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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3. A Funeral
SERENA STOOD NEXT TO AARON on a balcony overlooking the palace’s northeastern square. Beneath them, the funerary procession was just emerging from the palace’s main gate. An octet of royal horsemen, decked out in yellow and blue livery with ivory caparison draped over their mounts and golden spears pointed heavenward, led the procession. Behind them marched a formation of foot soldiers dressed in similar colors, except these had golden-hilted swords at their belts and golden shields held at the ready. Both horse and foot soldiers wore silver-coned helmets tipped with purple or blue feathers, the metallic surfaces of which might have shone if not for the somberness of the clouds above. Inside the square, a silent crowd, bisected at their center by a wide, open lane, awaited the soldiers.
“The Vanguard of the Dead,” Serena said in a whisper to Aaron. She leaned closer so she didn’t disturb the others sharing the balcony with them. “They guide Lord Nicholas and Lady Deidre into the afterlife. The spears and swords—the golden spears and swords—are the weapons they will use to fight their way back out, for ‘those of the Vanguard are still alive and so must return to the land of the living.’ That’s how the story goes, anyway.”
“The Saga of Syperion,” Aaron whispered back, “when King Bacharia was laid to rest.”
“We’re the only fiefdom that continues the tradition, as far as I know.”
A solitary figure followed the Vanguard. Though he wore the purple and blue of Brighton in the form of a sash hanging from one shoulder, he had it draped over a white surcoat which bore another mark too small to make out. Serena, who’d kept her ears open to the buzzing of the rumormongers since leaving her room, knew it was the crest of neighboring Agratis. A buck with antlered head held high, the man who bore the proud symbol was not the Baron of Agratis, for though Lord Malcolm was Nicholas’s brother and therefore Phillip’s uncle, he hadn’t come. A decade ago, a falling out between the two brothers had nearly embroiled their respective baronies in an all-out war. It hadn’t come to that, but Malcolm had sworn afterward to never set foot in the barony of Rulana again. Not as long as Nicholas still breathed, leastwise. But, with the earl now dead, Lord Malcolm had still declined to come, sending instead his field marshal. On the surface, Field Marshal Chandler was here to pay his respects the same as everyone. But rumor had it he’d also arrived with an ultimatum for Lord Phillip: surrender the earldom or prepare to lose it in battle. Serena had no idea if such talk was true. All three of Kettering’s baronies had always had open trade with one another, and therefore amicable business relations. While the feud between brothers cast a shadow over the earldom, except for that brief period when everyone thought war was imminent, it had never been a dark enough shadow to halt lumber from coming down the Silvercross into Brighton in exchange for the city’s gold. Still, by failing to attend his brother’s funeral, Lord Malcolm had made a statement. Trouble was coming from Agratis, sooner or later.
But, for now, Field Marshal Chandler held a place of honor in the ceremony, for he led the way for the deceased. Laid on open carriages, their flower-wreathed coffins were each drawn by a single destrier and led double-file so they might enter the afterlife together. Another group of footmen followed. They were the last of the colorful Vanguard, for the coach to emerge next was a muted display of black. This carriage, which carried the earl-in-waiting, Lord Phillip, was pulled by a team of four horses managed by a pair of wagoners dressed in dark suits and hats. The carriage moved at the slow pace set by the Vanguard. Halfway through the square, it abruptly stopped.
A collective murmur from the assembled citizenry below joined a similar buzz from those on the balcony. The captains of the Vanguard, who slowed and then stopped as they noticed the delay, seemed as perplexed as everyone else. When one of the coach’s doors opened, chatter ceased. Everyone watched as Lord Phillip stepped out and started to walk toward the front of the procession. He stopped along the way to touch each of the caskets. As soon as he reached the head of the first group of footmen, he initiated an exchange with one of the soldiers there. The soldier bowed to his lord before he handed over his golden sword and shield. The soldier stepped away, and Lord Phillip took his place. Silent no longer, the crowd broke out into whispered murmurs of approval at the gesture. He’d lead his parents into the Land of the Dead himself, then fight his way back out, shoulder-to-shoulder with the men he commanded.
Serena wasn’t immune to this show of respect. This was her city and Lord Phillip her liege now. Aaron’s too, since Taloo and Norwynne were both part of Kettering, though she doubted he felt the same pride. Aaron was an outlier, living at the fringes of the earldom where the earl’s influence was felt the least. Most outliers—Aaron included—had never even seen their earl. But Serena had. Never face-to-face, but she’d seen the Lord and Lady of Kettering while attending at least two palace events, and Lord Phillip too, though she’d been just one of so many others she doubted he remembered greeting her. Like many others, she’d had a childhood infatuation with him. Seeing him now stirred some of those feelings. She doubted she was the only one. Phillip had always been Brighton’s favorite son. Boys idolized him, girls swooned over him, and adults respected him because they fancied him cut from the same cloth as his father. Now, with just a single act, Lord Phillip might have just made this belief concrete.
As the procession got underway again, Serena’s gaze wandered to the city. No repair work was happening today, though buildings, towers, and streets sorely needed it after the events of a week ago. The epicenter, where Shanna had raised her mountain and joined the Four Elements, was so far away, yet its destructive power had been felt even here. So much power, but wielded by one with so little self-control. Master sorcerers never embraced such power so quickly for a reason. Sorcery required discipline of the mind and body, controlled thought, and an ability to concentrate one’s will, sometimes learned over a lifetime of study and mental exercise. There were no shortcuts. Serena had learned this fundamental tenet early on by her first master and then by Ansanom, who’d not made the best example by throwing away such considerations in his mad attempt at gaining mastery over the Elements. Two years of tutelage under him had not been what she expected. The strict regime, yes. The murdering and experimentation upon innocents, not so much. She’d never killed anyone herself, though, or assisted in any of the wizard’s life-draining experiments. But she’d also not done anything to stop them. Not until Aaron had come along. But, for all the downsides, her regular studies had progressed well. She had to admit she’d learned a lot from Ansanom. Her knowledge had grown. Her discipline and control had increased. Also, assuming her daily duties had been completed and she progressed in her lessons, Ansanom had left her alone to indulge in her own experiments. She hadn’t devised anything worthwhile, but that didn’t matter. Sometimes it was about the journey and not the destination. She’d even enjoyed Wildemoore’s quiet solitude for a time, though after a while the isolation wore at her until she found herself looking forward even to Ensel Rhe’s brief visits. She’d had to do all the talking with him, of course, but at least he had been someone else to speak with. Now, however, she had an entire city of people just waiting for her to strike up a conversation. Too bad most would want nothing to do with her once they realized who she was. More likely they’d try to run her out of the city.
Serena’s gaze went to the other side of the balcony where a group of girls about her age whispered to one another while casting furtive glances her way. Serena sighed, looking away lest they catch her returning their stares. If they’d recognized her so easily, then others had as well. She might as well go pack her bags now and make ready to leave. She’d not really wanted to come back to Brighton anyway. But, once they’d learned Kirschnick had closed their gates to any more refugees, there’d been little choice. The Dormont’s woodland villages and hamlets were not capable of accommodating all of them, and there was no other nearby city other than Brighton. If she’d seemed downtrodden at the notion of coming home, she didn’t think anyone had noticed. Most people had been too preoccupied with the prospect of a roof over their heads and a hot meal. Those had sounded pretty good to Serena as well, for no one had so welcomed a hot bath and the opportunity to wash a week’s worth of traveling from her hair more than she. A warm room, clean clothes, and a real bed. They were luxuries she’d almost given up hope of ever having again. Chane, true to his word, had brought many of her outfits from home. Of course, nothing had fit at first. The clothes from her wardrobe were for a girl of thirteen. Now fifteen, she was a girl no longer, but a young woman. Chane, with his usual foresightedness, had considered this, for with him came a trio of tailors. They stayed until she had enough outfits for several days, which provided more than enough time for her to go shopping and left her quite happy with the dress she now wore. Black to fit the occasion, it was simple but elegant in its own way, with embroidery running the length of the arms and around the waist. If not for her heels, its end would sweep the floor. Though Chane had wanted to have her hair done, there wasn’t time, so she wore it long and straight, which was just fine with her. Chane had made a fuss over it, but that was just his way. Dear Chane, who had always been like a father. Even though he’d come to visit her at Wildemoore at regular intervals, she’d missed him. Growing up, when her father had been too busy with his work or her mother too engrossed in how to raise their family’s stature on Brighton’s social ladder, Chane had been there. When she’d fallen and scraped a knee, Chane had picked her up and held her until the pain had stopped. When she’d had trouble with her early schooling, Chane made time to help her. When first she’d shown an aptitude for sorcery, Chane encouraged her and finally convinced her parents to finance her apprenticeship, first to Master Persimmius here in the city and later, to Ansanom. If any of that had been left to her parents, she knew her life would have taken a completely different path, and she’d have become an entirely different person.
Serena shivered as a cool breeze swept across the balcony. The morning had started with fall’s typical coolness. But where the sun had at least kept them warm while they approached the city, now, with the day gone cloudy, the afternoon had grown chilly. Serena already had a shawl wrapped about her shoulders. It didn’t help much. She moved closer to Aaron for warmth. He didn’t complain, but neither did he seem to notice. He’d barely taken his eyes off the procession since it started.
A near-endless stream of Brighton’s military poured forth from the palace now. Cavalry riding four abreast, followed by column after column of foot soldiers, all moving in slow, perfect unison from the palace square, across the white brick of Three Rivers Bridge, and down into the Southern Boroughs. From there, they’d cross each of South and Alters Bridge before entering Hickory Heights. A couple more bridges and the Trader’s Borough later, and they’d complete their circuit back to the palace via Illuminating Way. Tonight, in a private ceremony attended by those closest to the royal family, the bodies of the earl and countess would be taken to the family crypt beneath the palace, there to remain for eternity. Chilled even more by such thoughts, Serena did not relish the idea of remaining on the balcony for as long as it was going to take for the procession to complete its circuit. She said as much to Aaron, who nodded in response.
Aaron no longer looked like his old self. Washed and dressed properly, with his sandy brown hair combed instead of all mussed as it had been since she’d met him, Chane had found him a suitably sized pair of black trousers, a dress coat of like color, and a tailored shirt. A ruffled tie which she’d helped put on gave him quite the handsome look, she thought.
“I wonder how long it will take for them to make it back here,” Serena said.
“I saw the route on a map inside,” Aaron said, his brow furrowing. “Based on an estimation of the distance and their rate of travel, they should return in about forty-six minutes.”
He sounded very sure of himself. Seeking a distraction from the cold, from her thoughts, and wanting to toss a few barbs Aaron’s way for not saying anything about the way she looked, Serena decided to test how sure.
“Did you take into account the narrowing of the street on Maplewick and Parkland?”
Aaron shook his head. “I didn’t know those streets narrowed.”
“Also, there’s a circle where Lark and Berryway join. That will slow them down.”
Aaron crossed one arm while the hand of the other went to his chin in a contemplative stance. “So put the estimate at fifty-one minutes.”
“What about the ninety-degree turn at University and Miskatonic?”
“I saw that. I factored it in.”
“Their rate of travel will change, too, based on the road’s surface. It’s smooth marble and stone here, but out in the city, it’s mostly cobblestone. They won’t want to jar the wagons too much.”
Aaron scratched at his head. Clearly, he had not taken those criteria into account.
Aaron shot her his typical look of annoyance, which she countered with her usual smile.
“It sounds like your estimate remains a little off,” she said. “Let me know when you’ve come up with a more accurate figure.” Turning a shoulder to him in feigned dismissal, she found herself face-to-face with one of the giggling girls from the other side of the balcony.
The girl was a tad shorter than Serena, with dark hair held in a tight arrangement and a face Serena thought pretty, even without the light blush on her cheeks. She was alone. Serena didn’t know if she had been one of the worst of the gigglers, but Serena nevertheless braced herself for the tirade about to come.
When the girl only curtsied and said hello, it took Serena a moment to shake off her surprise before she returned the gesture and the greeting.
“My name is Emily Stewart,” the girl said. “You’re Serena Walkerton, aren’t you? I don’t know if you remember me. We learned our letters together. Oh, but that was a while ago, so I don’t expect you to know who I am.”
Serena, still mildly stunned by Emily’s cordialness, proceeded with caution. “Of course, I remember you. We both used to sit at the front of the class, right?”
“Yes, we did,” Emily said, smiling. “You just returned to Brighton, right?”
“This morning. We had a little trouble at the gate and got thrown into prison. But here we are.”
Emily flashed Serena a look of confusion before she dismissed the words as playful jest. She may have heard about the square exploding, but initial reports were calling it a gas leak. A terrible accident, but nothing a lady would have been involved in.
Both their gazes went to the ongoing procession, which had grown in length now as members of the well-to-do class, many on horses or in carriages of their own, followed the last of the soldiers. Serena imagined her parents somewhere amidst that last group, though the carriages all looked alike, so it was difficult to know for sure. Other people on foot slipped onto the back of the procession until the square was near empty but for servants, groomsmen, and some others who preferred to await the procession’s return.
“It’s so sad about Lord Nicholas and Lady Deidre, isn’t it?” Emily said. “I don’t envy Lord Phillip having to go on without them.”
“It’s a tragedy,” Serena said. “I don’t envy him, either. But I think he’ll be all right, eventually.”
Emily nodded, though she did not look convinced. “That’s actually why I wanted to introduce myself. I wanted to thank you.”
“Thank me?” Serena swallowed. “For what?”
Here it came. Though she’d detected no sarcasm in Emily’s tone, Serena expected her tone to change as the girl expressed her bitter appreciation for Serena having burned down her house. Or her parents’ business. Or…for killing them. Serena knew people had died. But no one had ever told her who, or how many.
“For saving my life. For saving my family’s life.”
Serena shook her head in small movements. She’d no idea what Emily meant.
“Two years ago, during the Burning, my parents and I were trapped inside our house. The fire had come so quickly, we didn’t have time to get out. We thought we were going to die. But then the flames died down, like someone had doused them with water or smothered them with a blanket. Except, no one had. No one came at all, actually. There were so many fires… I found out later that it had been you who’d stopped them all. I wanted to thank you back then, but by the time I’d made it to your estate, you were already gone. I can only imagine how traumatic it must have been to have your master go crazy like he did. He tried to burn down the entire city! But you stopped him. I know it must have been difficult standing up to him and all. So I just wanted to say, thank you.”
Emily’s words didn’t make any sense. That was not how it had happened at all. Serena managed a smile as she sorted through Emily’s version of the story. Serena did have a master who’d gone crazy, but that had been Ansanom, not Persimmius. Meanwhile, Emily looked past her to Aaron.
“Who’s your friend?” she asked.
Serena turned back to Aaron. By the way he stood in such contemplative thought, she knew he still worked away on his calculations.
“His name is Aaron. As you can see, he’s a little busy right now.”
“I’ll let him tell you. Aaron, this is—Aaron!”
“Hmmm… Oh! Sorry.”
“This is Emily Stewart. Emily, Aaron Shepherd. She’s wondering what you’re doing.”
“Adding unsteady flow conditions to the time estimate. With all these additional people following, it’s created a stretched flow, which means—”
Serena interrupted. “He’s trying to determine how long it will take the procession to make its way back to the palace.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Emily said. She took out a sheet of decorative parchment which she’d folded in half. “The program says one hour.”
“There you have it, Aaron. One hour.”
He didn’t seem convinced.
The balcony emptied now as people wandered inside. Seeing her friends amongst them, Emily excused herself.
“It’s very nice to finally meet you, Serena. Perhaps once you’ve settled in, you will join me for tea, or even for dinner if it doesn’t impose on your schedule. I’m sure your family will want to monopolize your time since you’ve only just returned.”
“That’s a nice offer. Thank you.”
“Wonderful! Mum and Dad will be so happy to meet you. I’ll have my steward contact your household and arrange something.”
As Emily rejoined her friends, Serena hooked one arm into Aaron’s before he returned to his little project.
“Shall we go inside as well?”
As they vacated the balcony, they were immediately followed by two royal guardsmen. Captain Fuchs might have agreed to release them into Chane’s custody, but that didn’t mean the captain didn’t want them watched. The men remained as unobtrusive as possible under the circumstances and maintained an air of neutrality toward their charges. Since they had refused to provide her their names, Serena had taken to calling them Dip and Dup. They didn’t seem to mind or care.
With their escort in tow, Serena and Aaron entered a busy chamber where guests spoke in low voices while servants wandered about with trays of refreshments. Serena led Aaron through the crowd, down two flights of stairs, and onto a wide, circular mezzanine. While thinly populated for the time being, the balcony overlooked the Earl’s Rotunda, a formal receiving area of blue and white marble, whose purpose now served as the final lying-in-state chamber for the deceased before their burial this evening. Serena rested her arms on the balustrade as she looked down at a set of catafalques, arranged side-by-side, surrounded by a forest of roses. The biers, of equal size and design, were an exquisite blend of hand-carved, darkly lacquered wood set beneath individual golden canopies. Pikemen in ceremonial armor, standing at attention facing outward, ringed the display.
Aaron settled in beside her. Neither of them spoke for some time as they watched others arrive. Their choice of location was perfect. They’d see and hear everything, for Lord Phillip intended to address the gathering from the rotunda floor.
“You’re unusually quiet,” Aaron said.
Serena leveled a sidelong stare at him. “Are you saying normally I talk too much?”
Aaron shrugged. “You already know you do. Everyone tells you so the moment they’re given the opportunity, which isn’t often once you get going.”
“Humph,” she said, lifting her chin.
“So, what was your friend talking about?”
“Emily. The girl on the balcony. She said you saved her family. Did you?”
Aaron was more observant than she gave him credit for sometimes.
“I don’t know. I mean, I guess I did. But it didn’t happen the way she said it did.”
“Oh? How did it happen then?”
With a simple thought. That’s how it had happened. One simple thought she couldn’t control.
“Can we talk about something else?”
“I guess so. I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s all right, Aaron. I’ll tell you all about it some other time.” Hopefully, before someone else had a chance. She’d rather he heard it from her. Of all people, Aaron just might understand the most.
The mezzanine was nearly full now. Whispers circulated. The procession neared its return to the palace.
“Do you know any of these people?” Aaron asked.
Serena looked around the balcony. Some did, in fact, look familiar. But when and how she’d met them, she’d no idea. “I recognize some better than others. But know any of them? Not really. Before my parents sent me away, I spent a lot of time by myself, studying and practicing.”
“Where are your parents?”
“Chane said they were taking part in the procession.”
“Have they come to see you yet?”
“Shouldn’t they have?”
Serena shrugged. “You’ll meet them soon enough, and then you’ll understand.”
That quieted Aaron, but not for long.
“I heard Brighton has a planetarium. Have you been there?”
“Yes, many times.”
“Do you think it’s open today? Not that we can go, of course, since we’re supposed to remain in the palace. But maybe… I mean, I want to pay my respects to the earl and countess the same as everyone, but maybe they’ll make an exception to our house arrest for just this afternoon if we promise not to—”
“Everything is closed today, Aaron.”
His genuine disappointment almost caused her to smile. She’d never known anyone quite like him. Smart and unassuming, his most pronounced personality trait was his humility. It was a quality she admired in him.
“What about the palace arboretum?” he asked. “That should be open, right?”
“I suppose. Whatever do you want to do at an arboretum, Aaron? Look at flowers?”
“No. Well, yes, actually. I read once that Brighton’s arborists were able to grow a species of lotus that lacks the usual addictive qualities. The pollen can be liquefied and diluted to form a solution that possesses certain medicinal qualities. Healers in Alchester used it to cure a rare form of splotch disease. I was wondering if—”
“Now who’s talking too much?”
Outside, a single trumpet heralded the return of the procession. Its call brought an immediate silence to the chattering around them as the sound echoed throughout the rotunda. Now the flow of people coming onto the mezzanine stopped, but only because there was no more room. Serena imagined the balcony above was just as crowded. Despite the crowd, a small space remained around Serena and Aaron. Serena attributed this to Dip and Dup’s presence. While no one inquired about their presence, Serena noticed the curious and sometimes suspicious stares thrown their way.
The trumpet sounded again, this time much closer. They’d not long to wait at all now as a single trumpeter garbed in full military dress marched onto the rotunda floor below. The man put his instrument to his lips and blew a solemn, monotone note. As the trumpet’s soulful crescendo faded, it was replaced by the marching steps of the Vanguard. The horsemen must have turned off, for the first to enter the rotunda were the Vanguard’s foot soldiers. At their head, standing alone, was Lord Phillip. The soldiers’ lines, which had narrowed to accommodate the chamber’s entrance and size, moved with coordinated precision around the twin catafalques. As they made their turn, Lord Phillip left their ranks to position himself at the head of the biers. He stood there at attention, facing the room’s entrance while awaiting the entry of his deceased parents. As the last of the foot soldiers exited, in came the open carriages, one at a time. The first, carrying the earl, made a three-quarter circuit around the catafalques. The next, with the countess, moved to just opposite the other before it also stopped. Following the carriages were white-gloved pallbearers, who assumed positions around the carriages. They waited at attention as Field Marshal Durant entered. He was the last.
This close, Serena got her first good look at the man. His dark hair was combed back straight and fell to his shoulders. Sharp eyes, which took in the crowd with a glance, were perched over a narrow but strong nose. A dark, well-trimmed beard covered much of his face. Beneath his sash and tunic, he wore leather, but it was new and well-kept. The field marshal signaled the pallbearers to lift the coffins and place them on the raised platforms. Once they were done, and the open carriages and their horses led outside, Durant spoke.
“I am Durant Chandler, Field Marshal of Agratis and Lord of Easthedge,” he said in a deep, formal baritone that echoed from the room’s furthest corners. “On behalf of our earl-in-waiting, Lord Phillip, I welcome you all to these proceedings. Today we bid farewell to our beloved earl, Lord Nicholas Roberts, and countess, Lady Deidre Roberts. While this day brings with it sadness, it also brings joy, as we celebrate the lives of these two most influential people. Theirs was a life filled with dreams of prosperity and peace for all.”
As Durant went on, pontificating about the many accomplishments of the lord and lady, Serena noted some smiles but mostly tears on the faces of those around her. Many sobbed or cried, and one woman let out a wail of anguish before burying her face in her husband’s chest. It wasn’t long before Serena discovered tears in her own eyes and a tightening in her chest as the totality of the proceedings settled over her.
The field marshal concluded with a brief hunting story people knew well, for nods went all around as Durant told it. The story started with the young lords Malcolm and Nicholas hunting as boys and ended with an escaped deer and young Nicholas sliding down an embankment, falling off a shallow cliff, and splashing down into the Silvercross. Its conclusion shifted the tide of emotions from sorrow to subdued joy. Then Durant stepped aside to allow the earl-in-waiting to address the assembly.
Lord Phillip took the field marshal’s place between the coffins. He did not speak right away, but composed himself while taking in those who’d come to pay their respects. Serena expected him to begin by thanking the assembled guests and to give a speech honoring his parents in a format similar to Durant’s. Also, she expected more tears from the crowd. She readied herself to deal with her own emotions when Lord Phillip spoke, not with sorrow in his voice, but with anger.
“My friends,” he said. “My fellow citizens. What we suspected has been confirmed. Our earldom has been attacked.”
The words swept over the crowd in a slow wave. Those weeping, stopped. Those with heads hung, raised them.
“This attack has damaged much of our city. It has taken the lives of many, including those of my mother and father.” He paused. “But our attackers have not defeated us. The spirit of our city—of our people—is strong, as is our determination.” Phillip moved out from between the coffins. “For the past few days, refugees from Norwynne have entered our city. I have spoken to these people. Broken bread with them. I know many of you have as well. We welcome them and, despite our own needs, will continue to provide relief to any who have suffered because of the Chaos. Let none among us forget who and what we are, for we are of Brighton, the City of Light.”
Nods from the audience assented.
“Now, more than ever, we must live up to our city’s founding principles and remain the beacon in the dark for all. Save for those who attacked us. Save for the one who attacked us.”
Next to Serena, Aaron shifted. They both knew to whom the earl referred. Serena closed her hand with Aaron’s and squeezed.
“I will speak no more on this matter, here and now, for though I know this is a day of mourning, time is of the essence, and we’ve little to waste.” Phillip’s gaze strayed to the twin coffins. “It is necessity which must drive us now. But it is a necessity that I am presently ill-prepared to take on alone. It is to my benefit—to our entire city’s—that we have men like Field Marshal Chandler to lean on.”
The field marshal took center stage once more.
“I arrived in Brighton at the behest of my lord, the baron of Agratis, three days ago. Since that time, I have put myself at Lord Phillip’s disposal. By his order, and in cooperation with the local authorities, I have spent my time investigating the cause of the Chaos. I have learned much. First and foremost, that the threat to our realm is as great as ever.” The field marshal paused, letting his words sink in. “Lord Phillip spoke of a ‘she.’ Sorceress. Witch. Demon. We know not what she is for sure. A girl, by most accounts, though she is anything but human. This girl, possessed of the powers of some Underland spawn, nearly brought ruin to your city and even touched Rockhaven, though her hand was not so heavy there. We know not what pact she made to gain such power, nor to whom—or what—she made it. Until we do…we are not safe.”
“They think she’s still a threat,” Serena whispered, more to herself than anyone else. “They don’t know what happened.” Which they should, given the number of people from Norwynne they’d had the opportunity to interview. Obviously, they’d been talking to the wrong people.
“Initial reports indicated Norwynne was gone,” Durant said. “Not in ruins. Not merely damaged. But simply gone. When we heard this information in Rockhaven, Lord Malcolm ordered me to travel there and see for myself. I did, with my best men at my back. You all know by now the information was accurate. Norwynne is no more.”
A ripple of unsettlement coursed through the assembly.
“The girl did this thing. Some claim she is dead. Others, that she vanished to places unknown. We cannot corroborate either story at this time. But rest assured, we are not sitting idle, waiting for Norwynne’s fate to befall either Brighton or Rockhaven. The woodsmen of Agratis maintain an ever-vigilant watch over the forests, while Lord Phillip has his soldiers out on extra patrols about the city and the surrounding countryside. Also, we have sent a request to Duke Brannigan for magical assistance. We can only hope the royal sorcerers arrive before this demon-girl decides to strike again.”
Serena listened and listened, forcing a growing urge to correct the field marshal down once and then again. But like a kettle set to boil for too long, the urge finally grew too strong to contain and she blurted out, “Excuse me!”
Durant’s head shot up in her general direction. Others looked about, trying to identify the person who had spoken.
Committed now, Serena went on. “I think you’re missing a few crucial pieces of information. Like, for example, the demon-girl—she wasn’t really a demon, by the way—is no longer a threat.”
Only when every gaze in the rotunda turned her way did Serena fully realize what she’d just done. The room went completely silent. Durant stared up at her but said nothing. Next to her, Aaron shifted very uncomfortably.
“Bring that person down here!”
Lord Phillip’s voice sent a shock through Serena. Seized by a rising sense of panic, she swept her gaze across the sea of faces looking back at her. She found solace in none of them. Not even in the single, solitary one she recognized. Of all the times in which to finally see her mother again, Serena had never imagined one worse.
“Oh, shat,” she said without thinking.
Her mother’s lips were pinched, her figure almost quivering. Her eyes, which were Serena’s own crystal blue, were icy barbs, threatening to freeze her in place. Only the commotion around them broke Serena free from their spell.
Several other guards joined Dip and Dup in clearing a lane through the crowd to stairs leading down. Serena grabbed hold of Aaron, making sure he came with her. A mixture of expressions ranging from shock to curiosity to disapproval followed them all the way down. As they came out onto the ground floor of the rotunda, Serena saw that Field Marshal Durant hadn’t moved an inch. Lord Phillip, though, exercising extreme impatience, had moved front and center to address Serena and Aaron the moment they appeared.
“State your name,” Lord Phillip said, looking at Serena. Taller than her by a head, he had sandy blond hair and a hard stare that demanded she answer immediately.
Serena first curtsied, as was proper, then said, “Lady Serena, Your Grace, of the House of Walkerton, though more recently of Wildemoore Manor where I served as sorcerer’s apprentice to the late Master Ansanom.”
Phillip considered her introduction before he looked at Aaron. “And you?”
Aaron bowed in such an awkward, nervous manner Serena wondered if he might trip and fall over. He did not.
“Aaron, Your Grace. I mean, Aaron Shepherd, of Taloo, Your Grace.”
“Yes, sir. It’s a fishing hamlet down south, along the coast.”
The earl, already dismissing the fisherman’s boy in front of him, started to look away.
“Milord,” Serena said, “if I may? My friend is too modest. This, sir, is Aaron Shepherd of Norwynne Keep, alchemist, scholar, and apprentice to the late master sorcerer, Elsanar.”
Whether it was the mention of Norwynne or the master sorcerer’s name, the earl’s attention went back to Aaron and, this time, stayed there.
“We only just arrived this morning, sir,” Serena said. “We were sorry to have heard about your parents. They will be missed.”
Though Phillip’s attention strayed back to her, his gaze remained on Aaron. “Yes. Yes, of course. As we all are.” He looked from one to the other. “The two of you… Both sorcerers’ apprentices, both of late masters. I am unsure what to think.”
Serena was about to explain when a figure stepped forward from the crowd. The Baron of Penwyre, Lord Chancellor Marcel Dadehill, who was the only man capable of speaking for the earl as if he were the earl himself, whispered something into Lord Phillip’s ear. Such was his height that he had to bend at a considerable angle to deliver his message. Serena made out only the word “Fuchs.”
“If what my chancellor tells me is accurate,” Phillip said, “you two were not only in Norwynne when it fell, but you may have had a significant role in its destruction. Is this true?”
“Yes, sir,” Aaron said. “I mean, no, sir. We were there, but we didn’t cause its destruction.”
“Who did, then?” The earl went on before either mustered an answer. “Both Field Marshal Chandler and Lord Chancellor Marcel have interviewed Norwynne’s refugees, and all tell a tale of a raven-haired demon-child who rained down hellfire and brimstone upon their home. Do you dispute this?”
Serena stayed quiet. In this, she felt Aaron needed to answer. It was his home laid waste, and his friend who had done it.
“No, sir,” Aaron said. “But she wasn’t a demon. She was…a friend. Her name was Shanna.”
Lord Phillip nodded. “You, Aaron, are the first to assign a name to this…girl. The others…no one knew who she was. There has been such chaos and loss of late that putting together all the pieces has proven difficult. I wish to hear your accounting of what happened. But, right now,” he said, his gaze straying to the coffins, “we have other matters to conclude. Still, I need to ask each of you a question first. I need to know if this is over. I need to know if my earldom is safe.” His gaze fell on each of them before he asked, “Is this girl… Is Shanna dead?”
Aaron didn’t speak right away. When he did, he spoke in a quiet voice. “Yes, sir.”
Serena responded similarly. “She slipped into the ocean along with Norwynne, sir.”
Lord Phillip let out a deep breath of relief.
“Your Grace,” Lord Chamberlain Marcel said. “I must urge caution. How do we know their information is accurate?”
“We don’t, but still I believe them.”
The lord chamberlain opened his mouth to issue another protest.
“Yet you are right to exercise caution, Marcel,” Phillip said. “Nothing changes until we hear the entirety of their story. But first, we have present matters to bring to a close. Lord Chamberlain?”
“See that these two are brought to the Sanguine Chamber. No one is to speak to them until I do. Please gather my privy council, as well as anyone else you think should attend. We will meet as soon as we conclude these ceremonies.”
As ordered, Serena and Aaron were led away. Serena was disappointed she’d not see the rest of the funeral, but she was not upset at all that her mother had no immediate opportunity to confront her. Time enough for that later, in spades. Right now, though, she and Aaron had a story to tell.
* * *
Aaron welcomed the shadowy interior and quiet solitude of the Sanguine Chamber. Lit by a smattering of candles set upon tall candelabras, its deep maroon walls blended into complete darkness at the corners. The room was empty but for a quartet of plush chairs set in the middle. This changed as servants brought more chairs, moving the plush ones and arranging the ones they’d brought into several rows, all facing a single direction. Aaron and Serena were still under guard, but Dip and Dup had stationed themselves outside in the hall.
An hour passed before the earl and his retinue arrived. Aaron counted twenty men and a handful of women. Many were up in years. Amongst them, he spotted Chane and a woman Aaron assumed was Serena’s mother, for she’d similarly colored hair, fair skin, and the same piercing blue eyes which, right now, riveted on Serena. With her was Serena’s father, who fidgeted at his cuffs until he spotted his daughter, whereupon he flashed her a smile and a quick wave before finding his seat. The lord chamberlain and Field Marshal Chandler, whose expression was unreadable, came up to the front and sat. Aaron expected Lord Phillip to join them, but the earl dragged a chair aside so that he sat away from the others. All told, it was a much larger crowd than Aaron had been expecting.
With everyone situated, the earl gestured for them to begin. Though Serena had offered to tell the story in its entirety on her own, they had both quickly realized only Aaron knew the beginning. Taking a deep breath, he did his best to still the fluttering in his stomach. He’d given scientific demonstrations in front of moderately-sized assemblies before, but he’d never spoken in front of such a distinguished audience. He was about to begin when a single latecomer walked into the room. Aaron paused, surprised because she was eslar.
Mindful of her late appearance, she attempted a surreptitious entrance, and so Aaron only got a glimpse of her as she ducked her head and took a seat at the back. But that one look, with light from the chamber’s flickering candles illuminating her face, revealed the telltale blue-black skin and, different from Ensel Rhe’s shock of rust-red hair, a straight, shoulder-length arrangement of copper. Her eyes, like those of all eslar, were stark white.
Aaron was allowed no more time to consider the woman, as the earl, and everyone else, waited for him to begin. Nervousness kept his oration succinct as he started with the attack on Norwynne. Remembering Master Rhe’s request to not mention his name, Aaron referred to him only as a nameless mercenary. He faltered only at the part when he and the mercenary had arrived at Wildemoore Manor. Ansanom’s betrayal, and the subsequent torture, still stung, he found. Serena, who had developed a knack for reading him, came forward, urging him to step back. She told everyone she knew the story from that point, and so would tell the rest. She replaced Aaron’s terseness with a polished and fluid oration, despite it being the first time she’d told the tale. She moved about, too, gesturing with her hands as she drew the audience’s attention to her. Aaron watched their audience’s heads move in time with her as she walked from one side of the room to the other. He observed their expressions, so flat when he’d spoken, come alive as Serena related the final fate of Erlek. They cringed in fear at the appearance of the houndmaster, and grimaced when she described the pact of blood Aaron had made to stop him. Then Serena turned from the audience to direct her full attention to Aaron. Aaron felt the heat rise in his face when he realized every gaze in the room looked at him. Serena then spoke of how, in a stroke of ingenuity, he’d harnessed the hounds to an old wagon, using their tireless energy to get them back to Norwynne in time to stop the Chaos from growing any worse. Aaron wanted to shrug, but, with so much attention on him, he stayed still. It had seemed a good solution to the problem at hand. When Serena heaped further praise on his idea to put Erlek’s attunement engine into a pattern of mutually destructive interference, he thought any number of others would have come up with the very same solution. When she told them how he’d tried to save his friend even after she was gone, such a conflicting range of emotions assailed him he wasn’t sure what to think at all.
Throughout her telling, nods and whispers were exchanged, and many expressions that started as troubled turned hopeful. Only the earl offered no reaction at all. He sat straight, hands placed in his lap, and, except for a few times where his gaze strayed to Serena, kept his focus locked on Aaron. Only when the story was complete, with Serena describing how Norwynne had sunk into the ocean with Shanna’s defeat, did the earl finally shift in his chair. He took a deep breath and stood. While he paced to a corner of the room, servants carrying cups of wine entered unbidden. Everyone was served, including Aaron and Serena. One was brought to Lord Phillip, but he waved it away. Chairs were offered to Aaron and Serena. Neither accepted. Not while the earl remained standing.
“I asked you this before,” Phillip said, “but I need to hear it again.” His voice silenced the hum of chatter. “Are you certain Shanna is dead?”
Serena answered. “Yes, milord. At the end…she…” She glanced at Aaron.
The retelling had taken its toll on him. Serena waited, giving him time. When he nodded at her, she spoke the words the earl needed to hear.
“Shanna was gone before she slipped into the earth, Your Grace,” Serena said. “Her body was taken—along with the Elements—into the ocean. There can be no doubt she is…dead.”
Lord Phillip took a deep breath and let it out. “This tale you tell is, at its very least, fantastical, to a point that had I not experienced the Chaos myself, I might wonder how much of it is true. But I saw its effects. We all did.” The earl’s gaze strayed to each of his councilors and the other guests before darting back to Aaron. “This tooth… May I see it?”
Aaron took it out from beneath his shirt, revealing the long and pointed canine with its mixed stain of human and demon blood.
The earl approached him. “May I touch it?”
“Milord,” Lord Chancellor Marcel said, alarm in his voice, “I do not think that is a good idea.”
Phillip, hand raised, lowered it. Not because of his advisor’s warning, but because Aaron had drawn the tooth closer to himself.
“You are possessive of its power?” the earl asked.
“No, sir. I’m not sure what effect it might have on you. And, right now, it’s the only thing keeping me alive.”
“Really? How so?”
“If I remove it, sir, the hounds and their master will kill me. It is what they were summoned to do. As long as I have the tooth on my person, they cannot harm me. The tooth is a middling charm.”
“Witchcraft,” the earl said.
“Yes, sir. Witchcraft provided the initial spark, but there is a specificity of energy coursing through it now. I know because, when we reached Kirschnick, I built an encorder from bits and pieces given to me by a tinkerer. Just a primitive one, but it worked well enough to take basic measurements.” Its alchemical power cell had died days ago, and since a child with them had shown an interest in it, Aaron had surrendered the device to him.
Lord Phillip shook his head. “I’ve no idea what you are talking about.”
Aaron held up the tooth and explained. “You see how the tooth is stained?” When he’d first received the tooth, it already had one dark stain across its surface. Now, it had three. “One of the stains is from my blood. This one—the darkest—is from the houndmaster.”
The earl nodded at that.
“You can’t see it, sir, but the blood permeates the tooth in the form of energy. This has the effect of mingling the two sources with the core of the middling. The combinatory effect, coupled with the spell cast on the tooth, provides the charm its potency, which in turn prevents the dogs and their master from killing me.”
“Are you saying your blood—the houndmaster’s blood, as well—is charged with energy?”
“Not just mine or his, sir, but everyone’s. There is a correlation between mass and energy, the like of which we do not fully understand yet, but some scholars believe—”
“You said you were a sorcerer’s apprentice. To me, you sound more like a scientist.”
“I am, sir. Master Elsanar took me on as his apprentice, but mostly to help decipher the alchemical and scientific aspects of his research, not to learn sorcery. Like most, I do not have the inherent aptitude for it. Everyone assumed I studied magic, but I never did.”
“Did you try correcting them?”
“Yes, sir. But, sometimes, when folk have their minds made up about something…”
The earl almost smiled. “You are certainly right about that.” Phillip paced a few steps away. From over one shoulder he said, “You two, sit.”
Aaron and Serena sat.
Phillip turned to face them. Something in his demeanor suggested a new direction for their discussion.
“Norwynne’s lord was a friend to our family and one of Kettering’s most loyal patrons. It saddened me to hear of his demise. Elsanar’s, as well. All in the earldom knew of his reputation as a sorcerer, logician, and inventor. The world is a lesser place for his loss.”
“Yes, sir,” Aaron said.
“Were you to have become his successor someday?”
“No, sir, I don’t think so. There were other sorcerers in Norwynne in line to inherit Master Elsanar’s place.”
“But if someone continued his work—his scientific work—would that person have been you?”
“I don’t know, sir. I would’ve taken the opportunity if they offered it. But I am only an apprentice. I still had—have—a lot to learn.”
The earl slipped into silent contemplation. With hands folded at his back, he paced away from Aaron, but then spun around and asked, “What were your qualifications that Elsanar selected you over all others as his apprentice, I wonder? By your own admission, you are not a practitioner of magic. You hail from a small fishing town, where opportunities for exposure to the higher sciences must have been few. Hardly the background I might expect for one apprenticed to Master Elsanar. For how many years did you serve him?”
“Four years, sir.”
“And you were how old when you started?”
“Eleven, sir. I’m fifteen now.” As if the earl was incapable of doing simple math.
“Why did he select you? Norwynne was not a small city. There must have been many other potential candidates. Assuming you were still living in Taloo at the time, in what way did you catch his attention?”
“A lot of it had to do with my father, sir. He was a fisherman by trade, but he loved to tinker and repair things. He often serviced and repaired the town mill. Also, he built the smith an automated bellows for his forge, and he was always repairing wagon springs and axles. I suppose I inherited his passion for these things. But he was concerned only with the mechanical. My interests were along the lines of alchemy, mathematics, and energy transference theory. The last caught Master Elsanar’s attention more than anything else. I wrote a paper, The Principles of Alchemical Energy Transfer, which might have languished in a drawer if not for a King’s Patroller who used to come through town occasionally. He and I spoke often. I think he was just humoring me at first. But when I told him about the paper I’d written, he offered to take it here to Brighton for inclusion in the Aidan Library. It made its way to Master Elsanar from there. Once he’d read it, he had me summoned to Norwynne and, after a brief interview process, offered me the apprenticeship. I was just lucky, sir, that the paper found its way to him and that he read it. I might still be in Taloo otherwise.”
“An interesting story,” Phillip said. “You give too much credit to luck, though. Luck does not exist. There is only fate on one hand and, on the other, the determination and courage to seize one’s destiny and forge it into something of our own making. You are wondering why I am probing so, aren’t you?”
“No, sir.” Aaron’s response—too immediate—betrayed him.
Phillip’s lips curled into a full smile that time, but it was a short-lived gesture.
“I ask you these questions because we are faced with a problem which I think your insight might help resolve.” Phillip turned to the audience. “Professor Othini, please come forward.”
An older gentleman, dressed in the solemn, formal attire of the day, stepped forward and bowed. “At your service, Your Grace.” He’d a mussed head of hair and a disheveled beard that had not been trimmed recently, if ever.
“This is Professor Othini,” Phillip said. “He chairs my Department of Alchemy and Science and is my consultant on all things scientific. Of late, he has been involved in a very special project. But he and his researchers have hit upon a snag. I wonder if you, Aaron, can help get them over it.”
Aaron opened his mouth to answer, but Professor Othini beat him to it.
“Your Grace, I mean no disrespect, but the boy has described himself as nothing more than an apprentice—an assistant, really, in my assessment—with no one to vouch for even those credentials. Already, the keenest minds in the city strive to resolve this matter. I do not see—”
“Aaron,” Phillip said, “what did Elsanar have you working on? Tell us in layman’s terms, please.”
Aaron stood. “Mostly, sir, I did the usual things one might expect of an apprentice: cleaning vials, beakers, and tubules, preparing solutions, and tidying the lab.”
“You see, sir,” Professor Othini said. “Perhaps it best we leave the—”
“What else?” the earl asked.
“Well, sir, I also assisted in research, documented procedures and results, and performed field experiments.”
“What did these experiments entail? Detail them for us.”
Elsanar had indulged in many aspects of magic, science, and alchemy, with research leading into a broad spectrum of experimentation. Aaron considered the question, narrowing the many experiments down to a single choice. “One time, we tethered a balloon and sent it into the air at different elevations in order to measure atmospheric pressure and temperature.”
“To what purpose was this experiment performed?” Phillip asked.
“It was mostly a data-gathering experiment, sir, with no immediate practical application.”
“What else then?” the earl asked, a hint of impatience in his voice.
Aaron realized his selection had not been the best. He chose another, one which might carry more weight.
“Another time, we set up a bosur’s apparatus to measure alchemical mass transference.”
Professor Othini nodded. “I am familiar with the device.” But then he turned his nose up. “Its use is a trivial thing.”
“Yes,” Aaron said, “but we modified it, so any material passed through the apparatus had its mass-to-volume ratio normalized to three molar units. Usually, one can change a substance’s mass through pressure or temperature modification, but we accomplished it by altering the alchemical properties of the material. Transmogrification, essentially.”
“Is this possible?” Lord Phillip asked the professor.
Professor Othini narrowed his brow. To Aaron, he asked, “How did you accomplish the initial measurement?”
“Energy resonance. Then, a Veridian calculation mechanism to determine the inherent energy concentration.”
Professor Othini curled his lower lip. “I suppose, in theory, it might work.”
“It did work,” Aaron said. “We normalized the alchemical state and—”
Anything else Aaron was about to say was cut off by the earl stepping between them.
“You said you wrote a paper,” Lord Phillip said. “Why was it of interest to Master Elsanar? Did its subject have something to do with his work?”
“Yes, sir. Master Elsanar was attempting to extend the Principle of Confluence, which states that when two identical energy sources come together, they combine to form a single, more powerful energy source. My paper formed the basis for the next stage in his research.”
“To show that two dissimilar energy sources, instead of canceling each other out, could instead combine into a single, more powerful form of energy. The practical applications of this would be—”
“Enormous,” Lord Phillip said.
“Were field experiments performed? Were they successful?”
“Initial lab experimentation yielded promising results. Though we planned field experiments, we never had the opportunity to carry them out. Except…”
Aaron took a deep breath. “Master Elsanar’s theory was confirmed in the field when Shanna combined the Four Elements into the Fifth.” He paused, allowing his listeners to absorb that information. “Four disparate energy sources joined together. Instead of canceling each other out, they formed a single, more powerful form of energy: the Fifth Element.”
The earl asked no more questions, but turned to his closest advisors, who had gathered together out of habit. Aaron saw the earl’s gaze go to each of them. Something unspoken passed between them, for each time, the earl’s gaze was met with a single nod. Even Othini, whom Lord Phillip looked at last, nodded, though it seemed with some reluctance.
“I am willing to at least hear his initial assessment,” the professor said.
The earl’s attention returned to Aaron.
“May I ask you something personal?” Lord Phillip asked.
“Was it difficult confronting her?”
There was no need for the earl to identify of whom he spoke.
“More than you will ever know…sir.”
Phillip nodded. He took in a sharp breath and let it out. “My father was an excellent judge of character. I like to think I inherited that quality from him. I see in you someone who might one day achieve true greatness, Aaron. If not for your intellect, then for your moral character.”
Aaron didn’t know what to say to that, so he said nothing at all.
“As my mother used to say, sometimes we find opportunities in the most unexpected places. Aaron, I think I have found one such opportunity.”
“I don’t understand, Your Grace.”
“You will, Aaron. You will.” Then, with a hint of slyness in his voice, he said, “I have something I wish to show you. It is something my scientists are calling… The Incandescent Engine.”