I’m so far behind, and you’re so far ahead. If this competition weren’t important to me, I would help you. I’m sorry.”
Alexandra shook her head and walked over the next bench.
“Don’t even ask,” said the Roanoke champion in her BMI uniform. She was firing up a tiny eye-drop beaker for the difficult and delicate Universal Solvent.
“Hey, chickee, you need help, right?”
Alexandra turned around. The Radicalist Sedona student grinned at her. He was also in the midst of his Amortentia potion.
“Chickee?” Alexandra wondered if all Radicalists gave girls silly names.
“Heh, it’s just a term of endearment, right? Thule over there, she’s not too endearing, is she?”
“My name. Isn’t. Thule,” said the girl in furs, without turning around.
Alexandra said, “I need some crushed pearls, rooster.”
Several of the other champions looked up at that. She heard the BMI witch snicker. The judges were watching them.
The young man from Alta California just grinned wider. He tossed Alexandra his jar.
“The name’s Magnificent,” he said.
“Magnificent,” Alexandra repeated.
“Magnificent Blaze.” He held his wand over his head, twirled it, then tossed it into his other hand, and with a theatrical flourish, began swirling his potion the required seven times. “Better get back to your own love potion, chickee — hate to see a good amore go to waste!”
Alexandra hurried back to her table. She finished her Amortentia, and breathed in the swirling steam that rose from it. It smelled like fallen leaves and cold breeze and something faintly burning. It wasn’t at all what she imagined, but she found herself inhaling deeply, thinking of late autumn at Charmbridge and… Her eyes snapped open. She could easily waste the rest of her time entranced by her own potion! She looked around to see if anyone else had fallen under the spell of an Amortentia potion. They all appeared busy.
She had three potions to go. She itemized everything she needed, identified several more missing ingredients, and went around the room to barter for them. Avoiding Magnificent, Larry, Harriet, the BMI champion, and the girl Magnificent had called “Thule,” Alexandra was able to trade what she needed with the Palatine boy from Hudson Territory, the Majokai champion, and the former Baleswood student.
This also gave her added information. She was ahead of most of her competitors, but the Louisiana and Roanoke champions, as well as Larry, Harriet, and Magnificent, were already brewing their next to last potions.
She still had to create a Hasten potion, followed by Balm of the Mind, followed by Bottled Sunlight. All very difficult; Bottled Sunlight would probably take almost as long as all the preceding potions put together, with its long list of ingredients and its very precise measurements. Here Alexandra saw what must have been the opportunity Professor Haster had hinted at: the Hasten potion! If she brewed it correctly, she’d be able to Hasten herself…
She glanced at the students who were ahead of her. Would they all do the same thing? How much did they want to win? Would drinking a Hasten potion really take a year off their lives? As she wondered this, she saw Albert-Louis, the champion from Louisiana, tasting his Hasten brew. At his table, Larry was already moving in jerky, accelerated fashion. Of course they would.
Did they all know the Heartsploder version? Alexandra searched for wolfsbane in her supplies, and found it. It would make her Hasten potion five times as potent, which would give her extra points for puissance, but without an antidote, it would Hasten her to death.
The antidote was fairly simple. Alexandra sorted quickly through her jars and bottles and found Calabar beans, charcoal, and sea salt. A grim smile crept across her face. Had the designers of this competition intended to dare the champions to challenge themselves in this way? Of course they had.
Alexandra finished the Heartsploder, and saw the judges watching her carefully, as was the CNN reporter. The judges, at least, must have known what she was up to. Alexandra held up the potion to Mr. Mudd’s Eye-Spy, as if for a toast, and downed half of it, leaving enough for the judges to evaluate.
Her blood roared through her veins, making her temperature rise and giving her an instant headache. That was one of the side-effects she’d read about, but she’d underestimated just how terrible it would be as her arteries throbbed under the sudden pressure of a heart sped up fivefold. But everyone else seemed to become very slow, and she assembled the ingredients and preparation for the Balm of the Mind, the Bottled Sunlight, and the antidote to the Heartsploder in mere moments. She couldn’t actually make potions brew faster, of course, but she’d reduced her preparation and transition time to almost nothing.
“…a… daaaaaangeeerrrous… tuurrrrrrn…” Mudd was saying to his audience. His voice sounded like a far-away drawl. He was probably criticizing Alexandra and her risky gambit, but she didn’t care. She cleaned up everything she’d used to make the Heartsploder with lightning speed from the perspective of everyone else in the room. Everyone else seemed so slow! Even the Louisiana and Alta California champions, who were slightly less slow — Alexandra could see they’d taken their own Hasten potions, but their speed was not nearly as accelerated as hers.
Or Larry’s. She stared across the room at him, and realized he was moving at the same speed as her.
He held up his own Heartsploder to her, in a mocking imitation of the toast she’d given the Eye-Spy earlier. He was almost done with his final potion.
Alexandra glowered at him, but contented herself with the knowledge that at least she’d beaten everyone else. Not bad for someone who almost failed basic Alchemy in sixth grade.
She finished her Bottled Sunlight, holding it up to let its brilliance illuminate the room, just a minute after Larry had done the same thing. Then she picked up the mug in which she’d ground up the antidote to the Heartsploder, and choked down its contents.
She waited, then ingested some more antidote. But her heart still pounded in her chest, faster and faster. She was sweating, and her head felt like it was on fire. She ran through the ingredients and double-checked the Heartsploder antidote, but she was sure she’d done everything right. She looked wildly around. Some of the other champions were finishing their Bottled Sunlight, while half probably would never even get that far. But the judges had figured out her predicament. Was there a slight smile on Governor-General Hucksteen’s lips? Everyone else looked concerned, but she suspected they would not intervene in time, if at all.
She moved across the room in a blur of speed, until she was facing Larry.
“I need your antidote,” she said.
“I’ll… bet… you… do,” he said. He was already slowing down. She could see sweat on his brow, matting his dark, curly hair to his head.
“I think my ingredients were sabotaged,” she said.
Larry raised an eyebrow. “Of… course… you… do.” As the effects of his Heartsploder wore off, his voice became slower and slower.
Alexandra shook her head. To Larry, she was probably a jittery blur.
“Fine, maybe I made a mistake if thinking that makes you happy,” she said. “I need your antidote.”
It took long, agonizing moments for Larry to smile. “Say… pretty… pretty… please.”
“Please,” Alexandra said, through clenched teeth.
“No. I … want … to … hear … you … beg,” he said.
Alexandra just stood before him, with her heart thudding so loud it must have been audible across the room. Red mist formed around the edges of her vision. She felt like her pulse was racing so fast she couldn’t even breathe.
Larry’s smile faded in slow motion. “You… crazy… brat. I… said… beg!”
Alexandra shook her head. It was just a flicker to someone not Hastened. “No.”
Larry’s lips peeled back until he showed his teeth in a grimace. He shoved a mortar at her. She snatched it out of his hands and poured its contents into her mouth, not even wondering if he might have given her something other than the antidote. But it tasted almost like hers.
By the time the judges reached her, she was moving at nearly normal speed. She gulped air. Her head felt as if Harriet and her friends had kicked it around a bit in the girls’ bathroom, and her robes were damp with sweat. Her hair stuck to the sides of her face.
“That was an extremely dangerous stunt you attempted,” Professor Haster said. “It’s fortunate for you that Mr. Albo had a properly prepared antidote.”
“Yeah… fortunate,” Alexandra said.
Governor-General Hucksteen’s face was blank. While Professor Haster calculated their scores, noting the additional bonus Larry had received for giving Alexandra his antidote, and her matching penalty, Archibald Mudd said, “… in a reckless act of suicidal desperation that would have resulted in tragedy if not for the heroic intervention of Central Territory champion Larry Albo!”
Larry did not look triumphant. He just stared at Alexandra and shook his head.