Chapter 27: The Reverse
It seemed almost unreal to be out in a balmy summer evening, swallows skimming over the fields and birdsong from the forbidden forest. Our spells were working again, as we found when Poppy began healing our cuts.
Pomona had retrieved her wedge of the Foundation stone from the mess of broken glass at the base of the wall. It seemed none the worse for wear. And strangely enough, as seen from the outside, Hogwarts seemed peaceful also. Well, perhaps it had always seemed that way, to those who didn't know it.
The illusion was shattered as we rounded the corner of the castle and came in view of the lake. The shallows at the far end were teeming and roiling with every form of life the lake held, all wanting to be as far from the Source as possible. I didn't blame them. A long tentacle of the squid broke the surface and moved lazily in the sunlight before submerging again.
I glanced at my little part of the Source. "Filius," I said. The water was choppy and churning. It wasn't happy.
"Yes, well…" Filius answered. I supposed he didn't have any more idea than I did.
When we came in view of the greenhouses, Hagrid caught sight of us at once. "All righ' then?" he boomed, starting towards us up the slope. Bulstrode was leaning against the greenhouse wall, arms folded, looking very put out that Hogwarts hadn't the decency to fall in on itself. She might get her destruction yet. The further we got from the castle and the Source, the more restless the water became. We crowded in through the door to greenhouse four, Poppy reassuring Hagrid, Bulstrode glaring at everyone's backs.
I put my jar on the potting bench next to my ingredients. The surface of the water was a dark slate grey. There were waves and whitecaps. It looked like a tempest at sea that had sunk a hundred ships and would happily sink a hundred more. And by Frazier's first principle, no doubt the pool was just as bad. I didn't like to think what the Source room would be like at the moment.
Filius put his jar next to mine. His little scrap of cloth lay resting peacefully on the bottom. "Minerva, Pomona, put yours here too, maybe we can calm it," he said. Pomona's rock sat there like a lump and Minerva's taper burned clear and steady. The water raged. I sighed. Slytherin always had to be trouble.
How on earth was I going to brew with that? I stared at the waves. They were almost hypnotic. Pomona's hand gripped my shoulder and I turned with a start.
"You need to stabilize that," she said.
"I need to step out," I said, heading for the door. Pomona might get her bargain sooner than she thought.
"What –" Minerva began.
"I'll be back," I said as I left.
I skirted the lake carefully, out of tentacle reach. There was no telling how panicked the residents of the lake were by now. By the time I got to the service gate, the evening light was painting the castle in the distance with a rosy glow. I needed to hurry.
Once I got past the wards, I apparated to my point just outside my back gate at the End. It wouldn't hurt to pick up a bit of brewing equipment while I was here. The brewing was going to be difficult enough; I may as well give myself every advantage I could.
I let myself in through the wards at the back and headed for the cellar. The rickety wood steps creaked in all the familiar places as I descended. My Lumos threw the brewing bench and my equipment racks into sharp relief. My mother used to brew there once. I would sit on the steps and watch. And Dad… he had sat there too sometimes. Before everything went to hell.
To my surprise, looking at the cellar filled me with a sort of queasy sorrow. It had been so long since this place had been any kind of shelter to me. But why on earth was I thinking of that now? I had no time for this. I shoved my set of knives, a spare cauldron, a dropper, and my good scales in my bag and headed out the back.
I walked the five blocks up to the slick pub, but didn't bother going in; I went straight around to the pay phone on the side. What day was it? Saturday? Dick would probably be in the lab in Brazil. I hoped so, it would make things a bit quicker. I picked up the receiver. The phone let out a complaining steady tone. I fumbled in my pockets for change. One of my protean notes was moving. I pulled it out. It was Shacklebolt.
Thank you very much for your help recovering the remains. I know the cost to you was high, and I can't overstate how important this has been for the families of the dead.
But goddamn it, Snape, would you please do us all a favor and stop wandering around outside of wards? And especially not visiting your old house. You are most definitely a target; you might not go out of your way to make yourself an easy one. I will happily get you back to a safehouse, or a portkey home, or to anywhere you please.
And you call me an adrenaline junkie.
No doubt he had been alerted by the Ministry wards on my house. I stacked my coins on the top of the phone and got out my pencil stub.
Yes, mother, I wrote across the note and shoved it back in my pocket.
I fed in more coins than last time. Valeria, the receptionist, came on the line, announcing the lab in Portuguese.
"Is Douter Stoltz available?"
"Oh, Dr. Ramson," she said, switching to English, "Yes I can get him. And how are you? We haven't seen you in so long!"
"Valeria, Dr. Stoltz please, it's –"
"Oh, yes, yes, keep your pants on." Who had taught her that phrase? There was a click as she transferred the line. She must have been practicing her English with Grossman.
"Cyril!" Dick's bluff voice came on the line. "Good, good, I was hoping to hear from you soon. Not too much on the variants, I'm afraid. Benji says there was an interesting interaction in number 12c, but it's not exactly what we're looking for –"
The phone's recorded voice came on the line and asked for more money. I fed in coins. Dick's voice came back on.
"Cyril, are you at that pay phone again? Are you all right? I can call you… listen, I saw in the papers in Arkham that you came forward –"
"Dick, I'm all right, but I don't have time to get into that. Right now, I have the repeating element –"
"I have it, Dick, but I need to stabilize it immediately. I need some of those metamorphoses we use in the delay process, and I need Zosimos' stasis ring."
"Well, if I ship them by albatross –"
"No, Dick. Immediately. Today. I need you to bring them."
"But Cyril, I have a student defending their thesis, and a trustee meeting this afternoon…"
"Call in sick."
Dick gave a short laugh. "Didn't you tell me about a student you caught malingering to get out of one of your classes? You had him gut flobberworms until he threw up."
"Call in sick and we can arrange the punishment later."
"Look, Cyril, I can send them express, they should be to you by tomorrow."
"No, Dick, I'm serious, we need them today."
"I just don't think…"
"Dick, I… I need your help."
There was silence on the other end of the line. "Is it like that?"
"Yes," I said.
"Right…" he said, planning aloud. "I can take the vanishing cabinet to Arkham, apparate to Boston, and get a portkey from there. Where am I going?"
"To the school, but you can't portkey directly, the wards won't allow it. Get a portkey to the Hogsmeade station, I'll send someone to meet you and bring you in." That would cost him; even legitimate international portkeys were expensive. Well, he could take it out of my salary.
"I'd better get started, then."
"And I need…"
"Did Zosimos ever manage to distill that symbol of stability that he was after?"
Dick laughed. "Don't worry, I won't tell him you asked for it. I'll be there as quickly as I can."
I found a kebab shop on the way back to my apparition point and picked up some food. No use trying to brew all night on an empty stomach. I apparated through a few points up to a secluded spot just outside of Hogsmeade at the edge of the forest. From there, I could see down to the main gates. There were a few figures milling there, perhaps the reporters that Minerva had driven off. I disillusioned myself and took the long way around, skirting the back of the Hog's Head to the service gate. None of them had found that yet, thank god.
I crossed through the wards quickly then made my way along the edge of the forest to the greenhouses. The shadows were settling in now along with the evening chorus of birds and insects.
The atmosphere inside the greenhouse was not so peaceful. Minerva had been pacing. "Where on earth have you been, Severus? You've been gone more than an hour and the water has not been getting any better."
I could see Filius over by the potting bench, watching the elements carefully.
"I've been getting some equipment. And there are still a few pieces to be delivered shortly."
Minerva didn't look satisfied.
"Bulstrode," I said. She came around the bench where Poppy, Pomona, and Hagrid milled in an anxious clump. "Dr. Stoltz will be arriving by portkey in Hogsmeade station shortly with some equipment. Get him up here without getting spotted by the reporters at the gates, understand?"
She was nodding, but Pomona had overhead and was storming over. "Dr. Stoltz is coming here? Now?" Her voice careened up an octave. "I'll go down and meet him."
I could see it wouldn't be any use arguing with her. "Bulstrode, take Pomona, but you are in charge of tactics and evasion." Pomona couldn't sneak her way out of an empty room, and Bulstrode would enjoy being the one giving the orders. She nodded her head, satisfied, and headed for the door, Pomona fairly running along.
I began setting up a brewing station on a separate bench. If the jar of water or my potion went pear-shaped, I didn't want to cause a chain-reaction.
As I began to prep my ingredients and lay them out in brewing order, I felt a chill as the last sunlight left the brewing table. Surely it wasn't night already? I looked up; the trees at the edge of the Forbidden Forest were cutting off the sunlight. Hadn't they been further away from the greenhouse when I arrived?
"Minerva, Filius," I called, "is the forest getting closer?"
Filius looked up sharply from the elements and out at the encroaching trees. They didn't seem to be actively moving towards us.
"They may be," said Filius cautiously.
"Yeah, they've been movin' in all evenin'. Started while yeh were still in the castle," Hagrid said cheerfully.
I bent back to my work. The sooner I could brew the better.
By the time they arrived I had all my prep work done and the trees were definitely closer. They never moved while I was looking, but each time I glanced up from my cutting board, they were nearer. Whatever we had done to the Source, it had affected more than just the castle. Was it some sort of attack? Somehow it felt more defensive, like it was drawing its own time back in around itself, back to when it could wear the forest like an enfolding cloak.
Pomona came sweeping into the greenhouse first, brimming with excitement, and announced what we'd all been watching. "The forest is walking in! Incredible! Dr. Stoltz is very keen to examine it, he has he's never seen anything like it!"
"Fine, Pomona. Where is he? I'll need his equipment –"
I was interrupted by his entry along with Bulstrode. He was helping her pull a grasping vine off the hem of her robes. She gave it a fatal stomp. Dick made a regretful noise. "Ah, well." He caught sight of me and came over with his hand out. "Cyril!"
I made a short chopping motion with my hand.
"Ah… Severus! So good to see you. It's been… so many years."
I sighed and shook his hand. Dick was one of the worst liars I had ever met. "Dick, you remember my colleagues –" he made as if to go and pass more handshakes all around. I caught his sleeve before he had a chance. "- but we have an urgent situation, so if you have the equipment…"
"Yes, of course." He set a leather case on the table. Inside was Zosimos' modified stasis ring, a metal circlet about half a meter across, with a control knob on the side. Filius was coming over to see.
"And the other?" I asked.
"I didn't tell Zosimos a thing," he said as he pulled out a small paper bag. Inside was a single pink gumball. Of all the…
"What on earth is that?" asked Filius.
"A distilled symbol of stability," said Dick.
"A gumball?" said Minerva, who had joined us as well.
"Ah, the inventor describes it as 'a simple joy of childhood with a glue-like consistency.' It may also be a symbol of superficial contentment; he hasn't quite narrowed it down, they are very similar," Dick explained.
Well Slytherin could never be content with anything, so perhaps a dose of that wouldn't hurt.
"How are you going to put them to use, Severus?" Dick said.
"We have an element we need to stabilize." On the other bench, the water was still roiling angrily.
"Ah, I see." He looked at the jar doubtfully.
"Perhaps if we keep all of the elements together," Pomona said.
We moved them as close together as possible and slipped the ring over the top to rest on the bench. Minerva had the rest stand back as I activated the ring. Happily I had long practice using the stasis ring controls from when I was developing the delay process. I turned the knob carefully, slowing by degrees until the water was moving like treacle on a cold day.
"Dick, I'll need to reach in to give it the symbol and extract some for my potion. If anything goes wrong, I'll need you to turn off the ring, so I can pull out, yes?"
"Yes." He put his hand on the dial. "Ready"
I picked up the gumball and a dropper.
Reaching into the stasis felt like reaching into the pool, cool and remote. I felt a wave of aching tension pass across my hands. I had to watch my hands to see that they were still moving steadily towards the jar. When I reached it, it vibrated under my fingertips with a slow profound shudder. Removing the lid was excruciatingly slow.
Pomona cast Lumos as the last of the evening light faded away.
When the lid was finally free it slid slowly off the jar and came to rest against Filius' jar of wind. The water, freed, gave a shake like an angry beast and heaved upwards. I willed as hard as I could for my fingers holding the gumball to let it go. It floated down from my fingertips and met the crest of the wave as it broke. It held for a moment suspended on the surface, poised between the air and the depths.
The wave began to suck down and invert itself, curving inward. It was a maelstrom, running anti-clockwise, reversing down to the bottom of the jar, the gumball at its heart. I felt my breath go out. I hadn't realized I'd stopped breathing.
The current in the jar was running in a smooth regular spiral, sucking down to the heart and rising on the edges to the surface. If it liked going in circles, perhaps that was contentment for the moment.
I moved my right hand in with the dropper and slowly extracted a measure of the water. In the tiny glass tube I could see an even smaller maelstrom forming. Every little part just the same as the whole.
"All right, Dick." He eased up on the stasis and I pulled my hands free into the warmth. I was breathing hard. The current was running faster, but smoothly. I had it.
"Leave the stasis on for now, we don't want it losing stability."
"And now, brewing. It may take until morning, so you may as well get some rest."
"Nonsense, it's only early afternoon for me with the portkey-lag. Now, Mrs. Sprout, I'm very eager to see this extraordinary moving forest of yours. Do you have any collecting sacks?"
Pomona made a noise like a distant steam whistle and ran for the storage cupboard. The rest moved off towards the other end of the greenhouse. I set the dropper carefully on the brewing bench and lit my cauldron. I would have begun, but Minerva was suddenly at my elbow.
"Cyril?" she hissed.
"Minerva, I would like to start brewing before dawn."
"Filius told me that the patent holder for the delay process you're using in these potions is a Dr. Cyril Ramson."
"And that he won the 1999 Paracelsus prize in potions."
"How nice for him."
"Severus, you do not have a doctorate."
"Well, I ought to."
"Should I offer my congratulations?"
"I suppose you might be able to send a card to him through the Paracelsus committee."
She leaned in closer. "How much is the Paracelsus prize again? Fifteen-thousand Galleons?"
"I'm sure I don't know, Minerva."
"'Look after me and mine.' I am never signing any contract with you ever again."
"Ought to read what you're signing, then," I muttered.
"What was that, Cyril?"
"I don't believe I need any further contracts with you, Minerva. Now, as I have some very delicate brewing –"
"Fine, Dr. Snape. You go on with your little research project, go and win your awards, and I'll be over here wondering if my career is in shambles and my school is going to collapse. Fifteen-thousand!" She moved off in a huff. Finally.
I had already brewed Blood-Replenisher with the delay process many times during my research, so for that part I could let my hands take over most of the work and relax into the pattern.
As I worked, I was occasionally conscious of the forest surrounding us more and more thickly. Dark flying shapes brushed by the glass panes of the greenhouse and a scrap of song sung by many voices floated by. Colored lights glowed dimly away deep in the trees. It stirred some faint memory of dream in me, but I couldn't raise it.
Once I looked around and saw that someone had transfigured some of the benches at the other end of the greenhouse into beds. Poppy was apparently sleeping on one, Minerva and Filius were sitting on another and speaking quietly. Hagrid and Bulstrode must have gone out into the woods like Dick and Pomona, though I hadn't noticed them leaving. Some time later, I heard a noise at the door. Pomona and Dick were coming in to deposit their collecting bags and pick up fresh ones. I could see Bulstrode outside where the light spilling out of the greenhouse met the trees. She had what looked like a heavy wood club in her hands and a predatory gleam in her eyes, looking out into the darkness of the woods. A moment later and she disappeared soundlessly into the forest. She was letting her blood up. The sooner I could finish this potion, the better.
At times I could see shapes between the trees, the ghost of a squirrel, a pack of white dogs with red ears chasing a white stag, a woman with a hollow back, a long grey horse.
I would need to add the water shortly.
From somewhere deep in the trees came a mournful bellow. A long-traveling gust of wind shook the trees overhead. I picked up the dropper. It was almost dawn. The rest of the potion was as it should be, at a slow roiling simmer and a very deep red. Inside the dropper, the tiny maelstrom was running steadily. I gave the dropper a single squeeze and let the drop fall. A small white circle sinking into the darkness. Or was it rising? I stirred clockwise, then took the cauldron off the flame with the current still running. Stable. I looked back at the elements on their bench. Stable.
I leaned heavily on the bench; I felt like I had been holding myself up for far too long. Now I only needed to vial it up. Then –
The door was opening again, Dick and Pomona coming in with happy exhaustion and loads of collecting bags. "Oh, I thought it was extinct too," Dick was saying. "Now, if there's a breeding population…"
I had a store of empty vials in my coat. I began to fill and rack them. The current in the cauldron was still running. That was... unusual. Slower than the maelstrom, but a steady spin. We needed to find out, and there really was only the one way. I looked down at the vials and picked one up, turning it over in my fingers. It was spinning too, every little part, just the same as the whole. At the other end of the greenhouse, Poppy was stirring, but Minerva and Filius were asleep. As good a chance as any, I thought.
Dick was watching me. "You're done? Oh, it's the Blood-Replenisher variant."
I nodded at him. He leaned forward on the bench and spoke quietly. "Do you know what you're doing?"
He must have a good idea of what I was planning. "I think so, Dick."
I thought of the water in the pool roiling from its center. There was the kind of fear that masks itself as anger, and the kind of despair that was a bottomless black pool at three in the morning. And all of us who had it inside of us, who walked out into the water until we drowned. Or who went out fighting. Or took dreamless sleep and lay down in a bath. Or did anything, any desperate thing to try to change ourselves –
"We've talked about this before. Nobody is making you do this? This is what you want to do?"
I had spent so many years wrecking everything I touched, and now I was standing on that knife edge between creation and destruction. I wasn't even sure I could tell the difference, they could be so much alike. But if we never tried to change…
"Yes," I said.
"All right," he said.
He waited close to me, watching. I knocked the dose back quickly and set the empty vial back on the bench.
A cry came from the other end of the greenhouse. "What are you doing?" Poppy must have seen me. "That hasn't been tested!" She headed over from the beds where Minerva and Filius were waking with a start.
"It's being tested now," I said.
"What's going on?" asked Pomona.
"He drank it, he just drank it!" said Poppy.
"Severus, that was very reckless!" said Pomona.
Poppy was in front of me now. "What did you mean, 'being tested now?'"
"Just that: I'm going to test it and see if it works."
"Of all the -! Minerva, will you talk to him?"
Minerva was watching us, arms folded. "It wouldn't do any good; you know he's a stubborn fool."
"Poppy, I have safeguards," I said. "I have a vial of unaltered Blood-Replenisher on hand. In case of emergency, a simple healing spell –"
"If you think I am going to participate –"
"- a simple healing spell could be performed by anyone here. I do not intend to let myself bleed out." And if this worked, I would never bleed out again, certainly not with a bunch of ungrateful brats standing around watching.
"That's not the point," said Poppy.
"Dr. Stoltz," said Pomona, "can you talk to him?"
"I'm not in the business of telling Severus what to do," he said calmly.
"The point," said Poppy, "is that if Filius is right, you just ingested a substance that has been influencing people to, to become violent criminal for centuries! You might…" she trailed off.
"Become a dark lord? Well, if that happens, you can all turn on me and drive me off; you've already proven yourselves quite capable."
Minerva snorted. "Oh, now he's taking his revenge. I knew he'd come around to it."
"I don't know why we all don't just join the drama club," said Pomona.
"In any case," I pressed on, "we won't know until we test it. Pomona, perhaps a bucket?"
Poppy stormed out into the woods where the morning sun was just lighting the highest branches.
I took care to be sitting down, remembering what happened the last time I cut my arm open. My vial of unaltered Blood-Replenisher was on the potting bench next to me in easy reach along with a large glass of water conjured by Filius. I scourgified my brewing knife and used it to open a vein in my left arm over the garden bucket. And then, we waited.
Poppy came back in almost immediately and spoke to Filius near the door. "I have an oath, Filius, and whether or not I approve, I never stop being a healer."
My hand throbbed in time with my pulse and my blood dripped without any great urgency. Perhaps I should have cut a bit deeper.
Bulstrode arrived at the door, no club now, but dirt on her hands and a deeply unwholesome expression of complete satisfaction on her face. She barely glanced at my dripping arm and went straight to the beds at the other end of the greenhouse.
I was just feeling a bit nauseated when the dry heat of the potion swept over me. The blood welled out of my cut with renewed pressure.
"There's one," I said.
Poppy shooed Minerva out of the way and performed the healing spell on my arm. "You are a fool, you know."
I drank Filius' water and stood to give it a proper test. No dizziness or nausea.
"It works?" said Pomona.
"The delay process works, but we knew that. The question is: will it repeat?"
We had a short break while I drank more water. Bulstrode began to snore.
I cut a bit deeper the second time and my blood ran freely into the bucket. Poppy clicked her tongue in disapproval. This time the change came more quickly. There was a wrenching dizziness. I gripped my knees as my vision went grey. For a moment I felt suspended, weightless. I couldn't see light or dark, but the sensation cleared as quickly as it came.
Poppy seized my arm, wand drawn. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, Poppy, give it a moment, I think it's taking effect."
I held Poppy off as long as I could as my inexhaustible blood streamed into the bucket.
"That's it! Not one more second!" She pulled my arm closer and healed the cut.
Dick was beaming. He leaned in over the bench. "You, my dear, have a working repeating potion."
I began to laugh.
"Stop that and drink the water immediately!" Poppy was having no part of our triumph. After I drank, I stood gingerly. No dizziness.
"Three years!" I said to Dick.
"Just a blink of an eye," he replied.
"Is that what you've been up to?" said Pomona.
Hagrid saved me from having to answer that. He was ducking through the door, hand on the haunch of an enormous hound. Its coat was short and wiry, bristling up over its shoulders and yellowish-white except where it darkened on its ears to the deep red of old blood. It was the size of a pony. Its head was low and swinging side to side. A very faint growl rumbled in its chest. I could feel it through the soles of my feet.
"There, now, darlin'," Hagrid was saying.
I took a step back and ran into the bench behind me.
A hound of the Wild Hunt, what was he thinking?
Fang was slinking in behind, trembling and whimpering. He slunk off to the furthest potting bench and tried to hide behind a jumping geranium. I wished I could join him, but I didn't want to make any sudden moves.
"Ah, Hagrid," said Minerva carefully, "what have you got there?"
"Oh, hello Minerva! Just found this poor girl lost out in the woods. I 'spect she's a mite hungry."
Lost, the Wild Hunt didn't get lost.
Hungry, they were always hungry.
Its head dipped lower. I could barely see the red eyes. It sniffed.
"Tha's right, darlin'," Hagrid said.
I couldn't press myself further into the bench. It didn't matter, it had found the bucket. They could smell blood. And guilt. It dipped its jowls in and drank. God, I could see the blood level dropping. It lifted its head from the bucket, dripping.
A small sound escaped my throat. Well, if it did decide to go at me, I wouldn't bleed to death. Still, I tried not to move or breathe.
"For goodness sake, Hagrid, get the beast out of here!" said Pomona, "I won't have it digging in my beds."
"Quite right," said Minerva briskly. She had a hand on my shoulder.
"Oh, righ', sorry, Pomona! Come on then, darlin', let's get you a treat. Mind, now!"
They edged out the door. Fang stayed with us. I slowly loosened my grip on the bench.
"Ah, Severus?" Filius' voice came from across the room. "Perhaps you'd better look at this." He was watching the elements again.
They seemed just the same, until I approached the table. The water was running clockwise, smooth and steady. I looked at Filius.
"I think we may be seeing some changes here," he said.
The hounds of the Wild Hunt are known for their taste for the blood of murderers. And their deep distaste for being called darling.
Thank you again for reading! I will be out of town for a couple of days, so I may be a little delayed in responding to reviews, but I very much appreciate hearing what you think.