The Inversion Solution is the third book in The Alchemancer series of fantasy adventure novels. Below is an excerpt of Chapter One. The Inversion Solution is available at all major online retailers in ebook format, including direct from the author from Books by Scott Marlowe, and in print at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other select retailers.
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"WE HAVE TO GO BACK.”
The words slipped from Serena’s lips as a whisper, so soft the creak and rattle of the Griffin lifting heavenward and the cool morning breeze blowing across the deck drowned them out. Jakinda Rhe, who stood next to her, gave no indication she’d heard her, so Serena raised her voice and said again, “We have to go back.”
Jakinda’s stark white eyes remained focused on the glistening line of the Whitecrest winding its way eastward below them, but she’d heard her this time. “Go back where? Brighton?”
“Yes, Brighton,” Serena said. Speaking the city’s name made her remember what they’d left behind. Her conviction to leave, which had seemed so strong, disappeared as doubt took over. The city was in ruins. A dozen or more plumes of smoke still lifting skyward behind them spoke to the destruction wrought by Persimmius’s explosives. Then there was the unseen damage caused by the Nullification Engine. Aaron had done his best, but the engine had still changed Serena’s mother, father, Emily, and all those others into something hideous. “The engine didn’t nullify these people,” Serena remembered him saying. “It inverted them. Turned life into death, or undeath.” While she found some small hope in those words, the notion of undeath, an incongruous state that was neither life nor death but something in between, appalled her. Aaron had said right after that there was nothing anyone could do for them, but he must have changed his opinion about that because why else stay behind? Aaron had devised a plan. Serena was sure of it. Perhaps nothing more than the inkling of one, but she knew he had something in mind. He always did. He wasn’t done fighting, and, she realized now, neither was she. She had to go back. Even if Aaron didn’t need her help, she had an obligation to help her people. She’d let them down once. She would not let them down a second time.
“Yes,” Serena said, sure of herself this time. “We need to return to Brighton.” Lifting the hem of her ballroom dress, she strode from the foredeck with her sights set squarely on the bridge.
“Where are you going?” Jakinda asked from behind her.
“To speak to the captain.”
She was halfway across the waist deck, with airmen crisscrossing her path at every step, when activity in the sky to her left—whether that was port or starboard, she’d no idea—caught her attention. It wasn’t anything she saw, but something she felt, tugging at her until she had no choice but to move to the gunwale to investigate. Placing both hands there, she focused her sri, her magical energy, on the sky’s vast landscape. She identified three distinct signatures, all moving through the sky toward them but still too far away to make out anything specific. Serena waited another few seconds, time in which the objects drew closer and closer until she finally saw them. She looked around, wondering if anyone else had taken notice. No one had. “Three ships are approaching our position,” she shouted, pointing.
Nearby airmen stopped what they were doing, but only one—the same mustached gentleman who’d let Serena and the others onboard—came over to look. Following the line of her finger, he grunted in confirmation, then turned to the command deck and shouted, “Cap’n!”
The captain, who was in a conversation with Evan Kingsley and Gerwyn, looked over. Once he understood the situation, he pointed a spyglass in the direction indicated. After a few seconds, he handed the looking glass to a nearby airwoman.
Realizing she’d just lost her opportunity to speak to the captain, Serena wondered if the mustached gentleman, who she suspected carried some weight onboard, might help her find a way to see him later once this business with the other ships was sorted out.
“When available, I need to speak to the captain,” Serena said to him.
With his attention still on the approaching ships, he said almost absentmindedly, “Might be a stretch, miss. Can’t let you up to see him presently, but he’ll no doubt summon you and the others soon enough. He’ll want to know what happened back there in Brighton. We all do.”
“Yes,” Serena said, “and I’m willing to tell all I know. But at his earliest convenience, which I hope isn’t too long from now, I need to speak to him about turning around, Mr. . . ?”
“It’s Sergeant Roe, or at least it was.” He looked away from the sky and sighed. “But I’m a free man now, miss. No more army for me and no more titles. Now, it’s just Tippin. You can call me that.”
“And you may call me Serena, if you please.”
Tippin scratched at his chin. “What do you suppose those ships are about? I’d say a regular convoy, except they’re heading straight for us. You saw them first. Did you notice if they made any course changes?”
Serena wasn’t sure. But as the seconds ticked by and they sailed further and further from home, she kept thinking about her need to see the captain, and so she felt compelled to say to Tippin, “I wish to speak to the captain about turning the ship around and returning to Brighton. The people there need our help. Aaron needs our help.”
The airships, approaching faster now, grew more distinct, and though her focus remained on her request, Serena found the approaching vessels’ configurations baffling enough that she stared at them like everyone else. She knew standard dirigible configurations, but these were different, with cylindrically shaped hulls that were long and sleek with no visible decks. Whoever they were, Serena didn’t think they were part of a convoy. She doubted if they even hailed from the Four Fiefdoms.
“Aaron, you said?” Tippin asked, still somewhat distracted. “Don’t know any Aarons. But I’m with you. I’m not from Brighton, but I knew plenty of people there, including the boys in my old regiment.” Tippin cast a nervous glance toward the command deck, then he looked back at the three vessels. “I’m no expert, but damn if I’ve ever seen an airship quite like those.”
“I have,” Jakinda said.
Serena jumped, and her hand shot to her chest. “Gods!” She flashed Jakinda an annoyed look. “Please don’t sneak up on me like that.”
Jakinda, who focused on the approaching ships and nothing else, continued as if Serena had said nothing. “They’re eslar. Can anyone make out their colors?”
Serena couldn’t, even though they moved faster and drew closer now. Soon, their shapes gained enough distinction that Serena saw that, much like the vessels themselves, their balloons were long and sleek, extending past the beam length of their cylindrical shapes. As before, Serena saw no decks typical of a Fiefdom airship, which made her wonder how they knew direction until she spotted windows lining the cone-shaped, forward-facing section. She thought she spied movement behind those windows, but the ships remained a fair distance away, so she was unsure. Wings with canvas stretched tight sprang out from either side of the vessels.
Up to this point, the Griffin had not reacted to the other ships, but now she altered course from due east to a slightly northerly direction.
“Captain’s just being cautious,” Tippin said, though Serena wasn’t sure how he knew that. “Probably steering us clear in case they didn’t see us.”
“We can’t outrun them, if that’s what your captain is thinking,” Jakinda said. “Eslar dirigibles are outfitted with much faster drives than anything the fiefdoms have ever built.”
“That so?” Tippin asked, a hint of skepticism in his tone. “Since you seem to know so much about them, any idea why they’re bearing down on us? Or why we’d need to outrun them in the first place?”
Jakinda shook her head. Her gaze hadn’t left the ships since they’d appeared.
Tippin stepped away. “If you’ll excuse me, ladies, I’d like to hear what the captain thinks of all this. I’ll pass on your comment about their airspeed.”
“Something wrong?” Serena asked her.
Before Jakinda could answer, two of the eslar airships changed course. Serena didn’t need an aeronautical chart to know their new direction would take them straight to Brighton. The third ship maintained its present heading, but only for a little longer before altering course to match the Griffin’s new trajectory.
“She’s heading straight for us,” Jakinda said.
On the command deck, an airman lifted a single green flag and waved it back and forth.
“What’s he doing?” Serena asked.
“Telling the eslar ship we’re a merchant vessel and not something else, like a warship or pirates,” Jakinda said. “Since we haven’t shown any signs of slowing, it also means we’re under a tight schedule, so we don’t have time to heave to and wait for them. Basically, they’re saying we’re not trying to evade them, even though we are.” Jakinda leaned out, trying to get a better view of the other ship. “Can you see the symbol on their main flag? Does it look like three intersecting triangles?”
Serena squinted and tried, but though the ship was much closer now, it was still too far away to answer Jakinda’s question. Serena did see, however, that her earlier observation about a lack of decks was incorrect. This one had a single deck extending from about the midway point of the central cylindrical section to the back of the ship. Something that looked a lot like a cannon was mounted front and center on the deck.
Jakinda drummed her fingers on the gunwale. “I’m going to ask the captain.” She started to hurry away, but then stopped to glance over her shoulder at Serena. “You coming?”
They made it as far as the ladder leading up to the bridge before an airman stopped them with a raised hand.
“Authorized personnel only, ma’ams.”
Serena was about to inquire about certain other unauthorized personnel on the bridge, namely Evan and Gerwyn, when Jakinda shouted up at the command deck.
“Captain,” she yelled, “can you make out the ship’s flag?”
“Is it three intersecting triangles? All golden?”
Captain Madison’s tricorn popped into view. “How did you know that?”
Jakinda shook her head. “Damn.”
“What is it?” Serena asked.
“Damn,” Jakinda said again.
Serena touched Jakinda’s arm. “Do you know that ship?”
“Yes,” Jakinda said, blowing out a breath. “I also know who owns it.”
Serena’s grip on Jakinda’s arm tightened. “Is this the same uncle who sent Ingrid Kane to Brighton to oversee the activation of the engine?”
“Sir!” a cry rang out from mid-ship. The captain’s attention shifted from the young ladies to his crewman. “She’s changing course again!”
Silence blanketed the Griffin as all eyes watched the eslar ship turn.
“She’s maintaining her distance, running parallel,” Serena said, letting go of Jakinda. She shook her head, perplexed. “Why is she doing that?”
“Because she’s getting ready to fire on us,” Jakinda said, her voice far too calm, Serena thought, given what she’d just said.
The more experienced onboard knew it, too.
“Signal to the engine room!” the captain’s booming voice rang out. “All speed!”
“Aye-aye, Captain,” another voice answered, “signal to the engine room. All speed.”
Moments later, the Griffin shook, heaving momentarily as the engine’s throughput increased. Black smoke, already streaming from deck exhaust pipes in a measured, steady flow, billowed from those same pipes as the ship’s screws propelled the vessel forward at a faster speed.
The captain’s voice rang out once more. “One hundred feet positive altitude!”
The same voice confirmed the order, then the Griffin started to rise.
“She’s firing!” someone shouted.
The single shot came from the deck gun in the form of a glowing ball of energy. Serena clenched her fists and, despite her weariness from the night before, focused her sri. She wasn’t sure how to stop a ball of energy hurtling through the sky at such speed, but she had to try. But as the shot hurtled closer and closer, it soon became apparent it was off the mark. With a palpable sense of relief, everyone watched it pass harmlessly beneath them.
Dizzy, Serena grabbed hold of the rail. “They missed,” she said, not realizing how little of her sri remained. She’d spent too much the night before in her fight with Persimmius. Any more, and she risked harming herself, or worse. Serena needed more time to recover before her sorcery would be helpful to anyone. One hand slipped from the rail, and she would have stumbled if Jakinda wasn’t there to provide a steadying hand.
“You should go below and rest,” Jakinda said.
Serena shook her head. “No, not while . . .” Retaking hold of the railing, she waited for another dizzy spell to pass.
Shouted commands sent airmen scurrying in all directions.
“What’s happening?” Serena asked, surprised to find she was no longer standing by the command deck but hovering over a companionway. She spied Evan already below and Gerwyn halfway down with clawed hands extended, ready to help her descend the steep stairs.
“They have our range,” Jakinda said next to her. “The next shot might not hit us, but it’ll be much closer.”
“Why are they even firing on us?” Serena allowed Gerwyn to take hold of her at the waist. The world spun around her, so she had little choice. “You said that ship belongs to your uncle,” she said through the fog in her mind. “What possible reason could they have for shooting us out of the sky, especially with you onboard?”
“I’ve no idea,” Jakinda said. “As far as they know, I’m still in the city. Everyone else . . .” Her gaze drifted from Serena to look over the men and women on deck. “Everyone else is supposed to be dead.”
Despite the weakness affecting her mind, Serena knew what she meant. The engine was supposed to have killed everyone. The eslar on those ships didn’t expect to find any survivors in Brighton. But why were they on their way to the city at all? That was a mystery she wasn’t going to solve right now. There was, however, the more immediate question of why they were going below. Though Serena didn’t remember giving voice to the question, she heard Jakinda answering.
“Captain ordered all passengers below.”
“More like fleeing,” Jakinda said. “Something about taking the Griffin above the clouds.”
“But,” Serena said, shaking her head while she summoned her last bit of strength to finish her sentence, “airships can’t go that high.”
“Apparently, this one can.”