They’d built a new Vault of Potions after the flood—of course they’d had to, with the thaumatically cursed mess that had become of the old one. Still, it made me twitch and reach for my wand, walking along the familiar tree-lined quad and hearing the faint moans, seeing the rough wall of tan stones closing off the Vault entrance, after twenty years.
The Vault looked like any other academic building, local sandstone carefully smoothed and carven, a bit of ivy growing on it, except for a faint pink glow, and except for the roughly aligned rows on the hurried barrier we’d erected across the entrance that horrible night. They’d since added a low enclosure, easily climbed by students, around the perimeter, but it looked more decorative than foreboding. I wasn’t comfortable with that choice. It made the quad look friendly and welcoming to prospective students and parents, certainly. A casual passerby couldn’t tell that on the other side of the barrier, the steps down into the Vault concealed destructive power that they’d been trying to avoid for twenty years.
I’d handed those very stones to the professors who were standing in the entrance walling up the Vault, me and Ev Minor, shin-deep in the floodwaters with that eerie pink glow from the spilled potions’ ill-fated summonings getting brighter every second. That was the night everything I owned washed away and it was the least of my troubles. That was the night we lost Alden Glasshand, my first-year Incantations professor, and two students whose names I’ll never forget but whose faces I can never remember, pulled under the waters by the vortices that had suddenly surged beneath their feet when the powerful magics in the potions were accidentally combined. That was the night we slept on the top floor of the Library and didn’t know if we’d get down in the morning.
Now the students gave wide berth to the old walled-up Potions Vault for a different reason—two of their fellows were mysteriously dead, found sitting against the Vault wall without a drop of blood or a bruise on them—not a mark to show how they died, except for a faint pink glow that matched the closed-up building, fading in the morning sunlight. A prank, an accident—the university was close-mouthed about the cause, but the moaning stones had suddenly stopped being mysterious fun. I was told that students had quit joking about what the combination of all those old potions had caused, left down there to spark unintended spells and unsought miasmas behind the wall for decades; that the forces inside it were suddenly a cause for silent dread.
My work as an itinerant geomancer gave me theories enough of what it was, how to deal with it. I would have to walk nearer the Vault soon enough: it was the purpose of my return to campus. But not until I’d spoken to my old professors. I could wait a few hours more. Could let myself put it off.
The light spring wind still smelled of rain and hyacinths and wet stones, just as it had then, fresh and sweet and full of life.
My hands were shaking. Twenty years. I ran and threw up in the lavs in the Alchemy building.
After twenty years they still felt like my lavs to throw up in, which made it better, and also worse.
I splashed water on my face and came out to face the task ahead, only to bump squarely into Professor Castellton, looking lined and white-haired and otherwise just the same. “My stars, it’s Ellis, isn’t it?” she said, peering at me through the same copper wire spectacles as she’d always worn. “Right-Reagent Wrong-Time Ellis?”
I managed a sheepish grin, relaxing a little. “No one’s called me that in years, Cazzie. How have you been? You look well.”
“The students aren’t calling me Cazzie, either,” she complained. “It’s all ‘do let me get you a chair, Professor Castellton,’ and ‘I really think that might explode, Professor Castellton.’ Old age wouldn’t be half so exhausting if the young weren’t hells-bent on being nice to one, Ellis. Not like the rude youth of your day.”
“Thank you,” I said dryly.
She peered at me more closely, her deep brown eyes as sharp as ever, though framed by deeper wrinkles. “Back for some kind of reunion, is it? Seeing the old stomping grounds?”
“Something like that.”
“You haven’t felt the need for that in a long age, it’s a wonder you remember us at all. You should have said you’d be here, we’d have got up something nice for departmental tea. I’m afraid now all you’ll get is buttered toast and that evil brew of Jermiah’s.”
“I have a wedge of Wolverton Brown in my pack. We can share it out together with our toast.”
“Oh, good girl,” she said, and though I wouldn’t see forty again, the approval in her voice warmed me more than the hearth fire in the departmental lounge ever had, or would.
In any case, there would be cake with currants, for the aforementioned Jermiah, Professor Harbido, knew I was coming. Though he had told none of the others, it was he who had summoned me—he and the Provost. He wouldn’t be able to pass up an opportunity for cake.
He had also laid up a supply of hawthorn twigs and rowan berries, silver dust and cinnabar and a dozen other ingredients I had listed for him. Jermiah had tried to train me in his image, one of the best technical alchemists of his generation, and the Alchemy Department would always feel like home.
But magic changes those who use it, and the flood had changed me. I had come home a geomancer, and the very stones that had nurtured me through my training needed me now. I understood the nasty forces summoned by the potions that had spilled and mingled and recombined when the flood wrecked the Vault. The assortment of non-magical substances writhing around the waters would be someone else’s job when I was done. First it was time for me to neutralize the threat the potions had summoned.
Well, almost time. We could let ourselves feign normalcy a little longer and fortify ourselves with tea.
Jermiah raised a bushy eyebrow when Castellton brought me into the departmental lounge, but I shook my head minutely, and he didn’t say a word but welcome. Half of the other alchemy professors were new since the flood, skittish and white-knuckled at the ceaseless moaning outside, not... seasoned. Not people with scars and stories from the old days.
Not people we could count on.
They left when the currant cake was eaten, clapping us on the back and saying how nice to meet me. I wanted to think of them the way the university wanted to, part of a great chain of learning and bonhomie, the old school tie and all that, but deep down they were on the other side of a line I hoped they’d never have to cross.
When the lamps in the departmental lounge became not just cozy but necessary, Castellton and the other professors who had been there for the flood took their leave as well. Jermiah and I toasted our toes in front of the fire. After the flood we’d developed a kind of companionable silence when I’d had nowhere to go and he’d needed someone to look after him in his ghast shock. We hadn’t had a chance to indulge it for years. Letting ourselves slip into that past warmth put off the necessary, by a few minutes at least.
All those years ago they’d taken up a collection among the alumni for the students whose rooms were flooded, so I had socks, nightdresses, a mug of my own for when I cleaned my teeth at night, all that sort of thing. None of it had fit quite right. We’d both shivered a lot at odd moments. Neither of us had wanted to talk. I’d read him masses and masses of Shabria’s On the Essence of Organics to pass the time while we healed.
Inasmuch as we ever healed.
“Well,” I said, “where did we leave off in Shabria? Ivy, was it?”
Jermiah snorted. “We can’t put it off that easily, Ellis.”
“Don’t see why not,” I muttered. “Have done it this long. Why can’t someone else—well, why can’t someone else?”
“It’s never ‘someone else,’ I taught you that.”
“No, I know,” I said soberly, and rose to get to it.
He plucked my sleeve. “Wish it was, though. Damned dangerous stuff, this. If the university—”
“If the university hadn’t put it off until tomorrow for twenty years, you wouldn’t have lost those sophomores. So I can at the very least learn from their example.”
“Bolrone and Arorr,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The sophomores. Bolrone was a likely lad, Arorr probably wouldn’t have made more than a village lamplighter. But we’ll never know now. Some of them find it in them. Ah, hells, Ellis, it’s a bad business.”
“It sounds like those kids had the life force sucked from them, Jermiah. Keep a sharp eye out for another vortex. One might open at any time, with the chaos of magics down there.”
He nodded tightly. “Or if not a vortex, who knows what else in that disaster.”
“We should have fixed this years ago. There’s no mess so bad that humans can’t make it worse.”
“What do you think the administration will do when they find out I have to take the stones down to cleanse the magic?”
He shuddered and took a swallow of his ginger beer, which, I knew from experience, burned just as much from ginger as any strong drink ever could. “That’s why we start this minute.”
It was a very strange feeling to be past forty and creeping about my old college quad under cover of darkness with my old college advisor who was bald, had a bad knee, and usually went to bed at half eight. Were it not for the flooded Potions Vault and its hauntings, I think Jermiah would have retired five years since, but he had to see it through, and now the only way he could see to do that was to bring me in. My stomach twisted, that I was his last hope.
I made him go ahead of me, wheezing at every step—it was bad enough to risk the wrath of the university in an entirely necessary good cause, but I could just imagine the Provost bellowing, “What do you mean, you lost Professor Harbido?” We had to scramble over the low wall, Jermiah wheezing. My scalp prickled; I told myself it was only the stray magic and the chill of the evening.
The stones had gone silent. I told myself there was no way they knew we were coming. No matter what magics they shielded, they were still inanimate rock—a fine detail that I could not expect Jermiah to appreciate. He was an alchemist, not a geomancer. But still: the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
Worse than the silence of the stones, almost, was the smell of the spring air. It was wet and green and lush, the pollen of several mildly noxious yellow blossoms on the wind in just the way it had been in the spring when I was an undergraduate, just the way it had been when we were receiving reports daily, by whatever means we could get them, about the river’s upstream rise. A runner from this village, a pigeon from that one, a curiously contrived clockwork moth from the next. All bore the same news: the river was rising faster than they had ever seen.
The professors canceled classes so we could load and stack sandbags. I still remembered the ache of it in my muscles, falling into bed exhausted, waking up and doing it again the next day. I still remembered how it felt to wake up sore and worry that it would not be enough.
It had not been enough.
The middle-aged ache that the chilly spring night was sending into my joints was not the same, not remotely, but it made me want to shiver, it made me want to go throw up again. It made me want to turn back.
But this place was mine, even after all these years, and I wouldn’t give it over to the selfish people who had left it to fester. “The cinnabar first,” I said to Jermiah quietly, and he rummaged in his satchel.
The quad was never quite empty, but the student deaths and the general expectation of moaning meant that people were keeping their distance from the old Potions Vault. We had timed our evening carefully so that the university caretakers wouldn’t be on their rounds—we hoped—if they were on schedule, and in any case if they were, I had the sanction of a well-respected senior professor.
Although he was mostly serving as my assistant.
Each ingredient I needed, Jermiah had for me immediately. He had always been extremely organized; I should have expected his satchel to be packed in exactly the order in which I’d sent him the list. His hands shook a little when the moaning started up again, sounding like someone scraping nails along the stones, but he kept handing me ingredients, pristine, ready.
The stones were cracking like branches in the wind, the moans increasing to a feverish shriek, when Professor Castellton’s voice cut through them from just inside the retaining wall behind us: “This. I should have expected this, but—never from you, Ellis.”
“Always from me,” I called out, and then, “Jermiah, the rowan.” I didn’t turn, just held out my hand. But nothing filled it. I waited. Still nothing.
When I turned, the two of them were clutching potions and glaring at each other, each holding theirs unstoppered and motionless.
“Cazzie,” I said.
“Ellis, the things that are in there—the things that have happened in there, gases, vortexes, the potions mixing without control—”
“That’s the point,” I gritted through my teeth. “You let them mix without control. For decades. You and the entire rest of the administration. It just kept on.”
“It could just keep on!” she said. “Jermiah, I know you loved that boy like a son, but this time was a mistake, a fluke. Every other year it’s taken meaningless town children. We’ll make sure that happens again next year. Just stop all this and I’ll siphon the worst of the energy off. We can go back to the way it’s been.”
Even by moonlight I could see Jermiah’s white teeth against his dark skin, his mouth hanging agape. I didn’t wear my emotions that openly, not any more, but I was just as aghast. He was the one who managed to speak. “Every... other year?”
Castellton saw her mistake immediately, but there was nothing she could say to remedy it.
“Meaningless town children,” I repeated.
“Not children,” she said hastily. “Older than you were that night... that night you helped build this wall, Ellis. Old enough to work, old enough to take their own risks.”
“Not that risk,” I said. “No. Not that one. That risk is ours. We are the sorcerers of this university, we are the ones who made those potions, and we take their risks on our own shoulders. As you well know, Cazzie, as you taught me yourself in Introductory Potions. ‘If you have a spill or unauthorized combination—'”
Jermiah finished it for me: “‘—summon your instructor for assistance in neutralizing the spell. Do not under any circumstances leave spilled potions unattended, as they may be unstable and may harm untrained persons.’ Yes. Yes, that is the introductory section. I’ve taught it myself for years, and so have you, Caz.”
“The resources this will take, Jer,” she pled with him. “It would wreck the entire quad. No one would send their children to a university that had a gaping pit right next to their academic buildings with workers spending years—perhaps an entire decade—clearing it out. And the cost—it would shut down research for who knows how long. The university would be ruined.”
Jermiah’s voice trembled. “It’s lives. You’re telling me that the cost of the university going on as it has... is lives. Not just these two boys, but more. The cleaners?”
Her head bobbed a muted yes in the moonlight.
“Who knew about it?” I asked quietly.
“Just a handful of us. Myself, the new head of the faculty congregation after me, the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor.”
“Not the Provost,” Jermiah was saying slowly, and that made sense; he and the Provost together had hatched the plan to summon me, even though the Provost didn’t know that the wall would come down and force them to deal with the non-magical portion of the fallout.
But I was no longer paying attention. I was staring at Castellton, wondering how this had happened. Wondering how this person who had taught me so much, who had been there in my darkest hours, had become so frightened, so small, so willing to turn her back on what was right before her.
A few months after the flood, when Jermiah was almost recovered from ghast shock, the university was ready to let the students resume normal classes. We’d have reconstructed lodgings, repaired classrooms. All would be as it was—or even, the university suggested, possibly better. They planted fall-blooming flowers so that the sidewalks would be lined with pansy and chrysanthemum, and some well-meaning soul had even placed decorative gourds in bunches outside the library, not knowing how very many uses Fae Studies students could—and would—find for a hard squash.
With Jermiah almost healed, there was less for me to do, and without anyone asking me, I found the task of restoring the departmental lounge to its former glory. The blankets and pillows that the lowest undergrads used to lounge on the rug had been hastily stashed in a corner all summer and smelled musty. No one had replenished the wood for the fire, and the state of the tea cupboard was a horror. I had washed the blankets and hung them to air and was giving the pillows a good thorough beating when I noticed Professor Castellton in the doorway, watching me. I blushed, but she motioned grandly for me to carry on. “It wants doing,” she said. “But none of us really... thought of it. We would have sure enough once classes started and we tried to have departmental tea.”
“I’ve made an inventory of what we need for the tea cupboard, which is basically everything,” I’d told her, and she’d smiled and approved the lot. We were in it together.
I had thought we were in the whole thing together. In making it all work, together. In making the world better, together. But instead we were in being genteel magical ladies together. In the easy road together.
But I was not the student in need of reassurance any more, and my road had diverged a long time ago.
I was younger and faster than either of them. The stones moaned at my back; the stone itself creaked. At any minute the enchanted waters might start leaking out the bottom, unless I could get the basic barrier in place that would win us time to hold the waters back, to do the long work of cleaning up without killing anyone else.
I darted forward and snatched the potion from each of them, then flung each one in a different direction. I couldn’t repeat Castellton’s mistake—I had to keep the potions separated, even not knowing what they would do, what I would hit.
They both gaped at me like shocked undergraduates whose proctors had confiscated their rum.
I snatched the rowan twigs out of Jermiah’s satchel and turned back to the stones, whose mortar was alarmingly crumbly. With one in each hand I tapped them once, twice, and then brought them down hard enough to snap in the cool night air the third time.
As if by a magic far beyond me, the moon half-clouded over, and the rain drizzled down.
The stones’ moaning spiraled up to a tooth-aching keen. My molars vibrated uncomfortably. My arms ached, leaning the broken rowan twigs into the stones. And then I had to jump back, because the entire wall was falling down into the unfathomable darkness that the Potions Vault had become, and then silence and the smell of mold and stagnant water from inside. And the pink glow trickling toward my boots.
I windmilled my arms to keep my footing, but even a few steps behind me the ground had been built up, and the river was no longer in flood. I would leave them no choice.
I leaned forward and thrust the remnants of the rowan twigs into the entrance. I heard an agonized gasp behind me. My boots were soaked to the ankles, and I would probably have to go through three rituals to destroy them safely. I wouldn’t sleep through the night for two weeks from the smell of that water.
But the entranceway’s arch slewed further, like someone had twisted it out of shape with a crowbar. No one would be able to wall up that entranceway again—the arch was not stable. They’d have to build a new arch. Or, I hoped, actually cope with the problem.
Because I remembered that night. I remembered someone running up to the Alchemy building shouting, “The river’s breached the Potions Vault, all hands, all hands!”
And I remembered the boy down the hall from me, broad-shouldered and strong, trained in petromancy, leaping to his feet and heading out the door at a dead run—in the other direction. He had had a choice, between help and safety, and he had chosen safety, and I remember standing frozen for an infinite moment before making the other choice. I still was not sure what it was that had made me choose it.
The university had had a choice for twenty years. And I was not going to let them retreat back into it.
I turned around to face Jermiah in relief, having finally done what he’d brought me home to do. Having proven my old master’s pride in me was justified.
He was lying on the ground.
Castellton crouched over him with a knife.
I staggered back. I felt a fool. Just because she was an alchemist, and an elderly alchemist at that, I had forgotten that the weapons of the mundane world were available to her. If she’d had moments longer, would she have gotten to me as well? He had been there first. He had saved me. “Jermiah,” I whispered.
There was no answer.
“He’s gone,” she said, and her voice was empty, and the pink glow kept lapping at my boots. I took another step toward her.
The professor who had taught me to cast an invisibility charm. The professor who brought Jermiah noodles when he had ghast shock. Always wiser. Always more experienced.
It barely took any of my strength to knock the knife out of her hand. I was in my prime, and she was so old. But so was Jermiah, and he had been as desperate as she was, and had had no knife. And I had been bending the arch so far out of plumb that the administration couldn’t slap a new wall over the problem, and had not seen to protect him.
He was my advisor. He would have wanted to protect me anyway.
Jermiah still had rope in his pack from the rowan twigs I’d asked for. I tied her with it and put her on the wet, pinkened grass with him, gently, too gently for what she deserved.
“This is, this can’t be.” She looked up at me, but all I saw was fear, not regret. “You have to shut it again. We need this university to be what it was for you. We need the students to keep coming, for themselves and for us.”
“Those families need their youths not to be dragged into vortices. Your cleaning staff, your guards, need jobs, not one or two a year, not ‘we hope it’s not a promising sophomore,’ not ‘oh dear it’s one we cared about, but at least only one.'”
“It’s too big for us,” she whispered.
I shook my head. There was no way out of something too big for us but to keep doing the small pieces of it. And see how far we could get. Or die trying.
As Jermiah had died trying.
As Jermiah had not had to die trying.
I sat down on the grass next to her. We had been through so much together, and I wasn’t sure I could make her understand anything, anything at all. I sorted through those memories, decades old, trying to find one that would help. “Do you ever hear from Ev Minor? Know what he’s doing?”
Castellton looked up at me, hope sparking in her eyes that perhaps I would still treat her as my old professor after all, perhaps I would still see her as what she had been. In the thin moonlight through the clouds she looked like what she was, a pathetic and defeated old woman, and not like what she also was, a murderer who had left something rotten festering as long as it only killed people she didn’t value. “I... think he’s, he’s selling perfumes? He wasn’t strong enough to keep working in magic after the floods like you were, Ellis. He was very upset.”
“We all were,” I said quietly. There had been so few of us who understood, and she had shown she was not one of them after all.
But she didn’t know what she didn’t know. She jumped on my words. “Yes, we all wanted to put it behind us.”
“Putting something behind you doesn’t mean ignoring it. It means making sure it can’t hurt you any more. It means making sure it can’t hurt anybody any more.”
Castellton looked up at me, eyes dimming.
“This isn’t going to hurt anybody any more, Cazzie. And neither are you.”
And I waited for the university caretakers to come and bring the Provost, and the rain fell on my face. The pink glow around the broken stones was the same, the smell of water and blood and green growing things and sandstone was the same, but for the first time in twenty years, I could let the knot in my chest when I breathed dissolve into tears.