Calum and I played a writing challenge this evening. We gave each other 4 prompts: a character, an item, a setting and a theme. Then we had to try to write a story based on that theme in 30 minutes. The time-dependent aspect got abandoned by the wayside, but we still wrote them within less than an hour (barring tidying for spelling and grammar).
Here is my result (and you can read Calum’s one here):
Character Prompt: An alchemist
Item Prompt: A jar of ink
Theme Prompt: Preservation
Setting Prompt: A haunted castle.
It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Normally, the ghosts were happy to be listened to. Were content to have their essence distilled down into a thick, ectoplasmic goop and mixed with the glowing pigment that would record their life story for it to be preserved for all times in the Sacred Archives. But as soon as the Alchemist crossed the drawbridge, leather satchel slung over her shoulder and incense at the ready, she could tell this time was different.
The slam of the portcullis, blocking her path, was her first clue. The second clue was the blood red writing on the courtyard wall – “you are not welcome here”. Then there was the unnatural cold and the angry howling.
The Alchemist took out a vial of acid and eroded through the portcullis bars, making a gap just big enough to squeeze through. Once she was inside, she reached back into her satchel and produced a bottle of lemon juice, which she mixed into a small ceramic bowl with the dust in the castle courtyard. Now she had her base concoction: it combined the substance of the place where the haunt dwelled, with the elusiveness of invisible ink. But it still required one more ingredient if she wanted to create a barrier to keep the ghost from escaping – part of the ghost itself.
The Alchemist’s eyes rested on the wall writing. Ghosts were mostly intangible, so to affect its physical surroundings, it had to mix its essence with the item it interacted with. Meaning the bleeding letters would be made of ghost? Careful not to get any on her hands, the Alchemist scraped some of the wall writing into the bowl with a tiny spatula. The substance was ready, but in this form it would not be nearly enough.
The Alchemist scanned the courtyard once more, searching, and she noticed a rusting water pump situated near a wall of ivy that shivered in the wind. The Alchemist started towards the pump, but as she walked, the courtyard’s cobbles protested. They wriggled and jostled, trying to get under her feet and trip her up. But the Alchemist lay on her side and rolled, so that each of the cobbles bumped her uncomfortably, but barely hindered her movement. With even the castle floor trying to keep her out, the alchemist did not trust the pump or ivy would be any more welcoming. Sure enough, as soon as the alchemist was in reach of the ivy, it lashed out and wrapped its angry vines around her legs, arms and neck, squeezing like a boa constrictor. But the Alchemist was prepared. From inside her sleeves, she produced a squishy bottle of vinegar, that she sprayed at the offending leaves, causing them to recoil. In her other fist she held a block of salt, that she rubbed on the ivy tendrils, drying them to the point where they had retreated back to the wall. Ivy defeated, the Alchemist held the salt rock under the spigot of the water pump, so that it purified whatever nasty concoction the ghost had added to the dirty brown liquid that emerged as the Alchemist pumped. Added to the lemon juice, courtyard dust and ghost extract, the resulting mixture wasn’t as pure as the alchemist would have liked, but it was now probably enough solution, so the diluted form would have to do. Bracing herself for further bruises, the Alchemist rolled back out to the portcullis and used a pastry brush to paint an X onto the bars. Now the ghost would be stuck here.
All that remained was to track the ghost down. The Alchemist moved through the castle, encountering and neutralising obstacle after obstacle that the ghost threw at her. In the kitchen, the Alchemist was attacked by flying knives; pouring ferromagnetic metals onto the floor attracted the knives downwards, so the ghost couldn’t lift them. A spark from her tinder box quickly cleared the huge stack of books that blocked her way in the study. In the great hall, the giant taxidermied stag heads animated and attacked, but were lulled to sleep by the funeral incense (myrrh) that the Alchemist burned. The Alchemist herself, being still alive, was not affected by the myrrh, but the ghost, well, it was dead, and its attacks became less forceful after that. As the Alchemist moved through each room, she crossed off the doors, so the ghost was shepherded until it had nowhere else to go.
Finally they got to the highest tower. The Alchemist, with sticky glue dripping from her shoes (which she had applied to climb the slope that had once been stairs), was puffing, frustrated and angry. By this point the ghostly howling had died down to a sullen sob. The Alchemist opened the final door, and there, curled in the corner watching her sulkily, was the ghost of a little servant boy.
The final inhabitant of the castle glared up at the Alchemist.
“It ain’t fair,” said the child. “I never got to live much. I should get to unlive without all you exorcisers comin’ to take me away.”
The Alchemist said nothing, but she settled down on the floor, pulled out her pen and glowing, ectoplasmic ink, and a small tea set. Over her Bunsen burner, the Alchemist boiled a pot of green tea and the tiny ghost accepted the teacup in his hardened ectoplasmic hand. Now that the ghost wasn’t haunting so large a space (only this small room), he was able to concentrate on holding better. The ghost told the Alchemist his story. He had worked in the castle as a stable boy. He had tended the horses and the dogs. Each evening he had sat by the castle stove and eaten his potato dinner. He had sent home a silver piece to his mother each month. And he had played in the snow with the other servant children when the adults weren’t looking. Then the plague had come and people started getting sick. To keep him well, the cook had hidden him behind the stove. But something had gone wrong. Maybe the cook had fled and forgotten to tell anyone about him. Maybe she had gotten too sick to retrieve him.
The boy had been stuck, trapped inside the wall, and when he awoke he was able to glide through the wall, but he was still trapped in the castle. And now he was all alone. He wanted his mother; he wanted his horses and dogs. He had cried for them. Howled for them. But the howling had alerted the village and the village had alerted the archive and the archive had sent the Alchemist. And as the story was told, the ink grew brighter. The child drank his tea, and the Alchemist picked up the quill and wrote the child’s story. As the Alchemist wrote, the child began to fade, particles of ectoplasm drifting towards the ink.
A smash of the teacup on the stone floor told the Alchemist the boy was gone. The Alchemist lifted the cracked china, the final dregs of tea not yet drunk. This was what the Alchemist needed. She dripped the tea, now combined with the boy’s spirit, into the ink, and the ink itself shimmered and bubbled in appreciation.
The archive wants to preserve people’s tales, but the story is not what the Alchemist wants. The life mixture, a thousand thousand souls combined and preserved in one little glowing bottle of inky gloop. That is true alchemy.
And now the boy’s story lies in the Sacred Archives. And the Alchemist moves onto another haunt, another story, and in her satchel, the ink glows a little brighter.