- Prologue -

The elixir of immortality was bright pink in colour and smelled of strawberries. It smelled so good, in fact, that I considered stealing a taste, until I felt my master's eyes upon me. "So if you were to drink this, you would be young forever," I said, replacing the cork.

- "If you drank it, you would be young forever," he said. "If I drank it, I would be old forever. And if he drank it – " he gestured at the naked corpse stretched out over the table, "he would be dead forever. If you were smart, you would give it to him. He could make better use of it than either of us."

I sat at the corpse's head and contemplated him. He had never been good-looking, poor fellow, and death had hardly improved his lot. His lips were worm-like, his plump belly already distended with gas, and popped veins gave his flesh a blue tinge. His skin was waxy, and I fancied that if I were to scratch it, soft white drippings would gather underneath my fingernails. He had the most wonderful hair, however, long and fair, the sort that girls enjoy running through with their fingers. "Are you sure he would indeed be dead forever?" I asked. "Perhaps the elixir would bring him back to life. Then we would have a zombie servant."

- "Alchemy is not witchcraft, and it is not medicine," my master said. "While working with science or with craft, it is not unlikely for one spell to have many side effects. When one deals with essences, however, we are lucky if we manage to distil even one within a potion. If there are side effects, they will usually be of the most arbitrary sort. Take my first rejuvenating potion, for example. It gave some poor girl's complexion purple and green stripes, except around the joints where she had something of a plaid effect. It had all the charm of a curiosity, but she was never able to wear polka-dots again. The moral of the story?" He scratched his head, examined his nails, and looked at me helplessly. "What were we speaking of?"

- "You said something about essences. Being only able to distil one within the same drink."

- "Ah, yes. Devising the elixir of immortality was enough of a miracle, you see. It would be extremely unlikely for me to have accidentally stumbled upon the formula for bringing the dead back to life, all in the same stroke."

- "Oh, well." To be honest, the thought of seeing the eyelids twitch over those dead fish-like eyes excited me somewhat less than I would have cared to admit. "The elixir of immortality, that's good enough for me. When did you make it? Was it while I was away?"

- "No. I designed the formula seventeen years ago. I made a large batch, but I threw most of it into the fire. All but this sample. I could not bear to destroy all of it."

- "You've had the elixir of immortality for seventeen years and you've never used it?"

- "God forbid." He shuddered.

- "I supposed you would grow bored after a while," I said, toying with the phial. "It would be pleasant enough during the first few hundred years, but you would eventually run out of things to do. I suppose that you might want to die. Could you still die after drinking this?"

- "Not in any way I can think of right now."

I shuddered, as he had, and threw the phial down on the table. It rolled off the edge and fell to the floor. "Get it out of my sight, please." I took a deep breath. "For a moment I almost understood what it would be like. It was – "

- "Awful."

- "Yes, it was awful. There are no words for it."

He leaned over and picked the phial up. It gave one last pink gleam before it disappeared into the folds of his dressing gown. "There's my clever boy," he said. "Many older men who should have known better have devoted their whole lives to the quest for the Elixir of Life. Of course, if they were to find it, they might not be as eager to drink it." He sighed, and glanced at the hearth. "If I were wise I would throw it away."

- "Please don't," I blurted, before I could stop myself. "Ah – I mean, it would be a shame, seeing how rare the substance must be."

- "I know what you meant." He approached the corpse, and picked up a scalpel. "If I destroyed it, I would always regret it. That may be a good sign. It means that I love life." He sank the blade in the corpse's belly and cut a double-pronged Y across the torso. For a moment, I forgot about the elixir and became wholly absorbed in the scene that unfolded before me.

It was my first time in the dissection room. The opening which my master made in the corpse's belly seemed to me a door that would lead me into another world: from the simplicity of right and wrong, of loving the living, healing the sick and honouring the dead, to a shady alternate world of strange and bloody transgressions. We both held our breaths until the cut was made, the flaps of flesh laid back. Then the door was opened, I stepped through, and realized that the new world was much the same as the old. I looked up and smiled. My master, unfazed, daintily picked up a thin black worm on the end of his knife and held it out to me.

- "This man died of a corruption of the bowels," he said. "All that he absorbed turned against him until he drowned in his own poisons. I suppose there are worse ways to go, but nevertheless, it is not pleasant. To feel part of yourself turning against the rest and devouring it… We will feel that ourselves, someday."

- "Not me. When I'm old enough to die, I'll build myself a ship and try to cross the ocean. If I succeed, great, if not, at least I'll have died in an interesting way."

He laughed. "You'll change your mind once you get there, believe me."

- "We'll see." I pulled on my gloves and tentatively took the bit of intestine from him. It felt slippery and grainy all at once, and smelled terrible. I held it for a while, wondering what my master meant me to do with it, before handing it back to him.

- "Young people always think that older folks have a foot in the grave. Perhaps we do, but that doesn't mean we're eager to put the other foot in." He pulled the bowels out of the dead man's stomach with his fingers and put them aside, for further examination. "Even though I won't taste the Elixir, I would like to live forever. Not because I can't die, simply because I choose not to. Of course, as of now, I have no hope of that ever happening. But that may be why I will not destroy the Elixir of Life. If someone, someday, tasted it and lived forever, I would somehow feel better. I think we all would. It would seem like we were choosing death instead of just letting it happen to us– don't you think?"

- "I'm sure someone, someday, will find it and drink it," I said. "It would be a dreadful waste if no one ever did."

- "If someone did, I would think him the greatest man who ever lived. To die for other people's sake, that's wonderful, but you need only do it once. To live forever, now, that would require an uncommon gift."

- "Then I'm sure it's someone's destiny," I said, gazing at the dead man's deflated belly. "I'm sure this bottle has someone's name written all over it."

I never dreamt that it would be mine.