The Nullification Engine: Excerpt 1

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Aaron and Serena have just arrived in Brighton and things are not going well at all.

"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.