A Ghosts of Grimwood Tale
Claudia is a would-be apprentice on the cusp of her future, yet uncertain which path she should take.
Her older sister, Francine, is undertaking an impossible project as the youngest Master of Alchemy in two generations.
At sixteen, Claudia is meant to ford her destiny with a certainty she has always craved, yet never possessed.
A choice made hastily, impulsively, could prove the ruin of two sisters…
This tale explores the mystery of what happens to ghosts when they follow the call of sirens, deep beneath the earth…
It was impressive, Claudia mused as she watched her sister ascend the pulpit, just how loud the bated silence of a thousand students could be. The quiet was syrup thick, viscous with anticipation for the wisdom of Grimwood’s rising star of Alchemy.
Francine cleared her throat, and her words forded the hush like heated brass.
Claudia released her breath with the rest of the audience crowded into the chamber of marble and dark wood.
From the corners of the six-sided hall, the curling smoke of incense threaded skyward, towards the domed ceiling of wrought bronze vines.
Claudia traced the precise lines of the interwoven metalwork with her eyes as she absorbed the words of Francine’s commencement address. Her sister’s words were just as precise, just as elegant, just as earnestly wrought to inspire, as that overarching dome.
“Yesterday, you basked in the shallows, experiencing but a taste of all that each Guild might offer. Today, you stand on the precipice of your highest potential.”
Francine gazed around the amphitheatre, her alchemist’s eyes sparkling with the fire of stars. Her long dark hair was a braided crown, studded with small glittering pins of crystal. She smiled, a small and secret quirk of her mouth, as her gaze met Claudia’s.
Claudia shifted forwards in her seat, mouthing along as Francine delivered her much-practised concluding line. The line which inspired in Claudia the greatest thrill—of excitement and trepidation both.
“Tomorrow, you stand before the elders of your community. The masters of your vocation. The stewards of your future. Tomorrow, you claim your spirits’ deepest calling and truest path. Your destiny. Your Guild. May the moon’s unhidden face light your way.”
Claudia sank back, breath shallow with pride, envy, and a tumultuous sort of wanting for the same regal sense of certainty her sister radiated.
As a chorus of voices echoed the blessing, Francine withdrew from the pulpit and stepped into shadow.
The sound of broiling stew and the scent of baking bread accompanied the laughter wafting from the kitchen. Claudia passed through the arch of black stone to join her mother and Francine as they worked to prepare the evening meal. Through the large, round paned window behind the sinks, Claudia could see the bobbing of her father’s head as he picked herbs from the garden.
Francine beamed as Claudia crossed the polished stone to embrace her sister tight around the middle. Francine laughed, playfully smearing creamed pumpkin across Claudia’s cheek as the younger sister relented with a squeal.
“Your address was perfect Sister Francine of Noble House Hollycouth, youngest Master of Alchemy in two generations—”
“Oh, beg off.” Francine flicked flour at Claudia, who had affected a deep curtsy.
Claudia brushed flour from her skirts with a huff. “I was being sincere. Mother, tell her how sincere I was. I crossed my ankles and everything—”
“Catch!” her mother interrupted, hurling a small rock-sized something her way. Claudia snatched the potato from the air before it struck the wall behind her.
“Alright, alright! I’m helping!” Claudia laughed as she approached the bench. “Though truly, Francine, your speech was wonderful.” Claudia smiled as she diced the potato into rough chunks.
Francine smiled in return, her eyes warm. “Thank you.”
They discussed Francine’s master project as they worked. A great undertaking of alchemical impossibility, it was expected her research would consume the better part of a decade or more, if not her life. The prospect of working for so long on one project, all-consuming and potentially ending in failure regardless, made Claudia feel rather queasy. She focused on slicing snow peas as Francine expounded her work with the enthusiasm of one truly obsessed.
“If I could even just demonstrate it possible to transmute the primordial elements into each other, it would help me prove the elements are simply aspects of a more fundamental cosmic force that, if shaped by an appropriate matrix of intent, could open a whole new paradigm of creative potential—”
Claudia nodded at all the appropriate places, as did their mother, with supportive smiles as Francine spoke, mashing potatoes with vigour. They had heard all this before of course, though Claudia had never understood the whole of it.
After all, they had all been taught the primordial elements were immutable.
Ash, water, air, flame, void. Claudia repeated the elements in her mind like a mantra as she rolled pastry for the springberry pie. She had once worn a bracelet bearing small crystal charms representing each of the elements. The jangle of the bracelet had always soothed her as a child. A cheap piece of jewellery common amongst her peers, and long since consigned to the depths of her jewellery box.
Ash, water, air, flame, void.
Dinner that night was a rowdy affair, even by their usual standards. Their father waxed poetic about his work in the royal botanical houses, while their mother danced around the subject of her highly secretive work in the palace with hallmark mischief. “I’m not not working with rare stones, but all the pressed flowers make the project rather slow in the going.” She sighed with a smug and long-suffering air, as though expecting commiserations for her own nonsense.
No one mentioned the Choosing until after the first bite of pie, by which time Claudia was so taut with anticipation for the question that all diplomatic vagaries fled her mind.
“So, tell us at last, Claudia,” Francine started. “Which Guild will you choose tomorrow?” Their mother and father leaned forward, eyes twinkling for Claudia’s big reveal.
What she’d intended to say, practised to say, should have said, Claudia reflected later, was something like All the Guilds are so esteemed, I wish to sleep on my decision to ensure I’ve chosen the appropriate legacy, or I wish to spend more time reviewing my top three Guilds of preference to ensure their suitability to a long and prosperous future, or even You’ll just have to find out with the rest of everyone else.
Anything but what she actually blurted out under her family’s expectant scrutiny.
“I… don’t know.”
As her family continued to stare at Claudia in silence, pie forgotten on their plates, she cleared her throat and clarified, “I haven’t made a choice yet.”
Everyone started speaking at once, but her sister’s alarm cut clearest over the din.
“Claudia,” she cried, aghast. “You need to take this seriously! This isn’t one of your silly games of passing fancies. You can’t just change your mind as you please, no one would ever take you seriously! You should know this, you’re sixteen, for Fate’s sake—”
Claudia dropped her gaze to her plate with a flinch. “I know, I am taking it seriously, I just— I haven’t—”
“This is a big decision, Claudia,” Francine implored, clasping her hand. “The biggest of your life. You need to be sure. Absolutely certain of what is worth giving the whole of yourself over to, for the rest of your vocation… Claudia…” Francine’s tone softened as Claudia wrenched her clammy grasp from her sister’s delicate hand, fleeing the table and up the stairs to her room.
Her tears didn’t fall until she had quietly latched the door and slumped to rest against it.
Claudia sighed as she brushed her fingers across the spines of her shelved books; across the brass of her telescope; the crystal of her Seer’s Glass; the leather of her journals; her small clay pots of coloured ink.
Tomorrow, she would have no further need of most of these treasures. They would be packed away to make space for new tools of her chosen craft. With a huff, Claudia batted at her spinning globe, an atlas of the constellations. How was she to choose?
Claudia has always known she must, for that was the way of things. And yet. None of the Guilds called to her. No, that wasn’t quite the truth. All of them called to her. Yet none called out with the singularity of purpose, of clarity, of destiny, that her sister often spoke of.
Should she choose the Guild of Skies, where she could map the dance of stars and the songs of constellations? Or the Guild of Rangers, where she might learn the secrets of the deepest forest and chase after the myths of ghost lights? Or the Guild of Healers, the Guild of Seers, the Guild of Artisans, or Weavers, or Dreamers, or Alchemists…
Each was its own cosmos of wonder, and Claudia wanted them all. Perhaps she would cast bones about it. Again. And hope that this time she might divine the same answer twice.
With a despairing groan, Claudia fixed her ash-blonde curls around the handle of a paint brush and slouched onto her window seat. With a sinking heart and rising gloom, Claudia watched the setting sun until the crickets began to hum and sleep claimed her to fretful dreams.
The Choosing was to be held deep beneath the central citadel, in the catacombs that were as symbolic of rebirth as of death. Though the nuances of symbolism were lost on Claudia as she instead found herself morbidly fascinated by the warped and jutting bones embedded in the mottled marble.
She fussed with a loose thread of her robe as she sat on a cold stone bench alongside her fellow graduates and soon-to-be acolytes. She desisted when the bronze embroidery cuffing her sleeve threatened to unravel irreparably. Claudia then swung her feet in anxious pendulums until a scowl and pointed clearing of the throat from her seat neighbour inspired her to stop.
Though her fretting only increased, the thudding of her pulse felt in her deepest tissues, as her fellow acolytes stepped into the Choosing hall, one after another.
Claudia knew they were to exit through another set of doors after their Choosing. The better to maintain an air of silence and solemn mystery amongst those yet to Choose. Yet she couldn’t help but feel as though the room had truly devoured her peers, one by one, an undeniable portent of doom.
The ornate doors of carved bone and marble stood tall and steadfast, veiling the chamber beyond where Claudia might Choose wrong, failing her path, failing her future, her family—
“Claudia of Noble House Hollycouth, please step forward.”
A robed woman with a low hood made a marking on her charter with a piece of charcoal as Claudia stood on weak legs and stepped towards the door. As with all the previous acolytes, the woman opened the doors with quiet ceremony, ushering Claudia through with a whispered blessing. “May your spirits shine and guide your path.”
Claudia jerked a nod, and stepped into the chamber beyond.
Like the amphitheatre far above, this chamber too was six-sided, though the low stone ceiling was roughly hewn and studded with shards of glowing quartz.
Concentric tables ringed the space in tiered half circles, around which were seated dozens of hooded figures. Set before each figure was a bronze candle carved with the sigil of the Guild they represented.
A figure wearing fine golden robes sat in a high, throne-like seat behind the curved tables, bearing over and down on the proceedings of the circle below. The Arbiter of Guilds.
“Step forward, young apprentice, and Choose the light of your path.” The Arbiter spoke in a voice like smoke, gravelled with age and authority.
As Claudia stepped into the chamber, each shadowed face turned to watch her progress towards the centre of the room.
Claudia passed through a gap between tables, keeping her eyes locked forward as she approached the plinth at the heart of the room. There rested a candle of plain bronze, wax smooth and unmarked.
Claudia picked it up, clutching tight against the trembling of her fingers. Heart in her throat, Claudia spun slowly, taking in the sight of each Guild Master, faces shrouded by hoods and the hazy heat rising from their flames.
Claudia could feel panic clawing up her throat, choking her as she desperately sought the sigil which might, by divine provenance, stand out from the rest. Through her mounting anxiety, Claudia failed to even recognise half the sigils around her.
Guess that rules out those Guilds, then, Claudia thought with a manic sort of humour.
In her haste to Choose, a Guild, any Guild, Claudia’s gaze landed on a pair of familiar eyes. Eyes which mirrored her anxiety. Eyes she had known her whole life, which represented certainty, surety, destiny.
Almost stumbling, Claudia strode forward with her plain candle, holding it out with shaking arms and pleading eyes.
After several moments searching Claudia’s face, Francine touched the flame of her candle to Claudia’s wick.
The flame caught, and Claudia nearly fumbled her candle as the solid wax flared bright with the sigil of the Alchemists Guild. Claudia kept her grip on the candle, however, and her eyes on the burning intensity of her sister’s gaze, as the wax melted away. Claudia was left clutching a quartz token bearing the Alchemists’ design.
“Welcome, Apprentice Claudia of Nobel House Hollycouth, newest acolyte to the Guild of Alchemy.”
Claudia grinned at Francine, eyes watering in relief that the Choosing had worked, that the Choice was done. That it was over.
Her sister smiled in return, both pride and concern shining in her dark eyes, before gesturing her path towards the rear of the chamber.
Claudia gripped her token hard enough to mark her skin as she stepped out of the dark chamber into the hallway beyond, making her way up from the catacombs and into the sunlight of a spring afternoon. Claudia could breathe again.
Francine leaned against the doorway as Claudia stood in her room, comparing her various tomes, reticent to pack any of them away.
Her small collection of alchemy texts remained on newly bare shelves, looking rather sad and meagre.
“I know it must seem hard to pack everything away. To change so much at once,” Francine said, placing a gentle hand on Claudia’s shoulder. “But you’ll feel so much better with a fresh start, I promise.”
Francine’s eyes sparkled with enthusiasm as she gazed around Claudia’s half-packed room, before taking a seat on the large bed.
Claudia nodded slowly. She supposed that made sense. New start, new books, new tools. New purpose.
With renewed determination, Claudia packed away her paints and inks, her art journals, sundry artefacts and toys, and any books not related to alchemy.
Claudia and Francine laughed together as they worked to pack, seal, and store away all the boxes beneath Claudia’s bed.
“See! Doesn’t that feel so much better?” Francine breathed as she spun in the newly cleared space, desk and shelves all mostly bare. “Just you wait! You’ll feel so much more focused with your own space entirely dedicated to alchemy.”
Claudia forced a smile at Francine’s enthusiasm, swallowing down the heaviness in her chest. Perhaps it would feel better. Tomorrow.
“I can’t wait to study with you, Francine,” Claudia said truthfully.
“Here, I brought you something.” Francine fished in the pockets of her dress and withdrew a small green book bound in apple leather.
Claudia opened it, brushing her fingers over notes written in a familiar script.
“That was my first journal when I was an apprentice. I thought, perhaps, you might find it useful…” Francine eyed Claudia anxiously as she flipped through the delicate pages, tracing her fingers across the paper.
Claudia looked up with a true smile. “I love it, Francine. I’ll treasure it, thank you!”
With great care, Claudia placed the journal on her shelf alongside her remaining books.
“Well, do more than treasure it. Learn from it!” Francine teased with a playful pinch at Claudia’s side. Though she looked pleased as she dashed from the room to pick berries for a celebratory tea cake.
Claudia stood in her emptied room, feeling unexpectedly hollow.
“No, no, what are you— don’t add those— Claudia!” Francine’s whine of frustration rang from the stone and wood walls of her private workroom.
A small room with tall windows, the workroom overlooked the reedy south gardens of the Alchemists’ citadel. The space was fitted with sturdy hardwood benches, atop which stood a wide collection of glass and copper apparatus.
A bubbling, tacky liquid of effervescent orange spilled over and across the waxed bench top as Claudia stepped back from her crucible of quartz.
“Sorry,” Claudia said brightly. “I really thought the pollen would pair well with the powdered sun quartz.”
“Why in the realms would you think that?” Francine marched over, donning a pair of thick bark-leather gloves, to help peel the gum-like substance from the bench before it crystalised.
“Well, the nature of their correspondences work so well together, you see. Or, at least I’d thought the pollen of sunflower would amplify the power of the sunstone, and I suppose I wasn’t exactly wrong but it didn’t seem to—”
“Claudia!” Francine’s bark silenced her younger sister, who was dumping the congealed mass into the waste well with a sheepish demeanour.
“Just—” Francine drew a steadying breath, before lowering her voice to a more level tone. “Just follow the instructions as they’re written. As they are known to work.”
Abashed, Claudia nodded, peeled off her gloves, and started her tincture anew as Francine returned to her own work.
“Francine! Look at this!” Claudia clapped her hands in glee as Francine reluctantly dropped her papers and strode over with a distracted frown.
“What is this?” Francine peered down into the diamond-blue sparkle of the liquid simmering in Claudia’s quartz beaker.
“This,” Claudia exclaimed with an exuberant flourish, “is colour changing ink, only it changes within the spectrum of black, mercury, and quicksilver light—”
“Which we can’t see…” Francine frowned.
“Well, no,” Claudia continued unperturbed. “But when you cast a fire with clear flame clackstones, the fire will reflect back from the ink and cause them to glow. Or at least, they will in theory—”
“Clear flames? Claudia! That is extremely volatile fire, only ever used to heat the most resistant substances!”
“Oh, I know, but that’s why I’ll use the cobalt crucible—”
“Claudia!” Francine huffed, exasperation furrowing her brows.
“Just, please, just let me try it!”
“But to what purpose could an ink be that is unseen, unless by fire that can only be lit in a crucible that only an alchemist would own, and a highly specialised one at that…” Francine trailed off as Claudia’s face turned crestfallen.
“I… no, you’re right, I just thought it would be something of a splendour, and that maybe… no, never mind, sorry.”
Claudia moved to take her beaker off the flame, shoulders hunched as she clamped her brass tongs around the quartz.
“No, wait.” Francine sighed as Claudia glanced up, hopeful.
“Let’s just see if it actually works.” Francine thumbed through Claudia’s notes. “Theoretically, it should, even if it isn’t particularly…No, it should work, and this is some really creative theory, Claudia.”
Claudia grinned at the praise and clasped her hands together. “Really? So you’ll let me try?” Francine nodded and Claudia embraced her with a squeal.
“This is so much more difficult when I can’t even see what I’m painting, and I was never much of an artist to begin with,” Francine grumbled as she drew her brush along the dark wood of the workshop’s ceiling.
Claudia giggled as she tottered on her stepladder, dipping her own brush in a jar of clear liquid. “Well, that’ll make it even more fun when we reveal it with the clear fire.”
Approaching midnight, it worked in their favour that the night was moonless. The less ambient light the better. Claudia began to extinguish the candles illuminating the workroom, the warm waxen gleam of the workbenches diminishing as each flame was snuffed.
The ceiling above was dark, the efforts of their artistry completely invisible.
Francine had set up a small round plinth in the centre of the room, atop which sat a small crucible of polished cobalt filled with chips of pine bark. After a moment’s consideration, Francine added a handful of quartz shards threaded with silvery lines.
“The mercury quartz should help keep the heat stable. Just in case…” Francine explained.
Claudia nodded and stood back from the plinth as Francine handled the clear flame clackstones herself. The one absolute condition she had imposed for Claudia’s safety.
Claudia understood why a moment later, as Francine clacked the small, glittering stones of quartz together and set the bark aflame. Or, presumably aflame, given there was no evidence of fire but for a few tendrils of smoke and a growing sensation of heat.
Francine added a measure of fine, chalky powder to the crucible, yet another safety measure. Abruptly, the edges of the clear flames sparkled with a vicious-looking rainbow hue. Claudia was so transfixed by the fire in the crucible that she almost forgot the purpose of it.
However, at Francine’s gasp of wonder, Claudia raised her eyes to the ceiling, and drew in a sharp breath at the sight.
A constellation of hand-painted stars shone like an aurora in the lightless illumination of the clear-coloured flames. The arched ceiling beams bore a freckled patchwork of glimmering stars, like rigid arms of their own private galaxy.
The stars shifted chaotically, fading from one luminous hue to the next, a splendour of fluorescence.
“Claudia,” Francine breathed. “It’s so beautiful.”
Claudia smiled and twined her fingers through Francine’s. “It is.”
The two sisters stood side by side, hand in hand, admiring their own secret cosmos in awed silence, until the flames burned out.
“This just doesn’t make sense, I don’t—” Francine muttered to herself furiously as she scratched several notes onto the page before her.
“Francine?” Claudia approached her sister, hesitating a half-step back from the table, wary to intrude.
Francine appeared not to have heard Claudia, for she remain hunched over her notes, intermittently inspecting several gems and a bowl of charcoal beneath a brass-rimmed magnifying lens.
“What am I missing? There must be something—” Francine glared down at the smoky stone in her hand, comparing it against the inscribed plate of bronze bearing symbols of elemental transition.
With its circular diagram of spidery symbols, the plate reminded Claudia a little of her charts of pigment transitions, colours all bleeding together in an eternal rainbow wheel.
“Francine?” Claudia spoke again, a little louder.
“If ash is simply an archetype, a representative of a primordial principal of cosmic order, then if I applied change at the nexus of ideation and material manifestation, then surely it should—”
“FRANCINE,” Claudia half-shouted, and Francine dropped her stone in the bowl of charcoal.
Claudia stumbled back a step in the face of Francine’s ire at the interruption.
“Sorry, I just, it’s only that, I need some help, is all.” Claudia squinted one eye shut, scrunching her nose to brace against Francine’s wrath.
Francine sighed and rubbed her face, smearing charcoal across her chin. “I’m sorry, Claudia, I shouldn’t have snapped like that.” Francine offered a tired smile. “What do you need help with?”
Claudia grinned as Francine rose to follow, beckoning her sister to a bubbling apparatus of looping glass tubes.
“So here is the snakeheart dye, and I’m up to this step of the mixing—” Claudia pointed to a diagram in a heavy tome laid flat next to small piles of diced herbs. “Only, I added some copper beads to the stewing, and I need help to—”
“You added copper? There’s no copper called for in the recipe…” Francine frowned at the tome, running her finger down the page of ingredients inked in faded sepia scrawl.
“Well, no, but with the powdered boa blood, I reasoned the copper would strengthen the shine of the scale pattern once applied to leather, only the next step called for acid salts, and I wasn’t sure if maybe I should take the beads out before I add them, or if you think—”
“Claudia!” Francine whined between gritted teeth. “Why can you never just… The instructions do not call for copper. Therefore, you should never have added the copper in the first place, why do I even…”
Claudia twisted her fingers together as she watched Francine silently fume to herself for long moments.
“You know what? I’ve had enough of this. It’s been months, MONTHS, of your ill-conceived, childish dabblings of trial and error, breaking the rules before you even bother to learn them well enough in the first place, wasting materials, wasting MY TIME, when I COULD BE MAKING PROGRESS IN MY OWN WORK. I’ve HAD. ENOUGH.”
Claudia’s breath caught, her heart pounding in her chest as her fingers began to tremble. She had never seen her sister so livid. Francine’s dark eyes glittered with a furious light as she breathed sharply through her nose, almost panting with frustration.
“Against my own better judgement, I took you under my wing, into my Guild, as my own apprentice, and you refuse to take anything seriously. I don’t know why I expected any different. It’s always been this way with you, just doing exactly as you please with no thought to responsibility or respect FOR OUR CRAFT.”
Claudia stayed silent with effort, choking down sobs that threatened to escape her throat. At the sight of Claudia’s distress, the light in Francine’s eyes dimmed. She seemed to fold in on herself, like a star burnt out.
“Just… leave. Go home, Claudia. I just can’t even look at you right now.” Francine snuffed the flame beneath Claudia’s failed solution. Then she turned on her heel, shoulders stiff as she sat herself back down at her desk and put her face in her palms.
Claudia fled for home.
Claudia ran through the cobbled streets and winding lanes towards the tall, narrow house that was the Hollycouth ancestral home. Barely able to see as tears streamed down her face, Claudia stumbled into the gutter several times before reaching the weathered familiarity of the front gate. Dashing through the small front garden and up the stone steps, Claudia struggled with the heavy brass of her skeleton key before spilling herself across the threshold. With her mother and father still at work, Claudia was the only one home.
Treading up the stairs to the very top of the house, Claudia kicked off her boots and sank onto her bed, sobbing.
Why was she like this? It’s not that she didn’t take anything seriously, she just had so many ideas. She was so curious about what might happen if she could only tweak this or that. There were just so many things she wanted to try…
She always intended to follow the recipes, so well defined and ordered as they were. But then an idea would occur to her. A sparking flare in her mind as she saw some connection or other, bright and impossible to ignore, something new and begging to be tested. She couldn’t help it…
She didn’t want to fail. She didn’t want to cause waste or disappointment. Least of all for Francine.
But that’s all she ever seemed to do.
Claudia cried until her eyes were dry and scratchy, laying prone on her bed, struggling to breathe through the down of her pillow and her own clogged nose.
Turning her head, Claudia’s gaze landed on the journal resting on her side table. Hoisting herself upright with effort, Claudia flipped through the pages, filled with doodles and scraps of poetry, pressed flowers and descriptions of dreams she no longer remembered.
Claudia flipped through with increasing agitation, an ember fanned to flame with each turn of the page. This is why Francine calls her childish. This is why she keeps failing, keeps disappointing, keeps wasting…
With a growl, Claudia tore out a page, the crisp sound viciously satisfying as she crumpled the paper and threw it towards her cold hearth. Page after page followed, a hail storm of torn thoughts and half-realised ideas.
With a blazing sense of self-spite, Claudia struck two golden clackstones together, sending sparks flying across the logs stacked in the small stone fireplace. As the fire crackled to life, Claudia began to gather all her torn pages and fed them to the flames, watching them burn to ash.
She unpacked her journals from the boxes under her bed, items strewn across the wooden floor of her room as Claudia continued her war on the child she no longer wished to be.
Page after page, journal after journal, consumed by the golden maw of her hearth.
With soot-stained fingers, Claudia began tearing at another page, by now a cleansing, rote sort of action. Though, glancing down at a painted wheel of rainbow colours, Claudia paused. She remembered her art classes, learning the way certain songs could sometimes coax forth brilliant colours from dull pigments.
“Like calls to like, pitch calls to pitch, tempo to tempo,” Claudia’s art tutor had once said to her as together they stirred powdered pigment into solvent. “Watch...” Joscelin had then proceeded to hum in a clear, unwavering tone as she stirred a dirty–looking blue powder into the clear, gel–like binder.
As Joscelin had stirred, Claudia had watched over her shoulder in awe as the hue clarified into something vibrant.
Claudia had used that exact paint in this pigment chart. She brushed her thumb over the blue, tainting it with a faint smear of charcoal.
In the margins of the page, Claudia had scribbled notes about the songs used to brighten, to dim, to warm, to cool, and even, in some special cases, to shift a pigment’s hue to another entirely.
If only Claudia could whistle a song and fold ash into fire or to air or to water…
Perhaps something of this principle might help Francine with her great work, Claudia thought, as she carefully tore the page from her journal. Perhaps she might be able to help, instead of hinder for once.
Or perhaps Francine would declare it another waste of her precious time.
Resting on her haunches, Claudia wrestled with indecision. Uncertainty was a familiar pain. But this… if there was even the chance it might spark some insight Francine could use… then there was no decision to be made.
Resolved, Claudia folded the page and tucked it into the pocket of her skirt. After washing her hands and face, Claudia pulled on her boots once more and raced down the stairs, leaving behind her disarray.
“Francine?” Claudia called, taking tentative steps into her sister’s workspace. Francine was standing in the middle of the room before a bronze table littered with fragments of quartz, scattered pages, and thimbles of ash. The rainbow-bright edges of altered clear fire burned in the midst of it all, cradled within the cobalt crucible. Francine was hunched over the far edge of the table, muttering as she scribbled furious notes into her journal.
Claudia withdrew the folded page from her pocket, thumbing it nervously, afraid to interrupt Francine as she worked.
“If the nature of the ash is key, then perhaps…?” Claudia heard Francine mumble as she approached cautiously from behind. Though, perhaps what Claudia never learned as Francine tossed threads of mossmire into the flames, along with a handful of sharp-looking quartz shards.
The clear flames flared then, as the mossmire was consumed to ash. Francine stepped forward, raising the crucible’s lid to smother the flames. Before she could, there was a sudden, ominous crack as quartz snapped in the heat. Francine stumbled back, raising a reflexive arm to shield her face as more shards began to crack.
“What? No, this isn’t…” Francine mumbled. The clear flames roared higher, their hazy rainbow edges a menacing halo, then abruptly diminished to nothing.
All was still, and Francine sighed in relief. Setting the lid on the bench, she turned to inspect the dried threads of remaining mossmire.
At first, Claudia thought the flames extinguished. However, as she inched closer, Claudia saw the shards of mercury-threaded quartz continue to break into yet thinner, sharper pieces with barely audible pops.
The shards began to glow, hotter and brighter, as the silver threads of mercury radiated an oily rainbow light. As though they had consumed the fire and were now burning from within.
“Francine?” Claudia spoke, her voice quiet and hoarse. “The quartz…”
Now intent on her notes, Francine appeared not to have heard her.
“Why did that… shouldn’t have happened…” Francine muttered, unaware as the shards began to tremor within the crucible. “Could it be tainted..?” Francine peered at a small tangle of plant pinched between her ash-blackened fingers.
Claudia cleared her throat, a sound masked as the quartz began to rattle in earnest, incandescent with heat.
The rattling caught Francine’s attention. With a cry of alarm, Francine fumbled once more for the cobalt lid, rushing to the crucible though there were no flames to douse.
“Claudia?” Francine started, panicked confusion on her face, as Claudia dashed forward and pushed her away from the table. Francine lost her footing and stumbled to the floor.
The crucible exploded.
Claudia turned to the side as she was showered in burning shards of quartz and chunks of cobalt. The burning bite of hot stone seared across her neck and half-raised arm.
Claudia noted, in the small moment before she fell to her knees, that shards of burning quartz had lodged into the walls and tables, charring stone and wood.
“Oh,” Claudia breathed as she sank.
There were shards, too, embedded in the ceiling, Claudia saw as she fell back. Sharp little stars now clustered amongst the invisible constellations.
“Claudia! No, no, no no no, Claudia!” Francine’s arms were around her, holding Claudia close. A hand was on her neck. Claudia tried to push the hand away, her neck hurt so terribly. But her arm wouldn’t move. When she tried to speak, she could only cough. Blood spattered across the front of Francine’s dress, mixing with the stain of ashes.
“Claudia, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry,” Francine wailed, her narrow frame wracked with gasping sobs as she held Claudia tighter. “I didn’t mean it, I didn’t, I didn’t mean any of it, I’m sorry— No, Claudia, NO, PLEASE!”
Claudia’s heart broke at the sound of Francine’s distress. She tried to speak again, to tell Francine everything was alright, but her throat burned.
Francine’s voice began to fade, like some distant call heard underwater. The sound was replaced by a new call; a song. A rising chorus echoed in Claudia’s mind, in her heart, thrumming in her very bones, soothing Claudia’s pain. Dulling her urgency.
But she had come to Francine for a reason. Hadn’t she? Claudia frowned as she fought to remember… The chart. Inch by inch, Claudia shifted her hand towards Francine, page crumpled in her shaking grip, blood smearing the paper.
“Colours… and songs…” Claudia tried to whisper, choking on the words and the taste of copper.
“Claudia!” Francine’s cries were so very distant. Claudia smiled as the new chorus drew ever closer, louder, rising like a creature from deep waters. It washed away all other sounds, pulsing with the promise of rest.
Claudia closed her eyes and sank again.
Continued with the chapter ‘Water’ on Patreon…
Join the Daydream Coven
I hope you enjoyed this teaser! The rest of this story can be found on my Patreon at the Teatime Reader and Teatime Daydreamer tiers!