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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
"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?"
"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.
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?"
"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."
"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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