Mar 27 2012 3:00pm
The Reckoning (Excerpt)
A love triangle spanning 200 years…Alma Katsu takes readers on a breathtaking journey through the landscape of the heart. New York Times bestselling author Scott Westerfeld (Leviathan) praises Alma Katsu’s The Taker as, “a centuries-spanning epic that will keep you turning pages all night. This marvelous debut is a thinking person’s guilty pleasure.” And Keith Donohue (The Stolen Child) says, “The Taker is a frighteningly compelling story about those most human monsters—desire and obsession. It will curl your hair and keep you up late at night.”
Now Alma Katsu delivers the highly anticipated follow-up to her haunting novel about an immortal woman learning firsthand that the heart wants what the heart wants…no matter how high the stakes. Fans of The Taker can finally indulge in their next juicy fix with the second book of the trilogy, The Reckoning. In this gripping, pulse-pounding supernatural sequel, discover what happens to Lanny, Luke, Adair—and Jonathan. The Reckoning picks up where The Taker leaves off, following Lanny on her path to redemption—and creating a whole new level of suspense.
No good would come of it—That’s what was said at the time of a young man’s fascination with magic. And for most of the young men held in magic’s thrall, nothing good did come of it: many were taken to the dungeon or the pyre, though Adair was saved by his family’s high rank. A bad end came to his own tutor, the bedeviled old Prussian, Henrik, the one who had introduced Adair to the craft. Adair was too young at the time to do anything to save the old man when he was dragged off by the inquisitors, and his parents had made it clear that it was only with a lot of maneuvering that they’d kept this scandal from ruining Adair’s life.
After Henrik was taken away, Adair did go to Venice to train as a doctor—that much was true. Given his peculiar leanings and the blight of association with the suspected heretic Henrik—black magician, alchemist, or wizard, depending on your disposition—young Adair declared that he would devote his life to medicine rather than to warfare or diplomacy or governance. His brothers and cousins had fulfilled those duties for the family, hadn’t they? The physic’s art— the blend of magic and alchemy, the natural and the supernatural— would be Adair’s future.
Of course, his name was not Adair then. He’d nearly forgotten his real name, the one he’d been born with, his nearly unpronounceable given name and his illustrious and noble surname. He’d traveled in the peasant boy’s body for so long that his old name eluded him, like trying to hold smoke in his hand. And when it finally came to him he wrote it down, because a secret name was a powerful talisman. According to the tenets of magic, if someone learned his secret name, that person would then have power over him, be able to command him like a puppet.
His family had tried to turn him away from magic when they learned of his interest, but nothing could stop him once he’d witnessed his first miracle—the one that proved to Adair that there was more to life than what he’d seen with his own two eyes. Old Henrik had used his bag of well-practiced tricks to impress his young wards, the special boys he’d already determined had the inclination or “the gift” or both, as Adair did. The tricks were minor manipulations: for example, combine a dram of a malleable solid with a drop of a liquid, work the two together and witness, the compound became hard and fast like a piece of iron. Want to touch it, see for yourself? Henrik had offered with a sneer of superiority to his awestruck charges. Such tricks passed for magic among the credulous. Touch it if you dare.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when he and Henrik had done many experiments together in the old man’s studio, that Henrik showed Adair the one impressive feat he could do. Henrik brought that baby bird back to life, though how he’d managed the feat had been as much a mystery to Henrik as it was to Adair. There was no disputing that the bird was dead to begin with: Adair had held its limp body in his hand, light and fuzzy as a dandelion head, loose bones in a thin sack of flesh. No, there was no question that Henrik had indeed brought the bird back from death, but it wasn’t quite right the few days it lived, glassy-eyed and nearly inert, not a peep nor squawk from it.
Adair argued that they needed to try the spell on a man, because, once revived, a man would be able to tell them what it was like on the other side—whether there was a heaven and hell—but Henrik recoiled from the idea. That was heresy and possibly witchcraft, and even as he was seized with the idea, Adair had to agree.
The one thing Adair had not been able to determine, not in all his time and study, was where the powers came from. Changing the materials from liquid to solid, or bringing the baby bird back to life: had the power come from the materials themselves? did it originate with god? Or could it be proof of the presence of the devil? After all these years, Adair was no closer to knowing, but he was beginning to believe it was pure energy, a certain rare, remote energy that existed in the ether. An energy you could generate with enough focus and determination if one knew how to harness it.
Many years of collecting recipes and perfecting spells elapsed before he acquired the crown jewel of his power: the alchemist’s holy grail of immortality. Looking back, Adair saw that every experience he’d had—everything he’d learned and done in the past—had prepared him for acquiring that capability. By then, he’d been a practicing physic for decades. His title and family estate waited for him, a spit of land in the area that changed hands between Hungary and Romania. The duchy was his now, as his brothers were all dead, killed in battle or fallen to disease. He chose instead to work as a physician to royalty, traveling from court to court as cover for his real intention: to track down every major practitioner of alchemy and absorb their skills, learn their best recipes.
He’d heard rumors that there was an adept in St. Petersburg, that glorious and wretched city, an alchemist with the strongest powers imaginable, much stronger than Adair’s. He was an old man by then, very nearly blind, and even though he’d known of the elixir of immortality from his earliest days even before he had left for Venice—it had eluded him his entire life.
When he was young, Adair had convinced himself that he wanted it only as a matter of professional interest. It seemed cowardly to chase immortality; only cowards were unable to face the end of their lives. But as the years passed and he grew more infirm, he felt desperation accumulate in his bones like silt dragged in on the tide. He lost sight in one eye and most in the other. His joints had stiffened so badly that he was continually uncomfortable, whether sitting, walking, or even lying in bed. And his hands had become so gnarled and numb that he couldn’t hold a quill or carry a jar from his desk to his worktable. Yet, he wasn’t finished living. He needed more time. There were too many mysteries that continued to elude him.
That was how he came to be shuffling down the alley in search of a certain man, dirty snow rising above his ankles and trickling into his boots. He cursed as he struggled on, searching for the address, but once he found it, he was sure he was in the wrong location. How could this be the place where they were to meet? the physic scoffed. It was a poor neighborhood, practically a ghetto. Any alchemist who could grant everlasting life would be an adept indeed, and likely would have made himself wealthy with his talents, or at least be able to keep himself in a comfortable manner. Full of suspicion, he finally found the correct doorway. Once inside, he saw that the place was beyond modest: it was the equivalent of a mouse’s nest, tiny and squalid with one narrow bed, one small round table, and one candle burning on the mantel. The entire room was untidy at the edges with dirt accumulated in the corners, and soot crawling up the wall over the fireplace.
The alchemist, too, was suspect—and slightly mad, judging from the way he gibbered under his breath and his eyes kept darting around the room, settling on Adair only when he thought he wasn’t looking. He was short and stout and wore a heavy black tunic that swept to the floor, a full beard matted like sheep’s wool, and hair tied back loosely. He seemed like a runaway from a sect, a dervish in hiding.
An intermediary had arranged the meeting for Adair, but now that the two were face-to-face, he realized he had no way to communicate with the other alchemist, for he knew no Russian, which he assumed was what the crazy little man was speaking. Adair tried to pantomime his intentions but, in the end, slapped a sack of heavy gold coins on the table and folded his arms over his chest, indicating that negotiations were over.
The alchemist peered into the sack, picked through the contents with a finger, grumbled and fussed, but eventually he went to a cupboard, unlocked it with a key that hung around his neck, and retrieved a small earthenware jar. He placed it on the table in front of Adair proudly and gravely, as though he had presented him with holy Communion.
Adair peered into the wide-mouthed jar, skepticism curdling his face. First of all, it looked like no elixir he’d seen before; nearly every accomplished alchemist had an elixir of life in his repertoire, and this one resembled none that he’d ever come across. Then again, other alchemists’ elixirs could do nothing more than extend life for a few years, and it occurred to Adair that perhaps they were the ones who’d gotten it wrong.
Adair scoffed. “What’s this? I’m not buying the potion, you fool. I want the recipe, the knowledge. do you understand?”
The alchemist stood adamant, unyielding as a boulder, his arms folded, and it was clear that he was not going to offer anything more than the elixir itself.
Eventually, Adair’s desire won out, and he grasped the jar and brought it to his lips, then paused, looking the adept in the eye. The alchemist nodded, maintaining an even stare as he regarded Adair expectantly, urging him to go on. Adair swallowed the viscous jelly dotted with specks of dirt in one long draft and immediately felt the inside of his mouth begin to burn as though coated with the most intense pepper. Bile began to back up in his throat, his eyes teared up, and his vision lightened, then blurred.
Adair fell to his bony knees, doubled over, and began retching violently. To this day, he still remembered the agony of that transformation, and he would see that same pain reflected in the face of every person he transformed. But at the time he was sure he’d been poisoned. Making one last lunge toward his killer, he reached for the alchemist—who merely took a step backward to evade adair’s grasp—before falling face-first on the floor.
Adair awoke on the alchemist’s tiny bed, looking up at the low ceiling, dark like storm clouds hovering overhead. Still . . . despite being in a strange room under strange circumstances, he felt warm and safe in the alchemist’s bed, like a child in a nursery.
It wasn’t until his senses came back to him fully that he noticed the alchemist sat at his bedside, back upright, hands on his knees. Adair thought for a moment that this gnarled old man might be sleeping with his eyes open, he was so still; but after a moment he leaned close to the physic, studying him.
Adair tried to raise his head but the room began to tilt violently, so he lay back against the pillow. “How long have i been lying here?” The alchemist remained as still as a hunter in the woods, and so Adair assumed he hadn’t been heard, or that the alchemist ignored him since they didn’t understand each other’s language. But suddenly he said, “A day, no more” with an air of calm that struck Adair as deliberate. Strangely, the alchemist’s words fit in Adair’s ear, making sense for the first time. “Aha,” he said, thinking he had caught the other man in a deceit. “So you do speak Romanian after all.”
The alchemist smiled in amusement. “No, I am speaking Russian. it is the only language I know. It is you who are conversing in Russian.”
Adair rubbed his eyes and looked askance at the alchemist. “But I don’t speak Russian. You must be mistaken,” he retorted, but the other man offered no explanation for this seeming miracle, and just regarded him with distrust.
Adair pressed a hand to his clammy forehead and wondered if he had damaged his mind by ingesting the potion. He felt dazed as if in a thick opium haze. Indifferent to Adair’s obvious state of shock and confusion, the alchemist pulled his chair closer to the bed and continued. “Listen to me. Since it seems we can now understand each other, I want to explain my actions. I have agreed to this deal with you because I trust the man who sent you here. He swears that you are a practitioner of great renown, and if this is the case, it stands to reason that you are then a man of integrity, too. But know this: if not for the dire situation that I am now in, I would never have agreed to sell the elixir for money, not even to a fellow practitioner.
“I am not the adept who created the recipe for this elixir, you know; I am only his apprentice. That adept is a very wise man—wise enough to unlock the mysteries of the world, but also wise enough to respect the limits of our earthly knowledge. My master has gone away on a pilgrimage and left me to care for his property and his recipes. If I did not require a little money to keep from starving and to buy enough firewood to keep from freezing, I would never share my master’s elixir with anyone else. You should understand the tremendous responsibility that accompanies our work, and I trust you to use wisely the power you have now gained.”
He scooted the stool closer to the bed so he could fix Adair with an ominous stare as he continued. “There are a few things you must know, now that you have taken the elixir of life. First, there is no going back. There is no antidote, as it were—no cure. You sought eternal life, for whatever reason, and now it is yours. God grant that you use this gift to better the lot of your fellow man and as proof of god’s glory. Any other path will only bring misery.”
“How do you know that god is behind this gift?” Adair asked in a tone so fierce and challenging that it seemed to give the alchemist pause.
The alchemist replied, “My answer to you is that we could not extend our lives without god’s help, because god is the only creator of life, and the ultimate taker of life, too. We can do nothing without god’s approval or his help. Do you not believe this to be so, or are you not a god-fearing man? I did not think anyone would have the clarity of mind to become an adept if he did not believe in god.”
As he was not interested in arguing with a zealot, Adair turned his attention to the new sensations he felt. Adair sat up in bed, aware of the miracle of his new circumstances. Sight had come back to his dead eye and the cloudy one was clear. His gnarled hands surged with dexterity, and his legs were strong. He felt as though he could leap out of bed and run through the square as swiftly as the strongest of horses.
By now, the room had ceased to spin, and Adair felt ready to start his new life. He stood without pain for the first time in decades. “So that is the only warning or advice you have for me: ‘go forth and do good in the name of god’?” he boomed at the little man.
The alchemist eyed him warily and, ignoring his tone, said, “There is one condition you must be aware of: you are impervious to all things but one. The maker of this potion saw fit to build in one fail-safe, the reason for such a caution unknown to me, for I am nothing but the humble caretaker of the elixir. As I have said, you are immortal now in all circumstances except for one: your life can be ended by the hand and with the intent of the one who gave you immortality.”
Adair turned this twisted braid of words in his head. “The one who gave me immortality?” he repeated, raising his brows. “What does that mean, exactly? In this case, would that be you, since you gave me the elixir to drink? Or would it be your master, who made the brew in the first place?”
“As the one who gave you the potion, it is by my hand that you are now immortal.” he pressed a hand to his chest and bowed slightly. “And it is by the strike of my hand alone that you can feel pain and by the strike of my sword that you will know death.”
What a foolish man, Adair thought, to reveal such a thing to him. As long as the alchemist before him was alive, he was technically not immune to death. He would not truly feel immortal and he would never feel truly secure.
Adair gathered his cloak and walking stick from their perch beside the fireplace, taking his time as he thought about what he should do next. “So you lied to me. You have not given me what you promised. i paid for immortality—that was our arrangement. And yet . . . you can destroy me if you see fit.”
The alchemist pulled his hands into his sleeves for warmth, shaking his head. “I have given you my word. I have granted you eternity, for whatever reason you seek it. I am a god-fearing man of science, as are you. And you are the living, breathing proof of my master’s work. I have no wish to destroy you—as long as you abide by the terms of our agreement and do not use this gift to harm others.”
Adair nodded in assent. “Tell me, this elixir—surely you have tried it for yourself?”
The old man leaned away from Adair as though he were contagious. “No, I have no desire to live forever. I trust god to know the right time to call his servant home. I trust my god with my life.”
A foolish pair, master and acolyte, Adair thought. He’d seen their type before: afraid of the capabilities they themselves had uncovered and now held at their command. Cowering at the edge of a great discovery, afraid to step into the glorious unknown. They used religion as a crutch and a shield. It was laughable, really: god wouldn’t reveal such power to men if he didn’t intend for them to use it, Adair figured. Men hid behind religion to keep others from seeing how frightened they were, how inept. They were weak vessels, to be trusted with such power.
“So this is all your master told you of the fail-safe? It seems a major provision, seeing that you can take my life at any time and for unknown reasons,” Adair said, prodding the alchemist once more.
The alchemist pursed his lips, seeming to draw on the last reserves of his patience. “As I said, my master did not tell me why he built in this ability. It would seem to run counter to the very reason for the spell. But, knowing my master, I think it may be out of compassion.”
“Compassion? Why would a man who cannot die—possibly the most powerful man on earth—require anyone’s compassion?” Adair scoffed.
“Yes, compassion. For the day when a man says immortality is too much and asks for the cup to be taken away, for it is too full.”
Adair grunted. Now he was certain this man and his master were addlepated.
The alchemist closed his eyes. “I think you can see that my master is a wise and compassionate man. God grant that I will live long enough to see him again. That is all I wish,” he said, making the sign of the cross.
Adair saw his opportunity, and took it. “Alas, I am afraid your god turns away from you on this day,” Adair said. As he approached the alchemist, he pulled a loop of braided leather, thin but wickedly strong, from his belt in one smooth motion. He garroted the old man before he could utter a word or slip even one finger between the cord and his throat.
Adair stepped over the body and began searching the room for the alchemist’s recipes. He would have kept them close if he was in the acolyte’s position; no one would risk leaving such valuable material beyond arm’s reach. At last he found them: loose sheets of parchment kept in a leather pouch along with a rosary of lapis beads. He let the rosary fall next to the dead man and disappeared into the cold night with the pouch of recipes tucked close to his heart.
The Reckoning © Alma Katsu 2012