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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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.
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.
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.
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?"
"But...you are sinjee!"
"But... You cannot be!"
"Yet, I am."
The krill had nothing to say to that. Finally, he asked, "Who was your roshi?"
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."
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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