(Go back to part 3)
“You found what?” Joseph’s face was pale. He still hadn’t shaved.
“A bone. I think it’s a femur. A human femur.”
“You didn’t touch it, did you? With your bare skin, I mean,” asked Joseph, snatching the bag from her.
“Good.” He turned and disappeared into the back room of his cottage, muttering. “A bone . . . a bone . . .”
“Is that bad?” called Alex after him.
“Hmm.” He made an indistinct sound in his throat. Alex could already hear glass vials and other equipment rattling as the apothecary cleared off his workbench.
Joseph’s cottage was not large. A square of rough log walls caulked with mud encircled a wide stone fireplace that rose up through the center of the building, opening into both rooms. A thin wooden screen kept his living area separate from his workshop.
Dalia took up most of the room that Alex was in. She was on Joseph’s cot, wrapped tightly in blankets from head to foot with only her face visible. Alex stepped over to her, anxious about what she might see.
Dalia was a year older, but she had arrived at the chapter house in Goodhollow a year later than Alex. They’d grown up together, first as charges, then as acolytes, and as the only two girls near their age, Dalia was the closest thing Alex had to a sister. As puberty turned Alex into a gangly, awkward young woman with oversized feet and unruly hair, Dalia stayed short and spent more and more time with her books. They complemented each other well, even if Dalia’s theories about the Plague and the Cure left Alex feeling a little lost at times.
Now her friend lay motionless, wrapped in blankets and white as a sheet. Alex watched, waiting for Dalia to breathe. Long seconds passed before she did, and it was a slow, shallow breath with it did come. If it wasn’t for the breath, she looked dead.
“She’s asleep?” asked Alex.
“A deep, deep sleep,” replied Joseph from the other room. “It’s a special mixture that one of my colleagues discovered. Trust me, it’s better this way. Until I figure out what she has, I want it to cause as little damage as possible.”
“Was she like this last night?”
“Yes. Very little has changed since I put her out. Alex, can you grab something for me?”
“A small glass bottle, sealed with wax. Should be on the top shelf, all the way in the back.”
Alex turned away from her friend to the long shelves that covered every square bit of interior wall. They were packed with ingredients, and not all of them were in bottles. Long tresses of herbs and cuttings hung by their stems like noblewomen’s wigs, dried or drying (Alex couldn’t tell) and heavy clay jars loomed behind them, each marked with indecipherable chalk figures. Several horns and antlers from different animals were jumbled together in other places, beside baskets of mushrooms and crystallized root extracts.
The item Joseph asked for was nowhere to be seen; only after a few minutes of searching did Alex’s hand finally close around a tiny glass bottle laying on its side behind a heavy urn of gray ash.
She withdrew her hand and examined the bottle. It was made of opaque black glass, shiny like obsidian, and sealed with blue wax. Through the thick coating of dust that covered it she was surprised to find the single flame of the Curate. Spread around it were the open leaves of a book, symbol of the Curate librarians.
“What’s this?” she asked, crossing into the other room.
“Holy water, or so they tell me,” said Joseph. He had tied the bone between a set of heavy iron tongs. Two big mitts covered his hands, and a leather apron was wrapped around his front side. “Here, you’ll need this,” he told Alex, handing her a similar set of equipment.
“Wait—holy water? I’ve never heard of it. I mean, I’ve heard people talk about blessings and curses, but I didn’t think any of it was true.”
“They say that there’s a basin of this stuff deep in the archives in Antioch, and that the librarians take great pains to make sure it never runs dry. Whether it’s holy or not is anyone’s guess, but it is useful. And a little dangerous,” he added, gesturing to the apron.
“Dangerous?” Alex looked at the small bottle. It couldn’t be holding more than a few ounces of liquid. “Dangerous how?”
“It’s perfectly manageable if you take the proper precautions, of course,” said Joseph. “But you’ll see. Hopefully, you won’t see anything at all.”
“Why not? What’s it for?”
“Testing. We’re going to test that bone you found.”
“Well . . . you’ll see.” Joseph handed her a long-handled spoon with a tiny cup at the end. “We won’t need much.”
Alex scraped the wax seal off of the bottle and pried open the cork. She poured a teaspoon of clear liquid into the end of the long spoon. It looked exactly like water. There was no scent.
“Now what?” she asked.
Joseph raised the bone, tied in place between the tongs with a piece of leather strap, and held it toward the fireplace. “When you’re ready, pour the water on it. Near the top, please, so that it washes down.”
Alex felt an undercurrent of tension behind Joseph’s cheery tone. The old apothecary’s jaw was clenched, and the tongs trembled a little in his hands. “What’s going to happen?” she asked him again.
“Nothing, hopefully. Just tell me if you see any change, alright?”
“Okay.” Alex raised the long spoon. It was steady in her hands, the cup directly over the bone. She raised her eyebrows at Joseph. “Now?”
He nodded. “Whenever you’re ready.”
She braced herself, and then upended the spoon. Alex winced involuntarily, not sure what to expect.
The clear liquid splashed onto the shattered bone.
She kept her eyes on it, glancing over once at Joseph to see if he was still watching. He was. They both stood very still as the droplets of moisture soaked into the dry bone, tracing little dark paths as they worked their way down its surface. The fire popped and crackled in the background.
A minute passed. The tongs were heavy; they were shaking in Joseph’s hands now. Finally he let them fall a few inches, exhaling softly. “Ah. Nothing.”
“Joseph—” began Alex. Then she saw it.
A black liquid was oozing from the cracks in the bone like oily, glistening marrow pushing its way to the surface. It ran out and down to the splintered edges of the break, and Alex expected it to drip onto the floor. Instead, it reversed direction and began running impossibly upward, ignoring gravity as it followed the tracks of the holy water. She thought she could hear a soft hissing sound.
“Joseph!” she yelled.
The old man’s eyes darted back to the end of his tongs and took in the sight in an instant. With one motion, he flung the whole setup, tongs and all, straight into the fire. The femur burst into a blinding white flame that made Alex shield her eyes.
“Joseph! What—” she started to ask.
“Stay there! Don’t move!” he told her. Without removing any of his protective gear, he barged into the other room. A moment later he was back with the bag and glove he’d given Alex earlier. They went into the fire as well, followed by the mitts he had on. The flames crackled over this new fuel, the plastic burning a lurid green color. The bone was already gone.
“Did it touch anything else? The bone?” he asked her. “Tell me the truth!”
“No!” Alex still didn’t understand what had happened, but she was frightened by the old man’s behavior. “No! Just the things you gave me.”
“Okay. All right.” Joseph’s chest was heaving. He looked around his workbench, checking everything in his mind once more before turning and falling heavily into the rickety chair in the corner. “I need one other thing.”
“In the other room. Red glass bottle, medium size. Second shelf on the right.”
Alex fetched it as fast as she could. She gave it back to him, and he undid the top with shaky hands. “What’s that for?” she asked him. “Is it a preventative?”
“It’s brandy,” he replied, pouring a small cup for himself and immediately downing it. He poured himself a second cup as soon as the first was gone, thought better of it, and then drank it anyway in one long gulp.
Alex had never seen the old man drink before. It did little to calm her nerves.
“There,” he said, coughing once as the liquor burned down his throat. “I think that’s everything. Everything except the tongs.” They were starting to glow red-hot, nestled among the embers. “I think we’re safe enough.”
“Joseph, what the hell was that?” asked Alex. “You saw it, right? The black stuff? It went the wrong way, it shouldn’t have been able to do that . . . you know what it was, right? Is that what’s making Dalia sick?”
Joseph closed his eyes again as Alex’s questions bounced into one another, stroking his whiskers with one hand. When he opened them again, he was looking at her.
“Alex,” he said, softly, “there’s no easy way to put this, and I’m sorry that I have to tell you, but Dalia is going to die.”
(Continue: Part 5)