Johann hurried through ever-darker corridors, his arms full of various mysterious liquids; the elements in fluid form, or at least that is how the old man always described them. Though small of stature and with a body overly thin and frail-looking, Johann had developed tremendous strength through the performance of such tasks. He passed several curious onlookers as he walked by, but stopped to speak with none. They were merely lowly servants, not even fit to wait in the chambers of those privileged to serve the King. The old man had warned Johann to never speak to them. He never had and he was not going to begin now.
Soon, he found his way to the large chamber which had been specifically set aside. He found the door slightly ajar; he was expected. He pushed through the door and into the interconnected apartments which had been reserved for the old man and himself. They were currently dark, as not so much as a single candle lighted them, but Johann found his way by means of a bright light seeping into the darkness. He followed it until it became bigger and he found himself in the study of the old master. It was a sight to behold, ancient tomes in strange languages stacked randomly throughout the room, makeshift shelves housing countless jars of mysterious essences, a fireplace over which several scarlet liquids were coming to a boil, and in the center was the old man himself, hunched over a cauldron, itself suspended over a small fire fed with wood collected by tearing out whatever loose panels could be found.
Johann reflected that the man looked rather like an old bust of Socrates he had once seen in the palace of the Doge of Venice. He was a figure whose great white beard and balding head made him seem ancient, but his stocky powerful frame meant that he still carried himself with the pride of a young man. He had large bulging eyes which usually seemed to be looking in two directions at once. This was not the result of any ocular problems, Johann had concluded, but a development the old man had undertaken in order to study all before him as quickly as possible. But right now both eyes were fixated on the swirling mass of colors inside his cauldron.
Nothing needed to be said. Johann stood beside him and the old man pulled the bottles down one by one, examining their contentions and reciting the name of each when he was satisfied that it was indeed what he had wanted. Johann did not understand most of these names; some were archaic Latin, others in a tongue even more alien. Finally, all that was left in Johann's hand was a bottle containing a silvery-white substance. The old man blithely took it from his hand.
"Ah, this is the centerpiece of our whole endeavor," the old man said.
Johann nodded solemnly. Even if he lacked knowledge of most of the chemicals used in these transactions, he would have been a fool not to recognize this. "Mercury," he said, in a reverent tone not much above a whisper.
"Yes, the god of the alchemists, the pride of thrice-greatest Hermes," said the old man, "the sacred quicksilver from which all life is descended."
The man took the lid from the bottle as though it was a sacred relic and carefully placed it with the others on a small desk sitting near the cauldron, next to the many sheets of paper on which the old man would occasionally scribble a note or observation. Slowly, gravely, he poured the mercury into the mixture. Without waiting for a reaction, the man picked up two jars from near his foot. One contained a golden liquid and the other, silver.
"I know what you're thinking, boy," the man said. "These are some substances which mimic the colors of those twin glories which we wish to produce, gold and silver."
"But, in fact, this one jar contains melted gold, and this other, liquid silver. For how can we expect to create the philosopher's stone, which partakes of the finest metals under Heaven, if we do not first put the finest metals into it? We do not expect the light of the sun and moon to shine without their presence in the sky. Why should we suppose that, for the sun and moon of the elements, it should be in anyway different? This is where my predecessors have all gone wrong. But I now have discovered the truth."
The man opened the jars and, with one in each hand, he stretched his arms out over the cauldron. "Luna," he said as he let the silver flow in. "Sol," as in went the gold.
There were many who thought the old man mad, many in the palace who said that the King should have him beheaded, but Johann knew to trust in the old master's power. He did not know if it was science or magic, but he knew that it was real. He had seen it in Spain, where, on the verge of death at the hands of the Inquisition, the old man had proved himself God's servant by producing a purple powder which turned water into wine. At the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, he had seen the old man kill a soldier of the imperial guard with a draught and then with a second bring him back to life. The Emperor had given him so much gold for this resurrection potion that Johann sometimes wondered why they continued to hunt the elusive philosopher's stone. In Palestine, Johann had displeased a Turk janissary but was saved when the old man produced the sun at midnight by throwing a yellow pebble into a nearby torch. Yes, the old man had great power indeed.
Now, they were at the court of the King of France. The old man had intrigued the King with his promise that he was on the verge of discovering eternal life and the transmutation of base metals into gold. Though he had not, as of yet, delivered either, the King was pleased enough with the alternatives he had provided. A potion which ensured the birth of an heir and an improved form of gunpowder to more cheaply and effectively wage war against Austria were considered close enough to the promised achievements in the King's view to warrant the continued patronage of the old master and his apprentice.
As the gold and silver mixed with the mercury, the liquid in the cauldron became dark and impossible to distinguish from the cauldron's scorched outer shell. For a long time, the old man sat, transfixed, staring into the darkness. A deep feeling of exhaustion came over Johann. It had been such a task to find all of the necessary chemicals on the palace grounds that he had not slept since awakening the previous morning. He slouched to a nearby desk designated for his use, fell into a chair, and felt himself descend into slumber.
"Some mysteries can better be comprehended awake than asleep," the old man said. "Look, the solution whitens."
Johann picked up his head, but saw nothing but the master's huddled back. He closed his eyes and let himself depart again. Then he heard his master say, "Awake, boy, the colors change! Now it turns yellow!" Perhaps it was a dream, but Johann became so excited that he struggled to awaken, for he knew that the hour of achievement was near. But he had already given too much to sleep and he could not bring himself out of it again.
Johann dreamed of the day he met the old man and took on the sacred study of alchemy. Johann was a native of a small village in Bohemia, the descendant of a proud German conqueror whose family line had not preserved his social rank and status. Death was the law of Johann's world. That he would die young could not be avoided, this he knew. He had already escaped unharmed from two plagues which claimed the lives of all the women in his family and three great battles which took those of all the men. Thus, the life of a soldier, destined to fall in another of the Empire's futile wars to chastise some otherwise unheard-of German prince, seemed the natural choice. Resolved, Johann set out from his village and somehow managed to find his way into Prague, with the intent of offering his services to the Emperor.
And then, wandering through the streets, he came upon the demonstration of a man who promised that, with a solution he had created himself from rare minerals found by the Spanish among the treasures of the Aztecs, he could both kill a man and raise him. It so happened that the Emperor was passing with a magnificent procession and the man plucked out one of the guards from the imperial train.
"I shall now test my powerful mixture on a soldier of our lord's own guard," said the old man in booming voice. "If I can not first bring him to death and then back into life, my own life I shall forfeit."
Johann watched the man drink down the contents of the bottle and turn laughing toward his lord as nothing seemed to happen, then fall upon the ground as though all life was gone from him. The other soldiers advanced to avenge their comrade but with a wave of his hand the Emperor stayed them.
"Let us see first if this man truly can do what he says," the Emperor remarked, "before we take up his wager."
The old man bowed to the Emperor. He then brought forth a second bottle and forced it down the lifeless soldier's throat. Again, nothing seemed to happen at first, but then the soldier rose again. Upon the Emperor's questioning, he said he could not remember a thing that had happened to him. After the Emperor had departed most perplexed, and the crowd had satisfied their own curiosity, Johann followed the old man to the inn where he was staying. Johann was not sure what he intended to do. Did he intend to steal the miracle liquid? Did he intend to merely ask the old man how it was done? Surely one who had a lifetime of learning would not reveal his secrets so easily. Could he be persuaded? Would he take pity on a young man, barely older than a boy, and share the secrets with him. Could Johann use this power to save his family and even himself?
In the midst of such thoughts, he lost sight of the old man, but was surprised when, turning down a corner, he found the old man staring right at him.
"Ah, so you're the one who has been following me?" The old man seemed more amused than annoyed.
"Yes, sir," said Johann.
"I saw what you did today, sir. I wanted to know how you did it."
"Ah, my boy, that is the great mystery, isn't it? That which man has always sought to know?"
"I suppose, sir, though I have not had much learning."
"It doesn't take learning, boy, to understand man's desire to overcome the return to dust; that fate which all men are consigned by Providence to share. But, what if man could ascend, and become Providence Itself? Is that not a dream you could understand?"
Johann's eyes must have lit up upon these words, for suddenly a silent assurance of sympathy spread across the old man's face. "Oh, but I see that you know what I speak of all too well. One as young as you, could it be that you have lost a great many?"
"Indeed, my whole family has been killed in plague or war."
"And you want a release from this specter which has haunted you for so long? You would gain the power to revenge yourself on the mischievous angel who has taken them from you?"
"If you say so, sir. As I said, I have not had much learning."
"Ah, but even the crowned heads of Europe are not well-versed in the secret language. For death to them is but an amusement, the lives of whole nations they play with and discard as toys. But those of us who have seen death truly, we know the value of life. This I see in you. Am I mistaken?"
Johann shook his head. "I don't know. I have not considered it that way."
"But you shall, my boy, if you accept my offer. Would you become my apprentice and learn the science?"
"The science? I do not understand what you are talking about…"
"What these people are doing today, going around looking for mundane forces in the revolutions of the planets, is not at all a true science. The true science is that sacred science which places man beside God. It is the science of transmutation and of eternal life. It is called alchemy. It teaches its disciples how to live forever."
Johann felt his blood run cold. "And if I accept this, I shall live forever?"
"If you can learn."
And from that day forth, Johann had sought to learn all he could from the old man, to engrave all of his teaching into memory, though the young man still felt his lack of proper learning had severely limited this ability. He still could not make out much of his teacher's language, which he still believed was due to a lack of learning in youth, but his understanding of the alchemical lore had at least become greater than any of the kings, soldiers, and courtiers whom they had met. Johann no longer placed a high value on these people's intelligence.
It had not been more than a day later when the Emperor had summoned the old man to his court. There, he often spoke with the old man in private, in meetings to which Johann was not allowed access, and he furnished the old man with whatever was necessary for his work. Finally, however, the allure of another prince's court had attracted the old man and they had left Johann's homeland behind. Johann dreamed of all the lands he had been to, all the strange things he had seen, until he finally felt himself being shaken. Awakening suddenly, he saw that his old master was leaning over him.
"Come, my boy," the old man said, "it is finally done."
Johann jumped from his seat. "You have forged the philosopher's stone?"
"Not yet, my boy, not yet, but the red stone is merely the hardened form of that which is before us now." The old man almost became as lively as the young man himself. "After these many years, we have created the cure of all ills, the elixir of eternal life!"
Johann rushed to the cauldron and looked deeply into the rosy sea within. Without thinking, more by reflex, he reached out his hand toward the liquid, but was suddenly grappled and whirled around. He was thrown back and fell onto his desk. The old man stood over him, disapproving.
"But it is done! Now we can live forever!" Johann protested.
"We shall live forever, you say? No, I shall live forever! I am sorry, my boy, but the prize of the art goes to the true artist. You have done nothing to deserve even a drop!"
Johann jumped up again. "But our agreement was that I too would live forever!"
"And you shall someday, boy, when you have perfected your knowledge of the nature of things. As it stands now, you could never understand the blessing which the elixir would give you. How can you know a thing without knowing its component parts?"
"I know what it does! Surely that is enough?"
The old man shook his head in disappointment. "Have you learned nothing from all these years of tutelage? But we shall speak of it another time. Right now, I must speak with the King about the discovery. If he knew that we had kept it from him for even this long, he would have both our heads whether we have become immortal from the elixir or not!"
The old man now seemed to forget about Johann as he rushed through the dark apartments, attempting to find the door. Finally, the sound of the door swinging open entered the laboratory and Johann heard his master exclaim, "I trust that you shall take none of the elixir while I am gone. I warn you, my boy, that I shall not be lenient if I find that even a drop has gone missing!"
Then the door slammed. Johann had not taken his eyes off of the cauldron. For many minutes, he stood there, staring. He did not know what to think, and his mind seemed blank. Then, in an instant, he was over the cauldron. He moved his hand to the surface, but then pulled back. The old man's visage had clouded his mind and he pulled back his hand, fearful of the imagined gaze.
Realizing what he had been about to do, Johann sighed. Perhaps the old man was right; he should complete his own studies and then he would be prepared to make the elixir for himself. After all, could the power over death really be called his own if it was given him without knowledge of how death was mastered? Slumping down into his chair, Johann poured through the many notebooks he kept near him, the notebooks containing every observation of the old man's ways and methods that he had thought it important to record, as well as every lesson the old man had tried to instill in him.
It felt like many hours later when Johann threw down the last of his notebooks. The old man had not yet returned, but Johann felt a strange sort of comfort at this. It would mean that he would not have to explain, at least immediately, that he had learned almost nothing in the several years he had been apprenticed. True, he knew the basic lore, the outward appearance of the philosopher's stone, and things of that nature, but he had never grasped how to combine elements and how to make one thing act like another. Some things were not given to peasants to know, he supposed.
Then, an idea occurred to Johann. He was quite competent at mixing things and creating good results, when he had the master beside him guiding him through the processes. Perhaps, by copying the master's own notes, he could later create his own elixir without the old man's knowledge. He ran to the old man's desk and tore through the notes he had seen him writing earlier in the evening. But then, Johann remembered why he had not considered this course in the first place. All of the notes were written in a language of the old man's own invention, used to guard his most valuable alchemical secrets. He had always adamantly refused to instruct Johann in this tongue, for he regarded it almost as an extension of himself. And now Johann could not help silently cursing his master for it.
Johann threw the accursed sheets to the ground and kicked over the old man's chair. His eyes then fell once again on the cauldron. The fire underneath had run its course, and now the elixir was no longer boiling. Johann wondered if it would now harden into the philosopher's stone. This thought gripped him with intense anxiety. He knew nothing of how to apply the stone once it had hardened, for the old man had always kept that knowledge to himself. And what if the old man should return now and these last few moments be wasted? Johann, without fully knowing it, resolved on what he would do.
Falling upon his knees and cupping his hands, he brought as much of the elixir to his lips as he could manage. When he had done this three times, Johann stood up and let the effect sink in. He did not feel immortal, but the old man could not be mistaken. After all, how could Johann know what it felt like to be immortal? He could test it, by giving himself a normally mortal wound, but Johann was not willing to take such a chance, for even his faith in the old man's judgments would not allow him to threaten his own life. Besides, the old man would be disapproving of such methods.
The old man! He suddenly reentered Johann's mind, and the young man knew that his anger, so rarely seen, was powerful enough to terrify even those who should fear nothing. Johann thought quickly. He could not let the old man discover what he had done. He knew what powers his master possessed and, if anyone would be capable of killing an immortal, surely it would be the old man who had first made the discovery of immortality. But the old man had not himself drunk, Johann realized, and it became obvious what needed to be done.
Johann turned his head to the section of the room where he knew rested the little bottle which contained that liquid which had first brought them to each other's attention so many years ago. Johann had, under the old man's direction, made a new amount of the potion and placed it in the bottle a few days previously. He ran toward it and scooped it up. The old man would die by his own poison.
It was not long afterward that the moment came. In fact, it seemed to happen immediately. Johann was fully prepared by the time he heard the door to the apartment began to slowly open. He felt no anxiety, no fear or apprehension. He had decided upon the deed and would allow the old man whatever time he wished in meeting his death. But there was a profound sense of excitement and exhilaration, a feeling like he had never known in his whole life. What happened next seemed to occur within the blink of an eye. The old man appeared in the entryway, surveying his environment. Before he had time to make note of the slight depletion of the cauldron, Johann rushed upon him and with shaking hand forced half of the liquid down his throat. The old man collapsed to the floor. His eyes looked upon Johann as he fell, but there was no hint of anger or betrayal. If anything, the man looked serene, even pleased by what had just taken place. Johann wondered, had he perhaps already made peace with the coming of death?
Johann's hand was uncontrollable now. The bottle shattered on the floor, his hands trembling violently. But the feeling of joy, the feeling of power, it was overwhelming. Johann rushed over to the cauldron and, throwing his face in, drank in another heavy draught. He drank deeply until he felt as though he was drowning. By reflex, he pulled himself out of the elixir. He laughed fully and heartily, almost uncontrollably, at the quant idea that his body was still trying to protect him from such mundane things. He would have to train his body to no longer fear, just as his mind no longer had any fear.
Now he felt the elixir speed through his body. It coursed through his veins, setting them ablaze and soon his whole body was as a wildfire. His heart pounded and his limbs shook so capriciously that they began to ache. And through it all, Johann felt greater and greater exultation, the anticipation of the joys of limitless days ahead.
"So this is what it is to be immortal," he said. "This is what it is to be alive."
He dropped upon his knees and fell upon the ground. The last thing he saw in this life was the figure of the old man, rising from the dead.
The alchemist dusted himself off. He looked down upon his young apprentice and shook his head. "I am sorry, my boy, that it had to end like this. But there was no other way it could have ended."
He turned away, but looked back and added, "Mind you, I did like you better than my previous apprentices. But they all share the same fate in the end."
He looked down at the shattered bottle next to the young man. "To think, attempting to use my own concoctions on me! You never were swift enough to realize that it was merely a sleeping draught whose effects lasted for only a few minutes." He shook his head again; he had thought that maybe this one might show slightly more intelligence.
The alchemist walked over toward the cauldron. "At least I have learned that the elixir is still deficient. Too much mercury, perhaps. But I have never seen the poison act so quickly before. It is fortunate that I have youths to test the work for me. I should never have lived to be this old had I done it myself!"
The alchemist looked into the cauldron wistfully. How many years more, how many more lives, would be wasted before he achieved the great work? He had been certain that this would be the true path to immortality and was tempted to drink immediately. It was a fortunate decision, he reflected, to allow Johann to test it before he imbibed any himself. He had learned that such things are usually too good to be true.
"At least I have achieved the red coloring this time," he said, "and before the morrow comes I shall be gone and on the road to Rome. The current Pope is not as kind to alchemy as some of his predecessors were, but there is still a great fortune to be made among the city's aristocrats!" The alchemist turned around, expecting a merry chuckle, but then saw the corpse and remembered the state of his apprentice. "Those among this nation and court shall never care if one more dead body appears in a ditch somewhere beyond these walls, especially one for which no lord can vouch."
The alchemist turned back to the cauldron. "The King of France desires greatly to try this newly-discovered elixir of immortality and it would be poor repayment for his kindness if I were to stand in his way."
The alchemist searched for his largest bottle. He found it hidden behind a large purse, filled with Austrian coinage. Taking the bottle and the purse, the alchemist carefully filled the former with the red liquid while hiding the latter within his robes. "At least I can now fulfill the real task for which the Emperor hired me."
He heard noises emanating from beyond the door of his private apartments. He guessed that they were the King's servants come to collect him.
"Just a moment, I am coming!" he called out as he crossed the room.
Turning to look at the lifeless form of Johann as he was about to exit the laboratory, he considered how the adding and mixing of elements had brought about a reaction, a reaction that broke down a living being and left only these dead remains. It was almost as valuable, he concluded, as a reaction which did the opposite. After much thought, the alchemist said, "This has not been in vain, my boy. Truly, tonight we shall see who has become master of life and death."