I finally manage to move the tumblers in the elaborate lock and push the door open. The sight and smells before me are remarkable, the rumours I had heard do not do the room justice. Acrid smells assault my nose, faint traces of bitter substances play across my tongue and my eyes are startled by an array of colour and fantastic, unnameable objects.
I am so in awe that I forget the door but a breeze running down the darkened alleyway behind me prompts me to shut the room away from prying eyes. There are no windows to the room but it is faintly lit by various sized bowls emanating a faint glow. There are enough scattered around the room to allow me to see the whole space. I slowly walk around marvelling at, touching and variously inhaling the contents of the rows of jars, vessels and implements that are stashed on shelves and various tables.
In the middle of the room is a large bench table with a number of glass vessels variously joined together with different coloured elements inside them. A series of small closed bowls, with a small set of bellows protruding from a hole in their side, sit on metal frames on the bench. A large fireplace with a bed of glowing coals sits at the far end of the room.
I hadn’t appreciated the heat of the room and how, with the unusual atmosphere within, my head is swimming. I rest an elbow on the bench, bumping into one of the vessels. I manage to stop it falling but a few drops of liquid hit the wooden table top and immediately smoke and burn a small hole in the surface.
Thankful that I have not given evidence to my visit by avoiding a larger spill of the liquid I start to look over the other glass containers and the incredible sights within before I hear voices. They are faint at first but more noticeable as they get nearer to the door. I start to sweat, my befuddled head is not providing the clarity of thought I need, but I notice a screen in one of the corners of the room and manage to reach it as the door opens. I watch through some of the closely cut latticing towards the bottom of the barrier.
Two men enter the room, one immediately recognisable to me. Although their voices had sounded loud as they neared the door I can’t, at first, distinguish what they are saying to each other. The younger man, who I have not seen before, stops by the door, his face, as mine must have been when I first entered.
‘This my friend is where it all happens.’
‘My, this is remarkable sire.’
‘Please, there is no need for such formalities. Have a look around.’
The younger man starts to move around the room, slowly, scrutinising carefully what he sees before stopping at one of the shelves with a row of jars with arcane symbols painted on their sides.
‘What do these symbols mean?’
‘Ah, these are my identifiers for what lies inside. The row of jars you see there are liquids that burn and eat into substances. I followed the teachings of many great, foreign scholars to determine the recipes to create them. From left to right you have Oil of Vitriol, Aqua Fortis and Spirit of Salt. They are vital ingredients in the work I do here. However, why don’t you come over to the bench. I have something to show you.’
The acolyte does as he is bidden and lets out a gasp before the great man can speak.
‘What are these?’ the young man says pointing to glass vessels on the bench.
‘These are experiments. Stages in the main one. This crystalline one are Trees of Diana.’
‘And the orange one in the tall glass? I have never seen anything like it.’
‘I just call it metallic vegetation. Those plant like fronds in the glass are made from chemical reactions with metal. However, as amazing as I can see you find them I have something far more significant to discuss with you.’
They both take high stools by the bench.
The master turns to the young man and says, ‘I am not well. No that is not right. I have a dark, cankerous humour in me and I fear I do not have much longer to live. I have strived at this work for many years and am close to perfecting it. I do not have any sons and I think you have the aptitude that is needed to see my work through. The one stipulation is that when you become rich and famous, as undoubtedly you will, you will elevate my name too. Do we have a deal?’
‘But ,what do you…?’
‘Do we have a deal?’
‘Yes sire. We have a deal.’
‘Good, then come over to the athanor. I am going to let you into the detailed secrets of the of the most arcane of happenings, my friend. Please, come with me.’
What I had taken to be a fireplace is an opened mouthed furnace with a domed lid upon which the Master places a heavy looking crucible.
‘So this is a piece of base metal. Please put it in the vessel on top of the athanor. Now take these bellows and work on the coals.’
The young man works hard on raising the temperature of the coals. The heat in the room begins to feel oppressive but despite it making me feel unwell I can’t stop watching.
‘You can stop that for a bit, come and look at the metal. You can see it has gone black under the heat we’ve applied to it. This shows us that the old material is dying. Now pump some more.’
After a while the young man is summoned again. He steps away from his labour and looks within the crucible. He is sweating from his assertions and the heat in the room and has to wipe his eyes to see clearly.
‘It is now red. See? The metal is red, this is the colour that we need.’
The Master reaches for a set of keys on his belt and moves to a small chest. After playing with a number of locks the chest opens and he pulls out a small vial.
‘This is my big secret, this is what I pass to you. This is the Philosopher’s Stone. This is the elixir that all the others have tried to create. What I discovered is that it can be found all around us but stays unrecognised. It doesn’t require creating. You just need to know where to look. Now hit the bellows a bit more to bring the metal back to red. That’s it. Now I add this to the bowl.’
A strange sound comes from the crucible, a cracking sound, but elemental. The smoke rising from the vessel changes colour and they step forward.
‘There my boy, we’ve done it.’
‘Is that gold?’
‘Is it really…?’
‘As I said, yes. However, as you can see it is only a small nugget, much smaller than the source material. The next step is to perfect it so that I get a like for like exchange.’
‘That is remarkable, and you want me to hold this secret when you are gone?’
‘Yes I do. I believe you are the right person. Now while we let it cool down let’s get a drink at the tavern. I don’t know about you but this heat has given me a thirst.’
As the door shuts I cannot contain my excitement. I rush to the bench where the product of the experiment had been placed in a shallow container, and peer inside. There it is, a small nugget of gold. I cannot believe my eyes. I search for something to scoop it out of the bowl with and then place it in a small metal box. I look for something that won’t burn to cover it in and return to the box. I stare as the last of the metal’s lustre fades before my eyes. In dismay I ready to leave. Moving to the door I fumble for my tools when I hear a voice.’
The door opens and the alchemist is shouting that he has forgotten something but to carry on to the tavern.
‘Who are you? What have you…?’
Before he can finish I rush him, plunge a knife in to him, then stab him three more times before fleeing down the alleyway.
My eyes are heavy, the constant noise of the alarm clock is piercing my hangover.
‘Christ, it’s a work day.’
I slowly prise my lids open, the summer light that has pierced the thin curtains makes me wince. I stop, lie back to summon the strength. As my head touches the soft refuge of my pillow I realise I have something in my hand. A small tablet of gold fashioned in a circle, the chain, it is attached to, wrapped round my hand. I pull it to my lips and kiss it. The first gift I gave her, thrown back at me. It was a small token, something to demonstrate how I felt, that I wanted to make a go of our relationship beyond dating. She was the first person I had committed to. The only person I had really desired, the person who saved me from the wreckage of what was my relationship history. Now that had ended. She had moved on and gave me back the piece of gold that signified so much to me. That was a week ago and the alcohol is not working.
The shower only partly clears the hangover. Coffee next, I guess. I don’t know if it works but nursing a cup on the sofa won’t hurt. As I walk through the lounge to the kitchen, my eyes half closed against the streaming light, I slip on the wooden floor. The next step I slip again. I touch the gold necklace that I have now put round my neck and pull my foot from the coagulated, dark patch on the flooring and look down at her motionless body. The knife is still in her.