About the Author
ALMA KATSU made her fiction debut with The Taker, an American Library Association top debut novel of 2011. A former senior intelligence analyst for CIA and the Defense Department, she lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband. To find out more visit her website at www.almakatsu.com
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Descent ONE
The sunlight glinting off the Mediterranean that afternoon was bright enough to blind, and the boat bounced hard off the waves like a broken-down carnival ride. I’d come halfway around the world to find someone who was very important to me, and I wouldn’t let a little rough weather keep me from finishing my journey. I squinted against the headwind to the horizon, trying to will a rocky shoreline to appear out of nowhere.
“Is it much farther?” I asked the captain.
“Signorina, until I met you this morning, I never knew this island even existed, and I have lived on Sardegna my entire life.” He was in his fifties if he was a day. “We must wait until we get to the coordinates, and then we will see what we shall see.”
My stomach floated unsteadily, due to nerves and not the waves. I had to trust that the island would be where it was supposed to be. I’d seen strange things in my lifetime—my long lifetime—many of them stranger than the sudden appearance of an island that heretofore had not existed. That would be a relatively minor miracle, on the scale of such things, considering I’d already lived over two hundred years and was destined to live forever. But I was a mere babe compared to the man I was going to see, Adair, the man who had given me—or burdened me, depending on your point of view—with eternal life. His age was inestimable. He could’ve been a thousand years old, or older. He’d given differing stories every time we met, including the occasion of our last parting four years ago. Had he been a student of medicine in medieval times, devoted to science and caught in the thrall of alchemy, intent on discovering new worlds? Or was he a heartless manipulator of lives and souls, a man without a conscience who was interested only in extending his life for the pursuit of pleasure? I didn’t think I’d gotten the truth yet.
We had a tangled history, Adair and I. He had been my lover and my teacher, master to my slave. We had literally been prisoner to each other. Somewhere along the way he fell in love with me, but I was too afraid to love him in return. Afraid of his unexplainable powers, and his furious temper. Afraid of what I knew he was capable of and afraid to learn he was already guilty of committing far worse. I ran away to follow a safer path with a man I could understand. I always knew, however, that my path would one day lead back to Adair.
Which is how I came to be in a small fishing boat, far off the Italian coast. I wrapped my sweater more tightly around my shoulders and rode along with the ship’s rocking, and closed my eyes for a moment’s rest from the glare. I had shown up at the harbor in Olbia looking to hire a boat to take me to an island everyone said didn’t exist. “Name your price,” I said when I’d gotten tired of being ridiculed. Of the boat owners who were suddenly interested, he seemed the kindest.
“Have you been to this area before? Corsica, perhaps?” he asked, trying either to make small talk or to figure out what I expected to find at this empty spot in the Mediterranean Sea.
“Never,” I answered. The wind tossed my blond curls into my face.
“And your friend?” He meant Adair. Whether he was my friend or not, I didn’t know. We’d parted on good terms, but he could be mercurial. There was no telling what mood he’d be in the next time we met.
“I think he’s lived here for a few years,” I answered.
Even though it appeared that I’d piqued the captain’s interest, there was nothing more to say, and so the captain busied himself with the GPS and the ship’s controls, and I went back to staring over the water. We had cleared La Maddalena Island and now faced open sea.
Before long, a black speck appeared on the horizon. “Santa Maria,” the captain muttered under his breath as he checked the GPS again. “I tell you, signorina, I sail through this area every day and I have never seen that”—he pointed at the landmass, growing in size as we approached—“before in my life.”
As we got closer, the island took shape, forming a square rock that jutted up out of the sea like a pedestal. Waves crashed against it on all sides. From the distance, there didn’t appear to be a house on the island, nor any people.
“Where is the dock?” the captain asked me, as though I’d know. “There is no way to put you ashore if there is no dock.”
“Sail all the way around,” I suggested. “Perhaps there’s something on the other side.”
He brought his little boat around and we circled slowly. On the second side was another cliff, and on the third, a steep slope dropped precipitously to a stony and unwelcoming beach. On the fourth side, however, there was a tiny floating dock tethered to a rock outcropping, and a rickety set of sunburnt stairs leading to a stone house.
“Can you get close to the dock?” I shouted into the captain’s ear to be heard above the wind. He gave me an incredulous look, as though only a crazy person would consider climbing onto the floating platform.
“Would you like me to wait for you?” he asked as I prepared to climb over the side of the boat. When I shook my head, he protested, “Signorina, I cannot leave you here! We don’t know if it is safe. The island could be deserted . . .”
“I have faith in my . . . friend. I’ll be fine. Thank you, Captain,” I said, and leapt onto the weatherworn wooden dock, which bucked against the waves. He looked absolutely apoplectic, his eyes bulging as I climbed the staircase, gripping the railing as I struggled against the wind. When I got to the top, I waved to him, signaling that he should go, and watched as his boat turned back the way we had come.
The island was exactly as it had appeared from the sea. It seemed carved from one lump of black stone that had emerged directly from the ocean floor. It had no vegetation except for a stand of scraggy pines and a bright chartreuse carpet of moss spread at their roots. A few goats ran by and seemed to regard me with an amused, knowing air before they scampered out of sight. They had long, silky coats of many colors and one had a frightening pair of twisted horns, wicked-looking enough to be worn by the devil.
I turned to the house, so ancient and solid that it seemed to have grown straight from the bedrock of the island. The house was a curious thing, its stone walls so sandblasted by weather that it was impossible to tell much about it, including when it might’ve been built, though it resembled a fortress—small and compact yet just as imposing. The front door was a big slab of wood that had been thoroughly dried and bleached by the sun. It had elaborate ironwork hinges and was decorated with iron studs in the Moorish style, and gave the impression that it could withstand anything, even a battering ram. I lifted the knocker and brought it down once, twice, three times.
When I heard nothing from the other side of the door, however, I started to wonder if maybe I’d made a mistake. What if the captain had misread his charts and left me on the wrong island—what if Adair had moved back to civilization on the mainland by now? I’d tracked him down through a man named Pendleton who’d acted as Adair’s servant until Adair chose to go into seclusion. While Pendleton wasn’t sure what had caused Adair to withdraw from the world, he gave me coordinates to the island, which he admitted was so small that it appeared on no maps. He warned me there was no easy way to get in touch with Adair, as he didn’t use email and didn’t seem to have a phone. I had no intention of alerting him to my arrival anyway—force of habit made me wary of Adair still, but I also didn’t want to risk being put off or dissuaded from coming.
I knew Adair was somewhere in the area, though, because I felt his presence, the unceasing signal that connected him to each of the people he’d gifted with eternal life. The presence felt like an electronic droning in my consciousness that wouldn’t stop. It would fall off when he was far away—as it had the last four years—or grow stronger when he was close. This was the strongest it had been in a while—and was competing with the butterflies in my stomach in anticipation of seeing him again.
I was distressed to hear that Adair was living by himself, particularly because it was such a remote location. Now that I saw the island, I was more worried still. The house looked as though it had no electricity or running water, not unlike where he might’ve lived in the eighteenth century. I wondered if this return to a way of life that was familiar to him could be a sign that he was overwhelmed by the present and couldn’t cope with the never-ending onslaught of the new. And for our kind, retreating into the past was never good.
I sought out Adair now after four years apart only because I’d been seized by an idea that I wanted to put into action, and I needed his help to make it work. I had no notion, however, if he still cared for me enough to help me, or if his love had dried up when it went unreciprocated.
I knocked again, louder. If worse came to worst, I could find a way into his house and wait for Adair to return. It seemed an arduous trip to make for nothing. Given my immortal condition, it wasn’t as though I needed anything to live on, food or water, or that I couldn’t deal with the cold (though there was split wood stacked against the side of the house and three chimneys, each with multiple lots, visible on the roof). If he didn’t return after a reasonable length of time, I had my cell phone and the harbormaster’s number, though the captain had warned me that reception was nearly impossible to get this far off the coast. If I was lucky, however, I might be able to flag down a passing boat . . .
The door flung back at that instant, and to my surprise, a thin woman with brassy blond hair stood before me. She was in her late twenties, I would guess, and though pretty, she was worn around the edges in a way that made me think she’d worked hard at enjoying life. She had on a wrinkled sundress and sandals, and hoop earrings that were big enough to wear as bracelets. Unsurprisingly, she regarded me with suspicion.
“Oh! I’m sorry—I hope I’m not on the wrong island,” I said, regaining my wits in time to remember to be charming, all the while thinking: In seclusion, my ass, Pendleton. “I’m looking for a man by the name of Adair. I don’t suppose there’s anyone here by that name?”
She cut me off so sharply that I almost didn’t get the last word out. “Is he expecting you?” She spoke with a working-class British accent. Over her shoulder, a second woman stepped into view at the other end of the hall, a full-figured woman with long dark-brown hair. Her skirt came down to her ankles and she wore embroidered Turkish slippers on her feet. Aside from their shared displeasure at seeing me, the pair of young women was physically as dissimilar as two women could be.
“No, he doesn’t know I was coming, but we’re old friends and—”
The two of them crowded the doorway now, shoulder to shoulder, a barricade of crossed arms and frowns set on lipsticked mouths. Up close like this, I could see that they were very pretty. The blonde was like a model, thin and boyish, while the brunette was lush and womanly, and a picture of them in bed with Adair came to my mind unbidden, the three in a tangle of bare arms and legs, heavy breasts and silken flanks. Their lips on his chest and groin, and his head thrown back in pleasure. A wave of hurt passed over me, tinged with that particular sense of belittlement rarely felt out of adolescence. I fought the urge to turn around and flee.
Had I been wrong to come here? No, knowing Adair hadn’t changed and had returned to his sybaritic ways made my task easier. There would be no strings, no possibility of reconciliation. I could forget about everything except asking for Adair’s help.
“Look, girls,” I started, shifting the weight of the knapsack in my hands. “Would you mind if I came inside to get out of this wind before I’m blown off a cliff? And if one of you would be so kind as to let Adair know that he has a visitor? My name is—”
“Lanore.” His voice rang in my ear, rushing to fill a space left empty. And then he appeared at the end of the hall, a shadowy figure backlit by the sun. My heart raced, being in his presence once again. Adair, the man who’d hurt and deceived me, loved and exalted me, brought a man back from the dead for me, given me all of time in the hope I would share it with him. Did he still love me enough to help me?
As I stood in Adair’s magnetic presence, everything that had happened between us rushed back to me in a tumult, all that passion and anger and hurt. The chaos of the strange world I had known when I’d lived with him tugged at me. I stood at his door ready to ask him to take a journey with me—a journey that wasn’t without risk. The bond between us might be ruined forever. Still, I had no choice. No one else could help me.
A new chapter in our history was about to begin.
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