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 2

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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2. Sinjee

ENSEL RHE CONSIDERED HIS OBLIGATION to Aaron and Serena fulfilled the moment they entered Brighton. The underground explosion, though unexpected, did nothing to change that. If anything, his presence under such circumstances only made things worse for them. This was not his first visit to Brighton. He'd a reputation, and not a good one.

Disappearing into the chaos caused by the explosion was nothing. Well away from the square, he slipped into a deserted alley, where a quick climb up a drainage pipe granted him access to the building's rooftop. Or what was left of it. Most of it had collapsed inward, forcing Ensel Rhe to skirt the undamaged edge before leaping to the next rooftop over. From there, he followed the line of the Highbrook River deeper into the city. He'd not gone far when an unholy darkness snuffed out the blue of the sky. Ensel Rhe knew what the darkness meant, but still he kept on his way. He'd already killed the houndmaster twice now. In the end, he and Ensel Rhe had come to an unspoken arrangement. He'd not cross swords with the demon again unless provoked, leaving Aaron to resolve the problem of his presence in this world alone.

Ensel Rhe returned to street level, using Hickory Bridge to cross the Highbrook. At the bridge's other side, he did his best to melt into the crowds occupying Trader's Borough. Smaller walkways took him across the city's canals until Alter's Bridge was in sight. Concerned about his ability to remain incognito, he found the city's streets teeming with enough activity that despite his alien, blue-black skin, gloomy disposition, and the arsenal of steel always at his belt, few paid him any attention.

Across Alter's Bridge, Ensel Rhe returned to the rooftops. Almost immediately, he saw one of Bekjris's lookouts camped out on a nearby gable. The man, whose attention was fixed on the darkened sky, noticed Ensel Rhe's approach too late as a kick sent him hurtling over the building's edge. Ensel Rhe followed, focusing his ka as he sailed down the building's three stories so that while the other smashed into the ground with a solid crunch, Ensel Rhe landed safely in a crouch.

Not sparing the dead man a second glance, Ensel Rhe made for The Minstrel's Cup with haste. Others with line-of-sight might have seen the attack or might soon notice the sentry's absence. Either way, Ensel Rhe wanted no additional obstacles. His business was with Bekjris, not his henchmen. He knew of a variety of ways into the tavern. A back door led into the kitchen. Another entry, accessible via Upper Brighton's network of underground tunnels and sewers, came up into the wine cellar. Also, windows dotted the Cup's three-story exterior and, last, there was always the front door. Across another river walkway, with the tavern a block away now, Ensel Rhe's mood for subterfuge soured, and so he decided on the direct approach.

A single guard with hands crossed before him stood at the entrance to The Minstrel's Cup. Seeing the approaching eslar, the bouncer moved to bar his passage. Whatever warning he was about to issue was garbled by the eslar's fist smashing into his face. The blow, driven by the force of Ensel Rhe's ka, dropped the man like a rock. The closed door was opened by a kick which knocked it from its hinges. Inside the shadowed interior, Bekjris's thugs met his entrance with looks of surprise. Then they leaped up from tables or jumped from stools and charged him. Some had only their fists. Others drew weapons. Neither made any difference. One came at him with a small sword. Ensel Rhe got inside the blade, pushed the man's extended arm away, and cracked him across the jaw with an upper cut. A pair came at the eslar with clubs. A kick to the midsection doubled the first one over even as Ensel Rhe dodged the swing of the other. Ensel Rhe closed, grabbing the man's wrist and twisting. Crying out, he dropped the club and received an elbow to his gut in return. Ensel Rhe swung him around and threw him into three others. Another two aimed hand crossbows at him. The first never released his bolt, as he fell over dead with a throwing knife in one eye. The other managed to pull the trigger, but the tensing of his shoulder muscles betrayed his movement. Ensel Rhe sidestepped the missile and closed the distance separating them. The eslar grabbed hold of him and sent him flying over the bar to crash into the display of liquor bottles. Another came at him with a sword. Better it was a club, for that was how the man wielded it. Evading the first swing was nothing. The second, even less. By then the man was so close he’d come face-to-face with the eslar and his stark white, otherworldly eyes. He froze. Ensel Rhe took hold of him by the collar and hurled him over a table.

Through the thinning tide, Ensel Rhe saw his target. The raspel crime lord sat alone at one corner of the room behind a large, round table where he ate and read from a book. He paid no attention at all to the mayhem the eslar caused. Ensel Rhe headed straight for him. Those of the crime lord's thugs still standing moved to stop him. Growing tired of the game, Ensel Rhe's hand went to the bone hilt of his sword. He hadn't come for a massacre, but he also didn't care if he left one behind. With his khatesh drawn halfway, a single command, shouted from the corner of the room, stopped everything.

"Enough!"

The voice was high-pitched, and followed by a series of strange chittering, but it stopped the thugs in their tracks. Ensel Rhe, cautious, kept his sword half-drawn. He eased it back into its sheath only after the men began to back away and a lane to Bekjris stood revealed. Though the command had clearly come from the crime lord, he showed no signs of having spoken it. He still sat, one four-fingered hand holding his place in his book while the other stuffed a leafy vegetable into his mouth. Stares from the men he'd just tussled with accompanied Ensel Rhe's every step as he approached their boss. Only when the eslar stood right in front of the raspel did Bekjris finally acknowledge his presence.

"Sit."

Ensel Rhe did not.

"Sit, please." He emitted the chittering from before. Like teeth chattering, the sound faded quickly. He turned a page of his book, his head swaying at the top of his foot-long neck as he leaned in to scan the text.

Ensel Rhe drew a knife from his belt and, reaching across the table, grabbed the raspel by his long throat. Lifting him from his chair, Ensel Rhe shoved him hard against the wall and placed the blade against the base of his neck. Without turning, Ensel Rhe said, "Tell your man approaching with the knife to stand down or prepare to become Barathrum's newest guest."

Bekjris didn't have to say anything as the man backed away of his own volition. The remainder of the boss's henchmen remained where they were.

"Come to kill me, then?" Bekjris said, choking out the words. The chittering caused his neck to vibrate.

Ensel Rhe looked him right in his blue-slitted eyes. "I'm here to even the score."

"And what score might that be?" he asked, gasping as Ensel Rhe's grip tightened.

"Do not play games with me, Bekjris. When last I was in Brighton, you hired an assassin to kill me."

The raspel pointed with a long, boney digit at his neck as he let out a croak. Ensel Rhe lessened his grip, but only slightly.

"Yes, I suppose I did, didn't I?" Hard ridges above his eyes rose the way a human raised his eyebrows. "The deadliest assassin this side of Shantywall, no less. Not that he did a very good job of it. You're still alive, aren't you?"

The eslar did not answer.

"Oh, come now!" Bekjris smiled, or tried to. Ensel Rhe's grip on his throat had not grown that slack. A dark tongue slithered from his mouth to run across mustard yellow lips. "Let us let bygones be bygones. Here, sit and have a drink." He gestured to a decanter resting on a nearby tray. "Brandy. One of my best years. It may not suit you as much as your eslar araki, but still I remember you having a fancy for the drink."

"I've not come here to drink."

"Yes, you said why you're here. I've a feeling if you'd really come to kill me, you'd have already done it. So, come, share a drink with me and we shall reminisce over old times. And if that's not enough, allow me to offer a peace offering in the form of information."

Ensel Rhe's gaze narrowed. "What information?"

"Something which I think you will find of interest. Perhaps after you release me?"

Ensel Rhe realized the raspel was right. If he truly wanted the crime lord dead, he'd have killed him already. Perhaps the desire to hunt him down, which Ensel Rhe had dwelt over this past week as they'd neared the city, was quelled now. At least until he'd heard the information the raspel wished to share. He released Bekjris and shoved him back into his chair.

Bekjris made a show of adjusting his multicolored jacket and tugging at the frilled cuffs of his shirt. When he finished, his long neck turned to consider the eslar. "Interested in that drink now?" Without waiting for an answer, Bekjris poured two glasses, placing one of them in front of the eslar. He drank his own in one pull, whereupon he wasted no time pouring himself another.

Ensel Rhe considered the drink but did not touch it. This corner of Bekjris's establishment—the raspel owned the place—was made warm by the open flame of a nearby fireplace. Low lantern light and dark lacquered walls presented a comforting atmosphere in which Ensel Rhe was not at all interested. Still, it'd been a long while since he'd tasted good brandy, so he lifted the glass and drank. While he did, he noticed that many of Bekjris's thugs had disappeared. Those remaining kept hands close to weapons, their gazes never straying for long from the eslar. The body of the one he'd killed was already gone, probably on its way to be weighted down and tossed into the Silvercross. Pity he'd not recovered his knife.

"What is this information?"

Bekjris plucked a leafy vegetable from amongst an assortment of red lettuce, carrots, and beets sitting on his plate. "Hungry?" Yellowed incisors crunched into the piece of lettuce.

Ensel Rhe waited for the raspel to answer his question.

Bekjris sighed. "Oh, very well. Always down to business with you, isn't it? You know, you'd learn a lot from me just by indulging in a little conversation. For example, since you've probably just arrived, I bet you didn't know the earl was dead. His wife too. I had nothing to do with either, I might add."

The Earl of Kettering, who ruled the Baronies of Rulana, Agratis, and Fallmere, the lattermost of which had included Norwynne before it had sunk into the Barrens. Ensel Rhe had not known about the earl. Nor had he wished to know.

"Lord Nicholas was a man of vision," Bekjris said. "He meant to bring the city together like never before. No more 'upper' and 'lower,' but a single entity returned to its former glory as one of the great cities of Seacea!" He punctuated his proclamation with his lettuce upraised. "Little did the earl realize I'd much the same plan in mind, except where he pontificated and merely dreamt of the possibilities, I was already making it a reality. Look at the Sunken Slums! Once a destitute quagmire of crime and rampant villainy, I all but cured it of this reputation by eliminating the worst of the crime bosses and absorbing their gangs into my organization. Street laws, which are better than no laws at all, mind you, help keep the riffraff in check and my enterprise running smoothly. It hasn't been easy. No, not at all. That black-hearted dwarf, Thorvid, remains a pain in my arse, thinking half the Slums is still his, but, eh, I manage.  Ah, well, I can see by the dour look on your face you don't give a shat about any of this, do you?"

"Not particularly. Either tell me about this information or I go back to choking you."

Bekjris lifted his glass and swirled the liquid around before finishing his display with a quick drink. "There are other eslar in the city. Two, actually. A woman, and a girl."

Ensel Rhe considered the possibilities. There were too many without knowing something more. "Their names?"

Bekjris didn't answer straight away. When he did, it was to make a somewhat unexpected statement. "I see you no longer carry your satchel."

Ensel Rhe neither confirmed nor denied the observation.

"Do you know what people in the Slums used to say about you and that bag of yours?"

"I do not care."

"Perhaps you don't. Those years ago, you cared only about finding those who murdered your son. Did you, at last, find them?"

"You presume to know much about me, when in truth you know very little."

"I know more than you think. I know from whence you came, I know why you came, and I know who you are, Lord Ensel Rhe, of the House of Rhe Alon. I only learned of that last bit of information recently."

That the crime lord knew his station and house was of little concern. But if such information tied him to the other eslar in the city, then it might mean something. Ensel Rhe said in a tight voice, "Their names."

"Yes, of course. The first... Ingrid Kane, of the House of Kane Kalara. You know her?"

He knew her. Hearing her name twisted something inside of him, though his outward appearance did not change at all.

"The other... Teenage years. Pretty, by your peoples' standards. Her name? Jakinda Rhe, of the House of Rhe Alon."

His daughter. Impossible.

"You are mistaken, Bekjris."

"I think not, my friend. My information is good. The likeness, now that I see you again, unmistakable."

"You have seen her?"

"Only in passing. I didn't know who she was at the time, otherwise I might have taken more of an interest." Bekjris saw the look come across the eslar's face as he threw his hands up in innocence. "Before you start threatening me to stay away from her, I'll have you know I've no intention of going anywhere near either of them. Whatever their business, it has nothing to do with me. The woman—Ingrid Kane—is here to negotiate trade agreements. The girl, your daughter... I've no idea why she came along. Perhaps she's Ingrid's understudy."

The thought raised Ensel Rhe's ire to new levels. "Where can I find them?"

Bekjris answered right away this time. "The Silver Fox. You know it? It's an inn, just outside the palace."

Ensel Rhe knew it. He paused only to leave Bekjris with a warning. "I intend to remain in Brighton for a short while before moving on. See to it you remain out of my business, and I shall remain out of yours." Without waiting for an acknowledgement, Ensel Rhe left The Minstrel's Cup.

Outside, three of Bekjris's men started at his sudden appearance, but made no move against him. Keeping to the shadowed alleys, he started back the way he'd come, detouring at South Bridge to head in the general direction of the palace. Close to Three Rivers Bridge, called Earl's Bridge by some because of its proximity to the palace, he tugged the collar of his coat up and did what he could to hide his weapons. He'd made enemies both high and low during his previous visit. The last thing he needed was someone from the palace guard recognizing him.

He stopped a block and a half from The Silver Fox. With line of sight on the establishment, he considered his options. Ingrid Kane might be within. His first thought was of violence: find her room, break the door down, and slit her throat. That, or scalp her, leaving her to die of blood loss or exposure the same way his son had died. He was tempted to rush in and do exactly that. But there were other things to consider. First and foremost, why was she really here? The question made reconnaissance his highest priority. Everything else—his original plans for coming here, his daughter—fell by the wayside.

A trio of approaching guards prompted him to duck into a nearby alley. Not looking back to see if they'd taken notice, he circled in on the inn. Though better to enter the place under the full cover of night, Ensel Rhe wanted to know what game Ingrid played at sooner rather than later. He remembered Bekjris mentioning the deaths of the earl and countess, and guessed the eslar woman was at the palace, offering condolences and paying her respects. Never mind she'd probably never met the deceased. Given the circumstances, it was the right thing for her to do as a guest of the city. Whatever Ingrid's real reason for being here, she'd want to keep up appearances.

He stayed back a moment to allow a carriage to rumble by in the street ahead. Its passengers, no doubt on their way to the palace, sported their best finery. Ensel Rhe was only marginally familiar with human death rites. But he knew the bodies of royalty usually lay in state for some days. It was an odd tradition, displaying the deceased as if they were trophies. His people cremated their dead, the ashes spread across the sea or in the high peaks of the Alderdens. There were no cemeteries or mausoleums, and, as such, no chance for the dead to rise. The people of the Four Fiefdoms should pray to the memories of their gods they were never visited by a necromancer, for they'd an entire legion six feet under, just waiting for release.

While the carriage rolled past, Ensel Rhe saw a boy walking behind him. The eslar called to him, flashing a coin when the boy hesitated. One now and another once he returned from visiting The Silver Fox to check on the Lady Ingrid's disposition and, more importantly, to inquire about her room number for a package coming to her on the morrow. The boy returned soon thereafter, reporting that the lady was not present at the inn, but that she meant to return some time after the conclusion of the funeral. Also, the boy divulged the lady's room number, which earned him the remainder of his payment before Ensel Rhe sent him on his way.

The back corner of the establishment was mostly hidden from street view. A quick climb up a drainage pipe and he made his way along the third-story ledge to the building's street-side. A few people meandered below, but, in this sort of work, he was as efficient and quick as the best of thieves. Ingrid would have demanded a view of the palace in order to keep the place under observation, and so it was easy finding her window. Working a knife between window and sill, he forced the window open. Let Ingrid believe a thief had taken advantage of her absence. Right now, she'd no reason to think otherwise.

Slipping inside, he made a cursory inspection of the main living area. The fine décor and exquisite furnishings brought back memories of a way of life he'd left behind a long time ago. He figured the larger sleeping chamber for Ingrid's. The other, his daughter's. Inside Ingrid's room, he found a desk with drawers containing stacked sheets of parchment and scrolls. Rifling through them, he saw manifests, inventory lists, and ledgers. These were the documents of a merchant come to Brighton for legitimate trade. A pretense, nothing more. Other documents were more of the same. The items listed included quantities of hardwoods from the forests of the Alderden Mountains; willow barley, which was grown outside Isia; Peldin wheat; and an assortment of other eslar crops along with a short list of ordinary metals and minerals whose names were not unfamiliar to him. He searched other parts of the room. Nothing escaped his notice as he looked beneath sheets and bed, between mattresses, within bureaus, and along shelves. He inspected the walls for recent signs of repair. The same for the wood floor, where he found one loose board, but nothing beneath it. He stood, surveying the chamber with narrowed gaze. Just when he began to think there was nothing to find here, he realized he looked in the wrong room. Ingrid might have expected an agent of the earl's or the local merchants' guild to attempt a surreptitious verification of her reasons for being in Brighton, so she'd laid out exactly what they needed to see in order to legitimize her presence. The clues to her true purpose were not here, but next door in his daughter's room.

He paused at the threshold. He thought less of the violation of privacy and more of what he might learn about a daughter he'd not seen in seven years. He remembered a precocious, stubborn, headstrong girl who'd refused to sit in his lap that last time because she'd claimed to have outgrown such attentions. There had never been any doubt in his mind as to the young woman she would one day become. But this was not the way he envisioned his first glimpse of her transformation. She'd likely hate him for the intrusion. She'd hate him regardless, he realized, for abandoning her, her brother, and their mother. There seemed no easy path ahead. Right now, though, Ingrid Kane remained his primary concern.

Inside, he found a room neat and in order. The contents of drawers were arranged without clutter. Eslar-style dresses, as well as more practical outfits, hung evenly spaced. He found a personal journal hidden deep between the bed's mattresses. He left it undisturbed. As he'd done in the other room, he checked walls and floorboards. Nothing. Retracing his steps, he returned to the wardrobe. Beneath the main compartment were two stacked drawers. The lower one's depth seemed wrong. Pushing aside some undergarments to probe with his knife, he discovered a false bottom. Beneath it was a hollow gap containing two items: a long metal chest, not unlike a jewelry box, but larger, and a book. The chest was plain and black with nothing distinguishing about it. The book, almost the same, except for its size—three hands tall with a proportioned width—and its age, which seemed very, very old. Also, eslar words were etched into the faded hide cover. They read, The Principles of Death. Without picking it up, Ensel Rhe opened it to the first, yellowed page. The script was neat but unintelligible to him. Signed at the bottom were two names written in eslar: Ill Sigith and Jux Jeorn. Neither was familiar to him. Something about the book felt wrong to Ensel Rhe, and so, respecting his senses, he closed the cover and turned his attention to the chest. Picking it up with one hand, he was immediately struck by its weight. Without knowing what lay inside, it was difficult to say if such weight came from the chest itself or from its contents. The answer was to remain a mystery for the time being, for the chest was locked, and he'd no way to open it presently, which left the choice of putting it back or taking it with him. Not concerned with Ingrid finding it missing, he decided on the latter.

Slipping the chest into one of his coat pockets, he restored the book and the drawer to their original state before leaving the suite via the same window he'd used to enter. Rather than return to street level, he climbed to the rooftop. He'd just reached the top when he heard a greeting.

"Hello, friend."

Ensel Rhe drew his khatesh. From behind the roof's access enclosure, the speaker revealed himself. Right away, Ensel Rhe saw he was not human, but something else.

"Krill," Ensel Rhe said.

Panther-dark, with whiskered face and claw-tipped fingers, he was dressed in the finery of the well-to-do: a high-collared dark jacket made of velvet over a burgundy vest, with a patterned tie around his neck. Tailored trousers covered him from the waist down, but the claws and fur on his feet remained revealed as he wore no shoes. Green cat eyes met Ensel Rhe's as the krill spoke with liquid smoothness, the words congenial and tinged with amusement.

"And you, my friend, are eslar."

Ensel Rhe noted no visible weapons on him, though any number might be concealed beneath his jacket. However, if he meant violence, he'd likely have already attempted something. Krill were masters of stealth, as well as the sword. Still, Ensel Rhe possessed heightened senses, and so he wondered at how he'd not detected the krill's presence long before he'd heard him.

"Strange," Ensel Rhe said, "that you were able to lie in wait, with me none the wiser."

"Not strange at all," the krill said, "for few amongst my people are as well-versed in the art of subterfuge as I." He hooked thumbs into his belt. "If I had wanted, I could have killed you before you'd ever known I was here."

"Is that so?" Ensel Rhe shot his sword back into its sheath. "You may excel at sneaking, but your powers of observation leave much to be desired. Turn your senses away from appreciating yourself for a moment, and instead focus them upon me. Tell me what you sense."

The krill obliged him, gaze narrowing in concentration. After a moment of such scrutiny, his cat eyes went wide and lips pulled back to reveal fangs. "What trickery is this?"

"No trickery."

"But...you are sinjee!"

"Yes."

"But... You cannot be!"

"Yet, I am."

The krill had nothing to say to that. Finally, he asked, "Who was your roshi?"

"Yuma."

A lift of the krill's chin and a sudden intake of breath signified his recognition of the master's name. "You are that eslar?"

Ensel Rhe let his silence answer for him.

Then the krill did something utterly against the character he'd demonstrated thus far: he stood straight and formal, with arms extended at his sides and chin lowered to his chest. Then he bowed. Not a halfhearted gesture, but a full bend at the waist which lasted several long seconds. When he straightened, his gaze remained pointed at Ensel Rhe's feet.

"I beg your forgiveness, sinjee-ka. I did not know."

"Never make assumptions about your enemy," Ensel Rhe said, reciting the old sinjee mantra. "Always expect the unexpected."

"Yes, sinjee-ka," the krill said with genuine sincerity.

"My name is Ensel Rhe. You may call me by it."

The krill bobbed his head in acknowledgement. His eyes rose to meet Ensel Rhe's. "I am Gerwyn."

"Just Gerwyn?"

Gerwyn sniffed. "The remainder of my name was stripped from me when I was exiled from my home." He eyed the eslar expectantly. When Ensel Rhe made no reaction, Gerwyn said, "This does not trouble you?"

"Why should it?"

"You may not be krill, but you are sinjee. Those of the caste always look upon ones such as I with scorn."

"I do not share in such prejudices." He said nothing about being an exile himself. "But I would ask... You are not sinjee, but you've something about you which I cannot quite place. Explain this."

"You are correct. I am not sinjee, for once a sinjee, always a sinjee. But I trained with them for many years. At the end, though, I refused the final test. It was, quite literally, a door I was unwilling to pass through, and the reason for my banishment."

The final test. The rite of initiation. Not everyone survived the training long enough to take it. Fewer survived the test itself. Ensel Rhe held nothing against Gerwyn for choosing a different path. The final test was not for everyone. Also, it was a road from which there was no return.

"Tell me, Gerwyn, why you loiter here. Were you waiting for me?"

Gerwyn responded without hesitation. "Yes. I watched you enter my employer's room."

"Your employer? You work for Ingrid Kane?" Too late Ensel Rhe realized his slip.

"Ah, so you do know the lady. I suspected as much."

Still, Ensel Rhe doubted he knew the nature of their connection or their history. "What will you do? Report my presence to your mistress?"

Gerwyn considered the question. "That depends entirely on the reason you give for having violated her sanctuary. Ours is a business relationship. It is my duty as master-at-arms to guard her interests. But, if your presence in her room was only common thievery and you've taken nothing of importance, then I don't see the need to—"

Ensel Rhe withdrew the chest from his coat. "I have taken this. Do you know what is inside?"

Gerwyn studied it from his current distance. "No. I've never seen it before."

"Then ignorance is your salvation, Gerwyn, for if you'd any knowledge of the diablerie Ingrid is hatching here, I'd kill you now and be done with it. Listen, and listen carefully. My connection to your employer is personal. I suggest you do not come between us. It will not go well for you if you do."

Gerwyn acknowledged the warning with a nod. "Be that as it may, I am entered into her employment and thus I am obligated to do exactly that, should the need arise. I do not wish to come to blows, sinjee-ka, but I have my honor too."

Ensel Rhe offered a nod of his own, for he found no fault with the krill's logic. He also knew there would be no hesitation on his part if and when the time came.

"I am taking the chest," Ensel Rhe said, emphasizing his intention by returning it to his jacket pocket. "I will know what is inside. If it proves harmless, I shall return it to you."

"And if it does not?"

"Then prepare to defend your employer, for I shall be coming for her."

"The conviction in your voice tells me you will be coming regardless. Still, I will grant you a consideration. When my employer discovers the chest missing...it will not go well for me. But, for now, I will tell her nothing more than a story of petty thievery."

Ensel Rhe bent at the waist in a partial bow. "You do me honor."

Gerwyn returned the gesture.

Their encounter concluded, Ensel Rhe left The Silver Fox's rooftop behind by leaping to the next building over. He did not look back, but still he felt the krill's cat eyes watching him.

Read Chapter 3.

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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.

Buy The Nullification Engine at: [ Direct ] [ Amazon ] [ Nook US ] [ Nook UK ] [ iBooks ] [ Kobo ] [ Google Play ]

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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