Chapter 9 — Halloween
I had to spend some time thinking about dueling for this chapter: how would it work, how can I balance the skill vs. raw power aspects of spellcasting, while not making it just a form of gunfighting with wands? And how can I not make it look like a battle of character sheets? (Incidentally, I do not have "character sheets" for any of my characters, nor any kind of numerical ratings for them. I hate it when it's obvious that an author is doing that — Brandon Sanderson, I am looking at you.)
This is an area where there is little canon and much fanon. After all, there were very few "duels" in the Harry Potter books, though there were several magical "brawls."
Generally, I have decided that some spells are faster to cast, some are more difficult, and some require more concentration and/or skill. But I tend to view spellcasting as more akin to martial arts than gunfighting. This is not surprising, since I have a black belt, but I am not a very good shooter. (I had to sell most of my guns a few years ago, and since then I hardly ever get to the range.)
If you are in an unarmed fight, you might know, for example, eight different ways to block and counter a punch. So why not learn one technique really, really well and use that move all the time?
Because there are subtle differences that will make the motions required for one move slightly better or worse depending on the angle at which someone is attacking you, your relative height, the distance between you when you see the punch coming, etc. There isn't any single "killer move" that is always best for any given situation. If there was, yes, martial artists would just study that one move and try to be better than everyone else at it.
So, I see spells kind of the same way. I've seen HP fans wonder, for example, why the Death Eaters bothered with hexes and other curses — why didn't they just use the Killing Curse all the time, since it's unblockable and always fatal? My interpretation is that besides being difficult to cast, it also takes a lot of concentration and isn't very fast. In other words, if you're dueling another wizard who knows what you're trying to do, he's going to nail you with something else before you can get off that "Avada Kedavra."
I have also made the assumption that the force with which a spell can be cast is a function of both skill and natural power — in other words, there is such a thing as "magical strength," though whether this is an innate quality or something that can be developed (or both), I've left as an open question. So sixth graders aren't expected to be able to do much more than sting each other with Stunning Charms. Alexandra, while maybe not the most skillful duelist yet, has plenty of raw power, and so is able to cast spells at a level that approaches what an adult might accomplish. As long as they don't require much more than brute force.
“Stupefy!” she shouted, pointing her wand at Darla.
“Avada Kedavra!” shouted Darla.
Alexandra barely registered the chorus of gasps rising from the crowd. She didn't see a spell come out of her opponent's wand, and Darla was knocked flat on her back by the red beam that came out of Alexandra's. As Alexandra stood up, she looked around in confusion at the shocked expressions on everyone's faces.
Ms. Shirtliffe jumped between the two girls and barked, “Accio wand!” Darla's wand flew into her hand, while Ms. Grimm stepped up onto the platform and grabbed Alexandra's shoulder.
“Are you all right?” the Dean demanded, staring at her.
“I'm fine,” Alexandra stammered, becoming more unnerved by the second. “What's wrong?”
Ms. Grimm continued staring at her for a moment, with an unreadable expression, and then let go of her. She turned to Ms. Shirtliffe, who was now standing over Darla.
“You actually knocked her out,” the JROC commander said, in a very flat tone.
Darla's spell didn't work because Darla isn't powerful enough yet. And — maybe — at this point she really didn't have the murderous intent.
Alexandra, on the other hand, knocked Darla out cold, which as Ms. Shirtliffe's reaction indicates, is about as common as a seventh grader literally punching out another seventh grader in a boxing match. It can happen, but you don't see it very often.
After the aborted dueling competition, Alexandra sneaks away to the Mors Mortis Society, where the next step in their initiation is to face a Wild Boggart.
So, how does a Boggart scare you when you know it's not real? I figured, from their appearances in the books, that there has to be supernatural element to the fear they generate — that is, it affects your lizard-brain directly. So contrary to Alexandra's confident assumptions, even facing one fully prepared, you can't just rationalize the fear away any more than you can just decide not to be bombed after putting down a fifth of gin.
Alexandra's Boggart, of course, is her secret fear that no one loves her and she will cause nothing but harm. I was stretching canon a wee bit with the "Wild Boggart" that is immune to Riddikulus Charms and which can appear in multiple guises to the same person, and talk (or appear to talk) to its victim. None of this necessarily requires the Boggart itself to be intelligent, though, if its power is simply to turn the victim's mind on itself.
Before the boys could reply, they all heard a shout, back the way they'd come.
They looked back, and saw a flash of green light. This was followed by a burst of light in the sky that bathed them all in an eerie emerald glow, and sent flickering green shadows across Charmbridge's lawns. The academy itself glowed as if illuminated by the light of a sickly green moon.
In the sky above them, a gigantic green skull looked down mockingly on the school. A fiery green snake slithered out of its mouth, moving slowly, like an animated fireworks display.
“That's creepy,” Alexandra remarked. It also looked vaguely familiar, though she couldn't recall where she'd seen it before.
Arguably, this was a gratuitous and out of place HP reference. It's one of two or three places in the entire AQ series so far where I explicitly refer to events from the original books.
Dark Marks have little significance in America, where Voldemort never had any influence. But since the Death Eaters were allegorical Nazis, I figure a Dark Mark is like a swastika — something American kids all know is "evil" without really having much understanding of its historical significance. Thus a perfect symbol for a bunch of wannabes to use to agitate the grown-ups.
Of course, John Manuelito and Sue Fox aren't playing, but Alexandra doesn't know that yet.
“Well, I caught a glimpse of Tomo's Boggart when she was coming out,” Stuart whispered, just before they reached the stairs. Already, they could hear kids pouring into the hallways, on all floors.
“So?” Alexandra demanded.
“So,” Stuart answered somberly. “Her Boggart looked like you.”
Tomo is eleven. She's living away from home for the first time. She arrives at this strange school and immediately makes an enemy of an older girl. And her enemy's best friend, the daughter of a fearsome Dark Wizard, threatened to turn her inside out.
Alexandra actually can be pretty scary; we never see that very clearly because we are usually seeing her through her own eyes or the eyes of her friends.