Chapter 8 — Snakes in the Grass
Alexandra attends her second Mors Mortis Society meeting, and Sue Fox and John Manuelito produce the "Mayan Brazier of Visions." Alexandra is mouthy and skeptical.
I meant for the reader's skepticism to match Alexandra's. A "Mayan Brazier of Visions"? Yeah, right — did the Mayans even have braziers? But clearly there was Dark magic at work here, which was what I wanted to convey. Sue and John might be selling these kids a load of BS, but it wasn't all BS.
And she no longer saw Maximilian. Instead, she saw that wall in the basement, painted with bears or cats, and people and birds. Even as the painted stone wall filled her vision, her skin continued blistering; the pain hadn't lessened at all. She wanted to remove her hand, but then the pictures began moving and she wanted to see this, too, though she didn't know what it meant.
The terrible thing with wings, looking more like some flying monster than a bird, opened its mouth and screamed as it descended from above and carried one of the hapless human figures away. The four-legged beasts chased the other humans, who ran for their lives.
Alexandra blinked away even more tears. Now she could see the room full of students in front of her again, and Maximilian still staring at her, and yet in her mind's eye she could also see the moving cave paintings, and almost hear the shrieking of the bird-monster and the screams of the terrified humans. She also thought she could smell burning flesh, and the pain made her want to scream herself. She knew the vision would end as soon as she withdrew her hand, and she wanted to so badly. Surely she had passed the test by now. But she gulped, even as Maximilian's expression changed from disapproval to what looked like genuine alarm. Then his face faded, and all she could see was the painted rock wall again. The painted figures were fading, the wall was becoming pitch black, as it had during the ceremony downstairs, and suddenly Alexandra felt as if she were down there, standing in front of it, staring into a bottomless void.
Someone was screaming. It was a girl's terrified scream. It was loud at first, but it became fainter and fainter. Alexandra had the sense of someone falling, tumbling, receding somehow into that endless darkness, and she screamed too, and staggered away.
The problem with visions of the future is you have to write them into the story later. That's why prophecies tend to be vague. Not all of Alexandra's vision has come to pass yet...
Then it is Darla's turn.
Darla was pale and trembling as she held her hand over the coals. She flinched and whimpered, then squeezed her eyes shut, enduring the pain for several long seconds, before she opened her eyes wide and backed away. “My sister!” she cried out.
This part, I knew exactly what I intended, though you don't see it until the next book. This, followed by Angelique's abandonment of the MMS, is the point where Darla begins to get dragged down the Dark path.
But then Darla sniffed and rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand, and raised her head to give Alexandra an almost accusing look, as if she had some reason to be angry at her. Alexandra just stared back at her, until Darla looked away
The other significant developments in this chapter are Alexandra learning the Wound Relocating Charm and the Freeze-Frame Spell.
The Wound-Relocating Charm has had several dramatic applications, while the Freeze-Frame Spell was a solution to a plot difficulty, plain and simple: how do all these kids (and Alexandra in particular) sneak around Charmbridge at all hours when I have established that there are magic portraits all over the place reporting on errant students? This problem is one that plagued me throughout the first four books — I've made surveillance at Charmbridge much heavier than at Hogwarts, befitting a more surveillance-heavy American culture. Every story with kids running around having adventures has to address the problem of grown-ups: where are they and why aren't they interfering? I'm not sure I have made all of the things Alexandra's gotten away with believable, since the more she gets away with, the more inept the supposedly-competent Dean Grimm looks, but that Pictogel spell was certainly damn useful for plot purposes.
Max makes another bull-headed attempt to get Alexandra to quit the MMS, and then they meet again to learn about Snakestones. Ironically, Alexandra suggests to Darla that she quit, when Darla gets stuck preparing a Snakestone. Alexandra begins to have an inkling that something is wrong with the MMS, but she has not yet learned to trust her instincts over her impulses, and so this opportunity, one of several times where she might have "saved" Darla, passes by. Which is not Alexandra's fault: she's just a kid herself, and Darla made her own choices. But it's the sort of thing she will remember later, as she is no less prone than anyone else to feeling regret about might-have-beens and if-I-had-only-knowns.
She was bothered by other things, too. Not all the kids who'd come to the first couple of meetings were still coming. Alexandra was having second thoughts herself; now that she was starting to recognize other Mors Mors Society members around school, she was beginning to realize that many of them were antisocial, creepy, or just plain mean. The club seemed to attract disaffected loners, misfits, and a few kids whom Alexandra suspected were genuinely disturbed. She was surprised Larry Albo hadn't been invited; she certainly couldn't imagine that he'd have turned down a chance to learn how to be an even nastier bully.
At age twelve, Alexandra is perceptive but still not very smart. (Intelligent, but not smart.) She notices things and can reason about them, but then fails to work out the correct conclusion - or if she does, fails to act on it. In other words, she's a pretty typical twelve-year-old. But she's already beginning to swim in adult waters, which is why this is the book where in many respects, her childhood ends.
This was an important chapter for establishing many of the things that follow, in this book and in the series. I never did like the title of the chapter, though — I just couldn't think of a better one.