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Friday, February 25, 2011

#FridayFlash: The Philosopher’s Stone

This one is based on Icy Sedgwick’s Photo Prompt 20. The prompts that prompt me get me to ask a question: the resulting story answers the question. In this case, the tale is a cautionary one — sometimes, a great discovery doesn’t always work out…

The Philosopher’s Stone

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

Giovanni put the letter aside. Marco felt threatened, as well he should. He, Giovanni, had discovered the Philosopher’s Stone! Because of him, gold would become as common as dirt. Three weeks, and yet much work to do.

Marco swept through Giovanni’s door unannounced, giving the front room a disapproving inspection —

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

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

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

“I am the one, Your Grace,” said Giovanni, refusing to be cowed by the likes of Marco. “I am also the apothecary to this village, which provides the income to pursue my true calling.”

“Impressive — to have discovered the Philosopher’s Stone in a part-time pursuit.”

“Your Grace is kind. But I have not labored unaided. 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 would be returned.

“I see,” said the queen. “And thus you found it. How?”

“Your Grace, you yourself know the Church has preserved a great body of ancient knowledge, to which I was granted access. From Roma, my research led me to a monastery in Persia, where is stored a certain manuscript from faraway Bharat. Clues I found in Roma — and much prayer — allowed me to unlock its secrets.”

“A pretty story,” Marco sneered, “but incredible. A mere village apothecary, no matter how well-traveled, discovering what so many have searched for their entire lives? If you were certain of success, you should have sent your notes.”

And let you steal the credit? “Eminent Marco, it is said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. I intend to provide that proof.”

“So you intend to put on your show?”


“Your fraud will —”

“Marco,” the queen interrupted, “enough. We were invited to be witnesses. Let Giovanni succeed or fail without further harassment.”

Marco sketched a bow and mumbled “Your Grace.”

Giovanni made a more sincere bow. “The queen is kind. All is ready in my laboratory. This way, if you please.” He conducted them into the next room, and lifted heavy lead-lined aprons from the wall. “Some of the manuscript, I was unable to translate satisfactorily. I am unsure whether these are for safety. But with such distinguished guests, I err on the side of caution. I believe the power of the Stone brought to bear on mere flesh can cause harm.”

“The Stone. What is the Stone?”

“That, eminent Marco, is a misnomer that led us all astray. It is not a stone at all, but metal! The manuscript spoke of mines in what are now German and Slavic districts. There I found the ores.

“The refining process is exacting. The manuscript says that a certain amount of refined metal is required, and must not be brought together into a single mass until the proper moment. The base metal is packed around two pieces of Stone, and brought together with a great weight atop. Perhaps you wish to examine the apparatus before we begin?”

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


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

Giovanni turned to the wall, where a sturdy crank was mounted. With a silent prayer, 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.”

(Photo: Icy Sedgwick)
“It grows warm,” the herald said. The furnace hissed and popped, then the stone vessels shattered. Molten yellow poured forth.

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

“It glows with an inner light!” the queen breathed. “Marco: speak true. Do you find fraud in this?”

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

“Then acknowledge him,” she commanded.

Marco gave a sour look, but sketched a brief bow. “Maestro.”

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

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

“Very well. Marco of course will assist you with all his talent. 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 exultation precluded 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’s inn to serve bad food!”

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

“Stir this into warm tea for each of you. Who would do this?”

The herald rubbed his head, then looked at the loose hair in his hand. “Any of them.” He paused. “Marco… beware of him. He is envious.”

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

Two days later, a hearse conducted the remains of the royal entourage back to the palace. The village was in turmoil, and Giovanni departed on the advice of his brother. The villagers were used to his comings and goings, so few noticed.

Another day, another village. In the afternoon, a dead man arrived atop a cart, slumped over the reins. The cart and its contents were looted. A stack of books fed only the fires…


  1. More! This is a fab Friday flash. I love stories like this that display relationships, history, and mystery. Bravo :)

  2. I love the fantasy element of this. I'm not sure who got killed at the end. Hope it was Marco, but I think it probably was not.

  3. I love it! Nothing like a spray of gamma rays and fast neutrons to unseat a dynasty. Probably just as well that knowledge was lost.

  4. The most procedural Philosopher's Stone story I've seen, perhaps ever. There goes the establishment...

  5. I love the Queen's attitude, hurrying them along because she's bored with the ceremony. Loved her. So glad my photo could inspire this!

  6. Nice! I wonder what happened with our appotecary after all this.

  7. Hi all, thanks for the kind words!

    Apple, I've noticed that a lot of my stories are character-driven these days. I think that's how it should be, because aren't stories about people?

    Maria, all of them died. I think I've written two stories where EVERYBODY DIES, and the other is something I wrote in high school, long since lost, an avant-garde scifi thing.

    Tony, I have to agree. Anyone messing with radioactive substances, and not understanding the hazards, is bound for an early demise.

    Thanks, John. The actual science here is more than a little whiffy, but I'm billing it as fantasy anyway. :-)

    Thanks, Icy, and thanks for giving me the opportunity to use the photo. I like medieval monarchs too… they had to get down and dirty just to prove they deserved the throne!

    Mari, they all died of radiation sickness. That was Giovanni slumped over the reins, and his notes that became cooking fuel. The entire royal entourage rode home feet-first in the hearse, because they had a can of radioactive gold to *really* cook 'em. I knew I was damaging the story to get it to flash size, but I thought 1300 words was cheating a little *too* much.

  8. This is really cool, I was half expecting him to have accidentally made some kind of crude atom bomb, but your twist was much darker.

    I'm not sure you need the last two paragraphs. We kind of already know what has happened to them and it feels more like summary than story.

    I like that bad food/ Marco were blamed too. (I kind of wanted to punch Marco in the face anyway... ;) )

  9. This was so very clever. Great gem of a story.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  10. Ah, another story where I'm rooting for the protagonist and should have been hoping for failure. You tricked me.
    But I enjoyed it immensely.
    I see in your comments that you are writing more character-driven stories. You should. The characters were well-drawn.

  11. Oh, the ending was a bit fuzzy, but I like it after you explained. Sometimes it's though to keep the flash format, I can relate with that. ;)

  12. Hi all, and for you first-time commenters, welcome to the free-range insane asylum!

    John, I left the last two paragraphs in because I had to resolve the issue with Giovanni's notes. Like Mari says, the ending's a bit weak. And I'm with you, I wanted to punch Marco too. I just killed him instead. :-P

    Adam, thanks much. Icy gets partial credit, for the photo prompt.

    Peggy, thanks — unintended consequences can be a real bummer, huh?

    Yeah, Mari, fuzzy. Maybe even a little weak. I'll do better next week. ;-)

  13. No wonder the secret of the Philosopher's Stone was lost! It all makes sense now...

    I love stories that take history and play with it. There are so many more explanations for incidents than the commonly accepted one. I enjoyed this a lot.

  14. Love science, fantasy and history, so in my opinion, by hitting all of them in one shot you pretty much nailed it. very imaginative and just fun. Great job!

  15. Very imaginative, Far. Love the take on "a tech recipe not quite understood" .. made me think of that bit from the beginning of "Fire Upon the Deep".

  16. Angela, thanks. It's both challenging and fun to make the implausible seem obvious. :-)

    Jason, I put this in the collector as fantasy, but did consider both scifi and historical as genres.

    Nudge, I read that book and really liked it. If I called it to mind, I consider it a compliment!

  17. As soon as you mentioned mines I knew the path this story was taking. I love the idea that radioactive elements were the true Philosopher's Stone. Well told!

  18. Thanks, Vandamir. I did do a little research to locate actual locations of pitchblende mines. ;-)

  19. Nice characters; I don't like Marco, but I see where he is coming from. I like that in antagonists.

  20. Aiden, as you guessed, Marco was both insecure and jealous. Who knows who he had to step on to get the cushy job as the Queen's alchemist? Someone like Marco getting his hands on the power of the Stone would be… kind of like today.

  21. Interesting characters and a great story. I'll have to check out Icy's photos, because clearly she has inspired greatness.

  22. Wow, thanks Rachel! I've passed on the kudos to Icy too.

  23. Okay, I just re-read it. I read it the first time on my phone...tiny screen, don't think I got the gist of the end as well. I just slapped my head and went "Ahhah! Literally. I still think it's a great story. Even better the second time around, with a bigger screen to read on.

  24. I'm glad that getting a new charger was able to clear it up for you! ;-)

    I used to have an iPhone, had to downgrade to a feechurr phone to same some $$. Needless to say, I only try reading on it when I have no other recourse.


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