The Dwelling of the Alchemist

Larkas finally saw it through the thinning trees. The dilapidated structure looked like a tall barn, sitting lonely and incongruous among the boulders and snow drifts of Mount Runkhorn. As he stepped out of the woods, his whole body felt suddenly pierced by the bitter wind that the pines had been blocking. He gasped reflexively. The fatigue of a four-day trek up the mountainside seemed to have been stored up in that blast of frigid air. But even more, Larkas felt the weight of his own rage upon that wind, his need to end a nightmare, his hope to set things right. He fell to his knees and remained motionless for a long time, his limbs aching and his head swimming from the thin air and a gust of conflicting emotions. Eventually, Larkas hauled himself up and stumbled to the dark building, closing the distance that separated him from his dangerous purpose.

His numbed fist felt nothing as it pounded on the desiccated wooden door. After a short pause, the door creaked open a hand’s width. He peered through the narrow opening at the gaunt face of a powerful-looking man with no hair. The bald man held a thick candle whose flame flickered and went out as the wind swept over it. His glazed eyes slowly looked Larkas over, then fixed their dead stare on his face.

“I am here to see the Alchemist,” said Larkas, shivering.

The bald man’s emotionless face did not change.

“How you find?” he said with a heavy Berellian accent.

“Janth Myronokor,” said Larkas. “Don’t worry, he’s dead now. He won’t be revealing any more secrets.”

The bald man made no immediate response, continuing to stare at Larkas.

“Proof?” he said.

Larkas opened the leather satchel he had slung over his shoulder and removed a ruby-studded ring. He handed it to the bald man who examined it for no longer than a heartbeat before dropping it as if it were a worthless stone. Larkas bent down, picked up the ring, and returned it to his satchel.

“Alone?” said the bald man.

“For now. My associate will be arriving tomorrow with a large amount of Ælliri white gold. Not in trinkets or coins. In demi-bars. The Alchemist might be interested in knowing more about my business proposal.”

Silence followed. The bald man cocked his head to one side and seemed to be listening to something.

“I check,” he said.

Icy hands frisked Larkas thoroughly and rummaged through his satchel. Larkas had brought no weapon, knowing in advance how futile it would have been. When he had finished, the bald man pulled open the groaning door just wide enough for Larkas to enter, and stepped backwards into the building, keeping the door open.

“Come,” he said brusquely. “Stay.”

Larkas entered and the door was slammed shut behind them. In an instant, the drone of the howling wind became a distant groan and the pallid sunlight vanished. Larkas could see nothing, but heard the bald man shuffling away into the lightless interior. The air inside felt barely less cold than outside, but at least it was still. Then the perfume enveloped him.

In space, Larkas had taken a mere step forward, but his sense of smell had been transported to an entirely new realm. He took a deep breath, inhaling the odors of a wild mélange, intermingling to create some hitherto unknown innovation. His nostrils flared at the sensation. The aromas seemed to undulate and vibrate, deepening almost to the point of becoming edible and then dissipating to a mere suggestion. Larkas knew immediately that he was in the presence of a skill that transcended the limits of mere science. The Alchemist was truly an artist.

Twenty paces across the darkened space, a vertical slice of light appeared as another creaking door opened, only to disappear again an instant later. The bald man was gone. Larkas sat on the ground, his weariness overcoming any sense of decorum, and waited for nearly half an hour in total darkness, all the while however, enchanted by the mosaic of fragrances.

Finally, the far door opened again and someone stepped into the doorframe. The figure’s enormous girth blocked the light behind it like the moon Creska eclipsing the sun. Even from across the room and in the dim lighting, Larkas saw that the newcomer was a head taller than him and twice as wide. The corpulent figure stepped back into the room, then returned holding an exquisite silver candelabra, its myriad branches thick as a full-grown tree’s and each topped with a burning candle.

The figure glided forward with unexpected litheness, its massive weight belying an almost dainty step. In the light of the candelabra, Larkas could clearly see the features of a man. His skin was pale and seemed delicate as if made of the finest porcelain. Although his wavy hair appeared wild and unkempt at first, Larkas saw that it had been styled into place by some grease or oil whose luscious scent emanated from him as strongly as the light from his candelabra. Fat lips jutted out of his almost spherical head and his beady eyes lay hidden in deep, fleshy recesses. The man wore a fortune in jewelry and Wallon silk clothing, most notably two chains of Ælliri white gold. Larkas’s wager on that point had been correct. He prayed that the rest of his conjectures and surmises about the Alchemist proved likewise.

But more than any other detail, Larkas noticed the Aura, a barely visible but unmistakable shimmer that swirled around the man like the waves of heat rising off a distant desert horizon. The Imperial interdiction against the Magician Guild’s use of the Aura spell had been one of the key provisions to establish an armistice between the Empire and the Guild seven years ago. The Alchemist’s flagrant and notorious refusal to present himself to Guild authorities and have his Aura spell revoked rendered him in violation of both Imperial law and Guild precept. In the criminal circles that had dealings with the man, such recalcitrance only enhanced his reputation.

Larkas had never before seen anyone imbued with the Aura spell. Descriptions of it had not prepared him for the electric sense of power that it radiated. It would indeed prove to be a difficulty, Larkas thought to himself. But if he knew one thing about the Magician’s Art, it was that no spell was invincible.

“You have killed Janth Myronokor,” said the Alchemist.

His voice was quiet and raspy, and his stare pierced through Larkas as if attempting to read his very soul. Larkas shook his head.

“I did not say that. I said that he was dead. I never claimed he was killed at all, and certainly not that I had killed him.”

The Alchemist considered this, his gaze not lessening its penetration, but altering in a subtle way that Larkas could not interpret.

“But you did kill him,” he said flatly.

“You can see that about me?”

Bulbous lips curved on one side to form a grin.

“You might say, I can smell it.”

They stared at each other for a long moment in silence. The flames of the many candles in the Alchemist’s perfectly steady hand neither flickered nor waved. Finally, a more radical change came over him. He had decided something, and his entire demeanor shifted from suspicious to welcoming.

“Follow me,” he said, “and let us talk of your business proposal.”

He spun around nimbly and crossed the room with even strides. The bald man, who had stood waiting at the far door, disappeared through it before the Alchemist arrived. Larkas followed a few paces behind, walking cautiously across the shadowy room.

Beyond the door lay an entirely different world. Dozens of candles illuminated a richly decorated sitting room and the already powerful smells in the air became even more intense and varied as the men neared their unseen sources. Copper air sweltered from the numerous flames and Larkas immediately unbuttoned his long cloak but kept his woolen scarf wrapped around his neck. He prayed again, this time that the Alchemist would make no note of it.

Paintings out of mythology, many lurid, covered the walls, interspersed with hanging mirrors encased in massive frames whose reflections doubled the bright candlelight. In the middle of the room was an intricately-carved, round table with two high-backed chairs on either side. The Alchemist sat in one and motioned to the other with his bulgy hand.

Larkas lowered his satchel to the floor next to the chair and sat. The bald man arrived at the same time with a silver tray bearing an ornate crystal bowl filled with smoked Northern Sea speckled whelks, still in their swirling shells. Two matching crystal plates flanked the bowl, and on each plate Larkas saw a long silver needle with an oblong pearl on one end.

The Alchemist snatched a handful of whelks and placed them on his plate, and the bald man presented him with an embroidered napkin as soon as the mollusks left his hand. The Alchemist wiped his hand and the napkin vanished into the bald man’s keeping, who took up a position behind his master’s chair, letting his arms hang slack and remaining as motionless as a stone pillar.

After a deliberative scan of his catch, the Alchemist selected a single whelk, grasping it delicately between his thumb and forefinger. With the needle in his other hand, he probed inside and removed the smoked body of the creature, which hung wrinkled and skewered on the end of the needle. He examined it thoughtfully for a moment before placing it in his mouth to let it roll around his tongue. Then with a smile he swallowed and set down the needle and shell on the crystal plate, turning his full attention towards Larkas.

“All of this,” he said with a slight wave of his swollen hand, “and much more that you shall never see, must now be moved because of your unexpected visit here.”

He sniffed, waiting for a response. Larkas said nothing.

“As soon as my whereabouts are known, I must relocate my operation.”

His gaze drifted to a point on the ceiling, and he lifted his round chin.

“Which is probably for the better. I should never stay too long in one place, anyway.”

Two dark eyes twisted to look at Larkas while the Alchemist’s upturned head remained still.

“You have perhaps done me a favor, though certainly unintentionally. Two, in fact.”

He straightened his head.

“Besides forcing me to move, your dispatching of Janth Myronokor will most likely prove to be a benefit for me as well. He had been a useful tool. Some tools can be reused. A knife can be sharpened. But others, once they have outlived their usefulness, must be discarded. A broom without bristles is just a stick.”

He sighed, as if wearied by his own words. Then he furrowed his brow.

“You are sweating. Do you not wish to remove your scarf?”

Larkas felt a pang of panic, but he controlled himself, having anticipated the situation.

“I feel more comfortable with it,” said Larkas with a forced smile. “Like a child with a security blanket.”

The Alchemist shrugged.

“You are not here to discuss fashion, nor aid me in my choice of a living situation, nor to separate the wheat from the chaff within my household. So, then, why are you here?”

Larkas shifted in the uncomfortable chair and opened his mouth to begin delivering a carefully prepared speech. The Alchemist raised a hand to stop him.

“You must know, however, before you begin, that I cannot be deceived. Just as I can sense the truth that you killed the Myronokor scum, I can sense the truth of anything you say whatever. Or the falsehood.”

He leaned forward with an almost gleeful look on his face.

“Do you wish me to show you?”

Larkas stared at him, realizing that the obese man was not posing a question. A trickle of sweat ran down Larkas’s cheek. He hoped his host would think the sweat came only from the heat.

“How?” said Larkas with a dry throat.

The Alchemist leaned back and rested his hands on the dome of his gut, touching the tips of his fingers together.

“Tell me three things about yourself. Three things that I could not possibly know. Two of them must be true, and one false. I will tell you which is false.”

It was a doubly artful ploy, thought Larkas. Not only was the Alchemist trying to intimidate him through a demonstration of his abilities, but if Larkas were not careful, his choice of statements could also betray information about himself that he would prefer to keep secret. His mind raced.

“Very well,” said Larkas. “Here are three facts. All three are true. I have a dog named Dovvla. I am a member of the Magician’s Guild. I am an excellent swordsman.”

“You cheated!” he said with a delighted smile, and clapped his fat hands together. “You mixed in falsity with veracity within one of your statements.”

The blood drained from Larkas’s face and his heart began pounding. The trickle of sweat became a torrent.

“Oh, sir, I am becoming pleased by your visit. You intrigue me. Firstly, you do have a dog, but the beast’s name is not Dovvla. Alas, my powers are not so subtle as that I should divine its actual name. But this statement, my cunning friend, is both true and false. Secondly, you are no member of the Magician’s Guild nor even their friend. You despise them. So much can be seen on your very face. That is clearly your lie. And thirdly, yes, your talent with the blade makes you one of the most formidable warriors in the Empire.”

Larkas kept his face impassive, hiding the relief that washed over him, but he nodded in acknowledgement and genuine astonishment of the Alchemist’s uncanny ability. He had, indeed, discerned truth from falsehood, thought Larkas, but he had not been able to fully plumb the depths of the statements. Like the Aura spell, the Alchemist was not invincible.

“So you see,” said the Alchemist, beaming with pride, “there is no way for you to deceive me. Now, my puzzling friend, why are you here?”

Larkas abandoned his rehearsed speech.

“I want errosine powder.”

In an instant, the mirth and playfulness vanished from the Alchemist’s face which snapped into an expression of grave concentration. His right eyebrow lifted slightly, almost imperceptibly.

“Errosine powder is very, very difficult to produce and very, very deadly,” he said slowly. “Not to mention expensive. Very, very expensive.”

Reaching over the arm of the chair, Larkas rummaged through his satchel and removed an object wrapped in green fabric. Keeping his eyes fixed on the Alchemist’s face, he unwrapped the demi-bar of pure Ælliri white gold and placed it gently next to the whelks. The Alchemist’s eyes followed the demi-bar as it moved, then remained on it for a time before turning back to Larkas.

“This is one of twenty demi-bars I am prepared to offer for your services. For safety, I have not brought the entire sum with me, but I am certain that even one demi-bar suffices to prove my access to the others. In any event, I can’t deceive you. The nineteen shall arrive at noon tomorrow. I trust you will not have already moved before then.”

Larkas felt scrutinized even more intently than before. A hunger came over the Alchemist’s face that he could not fully suppress. He knew Larkas was telling the truth and that a fortune in precious metal was on its way to his dwelling.


“My reasons are my own.”

He laughed viciously.

“No, sir, that shall not work. I do not make such deals, not for all the Ælliri white gold in the whole Empire.”

He stopped laughing but a devious smile remained.

“I need to know to what end my skills shall be employed.”

A tense silence followed.


“Ah. The noblest motive of all. Against whom?”

“Prestor Herron,” said Larkas quickly. He prayed not too quickly. “Eleven years ago, Herron conspired to have my family wiped out in a political assassination. He succeeded in killing my parents, Ulst and Yeena Mozzæn, my three older brothers…”

He paused and swallowed hard.

“And my wife and child.”

Larkas fought down the wrenching tumult of sorrow and fury in his chest and waited until he could continue with a steady voice. The Alchemist began examining his fingernails.

“No one was ever caught and the matter was not pursued. House Herron swept my family out of existence. But I have discovered the truth, regardless of what anyone else believes. And I have vowed revenge. It has taken all these years to amass the means and the ability to do so, but now I am prepared.”

The Alchemist rolled his eyes in their cavernous sockets and let out an exasperated sigh.

“Ugh, the insignificant squabbles of the Southern petty nobility. You people should never be given land, you know that? I do not know anyone of House Herron, nor any Mozzæn family. How did you survive when everyone else died?”

Larkas shook his head mournfully, turning a blank stare over the Alchemist’s shoulder, his eyes suddenly as dead as the bald man’s.

“My sister and I had gone out for an evening ride, got caught in a storm, and decided to stay the night at an inn. Simple as that. The most unbelievably random chance. My family was wiped out while my sister and I chatted happily over ales at the Four Winds. When we came back… we found…”

Once again, he was unable to keep his voice steady. The Alchemist nodded in mock sympathy, chewing back a yawn before frowning unconvincingly.

“My heartfelt condolences.”

He turned serious again, his feigned frown becoming a real one.

“But I have no desire to become embroiled in political cat-fighting.”

“Hence the errosine powder,” said Larkas, recovering himself. “Since it’s an untraceable, undetectable poison, the existence of which most people are ignorant, it would be impossible to track it back to a source. There is no danger to you.”

His face did not change, but Larkas could tell he was considering the proposal.

“Nothing is impossible,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone after a pause. “And there is always danger to me. I have not survived so long by being reckless. Do you know how old I am?”

Larkas shook his head.

“One hundred and forty-seven years this summer. And I owe my robust age to three things. First, the nearly miraculous effects of the herbs and minerals and potions that are my joy to work with. I reveal nothing new to you in this. You know my passion, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Second, the Aura spell which you have certainly noticed, no?”

“Of course.”

“But you have not mentioned it,” he said in a pouting voice.

“To what end?”

“To flatter me, of course! My dear man, you are so terrible at the art of negotiation as to be positively charming, like a little boy dressing up in his father’s overlarge clothes… oh, my apologies, perhaps mentioning fathers and sons is a sore subject for you. In any event, you must at least allow me a demonstration of it. At least that?”

Larkas grimaced and shifted in his chair.

“If you insist.”

“Wonderful! Vren, give our guest a weapon as he wisely brought none. A kitchen knife would suit well, don’t you think?”

He wiggled his thick fingers at the bald man who immediately left the room.

“And as for that offensive Imperial injunction summoning all Aura-bearers to report to the Guild to have their spell recanted… what was that called?”

“The Act of Cleansing,” said Larkas as the bald man returned holding a wood-handled knife. He offered it to Larkas who took and examined it, finding it perfectly normal.

“Yes, that’s it,” said the Alchemist. “What a wonderfully euphemistic bit of political deception. Cleansing. Well, as for the Cleansing, I would be more than willing to oblige, but it is really quite impossible for me right now. You understand.”

He raised himself up in his chair.

“Now…” said the Alchemist with wide eyes and a jubilant grin, his voice deep and dramatic, “…attack me.”

He gripped the armrests of his chair, lifted his head, and puffed out his round chest. Larkas glanced up at the bald man who maintained his stoic countenance, looking straight ahead and seemingly unconcerned. Larkas hesitated.

“Come on, you coward!”

Startled by the shout, Larkas struck quickly, unthinkingly, leaning forward over the table and putting all his strength into a stab straight for the man’s heart. Time seemed to slow, as if the very fabric of reality stretched and elongated like dough being rolled out on a baker’s table. The body of the Alchemist appeared to recede from Larkas, lengthening backwards. In this strange sensation of things, Larkas felt the thrusting motion of his arm somehow decelerated by the very force of its moving forward, as if the source of the repulsion was paradoxically his own effort. The blade came to within a hand’s width of the Alchemist’s heaving chest before Larkas felt his whole arm, indeed his whole body, being pulled to the right. Then with startling rapidity, the regular passage of time returned and all his physical momentum swept back into him. He was flung to the side of his would-be victim, barely avoiding the table, and fell to the ground.

The Alchemist screamed with squeals of ecstatic laughter.

“Wonderful! You can only imagine what happens with arrows or crossbow bolts. I’ve lost more than one servant from redirected projectiles.”

Larkas stood slowly, dusted himself off, and sat back down with a bruised ego but no physical damage. The blade of the knife, however, had been warped and partially melted by its encounter with the Aura. Larkas set it on the table.

“How does it work?” he said.

“If only I knew,” said the Alchemist wistfully. “The Guildsmen keep their secrets well. I am no practitioner of their devil worship and occultism… though I have no scruples about benefiting from them.”

“I can see.”

“And the third thing that has kept me alive so long,” said the Alchemist casually, as if the demonstration of the Aura had not even happened, “perhaps the most important of all, is caution. Not being reckless. I am a cautious man, my vengeful friend, and that has kept me alive through all these years. Tell me, how was your family killed?”

Larkas paused.

“With a dagger,” he said and flinched internally, his heart pounding.

“All of them?”


“And you want to poison their murderer?”

“Yes. I do not deny that I am motivated by passion, but I too must be cautious. I want them dead in the most discreet way possible and in a way that allows me to remain undiscovered. Errosine poison is the solution.”

The Alchemist narrowed his eyes.

“You just said ‘them’. That is a plural pronoun indicating more than one person. In this case, more than one murderer. Who are… them?”

It had been an idiotic mistake. Larkas clenched his jaw but recovered quickly.

“I said Prestor Herron had my family members killed. I did not say he killed them himself. A hired assassin performed the actual deed, but Herron was the man behind it. I want them both dead. The assassin and Herron. Both of them.”

A long silence followed. Larkas could see his host’s sharp mind at work by the look of intense concentration in his eyes. With every passing second, Larkas’s anxiety grew. He had heard of the man’s keen intelligence and methodical logic, but had not anticipated the sheer piercing penetration of the man’s wits nor his ability to detect falsity.

The Alchemist breathed in deeply through his nose.

“I will agree,” he said finally. “Under one condition.”

Larkas waited.

“Along with the twenty demi-bars of white gold, which, let us be honest, is mere money even in such a high quantity, I need the assurance of your sincerity in this matter. An assurance deeper than simple words and more precious than white gold. You must prove yourself through an action as well.”

He paused and Larkas remained silent.

“I require your right hand.”

Larkas laughed incredulously.

“Could it be my left instead?” he said. “I use my right so very often.”

The Alchemist frowned and furrowed his brow.

“I shall allow that.”

All of a sudden, it dawned on Larkas that the Alchemist was not making a jest. His rotund face was composed, the eyebrows raised in expectant waiting. He was serious.

“Vren will take care of the details,” he said, rising with grunting difficulty. “If you do not agree to the terms, he will remove you from these premises and there is a distinct possibility that you might have your eyes put out in the process. I make no guarantees.”

He smiled like a demon and held out his bloated hand. Larkas stared at it in shock. None of his planning could have anticipated this grisly request. His resolve wavered. This man and this place were so unnatural. Everything felt wrong to him, and yet, he had come so far already. How could he back down now?

Larkas closed his eyes and suddenly saw his parents’ chamber. He saw the expressions chiseled into their cold faces when he had found them. He saw his brothers. His wife. His son. He remembered his oath. Opening his eyes, Larkas rose, took the Alchemist’s hand and shook it.

The huge man flopped back into his chair as if exhausted, and reached into his robe to produce a lace-fringed, silk handkerchief that he unfurled with a whipping motion and pressed against his nose and mouth, breathing in deeply. The bald man took a step around his master’s chair towards Larkas and nodded to the door. Larkas returned the demi-bar to his satchel, rose, and went to the area outside the sitting room. The bald man closed the door behind him and Larkas found himself once again left alone in darkness.

The perfume made him sick.

After a short time, the bald man returned with a large candle on a tall pedestal in one hand. Tucked under his other arm, he carried a squat table. Setting the candle to one side, he placed the table on the ground in front of Larkas before unsheathing a long dagger that hung at his waist. He looked at Larkas, grunted, then looked at the table.

It went far worse than Larkas could have imagined. The problem was the choice of instrument, an ancient, ceremonial blade presented to high-ranking Imperial officers upon the completion of a second twenty-year tour of duty. So few officers ever survived long enough to receive such an award, that the dagger was an extremely rare antiquity. As an actual weapon, however, it was ineffective. Larkas nodded in understanding. The Alchemist had chosen it purely for its appearance and novelty.

After removing his long coat, Larkas pulled back the grimy sleeves of the tunic underneath his black, leather jerkin, all the while not being able to take his eyes from the dagger. He could almost feel its bluntness already. The Alchemist stood in the doorway, holding a jar and a vessel of steaming water with strips of fabric hanging from one arm. Larkas slowly seated himself cross-legged next to the table, then laid his arm on its surface.

The bald man wasted no time, and without so much as a grunt of warning, slashed down with the blade. It stuck in the bone. Larkas managed to refrain from screaming, but then the bald man, still holding the handle of the dagger in his right hand, placed the palm of his left hand on the flat spine of the blade, and pressed his whole weight onto the thing with a sharp, downward push. His body going into a state of shock, Larkas was at first more startled by the horrific sound than anything else. The pain followed closely after. He let out a terrible, bellowing shriek.

The Alchemist came over seconds later as the bald man removed the bloody table. The fat man squatted down next to Larkas and began treating his wound with hot water and a strong-smelling salve before wrapping it in bandages. In a half-conscious whirl of pain and nausea, Larkas could barely register what was going on. Abruptly, the Alchemist left without saying a word. Larkas lay prone for a few minutes, before hauling himself up and huddling against the wall.

He sat clutching his knees with his right arm and shivering against a cold that seemed to emanate from within his own body. His legs pressed his back against the wall, the muscles uncontrollably flexed as if by doing so they could somehow reduce the constant, overpowering pain. Nestled between his quivering legs and heaving chest was his left arm, ending at the wrist with a bloody piece of fabric. He relived the experience over and over again in his head, but he eventually succumbed to exhaustion and, despite the pain, lost consciousness.

Larkas woke up, rising languorously out of the fogs and mists of a nightmare-haunted sleep as if his discorporate soul were returning to his body. Other than a strange tingling running down his back, he felt nothing but an indistinct meltedness, as if his limbs were streams of warm, dissipating water. He had no idea where he was, who he was, why he was. Panic and fear should have gripped him, but instead he felt only vaguely aware of something amiss, that it was somehow not good to be lying on his back staring up at the rafters of an unknown roof high above him.

He turned his head to the right, the contours of the room following a moment later in soft, stretched trails of light and shadow before coming again to rest in tenuous solidity. A small bowl sat on the ground not far from him. Curls of yellow smoke twisted and writhed out of it until they faded and turned into a sound like a wetted finger circling the rim of a crystal glass. Smoke does not usually become sound, he mused lazily to himself.

Like a lumbering mammoth, memory plodded back into a gradually coalescing consciousness of his surroundings. He was in the dwelling of the Alchemist, he thought to himself, more as a question than a statement of fact. His hand had been cut off and he should feel pain. Larkas tried to lift his arm but nothing happened. All the while the smoke kept dancing out of the bowl to play in the air for a single, self-immolating breath before its rebirth as a throbbing drone that beat in time with Larkas’s pulsing spine.


The realization dawned on Larkas like a gentle caress when it should have been a slap in the face. He must have been inhaling the drug for such a long time that its hallucinogenic and opiate effects had seeped deeply into his brain. He closed his eyes in concentration and tried to imagine how it would feel to roll onto his right side and reach out for the bowl. Then he mustered all his strength and attempted to twist his numbed body onto its side.

Larkas succeeded in executing an awkward flop, his left arm swinging up in the air before dropping like a dead weight onto the bowl. Embers and sparks from the smoldering cylinders of compressed demonsprout leaves scattered in all directions. Some continued to burn where they landed, but Larkas had extinguished a good portion of it. He stared at the bandaged end of his left arm, feeling nothing. After a short time of vacuous stupor, he fell back asleep.

When Larkas awoke a second time, the effects of the drug had greatly worn off and all he could register at first was uninterrupted pain. He hauled himself up to a sitting position against the wall and looked at the bandages. Blood had stained through in a few points, but it seemed to his untrained eyes to be well tended. He had no idea what hour it was, but imagined it must be sometime the next day.

The remnants of the demonsprout had been cleaned up and a silver tray laid on the ground where the bowl had been. Fruits, nuts, and slices of dried sausage were artfully arranged on various porcelain plates and an etched decanter filled with a red liquid stood next to a silver goblet with matching designs in filigree. Starving, he attacked the food, eating like a ravenous dog which particularly contrasted with the elegance of the presentation. The red liquid proved to be a southern wine from his own homelands. Larkas had to appreciate the Alchemist’s attention to detail.

Returning to his spot against the wall, he drifted in and out of unrestful sleep until a new illumination flooded the dim room. He squinted his eyes and saw the Alchemist enter with his candelabra. The bald man followed behind holding a delicately upholstered chair, which he placed next to Larkas. The Alchemist handed off his candelabra and sat. He looked down at Larkas, huddled on the ground. The Alchemist’s sleeves were rolled back, revealing bald arms glistening with sweat. He dabbed his forehead with an exquisite handkerchief.

“You have no idea how difficult it is to obtain errosine powder.” he said dismissively.

Larkas lifted the stump of his left arm in response.

“Yes, well, that is a different story. I had to have my assurances, you understand. And on that topic, how perfectly beastly rude and ungrateful of you to refuse my gift… my gift of demonsprout. That was from my personal collection, mind you, directly imported from…”

He giggled.

“Yes, well, the term ‘imported’ is a bit of a misnomer, now isn’t it? But at the very least, I am certain that no one died in its procurement.”

He paused.

“I strongly believe that no one died in its procurement. But that’s neither here nor there. The fact is, you have insulted me by rejecting my genuine and heartfelt attempts to lessen your pain. But every man has his tastes, doesn’t he?”

Larkas did not like the tone of his voice.

“Is it finished?” he said gruffly.

The Alchemist sighed.

“So impatient. Art does not care about time. Art cannot be constrained by deadlines.”

He pursed his bulging lips.

“I do not make anything unless it is a masterpiece. Do you not want a masterpiece?”

Larkas ignored the question, barely able to think through the pain.

“My associate will arrive at noon,” he said, “but will not approach this building unless a certain sign is visible from the edge of the forest. I will not tell you what that sign is until you assure me that the errosine is finished. If there is no sign, my associate will simply leave with the gold.”

The Alchemist’s face lost its joviality and he stared at Larkas sternly.

“Your errosine shall be ready by noon. You have my word. What is this signal you require?”

Larkas reached into his satchel and produced a red cloth.

“Hang this outside on the door and my associate will arrive.”

“How perfectly ugly.”

He pinched the cloth between the tips of two fingers as if it were unclean and quickly handed it to the bald man, nodding towards the exterior door.

“It is already past the third hour,” he said. “By the sixth, you shall have your prize.”

Something terrible and wild suddenly swirled behind the Alchemist’s eyes.

“But if your associate tries anything even remotely displeasing to me, you and he shall find yourselves screaming for your errosine. But not for revenge, no, no. Not for that anymore.”

He leaned forward and brought his sweating face close to Larkas.

“You will be screaming for it to end the misery I will inflict upon you. But I will not give it to you. Then finally, after an eternity of torture, when I am bored with your suffering… I will kill you myself.”

A knock sounded at the exterior door. It was the coded sequence that Larkas and his associate had agreed upon. Larkas’s heart leapt. This would be dangerous for both of them, he thought. They had known the Alchemist had the Aura spell. Did he have others? So many unexpected things had already occurred, but there was no turning back.

The bald man, who had been left guarding the sitting room door after the Alchemist’s departure, walked across the room to unlock and open the exterior door. Larkas struggled to his feet and hobbled to the bald man’s side. Outside stood a woman with a satchel much like Larkas’s over her shoulder. Sashkia peered inside and her widening eyes fell immediately on the end of Larkas’s left arm, cradled against his chest. He shook his head and her expression became stoic again.

“This is my associate,” he said. “She is unarmed and has brought the payment.”

The bald man opened the door wider and she stepped in. He closed and locked the door, then checked her for weapons and rummaged through her satchel. Finished with his inspection and finding nothing, the bald man walked back to the sitting room door and disappeared through it.

“What—” she said.

“Not now,” said Larkas calmly, shaking his head again. “I’ll explain everything. Be at ease. We knew there would be sacrifices to make.”

“But this—”

Larkas lowered his voice.

“All that remains is the final step.”

He looked at her intently. She pursed her lips and gave him a single resolute nod.

The interior door burst open and the Alchemist arrived, richly dressed in new clothes and different jewelry. In his hand, he held a small wooden box. Larkas turned to walk over to him, but stumbled in his weakness. Sashkia caught and steadied him, then helped him over to the man, supporting him by his right elbow.

The Alchemist beamed a wicked smile.

“The sister! Ah, I can see the resemblance as plainly as two leaves taken from the same tree. How quaint. The whole family… or what’s left of it… is involved in the revenge business, is it? Like father, like son. And daughter, apparently.”

“Let us finish this transaction,” said Larkas coldly. “Give us the errosine.”

“No,” said the Alchemist with equal frostiness, his smile gone. “Give me the gold first.”

The two men locked eyes for a moment, then Larkas nodded to Sashkia who stared at the Alchemist with an expression of disgust. She threw the satchel to the ground at his feet. The bald man crouched and began removing the demi-bars of white gold, making a tower. The Alchemist kept his eyes fixed on Sashkia. Rage boiled in Larkas and threatened to cloud his mind, but he had to concentrate, everything hinged upon it. He suppressed his emotions and began to work.

“My, what a feisty one this is, eh?” said the Alchemist. “Why don’t you set her loose like a lioness after her prey? She would be more effective in your little plans of revenge than this.”

He hefted the box slightly at his last words, but it was enough to break Larkas’s concentration. Internally, he screamed in frustration but his face remained placid. He tried again.

“How much did you tell him?” said Sashkia in a harsh whisper, disrupting his efforts once more. He shook his head and restarted, panic threatening to shatter his tenuous mental control.

“Oh, my dear, the things he said. I could hardly believe such tales. But then, I’m very accustomed to the vilest and most depraved elements of life. It takes much to shock me… though he came close.”

His smile returned.

“You lie!” shouted Sashkia.

“He’s just trying to upset you. Calm yourself, Sister!”

“No, no, what… calm? Let her vent her rage. The truth is upsetting, after all. I can smell her fury. She is far more interesting than you. At least… intellectually.”`

“You have your gold,” said Larkas, hazarding more words. “There is nothing more to discuss. Give us the errosine.”

Larkas felt so close to finishing, he needed just a few more moments. The Alchemist swung his arm around and held the box behind his back.

“Perhaps I’ve changed my mind.”

Sashkia’s self-control snapped. She leapt at him with a snarl, her fingers darting for the folds of fat that surrounded his neck. The Aura spell flashed for a split-second and she seemed to bounce off him as if batted away by some gigantic, unseen hand. The Alchemist roared with laughter.

“Oh,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes, “I am sorry, but I just couldn’t help myself.”

Sashkia struck the ground on her side, rolled once and popped back to her feet, more enraged than before. Through it all, Larkas had kept at his work, pouring his last bit of strength into one final, desperate attempt. His vision darkened. The pain of his amputation blended with the swirling energy inside him. His eyes bulged. Veins on his neck threatened to burst. He let out a feral yell.


Then Larkas collapsed in total exhaustion. Sashkia was next to him in a heartbeat. She knelt and lifted his head that had struck the ground. A small cut on his forehead sent blood trickling down the left side of his face, though he could feel nothing but the throb of pain in his arm and the wracking aftereffects of his effort.

“Brother, are you all right?”

He nodded shakily. The Alchemist stepped forward knocking over the fortune in gold at his feet and towering over the two siblings. His face was twisted in rage.

“What… is… done?” he said slowly.

Larkas heaved himself up onto his right elbow, panting from his nearly fatal efforts.

“I have not lied to you,” he said in a weak voice, “but I have not told you the truth. I trust you can appreciate the difference. My family was indeed murdered by an assassin’s dagger, as I have said. One after another stabbed as they slept. But they did not die from the dagger wounds. They died from the poison that the dagger had carried. Errosine.”

The Alchemist began to quiver in fury, his face turning bright red.

“We will use the errosine you just made to kill our family’s murderer, a vile cutthroat from Sinille. That is the truth. And we will use it to kill his employer, Prestor Herron. That is also the truth. But not the whole truth. The errosine that killed my family eleven long years ago had been sold to Preston Herron by the late Janth Myronokor. It had been made by a very talented, evil man. You. When my sister and I swore our revenge, we swore to kill everyone involved in the plot. Everyone.”

The Alchemist’s rage turned to bitter, humorless laughter.

“You were right that nothing is impossible,” said Larkas. “It took years, but I tracked down the source of that accursed errosine. Soon it will never be made again.”

“You can’t kill me. You have already seen how useless your attempts are.”

With a visible effort, Larkas shook his head.

“You forced me to tell you three things about myself, two true and one false. The false statement I made was that I was a member of the Guild.”

“And that is false! You are no Guildsman! I cannot be deceived!”

Fear began to contort his face.

“I am no Guildsman and you have correctly discerned the truth of my hatred for them.”

Larkas lowered his head, grasped hold of his scarf with his right hand, and pulled it down to reveal his neck. A jagged scar ran along one side.

“This is what the tattoo of a First Degree Apprentice looks like after the ceremony of expulsion from the Magician’s Guild. They should never have admitted me in the first place if they didn’t like to have the obvious moral difficulties of their demonic pacts questioned. But they realized their mistake soon enough. And I was out.”

He paused to catch his breath.

“But not before I learned a few things.”

The Alchemist’s fear intensified to disbelieving terror.

“Are you familiar with the spell of Conveyance?” said Larkas. “It can transport objects straight through solid obstacles. I’ve mastered it just enough to be able to convey something very light, such as powder, across a very short distance, such as… the distance from your hand to your stomach.”

The Alchemist ripped open the box.

“It’s half empty!”

“Your Aura is useless against the spell of Conveyance. I passed right through it. And so did the errosine.”

The Alchemist lowered himself slowly to the ground, his fearful expression replaced by a look of deep contemplation.

“It begins with a tingle,” he said quietly. “In the chest. It is absorbed very quickly. Then the heart begins to pump it everywhere. Through the whole body. To the tips of your fingers.”

He looked at his hand turning blue.

“It does not hurt. It spreads like water poured out on a polished silver surface. Cold. Spreading… spreading…”

His voice grew quieter and his eyes glazed over. He looked up, staring off into the distance.

“It is a masterpiece…” he whispered.

Then he slumped over, still clutching the box of errosine in his dead hand. The room dimmed as his Aura spell faded away. Sashkia rose and snatched the box, apparently not troubled by the unexpected pangs of pity that Larkas felt. He had killed a monster, but also an artist.

She knelt down and began collecting the demi-bars of white gold. The bald man suddenly dropped to his knees, clutching his head. He shrieked once, then looked up with frightened eyes.

“Where am I?” he said in Berellian.

“You are free,” said Larkas haltingly in a broken form of the bald man’s language. “You were prisoner. You are no longer prisoner.”

Larkas tried to stand and Sashkia came to his side, helping him up. He took three demi-bars of gold from the satchel and handed them to the bald man.

“Take. Start a new life. Leave. Here is danger.”

“Thank you,” he said, blinking in confusion.

Larkas nodded, grateful that he did not know what horrors had transpired between the Alchemist and his servant. He turned to Sashkia and spoke again in their native tongue.

“Let us go, Brother,” said Sashkia. “I will stay no longer in this evil place.”

She helped Larkas put on his cloak that had been balled up on the ground, then shouldered both his and her own satchel. The bald man moved to the exterior door in a daze, unlocked it, and sat on the ground. He rested his head in his hands, massaging his temples. If in pain or in thought or both, Larkas and Sashkia did not know.

Larkas shuffled weakly to the door and opened it, letting in a rush of frozen air. He still felt a need to end a nightmare, and a hope to set things right, but vanished was his rage. Then he and Sashkia stepped out in the cold air and left the dwelling of the Alchemist.

Alcuin Fromm is an American living in Germany. A life-long lover of fantasy and science-fiction, his literary dream is to craft stories that transport his readers to a far away-world in order to give them a souvenir that they can take back home to the real world.

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