Published on 2011/05/08

The Philosopher's Stone

Larry Kollar

We accept your invitation for March 14th. Her Grace has business nearby and will personally attend your demonstration. I myself will accompany her.

Be aware that honest failure will garner only some ridicule and a minor rebuke, while fraud will be punished severely. If you find yourself unable to continue, do us the courtesy of advance notice.

Giovanni put the letter aside. Marco felt threatened, as well he should. That he, Giovanni, would be the instrument God used to cast down the mighty would only make it more delicious. “Back down at the moment of triumph?” he asked the letter. “Bah!” He had no doubt — well, only the smallest doubt — that he had found the Philosopher’s Stone. Because of Giovanni, gold would become as common as dirt. But he yet had much work to do in the next three weeks. He laid the letter aside and began.

# # #

On the appointed day, Marco swept through Giovanni’s door unannounced, giving the front room a disapproving inspection. Without a word, he lifted a random jar from the shelf —

“Behold Her Grace!” a herald called from the doorway. Giovanni immediately turned and knelt.

“Arise,” the queen said, seeming bored with ceremony. “You are the one whose demonstration I have come to see?”

“Your Grace,” Marco sneered, “we may have come to the wrong place. The Giovanni who wrote us claims to be an alchemist. We seem to have found the apothecary instead.”

“This is the right place, Your Grace,” said Giovanni, refusing to be cowed by the likes of Marco. “I am the apothecary to Your Grace’s subjects in this village, which provides me the income to pursue my true calling.”

“Impressive, discovering the Philosopher’s Stone in a part-time pursuit. I praise your persistence.”

“Your Grace is kind. But I must admit, I have not labored alone. My brother is the local monsignor, and I have a letter of commendation from the bishop as I successfully treated his gout.” Let Marco chew on that — any ill he plotted against Giovanni would be repaid manyfold.

“I see,” said the queen. “So how did you find it?”

“Your Grace, you yourself know that the Church has preserved a great body of ancient knowledge. I was granted entrée to the vast library in Roma. From there, my research led me to a monastery in Persia, where is stored a certain manuscript from faraway Bharat. The script is all but forgotten, but clues I found in Roma — and much prayer — allowed me to unlock most of its secrets.”

“A pretty story,” Marco sneered, “but I find it hard to believe that a mere village apothecary, no matter how well-traveled, has found that to which so many have dedicated their entire lives to the search. If you were so certain of your discovery, you should have sent along your notes.”

And let you steal the credit? “It is said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, eminent Marco. I intend to provide that proof this very day.”

“So you intend to go through with this — this show?”

“Of course.”

“Your fraud will —”

“Marco,” the queen herself interrupted, “enough. Our host speaks truth — or is convinced of the same. Let him succeed or fail without further harassment.”

Marco sketched a bow and mumbled “Your Grace.”

Giovanni made a more sincere bow. “The queen is kind,” he said. “I have everything ready in my laboratory. Through this door, if you please.” He conducted them into the next room and lifted heavy lead-lined aprons from the wall. “I was unable to translate some parts of the document to my satisfaction. Thus, I am unsure whether these are for ritual or safety. With such distinguished guests, I would err on the side of caution. If I understand correctly, the power of the Stone brought to bear on mere flesh can cause harm.”

“The Stone, the Stone. What is the Stone?”

“That, eminent Marco, is a misnomer that has led us all astray. It is not a stone at all, but a metal! The ores were mined of old in what are now German and Slavic districts. As I gathered the ore, I found signs of ancient mines, long since collapsed. The refining process is long and arduous, almost beyond our ability. But with enough care and time, I was able to cope.

“The documents say that you need a certain amount of the refined metal, which is not to be brought together into a single mass until the proper moment —”

“Sounds like sorcery.”

“Then, eminent Marco, we are all guilty of aspiring to sorcery. The base metal is packed around the two pieces of Stone, and brought together with a great weight atop. All is ready, but perhaps eminent Marco wishes to examine the apparatus first?”

Marco nodded and peered into the open furnace. “This brown stuff — this is the Stone?”

“Aye.”

“So unimposing. Perhaps that too has kept it hidden. Well… proceed, then.”

Giovanni turned to the wall, where he had a sturdy crank mounted. With a silent prayer to his saint, he released the catch and let go the handle; it spun madly as a mass dropped from above and struck the mass below with a flat WHUMP.

Marco smiled. “Nothing. You have failed. As expected.”

“It grows warm,” the herald said, plucking at his apron. Giovanni sweated, unsure whether from heat or nerves —

The furnace emitted hissing and popping noises, then the stone vessel cracked and crumbled. Molten yellow poured forth.

“A miracle!” The herald crossed himself. They stood transfixed in the growing heat, until Marco seized a crucible by its long handle and dipped it in the diminishing flow. He pulled it to them and all stared at the contents wide-eyed. The heat was nearly intolerable, but began to ebb.

“It’s beautiful,” the queen breathed. “It seems to glow with an inner Light!” She turned. “Marco: speak true now. Do you find any fraud in this demonstration?”

“If fraud there is,” Marco whispered, “I cannot find it.”

“Then acknowledge him.” It was a command.

Marco gave Giovanni a sour look, but bowed briefly. “Maestro.”

“Maestro Giovanni,” Her Grace smiled. “What will you need to bring your apparatus to the court?”

“All can fit in ten wagons. Except, of course, the furnace.”

“That we have. Marco will of course assist you with all his talent.” Marco sighed and nodded. “We will withdraw now. Begin preparations immediately.”

“Of course, Your Grace. Please, take the crucible as my personal gift to you.”

# # #

The pounding at his door did not wake Giovanni, for his excitement and exultation would not let him sleep. He put down his short sword when he recognized the herald’s voice: “Open, in the name of the queen!”

The herald entered. “Your services as apothecary are required,” he said. “We vomit, and our bowels run like water.”

“Tainted food,” Giovanni said, then started. “I have never known Pietro to serve bad food at his inn!”

“It was our own provender,” the herald said as Giovanni spooned powder into a packet. “Heads will roll at the court over this!”

“Stir a small spoon of this into warm tea for each of you. It should help. Who would do this?”

The herald rubbed his head, then looked puzzled at the hank of hair in his hand. “Any of them at the court.” He paused. “Marco… be careful of him. He is a jealous one.”

“I will, and thank you.” To be honest, Giovanni himself felt a little queasy, and he’d eaten… nothing. He’d forgotten supper. Forcing himself to eat a roll and a bite of meat, he then took a pinch of his own powder.

# # #

Two days later, a hearse conducted the bodies of the queen and the royal entourage back to the palace. The village was in turmoil, and Giovanni frantically packed his wagon with essentials and all his notes and writings. His brother warned of coming reprisals, but he would not skulk away under cover of night — the villagers were used to his comings and goings, and none would find his departure notable. He felt a little sick, but dismissed it as nerves. By mid-afternoon, he rode away.

By evening, he reached the next village — slumped over the reins. A boy jumped onto the wagon and looked him over. “He’s dead!”

The poor swarmed the cart. It and the horse were of no use to them, but valuable contents quickly disappeared. A stack of books were useful, but only to feed their fires.


Larry Kollar lives in North Georgia, surrounded by pines, kudzu, and in-laws. He works as a technical writer, with over 15 million manuals published. He spends most of his free time wrangling Mason, the World's Cutest Grandkid, and writing. Read some of his strange fiction, and even stranger reality, at his blog: Tales from FAR Manor farmanor.blogspot.com, where he posts under the pen name "FARfetched."