Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

The Nullification Engine (The Alchemancer: Book Two) Preview–Chapter 1

The Nullification Engine is the second book in The Alchemancer series of science fantasy novels. Here’s a preview in the form of chapters 1 through 3 to give you an idea what it’s about. For other chapters, please see the chapter preview index page.

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1. Arrival

THE GREAT, SHUDDERING BOOM, COME from somewhere beneath Brighton's eastern city square, made Aaron think he was back at the top of Shanna's fabricated mountaintop, with the world all around them coming apart at the seams. The ground heaved, flinging people in every direction even as it knocked Aaron from his feet. Serena also, who stood so close she fell right on top of him. Only Ensel Rhe, ready for anything as usual, kept his footing through the initial upheaval and then again as the bulge, reversing itself, became a complete collapse of the square's center. Stone cracked and crumbled, and people were swallowed by the earth or disappeared inside the billowing cloud of dust kicked up by the turmoil. The fringes of the dust cloud enveloped Aaron, blocking his vision and restricting his breathing before he'd a chance to hold his breath. He felt Serena's fingers digging into him, clinging tight, as the noise of another collapse swept over them. When the roar of it had faded, Serena lifted her head from him and tried to speak, but her words were drowned out by the ringing in his ears. Using hand gestures, Serena indicated they should stand. With some effort, they did.

Together, they probed the smoky fog, but not even light from the morning sun could penetrate that veil. Aaron wasn't sure what had happened, but when he saw people laid out at the fringes of the dusty haze, some of them writhing in pain, he knew he needed to help. Serena agreed. Staying outside the worst of the cloud of dust, for they couldn't tell where the safety of firm ground ended and the hazard of the square's collapse started, they dragged the nearest wounded person to safety. Others already there and recovered from their own initial shock helped them, until it became necessary to search the haze itself for survivors. The square had been jammed with people, some of whom had just arrived with Aaron and Serena from the ruins of Norwynne. But most remained unreachable as long as the brown haze hid their locations. Recognizing the problem, Serena decided to do something about it. Aaron didn't sense or feel her concentrate her energy—though a sorcerer's apprentice himself, he'd no aptitude for magic—but he knew by the way she furrowed her brow in concentration that she was responsible for the sudden wind sweeping in to dissipate the dust cloud. Once it was gone, they saw everything. The entire center of the square had collapsed to become a deep, dark hole with sheer drop-offs all around. Inside the hole was a chaotic mix of rubble and unmoving bodies. Of those who had packed the square's center, only a handful of wounded and confused people remained at the chasm's edge.

Aaron was about to offer further assistance when a host of guardsmen ran onto the scene. Half of the twenty or so men peeled off to render aid. But the other half came to a complete stop while their captain scanned the area. He stopped when his gaze fell on Aaron and Serena.

"You!" the guard captain yelled, pointing their way. "Stay right there!"

Aaron looked at Serena. "Why is he pointing at us?" Wondering at his own question, he looked in either direction, figuring the captain must have pointed at someone else nearby. But there wasn't anyone. Not even Ensel Rhe, whom Aaron noticed was no longer with them. Serena caught the meaning of his sudden, almost frantic expression as she also looked about. Her conclusion was the same. The eslar was gone.

The guards ran toward them to form a half-circle enclosure around the pair. Men with loaded crossbows took positions at either end. Their captain kept on, stopping only when his long stride placed him squarely in front of Aaron. He had a great scar running down one side of his face, and such a snarl Aaron felt compelled to take a step back. Not far enough, as the man cracked Aaron across the cheek with a backhanded swing. The blow knocked him from his feet.

Before Aaron hit the ground, a mist started to form around him.

"You may have torn Norwynne down to its foundation, boy, but you'll not do the same here." The captain put a hand to the hilt of the gilded sword handle at his belt. "Make one move and I'll run you through before you've time to spit!"

Aaron put a hand to his cheek while he processed what the captain had just said. It took him a moment to realize the man had confused him with Shanna. Aaron wasn't sure how to even start explaining the mix-up to him, especially given the expression on the guard's face. He looked like he really wanted to carry out his threat.

"Captain!"

Serena moved so she stood between Aaron and his attacker.

"You will explain the meaning of this, and you will explain it now!"

All of five feet tall, she held herself straight as an arrow with her chin lifted. Despite her appearance, which included a long braid threatening to unravel in a score of places, a dirty and torn gown, and cheeks, arms, and neck covered in grime and dust from a week on the road, the captain actually took a step back from her. It was her eyes, Aaron figured, their crystal blue lit by an uncanny, oftentimes mesmerizing light. Or, now that he looked about, it might be the mist thickening to fog in all directions. Aaron sighed. As if he didn't already have enough problems, Krosus was coming.

"I'll explain nothing," the captain said, "but order you to stand aside and allow me to do my duty."

"Your duty?" she said, drawing herself up. "Your duty is to disperse the remainder of your men to all parts of the square to render aid. What is your name, Captain?"

The guard glared at her. "Rohan Fuchs, of the Earl's Guard." The earl, Lord Nicholas, ruled over Kettering and its three baronies from here in Brighton. The Earl's Guard were his personal soldiers.

"There are wounded, and quite possibly people trapped. Also, there is this mist and..." Above them, the blue sky darkened. "...darkness as well." Serena knew what was coming, too. "Your men should start getting everyone out of here."

The captain lifted a brow. The snarl persisted. "My orders come from the earl himself." He looked past Serena to Aaron. "We meant to catch you before you'd entered the city. But here you are, bringing your mayhem down upon us. Not since the Burning have I seen such calamity. This darkness and...cold," he said, his breath coming out as visible puffs, "is something you'll stop now."

While Aaron very much wanted to comply, he didn't have that kind of control over the demon and his pack of hell hounds. They were coming, and there was no way to stop them. Aaron picked himself up. He had to at least try to keep them from killing everyone. No use in explaining any of this to the captain, though Serena tried anyway.

"This isn't something he can stop, Captain Fuchs," Serena said. "And we had nothing to do with the square caving in. That was... I've no idea what it was. But that doesn't matter right now. You and your men really should prepare for—"

A raucous bedlam of canine snarling sounded from all quarters. It sent a shock through the guards and caused people throughout the square to stop whatever they were doing to look around. But the fog was so thick now, no one saw a thing.

Aaron's hand went to the tooth hanging from his neck. He gripped the six-inch canine through the fabric of his tunic, trying to will his strength into it. He doubted it helped, but it was better than doing nothing.

"Look!" yelled one of the guards, pointing past Aaron and Serena.

In that direction was Eastern Gate, which they and the others from Norwynne had just used to enter the city. The mist parted so they were able to see the gate, but Rulana's countryside and the road winding its way to the city were no longer visible. Instead, framed in the gate's arched opening, they saw darkness, for with its heavy stone and barbed portcullis, the gate had become a doorway into a world of chaos and shadow. From that world came the hounds. Black as night, with blood-red eyes and acidic drool dripping from hanging jowls, they bounded into the square on powerfully muscled legs. They came straight at the line of guardsmen and their captain. Aaron and Serena, who stood between guards and dogs, were right in their path.

Aaron pushed Serena out of the way right before one of the hounds clipped him with its shoulder. For the third time that morning, Aaron was flung to the ground.

Meanwhile, Fuchs mustered his men. "Hold your ground!" he yelled, almost managing to draw his sword before the first of the hounds ran into him. They knocked him back, right into his men. One of the crossbowmen managed to get a bolt off, but the missile went high and struck nothing. The hounds trampled or tossed him and the rest aside, not stopping as they rushed headlong into what remained of the square. Folk greeted them with screams of panic. The dogs yipped with glee to witness such terror and, as their passing swirled and dissipated the fog, Aaron saw them run one person down after another. Not even the pit at the square's center slowed them, as they dove headlong into it before coming right back up its other side at a full run.

Serena helped Aaron back to his feet. Rubbing his shoulder, he looked at the dark aperture of Eastern Gate. "Stand back, Serena. He doesn't care about you."

"I'm not just leaving you to face him alone. Besides, he has to do what you say as long as you have the tooth. You do still have it, don't you?"

Aaron took it out for her to see. It was warm to the touch. Not much longer now.

"You should at least make your way to the other side of the square," Aaron said.

"No one is going anywhere," Captain Fuchs said from behind them.

Turning, they found the point of his sword directed at them. "Call off your dogs, or whatever they are. Do it now or I swear, I'll run you through!"

That was the wrong thing to say.

"You really shouldn't point your sword at me," Aaron said. He gestured toward the square, which had gone quiet now but for the wailing of the wounded. The hounds hadn't killed anyone. Aaron had enough control over them to keep that from happening. But it became more difficult to control them when one of their own was threatened. The tooth, a middling charm given to Aaron by a witch, made him a part of their pack, and, like any pack member, a threat to him was a threat to all of them.

Fuchs saw the dogs padding his way from all parts of the square. As one, their attention was on him now.

"Call them off," the captain said. "Call them off or—" Fuchs dove for Aaron, snatching him up by the front of his tunic. "Call them off!"

Then the hounds were the least of their worries, for Krosus had arrived. Come through Eastern Gate, he was a hulking monster with leather below the waist and a terrible horned helm that left his face in darkness but for his eyes, which burned like fiery embers. His dusky chest and arms were pure, bare muscle. His eyes flared as he took in the square and everyone in it. Then his gaze fell on Aaron and stayed there. The dogs hung back now, waiting for their master's command.

The guard captain shoved Aaron away. "If you'll not send them back to Hell, then I will. Crossbowmen, form ranks!"

Only two had bolts ready now, but those two stepped forward to level their weapons at the houndmaster.

"Loose!"

Two bolts leaped at their target. Both hit, one in the shoulder and the other in the leg. But for taking the time to rip them free from his body, the houndmaster hardly noticed them.

The captain's men looked on in horror. Not Fuchs, who drew his sword and charged the demon. As soon as he was close enough, Krosus cracked him across the jaw. The captain went down without a sound. Then the houndmaster's gaze returned to Aaron.

—Release us.—

A shock went through Aaron, for never before had he heard the demon speak. He looked at Serena, who was just as surprised.

—Remove the tooth and allow us to fulfill our purpose.—

"You mean let you and the hounds kill me," Aaron said.

Krosus said nothing to that.

Aaron held the tooth up. As long as he had it on his person, he'd nothing to fear, he reminded himself. Though the control it granted him over Krosus was as nebulous as the control it gave him over the hounds, it was all he had.

"Leave the city!" Aaron shouted at him. "And take your dogs with you!"

Krosus didn't move a muscle.

Serena's hand found his, lending him her strength.

"I said, leave the city!"

The houndmaster did react this time. He drew his sword. Long and broad, no mortal could wield it with a single grip. Yet Krosus hefted it in one hand as if it were no more than a dagger.

Seeing it free of its scabbard, Aaron backed away. Serena too. Krosus met them step for step.

"Stop," Aaron said, holding the tooth higher. He concentrated, pouring his strength into it. Again, he doubted it made any difference, but he had to do something. This time perhaps it did, for while the houndmaster did not stop, his steps, initially rapid, began to slow as he fought against the enchantment holding him in thrall. As much as Krosus might want to break the enchantment, Aaron wanted to keep it intact, and so he continued to focus every bit of his concentration on making the demon obey him. Krosus kept slowing until, finally, he went immobile, and the point of his sword lowered to the ground. Aaron was just letting out a breath of relief when he felt the leash wrapped around Krosus's throat snap. In that instant, the demon's sword returned to the ready position and the houndmaster advanced once more.

Aaron staggered back. "He—He's free!"

The houndmaster's eyes flared as the demon raised his sword high, ready to cleave Aaron in two.

 

* * *

 

"Aaron," Serena said, letting go of his hand. "Get behind me."

"No! He's here for me!" Aaron tried to put himself between her and the houndmaster, as if he'd any way to stop the demon. "Get away. He won't bother with you if—"

Serena would have sighed if there was time. Instead, she shoved Aaron out of the way and, cupping her hands together, blew into them. Using the cold generated by the demon's presence, she made the air colder still, directing her open palms at the houndmaster. Magic coursed from the core of her being down her arms and into her hands as, turning her palms outward, she sent the air at the demon in the form of a hammer-like blast which sent him stumbling back. She spun around, doing the same to the approaching hounds. Those closest were knocked from their feet. The rest of them bounded out of range. As Krosus struggled to regain his balance, Serena took another breath and once more blew across her open palms. Her breath mingled with her sorcery, becoming colder and colder until the air projecting away from her formed slushy gobs which pattered against the houndmaster's massive chest. Those gobs hardened, straightened, and became icy, razor-sharp daggers, piercing the houndmaster in a dozen places at once. Unlike the crossbow bolts, Serena's missiles hit vital areas, piercing chest and stomach so that Krosus convulsed once, then fell back, dead.

Serena rounded on Aaron. "You have to re-establish the Joining before he comes back."

Aaron looked from Serena to the houndmaster and back again. She realized he'd never seen her do anything like that before. Come to think of it, she didn't think she ever had. Serena grabbed Aaron by the arms and shook him. Her hands, still freezing cold, shocked him back to the here and now.

"But the bond is broken," Aaron said. "He cut it. I don't know how, but he did."

"No, he didn't," Serena said, directing her gaze at the houndmaster's prostrate form. Also, she kept watch on the hounds, which approached again, but with hesitation. Nearby, Captain Fuchs was conscious and struggling to stand. Throughout the damaged square, guards and citizens alike got themselves and everyone else away from the hounds. "The bond is still there."

"How do you—?"

"I just do. You need to strengthen it by doing whatever it is you did in the first place to establish it. Otherwise..."

They both knew what happened otherwise.

Aaron grasped the tooth. He winced from the contact, as if in pain. Magic did that sometimes. But at least it meant the middling charm retained some potency.

"Hurry, Aaron."

With one quick slash, he brought the tip of the tooth down on his arm, slicing a line of red across the skin. Then, as Krosus stirred and sat up, Aaron ran at him, slashing the tooth across the demon's exposed shoulder. Aaron didn't stop running until he was out of the houndmaster's reach. Black blood welled along the line of the cut as Krosus stood. The demon turned, but not toward Aaron. He turned to face Serena. He made no threatening gestures except that his glaring, fiery gaze locked with hers. Though the pinpricks of his eyes did not move, Serena still felt him looking her up and down. Serena grew small under such scrutiny; she tried to look away, but couldn't. Then the master's eyes flared, his gaze lancing into her and causing her to suck in her breath and clutch her gut where the suddenness of the pain was the worst. As she fell to her knees, she heard hoarse, horrible laughter.

"Stop it!" Serena heard Aaron shout from somewhere far away.

His command cut through the pain and brought an end to the laughter. She looked up, just in time to see the houndmaster turn toward Aaron. The demon returned his sword to its sheath and approached him. He didn't stop, forcing Aaron to jump out of the way or get barreled over. Aaron ran to her then, helping her to stand. Together, they watched the houndmaster step back into the darkness of Eastern Gate. Immediately, the fog began to dissipate. The hounds backed into shadowed avenues and alleys and, one by one, they also were gone. The darkness gripping the gate faded, and soon the countryside beyond was visible once more.

Serena had only a moment to catch her breath before the guards surrounded them. This time, they wasted no time with words. Knives were put to their throats as they were grabbed by multiple pairs of hands. "Not one word," one of the men said to them. Too tired to muster a reply, Serena slumped in her captors' hands, the exhaustion of her magical expenditure and too many days on the road hitting her at once. Their hands were bound behind them, and only then were the knives removed. One guard, overzealous, rapped Aaron over the head for good measure. He went down without a sound. Serena tried to raise an objection, but the flash of a knife silenced her. They picked Aaron up. One of the guards—the one who'd knocked him out, Serena thought—tossed him over his shoulder.

"You're an odd pair," Captain Fuchs said, coming to stand before her. "But you helped stop what the boy summoned. That's not something I'll forget. What's your name, so I'll know what to write down in the prison rolls?"

"Serena... Lady Serena Walkerton, of the House of Walkerton."

The captain's brow narrowed. Then his eyes went wide. "You're Lord Arlen and Lady Verna's daughter?"

Serena managed a nod.

"I'll see to it they are notified of your arrival, milady. But I'll still need to detain you, at least until this mess is cleared up."

"I understand."

The captain ordered her bonds removed. Several guards stayed close as they led her from the square. Aaron was carried in front of her. Despite her best efforts, Serena's eyes drooped as she staggered along. The world blurred, and then went to darkness. In the darkness, Serena saw those horrible eyes, fiery red and flaring, promising death, or worse. Her lids shot open, and after that she had no more problems staying awake.

 

* * *

 

Aaron woke to an aching head, a throbbing cheek, and a chill which hung over him like a wet blanket. He tried to rise, but had to wait for a wave of dizziness to pass before he made it all the way up. Serena was there, sitting across from him on a wooden pallet. She had her back to him, her arms crossed in front of her, and her head hung low. Ensel Rhe was...not there. Days before, the eslar had told Aaron that once they'd reached Brighton, his obligation to them would be fulfilled. But Aaron hadn't realized he meant to leave them the moment they'd passed through the city gate. Briefly, he wondered if they'd seen the last of the stoic mercenary. Considering Ensel Rhe had asked them not to mention his name or their association once inside the city, Aaron thought they probably had.

Putting thoughts of the eslar from his mind for the time being, he asked Serena if she was all right. His voice, resounding through the hollowness of the place, startled her.

She glanced back at him. Her lips were quivering. "Yes. I-I mean, n-no. I-I can't stop sh-shaking."

Aaron noticed goose bumps on his forearms. "It is cold in here."

They were in a prison cell. The heavy wooden door, with only a small grille to let light into the room, told him that much. The room's barrenness told him the rest. Besides the individual pallets they each sat upon, and a single chamber pot in one corner, the room was empty. The place smelled of must and dampness.

"It's n-not the c-cold."

Serena's voice brought his attention back to her.

"What then?"

Aaron waited, but she didn't say anything. Though he felt he'd come to know Serena this past week, he also knew he'd a long way to go in figuring her out. One thing he did know about her, though, was she never lacked for something to say. Strange now that she didn't babble on and on about what had happened to them since entering the city. He didn't know how long he'd been out, but he figured she must be near bursting having had to sit here all by herself during the time he was unconscious. But so far she'd said only twelve words to him. That was alarming unto itself. Aaron fought off another spell of dizziness and the ache in his head and cheek as he went to sit down next to her.

"What's wrong?"

Aaron saw for himself. Her face was pale and the collar of her gown was soaked through with sweat. Aaron looked about for a blanket. There were none. Even the pallets were nothing but wood with a bit of straw sprinkled over the top.

"A-Aaron, I-I can't stop sh-shaking."

Aaron was shivering now too, but only from the cold. Her reaction was something else.

"It's the houndmaster."

She nodded, but said nothing.

Aaron sat and put an arm around her. It was a matter of practicality she did not argue with as she nestled closer. That she buried herself against his chest was unexpected, but not altogether unpleasant, though it did distract Aaron from his thoughts about the houndmaster. Once, Krosus had looked at him as well. The effect had been debilitating, but nothing like the cold sweat and inability to stop shivering affecting Serena. Krosus had done something else to her, marked her in some way. He'd have to determine what, if and when their surroundings improved. He'd resigned himself to the threat the houndmaster represented to his own welfare, but wouldn't stand for Krosus threatening or harming Serena.

He'd no idea how long they stayed like that. He thought it remained day by the muted light coming through the door's small grille, but it might be approaching dusk for all he knew. He heard nothing other than Serena's soft breathing which, rapid at first, became less labored the longer they embraced. Soon, even her trembling lessened.

"How long do you think they're going to keep us here?" Aaron asked.

"I-I don't know."

"Maybe we should tell them who you are. They can send for someone to verify your identity."

"I already did. The captain s-sent for Chane."

"Who?"

"Our family steward. If anyone can g-get us out of this, he can."

Aaron was content to wait and see for the time being. He had little choice otherwise. Meanwhile, his mind, always working, wished to explore other subjects.

"That guard captain said something about the Burning, as if it were a singular event. Do you know what he was talking about?"

Serena nodded.

"Did it happen before you were born?"

"No. When I was younger."

"It must have been some fire. Fires aren't usually given specific names like that. Usually it's the Norwynne Fire of 587 or the Sirron Fire of 434. There was even the Alchester Fire of 112, which supposedly was really bad. So, did a sorcerer have something to do with it?" Why else label the event with such an ominous name?

After some hesitation, Serena nodded. "He lives here in the city."

She seemed to have nothing more to say on the subject. So, instead, Aaron asked, "Have you any idea what happened? In the square, I mean."

Serena looked up at him. "I was going to ask you the same question. A gas explosion, maybe?"

Aaron chewed his lip. It was a problem sometimes in unventilated sewers. He knew Brighton had an extensive sewer system, but it was also modern enough that such an occurrence shouldn't have happened. "Maybe. Hard to say for sure without going back there and looking around. How long ago did you send for your steward?"

"I'm not sure. It's been at least an hour since they brought us here. The captain told me he'd sent for Chane as soon as we arrived."

Something occurred to him. "Aren't they concerned you'll use your sorcery to free us?"

"The man who brought us here—not the captain, the jailer—made me promise no tricks. I promised. I didn't think we'd want any more trouble."

No, they didn't.

"I wonder where Master Rhe—"

"I don't know, Aaron. Can you please stop asking so many questions? You're giving me a headache."

Now you know how I feel, Aaron thought, though he kept it to himself.

Voices, drawing closer, sounded from outside the door. Serena perked up, listening. When she recognized one of them, she disengaged herself from Aaron and rushed for the door. Grasping the grille with both hands, she peered out.

"It's Chane!"

Aaron saw nothing with their diminutive portal to the outside world blocked by Serena, so he hovered in the background, waiting.

"If you've done anything to harm her..." The voice was right at the door now. "Serena! By the Old Gods, you look as if you've been dragged through the streets!" The steward directed his voice at the guard who'd led him there. "Open this door. Open it at once!"

A quick fumbling at the lock preceded the groan of the door as it swung open. The guard, a portly fellow with a scraggly beard, barely had time to step out of the way before Serena was out of the cell and smothered in the embrace of her family steward. It was a short-lived reunion, as another guard arrived on the scene demanding to know what was going on.

Recognizing Captain Fuchs' voice, Aaron hurried out of the cell before the man had the chance to slam the door shut with him still inside. Outside was a long hall with small, barred windows on one side and more cell doors on the other. The guard who'd opened the door, their jailor Aaron assumed, stood to one side, well out of the way of the captain. Chane, however, had no issue confronting the man.

"This is a travesty, Captain!" he said as Fuchs stopped before him.

They were both the same height, but where Captain Fuchs was thick in the chest, Chane was not. Lean, with long fingers and a pointed goatee gone white with age, Serena's family steward wore a long tunic patterned with gold over silk leggings, a short cape which hung to his waist, and a rounded cap upon his head. Rings adorned several of his fingers and from his neck hung a gold chain ending in a jeweled pendant. Fuchs wore breastplate and sword. The scar on his cheek remained the man's most prominent feature.

"These two are being held pending charges, Master Chane," the captain said, his voice gruff as before. "The majority of which still need sorting out. You heard what happened at Eastern Gate? The calamity occurred the moment these two arrived. Luckily my men and I were already en route to bring the boy in for questioning in connection with the whole Norwynne affair, or who knows what else might have happened. Lives were lost, master steward, and someone will have to answer."

"Surely you do not think my Serena had anything to do with this morning's episode?"

"We've no idea at this point who was involved in what. We're still not even sure what happened. 'Sewer fumes' is what our city engineers think. But that only explains half of what happened. No point in rehashing the unpleasant details right now. Fortunately, the...things summoned by the boy caused no real harm. Lord Chamberlain Marcel already wanted to question the boy, but I dare say he'll want to speak to the both of them now. They'll stay put until he says otherwise."

Mention of the lord chamberlain did not quell the steward's fire.

"May I remind you, Captain, that Lady Serena is a daughter of Brighton, only just arrived from time spent tutoring under a master sorcerer. She is in need of food and..." Chane wrinkled his nose. "...most certainly a bath. I will, at the very least, have her removed from this dirty, drafty cell, and remanded into my custody." Chane crossed his arms and waited for the captain's response.

Fuchs let out a deep breath. His gaze went from Chane to Serena, but stopped at Aaron. "Perhaps the lady can go, but the boy stays put."

Chane looked down his long nose at Aaron. "I've no idea who this person even is."

"He's Aaron," Serena said. "We need to get him out too."

Fuchs didn't seem to have heard her. "I will release the lady, and only the lady, into your custody, as long as she agrees to remain within the palace until the lord chamberlain is finished speaking with her. Is this acceptable?"

"Perfectly," Chane said, his attention returning to the captain. "Thank you, sir." He turned to leave. "Now, Serena, come with me. We'll have you set up in the guest wing next to the fountains you used to play in as child before you—"

"Chane, wait," Serena said. "Aaron comes too."

Chane stopped, lifting a brow as he turned back to face the pair.

"Not part of the deal, Master Chane," Captain Fuchs said, "and quite impossible."

Chane took a moment to study Serena. "I have found nothing is impossible, Captain, when my young charge is involved. If Lady Serena vouches for this person's good behavior, then it is enough for me. What will it take to make it good enough for you, Captain Fuchs?"

Fuchs' abject refusal gradually eroded until the two went back and forth as if haggling over an item at market. The promise of a favor from the House of Walkerton finally won the captain over.

"The both of you are to remain inside the palace walls at all times," Fuchs said. "If I find you've violated this, then you're both headed straight back here and no amount of convincing will sway my judgment. Do you understand?"

Aaron and Serena did.

Captain Fuchs and the jailor, who'd remained in the background throughout the exchange, departed, leaving them alone in the hallway. On his way past them, the jailor muttered something about returning their belongings to them. They hadn't arrived with much, but Aaron at least wanted the bone-handled knife given to him by Ensel Rhe back.

Serena lifted a hand and, with a flourish, swept it across Aaron's person. "Master Chane," she said with a formal air, "may I present to you my friend and colleague, Aaron..." She laughed. "After all we've been through, you'd think I'd know your last name."

Aaron bowed before addressing Chane. "It's Aaron Shepherd, sir, of Taloo."

One corner of Chane's mouth turned up. "Taloo? That's a fishing hamlet along the coast, correct?"

"Yes, sir."

"Is that where you came from, then?"

"No, sir. We—the both of us, that is—came most recently from Norwynne."

Mention of the city's name caused a troubled wrinkling of the steward's forehead. Apparently, he'd heard enough about what had happened there for him to inhale deeply. As he let the breath out, his gaze went to Serena. "I imagine there is a very good reason why you were in Norwynne and not at Wildemoore Manor with Master Ansanom. But that can wait for later. Now, let's leave this dreadful place."

As they crossed an enclosed catwalk, Aaron saw through portholes lining one side that the world outside remained covered in gray. Peering through one of the openings, he realized they were quite high, for sprawled beneath them was the vast metropolis of Brighton, with rivers and canals winding through a myriad display of buildings and towers. The sheer magnitude of it almost made Aaron yearn for the quiet solitude of Taloo or even the more modest surroundings of Norwynne.

They passed through a judicial wing, where well-dressed gentlemen stood alone or in small groups waiting to make their case before the magistrate. Beyond that, they followed Chane through a maze of halls and stairs leading down to an interior square open to the sky. He stopped them at the square's edge, with instructions to wait while he went to flag down a page.

"So what do you think?" Serena asked Aaron.

"It's a lot to take in. I feel like I've barely scratched the surface."

Serena laughed. "You have. Brighton has over a hundred thousand people with a history going back over a thousand years. My family has been here for generations. Our estate isn't all this." A sweep of her hand took in marble colonnades, a floor patterned with colored tiles, and a central fountain where water sprites frolicked amongst numerous waterfalls. "But it's something to see. We have a garden that's quiet and perfect for reading, and up and downstairs libraries, mostly full of legal documents since that's what my father does, but there's also plenty of history and poetry books there as well. The dining room is too formal for my taste. I used to just eat in the kitchen with Delma. She's our cook. She's funny. I mean she tells funny jokes, not that she's funny-looking or anything. Then there's Fulton, who works for Chane and does the gardening and also fixes things around the estate. He's always in a mood. When I try talking to him he just scowls and doesn't really say much back. Kind of like Ensel Rhe, now that I think about it. Once they let us outside the palace, we won't have to stay at the estate all day, of course. There's so many places to show you, I think we'll be busy for quite some time. I wonder if the street market on Hickory still opens at the end of every week? It's usually full of singing bards and jugglers, well, juggling, and sometimes you can watch an impromptu play. They sell all sorts of trinkets there too. One time, I bought—"

"Do you ever stop to breathe?"

"Only when I'm interrupted. As I was saying, one time I bought a necklace, not an expensive one, but the woman selling it said she made it herself and that it was magical. It wasn't, of course. But I bought it anyway just to see her smile. Once we're done with the market— Oh, there's so many places to see and things to do, I'm not even sure what we should do first. I think we'll start with..."

One skill Aaron had mastered during his time with Serena was the ability to look as if he was listening when, in fact, his mind was on entirely other subjects. He figured it a good skill to have as long as they planned to spend more time together. Despite Serena's chatty nature, Aaron was very much in favor of that. But he also wondered, now that they were here, if their paths might diverge. She was coming home to friends, family, and a life. He, on the other hand, had never set foot in Brighton before today. Nobody waited to greet him. He knew no one. Employment was not too remote a possibility, but, again, there were the hounds to consider. Thinking about his current situation in those terms, he wondered why he had ever agreed to come here. His original plan had been to stay with the witch, Ursool, until she figured out a way to rid him of Krosus and his pack. Aaron, along with Serena and Ensel Rhe, had detoured to the witch's house to do just that. But Ursool hadn't been home. By the looks of it, she wasn't coming back anytime soon, either. Still, he was all prepared to wait for her until Serena had convinced him to come with her to Brighton. Ensel Rhe, for reasons he kept to himself, had come with them.

As Serena continued to babble on, Aaron saw Chane at the other side of the square exchanging words with a boy dressed in the blue and white livery of the earl. Instructions must have been given, for after a quick bow, the page dashed off. Meanwhile, the steward remained where he was, waiting and paying attention to nothing in particular, though the direction of his gaze drifted to Serena and Aaron more often than not. Aaron wasn't sure who the man looked at more, but it seemed whenever his gaze fell on Aaron, his expression turned both inquisitive and critical.

"Do you think your parents know you're back?" Aaron asked, just managing to insert his question into a short break in Serena's chatter.

Serena shrugged. "I'm sure Chane told them."

"I miss mine. I wish we could have gone to Taloo. I still don't even know if the town survived the attack."

The earthquake and subsequent tidal wave created by Erlek and his apprentice had caused much destruction in Norwynne, but it hadn't finished it off by any stretch. Shanna's assault, though, had put a stamp of finality on the city-keep's chances of survival. Regardless, Aaron had not been able to learn if either event had affected Taloo and its surrounding countryside. Not knowing continued to trouble him.

"I suggested we go there before we left Norwynne, didn't I?" Serena asked. "But you didn't want to."

"I know. I can't bring the dogs there. You know that. Look what they did here. They could have killed someone." Thankfully, Captain Fuchs said they had not. Besides the hounds, though, there were other reasons Aaron hadn't pushed when the prospect of returning to Taloo had been raised. He remembered the day he'd left home very well. His parents had been saddened to see him go, but he'd also never seen them so proud. He was leaving to study under one of the region's most influential thinkers, a man whom Aaron's own father idolized. His dad had wanted monthly reports, which Aaron had dutifully sent, concerning his and his new master's latest experiments. But, now, with Master Elsanar gone, there were no more reports to send, except the last, which Aaron should have delivered in person. But he knew he couldn't. Not yet. On his last night in Taloo, his father had given him one final lecture. He'd said many things, but the one bit of advice which had stuck most in Aaron's mind was simple: "Make your mark," his father had said. "Do something good." Aaron knew what his father had meant. Discover something new. Advance the world's understanding of...something. Anything, really. Though the more monumental, the better. Aaron had tried, too. But then Erlek had come, and Shanna too. Aaron had made his mark all right. He'd stopped them. But he'd also doomed the entire city in the process. Aaron wanted to show up at the door to his family's house with stories of scientific breakthroughs and intellectual advancements, not tales of death and destruction. His parents deserved better. Aaron wasn't going home until he'd fulfilled his father's wishes. The only problem was, he didn't know if he could anymore. He'd already been given the chance of a lifetime when he was appointed Elsanar's apprentice. Such opportunities did not often come around twice.

Across the square, a short man dressed in the filigreed jacket, ruffled shirt, and white hose of a palace steward approached Chane. The page from earlier was with him. More words were exchanged before the steward walked off, leaving Chane alone with the page. Together, the two started walking back to Serena and Aaron.

"Serena," Aaron said, "I'll understand if you want to return home without me once we're allowed to leave the palace. I thought I'd stick with Master Rhe for a time, but if he's gone for good... Well, I'll figure something out. I don't want to impose on you or make you feel as if—"

"Aaron, after everything I just said about all the things we're going to do together, do you really think I'd go home without you? You were listening to me, weren't you?"

"Um...of course I was listening."

Serena lifted her brow. "Yes, well, you're coming with me when we leave here. We have plenty of room and you're my guest, so we shouldn't discuss this anymore."

Chane explained how he'd made all the necessary arrangements for their stay as they followed the page to a quiet corner of the palace where the boy directed them to two rooms down the hall from one another. After issuing additional instructions involving the delivery of food, Chane sent the boy scurrying away a coin richer. Then, before either Aaron or Serena could retire to their respective lodgings, the steward addressed Aaron with such a stern tone it set him into a rigid stance.

"I'll know the nature of your relationship with my Serena, and I'll know it now, young sir."

Aaron squirmed under the hard gaze the man leveled at him. "I'm not sure what you mean, sir," he said, hoping for guidance from Serena. But she was too busy smiling and then laughing.

"He wants to know if we're intimate."

"Wha—?" Aaron felt the heat rushing to his face. "No, sir! Of course not. I mean, not that..." Aaron took a breath, ignoring Serena, who crossed her arms while flashing him a devilish grin. "No, sir. We are not... We are only friends."

Chane looked to Serena for verification. "Is this true? Although we've not spoken of it, your virtue is—"

"My own business, Chane," she said, her gaiety replaced by something more serious. "But, if nothing else will satisfy you, then yes, Aaron speaks the truth."

"Very well, then. I know I needn't remind either of you to remain within the boundaries of the palace until I've cleared up your involvement in this mess. Aaron, though it seems Serena has put a certain trust in you, still I'll have your word you'll not wander away either."

"Of course, sir. You have it."

"Good. Serena, I'll make sure a portion of your wardrobe is transferred so you'll at least have fresh clothes. Though I daresay you've grown in the past few years, so new outfits are not out of the question. Certainly this presents an excellent opportunity to update you on the latest court fashions as well. I will see to it. You, Aaron... I'll see what I can do for you as well." He paused, his expression softening. "It is good to see you safe and sound, Serena. I worry, perhaps too much. I only wish your return was during happier times. You know of the Chaos?"

"Is that what people are calling it?" Serena said. "Yes, we both know about it. We were kind of in the middle of it back in Norwynne."

"Ah, yes, so the captain intimated. A story for another time, I think. You saw the damage here, on the way to the palace?"

Serena nodded. Aaron hadn't seen a thing, being unconscious and all. He'd have to see for himself later, though he hoped it was nothing more serious than superficial cracks and such.

"Your family's estate is intact. There was some damage, but I'm told by Fulton it's nothing that can't be repaired. Your parents, whom I'm surprised you haven't asked about by now, are fine, as are the members of the staff."

"Oh! How thoughtless of me! How is Delma? And Fulton? I do hope they're both all right."

"Yes," Chane said, a sour expression on his face, "they're both fine. You know, Serena, unless you're planning on leaving and going straight back to Master Ansanom's care, you'll have to reconcile with your parents eventually."

"About Ansanom... He's dead. Good riddance too. He experimented on people and tried to kill Aaron and probably would have tried to kill me next. I'm sure Mother and Father will be upset to know I survived, though, and that now they'll have to see me again."

Shaking his head, Chane asked, "How can you even think such a thing?"

Serena made no reply other than to cross her arms.

Chane let out a breath. "I'm afraid I have bad news of a different sort. Lord Nicholas and Lady Deidre, our Earl and Countess of Kettering, did not survive the Chaos. Part of the palace collapsed on them, or so we are being told. There remains a bit of a mystery to the whole affair, since only certain individuals are allowed into that wing of the palace. This is by order of Lord Phillip, the late earl and countess's son. He rules now, though the official coronation is not for two more days." Chane shook his head. "All you need to know right now is that the funeral for the late earl and his wife takes place this very afternoon. Your mother and father will be in attendance. Under normal circumstances, I would expect you at their side. But since they are to take part in the procession—"

"Of course they are. I'm sure Mother will make sure everyone sees them weeping."

"—which winds throughout the city, it will be quite impossible under the current circumstances for you to join them. We shall therefore make other arrangements for you."

"Fine," Serena said. "I'm tired, Chane. Can I go now?"

Chane had barely nodded his assent before Serena vanished into her room and closed the door behind her. That left Aaron standing alone with the steward.

"As for you," Chane said to him, "to your own room. If I hear you've so much as set one foot into Serena's chamber, I'll have you back in that cell. Do we understand one another?"

Aaron straightened. "Yes, sir."

Chane was about to leave when Aaron's voice stopped him.

"I wanted to say I'm sorry I got Serena mixed up in all of this. I don't know if things could have happened differently, but if there was some way to have kept her out of it, I would have."

"That is considerate of you. I appreciate the—"

"There's more. Before we got here, during the Chaos, I asked her to do something she didn't much like. I asked her to use an extromantic spell Ansanom made her learn. I'm sorry about that, and I'll never ask her to do anything like that again."

"Aaron, I—"

"Only one more thing, sir, and I'll not hold you up any longer. I appreciate you vouching for me and I promise I'll not leave the palace until you give your say-so. But once you do, I have to leave the city. Can you tell Serena? I'd do it myself, but I think it'd be easier if she didn't know until I was already gone. Part of what happened in the square was my fault. It's a long story, but I have to find someone. She's the one who gave me... Well, like I said, it’s a long story."

Chane, hands crossed at his waist, stared down his long nose at Aaron. "If I may, young sir, you seem a person of conviction. I will not pretend to understand the meaning of all you've just said, but I think you've had a long day and we're barely through the morning. Though you sound as if you've made up your mind on the subject, I recommend you think more on it after you've had some rest. Perhaps other options will come to light."

Though Aaron nodded his assent, he knew he didn't need any more time to consider things. As long as Krosus and his hounds remained, no one around him was safe. Serena might have saved his life in the square, but she'd drawn unneeded attention to herself in the process. Aaron thought it best he get the demons as far from her as possible.

Aaron watched Chane leave before he retired to his room. He hardly noticed the rich furnishings as he walked straight to the bed and lay down to consider his next move. His options were limited until he was given leave to depart the palace, which would hopefully happen sooner rather than later. In the meanwhile, he'd have to see about gathering a few days of supplies before returning to the road. He'd have to procure them on his own. Otherwise Serena might learn of his intentions. With no funds in his possession, that shouldn't be any problem at all. If Shanna were here, she'd just steal what they needed. Aaron was no thief, though, and so he'd have to devise some other means. He went to the window to look out over the city. A hundred thousand people, Serena had said. Full of opportunities for a young person like himself to make his mark. It didn't matter. He had to leave the city before the pack really did hurt someone.

Read Chapter 2.

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The Nullification Engine (The Alchemancer: Book Two) Preview–Chapters 1-3

The Nullification Engine is the second book in The Alchemancer series of science fantasy novels. Here’s a preview in the form of chapters 1 through 3 to give you an idea what it’s about.

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The Five Elements (The Alchemancer: Book One) Preview–Chapters 1-3

The Five Elements is the first book in The Alchemancer series of science fantasy novels. Here’s a preview in the form of chapters 1 through 3 to give you an idea what it’s about.

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The Five Elements (The Alchemancer: Book One) Preview–Chapter 3

The Five Elements is the first book in The Alchemancer series of science fantasy novels. Here’s a preview in the form of chapters 1 through 3 to give you an idea what it’s about. For other chapters, please see the chapter preview index page.

3. The Flood

BECAUSE ELLINGREL'S STAIRWELL WAS NARROW and bare at its topmost floors, Aaron readily saw the spidery cracks that spread across the walls. The stairs showed signs of damage too, but the thick wood felt solid enough beneath his feet that he made good progress down the first few floors. The stairs soon widened and, at each floor, let out onto a wide space dotted with arches and doors. Aaron was surprised he saw no one. This high up, chambers were occupied by a variety of scribes, scholars, pages, servants, and, in some cases, their families. Many had to have already retired for the evening before the first tremors had started. Yet Aaron found one floor after another empty. Aaron was just beginning to think the Tower had been deserted when, midway, he heard the distant sound of voices rising from further below. Another few floors and, as Aaron paused to catch his breath, he heard what sounded like a full-blown commotion. One more floor and he saw the first Tower inhabitants. Some were huddled against walls, shock and fright masked across their faces. Others were more animate, pacing, or speaking with disbelief about recent happenings with neighbors. Another floor and the frequency of people along the stairs and at each level grew until Aaron was forced to slow his pace and choose more carefully a course between or around them. Aaron saw in them a ménage of grief, fear, and, in some, anger, and while he recognized every one of them—he never forgot a face or a name—he said nothing though many looked at him with expressions that sought answers and guidance. Aaron had neither. He averted his eyes and did his best to not meet their stares.

There were more than just residents of the Tower here now. Men, women, and children huddled in groups or interspersed amongst Tower-folk were easily distinguishable by the motley array of clothing they'd hastily thrown on and the fact that all were dripping wet. Though he'd seen the water flowing into the city, he remained uncertain as to how much water had invaded the area. He stopped to listen to conversations, trying to learn anything he could. People were scared. He needn't listen to know that much. But they also refused to move higher, though certain individuals were attempting to prompt them to do so. Aaron wondered at their objection, but only until the image of that first structure crumbling returned to him. Then, he didn't blame them for not wanting to go higher. Aaron moved on, soon learning why they were being encouraged upward at all. More people were arriving at the Tower every minute. So many that the lower floors were fast becoming a scene of gridlock. Determined to find Shanna, Aaron took a deep breath and began fighting his way through. Forward progress deteriorated to a crawl, but he never lost ground as he used his slim body to full advantage by slipping between any gap that presented itself. Then, just above the ground floor, his progress came to an abrupt halt, for the entire ground floor was submerged in a black, oily soup of seawater and city muck. Not only that, but it was clear that the toxic mixture was rising.

Ellingrel's apprentices—the real apprentices, who studied and performed magic of their own—were there. Rufia, who was the best amongst them, had taken charge, directing both apprentice and others alike in lifting a steady stream of refugees from the water to relative safety. Lanterns served as a beacon, guiding folk in from the outside. Only some entered through the main doorway, for while the door no longer hung on its hinges—Aaron spotted it floating nearby—all but the top of the arch was underwater. People swam through windows instead. No one was tall enough to touch bottom, and most everyone used some sort of debris as temporary life rafts. Aaron was stunned to see so many. It took him a moment before he joined the others already pulling people from the turbid water. He wanted to reach Shanna more than anything, but he had a duty here as well. He would help for as long as he could, then he would leave the Tower to find her.

The first person Aaron helped was a man gone pale with cold. Then, a blank-stared, middle-aged woman who murmured the name of a lost husband or child. The next, who bled from a cut at her forehead, cried hysterically until someone behind Aaron led her away. A man with two small children came next. Aaron descended the stairs, going knee-deep into the water to help him with the younger of the two children. Someone else grabbed the other child, and both, along with their father, were ushered to safer, dryer floors. The flow of people entering Ellingrel was an endless tide. Aaron quickly lost track of time and the number of people he helped pull from the water. Only when someone stepped forward to take his place did Aaron, with hands and feet gone numb with cold, relinquish his post. It was not to retreat to the safety of Ellingrel's upper floors, though, nor to seek the warmth of his own room which as far as he knew might have been requisitioned for use by some of the refugees. Kicking off shoes and taking a quick moment to ensure all of his alchemicals were secure in his vest pockets, he lowered himself into the muddy, roiling water. A gasp escaped his lips as the iciness penetrated straight through his clothing. Clenching his teeth to keep them from chattering, he pushed himself from the stairs. Some threw glances his way and one of the apprentices—Jerl by the sound of the voice—questioned where he was going. Aaron answered only that he was going to find a friend. Thereafter, no one objected or moved to stop him. He swam to one of the windows, only having to wait a moment for a gap to form between those coming in. Outside, the darkness greeted him along with the rise and fall of the floodwaters. The further he moved from the Tower's light, the darker it became. As a result, Aaron saw little of the devastation. Still, some signs were impossible to miss. Dwellings and lesser towers had been reduced to piles of broken wood and stone that jutted from the waters like tiny, misshapen islands. Estate walls that Aaron knew exceeded the water's height were missing. Only those dwellings taller than a single storey—and not toppled by the earthquake—were still visible at all, for ground floors were underwater. Of those, none appeared unscathed. Windows were shattered, walls cracked, and for some, roofs and entire floors had collapsed inward.

Logically, Aaron decided to start with Shanna's last known location. The hospital was not far from Ellingrel, but navigating the way whilst swimming in near complete darkness was a challenge. Still, Aaron knew the precise distance, and so with a best guess on course and a quick conversion of distance traveled by foot to distance traveled by swim stroke, he was soon lifting himself through one of the hospital's second story windows. It took Aaron all of one second to realize the futility of quickly finding Shanna, for the place was embroiled in chaos. The ordinary occupancy of a handful of patients had been replaced by a score or more, with more spilling in with each passing moment. Some lay on beds, on the floor, against the walls. Others—healers, nurses, physicians, volunteers—moved with practiced care amongst them. With similar consideration, Aaron picked his way through the room. Not seeing Shanna, he made his way to an outside corridor that was no less crowded than the hospital room. Even here, it was not immediately obvious if Shanna was present. Aaron was dreading the thought of having to search through every room and hall when he spotted Jadjin.

"Your friend wasn’t here when it all started," the woman said in answer to Aaron’s inquiry. "Foolish girl left before she’d even taken her medicine."

Aaron left the hospital via a different window than the one he'd come through. Trying not to think about the frigid, filthy water, he gritted his teeth and lowered himself in. Swimming over a collapsed section of the bailey's wall and past several manors, Aaron navigated out onto Lantern Street. Social status held no meaning anymore as Aaron saw folk of all stripes being helped to safety through second story windows. Not wanting to deal with the press of people inside the establishments, but wanting to get out of the frigid water, Aaron swam around one such building to a metalwork staircase at the establishment's rearward side. There, he pulled himself out of the water, dripping, cold, and fatigued. It'd been a long night, with no end in sight. While Aaron wanted nothing more than to find a dry place to sleep, he steeled himself and went on, climbing the outside stairs, up and up, to the rooftop. There was a latticed barrier, with a locked door to keep the casual thief at bay, but the whole affair had fallen over. Aaron crawled across it with little difficulty. Beyond, Aaron found a scene of exquisite dining, or what might have been had high-backed chairs and candlelit tables not been displaced by a throng seeking safety from the flooded streets. Aaron sifted his way through to the roof's other side. More of the latticework had collapsed or been torn down, and so he gained the next rooftop easily. Similar scenes awaited him. Rooftop gardens, smoking alcoves, and normally quiet dining venues were crowded by all manner of folk. Some hailed him, asking if he needed assistance. Aaron waved them away and kept moving. It was not a straight path, for some roofs had collapsed, or were torn with holes. He made his way around these, until the rooftop crowds grew sparser and he found himself mostly alone. He stopped then, both to catch his breath and, now that he was further away from the center of Norwynne, to survey what damage the rest of the city had experienced. He wandered to the roof's edge, covering his nose and mouth with one hand as the pungent odor of brine and seaweed hit him. There was more rubble and a sheet of inky darkness where streets had once been. He saw some unrecognizable wreckage bobbing in the water. Then he recognized the shapes. Bodies. Bodies floating in the water. Though he saw no faces, the too pale skin and lifeless limbs caused him to look away.

He moved on, though his gaze fell too often on the water below where the presence of the dead only grew worse. Though he tried not to look at them, they nonetheless drew the corner of his gaze until the only way to avoid them was to run faster and faster. Clutching his stomach in revulsion, he lengthened each stride, running on and on, his pace a thing of madness as he leaped down to a lower rooftop and then to a series of catwalks spanning the flooded streets. Once, then twice, he stumbled and nearly fell. But he never stopped running. Great sobs wracked his chest and he didn’t realize he was crying until tears blurred his vision so badly he had to wipe them away to see.

He stopped.

Clearing his eyes, he found he was alone. He heaved in a great breath, the coolness of the air burning his lungs. He exhaled slowly. Then, looking about to get his bearings, he realized he’d arrived. Furthing’s Deep. Relief was short-lived as he took stock of the water's level. There was an arch that lent entrance to the Deep and its passage into the Underkeep, but only the very top of the arch's coign remained above water. Furthing’s Deep was completely submerged. He was too late. The sinking feeling Aaron felt stopped dead in its tracks as he looked closer. Furthing's Deep was most certainly not flooded. He brought his mind back into focus, running through the calculations. He considered rate, time, volume, and quickly came to a conclusion: there hadn’t been enough time for that much water to drain into such a large space. The Underkeep was vast. Modern maps showed only a fraction of its halls and chambers. The rest lay undiscovered and unused since the time of the dwarves’ departure from Norwynne. Aaron examined the water’s level more closely, finding it was steady. Someone had closed a door—a dwarven door—to keep the flooding at bay. Only a door crafted and fitted by dwarven hands sealed so well. Aaron let out a breath of relief, then, clinging to that bit of hope, set about finding an alternate way in. Fortunately, he knew of one, and not too far away.

He navigated a series of catwalks that extended from one second story quadrangle to another. At the end of one such walk, he found an oil lantern someone had left hanging from a ring hook, a low ember still burning at its center. A quick turn of its key and Aaron quickened his pace with the lantern lighting the way. The catwalks ended in a shadowed, elevated lane that, in turn, led to a great arch and a dark chamber beyond. Though he remained above the worst of the flooding, the water here was up to his mid-shin. There was a current too, moving in the same direction Aaron wished to go. He followed the current, making his way down the lane with care to the great arch where his lamp revealed a series of thick columns. Navigating his way amongst them, he quickly found himself at a small archway that consumed the floodwaters in a steady stream. Beyond was more darkness.

Aaron had all but taken his first step through when a shambling form emerged and, with reckless abandon, plowed right into him.

"G-Get off me, Squeak!"

"What are you doing? Where are you going?" Aaron asked as Corrin shoved him away. Aaron just barely managed to stay upright.

"G-Gettin' out of here, that's what I'm d-doing."

Corrin was soaked and shivering. Aaron’s lantern provided only a glimpse of a face drained of color, and then Corrin was walking past him.

"Wait!" Aaron said.

Corrin didn't stop.

"Have you seen Shanna?"

Corrin shouted a reply from over one shoulder. "No." Then he was gone, disappearing into the dark from which Aaron had just come.

Aaron turned to the pitch of the archway, allowed himself one deep breath and a slow exhale before stepping through. He followed the stream of water down a stair and through a hall whose width kept the water’s flow tenable. The hall ended in another arch—dwarves were fond of arches—where Aaron stumbled into a group of Underkeepers. Dressed in bedclothes, with scarce anything on their feet, they moved in a huddled mass with only one small torch to light their way. Aaron traded his much brighter lantern without question. While they made the exchange, Aaron inquired after Shanna. Though several claimed to know her, none had seen her. They took their turn inquiring about the keep. How bad was it? How many had died? How many still lived? Memories of what he’d seen caused the words to constrict in his throat. He answered them all with only a shake of his head. They murmured their thanks for the lantern and shuffled off, leaving him alone again.

Aaron saw other groups, though these were better organized with several lanterns between them and a clearer sense of where they were going. All were headed to the surface. Like the others, they inquired about the condition of the city above and the status of survivors. In answer, Aaron said only that the remainder of the way was clear before he slipped past them. One such time he heard whispers naming him as Elsanar’s apprentice, but no one questioned his purpose.

He encountered no one else after that. He guessed much time had passed while he’d sloshed through the wet and the dark. He wondered if he was the only one left in the Underkeep. Such thoughts were banished the moment a series of cries for help reached his ears. There was a short stair, leading down, covered by a cascade of water. Aaron leaped over the rush, plunging to his waist into a flooded hall. He half swam, half ran its length. The cries grew louder. The hall ended at a juncture—Bronzehome—where a handful of other passages led away. Aaron needed no directions to know which one to go down. The way ended prematurely at a stone slab—a dwarven drop-door—that had slid from the ceiling and now completely barred him from going any further. The cries, louder now, were just on the other side of the door.

"Shanna, are you there?" Aaron shouted through arrow slits drilled into the stone. "Shanna! It's Aaron!"

A voice responded. "Corrin! If that's you, you worthless—"

"No, Shanna! It's Aaron!"

Silence from the other side, then, "Aaron? Is that you?"

"Yes!"

Aaron took a moment to inspect the door. It was sealed tight. The water only reached about midway, but it was rising on his side. Bending so that his ear just touched the surface, he plunged his arm into the water, reaching as far as he could. He felt a gap, between the bottom of the door and the floor. It hadn’t sealed all the way. With water flowing beneath the door, it was only a matter of time before his side of the passage and the one at the other side of the door were completely submerged. Aaron straightened to speak through the slits.

"I'm going to open the door."

A voice from the other side, not Shanna's, said, "Corrin already tried. It's too heavy." Aaron heard others assenting. Shanna shared her room with eight other girls, plus there were many more with rooms nearby. All girls, unless a boy had snuck in, which was always a possibility considering their ward mother was a drunk who spent more time minding a bottle than her charges.

"Yeah, Corrin tried all right," Shanna said. "Then he turned tail and left us here! If I ever see that worthless worm again…"

Aaron ignored the remainder of Shanna's statement, focusing instead on the problem at hand. Dwarven drop-doors were used to stop invaders. A quick flick of a switch and down it came. Of course, the dwarves had to have a means by which to raise the door once the threat was gone, and so, with another flick of the switch, a drop-door was lifted back into position by a system of pulleys and winches hidden inside the wall. Damage from the quake must have triggered or broken the lift mechanism. Since the access panel was on the opposite side of the door, Aaron had no way of even attempting to repair it. Curious as to what was holding the door up at all, Aaron plunged his arm into the water and discovered a solid, metal object—a chest, he figured—jammed beneath. He let his hand slide along the door's bottom edge and, cautiously, to the frame rails at either side. Pulling his arm from the water, Aaron shouted into the arrow slits, "Stay here!" He realized too late how stupid that sounded. "I'll be right back."

"Aaron?" It was Shanna. "Where are you going? The water…it's rising."

She was right. He had to hurry. "Not far. I'm coming right back. Don't worry!"

"Aaron! Don't leave—"

He heard the fear in her words, wishing as he sloshed away that he'd more time to offer reassurances. One of the other girls—it sounded like Rachel, who had never really liked him—yelled, "I always knew you were worthless, Squeak!" Aaron ignored her. The moment he was able to pull himself from the water, he set off at a run, backtracking until a juncture led him down another passage, through an arch, and to the workshop of Marcus Gentry. It was locked, of course. Fortunately, Aaron had a key. Not a real key, but enough syrin acid stowed away in one of his vest vials to melt away the knob at its base. A quick dash of pedric neutralized the acid, allowing him to manipulate the exposed workings and undo the lock. Aaron dashed inside, finding the items he needed in no time at all.

When he got back to Shanna and the others, the first thing he heard was arguing over his departure and the belief that he wasn't going to come back. It sounded as if Shanna was the only one defending him. A yell from Aaron silenced them all.

"Someone get a chair," he said. "A strong one."

"What good is a chair going to do?" one of the girls asked.

"We're going to lift the door."

"With a chair? You're an idiot, Squeak!" Rachel again. "You're wasting our time. Why don't you go find someone who can lift—"

Sounds of a scuffle. Then Aaron heard a sharp cry of pain.

"Call him that again," Aaron heard Shanna say, "and we'll leave you behind!" That was that. Shanna prompted Aaron to go on.

"Take these!"

Aaron tossed his nearly spent torch into the water and, using both hands, handed off two short but thick iron wagon axles through the opening beneath the drop-door. "You're going to lift the door using the axles as levers. Slide one end underneath, then as many of you that can fit along the remaining length need to lift. Do it together. Don't waste your strength." Aaron waited for the barrage of protests and condemnations, but there was nothing but silence. He took it as an acceptance of his plan and went on. Or almost did. One look at the briny, soupy mix, tainted with dirt and dust and the death he'd seen above was enough that he had to take a moment to shake off a sensation of disgust and fear. "I'm going under the water. Once you lift the door I'll prop it up using the peg holes in the rails. Lift it as high as you can and hold it there until I return to the surface and tell you to let go. But be careful! Ease it down gently, or it might not hold at all."

"We understand, Aaron!" Shanna said. "Tell us when to start lifting!"

Aaron took a series of breaths, readying himself. "Now!" He took one last breath, then plunged beneath the surface. He kept his eyes closed against the stinging filth, using his hands instead to judge their progress. Right away, he received confirmation that his plan was working as Shanna and the others raised the door above one and then another of the peg holes, which ordinarily were used to hold the door in place during repairs. Aaron pulled some of Marcus's iron wheel spokes from his satchel and felt for the exposed holes, shoving the spokes in one by one. It was a tight fit, but with enough twisting he was able to force the spokes home. When the door's progress slowed and rose no higher, Aaron inserted one last spoke before shooting to the surface. The water had risen even higher. Aaron asked them to lower the door the moment he'd drawn enough breath to speak. It went down inches and—Aaron breathed a sigh of relief—held.

Aaron didn't have to tell them what to do next. There was some hesitation, for they must have felt the same dread Aaron had before he'd submersed himself in the fetid water. But they did it, swimming through the enlarged gap to come bursting to the surface. They were all girls, something Aaron became more and more conscious of as each emerged. Every one of them thanked him. Rachel managed only a nod. They clustered together a short distance down the hall, cold, numb, and frightened.

Shanna emerged last. Aaron's heart leapt to see her, but before he could transform his elation into words Shanna locked both arms around him in a tight embrace. Then she pulled away just enough to kiss him full on the mouth. Whatever Aaron had wanted to say was lost amidst the sweet saltiness of those lips and a mind-numbing sensation that rose from every part of him at once. The kiss lasted only a moment, then Shanna pushed away to smooth wet hair from her face and to adjust her borrowed cloak that she still wore draped over her shoulders. "Thank the Old Gods you came! There was someone…then Corrin, but they couldn't… They both left us! I thought for sure we were going to… What are you staring at?"

Aaron felt the heat rise in his face. "I'm not—I mean, I wasn't—"

A rumbling from the earth put an end to Aaron's stammering. Ripples raced across the surface of the water as, beneath their feet, the floor vibrated. The tremor—an aftershock, Aaron realized—lasted only a moment, but it was enough to drive the girls into a panic. They fled down the hallway in one accord. Aaron and Shanna, in no less of a hurry, followed. The group made it as far as Bronzehome Juncture—not very far at all—when the earth awoke again. The girls plunged into the water filling the juncture, managing in their mass hysteria to listen to Aaron's direction as he bid them return the way he'd come. The last of them had just managed to fight through the rush of water flowing from the passage and leave the juncture when Aaron and Shanna heard the ceiling above them cracking apart. In desperation, they plunged forward, trying to reach the other passage.

Too late.

Great chunks of rock and a streaming avalanche of water fell from above, extinguishing wall lanterns and creating a chain reaction that shattered the floor beneath their feet. Aaron barely managed to grab hold of the edge of one passage's railing. Shanna somehow found his other hand. For one terrible moment, as the floor collapsed and Shanna's weight jolted his, Aaron thought both of them were going to fall. They didn't, though almost immediately Shanna's grip on his hand began to slip.

"Don't let go of me!"

Aaron had never heard such intense panic from Shanna before. It rose above the roar of falling water and debris, stirring a panic in him also. He tried to tighten his grip, but it seemed the more he squeezed the more Shanna slipped free. Aaron tried to cry out to her, but his mouth filled with water and he fell into a fit of choking instead. Unbalanced, he lost what footing he'd gained. Unable to see, hardly able to breathe, Aaron focused everything on holding fast to Shanna's hand. Sheer thought was not enough though. Their hands slipped further.

"Don't let go of me!" she said again.

The earth groaned, beckoning Shanna into its embrace as the water streaming past them tried to pull her away from him. Aaron wanted to shout out, yelling that the earth had taken enough and that it could not have her too. But he'd no strength left. Only their fingers touched now, and then not even that. His fingers slipped along hers. Then her hand was gone.

"Shanna!"

He knew she couldn’t hear him. She was gone, taken by the water's ferocity. He shouted anyways, sobbing her name until he was so drained of strength he could do nothing but hang in place while bits of rock and sheets of water continued to fall from above. Minutes—or hours—passed before Aaron lifted himself to safety. He made it only a short distance down the passage before he collapsed. He stayed there for a long time.

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The Five Elements (The Alchemancer: Book One) Preview–Chapter 2

The Five Elements is the first book in The Alchemancer series of science fantasy novels. Here’s a preview in the form of chapters 1 through 3 to give you an idea what it’s about. For other chapters, please see the chapter preview index page.

2. Waves

AARON'S PLAN TO START SEARCHING for answers was derailed almost immediately. After he and Master Rion had left Shanna in the capable hands of a caregiver, the sorcerer insisted that Aaron pay Master Elsanar a visit. Unable to do anything but comply, Aaron had left the hospital and gone to Ellingrel with Master Rion as escort. Now, as Aaron stepped into his master's study, leaving Master Rion in the outside hall, he was greeted by the familiar scent of apple and cherry wood pipe smoke. Noticing the light fading from the room's sole candelabra, Aaron went to refresh its candles straightaway. The new candlelight did little to chase away the worst of the darkness, but combined with the layer of pipe smoke hanging heavy in the air it created a pale glow that Aaron found comforting as he moved to stand between the two high-backed chairs that faced his master's desk. The sorcerer, who leaned back in his usual faded, leather-bound chair, was just visible between multiple stacks of papers, scrolls, and books. One corner of his mouth sucked at his chestnut pipe while the other exuded gentle puffs of white smoke in timed rhythm. Robes similar to those worn by Master Rion were draped around his slight form, though his were more worn, the dark satin gone light, the ends frayed from years of wear. As Aaron bowed his head to indicate he was at his master's service, he spied the elder's favorite doeskin slippers just poking out from beneath the desk. Without removing his pipe from his mouth, Master Elsanar spoke.

"I understand there has been an incident." His voice was soft and gravelly with age.

"Yes, master," Aaron said.

Elsanar leaned forward just enough to look Aaron up and down. He lifted his head to see better through his spectacles, which hung at the tip of his long nose. "You are unhurt?"

"I am well, master."

"And your friend? This Sarna. She is well, also?"

"It's Shanna, sir." Master Elsanar's inability to recollect names was the stuff of notoriety. "Yes, she's recovering. Master Rion and I brought her to Jadjin. She says she will be fine. There was a man, sir. He was trying to kill us. Shanna tried to stop him, but—"

"I know, Aaron." Elsanar's voice remained calm, reassuring. He leaned back once more, one hand stroking the length of a beard dominated by gray. "Why don't you sit? There are things we need to discuss."

Aaron started to round one of the chairs, then froze. A sheathed sword was leaning against the chair and a satchel rested on the seat. Aaron knew neither belonged to his master. The bag was of plain leather, bereft of design, with a fur-lined shoulder strap and nothing to distinguish it from any other bag. But because the sword was there, eslar glyphs so plainly etched on its bone hilt, Aaron knew exactly to whom the items belonged. He also knew that sword, satchel, and owner were never far from each other. Probing the darkest of the shadows, he saw nothing at first. Though his gaze swept over the remainder of the room, it quickly returned to that single corner furthest from the light. Even then, he did not see him until he chose to reveal himself. First, stark white eyes appeared from the gloom. Then a sleek, blue-black skinned face crowned by a shock of rust-red hair emerged. The rest followed until a man stood revealed. No, not a man. An eslar. Master Ensel Rhe Alon. Tall and lean, he was dressed for nocturnal events: black brigandine armor and dark leather elsewhere. A long coat stained dark with dampness from the road reached nearly to the floor. Without a word, the eslar came forward, the starkness of his eyes never leaving Aaron's. He lifted the satchel from the chair with one hand. He extended his other toward Aaron.

"My sword," he said, his words a near whisper.

Aaron looked with apprehension upon the eslar's weapon. It reminded him too much of the assassin's knife, only larger and, he guessed, much deadlier. He swallowed, then forced himself to take hold of it. With a hand he fought to keep from trembling, he held the weapon out to Master Rhe. The eslar received it with a slight nod, then he pulled his coat back to secure the blade at his belt. Aaron spied an assortment of other weapons there: a pair of throwing knives, a dagger whose dark sheath matched that of the sword, and a short blade identical to those worn by the soldiery of Norwynne. Ensel Rhe let his coat fall into place and straightened the strap of the satchel across his chest and shoulder.

The eslar possessed an evil reputation. The satchel bore most of the responsibility, for people said Master Rhe was a collector, and that the satchel held his bounty. Now, it looked empty. But other times it bulged, or so folk said, full of the things the eslar collected. Those things were scalps. The scalps of men, women, children. People whispered Master Rhe's name any time someone showed up dead in or outside the city walls. No matter if the corpse was missing its scalp or not (none ever did as far as Aaron knew). Master Rhe was always to blame. Of course if there was truth to any of it Aaron figured he would have been arrested long ago. Also, the fact that Master Elsanar consorted with him absolved Master Rhe of blame as far as Aaron was concerned. Still, the eslar did nothing to dispel the stories swirling around him. Perhaps he liked it that way. Aaron could not be sure, for he'd never talked to him. If Master Rhe really was collecting scalps and carrying them around in his satchel, then Aaron at least hoped his victims were deserving of such a fate.

Ensel Rhe nodded in Elsanar's direction. "I take my leave."

The master wizard raised his pipe in answer and, as Elsanar stood, Master Rhe swept past Aaron without a glance and quietly exited the study. Aaron let out an audible breath at his departure.

"Never mind, Ensel," Elsanar said, coming around the desk and gesturing for Aaron to sit. Elsanar slid the other chair around so it faced Aaron's. The master had just settled in his chair when a wailing noise from behind a small, closed door filled the room.

"Ah, tea!" Elsanar said. "I forgot I put the water on."

He made to rise, but Aaron was quicker. "I will tend to it, sir."

Aaron darted off to the adjoining chamber which served as the sorcerer's laboratory. The room contained a small stove which more often than not boiled the sorcerer's concoctions, but also did well to heat water. The stove's small fire provided enough light for Aaron to navigate the room and prepare the tea before returning with the pot full and the drink brewing. Elsanar seemed content to wait until the tea was ready, so they sat in silence while steam rose from the teapot's spout. Aaron slumped in the high-backed chair that was too big for him, looking about the shadowed room while they waited. No wall in Elsanar's study was left exposed: bookcases were crammed with hide-covered tomes, scrolled maps, and stacked sheets of parchment that lined row after row of shelving. There were no paintings or tapestries, just the shelves packed with a weight of knowledge Aaron had done his best to plow through. Yet even after four years of apprenticeship, he'd barely scratched the surface.

Aaron tested the tea. Finding it brewed sufficiently, he poured the steaming drink into two polished wood cups he had brought with him from the laboratory. Elsanar took a sip, then leaned back in his chair.

"Now," Elsanar said, shifting, "let us speak of this man who tried to harm you. You have questions, I know. Questions about this assassin. Yes, I call him such because that is what he was. The truth of it is that he was not the—"

A bell sounded from the laboratory. Nothing unusual, for many of the master's monitoring devices were tied to chimes, bells, or whistles. This bell was really no different from any other except that it rang and rang, and kept ringing until, after exchanging a glance with Aaron, Elsanar stood and, without a word, hurried into his laboratory. Aaron knew the patterns of all the sounds his master's devices made and how many times each rang to indicate that some threshold had been reached or crossed. While the chime of this one was familiar enough, its frequency was not. Aaron followed, so fast he almost ran into his master. He stayed close as Elsanar approached a work table set into the room's furthest corner. He narrowed his gaze at the indicator on one particular machine. The metallic needle of the gauge showed an energy measurement of five peta-joules and rising. It hit six and then seven peta-joules. All the while the bell continued to ring.

The noise was loud enough to draw attention. Master Rion, who still waited outside in the hall, came running into the laboratory. He said nothing at first, but seemed just as interested as Elsanar in the rise of the needle. Aaron looked from one master to the other, not knowing what to make of their interest in the gauge or their silence. He did know, however, that the needle should not be rising so high, nor so fast. Of course, he wasn't entirely sure what it was measuring. While Master Elsanar had designed all of the encorders in the room, Aaron modified and calibrated them. But not this one. Aaron looked at it more closely. There were extra chambers inlined with the compression tubes and additional measurement crystals, pulsating now as they absorbed the ambient energy waves to which they'd been tuned. Aaron considered asking his master the purpose of the modifications, but Elsanar was so intent on making his observations that Aaron dared not interrupt him. Master Rion was unapproachable as well. His full attention was on the machine's reading.

Finally, Elsanar stepped away. "It is confirmed then."

Master Rion still inspected the gauge, which by now had risen above ten peta-joules, a remarkable reading by any measure.

"Are you sure?" Master Rion asked.

Master Elsanar found a stool to sit on. "Yes."

He suddenly looked old and tired to Aaron's eyes.

Rion straightened. "Then we haven't much time."

Aaron looked from one master to the other, waiting for an explanation. When he realized none was forthcoming, he set out to examine the machine himself. Half a dozen encorders just like this one were scattered around the laboratory. The energy such devices measured might be magical, alchemical, potential, relative, reactionary, elemental, emotional, or one of a thousand other types. Much of it lie in how the crystals were tuned. Small and cut precisely, there were half a dozen in this machine. Principles, laws, and equations all revolved around the operation of those crystals, but, at its simplest, they absorbed ambient energy and passed on measureable information via emitted pulses to any number of compression tubes, tension gauges, valves, vats, or gears. The end result was a quantified measurement. This machine was showing a level Aaron was quite certain he'd never seen before. By the looks on their faces, neither had the masters.

Aaron needed his lab vest. As he walked quickly to take it from the hook beside the door, he removed the satchel he'd had over one shoulder nearly all day and hung it in place of the vest. Though they had a rule about only storing alchemicals in their proper, safe place, it was a lax one as long as the alchemicals in question were not explosive, and so the vest was already lined with an assortment of vials containing his and Master Elsanar's most often-used substances. One of those was aqua vermillion, a conducting agent which Aaron sprinkled onto a nearby measuring wand. He picked up a handheld calibrating meter and, with wand and meter in hand, returned to the machine. He waved the wand over the encorder's crystals while his eyes remained fixed on the meter. There were two needles on the device, both with different scales. The larger one went right to 56. The smaller, 3579645. Taken together, 56.3579645.

An elemental frequency.

Elsanar stood. The look of frailty was gone, replaced by one of purpose. "Aaron, my staff."

Aaron put the instruments down. "But, master, I—"

"Aaron!"

Aaron quietly did as he was asked, fetching the wizard's staff from its usual laboratory corner.

"Rion," Master Elsanar said, "see that Aaron is taken somewhere safe. Stay with him. They might try to take advantage."

Rion nodded in reply. "Come with me, Aaron. Time is short."

"But…" Aaron handed the staff to his master, all the while trying to stammer a sentence out. Finally, he blurted, "What is going on?"

That got Master Elsanar's attention. The sorcerer paused, then beckoned Aaron closer. He placed a comforting hand on his apprentice's shoulder.

"There is no time for explanations, Aaron. Rest assured that come morning—or sooner should this business conclude as I think it shall—you and I will sit down once more and I will tell you everything. I promise. For now, though, you must trust that myself and Master Rion have your best interests in mind."

Aaron knew of only one way to respond. "Yes, master."

Rion put an arm at his back and guided him from the laboratory with such haste Aaron barely had time to snatch his satchel off its hook. Elsanar followed them into the study. Before Master Rion had ushered Aaron out into the hall, he took a moment to look at his master one more time. The old wizard had his back to him as he fumbled with something on his desk. Master Elsanar was a quiet, reserved man, rarely prone to rashness. Yet now, his quick movements and haste almost spoke of panic. The thought turned Aaron's stomach and made his skin go cold. As he turned away from the old sorcerer, he wondered if the two would ever have their promised conversation.

 

* * *

 

Shanna opened her eyes to find herself lying in bed. Not her bed, if the softness of the mattress and pillow was any indication. So whose, then? Shanna turned her head and immediately regretted it as a flash of pain ignited the spot where she'd been struck. While she waited for the pain to subside, memories returned: saving Aaron from Clubfoot, their run-in with Master Rion, the trip afterwards to Graggly's Tower, and last, the man with his knife, coming at them with murder in his eyes. Shanna shuddered, immediately wishing she hadn't as the side of her face lit up again. Thankfully, the pain did not last as long this time. Through careful experimentation she found that by turning her neck ever so slowly she could take in her surroundings with minimal pain. She was in a dark room lit by a smattering of low burning candles. More beds were to either side, only two of which were occupied. By appearances, her roommates slept or were deceased, for Shanna thought she smelled leenum, a fragrance used to mask the scent of the dead.

A woman emerged from the room's only doorway. Shanna watched her walk to the first occupied bed. A quick inspection, repeated at the next, then she was quietly pulling up a chair next to Shanna. The woman—Shanna recognized her as Jadjin the healer—smiled. Jadjin was a slender, dusky-skinned woman, some said a gypsy, come up from the reaches beyond the Four Fiefdom's borders. She'd entered into service here in Norwynne long before Shanna'd been born, her knowledge and skills as a healer guaranteeing her a place for as long as she wished.

"Now," Jadjin said, "let's take a look."

She held a hand to Shanna's forehead for a moment. Satisfied, she leaned in closer to inspect Shanna's cheek. Shanna, unused to the attention, tried to withdraw further into the bed. Jadjin only smiled at her display of discomfort.

"You have a nasty bruise," Jadjin said, her voice smooth and comforting. "But nothing that won't heal with time."

Shanna tried to speak, but her words emerged as an indecipherable croak. Without comment, Jadjin rose. She returned a moment later with a cup of water and arranged the pillow behind Shanna’s head so that she could drink. Shanna eagerly took the water, surrendering the cup only when it was empty.

"Who brought me here?" Shanna asked, her voice a whisper.

"Master Rion and one of the Tower apprentices."

Shanna licked her lips. "I need kuma seed. My cheek, it hurts." She'd never had the drug before and wouldn’t have known of it had Aaron not been given some after he fell and bruised his leg last year.

"Kuma seed?" Jadjin smiled. "You and I both. If I gave you kuma seed, there wouldn't be enough for the lord or his daughter. It doesn't grow here. Doesn't abide the salty air." Jadjin shook her head. "For you, I have willow bark."

Willow bark.

Already Shanna felt the bile rising in her throat. The stuff had a repugnant taste and did not sit well with her at all. The last time she'd used it, she'd spent more time recovering from the resulting stomach ache than from the original ailment.

Jadjin started to turn away, but not before Shanna asked, "Where's Aaron?"

"Aaron? Oh, the apprentice!" A broad grin lit up her face. "That boy sure was concerned about you, dear. Fawned over you the whole time till I finally had to have Master Rion take him away. Be careful! That one's got his eye on you. Such a pretty girl, it's no wonder." Shanna sank further into the bed, her eyes straying from Jadjin's as her cheeks turned rosy. The healer raised a hand to her lips to suppress a laugh, lest she wake her sleeping patrons. "He said he would come see you in the morning. Now, rest while I fetch the willow bark."

Shanna watched the woman retreat the way she'd come. Then, tossing the covers off, she eased her legs over the side of the bed and tried to stand. It took a moment for the room to stop spinning, but she gained her feet without too much wobbling. Save the willow bark for someone else. She wasn't taking it. Nor was she staying here any longer. She could recover just fine in her own bed. Shanna found her shoes and the cloak she'd borrowed—left behind by Aaron—at the foot of the bed. Jadjin must have gone off to some other part of the hospital to grind her witch's brew, for the room beyond was empty. Shanna exited the building unobserved.

Almost immediately Shanna wished she'd taken the offered medication, for every step brought a new jolt of pain from her cheek. That, and the aching in her head showed no signs of going away. Pain or not, though, she had no intention of changing her mind. It was a matter of principle now and a particular point of soreness, too, that some always got the best of everything while others had to make do or get nothing at all. She crossed her arms, the direction of her thoughts causing every footfall to hit the hospital's walkway like the strike of a hammer. They'd taken her inside the walls of the lord's keep, likely only because of either Aaron's presence or his insistence. That nasty master who'd run into them probably would have dumped her at the nearest hack's shop. She kept her head down, stomping her way round the vine-covered walls of the lord's estate, which was the centerpiece of the large, rectangular yard. The stomping did her no good: each impact sent a shock of pain up her body and into the welt on her cheek. Also, it attracted the attention of a passing guard. The man stopped for a moment to observe her, but he said nothing and soon returned to his silent patrol. Shanna kept walking.

Next thing she knew she'd cleared the whole of the bailey, completely passing her intended exit-way. If she went any further she would be square in front of the door to Ellingrel, Norwynne's Tower of Sorcery. Shanna leaned back to take in the fullness of its height, trying to locate the window that was Aaron's. But even with scattered openings lit like beacons across its gray stone it was difficult in the night's darkness. She knew he was in there, somewhere. Briefly, she considered knocking on the door and asking to see him. The answering apprentice would probably just turn her away, though. Opposite the Tower, she saw more lights, this time coming from the high windows of the lord's keep. Thoughts turning dark again, she imagined Lord Vuller and his pain-in-everyone's-arse daughter swallowing their kuma seed. She hoped they choked on it.

Beneath her borrowed cloak, Shanna ran her hands up and down her arms for warmth. The fabric of her shirt was coarse and worn thin, with a patch at one elbow and the beginnings of a hole at the other. Matching patches were at the knees of her pants. The vest was the only thing close to new, given to her by Aaron just last year. Of the clothes she owned, she much preferred the current ensemble to anything else. But the garments had seen many years and many washings, and she knew she'd have to buy new ones soon. That meant she'd have to start saving from the pittance that was her pay. Either that, or she'd have to ask Nora for an advance. It was within her right; Shanna worked for the woman now as her apprentice, though 'laborer' was more like it. Who would have thought soap making such an arduous chore? She'd barely started learning about the fragrances and what worked best with what and already she hated it. Almost as much as she hated asking anything of her new mistress. Especially this, for Nora abhorred Shanna wearing 'boy's clothing,' and probably would turn her down. She'd done as much plenty of other times. Once, Shanna had wanted an extra candle to read by. Aaron always loaned her such wonderful books, with pictures and tales of such strange, faraway places, that she'd wanted to remain awake all night reading them. Hard to do that with only a single, stunted candle to her name and no money to buy a new one. Nora had dismissed Shanna with a laugh and a sharp admonition: better she spend her time sleeping to meet the next day's labors rather than wasting her time reading. There'd been other times too, enough that Shanna decided she'd not ask Nora for an advance or anything else ever again. She'd save the money on her own, even if it took months of squirreling away drams. At least then she could buy what she wanted with no one able to say otherwise.

Shanna knew she'd likely not see Aaron again until mid-day, after she'd finished her chores and he his lessons. That meant she'd have to wait that long before learning why anyone would want Aaron dead. She knew she hadn't been the assassin's target. The man had brushed by her almost as if she wasn't there. Her feeble attempt to stop him had nearly been a disaster. The man's knife, so close to her. Shanna shuddered at the thought of it. It had made her own blade look like a butter knife.

Knowing Nora would not see her bruised cheek as an excuse from her duties, Shanna started heading home. She crossed the quietness of the yard until she came to a lesser used postern gate where she had to ask the single guard stationed there to raise it. He did so only after some grumbling. Out on Lantern Street, the nighttime activity of the avenue's finer pubs and eating establishments was just getting started. While Shanna didn't run in such circles (and probably never would, she told herself), there was always someone lurking about in which to engage in idle chatter or a game of chance before a night watchman ran them off. On any other night Shanna would not have hesitated. But this night, she just wanted to go home.

It was a long ten blocks. With the night growing colder with each step, she was relieved when she passed beneath the familiar open arch leading into her plaza. Furthing's, it was called, and while it wasn't large, it did have its own well and benches for sitting. Shuttered windows rose up all around: multi-storied apartments where all manner of people lived. But not Shanna. Her home was below, in Furthing’s Deep. The deep—it was only one of many—was part of Norwynne's underkeep, where dwarves had once dwelt. It had been a long time since any dwarf had called the Underkeep home though, and those who remained—men, mostly—saw no reason not to make use of the space. 'Underkeepers,' they were called. The name had never really bothered Shanna. She'd been one as long as she'd been in Norwynne, so it was something she'd grown used to as she had bounced from one Underkeep orphanage to another. The past year, she'd found some stability, and now shared a hearth-home with eight other girls.

Furthing was one of only a few plazas that had a working dwarven elevator. But at the moment it wasn't running, so she went instead to the stairs that led down, down, down into the dark. She lit a torch to guide her and was just about to take the first step when she was beset by a wave of dizziness. The spell nearly clocked her. For a moment she thought she might fall down the stairs. But she caught herself against the wall, staying like that until it finally passed. When it did, the dizziness was gone completely, as if it had never happened. Shanna took a long breath and blinked her eyes. The blow the man had given her must have hurt more than she thought. Resigned to crawl into bed the moment she got home, she held her torch before her and descended into the Underkeep with careful steps.

 

* * *

 

Somewhere safe for Aaron, it turned out, was at the very top of Ellingrel.

Already worn down from a long day, Aaron had not found the idea of climbing to the Tower's roof appealing at all. His best protests, however, fell on deaf ears as Master Rion ushered him to the top without remorse, allowing neither time for rest nor opportunity for Aaron to ask any of the questions swirling through his head. By the time they'd reached the halfway point, he was too tired to speak anyway.

As soon as they gained the roof Master Rion went straight to the edge where battlements similar to those of Graggly's Tower encircled the top. He settled in quickly, the fullness of his attention on the ocean-side of the city or on something beyond. Moving more slowly, Aaron took a moment to regain his breath and gather his strength before he fought the whipping wind to join the sorcerer. Ellingrel stood roughly at the center of Norwynne, but closer to the landward side. Still, its great height afforded the observer an uninhibited view over the lord's keep, the surrounding city, and, beyond the assortment of buildings poking up in irregular patterns, the great outer wall, Regrok, which legend said had never been breached. By day, the view was spectacular. Now, it was an ebony screen punched through by the faint light of street lanterns and a chaotic pattern of lit windows. Beyond Regrok was the Barrens. The great, empty ocean, Norwynne folk called it. Now, true to its name, it was inky blackness, for a blanket of clouds obscured even the light of the moon.

Aaron saw activity on Regrok's wall walk: Master Elsanar, small compared to the wall's massiveness, standing amidst members of his coterie. Keep soldiers were there too, in greater numbers than usual if the number of torches reflecting from armor was any indication. At one end of the walk, a cluster of them parted as a single figure emerged from a corner guard tower. Aaron saw hands jump to brows in salute as the man—who could be none other than the Lord of Norwynne, Lord Vuller—passed. He stopped only when he stood face-to-face with Master Elsanar.

"What do you suppose they're saying?" Aaron asked above the howl of the wind.

His eyes never leaving the dark of the horizon, Master Rion's answer came quick and short. "I don't know."

Aaron thought Master Rion did know, if not the conversation's exact words then at least the general content, but Aaron did not press the point. Instead, he asked, "What are we doing up here?"

"Master Elsanar felt this place would offer you the most protection. The Tower is a sorcerer's tower. It is protected. You know that." Again, the master sorcerer's eyes never left the horizon, though Aaron was quite sure there was nothing there to see.

"Why do I need protecting? I mean, what about everyone else?"

Over ten thousand people called Norwynne home, not to mention another five hundred or so who worked the surrounding farmlands. The Market Day Festival was nigh, also. That added at least another two thousand. What about them?

Master Rion's gaze left the distant horizon long enough to fix Aaron with a hard stare. "If there were time to tell you all, I would. Come morning, Elsanar will explain everything." He looked away and said nothing more.

Resigned to gathering whatever information he could on his own, Aaron returned his gaze to Regrok. More torches had been lit and now Lord Vuller, who still consulted with Master Elsanar, finally broke away, returning the way he had come. One-by-one, soldiers followed him. Not just one or two or even ten, but every one of them until the full length of the wall walk was abandoned but for Master Elsanar and his fellow sorcerers. Aaron counted fifteen, save Master Rion. The sorcerers spread out in a line, each taking a position twenty paces from the other. Every one of them faced the ocean.

Aaron heard shouts coming from the streets below as word spread about the nocturnal activity occurring along the wall-walk. Light from torches and lanterns appeared in windows while avenues and courtyards soon filled with folk milling about looking for answers. Soldiers, perhaps the same ones who'd abandoned Regrok to the wizards, took up positions along byways and at lit street corners. Whether their task was to quell or placate, Aaron could not be sure. Either way, Aaron envied them. At least they'd been given something to do.

A ruckus started on the landward fringes of the city. Herd animals brought inside the city walls for the night bleated and baaed with intensity. Soon horses, cows, and now the howling of dogs joined the litany. Master Rion gave the ruckus a sharp glance before returning his attention to the wall.

Then there was a crack, a noise so loud Aaron winced from the sound of it. It was followed by a shuddering as the earth trembled beneath the city. It rolled across Norwynne as if a wave, then faded and was gone.

"Stand fast, Aaron!"

Master Rion braced himself with one hand on his staff and the other on the stone of Ellingrel. Without question, Aaron grabbed hold of the Tower’s battlements in like fashion, though without a staff the best he could do was place both hands on the stone.

Then, it started.

From deep down below, the earth rumbled, letting loose such movement that right away Aaron felt the Tower sway beneath his feet. Though it was only that at first, it quickly grew worse. The masses below, gone silent at the first hint of the earth's awakening, exploded now into a dissonance of fear and confusion. Another eruption drowned them out as the Tower quivered and then jolted so that his hands loosed themselves from the battlements. Vibrations ran up his legs and into his stomach and chest until he shook as much from fright as from the Tower's movement. He yelled a desperate cry at Master Rion, but the words were lost in the earth’s deafening roar as another convulsion rocked the Tower. Only Master Rion's outstretched hand kept him steady. Another jolt, this one accompanied by the crash of rock and timber coming from multiple sources below, tossed Aaron against the battlements where he tried again to take hold of the stone with both hands. He looked out over Norwynne, seeing some of the same city lights he'd viewed moments ago now swaying, as if someone were signaling with them. One such grouping ran vertical and represented a line of windowed apartments. Back and forth they swayed, until suddenly, one-by-one, from top to bottom, the lights winked out. Seconds later, Aaron heard the accompanying crash. He shook his head in slow motion, refusing to believe what he'd seen. But though it was dark, he couldn’t deny what had just happened. He blinked his eyes, unable to speak, almost unable to breath. Then it happened again. A tower half Ellingrel's height rocked in impossible fashion. Get out! Get out! Aaron yelled in his mind. Too late. Unable to withstand the sheering forces, the tower disintegrated into a cloud of rubble and dust that choked out the screams of those trapped within. The shock of it reverberated through Aaron, and he sank to the floor. He covered his ears, hoping to somehow mute out the continued sound of grinding rock and splintering timber. He heard and felt more structures crumble and fall. More people died. Though some had to have escaped to the streets, he knew there was no safety there. He'd seen the great chunks of falling debris.

Elsanar!

The master sorcerer would stop this. Aaron stood. He was relieved to find Regrok still intact. The members of the coterie were still there, too. But none of them were doing anything. They all still faced the ocean.

Then, just as sudden as it had started, it stopped. The tremors, the swaying, the grinding of stone on stone all lessened until, gradually, they were no more. Minutes passed. But for the wails of folk below and the wind whipping over Ellingrel's battlements, there was no sound. Aaron looked at Master Rion. "Is it…?"

"It isn't over," the sorcerer said.

Aaron followed the master sorcerer's gaze through the haze of dust risen above the city to Regrok. There, finally, Master Elsanar held his staff up to the dark, clouded sky. To either side of him, all along the wall walk, the other members of the coterie did the same. One by one, each of their staves flared with such brilliance that soon their very persons were obscured. The power of each joined with the next until a line of cerulean energy surged across the wall walk. Its greatest point of concentration was Master Elsanar, who now swung his staff in a great circle before him. The motion left in its wake a sheet of power that moved unilaterally in all directions. Up, down, across, it buttressed the might of Regrok in one direction while extending its height in the other.

"The waves," Master Rion said, "they've stopped."

Aaron listened. It was true. The normally persistent sound was noticeably absent. Even at lowest tide, that never happened. Aaron was just trying to work out an explanation when he saw the tidal wave.

Seen through the azure film of Elsanar's wizardry, it was frothing liquid set ablaze, a wave so massive that, even at its current distance, it dwarfed Regrok and the hundred foot cliff it sat upon. He reminded himself that Regrok had never been breached, that the keep had never fallen and that Elsanar, greatest of wizards, was here. Such reassurances fell by degrees as the wave loomed closer and closer until, finally, it crashed into the wizard wall. It hit like a battering ram, jolting the azure barrier and causing the flare of brilliance surrounding each of the wizards to intensify. Knowing the danger of such exertion, Aaron winced as if in pain himself when three of the lesser sorcerers convulsed, then shriveled to blackened husks. Immediately, as the brilliance of those three dissipated, the wizard wall's strength diminished. Still, the barrier was enough that only a dousing of seawater broke through. Aaron let out an audible sigh of relief as the water fell away in sheets across the wall's length.

It was over.

"Aaron, stay here."

Aaron’s gaze went slowly to Master Rion.

"You'll be safe here," he said. "Do you understand?"

Aaron felt the blood drain from his face. A shiver ran through him.

"Do you understand me, Aaron?"

Aaron managed to bob his chin.

"Stay here! Ellingrel is the only place of safety now."

Aaron watched as Master Rion leapt between merlons much as Shanna had done earlier.

"Where are you going?" Aaron managed to ask.

"Elsanar needs me."

Without another word, the master sorcerer stepped from Ellingrel's roof. He did not fall, but instead drifted through the lingering haze down to Regrok's wall walk. He'd barely taken the place of one of the fallen wizards when another tidal wave hove into view. Master Rion had only seconds to add his strength to that of the others, seconds that were not enough as the second wave slammed into Regrok and its wizardly reinforcement. This time, like glass, the wizard wall shattered, and Regrok, which had never been breached, shuddered, cracked, and broke. The wizards—Elsanar and Rion amongst them—disappeared beneath the wave's frothing mass.

Aaron suddenly couldn't move, couldn't breathe. The shortness of breath was infectious. His legs lost feeling. His knees gave way. He remained standing only because he leaned heavily against the Tower's battlements, watching as the water exploded through Norwynne's streets, absorbing people and debris and finishing off structures made unstable by the earthquake. Aaron watched until so much water filled the streets that there was no longer anything to see. Then he backed away, not stopping until he came up against the Tower itself.

Its presence kept him standing. In that moment, it became his strength. Aaron clung to it, not moving, not thinking. He was safe. If he just stayed here, as Master Rion had advised, nothing could harm him. For an hour, as the shock of it all drained from him, that was what he did. But the longer he stayed put, the more he considered his predicament. He was safe, but what about everyone else? If it was over—even if it wasn't—folk needed help. Aaron slid along the wall, his outstretched hand probing for the door. Shanna, too. She might have been lying in the hospital when it started. Or, possibly, in her hearth-home. Aaron imagined the seawater flowing into the Underkeep, flooding the halls, trapping her.

It was all the prompting he needed.

Master Rion’s words were forgotten. The moment Aaron's fingers found the doorway, he slipped through. He left the door swinging on its hinges, not looking back.

Read Chapter 3.

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