Scott Marlowe
Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

The Five Elements: StoryBundle Bound

The Five Elements & StoryBundle

I have some fantastic news to share to start the new year (Happy New Year, by the way). A couple of months ago, I was approached by someone associated with StoryBundle who wanted to include The Five Elements in one of their upcoming fantasy bundles. Of course I agreed. The legal end of things has been wrapped up at this point, so I’m free to make this announcement. I won’t go into the other titles that will be part of the bundle just yet, other than to say I have seen the list and it’s a good one. I can’t wait for the bundle to go ‘live,’ which should happen in about a month.

Not familiar with StoryBundle?

Basically, they’re a site that bundles like novels by different authors and sells them as a single unit. One of the special things about StoryBundle is their pricing scheme, which is set by the reader on a sliding scale based on what he or she thinks is a fair price. If a reader is willing to pay more, bonus material (additional books) are included. Also, readers get to choose how much goes to the authors and how much to the publisher (in this case, StoryBundle). You can also donate 5% of the price paid to charity.

Another cool thing about StoryBundle is that the books are curated. Let’s face it: many self-published authors have not done anyone any favors by releasing material that is not ready for prime time. StoryBundle’s curation process guarantees readers a minimum level of quality; StoryBundle cares about their reputation, so they have to care about the product they put in front of consumers. The result of their curation process is a win-win for everyone.

I’ll have more details about StoryBundle’s fantasy bundle including The Five Elements soon.

The Five Elements survives the #ImmerseOrDie challenge!

IOD-FiveElements

#ImmerseOrDie strapped on The Five Elements, by Scott Marlowe, and got rocketed across the finish line

Jefferson Smith of the Creativity Hacker web site threw down the gauntlet for indie books: Submit a novel to him and he’ll attempt to take it through a 40 minute reading session on his tread mill. Each entry is allowed three immersion breaking occurrences. Break immersion for the reader more than that, and Jefferson stops reading, the final time is recorded, and it’s time to write up a fair, brutally honest critique highlighting the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I took Jefferson’s challenge, submitting The Five Elements. As you can see from the graphic above, The Five Elements survived! I encourage you to see what Jefferson has to say about the book.

I encourage every independent author to seek out these sorts of opportunities. There’s no better feedback than the unbiased opinion of others. There’s always a moment of fear or nervousness, but you have to lay it on the line in this business. Putting stuff out there that you’ve written is what separates a writer from an author. If you decide to accept the challenge, good luck!

The Nullification Engine (The Alchemancer: Book Two) Preview–Chapter 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. 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 ] [ DriveThruFiction ] [ Scribd ]

3. A Funeral

SERENA STOOD NEXT TO AARON on a balcony overlooking the palace's northeastern square. Beneath them, the funerary procession began to emerge from the palace's main gate, as an octet of royal horsemen, decked out in yellow and blue livery with ivory caparison draped over their mounts and golden spears pointed heavenward, rode out in pairs. Immediately following the riders was a formation of foot soldiers dressed in similar colors, except these had golden-hilted swords at their belts and golden shields held at the ready. Both horse and foot soldiers wore silver-coned helmets tipped with purple or blue feathers, the metallic surfaces of which might have shone if not for the somberness of the clouds above. Inside the square, a silent crowd, bisected at their center by a wide, open lane, awaited the soldiers.

"The Vanguard of the Dead," Serena said in a whisper to Aaron. She leaned closer so she didn't disturb the others sharing the balcony with them. "They guide Lord Nicholas and Lady Deidre into the afterlife. The spears and swords—the golden spears and swords—are the weapons they will use to fight their way back out, for 'those of the Vanguard are still alive and so must return to the land of the living.' That's how the story goes, anyway."

"The Saga of Syperion," Aaron whispered back, "when King Bacharia was laid to rest."

"We're the only fiefdom which continues the tradition, as far as I know."

A solitary figure followed the Vanguard. Though he wore the purple and blue of Brighton in the form of a sash hanging from one shoulder, he had it draped over a white surcoat which bore another mark too small to make out. Serena, who'd kept her ears open to the rumormongers buzzing about since leaving her room, knew it was the crest of neighboring Agratis. A buck with antlered head held high, the man who bore the proud symbol was not the Baron of Agratis, for though Lord Malcolm was Nicholas's brother and therefore Phillip's uncle, he hadn't come. A decade ago, a falling out between the two brothers had nearly embroiled their respective baronies in an all-out war. It hadn't come to that, but Malcolm had sworn afterwards to never set foot in the barony of Rulana again. Not as long as Nicholas still breathed, leastwise. But, with the earl now dead, still Lord Malcolm had declined to come, sending instead his field marshal. On the surface, Field Marshal Chandler was here to pay his respects the same as everyone. But rumor had it he'd also arrived with an ultimatum for Lord Phillip: surrender the earldom or prepare to lose it in battle. Serena had no idea if such talk was true. All three of Kettering's baronies had always had open trade with one another, and therefore amicable business relations. While the feud between brothers cast a shadow over the earldom, except for that brief period when everyone thought war was imminent, it had never been a dark enough shadow to halt lumber from coming down the Silvercross into Brighton in exchange for the city's gold. Still, by not showing for his brother's funeral, Lord Malcolm had made a statement. Trouble was coming from Agratis, sooner or later.

But, for now, Field Marshal Chandler held a place of honor in the ceremony, for he led the way for the deceased. Laid on open carriages, their flower-wreathed coffins were each drawn by a single destrier and led double-file so they might enter the afterlife together. Another group of footmen followed. They were the last of the colorful Vanguard, for the coach to emerge next was a muted display of black. This carriage, which carried the earl-in-waiting, Lord Phillip, was pulled by a team of four horses managed by a pair of wagoners dressed in dark suits and hats. The carriage moved at the slow pace set by the Vanguard. Halfway through the square, it abruptly stopped.

A collective murmur, risen up from the assembled citizenry below, was joined by a similar buzz from those on the balcony. The captains of the Vanguard, who slowed and then stopped as they noticed the delay, seemed as perplexed as everyone else. When one of the coach's doors opened, chatter ceased. Everyone watched as Lord Phillip stepped out and started to walk toward the front of the procession. He stopped along the way to touch each of the caskets. As soon as he reached the head of the first group of footmen, he initiated an exchange with one of the soldiers there. The soldier bowed to his lord before he handed over his golden sword and shield. The soldier stepped away, and Lord Phillip took his place. Silent no longer, the crowd broke out into whispered murmurs of approval at the gesture. He'd lead his parents into the Land of the Dead himself, then fight his way back out, shoulder-to-shoulder with the men he commanded.

Serena wasn't immune to this show of respect. This was her city and Lord Phillip her liege now. Aaron's too, since Taloo and Norwynne as well were both part of Kettering, though she doubted he felt the same pride. Aaron was an outlier, living at the fringes of the earldom where the earl's influence was felt the least. Most outliers—Aaron included—had never even seen their earl. But Serena had. Never face-to-face, but she'd seen the Lord and Lady of Kettering while attending at least two palace events, and Lord Phillip too, though she'd been just one of so many others she doubted he remembered greeting her. Like many others, she'd had a childhood infatuation with him. Seeing him now stirred some of those feelings. She doubted she was the only one. Phillip had always been Brighton's favorite son. Boys idolized him, girls swooned over him, and adults respected him because they fancied him cut from the same cloth as his father. Now, with just a single act, Lord Phillip might have just made this belief concrete.

As the procession got underway again, Serena's gaze wandered to the city. No repair work was happening today, though buildings, towers, and streets sorely needed it after the events of a week ago. The epicenter, where Shanna had raised her mountain and joined the Four Elements, was so far away, yet its destructive power had been felt even here. So much power, but wielded by one with so little self-control. Master sorcerers never embraced such power so quickly for a reason. Sorcery required discipline of the mind and body, controlled thought, and an ability to concentrate one's will, sometimes learned over a lifetime of study and mental exercise. There were no shortcuts. Serena had been taught this fundamental tenet early on by her first master and then by Ansanom, who'd not made the best example when he chose to throw away such considerations in his mad attempt at gaining mastery over the Elements. Two years of tutelage under him had not been what she expected. The strict regime, yes. The murdering and experimentation upon innocents, not so much. She'd never killed anyone herself, though, or assisted in any of the wizard's life-draining experiments. But she'd also not done anything to stop them. Not until Aaron had come along. But, for all the downsides, her regular studies had progressed well. She had to admit she'd learned a lot from Ansanom. Her knowledge had grown. Her discipline and control had increased. Also, as long as her daily duties had been completed and she progressed in her lessons, Ansanom had left her alone to indulge in her own experiments. She hadn't devised anything worthwhile, but that didn't matter. Sometimes it was about the journey and not the destination. She'd even enjoyed Wildemoore's quiet solitude for a time, though after a while the isolation wore at her until she found herself looking forward even to Ensel Rhe's brief visits. She'd had to do all the talking with him, of course, but at least he had been someone else to speak with. Now, however, she had an entire city of people just waiting for her to strike up a conversation. Too bad most would want nothing to do with her once they realized who she was. More likely they'd try to run her out of the city.

Serena's gaze went to the other side of the balcony where a group of girls about her age whispered to one another while they cast furtive glances her way. Serena sighed, looking away lest they catch her returning their stares. If they'd recognized her so easily, then others probably had as well. She might as well go pack her bags now and make ready to leave. She'd not really wanted to come back to Brighton anyway. But, once they'd learned Kirschnick had closed their gates to any more refugees, there'd been little choice. The Dormont's woodland villages and hamlets were not capable of accommodating all of them, and there was no other nearby city other than Brighton. If she'd seemed downtrodden at the notion of coming home, she didn't think anyone had noticed. Most people had been too preoccupied by the prospect of a roof over their heads and a hot meal. Those had sounded pretty good to Serena as well, for no one had so welcomed a hot bath and the opportunity to wash a week's worth of traveling from her hair more than she. A warm room, clean clothes, and a real bed. They were luxuries she'd almost given up hope of ever having again. Chane, true to his word, had brought many of her outfits from home. Of course, nothing had fit at first. The clothes from her wardrobe were for a girl of thirteen. Now fifteen, she was a girl no longer, but a young woman. Chane, with his usual foresightedness, had taken this into consideration, for with him came a trio of tailors. They stayed until she had enough outfits for several days, which provided more than enough time for her to go shopping and left her quite happy with the dress she now wore. Black to fit the occasion, it was simple but elegant in its own way, with embroidery running the length of the arms and around the waist. If not for her heels, its end would sweep the floor. Though Chane had wanted to have her hair done, there wasn't time, and so she wore it long and straight, which was just fine with her. Chane had made a fuss over it, but that was just his way. Dear Chane, who had always been like a father. Even though he'd come to visit her at Wildemoore at regular intervals, she'd missed him. Growing up, when her father had been too busy with his work or her mother too engrossed in how to raise their family's stature on Brighton's social ladder, Chane had been there. When she'd fallen and scraped a knee, Chane had picked her up and held her until the pain had stopped. When she'd had trouble with her early schooling, Chane had made time to help her. When first she'd shown an aptitude for sorcery, Chane had been the one who encouraged her and finally convinced her parents to finance her apprenticeship, first to Master Persimmius here in the city and later, to Ansanom. If any of that had been left to her parents, she knew her life would have taken a completely different path, and she'd have become an entirely different person.

Serena shivered as a cool breeze swept across the balcony. The morning had started with fall's typical coolness. But where the sun had at least kept them warm while they approached the city, now, with its warming rays blocked by clouds, the day had grown chilly. Serena already had a shawl wrapped about her shoulders. It didn't help much. She moved closer to Aaron for warmth. He didn't complain, but neither did he seem to notice. He'd barely taken his eyes off the procession since it started.

A near-endless stream of Brighton's military poured forth from the palace now. Cavalry riding four abreast, followed by column after column of foot soldiers, all moving in slow, perfect unison from the palace square, across the white brick of Three Rivers Bridge, and down into the Southern Boroughs. From there, they'd cross each of South and Alters Bridge before entering Hickory Heights. A couple more bridges and the Trader's Borough later, and they'd complete their circuit back to the palace via Illuminating Way. Tonight, in a private ceremony attended by those closest to the royal family, the bodies of the earl and countess would be taken to the family crypt beneath the palace, there to remain for eternity. Chilled all the more by such thoughts, Serena did not relish the idea of remaining on the balcony for as long as it was going to take for the procession to complete its circuit. She said as much to Aaron, who nodded in response.

Aaron no longer looked his old self. Washed and dressed properly, with his sandy brown hair combed instead of all mussed as it had been since she'd met him, Chane had found him a suitably sized pair of black trousers, a dress coat of like color, and a tailored shirt. A ruffled tie which she'd helped put on gave him quite the handsome look, she thought.

"I wonder how long it will take for them to make it back here," Serena said.

"I saw the route on a map inside," Aaron said. His brow furrowed a moment. "Based on an estimation of the distance and their rate of travel, they should return in about forty-six minutes."

He sounded very sure of himself. Seeking a distraction from the cold, from her thoughts, and perhaps wanting to toss a few barbs Aaron's way for not saying anything about the way she looked, Serena decided to test how sure.

"Did you take into account the narrowing of the street on Maplewick and Parkland?"

Aaron shook his head. "I didn't know those streets narrowed."

"Also, there's a circle where Lark and Berryway join. That will probably slow them down."

Aaron crossed one arm while the hand of the other went to his chin in a contemplative stance. "So put the estimate at fifty-one minutes."

"What about the ninety-degree turn at University and Miskatonic?"

"I saw that. I factored it in."

"Their rate of travel will change, too, based on the road's surface. It's smooth marble and stone here, but out in the city it's mostly cobblestone. They won't want to jar the wagons too much."

Aaron scratched at his head. Clearly he had not taken those criteria into account.

"Fleas again?"

"What? No!"

Aaron shot her his typical look of annoyance, which she countered with her usual smile.

"It sounds like your estimate remains a little off," she said. "Let me know when you've come up with a more accurate figure." Turning a shoulder to him in feigned dismissal, she found herself face-to-face with one of the girls from the other side of the balcony.

The girl was a tad shorter than Serena, with dark hair held in a tight arrangement and a face Serena thought pretty even without the light blush on her cheeks. The girl was alone. Serena didn't know if she had been one of the worst gigglers, but she knew what was coming nevertheless. She braced herself for it.

When the girl only curtsied and said hello, it took Serena a moment to recover. Shaking off her surprise, she returned the gesture and the greeting.

"My name is Emily Stewart," the girl said. "You're Serena Walkerton, aren't you? I don't know if you remember me. We learned our letters together. Oh, but that was a while ago, so I don't really expect you to know who I am."

Serena, still surprised by Emily's cordialness, proceeded with caution. "Of course I remember you. We both used to sit at the front of the class, right?"

"Yes, we did," Emily said, smiling. "You just returned to Brighton, correct?"

"This morning. We had a little trouble at the gate, and got thrown in prison. But, here we are."

Emily flashed Serena a look of confusion before she dismissed the words as playful jest. She probably had heard about the square exploding, but initial reports were calling it a gas leak. A terrible accident, but nothing a lady would have been involved in.

Both of their gazes went to the ongoing procession, which had grown in length now as members of the well-to-do class, many on horses or in carriages of their own, followed the last of the soldiers. Serena imagined her parents somewhere amidst that last group, though the carriages all looked more or less alike so it was difficult to know for sure. Other people on foot slipped onto the back of the procession until the square was near empty but for servants, groomsmen, and some others who preferred to await the procession's return.

"It's so sad about Lord Nicholas and Lady Deidre, isn't it?" Emily said. "I don't envy Lord Phillip having to go on without them."

"It's a tragedy," Serena said. "I don't envy him, either. But I think he'll be all right eventually."

Emily nodded, though she did not look convinced. "That's actually why I wanted to introduce myself. I wanted to thank you."

"Thank me?" Serena swallowed. "For what?"

Here it came. Though she'd detected no sarcasm in Emily's tone, Serena expected her tone to change as the girl expressed her bitter appreciation for Serena having burned down her house. Or her parents' business. Or...for killing them. Serena knew people had died. But no one had ever told her who, or how many.

"For saving my life. For saving my family's life."

Serena shook her head in small movements. She'd no idea what Emily meant.

"Two years ago, during the Burning, my parents and I were trapped inside our house. The fire had come so quickly, we didn't have time to get out. We thought we were going to die. But then the flames died down, like someone had doused them with water or smothered them with a blanket. Except, no one had. No one came at all, actually. There were so many fires... I found out later that it had been you who'd stopped them all. I wanted to thank you back then, but by the time I'd made it to your estate, you were already gone. I can only imagine how traumatic it must have been to have your master go crazy like he did. He tried to burn down the entire city! But you stopped him. I know it must have been difficult standing up to him and all. So I just wanted to say, thank you."

Emily's words didn't make any sense. That was not how it had happened at all. Serena managed a smile as she sorted through Emily's version of the story. Serena did have a master who'd gone crazy, but that had been Ansanom, not Persimmius. Meanwhile, Emily looked past her to Aaron.

"Who's your friend?" she asked.

Serena turned back to Aaron. By the way he stood in such contemplative thought, she knew he still worked away on his calculations.

"His name is Aaron. As you can see, he's a little busy right now."

"Doing what?"

"I'll let him tell you. Aaron, this is—Aaron!"

"Hmmm... Oh! Sorry."

"This is Emily Stewart. Emily, Aaron Shepherd. She's wondering what you're doing."

"Adding unsteady flow conditions to the time estimate. With all of these additional people following, it's created a stretched flow, which means—"

Serena interrupted. "He's trying to determine how long it will take the procession to make its way back to the palace."

"Oh, that's easy," Emily said. She took out a sheet of decorative parchment which she'd folded in half. "The program says one hour."

"There you have it, Aaron. One hour."

He didn't seem convinced.

The balcony emptied now as people wandered inside. Seeing her friends amongst them, Emily excused herself.

"It's very nice to finally meet you, Serena. Perhaps once you've settled in, you will join me for tea, or even for dinner if it doesn't impose on your schedule. I'm sure your family will want to monopolize your time since you've only just returned."

"That's a nice offer. Thank you."

"Wonderful! Mum and Dad will be so happy to meet you. I'll have my steward contact your household and arrange something."

As Emily rejoined her friends, Serena hooked one arm into Aaron's before he returned to his little project.

"Shall we go inside as well?"

As they vacated the balcony, they were immediately followed by two royal guardsmen. Captain Fuchs might have agreed to release them into Chane's custody, but that didn't mean the captain didn't want them watched. The men remained as unobtrusive as possible under the circumstances, and maintained an air of neutrality toward their charges. Since they had refused to provide her their names, Serena had taken to calling them Dip and Dup. They didn't seem to mind or care.

With their escort in tow, Serena and Aaron entered a busy chamber where guests spoke in low voices while servants wandered about with trays of refreshments. Serena led Aaron through the crowd, down two flights of stairs, and onto a wide, circular mezzanine. While thinly populated for the time being, the balcony overlooked the Earl's Rotunda, a formal receiving area of blue and white marble, whose purpose now served as the final lying-in-state chamber for the deceased before their burial this evening. Serena rested her arms on the balustrade as she looked down at a set of catafalques, arranged side-by-side, surrounded by a forest of roses. The biers, of equal size and design, were an exquisite blend of hand-carved, darkly lacquered wood set beneath individual golden canopies. Pikemen in ceremonial armor, standing at attention facing outward, ringed the display.

Aaron settled in beside her. Neither of them spoke for some time as they watched others arrive. Their choice of location was perfect. They'd see and hear everything, for Lord Phillip was expected to address the gathering from the rotunda floor.

"You're unusually quiet," Aaron said.

Serena leveled a sidelong stare at him. "Are you saying normally I talk too much?"

Aaron shrugged. "You already know you do. Everyone tells you so the moment they're given the opportunity, which isn't often once you get going."

"Humph," she said, lifting her chin.

"So what was your friend talking about?"

"What friend?"

"Emily. The girl on the balcony. She said you saved her family. Did you?"

Aaron was more observant than she gave him credit for sometimes.

"I don't know. I mean, I guess I did. But it didn't really happen the way she said it did."

"Oh? How did it happen then?"

With a simple thought. That's how it had happened. One simple thought she couldn't control.

"Can we talk about something else?"

"I guess so. I didn't mean to—"

"It's all right, Aaron. I'll tell you all about it some other time." Hopefully before someone else had a chance. She'd rather he hear it from her. Of all people, Aaron just might understand the most.

The mezzanine was nearly full now. Whispers circulated. The procession neared its return to the palace.

"Do you know any of these people?" Aaron asked.

Serena looked around the balcony. Some did, in fact, look familiar. But when and how she'd met them, she'd no idea. "I recognize some better than others. But know any of them? Not really. Before my parents sent me away, I spent a lot of time by myself, studying and practicing."

"Where are your parents?"

"Chane said they were taking part in the procession."

"Have they come to see you yet?"

"No."

"Shouldn't they have?"

Serena shrugged. "You'll meet them soon enough, and then you'll understand."

That quieted Aaron, but only for a moment.

"I heard Brighton has a planetarium. Have you been there?"

"Yes, many times."

"Do you think it's open today? Not that we can go, of course, since we're supposed to remain in the palace. But maybe... I mean, I want to pay my respects to the earl and countess the same as everyone, but maybe they'll make an exception to our house arrest for just this afternoon, as long as we promise not to—"

"Everything is closed today, Aaron."

"Oh."

His genuine disappointment almost caused her to smile. She'd never known anyone quite like him. Smart and unassuming, his most pronounced personality trait was his humility. It was a quality she admired in him.

"What about the palace arboretum?" he asked. "That should be open, right?"

"I suppose. Whatever do you want to do at an arboretum, Aaron? Look at flowers?"

"No. Well, yes, actually. I read once that Brighton's arborists were able to grow a species of lotus which lacks the usual addictive qualities. The pollen can be liquefied and diluted to form a solution which possesses certain medicinal qualities. Healers in Alchester were using it to cure a rare form of splotch disease. I was wondering if—"

"Now who's talking too much?"

Outside, a single trumpet heralded the return of the procession. Its call brought an immediate silence to the chattering around them as the sound echoed throughout the rotunda. Now the flow of people coming onto the mezzanine stopped, but only because there was no more room. Serena imagined the balcony above was just as crowded. Despite the crowd, a small space remained around Serena and Aaron. Serena attributed this to Dip and Dup's presence. While no one inquired about their presence, Serena noticed the curious and sometimes suspicious stares thrown their way.

The trumpet sounded again, this time much closer. They'd not long to wait at all now as a single trumpeter garbed in full military dress marched onto the rotunda floor below. The man put his instrument to his lips and blew a solemn, monotone note. As the trumpet's soulful crescendo faded, it was replaced by the marching steps of the Vanguard. The horsemen must have turned off, for the first to enter the rotunda were the Vanguard's foot soldiers. At their head, standing alone, was Lord Phillip. The soldiers' lines, which had narrowed to accommodate the chamber's entrance and size, moved with coordinated precision around the twin catafalques. As they made their turn, Lord Phillip left their ranks to position himself at the head of the biers. He stood there at attention, facing the room's entrance, while awaiting the entry of his deceased parents. As the last of the foot soldiers exited, in came the open carriages, one at a time. The first, carrying the earl, made a three quarter circuit around the catafalques. The next, with the countess, moved to just opposite the other before it also stopped. Following the carriages were white-gloved pallbearers, who took up positions around the carriages. They waited at attention as Field Marshal Durant entered. He was the last.

This close, Serena got her first good look at the man. His dark hair was combed back straight and fell to his shoulders. Sharp eyes, which took in the crowd with a glance, were perched over a narrow but strong nose. A dark, well-trimmed beard covered much of his face. Beneath his sash and tunic, he wore leather, but it was new and well-kept. The field marshal signaled the pallbearers to lift the coffins and place them on the raised platforms. Once they were done, and the open carriages and their horses led outside, Durant spoke.

"I am Durant Chandler, Field Marshal of Agratis and Lord of Easthedge," he said in a deep, formal baritone that echoed from the room's furthest corners. "On behalf of our earl-in-waiting, Lord Phillip, I welcome you all to these proceedings. Today we bid farewell to our beloved earl, Lord Nicholas Roberts, and countess, Lady Deidre Roberts. While this day brings with it sadness, it also brings joy, as we celebrate the lives of these two most influential people. Theirs was a life filled with dreams of prosperity and peace for all."

As Durant went on, pontificating about the many accomplishments of the lord and lady, Serena noted some smiles but mostly tears on the faces of those around her. Many sobbed or cried, and one woman let out a wail of anguish before burying her face in her husband's chest. It wasn't long before Serena discovered tears in her own eyes and a tightening in her chest, as the totality of the proceedings settled over her.

The field marshal concluded with a brief hunting story people apparently knew well, for nods went all around as Durant told it. The story started with the young lords Malcolm and Nicholas hunting as boys, and ended with an escaped deer and young Nicholas sliding down an embankment, falling off a shallow cliff, and splashing down into the Silvercross. Its conclusion shifted the tide of emotions from sorrow to subdued joy. Then Durant stepped aside to allow the earl-in-waiting to address the assembly.

Lord Phillip took the field marshal's place between the coffins. He did not speak right away, but composed himself while taking in those who'd come to pay their respects. Serena expected him to begin by thanking the assembled guests and to give a speech honoring his parents in a format similar to Durant's. Also, she expected more tears from the crowd. She'd readied herself to deal with her own emotions, when Lord Phillip spoke not with sorrow in his voice, but with anger.

"My friends,” he said. “My fellow citizens. That which we suspected has been confirmed. Our earldom has been attacked."

The words swept over the crowd in a slow wave. Those weeping, stopped. Those with heads hung, raised them.

"This attack has damaged much of our city. It has taken the lives of many, including those of my mother and father." He paused. "But our attackers have not defeated us. The spirit of our city—of our people—is strong, as is our determination." Phillip moved out from between the coffins. "For the past few days, refugees from Norwynne have entered our city. I have spoken to these people. Broken bread with them. I know many of you have as well. We welcome them and, despite our own needs, will continue to provide relief to any who have suffered as a result of the Chaos. Let none among us forget who and what we are, for we are of Brighton, the City of Light."

Nods from the audience assented.

"Now, more than ever, we must live up to our city's founding principles and remain the beacon in the dark for all. Save for those who attacked us. Save for the one who attacked us."

Next to Serena, Aaron shifted. They both knew to whom the earl referred. Serena closed her hand with Aaron's and squeezed.

"I will speak no more on this matter, here and now, for though I know this is a day of mourning, time is of the essence, and we've little to waste." Phillip's gaze strayed to the twin coffins. "It is necessity which must drive us now. But it is a necessity which I am presently ill-prepared to take on alone. It is to my benefit—to our entire city's—that we have men like Field Marshal Chandler to lean on."

The field marshal took center stage once more.

"I arrived in Brighton at the behest of my lord, the baron of Agratis, three days ago. Since that time, I have put myself at Lord Phillip's disposal. By his order, and in cooperation with the local authorities, I have spent my time investigating the cause of the Chaos. I have learned much. First and foremost, that the threat to our realm is as great as ever." The field marshal paused, letting his words sink in. "Lord Phillip spoke of a 'she.' Sorceress. Witch. Demon. We know not what she is for sure. A girl, by most accounts, though she is anything but human. This girl, possessed of the powers of some Underland spawn, nearly brought ruin to your city and even touched Rockhaven, though her hand was not so heavy there. We know not what pact she made to gain such power, nor to whom—or what—she made it. Until we do...we are not safe."

"They think she's still a threat," Serena whispered, more to herself than anyone else. "They don't know what happened." Which they should, given the number of people from Norwynne they'd had the opportunity to interview. Obviously, they'd been talking to the wrong people.

"Initial reports indicated Norwynne was gone," Durant said. "Not in ruins. Not merely damaged. But simply gone. When we heard this information in Rockhaven, Lord Malcolm ordered me to go and see for myself. I did, with my best men at my back. I think you all know by now the information was accurate. Norwynne is no more."

A ripple of unsettlement coursed through the assembly.

"The girl did this thing. Some claim she is dead. Others, that she vanished to places unknown. We cannot corroborate either story at this time. But, rest assured, we are not sitting idle, waiting for Norwynne's fate to befall either Brighton or Rockhaven. The woodsmen of Agratis maintain an ever-vigilant watch over the forests, while Lord Phillip has his soldiers out on extra patrols about the city and the surrounding countryside. Also, we have sent a request to Duke Brannigan for magical assistance. We can only hope the royal sorcerers arrive before this demon-girl decides to strike again."

Serena listened and listened, forcing a growing urge to correct the field marshal down once and then again. But like a kettle set to boil for too long, the urge grew too strong to contain and she blurted out, "Excuse me!"

Durant's head shot up in her general direction. Others looked about, trying to identify the person who had spoken.

Committed now, Serena went on. "I think you're missing a few crucial pieces of information. Like, for example, the demon-girl—she wasn't really a demon, by the way—is no longer a threat."

Only when every gaze in the rotunda turned her way did Serena fully realize what she'd just done. The room went completely silent. Durant stared up at her, but said nothing. Next to her, Aaron shifted very uncomfortably.

"Bring that person down here!"

Lord Phillip's voice sent a shock through Serena. Seized by a rising sense of panic, she swept her gaze across the sea of faces looking back at her. She found solace in none of them. Not even in the single, solitary one she recognized. Of all the times in which to finally see her mother again, Serena had never imagined one worse.

"Oh, shat," she said without thinking.

Her mother's lips were pinched, her figure almost quivering. Her eyes, which were Serena's own crystal blue, were icy barbs, threatening to freeze her in place. Only the commotion around them broke Serena free from their spell.

Dip and Dup were joined by several other guards who, together, cleared a lane through the crowd to stairs leading down. Serena grabbed hold of Aaron, making sure he came with her. A mixture of expressions ranging from shock to curiosity to disapproval followed them all the way down. As they came out onto the ground floor of the rotunda, Serena saw that Field Marshal Durant hadn't moved an inch. Lord Phillip, though, exercising extreme impatience, had moved front and center in order to address Serena and Aaron the moment they appeared.

"State your name," Lord Phillip said, looking at Serena. Taller than her by a head, he had sandy blond hair and a hard stare which demanded she answer immediately.

Serena first curtsied, as was proper, then said, "I am Lady Serena, Your Grace, of the House of Walkerton, though more recently of Wildemoore Manor where I served as sorcerer's apprentice to the late Master Ansanom."

Phillip considered her introduction before he looked to Aaron. "And you?"

Aaron bowed in such an awkward, nervous manner Serena wondered for a moment if he might trip and fall over. He did not.

"Aaron, Your Grace. I mean, Aaron Shepherd, of Taloo, Your Grace."

"Taloo?"

"Yes, sir. It's a fishing hamlet down south, along the coast."

The earl, already dismissing the fisherman's boy in front of him, started to look away.

"Milord," Serena said, "if I may? My friend is too modest. This, sir, is Aaron Shepherd of Norwynne Keep, alchemist, scholar, and apprentice to the late master sorcerer, Elsanar."

Whether it was the mention of Norwynne or the master sorcerer's name, the earl's attention went back to Aaron and, this time, stayed there.

"We only just arrived this morning, sir," Serena said. "We were sorry to have heard about your parents. They will be missed."

Though Phillip's attention strayed back to her, his gaze remained on Aaron. "Yes. Yes, of course. As we all are." He looked from one to the other. "The two of you... Both sorcerers' apprentices, both of late masters. I am unsure what to think."

Serena was about to explain when a figure stepped forward from the crowd. The Baron of Penwyre, Lord Chancellor Marcel Dadehill, who was the only man capable of speaking for the earl as if he were the earl himself, whispered something into Lord Phillip's ear. Such was his height he had to bend at a considerable angle to deliver his message. A hand went to the symbol of office hanging from his neck in order to hold the ruby pendant in place. Serena made out only the word "Fuchs."

"If what my chancellor tells me is accurate," Phillip said, "you two were not only in Norwynne when it fell, but you may have had a central role in its destruction. Is this true?"

"Yes, sir," Aaron said. "I mean, no, sir. We were there, but we didn't cause its destruction."

"Who did, then?" The earl went on before either mustered an answer. "Both Field Marshal Chandler and Lord Chancellor Marcel have conducted interviews with those arriving from Norwynne, and all tell a tale of a raven-haired demon-child who rained down hellfire and brimstone upon their home. Do you dispute this?"

Serena stayed quiet. In this, she felt Aaron needed to answer. It was his home laid waste, and his friend who had done it.

"No, sir," Aaron said. "But she wasn't a demon. She was...a friend. Her name was Shanna."

Lord Phillip nodded. "You, Aaron, are the first to assign a name to this...girl. The others...no one knew who she was. There has been such chaos and loss of late that putting together all of the pieces has proven difficult. I wish to hear your accounting of what transpired. But, right now," he said, his gaze straying to the coffins, "we have other matters to bring to a close. Still, I need to ask each of you a question first. I need to know if this is over. I need to know if my earldom is safe." He gaze fell on each of them before he asked, "Is this girl... Is Shanna dead?"

Aaron didn't speak right away. When he did, he spoke in a voice both quiet and subdued. "Yes, sir."

Serena responded in a similar manner. "She slipped into the ocean along with Norwynne, sir."

Lord Phillip let out a deep breath of relief.

"Your Grace," Lord Chamberlain Marcel said. "I must urge caution. How do we know their information is accurate?"

"We don't, but still I believe them."

The lord chamberlain opened his mouth to issue another protest.

"Yet you are right to exercise caution, Marcel," Phillip said. "Nothing changes until we hear the entirety of their story. But, first, we have present matters to bring to a close. Lord Chamberlain?"

"Yes, sir?"

"See that these two are brought to the Sanguine Chamber. No one is to speak to them until I do. Please gather my privy council, as well as anyone else you think should attend, as soon as these ceremonies are concluded."

As ordered, Serena and Aaron were led away. Serena was disappointed she'd not witness the remainder of the funeral. She was not upset at all that her mother had no immediate opportunity to confront her. Time enough for that later, in spades. Right now, though, she and Aaron had a story to tell.

 

* * *

 

Aaron welcomed the shadowy interior and quiet solitude of the Sanguine Chamber. Lit by a smattering of candles set upon tall candelabras, its deep maroon walls blended almost into complete darkness at the corners. The room was empty but for a quartet of plush chairs set in the middle. This changed as servants brought more chairs, moving the plush ones and arranging the ones they'd brought into several rows all facing a single direction. Aaron and Serena were still under guard, but Dip and Dup had stationed themselves outside in the hall.

An hour passed before the earl and his retinue arrived. Aaron counted twenty men and a handful of women. Many were up in years. Amongst them he spotted Chane and a woman Aaron assumed was Serena's mother, for she'd similarly colored hair, fair skin, and the same piercing blue eyes which, right now, were riveted on Serena. With her was Serena's father, who fidgeted at his cuffs until he spotted his daughter, whereupon he flashed her a smile and a quick wave before finding his seat. The lord chamberlain and Field Marshal Chandler, whose expression was unreadable, came up to the front and sat. Aaron expected Lord Phillip to join them, but the earl dragged a chair aside so he sat away from the others. All told, it was a much larger crowd than Aaron had been expecting.

With everyone situated, the earl gestured for them to begin. Though Serena had offered to tell the story in its entirety on her own, they had both quickly realized only Aaron knew the beginning. Taking a deep breath, he did his best to still the fluttering in his stomach. He'd given scientific demonstrations in front of moderately-sized assemblies before, but he'd never spoken in front of such a distinguished audience. He was just about to begin when a single latecomer walked into the room. Aaron paused, surprised because she was eslar.

Mindful of her late appearance, she attempted a surreptitious entrance, and so Aaron only got a glimpse of her as she ducked her head and took a seat at the back. But that one look, with light from the chamber's flickering candles lighting her face, revealed the telltale blue-black skin and, different from Ensel Rhe's shock of rust-red hair, a straight, shoulder-length arrangement of copper. Her eyes, like those of all eslar, were stark white.

Aaron was allowed no more time to consider the woman, as the earl, and everyone else, waited for him to begin. Nervousness kept his oration succinct as he started from the beginning with the attack on Norwynne. Remembering Master Rhe's request to not make mention of his name, Aaron referred to him only as a nameless mercenary. He faltered only at the part when he and the mercenary had arrived at Wildemoore Manor. Ansanom's betrayal, and the subsequent torture, still stung, he found. Serena, who had developed a knack for reading him, came forward, urging him to step back. She told everyone she knew the story from that point, and so would tell the rest. She replaced Aaron's terseness with a polished and fluid oration, despite it being the first time she'd told the tale. She moved about, too, gesturing with her hands as she drew the audience's attention to her. Aaron watched their audience's heads move in time with her as she moved from one side of the room to the other. He watched their expressions, so flat when he'd spoken, come alive as Serena related the final fate of Erlek. They cringed in fear at the appearance of the houndmaster, and grimaced when she described the pact of blood Aaron had entered into in order to stop him. Then Serena turned from the audience to direct her full attention to Aaron. Aaron felt the heat rise in his face when he realized every gaze in the room looked at him. Serena then spoke of how, in a stroke of ingenuity, he'd harnessed the hounds to an old wagon, using their tireless energy to get them back to Norwynne in time to stop the Chaos from growing any worse. Aaron wanted to shrug, but, with so much attention on him, he stayed still. It had seemed a good solution to the problem at hand. When Serena heaped further praise on his idea to put Erlek's attunement engine into a pattern of mutually destructive interference, he thought any number of others would have come up with the very same solution. When she told them how he'd tried to save his friend even after she was gone, such a conflicting range of emotions assailed him he wasn't sure what to think at all.

Throughout her telling, nods and whispers were exchanged, and many expressions that started as troubled turned hopeful. Only the earl offered no reaction at all. He sat straight, hands placed in his lap, and, except for a few times where his gaze strayed to Serena, kept his focus locked on Aaron. Only when the story was complete, with Serena describing how Norwynne had sunk into the ocean with Shanna's defeat, did the earl finally shift in his chair. He took a deep breath, almost a sigh, and then he stood. While he paced to a corner of the room, servants carrying cups of wine entered unbidden. These they passed out to everyone, including Aaron and Serena. One was brought to Lord Phillip, but he waved it away. Chairs were offered to Aaron and Serena. Neither accepted. Not as long as the earl remained standing.

"I asked you this before," Phillip said, "but I need to hear it again." His voice silenced the hum of chatter. "Are you certain Shanna is dead?"

Serena answered. "Yes, milord. At the end...she..." She glanced at Aaron.

The retelling had taken its toll on him. Serena waited, giving him time. When he nodded at her, she spoke the words the earl needed to hear.

"Shanna was gone before she slipped into the earth, Your Grace," Serena said. "Her body was taken—along with the Elements—into the ocean. There can be no doubt she is...dead."

Lord Phillip took a deep breath and let it out. "This tale you tell is, at its very least, fantastical, to a point that had I not seen the Chaos with my own two eyes, I might wonder how much of it is true. But I did see it, albeit from a distance. We all did." The earl's gaze strayed to each of his councilors and to the other guests before darting back to Aaron. "This tooth... May I see it?"

Aaron took it out from beneath his shirt, revealing the long and pointed canine with its mixed stain of human and demon blood.

The earl approached him. "May I touch it?"

"Milord," Lord Chancellor Marcel said, alarm in his voice, "I do not think that is a good idea."

Phillip, hand raised, lowered it. Not because of his advisor's warning, but because Aaron had drawn the tooth closer to himself.

"You are possessive of its power?" the earl asked.

"No, sir. I'm not sure what effect it might have on you. And, right now, it's the only thing keeping me alive."

"Really? How so?"

"If I remove it, sir, the hounds and their master will kill me. It is what they were summoned to do. As long as I have the tooth on my person, they cannot harm me. The tooth is a middling charm."

"Witchcraft," the earl said.

"Yes, sir. Witchcraft provided the initial spark, but there is a specificity of energy coursing through it now. I know because, when we reached Kirschnick, I built an encorder from bits and pieces given to me by a tinkerer. Just a primitive one, but it worked well enough to take basic measurements." Its alchemical power cell had died days ago, and since a child with them had shown an interest in it, Aaron had surrendered the device to him.

Lord Phillip shook his head. "I've no idea what you are talking about."

Aaron held up the tooth and explained. "You see how the tooth is stained?" When he'd first been given the tooth, it already had one dark stain across its surface. Now, it had three. "One of the stains is from my blood. This one—the darkest—is from the houndmaster."

The earl nodded at that.

"You can't see it, sir, but the blood permeates the tooth in the form of energy. This has the effect of mingling the two sources with the core of the middling. The combinatory effect, coupled with the spell cast on the tooth, provides the charm its potency, which in turn prevents the dogs and their master from killing me."

"Are you saying your blood—the houndmaster's blood, as well—is charged with energy?"

"Not just mine or his, sir, but everyone's. You see, there is a correlation between mass and energy, the like of which we do not fully understand yet, but some scholars believe—"

"You said you were a sorcerer's apprentice. To me, you sound more like a scientist."

"I am, sir. Master Elsanar took me on as his apprentice, but mostly to assist in deciphering the alchemical and scientific aspects of his research, not to learn sorcery. Like most, I do not have the inherent aptitude for it. Everyone assumed I studied magic, but I never did."

"Did you try correcting them?"

"Yes, sir. But, sometimes, when folk have their minds made up about something..."

The earl almost smiled. "You are certainly right about that." Phillip paced a few steps away. From over one shoulder he said, "You two, sit."

Aaron and Serena sat.

Phillip turned to face the both of them. Something in his demeanor suggested a new direction for their discussion.

"Norwynne's lord was a friend to our family and one of Kettering's most loyal patrons. I was saddened to hear of his demise. Elsanar's, as well. All in the earldom knew of his reputation as a sorcerer, logician, and inventor. The world is a lesser place for his loss."

"Yes, sir," Aaron said.

"Were you, then, to have become his successor someday?"

"No, sir, I don't think so. There were other sorcerers in Norwynne in line to inherit Master Elsanar's place."

"But if someone carried on his work—his scientific work—would that person have been you?"

"I don't know, sir. I would’ve taken the opportunity if it were offered. But I am only an apprentice. I still had—have—a lot to learn."

The earl slipped into a silent moment of contemplation. With hands folded at his back, he paced away from Aaron, but then spun around and asked, "What were your qualifications that Elsanar selected you over all others as his apprentice, I wonder? By your own admission, you are not a practitioner of magic. You hail from a small fishing town, where opportunities for exposure to the higher sciences must have been few and far between. Hardly the background I might expect for one apprenticed to Master Elsanar. For how many years did you serve him?"

"Four years, sir."

"And you were how old when you started?"

"Eleven, sir. I'm fifteen now." As if the earl was incapable of doing simple math.

"Why did he select you? Norwynne was not a small city. There must have been any number of other potential candidates. Assuming you were still living in Taloo at the time, in what way did you catch his attention?"

"A lot of it had to do with my father, sir. He was a fisherman by trade, but he loved to tinker and repair things. He often serviced and repaired the town mill. Also, he built the smith an automated bellows for his forge and he was always repairing wagon springs and axles. I suppose I inherited his passion for these things. But he was concerned only with the mechanical. My interests were along the lines of alchemy, mathematics, and energy transference theory. The last caught Master Elsanar's attention more than anything else. I wrote a paper, The Principles of Alchemical Energy Transfer, which might have languished in a drawer if not for a King's Patroller who used to come through town every once in a while. He and I spoke often. I think he was just humoring me at first. But when I told him about the paper I'd written, he offered to take it here to Brighton for inclusion in the Aidan Library. It made its way to Master Elsanar from there. Once he'd read it, he had me summoned to Norwynne and, after a brief interview process, offered me the apprenticeship. I was really just lucky, sir, that the paper found its way to him and that he actually read it. I might still be in Taloo otherwise."

"An interesting story," Phillip said. "You give too much credit to luck, though. Luck does not exist. There is only fate on one hand and, on the other, the determination and courage to seize one's destiny and to forge it into something of our own making. You are wondering why I am probing so, aren't you?"

"No, sir." Aaron's response—too immediate—betrayed him.

Phillip's lips curled into a full smile that time, but it was a short-lived gesture.

"I ask you these questions because we are faced with a problem which I think your insight might help to resolve." Phillip turned to the audience. "Professor Othini, please come forward."

An older gentleman, dressed in the solemn, formal attire of the day, stepped forward and bowed. "At your service, Your Grace." He'd a mussed head of hair and a disheveled beard which had not been trimmed recently, if ever.

"This is Professor Othini," Phillip said. "He chairs my Department of Alchemy and Science and is my consultant on all things scientific. Of late, he has been involved in a very special project. But he and his researchers have hit upon a snag. I wonder if you, Aaron, can help get them over it."

Aaron opened his mouth to answer, but Professor Othini beat him to it.

"Your Grace, I mean no disrespect, but the boy has described himself as nothing more than an apprentice—an assistant, really, in my assessment—with no one to vouch for even those credentials. Already, the keenest minds in the city strive to resolve this matter. I do not see—"

"Aaron," Phillip said, "what did Elsanar have you working on? Tell us in layman's terms, please."

Aaron stood. "Mostly, sir, I did the usual things one might expect of an apprentice: cleaning vials, beakers, and tubules, preparing solutions, and tidying the lab."

"You see, sir," Professor Othini said. "Perhaps it best we leave the—"

"What else?" the earl asked.

"Well, sir, I also assisted in research, documented procedures and results, and performed field experiments."

"What did these experiments entail? Detail them for us."

Elsanar had indulged in many aspects of magic, science, and alchemy, with research leading into a broad spectrum of experimentation. Aaron considered the question, narrowing the many experiments down to a single choice. "One time, we tethered a balloon and sent it into the air at different elevations in order to measure atmospheric pressure and temperature."

"To what purpose was this experiment performed?" Phillip asked.

"It was mostly a data-gathering experiment, sir, with no immediate practical application."

"What else then?" the earl asked, a hint of impatience in his voice.

Aaron realized his selection had not been the best. He chose another, one which might carry more weight.

"Another time, we set up a bosur's apparatus in order to measure alchemical mass transference."

Professor Othini nodded. "I am familiar with the device." But then he turned his nose up. "Its use is a trivial thing."

"Yes," Aaron said, "but we modified it so any material passed through the apparatus had its mass-to-volume ratio normalized to three molar units. Usually, one can modify a substance's mass through pressure or temperature modification, but we accomplished it by altering the alchemical properties of the material. Transmogrification, essentially."

"Is this possible?" Lord Phillip asked the professor.

Professor Othini narrowed his brow. To Aaron, he asked, "How did you accomplish the initial measurement?"

"Energy resonance. Then, a Veridian calculation mechanism to determine the inherent energy concentration."

Professor Othini curled his lower lip. "I suppose, in theory, it might work."

"It did work," Aaron said. "We normalized the alchemical state and—"

Anything else Aaron was about to say was cut off by the earl stepping between them.

"You said you wrote a paper," Lord Phillip said. "Why was it of interest to Master Elsanar? Did its subject have something to do with his own work?"

"Yes, sir. Master Elsanar was attempting to extend the Principle of Confluence, which states that when two identical energy sources come together they combine to form a single, more powerful energy source. My paper formed the basis for the next stage in his research."

"Which was?"

"To show that two dissimilar energy sources, instead of canceling each other out, could instead combine into a single, more powerful form of energy. The practical applications of this would be—"

"Enormous," Lord Phillip said.

"Yes, sir."

"Were field experiments performed? Were they successful?"

"Initial lab experimentation yielded promising results. Though we planned field experiments, we never had the opportunity to carry them out. Except..."

"Yes?"

Aaron took a deep breath. "Master Elsanar's theory was confirmed in the field when Shanna combined the Four Elements into the Fifth." He paused, allowing his listeners a few moments to absorb that information. "Four disparate energy sources joined together. Instead of cancelling each other out, they formed a single, more powerful form of energy: the Fifth Element."

The earl asked no more questions, but instead turned to his closest advisors, who had gathered together out of habit. Aaron saw the earl's gaze go to each of them. Something unspoken passed between them, for, each time, the earl's gaze was met with a single nod. Even Othini, whom Lord Phillip looked at last, nodded in turn, though it seemed with some reluctance.

"I am willing to at least hear his initial assessment," the professor said.

The earl's attention returned to Aaron.

"May I ask you something personal?" Lord Phillip asked.

Aaron nodded.

"Was it difficult confronting her?"

There was no need for the earl to identify of whom he spoke.

"More than you will ever know...sir."

Phillip nodded. He took in a sharp breath and let it out. "My father was always considered an excellent judge of character. I like to think I inherited that quality from him. I see in you someone who might one day achieve true greatness, Aaron. If not for your intellect, then for your moral character."

Aaron didn't know what to say to that, so he said nothing at all.

"As my mother used to say, sometimes we find opportunities in the most unexpected of places. Aaron, I think I have found one such opportunity."

"I don't understand, Your Grace."

"You will, Aaron. You will." Then, with a hint of slyness in his voice, he said, "I have something I wish to show you. It is something my scientists are calling...The Incandescent Engine."

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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.

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1. Arrival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Captain!"

Serena moved so she stood between Aaron and his attacker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was the wrong thing to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Loose!"

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

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

—Release us.—

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

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

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

Krosus said nothing to that.

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

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

Krosus didn't move a muscle.

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

"I said, leave the city!"

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

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

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

Aaron staggered back. "He—He's free!"

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

 

* * *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How do you—?"

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

They both knew what happened otherwise.

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

"Hurry, Aaron."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serena managed a nod.

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

"I understand."

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

 

* * *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serena's voice brought his attention back to her.

"What then?"

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

"What's wrong?"

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

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

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

"It's the houndmaster."

She nodded, but said nothing.

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

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

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

"I-I don't know."

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

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

"Who?"

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

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

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

Serena nodded.

"Did it happen before you were born?"

"No. When I was younger."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, they didn't.

"I wonder where Master Rhe—"

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

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

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

"It's Chane!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron and Serena did.

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

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

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

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

"Yes, sir."

"Is that where you came from, then?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you ever stop to breathe?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Of course, sir. You have it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serena made no reply other than to cross her arms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron straightened. "Yes, sir."

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

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

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

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

"Aaron, I—"

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

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

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

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

Read Chapter 2.

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