“Slave Luca Dezisimu, I forbid you from leaving the bounds of the room in which you now sit!” the master’s words were imprinted as sure as death in Luca’s mind. “I forbid you, knowingly or unknowingly, to do harm to me, your Master Yadugara, my senior apprentice Penant, or my property, slaves or servants, including Reyna, Moraine and Daler. If you break these edicts, your heart and all your brain activity will be forcibly stopped. Do we have an understanding, slave Luca Dezisimu?”
From behind the door came a rustle, a cough and the boy’s strained voice.
“I understand, Master Yadugara.”
“As punishment for what happened, you are deprived of all rights to warmth, food, water and conversation for seven full days. Next time you wish to interrupt my... research, remember the suffering you will endure. And be more compliant.”
His speech over, the healer knocked on the metal door with his fist and started climbing the ladder from the basement. Penant, Reyna and Daler followed him. Each of them had had to sit in the basement as punishment, but never for such a long time. As a rule, the master limited himself to single days, not wishing to damage his own property.
“Will he... survive?” Penant dared to ask. “The chinils are down there! They’ll suck out all his blood!”
“The collar will let me know if he is near death,” the healer answered. “I won’t let him die just like that. He’s going to pay me back for everything a thousand times over!”
Yadugara stopped in the lounge and started giving orders.
“Pen, go to Master Judge and find out everything the court knows about Dezisimu and his family. Reyna, invite Mister Arden over. We will try taking advantage of his glassblowers’ services, for it is clear that metal must be avoided when we work with Dezisimu.”
Penant and Reyna nodded and rushed to carry out their orders. The master himself sat in an armchair by the fire and lost himself in thought.
Daler patiently waited for the master to address him, but the pause stretched out.
“Should I return to my post, Master?” Daler dared to interrupt his thoughts.
“I am not afraid of enemies from outside. We have one inside now. Your task from now is to guard the basement. If you hear anything suspicious, tell me at once!”
Once alone, Yadugara sat for another half an hour, digging through his two-hundred-year memory, but recalling no cases like Dezisimu’s.
He grunted, rose from the chair and walked to his office. The interrupted and reversed transfusion and his old age bit hard. His mind was scrambled, his body a wreck.
In his office, he looked over the remnants of what had happened and sighed deeply. He wanted to lie down and sleep, but he had to record it all.
Once he finished his notes, he tidied up personally. He couldn’t stand disorder, and he didn’t want to trust Moraine — Aunt Mo — with valuable instruments. Once he’d finished, his senior apprentice returned.
Yadugara sat behind his desk and waved Pen into the chair opposite him.
“Master, I went to the judge...”
“Slow down! All in good time, senior apprentice.”
Pen nodded and prepared to listen.
“So, what do we have?” Master Yadugara raised his forefinger, twirled it and pointed at Penant. “Tell me again what happened while I was unconscious. Remember carefully, senior apprentice, and try not to miss a single detail!”
Penant scratched his head, wrinkled his brow and rolled his eyes to the ceiling to create the convincing impression that he was thinking. He didn’t remember anything new, but he spoke in a serious, confident tone, knowing how easily his master could detect the smallest signs of doubt.
“You fell, Master. I rushed over to you, then I heard his voice. Dezisimu asked what was wrong with you. I thought you were dead, since I couldn’t feel your pulse. In desperation, I shouted for Daler and attacked the slave. Forgive me, Master I lost control, my anger clouded my mind.”
“If you had ended his life, you would have had to replace it, Senior Apprentice Penant. A role you luckily retain, for now,” Yadugara noted with displeasure. “I hope you understand now?”
“Forgive me, Master!” Penant turned white.
He had learned of his master’s greatest secret only when he became his apprentice. Previously he had perceived the procedure of transfusing life force as a part of some sort of research. Pen feared even to think of how many years of life he had given to Yadugara in his service, but the appearance of a suitable donor gave him a chance to get back what he’d lost. They’d spent years searching for the previous donor, but he turned out to be an imperfect match for the master and died. The next was Luca.
“Tell me more,” the healer chuckled.
“I swung the scalpel at him, but he blocked it with his hand...”
“More details now.”
“The blade pierced his hand, he screamed. I pulled out the scalpel to strike again, but the blade was gone. Disappeared.”
Penant thought for a moment. During the fight, he had been so scared at the prospect of life without a master that he’d gone into a fury and desperately wanted only one thing: to punish the killer. The details of what had happened in that instant were hazy, they wouldn’t come easily.
“Pen? What next?”
“I got scared. The wound on his hand closed up. Even the blood flowed back in, or maybe just disappeared. I rushed to the door to open it for Daler. I told him to grab the slave, but the boy slipped past him and attacked me. I kept my cool and stopped him, punched him in the face. Then the guard got to him and knocked him out from behind. We bound him... And then you woke up, Master.”
“The bastard somehow put the transfusion procedure into reverse!” Master Yadugara slammed his fist down on the table. “So what is our conclusion?”
“He’s a monster!” Now that Penant had reviewed recent events with his master, he was even more scared.
“The slave possesses supernatural regeneration. He can somehow absorb metals. And — although this requires testing — his capabilities activate only if physical harm is done to him.”
“Sacred Mother! What a monster he is!”
“Enough wailing, Pen! You are not an illiterate bumpkin from the Empire’s outskirts, you are first and foremost my apprentice! Everything in this world has an explanation. And we will find it.”
“Forgive me, Master.”
“What do we know of his family?”
“His mother and sister were present at his sentencing. Master Judge gave me their address. Shall I bring them here?”
“We must be more subtle about this, Pen. You understand that his sister is of the greatest interest to us, both for the transfusion procedure and as a carrier of the same gift of regeneration and absorption.” Yadugara smiled at some hidden thought. “Do we have any other information about the girl?”
“Master Judge gave me the name of the complainant, a certain Nemania Kovachar, an innkeeper in the slums. He may know more. I could question him and his offspring, see what the neighbors have to say, learn more about the family.”
“No. Let Reyna do it. It’ll be easier for her to gain trust. She might even manage to make friends with Dezisimu’s sister and secretly take a sample for analysis.”
“Forgive me, Master, but would it not be simpler to capture the girl and put her in our basement? Who would go looking for her?”
“Unacceptable, Pen. Without a power collar, we can’t guarantee that she will be obedient. And if her mother complaints to the imperial chancellery that we are breaking the law of free birth... All that we have will collapse! You know that not everything done in this house is entirely within the law.”
“So first we need to organize some accusation and a trial...”
“Exactly right,” Yadugara nodded.
They heard a tentative knock on the door.
“Come in, Reyna,” the healer responded loudly.
The door opened and the girl’s elegant figure stood outlined on the threshold. Reyna brushed a disobedient lock of hair out of her face and spoke.
“Master, I’ve come with Master Arden. He awaits downstairs.”
“Pen, go down and entertain our guest for now. As for you, Reyna, come closer. I have a special assignment for you.”
Alex (Aleksei) Bobl is a literary agent and a science fiction writer, author of 13 novels. An ex-paratrooper, he used his military knowledge and experience to write his debut novels for S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a bestselling science fiction action adventure series set in a post-apocalyptic Chernobyl.
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