The circular room has only one window. Coated with a thick layer of grime, the light comes through dimly, as if it’s always the twilight hour.
Shelves which stretch all the way up to the ceiling line the walls. There are ninety-nine bottles of various shapes and sizes sitting along these shelves, as well as some yellowing books and numerous artefacts from foreign lands.
The old alchemist had spent the majority of his life amassing the contents of these bottles. He had carefully labelled them, analysed their properties, studied their effects, and recorded all of his observations in an overstuffed ledger.
He does a circuit of the room, shuffling about in his worn slippers.
Some of the bottles are pushed back into the recesses of the shelf, their contents stewing darkly in the shadows. Others flicker as coloured flames leap within their bellies. And still others glow with an eerie incandescence that shifts in brightness depending on how close they are to their neighbours.
Every so often the old alchemist pauses before a bottle to wipe away a layer of dust and correct its position ever so slightly.
They’re not just bottles to him.
And they don’t merely contain ingredients, whether valuable or otherwise.
He stops in front of a bottle full of roiling black clouds that heave angrily against the glass. After a moment a violet flash lights up the bottle. He remembers travelling north with their tents rolled up in their saddle-bags and their food stores running dangerously low. She never once complained as they passed through the scattered villages without stopping. They made their way through the barren steppes for weeks before a storm had found them.
He captured this bolt of lightning as it struck the soil.
And she stoppered the bottle for him.
Next to this bottle is another taller one containing a violent gale that twists itself into a miniature tornado every time he passes. He had trapped this gale off the southern seas beyond the safety of the city harbour. He remembers how she had laughed at the roaring wind as it raged around them, her hood blown back and her hair whipping around her face.
On the shelf below is a flower which requires neither soil nor sunlight. Its sunset petals blaze in the darkness like a dozen candle flames. He had found it deep within the caves to the east of civilisation, and had given it to her.
She had treasured it for so many years.
Even in her final moments.
When she began to show the early symptoms of the illness, he had been sure he could cure her. He had mixed and combined and experimented with every element he had in his stores as he desperately searched for a cure, all for naught.
She passed away deep in the heart of a dark winter night, with nothing but the flower on her bedside table and an empty bottle shaped like a star sitting on the windowsill.
He sighs heavily before reaching into his satchel. Bringing out that same glass bottle, he places it on the shelf beside the flower. But suddenly it does not look as empty as it had for all those years.
Inside is a single ray of sunlight.
It lights up the glass and dances merrily upon the walls of the dusty old room. He stares in amazement at the shining star.
And slowly a smile returns to his weathered old face.
The bottle had never really been empty after all.