The Five Elements is the first book in The Alchemancer series of science fantasy novels. Here’s a preview in the form of chapters 1 through 3 to give you an idea what it’s about. For other chapters, please see the chapter preview index page.
3. The Flood
BECAUSE ELLINGREL'S STAIRWELL WAS NARROW and bare at its topmost floors, Aaron readily saw the spidery cracks that spread across the walls. The stairs showed signs of damage too, but the thick wood felt solid enough beneath his feet that he made good progress down the first few floors. The stairs soon widened and, at each floor, let out onto a wide space dotted with arches and doors. Aaron was surprised he saw no one. This high up, chambers were occupied by a variety of scribes, scholars, pages, servants, and, in some cases, their families. Many had to have already retired for the evening before the first tremors had started. Yet Aaron found one floor after another empty. Aaron was just beginning to think the Tower had been deserted when, midway, he heard the distant sound of voices rising from further below. Another few floors and, as Aaron paused to catch his breath, he heard what sounded like a full-blown commotion. One more floor and he saw the first Tower inhabitants. Some were huddled against walls, shock and fright masked across their faces. Others were more animate, pacing, or speaking with disbelief about recent happenings with neighbors. Another floor and the frequency of people along the stairs and at each level grew until Aaron was forced to slow his pace and choose more carefully a course between or around them. Aaron saw in them a ménage of grief, fear, and, in some, anger, and while he recognized every one of them—he never forgot a face or a name—he said nothing though many looked at him with expressions that sought answers and guidance. Aaron had neither. He averted his eyes and did his best to not meet their stares.
There were more than just residents of the Tower here now. Men, women, and children huddled in groups or interspersed amongst Tower-folk were easily distinguishable by the motley array of clothing they'd hastily thrown on and the fact that all were dripping wet. Though he'd seen the water flowing into the city, he remained uncertain as to how much water had invaded the area. He stopped to listen to conversations, trying to learn anything he could. People were scared. He needn't listen to know that much. But they also refused to move higher, though certain individuals were attempting to prompt them to do so. Aaron wondered at their objection, but only until the image of that first structure crumbling returned to him. Then, he didn't blame them for not wanting to go higher. Aaron moved on, soon learning why they were being encouraged upward at all. More people were arriving at the Tower every minute. So many that the lower floors were fast becoming a scene of gridlock. Determined to find Shanna, Aaron took a deep breath and began fighting his way through. Forward progress deteriorated to a crawl, but he never lost ground as he used his slim body to full advantage by slipping between any gap that presented itself. Then, just above the ground floor, his progress came to an abrupt halt, for the entire ground floor was submerged in a black, oily soup of seawater and city muck. Not only that, but it was clear that the toxic mixture was rising.
Ellingrel's apprentices—the real apprentices, who studied and performed magic of their own—were there. Rufia, who was the best amongst them, had taken charge, directing both apprentice and others alike in lifting a steady stream of refugees from the water to relative safety. Lanterns served as a beacon, guiding folk in from the outside. Only some entered through the main doorway, for while the door no longer hung on its hinges—Aaron spotted it floating nearby—all but the top of the arch was underwater. People swam through windows instead. No one was tall enough to touch bottom, and most everyone used some sort of debris as temporary life rafts. Aaron was stunned to see so many. It took him a moment before he joined the others already pulling people from the turbid water. He wanted to reach Shanna more than anything, but he had a duty here as well. He would help for as long as he could, then he would leave the Tower to find her.
The first person Aaron helped was a man gone pale with cold. Then, a blank-stared, middle-aged woman who murmured the name of a lost husband or child. The next, who bled from a cut at her forehead, cried hysterically until someone behind Aaron led her away. A man with two small children came next. Aaron descended the stairs, going knee-deep into the water to help him with the younger of the two children. Someone else grabbed the other child, and both, along with their father, were ushered to safer, dryer floors. The flow of people entering Ellingrel was an endless tide. Aaron quickly lost track of time and the number of people he helped pull from the water. Only when someone stepped forward to take his place did Aaron, with hands and feet gone numb with cold, relinquish his post. It was not to retreat to the safety of Ellingrel's upper floors, though, nor to seek the warmth of his own room which as far as he knew might have been requisitioned for use by some of the refugees. Kicking off shoes and taking a quick moment to ensure all of his alchemicals were secure in his vest pockets, he lowered himself into the muddy, roiling water. A gasp escaped his lips as the iciness penetrated straight through his clothing. Clenching his teeth to keep them from chattering, he pushed himself from the stairs. Some threw glances his way and one of the apprentices—Jerl by the sound of the voice—questioned where he was going. Aaron answered only that he was going to find a friend. Thereafter, no one objected or moved to stop him. He swam to one of the windows, only having to wait a moment for a gap to form between those coming in. Outside, the darkness greeted him along with the rise and fall of the floodwaters. The further he moved from the Tower's light, the darker it became. As a result, Aaron saw little of the devastation. Still, some signs were impossible to miss. Dwellings and lesser towers had been reduced to piles of broken wood and stone that jutted from the waters like tiny, misshapen islands. Estate walls that Aaron knew exceeded the water's height were missing. Only those dwellings taller than a single storey—and not toppled by the earthquake—were still visible at all, for ground floors were underwater. Of those, none appeared unscathed. Windows were shattered, walls cracked, and for some, roofs and entire floors had collapsed inward.
Logically, Aaron decided to start with Shanna's last known location. The hospital was not far from Ellingrel, but navigating the way whilst swimming in near complete darkness was a challenge. Still, Aaron knew the precise distance, and so with a best guess on course and a quick conversion of distance traveled by foot to distance traveled by swim stroke, he was soon lifting himself through one of the hospital's second story windows. It took Aaron all of one second to realize the futility of quickly finding Shanna, for the place was embroiled in chaos. The ordinary occupancy of a handful of patients had been replaced by a score or more, with more spilling in with each passing moment. Some lay on beds, on the floor, against the walls. Others—healers, nurses, physicians, volunteers—moved with practiced care amongst them. With similar consideration, Aaron picked his way through the room. Not seeing Shanna, he made his way to an outside corridor that was no less crowded than the hospital room. Even here, it was not immediately obvious if Shanna was present. Aaron was dreading the thought of having to search through every room and hall when he spotted Jadjin.
"Your friend wasn’t here when it all started," the woman said in answer to Aaron’s inquiry. "Foolish girl left before she’d even taken her medicine."
Aaron left the hospital via a different window than the one he'd come through. Trying not to think about the frigid, filthy water, he gritted his teeth and lowered himself in. Swimming over a collapsed section of the bailey's wall and past several manors, Aaron navigated out onto Lantern Street. Social status held no meaning anymore as Aaron saw folk of all stripes being helped to safety through second story windows. Not wanting to deal with the press of people inside the establishments, but wanting to get out of the frigid water, Aaron swam around one such building to a metalwork staircase at the establishment's rearward side. There, he pulled himself out of the water, dripping, cold, and fatigued. It'd been a long night, with no end in sight. While Aaron wanted nothing more than to find a dry place to sleep, he steeled himself and went on, climbing the outside stairs, up and up, to the rooftop. There was a latticed barrier, with a locked door to keep the casual thief at bay, but the whole affair had fallen over. Aaron crawled across it with little difficulty. Beyond, Aaron found a scene of exquisite dining, or what might have been had high-backed chairs and candlelit tables not been displaced by a throng seeking safety from the flooded streets. Aaron sifted his way through to the roof's other side. More of the latticework had collapsed or been torn down, and so he gained the next rooftop easily. Similar scenes awaited him. Rooftop gardens, smoking alcoves, and normally quiet dining venues were crowded by all manner of folk. Some hailed him, asking if he needed assistance. Aaron waved them away and kept moving. It was not a straight path, for some roofs had collapsed, or were torn with holes. He made his way around these, until the rooftop crowds grew sparser and he found himself mostly alone. He stopped then, both to catch his breath and, now that he was further away from the center of Norwynne, to survey what damage the rest of the city had experienced. He wandered to the roof's edge, covering his nose and mouth with one hand as the pungent odor of brine and seaweed hit him. There was more rubble and a sheet of inky darkness where streets had once been. He saw some unrecognizable wreckage bobbing in the water. Then he recognized the shapes. Bodies. Bodies floating in the water. Though he saw no faces, the too pale skin and lifeless limbs caused him to look away.
He moved on, though his gaze fell too often on the water below where the presence of the dead only grew worse. Though he tried not to look at them, they nonetheless drew the corner of his gaze until the only way to avoid them was to run faster and faster. Clutching his stomach in revulsion, he lengthened each stride, running on and on, his pace a thing of madness as he leaped down to a lower rooftop and then to a series of catwalks spanning the flooded streets. Once, then twice, he stumbled and nearly fell. But he never stopped running. Great sobs wracked his chest and he didn’t realize he was crying until tears blurred his vision so badly he had to wipe them away to see.
Clearing his eyes, he found he was alone. He heaved in a great breath, the coolness of the air burning his lungs. He exhaled slowly. Then, looking about to get his bearings, he realized he’d arrived. Furthing’s Deep. Relief was short-lived as he took stock of the water's level. There was an arch that lent entrance to the Deep and its passage into the Underkeep, but only the very top of the arch's coign remained above water. Furthing’s Deep was completely submerged. He was too late. The sinking feeling Aaron felt stopped dead in its tracks as he looked closer. Furthing's Deep was most certainly not flooded. He brought his mind back into focus, running through the calculations. He considered rate, time, volume, and quickly came to a conclusion: there hadn’t been enough time for that much water to drain into such a large space. The Underkeep was vast. Modern maps showed only a fraction of its halls and chambers. The rest lay undiscovered and unused since the time of the dwarves’ departure from Norwynne. Aaron examined the water’s level more closely, finding it was steady. Someone had closed a door—a dwarven door—to keep the flooding at bay. Only a door crafted and fitted by dwarven hands sealed so well. Aaron let out a breath of relief, then, clinging to that bit of hope, set about finding an alternate way in. Fortunately, he knew of one, and not too far away.
He navigated a series of catwalks that extended from one second story quadrangle to another. At the end of one such walk, he found an oil lantern someone had left hanging from a ring hook, a low ember still burning at its center. A quick turn of its key and Aaron quickened his pace with the lantern lighting the way. The catwalks ended in a shadowed, elevated lane that, in turn, led to a great arch and a dark chamber beyond. Though he remained above the worst of the flooding, the water here was up to his mid-shin. There was a current too, moving in the same direction Aaron wished to go. He followed the current, making his way down the lane with care to the great arch where his lamp revealed a series of thick columns. Navigating his way amongst them, he quickly found himself at a small archway that consumed the floodwaters in a steady stream. Beyond was more darkness.
Aaron had all but taken his first step through when a shambling form emerged and, with reckless abandon, plowed right into him.
"G-Get off me, Squeak!"
"What are you doing? Where are you going?" Aaron asked as Corrin shoved him away. Aaron just barely managed to stay upright.
"G-Gettin' out of here, that's what I'm d-doing."
Corrin was soaked and shivering. Aaron’s lantern provided only a glimpse of a face drained of color, and then Corrin was walking past him.
"Wait!" Aaron said.
Corrin didn't stop.
"Have you seen Shanna?"
Corrin shouted a reply from over one shoulder. "No." Then he was gone, disappearing into the dark from which Aaron had just come.
Aaron turned to the pitch of the archway, allowed himself one deep breath and a slow exhale before stepping through. He followed the stream of water down a stair and through a hall whose width kept the water’s flow tenable. The hall ended in another arch—dwarves were fond of arches—where Aaron stumbled into a group of Underkeepers. Dressed in bedclothes, with scarce anything on their feet, they moved in a huddled mass with only one small torch to light their way. Aaron traded his much brighter lantern without question. While they made the exchange, Aaron inquired after Shanna. Though several claimed to know her, none had seen her. They took their turn inquiring about the keep. How bad was it? How many had died? How many still lived? Memories of what he’d seen caused the words to constrict in his throat. He answered them all with only a shake of his head. They murmured their thanks for the lantern and shuffled off, leaving him alone again.
Aaron saw other groups, though these were better organized with several lanterns between them and a clearer sense of where they were going. All were headed to the surface. Like the others, they inquired about the condition of the city above and the status of survivors. In answer, Aaron said only that the remainder of the way was clear before he slipped past them. One such time he heard whispers naming him as Elsanar’s apprentice, but no one questioned his purpose.
He encountered no one else after that. He guessed much time had passed while he’d sloshed through the wet and the dark. He wondered if he was the only one left in the Underkeep. Such thoughts were banished the moment a series of cries for help reached his ears. There was a short stair, leading down, covered by a cascade of water. Aaron leaped over the rush, plunging to his waist into a flooded hall. He half swam, half ran its length. The cries grew louder. The hall ended at a juncture—Bronzehome—where a handful of other passages led away. Aaron needed no directions to know which one to go down. The way ended prematurely at a stone slab—a dwarven drop-door—that had slid from the ceiling and now completely barred him from going any further. The cries, louder now, were just on the other side of the door.
"Shanna, are you there?" Aaron shouted through arrow slits drilled into the stone. "Shanna! It's Aaron!"
A voice responded. "Corrin! If that's you, you worthless—"
"No, Shanna! It's Aaron!"
Silence from the other side, then, "Aaron? Is that you?"
Aaron took a moment to inspect the door. It was sealed tight. The water only reached about midway, but it was rising on his side. Bending so that his ear just touched the surface, he plunged his arm into the water, reaching as far as he could. He felt a gap, between the bottom of the door and the floor. It hadn’t sealed all the way. With water flowing beneath the door, it was only a matter of time before his side of the passage and the one at the other side of the door were completely submerged. Aaron straightened to speak through the slits.
"I'm going to open the door."
A voice from the other side, not Shanna's, said, "Corrin already tried. It's too heavy." Aaron heard others assenting. Shanna shared her room with eight other girls, plus there were many more with rooms nearby. All girls, unless a boy had snuck in, which was always a possibility considering their ward mother was a drunk who spent more time minding a bottle than her charges.
"Yeah, Corrin tried all right," Shanna said. "Then he turned tail and left us here! If I ever see that worthless worm again…"
Aaron ignored the remainder of Shanna's statement, focusing instead on the problem at hand. Dwarven drop-doors were used to stop invaders. A quick flick of a switch and down it came. Of course, the dwarves had to have a means by which to raise the door once the threat was gone, and so, with another flick of the switch, a drop-door was lifted back into position by a system of pulleys and winches hidden inside the wall. Damage from the quake must have triggered or broken the lift mechanism. Since the access panel was on the opposite side of the door, Aaron had no way of even attempting to repair it. Curious as to what was holding the door up at all, Aaron plunged his arm into the water and discovered a solid, metal object—a chest, he figured—jammed beneath. He let his hand slide along the door's bottom edge and, cautiously, to the frame rails at either side. Pulling his arm from the water, Aaron shouted into the arrow slits, "Stay here!" He realized too late how stupid that sounded. "I'll be right back."
"Aaron?" It was Shanna. "Where are you going? The water…it's rising."
She was right. He had to hurry. "Not far. I'm coming right back. Don't worry!"
"Aaron! Don't leave—"
He heard the fear in her words, wishing as he sloshed away that he'd more time to offer reassurances. One of the other girls—it sounded like Rachel, who had never really liked him—yelled, "I always knew you were worthless, Squeak!" Aaron ignored her. The moment he was able to pull himself from the water, he set off at a run, backtracking until a juncture led him down another passage, through an arch, and to the workshop of Marcus Gentry. It was locked, of course. Fortunately, Aaron had a key. Not a real key, but enough syrin acid stowed away in one of his vest vials to melt away the knob at its base. A quick dash of pedric neutralized the acid, allowing him to manipulate the exposed workings and undo the lock. Aaron dashed inside, finding the items he needed in no time at all.
When he got back to Shanna and the others, the first thing he heard was arguing over his departure and the belief that he wasn't going to come back. It sounded as if Shanna was the only one defending him. A yell from Aaron silenced them all.
"Someone get a chair," he said. "A strong one."
"What good is a chair going to do?" one of the girls asked.
"We're going to lift the door."
"With a chair? You're an idiot, Squeak!" Rachel again. "You're wasting our time. Why don't you go find someone who can lift—"
Sounds of a scuffle. Then Aaron heard a sharp cry of pain.
"Call him that again," Aaron heard Shanna say, "and we'll leave you behind!" That was that. Shanna prompted Aaron to go on.
Aaron tossed his nearly spent torch into the water and, using both hands, handed off two short but thick iron wagon axles through the opening beneath the drop-door. "You're going to lift the door using the axles as levers. Slide one end underneath, then as many of you that can fit along the remaining length need to lift. Do it together. Don't waste your strength." Aaron waited for the barrage of protests and condemnations, but there was nothing but silence. He took it as an acceptance of his plan and went on. Or almost did. One look at the briny, soupy mix, tainted with dirt and dust and the death he'd seen above was enough that he had to take a moment to shake off a sensation of disgust and fear. "I'm going under the water. Once you lift the door I'll prop it up using the peg holes in the rails. Lift it as high as you can and hold it there until I return to the surface and tell you to let go. But be careful! Ease it down gently, or it might not hold at all."
"We understand, Aaron!" Shanna said. "Tell us when to start lifting!"
Aaron took a series of breaths, readying himself. "Now!" He took one last breath, then plunged beneath the surface. He kept his eyes closed against the stinging filth, using his hands instead to judge their progress. Right away, he received confirmation that his plan was working as Shanna and the others raised the door above one and then another of the peg holes, which ordinarily were used to hold the door in place during repairs. Aaron pulled some of Marcus's iron wheel spokes from his satchel and felt for the exposed holes, shoving the spokes in one by one. It was a tight fit, but with enough twisting he was able to force the spokes home. When the door's progress slowed and rose no higher, Aaron inserted one last spoke before shooting to the surface. The water had risen even higher. Aaron asked them to lower the door the moment he'd drawn enough breath to speak. It went down inches and—Aaron breathed a sigh of relief—held.
Aaron didn't have to tell them what to do next. There was some hesitation, for they must have felt the same dread Aaron had before he'd submersed himself in the fetid water. But they did it, swimming through the enlarged gap to come bursting to the surface. They were all girls, something Aaron became more and more conscious of as each emerged. Every one of them thanked him. Rachel managed only a nod. They clustered together a short distance down the hall, cold, numb, and frightened.
Shanna emerged last. Aaron's heart leapt to see her, but before he could transform his elation into words Shanna locked both arms around him in a tight embrace. Then she pulled away just enough to kiss him full on the mouth. Whatever Aaron had wanted to say was lost amidst the sweet saltiness of those lips and a mind-numbing sensation that rose from every part of him at once. The kiss lasted only a moment, then Shanna pushed away to smooth wet hair from her face and to adjust her borrowed cloak that she still wore draped over her shoulders. "Thank the Old Gods you came! There was someone…then Corrin, but they couldn't… They both left us! I thought for sure we were going to… What are you staring at?"
Aaron felt the heat rise in his face. "I'm not—I mean, I wasn't—"
A rumbling from the earth put an end to Aaron's stammering. Ripples raced across the surface of the water as, beneath their feet, the floor vibrated. The tremor—an aftershock, Aaron realized—lasted only a moment, but it was enough to drive the girls into a panic. They fled down the hallway in one accord. Aaron and Shanna, in no less of a hurry, followed. The group made it as far as Bronzehome Juncture—not very far at all—when the earth awoke again. The girls plunged into the water filling the juncture, managing in their mass hysteria to listen to Aaron's direction as he bid them return the way he'd come. The last of them had just managed to fight through the rush of water flowing from the passage and leave the juncture when Aaron and Shanna heard the ceiling above them cracking apart. In desperation, they plunged forward, trying to reach the other passage.
Great chunks of rock and a streaming avalanche of water fell from above, extinguishing wall lanterns and creating a chain reaction that shattered the floor beneath their feet. Aaron barely managed to grab hold of the edge of one passage's railing. Shanna somehow found his other hand. For one terrible moment, as the floor collapsed and Shanna's weight jolted his, Aaron thought both of them were going to fall. They didn't, though almost immediately Shanna's grip on his hand began to slip.
"Don't let go of me!"
Aaron had never heard such intense panic from Shanna before. It rose above the roar of falling water and debris, stirring a panic in him also. He tried to tighten his grip, but it seemed the more he squeezed the more Shanna slipped free. Aaron tried to cry out to her, but his mouth filled with water and he fell into a fit of choking instead. Unbalanced, he lost what footing he'd gained. Unable to see, hardly able to breathe, Aaron focused everything on holding fast to Shanna's hand. Sheer thought was not enough though. Their hands slipped further.
"Don't let go of me!" she said again.
The earth groaned, beckoning Shanna into its embrace as the water streaming past them tried to pull her away from him. Aaron wanted to shout out, yelling that the earth had taken enough and that it could not have her too. But he'd no strength left. Only their fingers touched now, and then not even that. His fingers slipped along hers. Then her hand was gone.
He knew she couldn’t hear him. She was gone, taken by the water's ferocity. He shouted anyways, sobbing her name until he was so drained of strength he could do nothing but hang in place while bits of rock and sheets of water continued to fall from above. Minutes—or hours—passed before Aaron lifted himself to safety. He made it only a short distance down the passage before he collapsed. He stayed there for a long time.
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