What George was about to do was incredibly dangerous, probably stupid, and had a slight chance of proving to be fatal. It could also save his Granny’s life.
It was the first three characteristics of his quest that made him excited — not merely desperate — but George figured Granny would forgive him if all went well. And if it didn’t, well, she’d never know about the attempt in the first place.
He rubbed his hands together and listened closely. Nothing, not even the squeaking of mice in the school walls, though apparently the spectral cats tended to do as well or better with mice than regular cats. Wherever the Professors Emrys were, it wasn’t here.
All to the good.
George took a deep breath and cast the spell to dematerialize and re-materialize on the floor below.
This was the part that could be fatal. The Professors had lectured him and Ravenna on the dangers of dematerializing and remateriliazing so many times he could recite the speech in his sleep. Avoid going places you cannot see — you could try to materialize in the middle of a desk or a chair or a bookcase, any of which could be fatal.
Never go someplace you are unfamiliar with — even if you cannot see your study in your house, you have a good idea where all of the furniture, walls, floors are. If you’re not familiar with the place you’re going, you could materialize into anything.
Never, never try to materialize to a high altitude or underground! It was a mistake few wizards made twice. It was a mistake few wizards survived once. Tons of crushing earth on top of you, or a hundred feet of empty sky below you, was not very forgiving.
George ignored all of that excellent advice …
And lived to tell the tale.
He pushed his hair back with one hand and looked around, after grinning like a maniac. Ha — he knew the Emryses had to have a secret workroom below the school. The only bit of guesswork had involved just how deep it was. He’d found the hollow space in the floor without much trouble. Apparently the Emryses hadn’t thought to go much deeper than the foundation. Lucky for him, that was, though he supposed it was only sensible on the part of the Emryses. Freddy jawed enough about his engineering classes for George to guess that a secret room tens of feet below the building would be hard to construct, and the building itself might have structural problems if the workroom was that deep.
Apparently even magicians had to obey the laws of engineering, or else the extra security was not worth the extra hassle.
Now George looked around him. He was in a short hallway, bright, but built of stone. It should be damp, but the stone he rubbed under one hand was bone-dry. It was illuminated by the same lamps that lit the rest of the school. It was light brighter than any candle, whiter even than the sun. It was pure starlight, captured and brought down to earth, made to light spaces much smaller than the sky.
At the end of the corridor was … a bookshelf?
George cocked his head again to listen. The stones let in no sound. There was only the steady thump-thump, thump-thump of his heart. If there was anyone beyond that bookshelf … if there was anything beyond that bookshelf.
Only one way to find out.
George came to the bookshelf and stopped. Now — how to get past it? For there had to be a way past it. The Emryses liked these fake bookshelves. Some of them could only be operated by magic, some only by knowing the right book to pull, or push, or knock over.
If it wasn’t a magic bookshelf, he could be here all day …
He cast a searching spell, one designed to find magic. Not to decode the spell, because that was another thing likely to get one killed. Just one to search for the traces of magic.
On the bookshelf itself, nothing. There was a faint hum of power from whatever was beyond it — good, there was something beyond it — but nothing from the bookshelf. So the mechanism must be mundane. Stupid, George thought. A wizard could figure out a mundane mechanism, given enough time. But a mundane — a mob, say, of ordinary people spurred on by a monk — couldn’t figure out a magical mechanism given all the time in the world. They could just take an axe to the shelf, or throw a torch at it and let the books and shelf alike burn, and beat their way through the wreckage to whatever was beyond.
George squatted and ran his fingers over the spines of the books, starting at the bottom, searching for ones that gave way to pressure, resisted pressure, felt different … anything, really. He wasn’t all that picky.
Every book on the shelf was a holy book.
All right, maybe they all weren’t — but there were at least three books from the Book of Wright on this shelf alone, and every other book, even if it wasn’t a holy work, was written by a Church father or a saint. And if there was one thing that George knew about the Church, it was that the Church loved its books. Hell, it was a mortal sin to burn the Book of Wright or any of the books within it! The Abbot’s Council had actually gotten off their asses and agreed on that in 452 AR (Anno Roberti), after civil wars in Glasonland had resulted in the burning of two monasteries and countless works of sacred writ. The original monastery that St. Robert himself had burned to the ground, and with it had disappeared all three of the original copies — the ones written in the saint’s own hand — of the Book of Wright. Legends claimed that one had burned and the other two were spirited away by the monks of the abbey. The first was safe, kept under lock and key in the rebuilt abbey. The other … well, nobody knew what had happened to the other. Or nobody was telling.
As for these books, well, if there was a monk anywhere near the torch-carrying mob – and there often was — the mob would probably want him to cast away the demons before they tried to see the workroom. And he would see the books, and he would demand that they be examined before anything happened to them. That would take time. Maybe it would only be five minutes, but time was time. Brilliant, thought George, as he continued to feel for the mechanism.
Ah — there, he found it! He pulled, the bookshelf swung in, and in he went.
Then he stopped, gripped his wand, and waited.
George kept waiting, heart pounding. The hand holding his wand started to shake. His breathing, rapid and shallow, filled the small room.
The bookshelf shut behind him with a thud. It didn’t even have the heart to be ponderous — it was just a thud.
Nothing stubbornly continued to happen.
George moved to put his wand away. Still nothing.
No traps? NONE? Are they stupid?
He looked around, and the stardust lamps lit themselves. Blinking in the sudden light, he continued to observe. To his left —
An alchemy table! Magical, mundane — George trotted over and started to examine it.
It was only as he stared at the wonders of glassmaking, the twisted tubes and beakers, filled with liquid of doubtful origin and provenance, that George ran smack into the biggest impediment to his plan: alchemy, magical or mundane, was his worst subject.
He scratched his head. Now what?
He knew what he was looking for, at least. He knew it would be green, and he knew what it would smell like. The Professors had shown the mixture to both George and Ravenna after Lady Morgause had been arrested. They’d had whole lessons on it. But if George were the Emryses, he’d hide this mixture under layers and layers of illusions and spells. Possibly traps, too, though if the Emryses had the mind of George, George would have either been dead or in a lot of pain at least a dozen times over by now.
Maybe they would leave it hiding in plain sight? George picked up a beaker of green liquid and sniffed it cautiously. It smelled of flowers and grass clippings, wheat ripening in the sun — not the heady spicy scent of the elixir.
Where, George thought, taking a step back and surveying the shelves, can you possibly be? They have to have you … somewhere they have to have you …
Movement caught the corner of his eye. George yelped — too loudly (which was to say, within the range audible to Sim ears) — and whipped around, wand out.
There was nobody there.
George slowly lowered his wand–and saw the movement again. He turned–
George almost laughed. Here he was, jumping at a mirror! He must —
That couldn’t be any mirror.
He trotted over to the fogged glass set between the bookshelves. Yes — yes, fogged glass, a faint rippling sheen to the surface, a reflection that waited a moment to catch up — he knew what this was!
A truth mirror! Ravenna had done a report on them! George stuck his hands on his hips and grinned at the mirror.
His grin slowly dropped away.
His reflection wasn’t grinning back.
Oh, it was, sort of — but it wasn’t grinning the grin George knew he had to be wearing. His grin was always wide, confident, cocky even. And why wouldn’t it be? He’d just snuck into the Emrys’s basement workroom! He had wended his way through traps and tricks! Perhaps not traps, but certainly tricks! He’d outsmarted his professors!
But his reflection wasn’t happy. It had the eyes of a sad and scared boy. The grin was slow and faltering. The eyes darted from side to side, never quite meeting George’s. There was a hint of tears in the corner of one of the eyes.
It was only when George scratched his head in puzzlement that the reflection and the body he knew he possessed began to match.
And George remembered Ravenna’s report.
Mirrors, Ravenna had said, did not reflect the truth. They reflected the light. What the light showed, they showed. What the light allowed to remain hidden, they hid. Mirrors could be manipulated. A stray hammer-hit on the silver could distort the reflection forever. Shatter a mirror and you would get a thousand crazy shards of a reflection. How could something so fragile be considered to be a reflector of truth?
So some wizard — or witches, Ravenna’s research claimed it was the Cordial sisters working in concert — had decided to craft a mirror that showed not what appeared to be there, but was there. They had succeeded. Some said the success was horrible. Some said it was the best thing they ever did.
Some said it was both.
George sighed. Well, so this was a truth mirror. So it showed that he was sad and scared and unsure. No duh! His Granny was dying — would die, if he didn’t —
A flash of green caught the edge of the mirror. George spun around, gasping.
There was nothing there. Except —
A cauldron. An ancient cauldron. One carved with runes George couldn’t begin to interpret. Shelves were built over it, shelves with bottles …
He swallowed his last gasp whole and ran behind he cauldron and shelving.
But which one was the one he needed? Could one be the elixir? There were so many potions the Emryses could be making! Love potions, hate potions, sleeping potions, luck potions, ill-luck potions, potions to give you a pick-me-up in the morning, hangover cures, wart remover —
George absently stirred the bone ladle half-submerged in the cauldron. He stared at the bottles. Which one — which one had the elixir? One of them had to — he couldn’t have gone this far just to —
He sniffed — all right, sniffled —
He smelled it. That heady, spicy scent. The one that made you feel ten times more alive just for smelling it. The one that made you sit up, eyes wide, and learn to love the world.
With a shaking hand and flaring nostrils, George reached for the nearest bottle. He sniffed it.
This had to be the stuff — it was that smell. And even in the shadows of the bottle, the verdant green winked and blinked up at him. George slowly tipped the bottle and poured a single drop onto his finger.
It sat there, trembling like a teardrop unshed. Try me, it beckoned, so green and bright. See what I can do! See what I can do for you!
If the Emryses were like George, this would be a trap. But they weren’t like George. They were like themselves. George was probably safe to try this.
He popped his finger into his mouth and sucked.
His eyes went wide. Faint — so faint — blue sparkles danced in front of him. And he could feel it — fresh, new life — coursing through him. A drop wouldn’t take away much, a few days, a week maybe. The Emryses had allowed both him and Ravenna to try a drop. He’d watched Ravenna’s face as she made her trial, her mouth popping open in a silent Oh, her eyes wide and round as her little mouth. He knew he looked the same now, and this time he knew what to expect.
He wasn’t, however, expecting the shower of soft golden light blooming in the middle of the room: a materializing wizard or witch.
Shit shit shit!
George lined up the spell of materialization in his head. He couldn’t do this nervous — that was too dangerous — and now that he had his prize spirited up his sleeve —
He just had to be fast — he cast the spell to land him in the foyer —
Not fast enough. The furious voice of Professor Merlin chased him just on the edge of hearing. “GEORGE!”
He materialized into the foyer.
“Oh!” The voice behind him gasped. “George!”
Not one of the Professors. Ravenna.
George didn’t have time for this. He spun on one heel as Ravenna trotted to him. “You never saw me, all right?”
Ravenna started. “I — what?”
“GEORGE FERREIRA! GET OVER HERE RIGHT NOW!”
Ravenna stared in the direction of the voice, then gaped at George. “What did you do?”
“Nothing! Nothing wrong! It’s none of your business anyway!”
“Prof–” George clapped a hand over her mouth before she could get more than the first syllable out.
“Shut up! You never saw me!”
Her eyes widened, then narrowed, burned — she shoved his hand away. “George Ferr–” she hissed.
“It’s for my Granny,” George whispered, his voice creaking. Good Lord, what had possessed him to say that? She would —
“Shut up,” he whispered. “Shut up, don’t say anything. I don’t know why–”
George blinked. “Eh?”
“Go! Go, you idiot! Run!” Ravenna turned to where Professor Merlin’s voice had come. “He’s not here, Professor!” She turned back and hissed. “Go!”
George didn’t need to be told twice.