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The Five Elements Preview - Chapter 1

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.

1. Assassin

AARON PLUNGED INTO THE CROWD, hoping the chaos of the marketplace was enough to throw off his pursuers. He knew two were behind him, but he also suspected others were ahead somewhere, waiting to close the noose. Aaron let the natural flow of the crowd take him deeper into the square. Despite the jostling, the autonomous sense of movement cleared his mind, allowing him to review his predicament with some modicum of logic. Turning around and going back wasn’t going to do him any good. Nor was moving ahead. Corrin and his gang of Jackals were smart enough to keep the main exit ways blocked and cunning enough to expect a move toward a less-traveled side alley. They’d wait for him, springing the moment he showed his face. But for how long? A plan began to form in Aaron’s mind, one which was both logical in its conception and simplistic in its implementation. All he had to do to put it into motion was exercise patience and—Aaron took a deep breath and let it out—remain calm, which was not so easy as the crowd swept him along, moving him closer and closer to the market’s other side where Aaron was quite certain Corrin and a handful of his bullies waited for him. Attempting to halt his forward motion, Aaron succeeded only in earning the glares of several people slowed by his attempt. He tried to go back, which proved even more futile, so he cut a path sideways, fighting for each step and apologizing as he went until, finally, he burst from the crowd.

He emerged in front of a stall where a table held wooden figurines for sale. Aaron gave the trinkets nothing more than a cursory glance; his concern right now was behind him, where his pursuers might have noticed his change in direction and followed. When no one appeared, Aaron let out a sigh of relief. Turning back to the table, his gaze naturally fell on the display once more. On a whim, and with nothing to do now but stay put while he waited out his pursuers, he took a closer look. But first, he straightened his sorcerer’s robe, corrected the position of his satchel’s shoulder strap, and made a half-hearted attempt to fix his hair, which had started mussed this morning and looked no different now. With that done, he leaned closer to the table. Each figurine represented a different person or animal, and all were smooth and polished. Intrigued despite his earlier dismissal, he picked one up. The carving was of a soldier dressed in light armor. About as big as Aaron’s hand, the figure stood at ease, with one wooden hand upon the pommel of a sheathed sword while the other held a footman’s shield. The soldier had been carved from a single block of walnut.

“That one there is the Protector,” said the man behind the display. He spoke with a Vrannan accent, a bit of the backwoods in his inflection, as he flashed Aaron a smile missing several front teeth. “He’ll guard you day and night. You need only keep him close. He’s yours for eight drams.”

Aaron returned the figurine to the table.

“It’s very beautiful workmanship, sir, but I don’t need protecting.” It was a lie, especially given his current circumstances, but it seemed the best way to express his disinterest in buying the trinket.

The man’s grin widened. “I chop and carve the wood myself. Never really know what I’m going to carve until I start on each block.” He picked up one figurine. The man’s hands were dry and calloused, with nicks and cuts long healed over. The carving he had selected was of an old woman, bent and gnarled. “It’s Blackwood walnut. Ever hear tell of the Blackwoods?”

The Blackwood Forest was a place of fairy tales. Aaron didn’t think it existed. He told the merchant as much.

“Not true. I’ve been there myself. The wood is magic. I only take what’s already fallen. Otherwise, I’d probably not be here talkin’ to you. You think I jest when I say the soldier will protect you? He will. He’s enchanted to do just that.”

Aaron nodded, not believing him but not wanting to get into a debate about it, either. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in magic. On the contrary, it surrounded him daily. He just doubted these figurines possessed any sort of enchantment. Aaron supposed his encorder, which measured energy, might reveal the truth, but such a display would be rude.

“What about that one?” Aaron gestured at the hunched figurine the man was still holding.

“Oh, this one?” He returned it to the table. “You don’t want her. She’s a witch. She’d cause you no end of trouble.” His wink caused Aaron to smile. “As for the protecting, everyone needs someone to look out for them every once in a while.”

Aaron’s eyes returned to the soldier. He picked it up again, eyeing it. On impulse, he made an offer. “I’ll give you four drams for him.”

They haggled briefly, settling on a price that split the difference. The man thanked Aaron for the sale and was just turning away to see to other customers when Aaron, fingering the smoothness of his new piece, asked, “What about the soldier? If everyone needs protecting, who protects him?”

The seller knew the answer to that straight off. “You do now, young sir.”

Aaron nodded, and though he stared at the figurine a little longer, he finally opened his satchel and placed it inside. As soon as he had, rough hands grabbed him from all directions. The merchant, whose attention was drawn elsewhere, noticed nothing. Aaron glimpsed briefly sneering faces before his assailants pulled a hood over his head. He twisted and strained until a punch to the gut doubled him over and rendered him helpless. Then he was lifted, one arm wrapped about his torso and another around his legs, and carried away. If anyone noticed, they made no move to interfere. Noise from the square fell away and, for a time, Aaron heard only the panting of his captors as their feet scurried across Norwynne’s cobbled streets. Gulls screamed overhead while the crash of waves from the Barrens grew louder with each passing moment until the noise from the city faded and the wind, unhindered by walls or dwellings now, sent a chill through him. A boot splashed in a puddle. Pant legs swished through tall grass. If his estimate of their rate of travel was accurate, they were in a field outside the walls. Ahead, Aaron heard shouting that drew closer and closer until he was soon amidst a raucous bedlam of noise. One voice rose above the cacophony.

“Time to see if the mighty sorcerer’s apprentice can fly!”

Whoops and hollers drowned out the sound of waves pounding the nearby cliffs.

Aaron was dumped on his back into something that felt very much like a large bowl that accommodated only his torso and left his legs dangling. Freezing water sloshed at his arrival, soaking his back and causing him to gasp as its chill shot through him. Without warning, the hood was yanked off. Right away, Aaron recognized his predicament. The thick timber crossbeams, a horizontal center cross, and a thick skein of rope tightly wound at the base between his bent knees confirmed that he’d been dropped into the basket of a catapult’s throwing arm. Though relegated to ceremonial duty, Aaron knew the siege engine still functioned well enough. In a panic, Aaron tried to lift himself from the basket, but a meaty paw forced him back down.

“Where you goin’, Squeak? Don’t you wanna fly?”

Corrin leaned over Aaron and let loose a puff of breath so foul Aaron screwed up his face and sank as far back as he could just to get away from the stench. Corrin was an ogre of a boy, a brute whose beady eyes, bull nose, stringy mop of hair, and club foot marked him as the saddest, ugliest scamp in all Uhl. His appearance was not made any better by the rash and telltale signs of Corrin’s nails scratching across his cheeks in response to Aaron splashing him and several others in his gang an hour earlier with an otherwise harmless alchemical reagent. The move had been in self-defense and entirely warranted in Aaron’s mind. Corrin, however, had not seen it that way.

Plenty ridiculed Corrin over his appearance. Not Aaron, though. Such cruelty did not suit his disposition. That, and he knew what it was like to be different. When he’d first met Corrin, Aaron had tried commiserating with him. That had not gone well, for Corrin had mistaken empathy for pity and hated him for it. Since then, Aaron had been singled out as the bully’s favorite target. The nickname Corrin had anointed him with, ‘Squeak,’ had come about because, starting around two years ago, Aaron’s voice had begun to change, often rising in pitch at the most inopportune times. Even though the embarrassing instances had decreased in frequency of late, Corrin continued to use the tired moniker instead of his proper one.

A crowd had gathered, obviously tipped off to what the Jackals had planned. Spread out across the misty field were many familiar, but not friendly, faces. Though Aaron liked to think that none of them truly wished to see him harmed, their jeers suggested otherwise. Possessed of a mob mentality, they joined together in calling for Aaron to make good on his claim or else have Corrin do it for him. The claim they referenced had been made over a year ago when Corrin’s bullying had culminated in Aaron saying something he had almost immediately regretted. No doubt today’s reagent dousing, which mirrored the original incident now that Aaron thought about it, had rekindled thoughts in Corrin’s mind of making Aaron prove his assertion once and for all. All of which meant that for him to get out of this, Aaron only needed to figure out how to fly.

Corrin dragged himself onto one of the catapult’s horizontal crossbeams. Balancing there was no small feat given his misshapen lump of a foot, but he managed. With one hand holding himself firm, he swept his other across the crowd.

“We’ve gathered here today to see if a Squeak can fly!” Corrin soaked up the resounding outburst of laughter. Only when he’d had his fill did he stab a finger down at Aaron. “This one swore to all of us—”

“I never swore,” Aaron said in a faint voice, splashing at the water that had pooled at his stomach.

“—that he could fly. But did he?”

The crowd’s response came as one.

“No!”

Aaron wanted to point out that most of them hadn’t been there, so how would they know what he’d said or done, but he was not given the opportunity.

“Has he?” Corrin continued.

“No!”

“Will he?” Corrin didn’t wait this time. “Oh, one way or another, he will!”

The crowd erupted.

Corrin took his time basking in the shouts of encouragement and laughter before lowering himself from his perch. He fixed his beady stare on Aaron, whispering so that only those closest heard him. “I’d give you one more chance to show us all up, Squeak, but we both know you don’t have it in you.” Then he turned and chuckled at his Jackals. “I bet he goes right over the cliff!”

Oh, yes, the cliff, Aaron thought. He raised himself a little on his elbows, enough to gauge his distance from the edge. Folk called the cliffs the Breakers, though Aaron had always thought the rocks scattered at their base deserved the name more than the cliffs themselves. In any case, the cliffs represented a hundred feet of sheer descent, with shallows and ship-breaking reefs waiting for him at the bottom. If they really meant to fire the catapult with him in it—and Aaron had no doubts they did—then an already dreadful day was about to get much worse. Briefly, Aaron thought about the soldier figurine, still stowed away in his satchel, and its so-called ‘protection.’ The bullies knew better than to mess with tower property, and so the soldier had remained undiscovered. Aaron didn’t care if they took the figurine away from him, for he’d never really had any faith in its enchantment, anyway. It was up to him to think of some way out of this or find himself dashed across the rocks below. His options were few: escape by means undetermined, convince Corrin and his gang to not go through with it (fat chance of that), or find a way to disable the machine without getting out of the basket. None seemed feasible. Yet as the wheels in his mind turned, he remembered something that might prove important. It had rained that afternoon. The water soaking him was proof enough of that. Moving his head slowly so as not to arouse suspicion, he looked more closely at the firing mechanism. The throwing arm, trigger, and tightly wound rope that provided the arm’s spring were all soaked through. Especially the rope. Aaron chewed his lip before he settled back down. Suddenly, he was no longer worried.

While the mob whooped and hollered, Corrin set his Jackals into action. Two manned the firing lever while two others—Elof and Cliff, whose faces were red like Corrin’s from scratching—moved to stand close enough to Aaron to make sure he didn’t go anywhere. They must have thought he’d given up when he didn’t make one last attempt at escape. Elof shrugged, and then Corrin gave the order to loose. One of his gang pulled the firing lever, releasing the coiled rope so that the catapult lurched. The great throwing arm jolted forward, but it was only a short jolt. It lifted two feet, then slowed across two more before finally stopping altogether. In all, it had not even risen half the distance to the center cross. Though jarred, Aaron remained safe. Sliding out of the basket, Aaron avoided the outstretched arms of his guards, tiptoed down the throwing arm, and landed at the catapult’s base where he took in the confused, surprised, and outright annoyed expressions of his tormentors. The mob, so eager to see him ‘fly,’ fell into murmurs and then silence. Knowing the moment was his, Aaron swept an arm across the ensemble.

“And now, for my next trick,” he said, loud enough for all to hear, “I will make myself disappear!” He couldn’t really, but it seemed like the right thing to say under the circumstances.

Corrin’s expression darkened. “I’ll make you disappear, Squeak!”

With hands made into fists and the nostrils of his bull nose flared, the ogre lunged for Aaron. He wasn’t close enough to grab him, nor was he close enough to knock him from his perch. But the sight of those massive fists made Aaron fall from the engine all the same to land flat on his back in the muddy grass.

“Ha!” Anger turned to mirth as Corrin slapped a knee and laughed. “Now that’s a good trick, Squeak!”

The others—first the Jackals and then the crowd—added their laughter to his. Some amongst them pointed. Others doubled over. Aaron sighed. Shaking the mud from his hands, he attempted to rise, but slipped—an action which set off the onlookers even more—and nearly went down again before he kept his balance and stood. Aaron sighed again, taking a moment to look at the mocking faces all around him. He should be angry. He thought he almost felt a sensation—a burning—that struggled to flare deep within his chest. But the spark only glowed and then went out as clear thought prevailed. There was fantasy, where he leaped at each of the Jackals and laid them low, and then there was reality, with Aaron knowing he was too small to do anything to Corrin and too alone to take on any of the others. He had no ire for the crowd. They were only there because he’d opened his big mouth. He could get angry, but what would he do with it? Better to count his blessings and hope the Jackals just let him go. He might even—

“Hey, Clubfoot!”

The words, or rather the girl who spoke them, brought an instant end to the heckling. From the opposite side of the crowd, a murmur, accompanied by an occasional cheer, swept like a wave through the gathering. Then a lane formed through the center of the mob’s ranks. Down the widening avenue came Shanna. Not too fast, but not too slow, she was a powerful wind cleaving a path before her. Every step was methodical, every swish of her arms a subtle signal to Aaron’s captors that the hammer was about to fall. The message was in the hard line of her jaw and the fiery blue of her eyes. Her concentration—her fury, if Aaron was reading her expression correctly—was so focused that she did not spare Aaron a single glance. She was all business now, come to confront a bully. Such niceties would not do.

Shanna stopped a stone’s throw from the ogre and his cronies. Planting her feet, she crossed her arms across her chest. “You should know by now what happens to people who pick on my friends, Clubfoot.”

Corrin winced, either at the sound of his hated moniker or from the memories of their last encounter. Either way, it was reaction enough to cause Shanna’s lips to turn in the faintest of smirks.

Corrin looked from his cronies, who were slipping away from him now, to the crowd, which had changed sides with characteristic fickleness. Shanna had thrown down a gauntlet and Corrin knew it. It was on him to respond in like fashion, else surrender more than just this battle. Corrin took a visible breath and squared his shoulders.

“I know what’s going to happen this time, girly.”

Shanna’s demeanor changed. Not everyone saw it, but they all felt it. Corrin most of all. Small hands fell to her sides and balled into fists. The smirk faded. A shiver of tension visibly coursed through her body. As if sensing the change in mood, the gray sky turned darker, and the coastal winds gusted hard enough to cause some in the crowd to lose their balance. Not Shanna. The wind blew at her from every direction at once, whipping the length of her dark, dark hair into a dance about her face. But it did not move her. It never did.

“What did you just call me?” she asked, the words booming like thunder.

Just like that, Corrin’s resolve melted.

The wind abated, leaving the field bathed in near silence but for the methodical swish of Shanna’s pant legs as she strode towards Corrin. The bully held his ground, but it was with a visible lean that grew more noticeable the closer Shanna drew. Then she stood before him. Corrin was half a head taller than she was and much larger, but size made no difference. Shanna had only to raise a single fist to set Corrin blathering.

“Aw, c’mon,” he said. “I was just kiddin’. I didn’t mean nothin’ by sayin’ that.”

Shanna’s lips remained tightly pursed, and Aaron saw something he didn’t like in his friend’s face. In the next instant, her fist sprang at Corrin like a striking serpent. Corrin threw up his arms, but it was for naught. The blow never landed. Unbalanced, with head turned and eyes scrunched shut, Shanna barely had to push Corrin to topple him. The bully’s bulbous body smacked the wet ground with a sound heard by all. Shanna stood over him then, all five feet of her, a look of triumph played out across her features as if she were a warrior and Corrin a fallen giant. Satisfaction illuminated her eyes and the smirk returned.

“Now,” Shanna said, one hand caressing the hilt of a small knife belted at her waist, “isn’t this exactly what happened last time?”

Not waiting for an answer, she faced the crowd once more and lifted her arms in victory. Cheers greeted her. Triumph sounded even from Corrin’s Jackals, whose loyalty was thin indeed.

From his place on the ground, Corrin glared at all of them, but he didn’t dare get up.

While Aaron was imminently glad for Shanna’s presence, he thought it would have been best if she’d not come at all. She had, though, and she’d saved him, if not from the catapult, then at least from the punches that were sure to have come next. As Aaron moved to stand next to his friend, he muttered a quick thank you.

Shanna smiled. “Of course, Aaron.”

“We should probably go,” he added.

“Not yet.” She returned her attention to Corrin. “Clubby here needs to apologize for putting you into that contraption.”

Aaron looked at Corrin. He saw anger in the boy’s face, but also wounded pride and, though Corrin did his best to hide it, shame. There wasn’t anything Aaron could say to Corrin that he wouldn’t pay for later, so he said only, “No, it’s okay. Let’s just go.” Aaron took Shanna by one arm and pulled her away. She didn’t resist as she leveled one final jab at her fallen opponent.

“Your arse may be as big as a dragon’s, Clubby,” she said, loud enough for all to hear, “but I’ll still kick it halfway across the Barrens if you bother any of my friends again!”

Then she spun out of Aaron’s grasp and skipped ahead into the crowd. She went amongst them as if a conquering hero, smiling and slapping any outstretched hand held her way. Aaron followed with much less enthusiasm. No one looked at or paid any particular attention to him, which was perfectly all right with him. He’d had enough of their attention for one day. Now, he wanted nothing more than to go home, put on some dry clothes, and spend the remainder of the evening reading from the odd assortment of scrolls and tomes that comprised his current reading pile. He told Shanna as much the moment she’d turned around to see what was taking him so long.

“I’m wet, cold, and besides,” Aaron said, gripping one end of his tunic and wringing water from it, “it’s getting late.”

Around them, the crowd dispersed. Corrin had finally risen, but he was more occupied now with knocking his gang members around for not coming to his aid than seeking retribution.

“Is not,” Shanna said. “It’s only five o’clock.”

Aaron glanced at the gray sky. “More like six.”

“So, six.” Shanna took Aaron’s hand. “We’ll find you some dry clothes and something hot to eat. You’ll be as good as new!”

Aaron shook his head. “I can’t, Shanna. I still have work to do before—”

“Work, work, work. You’re so boring sometimes, Aaron.”

“I am not. I just have—”

“Oh, c’mon, Aaron.” She batted her eyes at him, flashing that mesmerizing smile of hers. Shanna knew all too well the hypnotic effect it had on him. He knew it, too, though such knowledge never helped free him from its influence. Once, he’d tried to measure the energy produced by his reaction to it. Every emission had an associated frequency. Knowing that frequency opened the possibility of manipulating the reaction, though determining such a measurement was only the first step since the process was much more complex than just that. Which was not to say that Aaron wanted to free himself from what he felt when he was around Shanna, but curiosity got the better of him and he knew he had to at least explore the possibilities. Of course, Shanna had asked him what in the world he was doing that one time they’d met up when, without a single word, he’d turned his encorder on himself. She’d tolerated that much with an odd stare. But when he’d started to take readings from her, she’d lost patience and batted the device away. When she insisted on an explanation, he’d had a tough time formulating one that didn’t reveal his feelings for her. Ultimately, he had managed some vague mutterings that he was sure Shanna had seen right through. Now, unable to help himself, Aaron nodded in acquiescence.

“There’ll still be plenty of time to read your dusty old books,” Shanna said.

They re-entered the city through a postern gate. Others walking along with them continued to congratulate Shanna on her victory. No one acknowledged Aaron’s presence; it was all too easy to just ignore him. The two guards stationed beneath the portcullis, who had watched with amusement as Aaron had been carried out, looked on with bored expressions now as scamp after scamp passed through their gate. Within the city walls, the group thinned until Aaron and Shanna walked alone. They smacked their feet as they went, sloughing mud from their shoes as they passed shops just closing and balconied apartments just coming to life. Midway down an alley, Shanna stopped Aaron in his tracks with a finger to her lips.

Her voice was a whisper. “Wait here.”

“Shanna, what—”

But she was already gone, melting away into the growing darkness. She returned minutes later with a cloak the color of burlap draped over one arm. With a smile, she tossed it at him. Aaron caught and unfurled it.

“What is this for?” Aaron asked.

“To keep you warm, of course.”

Aaron groaned. “I don’t need a stolen cloak to keep me warm.”

“I didn’t steal it! I borrowed it. You said you were cold, didn’t you?” When Aaron didn’t answer, she said, “Look, don’t worry. I’ll return it…someday.”

“Someday?” Aaron looked the cloak over. It was good wool and only slightly too long by the look of it. “I have my own, you know.”

“Not here you don’t.”

True, he’d left his in his room. Even as he fought to suppress a shiver, he asked, “You will return it, won’t you? First chance you get?”

“Of course.”

Aaron was not convinced.

Shanna rolled her eyes. She drew a line across her stomach, enacting the age-old pact to see something through, else face evisceration. “Promise.”

“You better.” Draping the cloak around his shoulders, Aaron was immediately grateful for its presence. He could have done with a dry shirt and pants too, but he wasn’t about to encourage Shanna.

“Now,” Shanna said, “let’s find something to eat.”

They navigated back-alleys, holding to the shadows like thieves in the gathering dusk. It was a game of theirs that they hadn’t quite outgrown. They saw few people. Once, a group of draymen loading draft and cart behind a shop. Another time, a scamp emerging from a doorway with a sack of trash in hand. Only when, unavoidably, they emerged out onto a main thoroughfare did they see a greater variety of people. Shopkeepers swept porches and shuttered stores. A thin line emerged from a butcher shop with packaged meats for dinner. Children much younger than Aaron or Shanna played chasing games. Above, from open windows or small balconies, they heard adults chatting, crockery put to use, and, as they reentered the solitude of the next alley, the sweet melody of a pipe playing. Such serenity carried them until an aroma they both recognized instantly took its place: the succulent dumplings and sweet dinner rolls of Lena’s Bakery.

“Beat you there!”

Shanna was off before the last word escaped her lips. Aaron bounded after her, but Shanna was too fast. She emerged from the alley half a dozen paces ahead of him, out onto the cobbles of Sandy Shore Lane where she promptly disappeared around the corner. Aaron didn’t miss a beat, rounding the corner without slowing. By the time he realized Shanna had come to a complete stop, it was too late to keep from crashing into her. He drove them both forward, crashing them into a figure garbed in the midnight satin robes of a keep sorcerer. Unable to keep their balance, they all went down in a tangled mass.

“Gods damn it!”

Aaron winced. Not at the curse, which he’d heard many times before, but at the voice which uttered it. Master Rion was pleasant enough most of the time, but when that curse sprang from his mouth, his mood was neither pleasant nor forgiving.

Aaron managed to rise halfway before Shanna’s own attempt at disentangling herself dragged him back down. The act elicited a giggle from Shanna and something akin to a growl from the sorcerer. Another effort, and first Aaron and then Shanna stood.

“I-I’m sorry, Master Rion,” Aaron said. “We didn’t see you. We…” There were few words to explain such clumsiness. “We’re both very sorry, sir. May I help you up?”

Master Rion shooed Aaron’s hand away as he pushed himself up with his staff. The wizard was tall and lean, his ordinarily pristine robes now streaked with the road’s grime. He tried to brush it away, but soon realized the futility and gave up. He turned a look completely lacking in amusement upon Aaron and Shanna.

Twelve sorcerers—three of them masters—called Norwynne home. While they all held sway over Aaron and the other apprentices, only the three were held in nearly as high a regard as the lord of Norwynne himself. Their mere presence demanded respect, to say nothing of the reverence due them by one of their own. Aaron, as an apprentice to the greatest of the three, was all too aware of this. Shanna, however, was not. While Aaron did his best to look the role of a soldier fallen into ranks, Shanna bent at the waist, her long, dark hair cascading to the street as she inspected the mess their tumbling had made of her pants. Aaron cleared his throat while Master Rion, brow narrowed, looked on. Shanna, finally looking up, made a quick display as if to say, “Oh,” before straightening.

Words spilled from Aaron. “We weren’t watching where we were going, sir. We—”

You weren’t watching where you were going!” Shanna said. “I, on the other hand—”

Aaron jabbed her with an elbow. “Master Rion, we weren’t watching where we were going. We’re sorry to have, ah, knocked you over…sir. It will never happen again.”

“Never?” One brow arched. “If I had a dram for every time I’ve heard that…” Master Rion wiped a hand across the stubble of his cheek. “There comes a time when such behavior will simply not do. Both of you—how old are you?” Rion looked from one to the other. “Thirteen, fourteen?”

“Fifteen,” Shanna said.

Master Rion waited until the clop and rattle of a passing carriage had finished rolling past. “Fifteen, then. Old enough to have grown out of such childish antics. Running through the streets as if your very arses were on fire! Aaron!” Aaron didn’t think he could straighten any further, though he tried. “You are an apprentice to Master Elsanar! Surely it is time you acted according to your station. As a member of the keep’s coterie, your peers sit in elevated positions, not down amongst—”

Realizing the direction of his lecture did not apply to everyone in their present company, Master Rion’s voice trailed off. There followed a moment’s awkward silence which extended into a few more seconds before the sorcerer made a show of clearing his throat. “The both of you simply need to take more care.” Then, he addressed only Aaron as he said, “I’ll be taking over tomorrow morning’s lesson from Master Elsanar. Do not be late.” Without another word, the sorcerer strode past them and moments later melted into the street’s activity.

Aaron looked at his friend, trying to gauge her mood. From the moment Master Rion had made his inference her face had become a mask of stone that still had not dissolved. “Still hungry?” No response. “How about we go to Graggly’s? Bet we’ll still have time to see the sunset.” The gray above showed no signs of breaking up, but that didn’t matter right now.

“What?” she said, as if she’d just risen from a stupor and heard none of his words. “Yes. Yes, let’s go.”

They stopped at Lena’s as planned, where Aaron paid a keenar for a small assortment of confections that he stowed away in his satchel next to the soldier. They happened upon fewer and fewer keep-folk as they entered the old Soldiers’ Quartering where Graggly’s Tower—its proper name was Wynngard Tower—stood tall and proud. Once, the district had housed a respectable number of the keep’s soldiery. But a score of years with no enemies had forced consolidation and the abandonment of surplus housing and training facilities. The Quartering’s barracks and towers stood deserted, fallen into disrepair from simple disuse and neglect. Nowadays, few people saw any reason to come this way. Those who did—vagrants, mostly—took up residence in quiet corners where they remained indiscreet. For Aaron and Shanna, the Quartering, and Graggly’s Tower specifically, had always been the perfect place to get away from everything. But for the two of them, few ever set foot in the tower. Graggly’s ghost saw to that.

Stories told how the mad soldier had jumped to his death rather than abandon his post when the tower had finally been decommissioned. To this day, it was said his ghost still haunted the place. It was a ridiculous story, or so Aaron had told himself over and over the first time Shanna made him climb to the roof with her. As a rule, Aaron did not believe in ghosts. But the things people said—that, by day, one could hear Graggly’s wailing, and that by night the old soldier still performed his duty of lighting the passages so that sometimes lamplight shone through the tower’s orieled windows—had been enough to give Aaron pause. For a time, it had become something of an intriguing mystery as he sought to formulate answers to the superstitions surrounding the place. The wailing he’d explained easily enough. It was only the wind blowing through the upper windows. The lights, however, had been something else, for once, and only once, while they both approached the tower, they saw a light bobbing from one window to the next. Where it went, new light sprang to life, as if someone were lighting lanterns along the way. Shanna had rushed in, elated over the idea of glimpsing old Graggly. Aaron had followed reluctantly. By the time they reached the place where they’d seen the light, all had returned to darkness. It was a rare puzzle to which Aaron had still not found a solution. It was the mystery of the place that kept him coming back. That he got to spend time alone with Shanna didn’t hurt, either.

At the tower, they slipped through the usual hole in one of the building’s great rounded doors that’d rotted and splintered inward. Inside, Shanna struck flint to light a torch they’d left behind from a previous visit before they started up the stairs. It was a tiring effort, and talk was held to a minimum. Emerging onto the roof with labored breaths, they found the sky still shrouded with gray. Shanna deposited the torch in a holder by the door, then she walked to the roof’s edge to peer out between the battlement’s crenels. With Aaron still recovering from the climb, she leaped between the merlons and, with arms stretched wide, let the wind do its worst.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Aaron said between breaths. “It’s dangerous. You could fall.” He moved to the next crenel where he kept a hesitant eye on Shanna.

He expected a laugh or a harsh rebuttal, but she said nothing. It was obvious Master Rion’s words still stung.

Below them, Aaron saw soldiers of the night’s watch lighting torches along Regrok, the city’s great outer wall. It was a nightly ritual he’d witnessed many times. Still, it was a mesmerizing affair, watching each torch spring to life in the gathering gloom. He watched until Shanna jumped down from her perch to accost him.

“Why don’t you stand up for yourself?”

The wind caught her hair, blowing it haphazardly about her face. Using both hands, she gathered the lot of it and tied it into a temporary knot.

Aaron struggled with a reply. “W-What? What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. Clubfoot. Why do you let him pick on you? He’s a coward. Stand up to him just once and he’ll never bother you again. He could have killed you if you hadn’t stopped that catapult with your magic.”

Magic. He was apprenticed to a master sorcerer and so, of course, everyone assumed he was also a practitioner. There was a difference, however, between a sorcerer’s apprentice and one who was apprenticed to a sorcerer. Elsanar’s work went well beyond sorcery and into the more practical fields of mathematics, alchemy, and mechanics. Aaron had been recruited to assist in projects centering around these subjects. Early on, he’d tried explaining the distinction to folk who thought him some sort of pariah, for no one else could possibly qualify as the apprentice of a sorcerer as great as Master Elsanar. But Aaron’s explanations had always been met with nothing more than nods and stares as they remembered the results of Aaron and his master’s latest alchemical experiments. Aaron supposed the displays, which often involved some sort of pyrotechnics, might be construed as magic to the layman, and so while he understood the distinction between apprentice and sorcerer’s apprentice all too well, he had stopped trying to explain it to others a long time ago. Even Shanna, who knew him better than anyone, still clung to the belief that he was on a path to someday becoming a powerful sorcerer in his own right. She had proved as stubborn as the others, so Aaron had let her believe what she wanted. Still, there was an explanation regarding what had happened with the catapult that was most definitely not a magical one.

“It wasn’t magic,” he replied. “The rope was wet.”

Shanna’s quizzical stare prompted an explanation.

“Catapults use torsion to fire missiles. Tightening the rope creates tension, but the rope was wet. Wet rope doesn’t hold tension. It couldn’t have fired, so I was never really in any danger.”

“If you say so,” Shanna said, shrugging off his explanation. “You didn’t answer my question about Clubfoot.”

Aaron turned his gaze to the darkening, gray sky. The wind ceased its howling enough that he just heard the waves of the Barrens crashing against the great cliffs. “You shouldn’t call him that.”

“Why not?”

“Because he doesn’t deserve it.”

“Sure he does. He has no right to torment you all the time.” Shanna paused, letting the silence grow thick between them until, finally, she sighed. “Never mind.”

Behind them, the door groaned as the wind moved it on its hinges. Aaron was certain he’d left it secured, but just when he thought to double-check, Shanna distracted him with a visible shiver. She crossed her arms as she leaned in closer to Aaron. Shaking off the tingling which accompanied such nearness, Aaron unclasped the cloak she’d ‘borrowed’ for him and wrapped it about her shoulders. It covered a loose shirt gone thin from too many years of use and a tailored vest, newly given to her by Aaron just the year before, but too thin to protect her against the wind. Shanna accepted the cloak’s warmth without comment, leaving Aaron to do his best to suppress his shivering as the wind chilled his still-damp skin. But then Shanna crossed her arm with his and leaned her head upon his shoulder. Suddenly, enduring a little cold didn’t seem so bad.

“Aaron?” Shanna stirred at his side. “Promise me we’ll always be friends.”

“What? Of course, we will.” Then, thinking about what she’d said, he asked, “Why wouldn’t we?”

“Because someday you’ll be a great wizard, and I’ll still just be…down amongst the riffraff.”

“Shanna, I don’t think—I mean, Master Rion didn’t mean—”

“I know what he meant.”

Aaron struggled a moment with his thoughts. “If either of us is going to make something of themselves, it’ll be—”

Behind them, the door groaned again. The wind, Aaron thought as he went to settle his cheek further towards Shanna. But then she spun away from him.

“Who the hell are you?” she demanded.

Aaron turned to see a man he didn’t recognize standing in the doorway. He was short, with a lean, muscular frame and long blonde hair pulled tight at the nape of his neck. He wore simple leather pants, a tight-fitting gray shirt, and soft shoes that were whisper-quiet as he advanced.

Though Shanna asked her question with the same tone she’d so often used with Corrin and his gang, it seemed ineffective now as the man reached one hand under a sleeve. With a quick pull, he drew a small knife. The blade and the way he held it spoke of slit throats and murder.

Shanna’s hand found Aaron’s as the two stepped back. One small step was all they were allowed as they came up against the battlements. In front of them, the man quickly closed half the distance separating them.

Shanna let go of Aaron’s hand and, stepping forward, drew her knife. It was a small weapon, its blade in need of sharpening, but Shanna held it before her as if it were a knight’s sword. She’d scared off Corrin’s cronies often enough just by drawing it and had even used it once, cutting Worhel, though Aaron had later learned the incident had only been an accident. Now, however, she stood between Aaron and their attacker, brandishing the weapon before her with every intention of using it.

“Shanna, get out—”

Their assailant leaped forward. Shanna thrust with her knife, but the cutthroat defended himself with practiced ease, then brought the backside of his free hand across her face. She spun to the ground. The man stepped over her, paying her no further heed.

“Shanna!”

Aaron moved to go to her, but the assassin blocked his path. He had no choice but to back away, coming up fast against the battlements once more. He was cornered.

In the last moment, salvation arrived.

“Aaron!”

Midnight satin robes rose behind the assassin.

Master Rion!

Aaron, knowing what was coming, dropped to the floor and covered his eyes. A second later, the air lit up with magic. An immediate smell—something akin to charred meat—hung in the air before the wind thankfully carried it away. Aaron lifted his face from his arm, witnessing the agony written on the man’s face before he turned to face Master Rion.

“Who sent you?” Master Rion stood with his staff in one hand and the index finger of his other pointed directly at the cutthroat.

The assassin’s answer was a flung knife. But it was a clumsy throw, hampered by the damage inflicted upon him. Master Rion easily knocked it aside with a flick of his staff before answering with another attack of his own. Tapping again into the energy of his ka, his spirit, the sorcerer charged the air between himself and the cutthroat with an electrical-like force that slammed into the man, knocking him into the stone of the battlements so that Aaron had to scurry away lest he become entangled with him. No amount of wind could disguise the smell now.

“Who sent you?” Master Rion demanded again.

In response, the man, who was a smoking ruin now, lurched toward Aaron. Another concealed knife appeared in a hand that shook so badly it looked as if he might drop the weapon at any moment. Master Rion blasted him a third time. The force of the energy surge pushed the assassin between two of the merlons and, from there, right over the roof’s edge. The man’s death plunge was a silent one, for Aaron heard neither scream nor curse.

Aaron and Master Rion converged on Shanna. The sorcerer at first seemed concerned only with Aaron’s well-being. Once he was convinced that Aaron was unharmed, Master Rion gently pushed him away to examine Shanna.

“She’s only unconscious,” he said, “though she’ll have a nasty headache when she wakes. We should get her to a healer immediately.”

Master Rion handed his staff to Aaron so that he could lift Shanna with both arms. With mechanical movement, Aaron followed them down the tower’s spiraling stairs. They were spared the sight of the body. Master Rion said they would send someone back to collect it. As they traversed the deserted streets of the Quartering, a million questions flooded Aaron’s mind all at once. He neither asked nor tried to resolve any of them right now. Get Shanna to safety first. Then look for answers. That was his special skill, his ‘gift,’ since everyone thought he must have one. Give him a problem and he’d devise a solution, or at least a good theory. Aaron knew there’d be little sleep this night. As improbable and nonsensical as it seemed, someone had tried to kill him. He was going to find out why.

Read Chapter 2.


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