"Ophidum. That's what you're looking for." The old woman finally said.
Piero pondered. He had never heard of that. Then again, his mind was no longer the same.
Having completed his apprenticeship as an alchemist, Piero worked as a shopkeeper at one of the guild's shops several shifts a week.
Outside of work, he frequented the workshops, researching different formulas.
Countless patrons came to Piero each day, expressing their distress and frustrations. A growing dread loomed over the city.
A mysterious plague was spreading quietly. It afflicted the mind, swallowing details of memories like an encroaching fog. Worse still, even when informed about past events, the victims perceived them as fantasies instead of actual happenings.
As a major guild of the city, the alchemists were under pressure. Master craftsmen gathered and debated, speculating everything from the disruption of anima to metal poisoning.
Piero traversed the narrow corridors, breathing in the familiar acrid odor along with some new caustic scents.
As he arrived at the workshop, he saw several alchemists hunching at their desks. Everyone was working tirelessly. Finding a vacant spot, he placed his bag of materials on the surface. Then, he went over to the shelves to collect the pieces of equipment he needed.
Recollecting the discussions of the masters, Piero made a plan. This time, he would be experimenting on the anima hypothesis.
Alchemy was the art of change and manipulation, for both physical matter and the unseen power. The materia and anima were the two sides of a coin.
Everything can be changed, especially the living mind. But what had triggered such a widespread phenomenon?
With careful measurements, Piero filled five flasks with aqua lumen. Then, he took out a small pouch and unfolded the parchment within. Shifting through the vermillion chunks, he carefully placed them in the flasks.
Despite its intangibility, anima was bound to materia. One can manipulate it through worldly substances.
Sulfur was often used. It was commonly attainable and among the purest embodiments of anima. On the other hand, mercury embodied the mind and consciousness, a complex subset of anima.
This time, Piero focused on the interaction between simple anima and the mind. Cinnabar possessed properties of sulfur and mercury in perfect balance.
He experimented on the different sizes of chunks and heat levels, observing the different reactions in each of the flasks. Such differences affect the extraction of alchemic properties.
Soon, one of them had completed the process. Filtering the residue, he emptied the shimmering liquid into tiny ampoules.
Piero made his way to the back of the complex.
He hypothesized that the decomposition of the mind had caused the amnesia. In transmutation, matter could be compounded and decomposed. The mind should work similarly.
He greeted the master supervising the smeltery and walked towards a group of apprentices.
"Giulio! I need your help with something." He beckoned an older apprentice.
"Is that you, Piero? Forgotten your old pal now that you're a real alchemist." The apprentice chided. "It's only been what, three months?"
Piero paused, but quickly regained his composure.
"There's something I need to test. It's important." He took out an ampoule.
"Can't you go to the menagerie? Surely now you have the permission."
"It's hard to observe the effects on animals."
Rummaging through his bag, he handed Lorenzo a jar. It contained fine dark grains that partially shifted into translucency in the ambient heat.
"Dusk salt," Piero said. "Took me a while to find it."
"Fine, you better not kill me."
Lorenzo trusted Piero. During their apprenticeship, Piero tested his various concoctions on fellow apprentices. As one of the brightest, nothing he made was ever lethal or permanently damaging.
"I need you to remember this." Piero presented a scrap of paper.
"Today, I went to the market to get some saffron…" Lorenzo muttered. "Did you tear it from your journal?"
"Ready? Tilt your head back." Piero uncapped the ampoule, dripping the liquid into Lorenzo's nostril.
Lorenzo shut his eyes as pain gushed into his skull. Out of all the ways of administering medicine, this had to be his least favorite.
A wave of blankness set in. Lorenzo could hazily feel Piero helping him to a bench nearby.
"Now tell me. What was written on the paper?"
"It was…uh, something about something?" Try as he might, Lorenzo couldn't recall. The event had vanished from his mind.
Piero asked a few more questions, making sure that Lorenzo was otherwise unaffected. The situation was dire. He had to present his findings as soon as possible.
The guild reviewed Piero's report. The masters conducted further experimentation and arrived at a conclusion.
It was likely that the victims were infected by an influx of anima. The raw power worked its way into their minds and unraveled the memories. The remaining mental components were left intact, as victims do not suffer from other symptoms of dementia.
Even as they found the cause, no method was able to reverse it. Furthermore, the source of the influx was unknown.
There was much to be done.
Piero's worst suspicion was confirmed. Every day, his past faded.
He no longer remembered the master that trained him, nor did he remember his previous companions.
He vaguely knew that he was born in this city and became an apprentice at a young age. The details were thoroughly lost.
Fortunately, most of his knowledge and skills remained intact. He could try his best to live with the amnesia.
It was another hectic day. The number of visitors had become overwhelming. Long lines formed across the street, stretching all the way to the other end.
The sun was setting. As Piero prepared for closure, a woman walked in. Turning towards the visitor, he could feel an air of eccentricity clinging to her senile appearance.
"I'd like a vial of benzoin tincture, five portions of liver stones, and two tins of zaffre salve."
Unlike most patrons who came describing their ailments or needs, the woman simply ordered what she wanted. Piero prepared the items.
"That's outrageous. I remember this being much more saturated thirty years ago." She pointed at the vial. Then, she opened the tin. "There are still unblended grains in the ointment."
"And look at the cracks on these stones!" She huffed. "I missed the lass working here before. She always knew how to handle things properly."
Piero barely registered her complaints. His mind froze when he heard the word remember. The plague had spread so extensively that not many people could recall such detailed events.
Schooling his face, he said politely. "I'm terribly sorry, madam. I'll give you a discount. I suppose you practice alchemy privately? You must be very skilled. I'd love to know about your works."
"I've been experimenting on anima lately, but I only achieved the decomposition process. I'd like to know if there's a way to reverse the effects."
"Ah, that's not a straightforward task. But I can think of something." She paused. "Though, why would I share my secrets?"
Promptly, Piero went to the storeroom, carrying a small box when he exited.
"Here are some adamantine shards of the finest quality, they're from my private inventory. This is but a small price. I could finally advance my rank to a master."
The woman smiled, satisfied by the offer.
According to the woman, one could revert every transmutation with an immaculate embodiment of both anima and materia.
None of the masters knew of the so-called 'ophidum' or any substance with that property. Searching through the city, no woman matching the description was found. Many believed that Piero had lost his mind due to amnesia.
Piero remembered that evening in precise details. What others thought was meaningless to him.
For years, Piero dedicated himself to the creation of ophidum.
Following the woman's instructions, he devised a system of processes. As base ingredients, the most refined crystals of sulfur and salt were used.
The crystals were embedded into each other before being fermented with herbs, resin, and aqua lumen. The resulting sludge was distilled in an alembic and left for precipitation. The solids were then added to molten electrum. Finally, the gas from the sublimation was captured.
It was difficult. The slightest mistake would be catastrophic. Through relentless efforts, he managed to produce a small amount.
While mostly invisible, lights flickered when it was jostled. It would gradually corrode any container and escape.
The substance must be used quickly. Piero carefully mixed it with a coagulated concoction he crafted earlier. In a flare, the mass seemed to shrivel and shift. As the brightness fade, only liquid and fresh herbs remained.
Piero was ecstatic. He had succeeded in reverting a transmutation.
Pure ophidum was too unstable to be used on living things, often rotting flesh and bones on contact. Occasionally, it would rejuvenate them, healing even the most grievous injuries. A universal cure, if Piero could properly harness it.
But he was only interested in one cure.
Piero spent many more years perfecting the formula. Eventually, he managed to create an extremely diluted elixir. After thorough testing on plants and animals, he was sure of its safety.
Anxiousness rose in him as he administered the elixir to himself. What was lost so long ago could soon be returned.
Scenes flashed through his mind. Senseless and nondescript, they didn't seem to connect from the past to the present. It felt like vivid hallucinations rather than a recollection of memories.
Deciding to take a break, Piero left the workshop.
Noise permeated everywhere. He could hear sounds of casual conversations, clanging pots and pans, and hurried footsteps. Children were playing in the alleys, beneath lines of laundry hung between opposite buildings.
People seemed to have moved on.
Unknowingly, he wandered towards the merchant district. Seeing the little shop tucked in the corner, he smiled.
Two decades had passed since he last worked there. As a master, he spent most of his time in the workshops, training apprentices and conducting experiments.
Piero continued down the street, instinctively stopping by the bakery. A man was placing loaves after loaves into the large oven with his long wooden peel.
"Luca!" He called. "It's been a while. I remember you being a scrawny lad back then. Look at you now!"
Luca replied with a soft nod. He was never much of a conversant, but there was a sadness in his eyes.
"His wife passed." Answered another baker.
Later that day, Piero revisited the bakery. He saw Luca leaving, carrying a sleeping child in his arms.
"Let's walk a little."
Luca had been very young when the amnesia plague struck. Forgotten by his family, the bakers guild took him in when they found him on the streets. As a minor guild, they didn't care much about pedigree.
His wife had a similar fate.
Luca was at lost without his wife, but he must not falter.
"Master Piero, I-" Luca stuttered. "I don't know what to do." He looked at his daughter. "Lavinia's been crying almost every day."
Piero supposed a change of scenery might help.
"Come visit our workshop, the one near the town square. You can bring Lavinia. I'll make sure of her safety."
Luca and Lavinia saw the building from afar. It stood taller than most buildings, and the large pointed dome was rather striking.
They were greeted by the polished marble floor and rows of towering pillar arches upon entry. Pedestals lined the sides, each showcasing an alchemical curio. Esoteric paintings covered the walls and vaulted ceiling.
An apprentice approached, having known about their arrival from Piero.
The hallways led to the workshops and study rooms, each filled with craftsmen and apprentices. Some were tidy, with clean desks and well-kept apparatuses. Others were in disarray, books and half-finished projects cluttered the room.
"Master Piero!" Lavinia called excitedly. They reached a study room. Piero had just finished lecturing his apprentices.
"How do you like it?"
"Everything's so strange and interesting!"
Luca flashed an apologetic smile. Lavinia had been enthusiastic. She asked about everything, from charts and symbols to the paraphernalia decorating the place.
But the visit had brought joy to both Lavinia and himself. This place was truly wondrous, an exemplary establishment of the arts and sciences.
"Well, would you like to join us as an apprentice?"
"Master Piero, Lavinia-"
"With my approval, they wouldn't say a thing." Piero was among the most influential alchemists, renowned even in other cities.
Luca contemplated. The child was always intrigued by the inner-workings of milling and baking, marveling at the workers and machinery. Having a knack for invention, she would play with the dough and make pastries of different textures.
However, the bakers guild was a pragmatic place. Her curiosity and innovation would be stifled. Becoming an alchemist would suit her better, especially under the tutelage of Piero.
He turned towards Lavinia, who was looking at him expectantly.
Lavinia placed her belongings on the side of the mattress. She just moved into the apprentice quarters, sharing a room with several boys and girls.
All of them were children of alchemists or wealthy families. Lavinia had seen her share of snobbish adults, but the children didn't seem to mind her upbringing.
They cheerfully gathered around her and introduced themselves. Soon, they were talking about the things they do in the guild.
"I hate cleaning slag in the smeltery. Master Lorenzo is so strict."
"But he did give some great lessons on metallurgy yesterday."
"At least it's not as bad as shoveling dung in the menagerie."
"What about you, Lavinia? I heard you're training under Master Piero. He's rather odd."
"Someone said that most tasks he gives are just purchasing supplies or fixing equipments. Doesn't sound bad to me."
They chatted until the lights in the hallways were extinguished. Knowing that it's time, they went to sleep.
Lavinia couldn't find Piero the next day. Another apprentice came to her instead, showing her the ropes and splitting some tasks with her.
Piero usually secluded himself in his personal workshop, lost in his research. Though, he did give lessons and tasks to his apprentices every once in a while.
Weeks later, Lavinia finally saw Piero. He seemed surprised.
"I didn't know you'd come so soon."
"I came almost a month ago, master."
Mortified, Piero straightened himself. "Ah, apologies. I hope the others have taught you the basics? Here, I'll give you some lessons tomorrow."
Lavinia was a quick study. Piero had acquired permission for her to access the library, seeing that her interest in theories extended beyond the foundation.
To her, the art of alchemy and baking were not dissimilar. Both involved molding and changing materials through ingenious processes.
As she turned older, Piero allowed her to help with his experiments.
It was the most fascinating thing she had ever seen. There was a reason for Piero's fame despite his reclusiveness.
Lavinia must find out the reason behind this miracle.
"Master, is it that important to get those memories back?" Lavinia asked.
"I don't know, I feel like a part of me is missing."
"But you have us, you have Master Lorenzo. Papa and mamma lost their families, but they found each other in the bakers guild."
Silent, Piero contemplated.
"Sometimes, the past is unreachable. Even if we could unmake bread into flour and water, why should we?"