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Alexandra Quick and the World Away

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For the sixth challenge, they were brought to an arboretum in the middle of New Amsterdam. Alexandra was expecting a greenhouse-sized space, like in the central courtyard of Charmbridge Academy, but it was a small park, hidden from Muggles like so much of New Amsterdam.

They walked past a garden of exotic orchids tended by small winged figures. Alexandra had never seen faeries before, and didn’t know they were trainable.

At the center of the arboretum was an immense tree whose trunk appeared to be made of iron. The leaves were silvery-gray and metallic. Many were half-buried in the ground around it like small knives. Professor Haster cautioned everyone not to stand beneath the Ironwood without casting a Shield Charm over their heads. Instead, they all gathered by a small pond next to it, which was populated by very colorful but mundane-looking carp.

Professor Haster said, “We are honored to have Professor Aaronson, a Professor Emeritus and former Confederation Wizarding Decathlon Champion, acting as head judge for the Transfigurations challenge. He will explain the ‘Ancient Forms’ challenge to you.”

He stepped back, allowing a very old wizard to hobble forward.

Professor Aaronson wore robes so faded they were of an indeterminate color, matching the wide-brimmed hat that almost concealed his face in its shade. The pointed top of his hat had long since slumped over in a fraying heap. The professor’s beard reached past his waist, and he leaned against a tall, gnarled wooden staff. Despite his aged appearance, Alexandra got the same feeling from him that she’d felt around the Grannies; it would be foolish to regard him as a doddering old man.

Professor Aaronson spoke in a surprisingly deep and resonant voice. “Long ago… before the rise in popularity of charms, and all their flash and spectacle, wizards knew the power of transfiguration. Instead of flinging jinxes and hexes at each other like ill-tempered brownies, we settled matters of honor with a contest of transformations… and rhymes. Wizards were not merely wand-wielding prestidigitators; we were scholars and poets. This was the way wizards dueled in ancient times. Today, we will bring back that ancient form.”

He planted his staff in the ground, and instantly it became an enormous cobra, head raised to the professor’s height, hood spread, hissing. Everyone in the front ranks stepped backward involuntarily.

Professor Aaronson laughed softly, and spoke in a low, rhythmic cadence.

Step away and know defeat,
Give no ground,
Plant your feet.

The grass at his feet turned to glass pebbles in a perfect circle around him.

Face your foe, and use the air,
The earth, the water,
All that’s there.

The cobra made a slight clatter as its coils twisted over the transformed pebbly ground.

First to move is first to lose,
And the rules: you may not use
Charms or hexes, jinxes, curses.

The light itself dimmed around him.

Only Transfigurations with your verses.

The cobra struck, lashing through the air directly at Magnificent. The Radicalist raised his wand and cast a Shield Charm. The snake bounced off it, straight and rigid, and Professor Aaronson caught his staff.

Professor Aaronson said, “That would have cost you points.”

“I didn’t want to hurt your snake, right?” said Magnificent.

Professor Aaronson had already turned his back.

“You’ll each be matched randomly with two other opponents,” Professor Haster said. “You will be scored on the skill, sophistication, and creativity of your Transfigurations, especially when enhanced by verse, but any magic aside from Transfigurations will cost you points. The contest ends when one of you steps or is forced outside your circle, which will cost the loser a full point.”

Not a traditional wizard-duel, Alexandra thought. But it would give them all a chance to size each other up before the final dueling event.

Their circles were placed around the great Ironwood tree in the center of the arboretum. The Eye-Spy and the Snitch zipped about; Alexandra watched them warily. She stood in her circle, with her back to the pond, and felt a sense of inevitability when Larry was her first opponent.

Five yards apart, with only grass and stones at their feet, Larry and Alexandra raised their wands in the customary duelists’ salute, even though this wasn’t a wizard-duel of the sort they were used to. Larry looked as cocky and confident as always.

Well, she thought, she might not be a poet, but she could rhyme.

Braggart, blaggard, bigot, bully,
We’ve traded curses, verses, and worse,
Time to go down hard, fast, and fully,
Time for you to lose to my wizard verse.

Alexandra made the grass at Larry’s feet grow rapidly and wrap around his legs, crawling up his body. Larry scoffed and flicked his wand. The grass blew away as dust.

Troublesome’s boring, Troublesome’s trite,
Troublesome’s spells are how sixth-graders fight.

Tentacles rose out of the ground around Alexandra and wrapped around her body.

“That’s a Tentacle Curse!” Alexandra protested. “And terrible verse!”

“It is not,” Larry said. “It’s a proper Transfiguration. Grass to flesh, and flesh into motion, out of your league, just like that potion.

Alexandra transformed the tentacles to rope, and the rope to straw, which she easily snapped by flexing her arms. Larry shook his head.

“You are out of your league,” he said. “That took you two Transfigurations to — ow!”

A giant butterfly with metal wings slammed into the back of his head. Several more came at him, all transformed from the Ironwood leaves embedded in the ground behind him. Their flapping wings blew back his hair and cloak, before he transformed them into actual butterflies and sent them streaming at Alexandra in a brilliant, colorful cloud of orange and blue.

“Very pretty,” Alexandra said, slow-clapping in mock applause. “Not like your crap verse.”

The butterflies swarming around her fell on her as a forest of hairy legs. She was suddenly covered in spiders the size of her hand, crawling through her hair, on her neck, up and down her body, into the folds of her robes. Several put their legs into her mouth before she clamped her eyes and lips shut.

She ignored the spiders, though it wasn’t easy — the sensation of many legs scurrying over her body was definitely unsettling. But she didn’t act aggressively, and none of them bit her. She concentrated on the stones she could still visualize on the ground at Larry’s feet, and heard him yell and curse.

She transformed the spiders to falling leaves, and opened her eyes. Larry was shaking silver ball bearings out of his robes, but he looked furious. Some of the giant stinging ants she’d created had bitten him before he transformed them.

“You’ve gotten sneakier,” Larry said.

“Thank you,” Alexandra replied.

“It wasn’t a compliment.” The ball bearings turned to little metal spiders with enormously long, spindly legs, scurrying across the ground toward her.

She scoffed. “Again with the spiders, you’re such a dull boy,
You think you can scare me with these little toys?
I’ll scream like a girl and then run away?
Have your spiders back, transfigured my way.

Alexandra melted the spiders into puddles of mercury, and sent the mercury sloshing back toward him.

“And you called my verse crap,” Larry said.

She was working on a transfiguration back to living matter — going directly from liquid metal to animal should be worth a lot of points, she thought — when darkness closed around her. She was yanked off her feet and found herself enveloped in something slick, wet, and smelly. She was being smothered.

She couldn’t visualize what it was that had engulfed her. With no other choice, she Apparated back to the dueling circle.

“Match to Lawrence Albo,” said one of the judges, who was standing a few yards away. Alexandra heard a smattering of applause. Her robes were damp and she smelled like the bottom of a fish tank. She turned around, where the ripples in the pond behind her had not yet subsided.

Larry smiled. “Since you like attacks from behind.”

While she glowered, he said:

I’m not a poet, no rhymes to rehearse,
I’m sure your mother’s proud of your doggerel verse.
Call me dull, ‘cause you’re so clever, always full of ruses.
Troublesome brags, but Troublesome loses.

He offered her another mocking salute as he walked on to his next match. Professor Aaronson nodded his head slightly and made a gesture at his fellow judges, indicating tepid approval.

Alexandra gritted her teeth angrily. Then cursed under her breath as her next opponent stepped into the circle Larry had just vacated. It was Harriet Isingrim.

“That was marvelous,” Harriet said. “Dirty little witch, sneaky like a fly, almost swallowed by a fish, why-ever won’t you die?

The pebbles bounced around Alexandra, higher and higher, growing in size, until she was being pelted with rocks the size of her fist. She began exploding them with bursting transformations into popcorn, which soon piled around the ground to ankle height, while wondering how Harriet’s verse had not only transformed the stones but animated them. But Harriet was already weaving her wand back and forth and chanting again.

Fire and water, oily and black, for this bastard daughter he’ll never take back.

“What?” Alexandra exclaimed, and then water sloshed all around her feet. She turned her head to see that it had overflowed the banks of the pond to flood across the grass to her, just before she smelled the scent of oil.

With a roar, it ignited. Harriet had turned water into oil and somehow transformed the air into an accelerant to ignite it. But Alexandra, registering Harriet’s words, immediately transformed the fire to flickering blue flames of cold.

“Nice rhymes,” Alexandra said. “I can do that.” She smiled and her eyes were like fire.

Three little witches, brave as can be,
All the courage in the world, when it’s one to three.
But when the fight’s a fair one, they all leave on their knees.
Now you’ve got no friends, you bitch,
Now it’s you and me.

The air around Harriet boiled and turned blue, and as Harriet choked on the acrid fumes, smokey fingers materialized out of the miasma and clamped around her neck.

“You want Dark,” Alexandra said, “I can go Dark.”

Only then did she look up and see Mr. Mudd’s Eye-Spy hovering directly above her, staring with its unblinking dilated pupil.

Well, she thought, I can’t wait to see the headline for this one.

Harriet snarled as the smoke dissipated into mist.

We all know that blood is true,
But why did he abandon you?
Not like your sisters, who have names and more,
Maybe your mother
Was just some random whore.

A whirring sound was Alexandra’s only warning before a swarm of metallic wasps came hurtling at her. Harriet had used the Ironwood leaves, just like Alexandra had to attack Larry, but Harriet’s animated creations were far deadlier — fast, with impaling proboscises and knife-like wings, they zoomed at her with lethal speed.

Neither of their verses were enhancing their transfigurations now; they were just taunting each other. Maybe that was how these duels usually ended, with jarring rhymes and couplets meant to insult and provoke?

Alexandra turned the wasps into jelly doughnuts, the only inspiration that came to mind. They smacked wetly into her, splattering sticky syrup everywhere. She doubted she’d get a lot of points on creativity for that.

She probably wouldn’t get many points for this, either, but she was angry.

You made this about our paters,
I don’t care about his name.
You’re just another petty hater,
I didn’t ask for all this fame.
But since you went there…
I can smile while you sneer,
My old man may be Dark and wanted,
But that’s not the reason you’re so haunted.
Your dad’s just a flattened smear.

Alexandra smiled cruelly at the raging transformation that twisted Harriet’s features, but the moment of dark, vicious satisfaction was followed by just a teeny bit of guilt. That was definitely not what Magnificent would call “righteous.” Alexandra would hear about it from Anna later, she was certain.

But she started it, with the goading and the —

Alexandra had been readying another transformation — something like grass into spears, stabbing upward to impale Harriet. But she hesitated, still holding back even though Harriet wasn’t. Then she realized that Harriet’s transformation was literal, and it was still ongoing. The blonde witch’s face extended, her nose became a long, snarling snout, and her lips peeled back. Her grimace turned into a slavering fanged mouth as she fell onto all fours. Just before she released her wand from a hand that had turned into a hairy, clawed paw, her robes whipped away from her body.

“Wow,” Alexandra said. She gestured with her wand, performing a different transformation instead. Dark green tufts sprouted from the grass around her pebble circle.

Harriet Isingrim crouched, and then leaped at Alexandra, covering the distance between their circles in an instant.

Alexandra almost sprang the spear-trap on her. The hesitation nearly cost her her life, as the wolf that Harriet had become fell on her and tried to clamp its jaws around her throat.

Alexandra turned the collar of her robe into iron instead, and Harriet’s teeth clamped onto hard metal. The weight of the wolf slammed Alexandra to the ground, but she managed to keep her feet planted, bent at the knees, so she was still within her circle when the wolf landed on top of her. She felt the wolf’s feet clawing at her, tearing her robes and scratching her legs.

A dozen charms could have blasted the wolf off of her. Alexandra heard no one running to her rescue. Were they just going to let the contest continue with one of the champions trying to kill the other one? Harriet’s teeth were still clamped around her neck, and the wolf was growling madly, shaking its head and worrying Alexandra like a rag doll, as it tried to bite through the metal armor Alexandra had formed around her throat.

Alexandra’s head fell on the grass as the wolf released her and reared back, growling. Its jaws opened. Alexandra kicked hard, and the wolf made a startled grunt and rolled away from her, then immediately growled in fury and pounced back onto her.

Alexandra pressed the popcorn still lying on the ground around them into her ears. This sight must have seemed so strange that, even as a wolf, Harriet paused and cocked her head quizzically.

While Alexandra grabbed at the grass just beyond the pebbles, Harriet opened her jaws and lunged at Alexandra’s face. Alexandra managed to get her other arm in the way, but wasn’t fast enough to turn her sleeve into metal this time. The wolf’s jaws clamped down, and Alexandra screamed in pain as hot blood spurted over her face and chest.

She didn’t hear her own scream, however, as she had already transformed the popcorn into wax. Nor did she hear the scream of the ugly little thing she’d pulled out of the ground. But Harriet did. The wolf’s eyes went wide, showing whites, and then it fell over.

Alexandra immediately slammed the squirming thing in her hand onto the ground, throwing up a shower of pebbles, and then she pointed her wand and cast another transfiguration. It became a blackened, slimy carrot.

Alexandra lay back on the pebbles, covered with slime, drool, jelly, something fishy, and her own blood, and nearly blacked out as people finally — finally — came running over. She didn’t hear their footsteps, or their voices, but she saw Professor Haster and Richard Raspire both leaning over her. Professor Aaronson was there too, and the Majokai judge, so maybe they wouldn’t just kill her. She closed her eyes, pressed her good hand over her torn forearm, and waited for whatever would happen next.

“You created a Mandrake, and used it to try to kill your opponent,” the Majokai judge said.

“Actually, I uncreated it to keep from killing her,” Alexandra said. She had been allowed to sit on a stone wall at the edge of the pond while a Healer applied salves and bandages to her badly torn forearm. Alexandra kept casting a glance back at the calm waters of the pond, even though she saw only orange and white carp swimming there now.

“It was still a dangerous piece of Dark magic,” Governor-General Hucksteen said. All the judges had gathered, now that the other matches had finished.

Professor Haster cleared his throat. “With respect, Governor-General, Mandrakes are not formally classified as Dark creatures. While it’s true they are used in many Dark Arts recipes and conjurations, Miss Quick did not, technically, violate any rules.”

“And Harriet Isingrim did,” said Professor Aaronson. “A pity. These two witches produced some of the better verses, amateurish though they were.”

Harriet sat some distance away, surrounded by New Amsterdam faculty. She glared at Alexandra and wiped blood from her mouth with a handkerchief.

“Yes, well, Miss Isingrim must unfortunately be eliminated. Attempting to outright murder another competitor is grounds for disqualification, and sadly, that means New Amsterdam no longer has a champion in this Junior Wizarding Decathlon.”

The Eye-Spy and Snitch both hovered right over Archibald Mudd’s head, so Alexandra suspected Professor Haster’s announcement was made for the audience’s benefit more than anything else.

“A shame,” Professor Haster went on. “Becoming an Animorphmagus, at such a young age, shows that she is clearly one of the most talented witches of her generation.”

This was almost more than Alexandra could stand. She had been vilified and set up from the beginning, and now that covert murder attempts had become open murder attempts, her would-be murderer was the one getting praised? She raised her voice over Professor Haster’s and said, “She still lost.”

All of the judges glared at her so sternly that Alexandra might have flinched, if she weren’t already wincing in pain from nearly having her arm bitten off.

“I enjoyed your contest, Miss Quick,” said Professor Aaronson. “Your cants showed a proper appreciation for classical form, though your rhymes did meander into doggerel verse. For your age, it was impressive improvisation. A little vulgar, though.”

“It was vicious taunting,” said Governor-General Hucksteen. His glare would have struck Alexandra dead on the spot if the Evil Eye were real. “She mocked Miss Isingrim’s dead father, slain by the Enemy!”

Alexandra said, “With all due respect, Governor-General, I’m sure you missed the part before that, where she called my mother a whore.”

“Ah.” Hucksteen smiled unsmilingly. “So your excuse is ‘she started it.’ And because of that, you degraded this contest with an exchange of juvenile barbs and insults. You must have thought you were back at Charmbridge, where evidently this sort of behavior was mollycoddled, and not competing in a national wizards’ challenge representing the Ozarkers as their champion.”

“Certainly, neither witch displayed much dignity or sportsmanship,” Professor Haster said. “However, we cannot disqualify Miss Quick, nor retract Miss Isingrim’s disqualification.” He paused. “And that was some inspired transfiguration.”