Like every other living thing through the annals of time, age had caught up with Elestran the Base. Elestran stared in disbelief as a reflection he dared not recognize stared back at him.

A wheel had broken on some fool’s cart at the far end of Rogue’s Corridor and the flow of merchant wagons had come to a complete halt. The tunnel choked with torch smoke and angry riders, and he could hear the shouts of city guards trying to keep the peace in the distance. The wagon that had stopped in front of his cage had a large oval sheet of polished copper tied to its side and it gave Eles a chance to see himself for the first time in ages.

He knew he had aged beyond his productive years. Rarely was a man past fifty considered worth more than the food it took to keep him alive. He wasn’t sure exactly how many years he had, but he knew they ran past fifty. He had long felt defeated, but seeing his reflection – gaunt, dirty, haggard – was still a shock.

Voices cried “huzzah!” somewhere down the corridor and the wheels of the wagons started to creak forward again. As the wagon with the copper mirror rumbled out of sight, Eles backed away from his bars and settled down against the rear wall of his cell. His corner, as he was wont to call it. He knew every stone, crack, and crevice. A product of spending close to two years here. Better here than in the dungeons. He’d stayed here longer than most because he was a good prisoner, the kind they liked up here in Rogue’s Corridor. He didn’t scream or bang on his bars with his wooden spoon. Didn’t curse at or plead to or threaten any passers-by. He simply curled up at the back of his cell like the docile old fool that he was, accepting the just punishment of the nobles. That’s why it shocked him when the gaoler came to Eles’ cell gate. It wasn’t time for his bowl of whatever foul stuff they passed off as food. It certainly wasn’t time to clean the cell. Why else would the man be here?

“I only wanted to see what was happening,” Eles croaked, knowing he was tempting a lashing by being that close to the bars. It had been a long time since he had spoken, and his throat was dry from all the torch smoke. Most of his gaolers didn’t pay him any mind. They were simply workers earning a few coppers like most other men and went about their business in rote fashion. But this gaoler had a mean streak in him and would go out of his way to find reasons to mete out punishment to prisoners, whether they deserved it or not.

The gaoler’s broad smile revealed his two rotted top teeth. It could only be ill news. “Visitor.”

Visitor? Had he ever heard such a word? He had never had a visitor. Ever. His brother had long since disowned him and whatever friends or acquaintances he may have had in his younger days had abandoned him years ago when he had lost his ability to produce anything of value.

The gaoler clicked open the lock with one of his large iron keys and the cell door screeched open, rust scraping on rust. He stepped out of the way to reveal a man clad from head to toe in crimson robes. A Death’s Usher. Eyes peeked out from under hood, and a scarf of crimson silk covered face from nose down. Even the hands, with fingers entwined, were clad in red leather.

The gaoler sucked on what remained of his top teeth. “Overcrowding’s the problem. Not enough room for the lot o’ you freeloaders.” He paused to savor the next moment. “Yer to be put to death.”

“Death? For debt?” Reeling, Eles looked from his gaoler to the crimson man, but the latter’s eyes were cast in shadow and his body betrayed nothing. “S… surely there are others whose crimes are more heinous. I’m a debtor to the lords of the realm. That is all. Is there no labor for me? The Rhoanian mines perhaps?”

“Haw! You wouldn’t last a fortnight at Deeprun. Right good change of policy. ‘Bout time.” The gaoler made sure to give the manacles a violent jerk as he clasped them shut, a final jolt of pain as a farewell gift. “Send the proper message to you chaff that don’t pay what’s due.” And with that he pushed Eles out of the cell and handed the manacle keys to the Death’s Usher.

The Usher grasped Eles’ shirt by the shoulder and led him down Rogue’s Corridor, with the gaoler shambling behind. By now, every prisoner was up and at their bars. Merchants and passersby started to follow. The appearance of one of Death’s Ushers, a priest of Lady Cinereal, sometimes meant a public death. The folk on the road were soaked from head to toe and the wagon wheels tracked soot-laced water through the corridor, so Eles braced himself for rain. When they reached the end of the tunnel and emerged into the open square at the near end, neither moon was able to break through the impenetrable clouds. A harsh rain pelted his face from every angle. Hooded travelers gawked, apparently deciding that witnessing an execution might justify another few minutes in this miserably wet night.

The gaoler station at the end of the corridor was a square, three-story structure made of stone with a heavy oak door bound in iron. The Usher led Eles through the door and pulled him immediately to the right and up a set of stone stairs. The smell of seared meat floated on the air of the tower and Eles’ stomach grumbled. He couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten a proper meal. The gaoler started up the steps behind them until the Usher said, “That’ll do.”

“Hog the fun then,” he spat through his teeth, before leaving them to climb alone.

Eles was pushed all the way up. On each floor he passed narrow windows that allowed him to catch a glimpse of an ever-growing crowd of spectators. The landing at the top of the stairs glistened with rain. There were iron rungs set into the wall that led up to an open trap door to the roof. Rain came swirling down, viscid stuff that somehow made Eles feel dirtier.

The man in the red hood calmly unlocked his manacles. “Up.”

On the roof of the tower waited two other Ushers in identical red garb, and now Eles saw that all of them were armed with their signature curved blades. One of the two stood tall and thin, with a concave chest and his head thrust forward like a vulture. The other was shorter, sturdier, and stood in a wide stance. Beyond them, the rooftops of Greyarch sprawled in all directions as far as the ancient arch and the Bay of Serpents beyond. The city was shaped like an elongated bowl with the Lo’dara River splitting its bottom. It reminded him of the mouth of some behemoth shark rising out of the bay, the buildings resembling rows and rows of jagged teeth. All of Greyarch’s nobility and wealthiest residents lived in the upper parts of the bowl, while those of more modest means were relegated to the bottom, nearest to the docks. ‘The cream rises’ was an oft-repeated mantra amongst Greyarch’s rich and powerful. Eles remembered the days when he believed that. The days when he considered himself the cream.

Eles couldn’t help but see where a long, thick wooden beam extended a man’s length off the side of the roof and above the courtyard. It had clearly been rigged with rope to be used as a hangman’s beam, the noose end lying limply on the near end of the beam. He had seen public executions before. The condemned would be forced to walk to the end of the beam with the noose around his neck and step off the edge. The hanged man would fall a little more than his height – far enough to kill him quickly, but not far enough to decapitate him.


There were worse ways a man could die.

His Usher gestured to a small wooden chair that looked out of place up here at the back of the roof. Eles realized that if he moved quickly, he could probably throw himself off the roof before they could react. He positioned himself on the chair so that he would be prepared for the dash.

“What’s your name?”

Was this some trick? Surely a Death’s Usher would know his charge. “Elestran.”

“The Base. You’re an alchemist.” It wasn’t a question.

Eles couldn’t help but look away. “I was. No longer.”

“Why?” The crimson man’s eyes were now visible from this angle. They were not a young man’s eyes, yet they sparkled green and bore into Eles, making him feel exposed.

He felt a hot flush creeping up his neck despite the cold rain. “My talents are gone. I’ve lost the feel.”

“That’s not true, is it?” The priest of Lady Cinereal was less sure now. He was searching.

Eles instinctively leaned back. “I… I don’t know what you mean. Why would I lie about that? If I was truly an alchemist, do you suppose I would be penniless?”

At the other end of the roof the vulturine Death’s Usher called out, “What is this delay? Do you need assistance with the noose?” He made a move to get closer but the shorter one grabbed his arm to stay him. Eles noted that he and his interrogator were out of earshot of the other two Ushers.

His Usher waved off the thinner man, and turned back to Eles, “What’s Agmorriam’s Theorem?”

The question stunned Eles for several thundering heartbeats. Who was this man that he would ask such a thing? Few knew the teachings of Agmorriam the Pure. And that specific question. To him. “Agmorriam’s Theorem?”


It was as if the Usher had asked him to tell some decades old secret that he had never confessed; some shameful part of himself that had been dead and buried for years. Still, the lessons held deep. “That alchemy is two-fold. That it is more than the divine perfection of physical matter. It also represents the divine perfection of the soul.”

“You never lost the ability to transmute matter.”

“I… I don’t…”

“You lost the will.” The damned Death priest was so sure of himself. How? A part of Eles always wanted to believe that what the man said was true, but how could he be sure? His products had simply stopped working. Or worse. But that was so long ago. He wiped the rain from his eyes with his hand.

“Yes. That’s true.  I… I’m not sure I could fully explain why.”

“I don’t care why,” the priest said sharply. “Could you do it again?”

“Now? I… I don’t know,” Eles mumbled.

The Death’s Usher finally flashed emotion as impatience got the better of him. “Pathetic. That answer is not one of your options. You can, or you can’t. I need an answer. An honest answer. No lies. Don’t tell me you’ve never thought about it. I won’t believe you. Could you do it again? Or no?”

Of course he’d thought about it. His talent as a novice had been legendary. The tomes of Agmorriam and Zanzaharr came easy to him, and he had begun brewing common treatment salves and fire oil at an unprecedented young age. He and his younger brother Ke’van were still being taught the basics of alchemy when Eles began concocting original salves and powders with an alarming degree of success. The revered teachers of the Greyarch Guild of Alchemical Arts proclaimed him a prodigy. At that time his brother was also considered a solid candidate for the Alchemist’s Belt. It wasn’t long before Eles’ talents became known to the Loderns, and he was ushered off to the royal palace to study with Qolor of the Green Light. He missed Ke’van terribly in those first years at the palace, but under Qolor, he was unearthing secrets of alchemy he had not allowed himself to believe existed before. The discoveries were exhilarating, and he found himself completely immersed in his all-consuming art. If only talent and dedication were the sole requisites to surviving life with the lords of Greyarch…

This time the stooped Usher shrugged off the well-built one and approached. “What ritual is this, brother? I am puzzled by this delay and am forced to question your procedure. Will you step aside?”

Eles’ Usher didn’t bother to turn to look at the craned figure beside him. “I have my reasons to question this one, brother.”

“Our sole purpose is deliverance. Death.”

“Death will be sated. I assure you. Please step back.” The request was so polite the other Usher had nothing to do but to back away begrudgingly.

The conflict between the two Ushers fascinated Eles. “If I’m to be put to death for overcrowding, I hardly see how it matters if I claim I could practice again. What interest is that to the Ushers of Death?” He knew he was challenging the man who held his fate in his hands, but he couldn’t help himself. This questioning had brought up old pains that were making him feel unamenable.

The crimson man coughed out a low, short laugh. “So maybe there is a spine somewhere in that neglected old frame. Let me lay out your options, Base. Tell me you can’t practice again and you’ll die a quick, painless death tonight. No dishonor there. Tell me you could practice again, as a lie, and you’ll die an interminable, agonizing death. Lastly, you can tell me true that you could practice again. In that case, you’ll still probably die erelong, but it won’t be tonight and it likely won’t be by my hand.”

“Three very attractive options.”

The crimson man knelt so that he was eye-to-eye with Eles and much closer. “I strongly urge you to avoid option two.”

Eles couldn’t keep his gaze. “I would not lie.”

“Your current predicament would suggest otherwise,” the man shot back, almost as if he was expecting that reply. “Answer. I’m wet and the courtyard is growing restless.”

There was certainly no guarantee he could create with any success again. And the fate that awaited him should he try and fail was unthinkable. Still… the chance to try one more time…. He could feel those ancient fires being stoked down in his gut. He was such a different man now. His view of the world had shifted so much. Yet he wondered if it would make a difference. Somewhere, buried deep, deep down there was still a desire to create.

“Yes,” he whispered. “I can.”

His interrogator turned to the other two Ushers and called out, “It’s time.” The vulture-like Usher strode forward. Before he could pick up the noose, however, Eles’ interrogator stopped him. “Garax Ga’ranthian, five nights past you slew a man claiming it was a charge.”

The stooped man stopped dead in his tracks. “How… How do you know my name?”

“The man was not on Death’s roster. You lied and murdered the man for personal gain.” The contempt in Eles’ Usher was palpable. “This is a heinous abuse of your office.”

The accused man considered for the shortest of moments before reaching for his curved blade. It was only halfway out of its sheath before the shorter third Usher had a blade pressed into the tall man’s back.

Eles’ Usher spoke quickly but clearly, “Lady Cinereal beckons you Garax Ga’ranthian. She gazes on you even now. Deliver yourself to her and she may yet take pity on you. Force us to Usher you forth and she will surely scorn you.”

The thin man seemed to let these words rattle a bit in his brain before he finally took his hand off his pommel.

“Switch clothes.” Eles’ Usher commanded. It was such an odd command that neither Eles nor the condemned Usher reacted right away. “Switch clothes! Now!”

And they did. Although it took Eles some time to figure out how to don the red robes. They tied around the body in a foreign way with hook and eyes in places he didn’t expect. The well-built Usher even had to assist him at one point, smelling of a lavender-scented soap Eles knew to be expensive and made him suddenly aware of how awful he himself must smell. Eles was close enough now that he could see that this shorter Usher had dark skin.

Now that the condemned Usher was stripped, the power of the robes was gone, and he appeared simply as a wet, frightened man. Eles realized the man was about his size and of like age. The doomed man was manacled, hands behind his back, and the Ushers covered his head with a burlap sack and placed the noose around his neck, tightening it so that it would keep the sack securely in place. They stood him at the end of the beam when a sharp gasp rose from the crowd below.

“All roads end alike,” Eles’ Usher intoned.

“All roads end alike,” the thin man croaked through the sack. He crept forward tentatively. He seemed determined to perform the act with as much skill as possible. Eles had seen men who forced their Ushers to push them off the end. Some had tried to rush forward and slipped off the side before making it to the end. But this man knew the act, slowly and deliberately walking to the end of the beam.

A single step off. The rope jerked taut.

Eles half expected to hear a cheer from the crowd below, but there was nothing save the sound of the cold rain and the wind blowing off the sea.

His interrogator approached the shorter Usher and passed a small vial. “Go down. I’ll lower the body. Load him into the cart.” The other Usher nodded and climbed down through the trap door.

“You’re coming with me,” his interrogator said.

Eles was still trying to figure out his own scarf. “Where?”

“Wherever I say,” he replied as he untied the end of the rope that was secured to the roof.

“I’ll need things,” Eles explained. “A laboratory. Equipment. Materials. Books.”

“Yes. It’s a damned expensive business.” He began to slowly lower the body.

“Who are you?”

“Tuck your beard in, you old fool,” the crimson Usher demanded.

“What was in that vial?”

The Death’s Usher let more rope slip roughly through his leather gloves. “Acid. For his face. It’s justice after all. Him being an alchemist.” It was then that Eles realized that he was dead. Officially. It was a depressing thought that nobody was likely to care. “What will I be creating?”

“If you don’t stop asking questions, I’m going to drive this blade through your throat and toss you in the bay,” the Usher replied as the rope he held finally went slack and he let go. “Now climb down, follow me, and don’t open your mouth again until I ask you a direct question. Unless you want to lie next to Garax in the cart.”

It occurred to Elestran that there was still time to throw himself off the roof.