Historical Fiction

Alchemy of Glass


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How do an epidemic in 1826 London, the fatal disease of a young girl in modern Chicago, and a ruined monastery converge to threaten a catastrophic future? ALCHEMY OF GLASS, the sequel to the Bram Stoker Award-nominated The Apothecary’s Curse weaves a tale magical as spun glass and terrifying as a shattered mirror, drawing upon cutting edge science and the most ancient of Celtic mythology, intertwining the magic of fairy lore and the harsh reality of difficult choices, returning us to the world of Gaelan Erceldoune as his past, present and future collide.

In the catacombs of the monastery, hidden away in the Eildon Hills of Scotland, the place where immortal apothecary Gaelan Erceldoune found sanctuary as a lad-- Gaelan discovers a journal, apparently written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, chronicling an adventure into the Otherworld, a land of fairy castles and filigree trees.

Falling from the journal’s pages, a small piece of glass, which Gaelan recognizes as a fragment long missing from a stained glass panel he’d created a century earlier. When the opalescent glass seems to come alive in his hand, Gaelan is suddenly thrust into nightmarish, strange world far from the fantastical dreamscape Conan Doyle describes.

Chicago, 1893

Gaelan Erceldoune strolled along the water’s edge, zigzagging his way through the detritus washed up on the gravel-strewn shore. Stopping, he gazed at the horizon, only now becoming discernable against the black water. A lone figure, frock coat billowing in the stiff breeze, stood at the distant point of a decaying wooden pier, staring into the dusky lavender of the pre-dawn sky as daylight advanced in slow ascent.

Curiosity propelled Gaelan, first one step and then another, slowly down the dock, wondering what so intrigued the man to drive him to that far, perilous vantage, and before the relative safety of the morning light. The wood bobbed unevenly, precariously, just above the murky brown water, which burst through the rotting boards; the footing was slippery.

Midway, Gaelan glanced south over the inlet, glimpsing the remote peninsula where the main exhibition buildings stood, their bright white facades gleaming in the orange-pink radiance of the rising sun, which had now broken the water’s surface. The lights of the White City, which all night bathed the Lake Michigan shoreline in an eerie glow, had faded in the dawning light to barely discernable, receding in the far distance like a dying Roman candle. 

The boards creaked beneath Gaelan’s boots with every step as he approached the distant edge, and he hoped the noise would not startle the stranger into losing his balance. “It is a beautiful sight out here, is it not?” Gaelan said almost to himself. 

The stranger wheeled about, arms flailing like a madman, catching Gaelan off-guard. The small lamp, which had guided Gaelan’s steps in the dark, clattered onto the dock before tumbling off the edge and into the lake. But for his ancient walking stick, he would have soon followed suit as he struggled to keep his balance on slick wood.

The stranger’s wide-eyed glare burned hot and hard. “People are fools! Complete idiots!” He stopped without another word, wrapping his arms tight about his chest as if to still them. Gaelan planted his feet at a wide stance, remaining completely still, his wary gaze fixed on the strange man. Perhaps a nonthreatening gesture might serve to calm the fire. “Forgive me, sir, my intrusion. I shall leave you be.”

Gaelan turned to make his way quickly as possible toward the safety of the gravel beach.

“Wait a moment. Do not go just yet.” The fury had gone from his voice, replaced by a quiet plea. Gaelan turned tentatively toward the troubled man, who seemed to regret his outburst.

“Perhaps you might accompany me to safer, more stable ground, sir, so we might—“

“Do forgive me. Last night I had a spectacular, failed argument with yet another potential financier, and I’ve been out here all the night ruminating upon it. But I cannot come to any other conclusion. The whole lot of them—fools with no vision whatsoever. No imagination. You need not fear me, nor fear for me. I’m no lunatic. I’ve no homicidal inclination, nor designs on killing myself, however upset I may be. I thought I’d secured the funding necessary for my most recent invention, and then . . .” He snapped his index finger to his thumb. “Phhht. Nothing. And you would think after my grand achievement at the exposition I might have managed—”

Gaelan breathed out, feeling at last on firmer ground. So, he was an inventor. The exposition was surely the venue for it; the Columbian Exposition was replete with inventors, great and insignificant, the genuine geniuses and the charlatans, side by side. So, which sort was this fellow?

“So, you do understand my annoyance at . . .?” The man shrugged his shoulders. “But never mind all that. It is over.” Crouching, the stranger reached down, scooping up a handful of cloudy water with a gloved hand. It trickled between his fingers, leaving behind an oily, silty residue. “Do you know? Years of harsh winter snows, winds that blow in a gale off the water—neither have rid the place of the Great Fire. And how long has it been? Twenty years, is it? And still, the ash remains. You can still smell it in the filthy water pooling along the edges of Lake Michigan. That distinctive signature. It lives on in the very fiber of a city reborn.”

“Whether the remnant of fire or soot from the smokestack, it is a fact of our times, I suppose. It blackens every place where there is industry, from New York to London—anywhere progress moves us forward, it leaves behind its gray, greasy tarnish.”

“You are correct, of course,” the man continued. “Yet, from these ashes rose up the great White City of the Columbian Exposition. The very future of the world before our eyes. You see, it was inevitable. From out of the fire comes progress. Destruction gives birth to a renewed sense of invention, as it must.

“Case in point,” he continued. “As a young man, I had cholera. Terrible business; I nearly died of it. Nine months bedridden in my father’s house. Yet, I do not regret it. For out of the fire of my fever— cholera—I was reborn from the ashes to become an engineer. Never would it have occurred had I not become ill.”

Gaelan shook his head. “To speak true, I do not understand the connection.”

“I was destined for the priesthood, despite my own wishes, but the illness made my father see beyond his own—” The man gingerly removed his dirty, sodden glove, flinging it away, following its flight until it landed in the water with a loud plop. He shrugged. “I suppose I must now buy a new pair of gloves, but I cannot stand it, you know, the filth. I am not sure why I expose myself to . . .”

He trailed off and swept his gaze over the horizon and down into the lake before returning his attention to Gaelan. “But the answer is here. Right before our very eyes. The power of the water, the sun, which already warms us, and is not even yet fully risen from its sleep. Even the wind that defeats whatever warmth the sun may deliver. Whosoever harnesses these elements shall rule the universe.”

Gaelan nodded. This was not news to him. “Indeed.” The elements of an alchemist’s trade: earth, sun, wind, fire. Gaelan knew them well. Since he’d been a young boy apprenticing at his father’s side, studying his methods, wondering at his incomprehensible book of healing. Gaelan walked him back to shore and seated himself on a rotting crate before looking out toward the dawn sky.

Venus appeared above the water, a distant orange dot, barely visible before the sun completely obliterated it from view. He blinked and the planet disappeared into the fast-brightening horizon. “Perhaps you are looking at it backwards, sir,” he said after a moment. “Sometimes destruction is simply that. Destruction. Not a birthplace for the new and improved, but a graveyard for what might have been.”

“Indeed?” The man alighted upon another rickety crate for a brief second before springing up, backing several paces away. Again, he shrugged his shoulders. “Is there nowhere clean where we might sit, sir?”

Gaelan glanced about. No. This was no Regent’s Park. Far, far from it. “Yes. Destruction inevitably follows too-rapid progress. Taking hold and sprinting like Mercury, barreling ahead with no concept of the consequences that otherwise may have been foreseen. The invention of new technologies without the concomitant understanding. There is an inherent danger—”

“That is not the point at all! You have completely misunderstood my meaning. Witness the White City to our south, risen like a great alabaster Phoenix. Yes, the flame possesses unimaginable power. Destructive power to be sure. We have managed, somehow, to harness it, but not yet wrought from it all we may. Yes, destruction is inevitable perhaps, yet, considering what might be . . . the possibilities!”

Gaelan sighed. There was truth there, but he had seen too much over the centuries to trust in unbounded experimentation. Invention for invention’s sake. “Yes,” he finally agreed. “The electric lights of Mr. Edison. Have you seen them?”

“Bah. Edison.” The man strode away, his hands clenched into tight fists. Perhaps better to change the subject. Yet, who could not but admire Edison’s achievement, on full display at the exposition?

“As for myself,” Gaelan said, “I have come out this morning to walk along this vast freshwater sea at dawn to experience the unbridled power of nature’s exquisite beauty. Behold the sunrise, the way it paints the sky in such colors as cannot possibly be described by a mere human.” The spray of cumulus clouds just above the lake painted the sunrise in hues of green, blue, purple, red, and orange, such as Gaelan had rarely seen.

“I suppose you attribute it to God.”

“No. I do not,” Gaelan said more brusquely than was polite. “Forgive me, but I have no use for God, at least not as defined by any church. No, sir. God has done me little good.”

“At least we might agree on that point. And you are right; quite a spectacular display of nature’s power.” The stranger hesitated a moment, as if about to venture upon a delicate subject. “Are you perchance aware of a dynamic field, one that radiates from nature itself, in fact, which covers the entirety of very earth upon which we stand, perhaps the universe entire?”

An odd concept, but Gaelan had, at times, reflected upon it, particularly when in the arms of nature’s intricate splendor, as he was on this particular morning. Witnessing the raw power of the sun as it lifted above the horizon, setting it ablaze. Already the temperature had risen by many degrees since he’d first set out, miles down the shore, as sunlight crept further and further across the expanse of water, transforming it from indigo to cobalt to sapphire, like those strange gas-filled tubes he’d seen on exhibit the day before, which captured atoms of gases, igniting them into brilliant colored light. And those globes of trapped phosphorescent chemical compounds with which he would illuminate the dark workspaces of his laboratory so long ago.

The stranger’s demeanor softened. “Have you managed to get close, sir, to the Westinghouse exhibit?”

“Yes. The very first day. Incredible, quite. Of course, the remarkable electrical coils. And the Geissler tubes. The conductance of pure elemental gases caught in a glass vessel, and lighted without wires. How extraordinary. I was only just thinking about it. Have you visited yet?”

“Where are my manners? Forgive me, here we have been talking nearly half an hour, sharing this magnificent morning—and debating the future. Still we’ve not exchanged even the most basic pleasantries! I, sir, am Nicola Tesla. And I am pleased to make your acquaintance. And to know you have appreciated my contribution to the exposition.”

Tesla? Why had he not recognized the brilliant inventor? “I . . . Of course. I must apologize,” Gaelan stammered, embarrassed.

“It is of little matter. It would appear Thomas Edison has quite stolen the show, as it were, from all of us.”

“I am Gaelan Erceldoune, chemist, apothecary, and of late, glassmaker.” Gaelan extended his hand; Tesla did not take it.

“Are you, too, an inventor, Mr. Erceldoune?”

“No. Not really, and certainly not of your exalted class . . . or Edison’s. Speaking of which . . . I do believe, sir your coil shall change the world, no matter what Mr. Edison has already brought to electrical invention. Yours can only—”

“Glass, you say?”

“Why, yes. I have always been drawn in by its unique properties, its malleability when liquefied, its ability to incorporate, and seamlessly, elements that either beautify or add to its utility. Glass can give birth to the humblest, yet incredibly durable, vessel or to the most fragile, priceless work of art.”

“Have you ever experimented with spectra, as from prisms of differing sorts?”

“Not experimented. Studied, perhaps, as an amateur might. I am quite amazed by the ability of a simple, clear glass triangle or pyramid to bend and deconstruct a simple beam of light, proving it to be anything but colorless—or simple. I believe my curiosity about the unique properties of glass has led me here . . . to glassmaking. I am especially keen on the sort embedded with metal oxides—favrile glass it is called.”

“I am less in awe of its aesthetic beauty, Mr. Erceldoune, than I am of the beauty of the unfathomable potential of its power. Spectral light—waves of it—in harmony at a unique, perfect frequency. That is power—and at the heart of something with which I have only begun to experiment. What I referred to earlier. It is why I found myself this morning standing out there upon a lonely dock that might at any moment give way. There is something about the spot that drew me to it. Something in an instrument of my own invention directed me there. You would not understand, I do not think, the physics or engineering of it.”

“Perhaps not. But I do comprehend that sort of unrelenting magnetic pull an idea might exert. Irresistible and insistent.”

“Yes. Exactly that! Tell me, Mr. Gaelan Erceldoune—” Tesla hesitated for a moment as if unsure whether to continue down this conversational path. He held up a finger. “What would you say . . . ? What if I were to suggest to you . . . ? What if we might be able to concentrate beams of light into perfect harmony such that it would create a means to communicate not only from one point to another, say from here to the exposition grounds, but between points in the galaxy, perhaps through time? That space and time might form a convergence of sorts and allow us to—”

If that is why Tesla had been arguing with his financier, it was little wonder he’d been frustrated. The idea was far from reality—and playing with real fire, should it possess even a grain of true possibility. No sane backer would finance such a venture. Perhaps Tesla only meant it as a jest. Yet, knowing what little he did of the inventor . . . “It is an idea perhaps more at home in Mr. H.G. Wells’s fiction than in a laboratory.”

Gaelan regretted saying it as soon as it passed his lips. He knew better, he had experienced far too much in his life that seemed impossible. The idea that one might bend time to one’s will. Intriguing . . .

“Tell me, Mr. Erceldoune. Is there a singular place you have visited or perhaps lived where you felt that sort of overpowering energy, dynamic beyond simple comprehension of the mind? Felt it down to your toes and the fiber of your being? Where nothing seemed beyond the realm of possibility? A spot ripe for such a temporal weak spot, as it were, where one might if only one had the means . . .”

Gaelan considered his father’s book, long since missing. A massive tome, its leather cover engraved with a hawthorn tree and mighty ouroboroses. The source of all healing for all time past and yet to come, the key to Gaelan’s immortality—and Simon Bell’s.

But how could he explain it to Tesla, who would, no doubt, think him mad. And it was not an answer to the question. A book is not a place. Ah, yes. There is one place, cast so far into the far reaches of memory, he’d barely thought of it in decades. “There is, but I am afraid little remains but a small church, a few building stones, if that. An herbarium, likely by now gone to weed. In its day, a truly incredible place of tucked-away brilliance. A monastery.”

“A house of God?” Tesla laughed unpleasantly. “I am surprised, considering your professed disdain for Him—”

“But I cannot deny the presence there of exactly what you describe. What I experienced when—” Gaelan dared not go further in explanation. “Perhaps. It is undeniable that each being on this planet—in the universe, each particle, each speck of dirt, granule of glass—we are all interconnected as the stars in the firmament, bound together by an indescribable force. Is this force, then, God? That is a matter of opinion. But it has nothing to do with the institution that defines the indefinable, yes?”

“Exactly so.” Tesla seemed to withdraw into himself a moment, considering something. “So, this place, you say, no longer exists. Are you certain? Perhaps you’ve not the eyes to see it. What if you possessed the ability to bend the light, like a prism, at least metaphorically, and see beyond what is visible in the ordinary light? I am certain it sounds preposterous to you, and undoubtedly, you think me quite deranged, as did my financiers.”

Gaelan could not disagree more, for he had experienced things more fantastical than even Tesla might imagine. “One century’s madman is today’s genius,” Gaelan offered. “What you suggest would seem to exist solely in the realm of magic and myth. Yet, what is magic, but science—technological innovation—that we have not yet the ability—the eyes—to comprehend? Even twenty years ago, your brilliant alternating current, your coil, would have been thought a lunatic’s ravings. Three hundred years ago, you might have been burnt alive for witchcraft. Yet, here we are.”

An image conjured in the far reaches of Gaelan’s memory—the day when as a young lad he’d been forced to witness his own dear papa’s execution on the pyre for the capital offense of magical healing. For curing King James VI and his court from a scourge that nearly devoured all of Britain. Not by magic but by science. Not by sorcery but by knowledge, understanding far beyond his time.

Gaelan shook his head, gazing back toward the horizon. The sun was now full up; he’d meant to be back at the fair long ago. The cacophony of gulls filled the air as they dove for prey among the whitecaps. The waves sloshed over the rickety dock and the gravel of the narrow beach, pulling the pungent aroma of fish and algae a bit too close by.

“What is this place called, if I might ask, and where is . . . or rather . . . was . . . it located? The site to which you referred—the ruin?” Tesla asked as he scuttled away from the encroaching water.

Gaelan followed. “It was called in its day the House of the Holy Trinity, at a place called Soutra in the Scottish Borders, near Fala.” A house of science and study, art, and history. Of medicines far beyond any known capability of the time. And for him, a sanctuary, a rescue from certain death.   

About the author

Barbara Barnett is the author of three books, including the award-winning The Apothecary’s Curse, a finalist for the prestigious Bram Stoker Award for a debut novel. Her first book, Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D. (ECW Press) is the essential guide to the hit TV series. view profile

Published on April 21, 2020

Published by Pyr Books

120000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Historical Fiction

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