The Alchemist’s Children
by Nathaniel Lee
Jen’s brother was crazy, and it was her father’s fault. Jen had only the faintest memories of the man – he’d left when she was still a toddler, so all he was to her was a vague booming voice and a scratchy chin – but Newton’s troubles were clearly the result of their father’s influence. Their father, the alchemist, who had promised to write every week.
Newt was, even now, locked in his dorm room, attempting to distill Truth in an alembic. His roommate had called in desperation after the fumes had sent half of the floor into a coughing fit and the other half into a hypnogogic trance in which they spouted strange and terrible prophecies. Jen had fielded the call in their mother’s absence – she was at the lab, working on synthesizing a promising new polymer – and she recognized the telltale signs of alchemy.
“It’s probably for the best that you got me,” she told Brandon, “since Mom can get quite irrational on the subject. She told Newt last time that if she ever caught him using anything other than straightforward, conventional science, she’d cut him out of the will.”
“Please!” Brandon paused and coughed, long and hard. “You’ve got to make him stop. Becky just walked in with a towel draped over her head and told me the date and time she’s going to break up with me.”
“My condolences,” Jen said politely.
“We’re not even dating!”
“Can you put Newton on? I’ll see if I can talk him down.”
“He won’t answer the door.”
Jen tucked the receiver under her shoulder and headed for the kitchen. Mom saved everything, in case it might be useful later. One of the junk drawers had to have her old address book and a lead on Jen’s father. “Well, hold the phone up to the lock,” Jen said. She rummaged through piles of paper, capless pens, solitary screws, and knives with broken tips. She heard several thumps, a clatter, and some muffled profanity, then silence. If she strained her ears, she could hear a faint bubbling, like boiling water. She decided to try her mother’s tactics first.
“Newton!” Jen shouted, thankful she was home alone. “You stop that meddling with the laws of reality right this instant!”
Jen waited and listened, but heard no response. She sighed.
“Newt, come on. It’s Jen. I want to help. If Mom finds out about this…”
“I don’t care.” Newt’s voice was tinny and distant, filtered through the keyhole and a hundred miles of fiber optic cable. “Mom’s never understood me, and I’m done obeying her stupid rules. I’m going to find the Truth. The real Truth. The one Dad couldn’t teach me because she drove him away. Don’t try to stop me, because you can’t.”
“You’re being irrational,” Jen said, but Newt had already stopped listening. That was the problem with being analytical and clear-thinking; even though you were right, you couldn’t get anyone to listen to you. Mom complained about it all the time.
At the bottom of the final drawer, Jen found a tiny, black notebook. The clasp had rusted away. Inside, on the very last page, was an address:
Albert Magnus Smith
Beyond the Forest Perilous
Atop Mount Dread
At the Very Ends of the Earth
NT, X0E 0V0
Jen pursed her lips. “Canada.”
She knew where the spare keys to the Forrester were. With any luck, she’d be back before Mom realized she was gone. With Mom’s schedule and pragmatic priorities (as sole breadwinner, her work, she said, had to come first), Jen probably had a week at least; they communicated almost exclusively through Post-It notes ever since Jen got her license. She packed herself some peanut butter sandwiches–protein and carbs, good for long trips–and locked the door carefully behind her.
It had started when Newt made the coffee table in the living room disappear. Mom had been furious.
“It’s furniture varnish,” she’d growled, shaking the can at him. “With an ‘R’!”
Once he’d known that, of course, Newton was unable to make any other wooden furnishings invisible. That was how alchemy was; unpredictable and idiosyncratic. Idiopathic, Mom would have said. She hated the way the same formula could result in two different outcomes. According to Newt, who’d been older when Dad left, their father had tried to explain that everything was subjective, dependent on any of a thousand different whims, from the mood of the practitioner to the historical significance of a given symbol, but Mom would have none of it. “Whimsy,” she snorted, and left Dad to fix the coffee table. He’d put a tablecloth over it for when company came, and otherwise they just got used to the sight of their drinks and television remotes seemingly floating in midair. Jen hadn’t realized invisible tables were anything odd until she was four or five and Mom warned her not to blab about it while on a playdate at a friend’s house.
Later, when the Diet Coke and Mentos videos went viral, Newt built a jetpack for himself. Mom had rolled her eyes and muttered something about force and gravity, but even she wasn’t able to entirely hide a smile at Newt zipping through the air above the backyard, turning somersaults and making acrobatic spirals, a wide grin plastered across his sticky, sugar-coated face. He bottled bee’s knees and the cat’s meow – he’d had to give that back after a stern lecture from Dad – and built a robot out of Legos that worked so well it went feral and attempted to overthrow humanity. It wasn’t very good at it, but every so often, they came downstairs to find the magnetic letters on the refrigerator spelling out “KILL ALL HUM4NS.” It was when Newt reconstituted the dehydrated pixies from his Pixy Sticks that the other shoe dropped.
Newt was the focus of the conflict, and he still felt responsible for it, but Jen was of the opinion – based mostly on secondhand accounts, admittedly – that the source lay many, many years before Newt was even a possibility. It might have started before Mom and Dad even met, Jen mused, stretching with her toes to reach the brake pedal. Even with the seat pushed all the way forward, she wasn’t quite tall enough. A conflict in potentia from the day they were born as who they were in the places and times they lived. In the fallout, Dad was gone, Newton was broken, and Mom had become a far-off, glittering iceberg. The reaction was complete, and all the reagents were reduced to inert mush and powder.
The first part of the journey was uneventful, a series of gas stations, fast food restaurants, and the treacherous hypnosis of flickering white lines on asphalt. Jen focused on traveling quickly and without wasting time. The trials would come later.
Gradually, the interstate became a highway, the highway became a road, and the road dwindled to two lanes, then one, then a gravel path through the trees, and at last two vague ruts in the grass that petered out to nothing in a small clearing. Jen climbed down, retrieved her bag of sandwiches and a warm jacket, and set off into the woods, heading north. She was surrounded by the smell of pine needles and snow. For a while, it was as peaceful as the highway had been. Jen’s family didn’t get out in the wilderness much, what with one thing and another. Mom said it was redundant, since they had everything nature could provide already, but in a refined and improved form. Jen stopped, sat on a rock, and unwrapped her first sandwich, soft and warm from her body heat. She poked at a bit of lichen, feeling it crumble under her fingernails, and she decided she would try to go on a hike for pleasure sometime later. Sometime when she wasn’t on an urgent mission.
The werewolf was extremely stealthy. Probably he would have been able to sneak up on her even if she were experienced at woodcraft. As it was, Jen had no idea he was there until he leapt out at her, slavering and snarling.
“Oh, good. A werewolf,” Jen said, recovering from her startlement.
The werewolf paused. “You’re happy to see me? That’s not what usually happens.” His voice had teeth in it.
“Probably not.” Jen offered him half of her sandwich. “But if you’re here, then that means I’m on the right track. You are the guardian of the Forest Perilous, yes?”
The werewolf circled the clearing nervously. “I am hunger and violence. I am a beast in a man’s skin. My curse separates me, isolates me. The Alchemist allows me to live here in his forest, to run and hunt the deer, to live in peace, as much as a wretch like myself can. In return, yes, I watch for his enemies and lay in wait for them.”
“Well, no problems there. I’m not his enemy. I’m his daughter.” Jen waggled the sandwich invitingly. “You said you were hungry?”
“I am always hungry. The emptiness gnaws at me from inside. It is all I can do not to fall upon you and devour you where you sit. I can smell your blood.” The werewolf crouched, his half-lupine limbs folding awkwardly together. His nostrils flared. Jen caught the smell of him, musky and sour, wet dog and locker room.
“Hmm.” Jen brought her sandwich back and took another bite. “It seems like you have several co-morbid pathologies, possibly part of a unique syndrome. It’s a little beyond the current scope for me to say, but the symptoms are probably individually treatable. The hypertrichosis is the simplest. Even just shaving would probably work, but you might consider electrolysis or laser hair removal. The aggressive ideation and fixation on violent imagery is troubling. You might need medication, but at the least you should start seeing a therapist to try and work through those issues. I can recommend a very good one. The hunger pangs sound the most worrisome to me. Have you ever been tested for hyperthyroidism?”
The werewolf shook his head wordlessly.
Jen pulled out a notebook and scribbled down a name and phone number. “My mother knows a very talented endocrinologist. I don’t imagine you have a general practitioner to refer you, but I’m sure Mom’s recommendation will get you an appointment slot. Once you get that under control, you’ll probably find your anger issues more manageable, too.”
“You mean… you think I can be… cured?”
“Well,” Jen said, finishing her sandwich. “I couldn’t honestly say it would be a ‘cure,’ since the condition looks to be chronic and with at least some genetic basis, but a solid treatment plan would definitely improve your quality of life immeasurably. What’s most important is regaining your dignity as a person apart from your condition. Or conditions.” She tore the page off of her notebook and handed it over. “I’ve outlined some steps you can take in your diet to get started, but I think you should see a proper medical expert as soon as you can. Thyroid issues can lead to cancer and all sorts of complications if they’re not addressed.”
The werewolf clutched the ragged white paper in his gnarled, misshapen claws. A tear glinted in one yellow eye. “Thank you. Oh, thank you, mistress!”
“Not at all. Happy to help. Any friend of my father’s, you know.” Jen hopped down from her rock and held out a hand. The werewolf, looming over her, dark-furred and shaggy, shook it carefully. “Good luck.”
“Yes…” His ears flickered, and his head went up. “I must hunt, lest my hunger overcome my will. Farewell, mistress.” He bounded into the green-tinted shadows of the forest.
“Don’t fill up on meat! Get some whole grains and vitamin B!” Jen shouted after him. She wasn’t sure he heard.
She put her plastic wrapper back in her pocket and journeyed on.
The forest thinned as she went on, and large rocks became more common as the vegetation receded. The ground sloped upward, and the air grew chill. Soon, she was walking amid thin scrub and scrambling up slopes of dirt and loose rocks, climbing ever higher. Ahead, the white-capped peak of the mountain seemed to float in the sky without drawing nearer. Jen spotted the ruins of an ancient castle clinging to an outcropping of rock, and beneath it the dark and shadowed mouth of a vast cavern, so she wasn’t entirely surprised when the ground trembled under the impact of four enormous clawed feet and a red-scaled dragon heaved into view ahead of her.
“Oh my God!” Jen shrieked.
“Yes!” boomed the dragon. “Cower before my glorious wrath, ape-creature! Bow down before me, and I will slay you quickly and without pain.”
“Let me see your wings!” Jen fairly leapt over the still-tumbling rocks and boulders that the dragon’s emergence had shaken loose.
“What? No.” The dragon took a step back from Jen’s relentless advance.
“I’ve always wanted to see a dragon’s wings. You know bumblebees?”
“Bees? I don’t… Now, see here, missy: Master’s daughter or not, I could squish you under my foot, so let’s have a little respect don’t do that!” The dragon clawed its way up the slope to avoid Jen’s hands as they tried to unfold its leathery wings from its back.
“Why not?” Jen, realizing she had been rude, put her hands behind her back and tried to look winsome.
“It tickles.” The dragon huffed. “What was that about bees, anyway?”
“Bumblebees. For a while, they thought that they shouldn’t be able to fly under the laws of physics and it was a real problem, but then they did some tests and studies and worked it out. I want to see a dragon fly because I think it’ll be the same sort of thing.”
The dragon’s eyes narrowed. “What, exactly, are you implying?”
“You shouldn’t be able to fly,” said Jen. She shrugged. “You can’t just move linearly with aerodynamics. Something the size of a house would need football-field sized wings to fly like a bird, so unless you’ve got jet engines and some sort of acceleration mechanism I’m not aware of…” She peered at the dragon’s rear end with an air of scientific curiosity.
“I don’t,” the dragon said, its words coming out short and clipped.
“Well, could you take a quick flight? Just out to the trees and back? I want to see how it works.”
“No!” The dragon gritted its teeth, then sighed and hung its head. “I can’t.”
“Can’t fly. None of us can. These,” the dragon said, fluttering its wings briefly, “are purely decorative these days. That’s why we spend so much time in caves and ruined castles; no one expects to see us flying if they find us underground.”
Jen waved her hands vaguely. “It’s an architecture term, I think. Something about wasted space in arches. It’s what you call traits that might have had a purpose but no longer do because of changes in the evolutionary niche. Like hiccups for humans.”
“Ah, yes. Because you were frogs before you were monkeys.”
“Probably more of a bony fish with rudimentary lungs, but more or less.” Jen heaved a sigh and sat down on a handy rock. “I really hoped I could make an interesting new discovery in aerodynamics. I don’t suppose you actually breathe fire?”
“Caustic spittle. Sorry.”
“Hoards of gold?”
The dragon sat, kicking up a cloud of dust. “Well, we do have to consume a relatively large amount of trace metals to stay healthy. If you rendered a dragon corpse, you’d probably end up with several ounces of gold, and you might find a stray bit or two in an older den. One good-sized coin will last me for years, though, so long as it’s decently pure.”
Jen looked up. “Are you going to try and eat me now? I brought a fire extinguisher, but apparently that’s not going to help much. I should have brought an acid wash and a chemical hood, it seems.”
“No,” the dragon said, resting its head on its paws. “I’m too depressed. Spandrels! Pfaugh. What I wouldn’t give for wings that worked.”
“Well,” Jen cupped her chin in her hand and tapped her lips. “We could probably rig up a glider system. Maybe even just a rigid aluminum frame to support your wings so that you don’t have to rely on insufficient pectoral musculature.”
“Don’t be sensitive. It’s just facts.” Jen peered over the top of her glasses. “Perhaps we can work out a deal. What’s your pH?”
“The acid, silly! Potent?”
“I don’t know the numbers, but I’ve yet to encounter anything it can’t get through eventually.”
“Excellent!” Jen clapped her hands. “Really strong acids are a pain to manufacture. Horribly toxic byproducts and so on. If we can get an ecologically friendly supplier at low cost, that could give us a real leg up in the market. Let me give you my mother’s card. You might want to start networking; you’ll need some friends if you’re going to produce industrial quantities, I imagine. And then you can buy your way to flight.”
The dragon plucked the tiny square of pasteboard with two enormous talons. “It seems a bit like cheating.”
“So who’s going to call you on it? You’re a dragon.” Jen smiled.
The dragon grinned, displaying twin rows of sharp, white teeth. “Indeed.”
The remainder of the trip was relatively simple. The iron golem was pleased enough to hear about electroplating and rust-resistant coatings that he agreed chasing Jen would only risk opening more microfractures to speed oxidation. The chimera slunk into the woods in embarrassment after Jen couldn’t stop laughing for almost ten minutes. The vampire wouldn’t get within fifteen feet of Jen after a handful of garlic oil pills.
At last, Jen stood before the alchemist’s castle. There was a small mailbox planted in the dirt on this side of the drawbridge. This gave Jen a twinge of anger, marbled through with sadness as though one of them were decaying radioactively into the other. She wondered which one started the reaction. Her father had never written them any letters. Not even cards for their birthdays. A somewhat ragged owl with white plumage was sorting letters.
“Honestly,” Jen said, rolling her eyes. “It’s not like your species has particularly great direction sense. Or day-vision, for that matter. Pigeons would have made much more sense; something migratory, at least.”
“Hey,” the owl snapped, “you try dealing with the price of mouse gizzards in this economy and see what jobs you feel like turning down.”
Jen watched it flap irritably away. “And why would you even need a postal service if you can teleport at will?” she said, unable to help herself. She needed to work on her tact, Newt always told her. Mom didn’t see the problem with being plainspoken, but that was part of the trouble, wasn’t it?
Meanwhile, she was on the outside of a castle, and her father was on the inside. She peered down into the moat, then ducked backwards quickly as a goggle-eyed fish with enormous teeth leapt into the air, jaws snapping shut in the space where her nose had been a moment ago.
“Dad!” Jen said. “That’s ridiculous. Piranha hardly ever attack humans, and they’re really not all that dangerous even when they do.” She moved several steps away from the water, however, just in case.
“He just got some mail,” Jen murmured to herself. “He has to come out and get it sometime.”
She settled herself beside the mailbox, crossed her legs, and pulled out a book. Introduction to Neurochemistry was interesting, but a little difficult to read; perfect for long waits. After a while, she ate her second sandwich. The sun set, staining the sky red as suspended water particles in the atmosphere bent and scattered the light at its new, oblique angle. This high in the mountains, the view was spectacular, but brief. Jen sighed when she could no longer see the words on the page. She tucked the book behind her head for a pillow, zipped up her jacket, and closed her eyes. I’ll just sit for a while, she told herself. Not sleep. Just rest my eyes…
A hollow, metallic clatter woke her in the dark hours of the morning. Her eyes flew open to espy a short, thin man with a brown beard and sad eyes.
“Aha!” Jen cried. She leapt to her feet, clutching her book.
Her father reached into the mailbox and withdrew Jen’s car keys, which had been balanced precariously on the lip. “These are yours, I take it?” His voice was quiet, and not as deep as she’d expected. He held the keys out on the palm of his hand. “You look a lot like your mother.”
Jen found she didn’t know what to say. She retrieved her keys. Now that she was standing, she realized that she was taller than he was. This felt somehow wrong to Jen, perverse, a violation of a belief she hadn’t known she held.
“Have you come to kill me?” her father asked her.
Jen’s jaw dropped. “What? No! Why would you think that?”
He shrugged, his eyes downcast. He looked very small. “It was the last thing she said to me.”
In an almost physical rush, Jen had a vision of her father’s life for the past fourteen years. He lived alone, in the cold and the dark, his family taken away – all legal; Jen had seen the papers – and surrounded by impossibilities of his own design. He could do anything he wanted, except for the thing he wanted most. Jen wondered if he really had written letters, dozens of them, hundreds of them, each one dropped quickly and smoothly into her mother’s shredder. How much time had he spent calling into a void before giving up? How long could someone survive surrounded only by what they made themselves? At what point would one’s own psychological effluvium reach toxic concentrations?
“I’m sorry,” Jen said. It didn’t seem right, but the silence was worse.
“She raised you well, I see. You walked right past my defenses.”
“Monsters are a lot less troublesome if you don’t treat them like monsters,” said Jen. “I deal in facts. Problems and solutions.”
“That sounds like your mother, all right.”
Jen hesitated. “Did she really threaten to kill you?”
“If I ever spoke to you or her again. You kids, especially.” Her father shrugged again. “I didn’t quite believe her when she threatened it, but seeing you here, now, looking like her twenty years ago…” He rubbed at his beard, then took both hands and scrubbed his face as though coming out from a swim. “Why have you come, then?”
“Oh!” Jen looked up. “It’s about Newt. He’s gone alchemical.” She relayed the sordid tale of Newt’s descent into nigh-madness.
“So he kept at it, did he?” Jen’s father tapped his lips thoughtfully, giving Jen a frisson as she recognized the gesture in herself.
“Not exactly,” said Jen. “It went dormant, I suppose.”
“You can’t keep out of it for long, though,” her father said, shaking his head. “Not once it’s started. I don’t know if you could ever avoid it in the first place; the propensity for alchemy is something that tends to be discovered when it happens, not something you can predict. It was inevitable for Newton to experiment. This incident has probably been made worse by his long abstinence, actually; he’ll be in a fever about it for weeks.”
“Can’t you do something? He’s trying to find Truth; can’t you give him the secret?”
“That’s what alchemy is, Jen.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “The search for truth. No two alchemists ever find the same one; my truth would be as useless to him as it is to you and your mother.”
“I don’t think it’s useless,” Jen said. She reached up a hand and touched his arm lightly. “Some of it can be very beautiful, in its own way.”
He smiled, but only with half of his mouth. “I remember when she said the same thing.”
“I think you should see Newt,” Jen announced firmly. “You might not be able to give him what he wants, but he needs your support. He always has. You understand him better than we can, at least in this.”
“It would be breaking the rules…”
Jen waved a hand. “He’s eighteen. He can make his own decisions about that now.”
Her father nodded slowly. “You’re… you’re right. Of course you’re right. You have that clarity of vision that I never mastered. I get so wrapped up in my own projects that I forget… well, I forget things.” He glanced up, suddenly, a sly look in his eyes. “You know, you broke the agreement yourself, coming to see me. You’re only sixteen.”
“Some things are more important than following rules,” said Jen. “I’m surprised you’d even suggest they aren’t, and why are you grinning?”
Her father didn’t answer. Instead, he stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled. From overhead came the sound of massive, leathery wings flapping. With a whumph and a brief whirlwind of dust, the dragon landed on the trail in front of them.
“I thought you said you couldn’t fly!” Jen snapped.
The dragon bowed its head sheepishly.
“He probably couldn’t, when you met him. It depends on who’s doing the asking,” her father said. He snapped his fingers, and the dragon knelt on its forelimbs, making a sort of scaly staircase to its shoulders. “Come on. Let’s go save Newton.” He scrambled up and reached a hand down to Jen. “It’s okay. I’ll keep us in the air.”
Jen looked at the hand for a moment. The physics were all wrong; dragons couldn’t exist, let alone fly with two passengers on board. What if her father was wrong, and her presence damaged whatever force kept the dragon airborne? How could she trust something she couldn’t understand?
“All right,” she said. She took her father’s hand.