Several pints of Aunt Mo’s thick aromatic stew pleasantly splashed around in Luca’s stomach. Blood rushed from his brain to his digestive tracked, and the boy sleepily shuffled along, losing all sense of time and space.
In the district in which he’d spent his recent years, people didn’t go against the flow. Kora didn’t count — his sister had always been a little strange, striving for something more with no understanding of how to achieve it.
Three nights ago, Luca had been a paralyzed cripple in a slum, grateful for leftover potato skins, and in the mind of that Luca, matters were simply running their course: he had died, been revived through some miracle, received an ability from the Wheel, whose nature he didn’t entirely understand and which he didn’t strive to use. The villainous Karim and his father Nemania were bastards for accusing him as they had, it went without saying. But maybe he really had broken the innkeeper’s son’s collarbone when he threw stones. That would mean that Luca was guilty and serving out a punishment he earned. It was just of the judge to allow him to pay for the damage, and good that Master Yadugara had done so. Otherwise it would have been the mines for Luca. People don’t come back from the mines.
So thought Luca the Cripple, the seventeen-year-old Luca the Boy, who had the knowledge of a ten year old, roughly speaking. That Luca simply surrendered himself to the currents of the turbulent river that his life had become, and his capacity to be surprised by all the strange things happening to him had withered. Surprise was an emotion, and after the transfusion procedure, the boy fell into apathy, incapable not only of surprise, but of any feeling. Even his mother’s fate no longer concerned him.
But then came a moment when he, spurred on by Penant’s kicks, was following Yadugara, and happened to see himself in a mirror. Something broke through the scab of indifference then. Or rather, someone. The new personality that seemed to be melding more and more with the legacy of the traveler Esk’Onegut — that mind reeled. It didn’t matter how many reincarnations awaited him in the future. It would be better not to live than to live like this! The reflection showed who the boy had become, the mind recognized the culprit, and the brain began to feverishly think.
Outwardly, this showed only in Luca’s slightly more confident stride. He squared his shoulders and stopped shuffling along like an old man. His awakened metamorphosis studied the changes in his body and sighed. His veins, heart and liver had taken a beating, his vision and hearing were weaker, he had kidney stones and his body’s cells had aged rapidly overnight.
Luca’Onegut himself was also horrified. He and Penant climbed into a carriage and sat opposite Yadugara, and he really didn’t like what he saw in the healer’s eyes. He evaluated the man’s body language, caught a glance quickly redirected. That glance held disgust, and... pity? Luca also noted that Yadugara was dressed differently than when he went to see patients, somehow more ceremonially. And he noticed that the old man looked far younger.
Luca moved his gaze to Penant. He too looked younger, though it wasn’t as extreme with him. His wrinkles had smoothed out and he carried himself with pride. The senior apprentice’s eyes held such clear superiority that Luca nearly averted his gaze out of habit.
But he resisted. He asked a question, barely holding back his fury.
“Where are we going... master?”
Showing such respect to a person who had taken away years of his life wasn’t easy for Luca. The hesitation didn’t escape Yadugara’s eye. The healer’s hackles rose, but he considered it necessary to answer. It was no secret.
“To the Imperial Palace. His medics want to examine you. And enough questions, slave. I forbid you to ask more.”
Buildings, signs and richly dressed people flashed by behind the small window. The horse slowed its pace. The path to the palace led upwards, to the cliff of Ma Ju Ro the First, the Ruler, the founder of the imperial family, but the boy knew none of this. The Imperial Palace had always been a distant concept to him. Luca knew the place existed, but he had never seen it in all his life.
He stayed silent for the rest of the trip, as his ‘master’ wished. He wasn’t just sitting quietly, though. He was carefully studying his ‘logs’ (a word that came unbidden from his inherited memory again) of what had happened to him in the last few days. In prison he had wished for a fist of iron, and his ability had reacted with a message that it didn’t have enough iron available.
Luca covered his right fist with his other hand and thought about having longer nails, and more durable — steel ones, for example. Maybe a foot long, sharp and deadly, capable of cutting... cutting off that damn slave collar!
Something burst under the wheels of the carriage, maybe some kind of fruit, and a displeased murmur came from the driver at the front.
“Careful, you! You’re driving the master!” Penant shouted, turning round.
And nothing more happened. No messages in Luca’s eyes, no changes. He’d interpreted something wrongly, but what?
He immersed himself in the text once more. Ah, there it was. Yadugara had somehow initiated a transfusion of life force and run into the defenses his ability had mounted... And the best defense is a good offense, as his father had said. The metamorphosis had reversed the process, and Yadugara had almost died, not only returning everything he had taken, but giving away some of his own years.
Luca frowned. From the legacy in his mind came vague memories of certain extremely unpleasant nocturnal creatures of a certain world, who extended their own lives by drinking the blood of victims. He had to admit, Yadugara’s methods were far more elegant. And apparently more effective.
As it turned out, it would have been possible to escape from the healer’s basement. All he had to do was absorb those two chinils that had lost their limbs, then break down the door. He was sure he could have strengthened his fists enough to do it, though he didn’t know where that confidence came from. He shouldn’t have tried to tear the collar off right away. He should have gained strength and tried to absorb it or get rid of it some other way. However, he still had time.
But first he needed to understand how to control his metamorphosis. It was clear that the ability was focused on improving its carrier’s survival chances. When there was a direct threat to his health, his metamorphosis switched on and used everything it had to hand.
Right now, the leather collar, even strengthened as it was with its control circuit, wasn’t a direct threat. But when the collar attacked his nervous system and injected him with paralyzing toxins, the metamorphosis fought back. It was a shame that it had exhausted his energy so fast — the consequences of a whole day without a single bite to eat — and gone to sleep.
Luca touched the collar reflexively, imagining it as an enemy with a mind and the ability to kill him.
The pseudo-intelligent collar felt the interference in its control center and anxiously tightened. Luca wheezed. Penant, recalling the slave’s oddities, shied away to the edge of his seat.
Initiating absorption of aggressive structure...
Yadugara frowned suspiciously and looked him in the eyes. He hissed through his teeth.
“Whatever you’re thinking of doing, slave, I order you cease at once!”
And Luca stopped, cancelling the command. This wasn’t the time or the place. This part of the city was well guarded, and he wouldn’t be able to hide or escape. And if he spilled the blood of the city watch, the imperial guard or his master, he’d never be able to feel safe anywhere again. After all, if Terant had spoken the truth, then Luca was on an island. He couldn’t escape from an island. He didn’t even know how to swim.
Sure that Dezisimu had understood him, Yadugara turned away. Penant also averted his gaze and stuck his head out of the window, making as if he was looking out for the palace appearing on the horizon.
And so neither of them noticed the baleful gaze of Luca’Onegut, son of Severus Dezisimu.
He looked at his right hand again, at his sharpened nails that were now half an inch longer than before, with a new metallic luster. He gave the command to turn them back.
Not the time or the place.
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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