The Inversion Solution is the 3rd book in The Alchemancer series. Here’s chapter two in its entirety for you to read as a preview.
AARON RAN INTO THE CHAOS consuming Brighton with his encorder in one hand and his other on the suppression device hooked onto his belt. One part of him knew this was madness and that he should find somewhere safe to hide to wait out the bedlam. But the other part knew he’d never have a better opportunity to gather the data he needed to solve the inversion problem. He’d told Serena he was going to fix this, and so, staving off thoughts about what the engine had done to the people in the palace last night, he calmed his mind and made himself think logically about the situation at hand. Ingrid Kane had called it all an experiment, and while it was anything but in Aaron’s mind, he knew he had to think of it that way. Putting aside emotion was one of the most basic tenets of the scientist. He had to remain impartial, maintain his perspective, and, above all else, stick to his plan.
So, he ran, ignoring the cries for help, the flames of too many fires to count, and the residual explosions sometimes close and sometimes sounding off in the distance. Other folks sometimes ran alongside him, but none headed for the palace as he did. Some wore nothing but their nightclothes, others clutched little ones to their chests, and still others had mischief in mind, smashing open doors and breaking store windows to get at the goods inside. He saw those same scenes repeatedly, once witnessing a brawl between rival hoodlums that appeared to have already resulted in bloodshed. Fortunately for Aaron, no one paid him any attention in that instance or any other. Everyone was too busy seeing to their safety and other needs in this time of crisis. It helped that his dark suit blended with the pre-dawn shadows and that his passage amongst them, so fast, was nothing less than a blur. He stopped once to take a few quick readings with his encorder, then he was away again, leaving the major thoroughfares behind to slip through the rent in Old Wall that Ensel Rhe had shown them earlier. Leaving Lower Brighton behind, he ascended into Upper Brighton, where he kept up his pace, stopping only for brief rests and to take more readings. No need for parchment, he tabulated the numbers in his head for later use, storing them alongside the others he’d taken. His ma used to say he soaked up numbers like a sponge soaks up water. It came second nature to him, so he never thought much about it. He just never forgot anything. It was like that for him with everything. Text, formulas, lists, and maps too, which was how he navigated unerringly down avenues and alleys and across bridges since he’d taken the opportunity to commit a current city map to memory some days ago. He thought it might prove helpful when he and Serena got out to see the attractions. While that seemed like a distant possibility now, he was nevertheless thankful he’d taken the time, given the current situation.
Aaron slipped down an alley, where he paused to take another reading. He filed that number away too. He was about to start running again when he realized the latest reading didn’t follow the same pattern as the others. “That’s strange.” His initial readings had been nominal. Some fluctuations, but nothing out of the ordinary. But this one was markedly lower than the previous entries.
A shriek from somewhere close interrupted his thinking. He leaned outside the alley to scan the darkness but saw nothing. The victims of the engine were out there. Motivated by a singular hunger for the life force of others, he knew they’d come for those unaffected by the engine. He was about to shrink back into the alley when another shriek sounded. Like the first one, this one was close. Aaron considered investigating, but he had to remember why he was here. Data first, help people second. Reaffirming those priorities did nothing to quell the sourness in his stomach at having to ignore people in need, but he knew others were out there too, ready to help or already doing so. He owed it to the people of Brighton, and especially Serena, to ensure his talents were used where they were most effective. He’d promised her, which meant that right now, he needed to investigate the latest anomalous readings and nothing else.
Taking another reading from his present location, he moved twenty paces toward the palace—the epicenter of the engine’s activation—to take another. The first reading was significantly lower than the ones he’d taken earlier, but the second was even lower still. He strolled another twenty paces toward the palace. He monitored the encorder with each step and noted how the energy level declined. When the needle touched zero, he stopped. Scratching at his chin, he gave the encorder a few forceful taps and then retook the reading. Still zero. He took a few steps back, and it rose. A few steps forward, back to zero, and a few steps more, and it was… negative? Not only that, but he felt an odd sensation tugging at him that he wasn’t sure what to make of at first. Then it dawned on him what he’d discovered. An inflection layer, where the ambient energy went from positive to negative. The problem with his supposition was that a change of that nature in the ambient energy level was impossible. If not for recent events, Aaron might have wasted more time in disbelief, wanting to utilize other instruments to gather more data and, under better circumstances, bring in other researchers to validate his findings. But ever since an elemental attack had destroyed his home, he’d repeatedly witnessed the impossible, so the anomalous readings weren’t so hard to believe.
How to explain it, then?
The decrease in ambient energy was most definitely caused by the Nullification Engine. No, he shouldn’t call it that anymore. Ingrid had modified it, changing its function from nullification to inversion, so it was the Inversion Engine now. But whatever one called it, the engine was no longer running. Aaron had studied its design and function long enough to know it was never meant to generate a field of energy indefinitely, and while he remained ignorant about many of the details of Ingrid’s changes, he didn’t think any of them would result in a permanently generated field. Again, though, he’d just discovered that exact thing. This boundary, or inflection layer, separated the outside world from the inner one created by the engine, where positive energy was negative, and life had been inverted into unlife. He considered the implications. For one, he wondered if the inverted were unable to pass through the barrier, effectively trapping them inside. The fact that he hadn’t seen any so far supported that theory, though it was hardly conclusive. Regardless, this changed things. If the inversion… hmm, what to call it? The inversion area? Space? Zone? He settled on the last. If the inversion zone was permanent, and the energy within persistent, then what hope did he have of changing the people inside back? Taking them outside the zone might kill them, but trying to revert them to their normal state while inside might prove impossible as long as the inversion effect worked against him. Unless he generated a suppression field, which wasn’t a bad idea now that he thought about it, though that would require significant experimentation before attempting such a thing on a real person.
Aaron shook his head. He was never going to get anywhere with this right now. Stick to the plan. Gather data first, and help people second. Or maybe help himself first. Since he knew the cause of the tugging sensation he’d felt earlier, he fumbled at his belt, activating his personal suppression device. Instantly, the sensation, which was the inversion field affecting the polarity of his life force energy, vanished. A quick check of the device’s power level, which he hadn’t charged after using it so much last night, told him he had little time. He’d have to find what he needed and exit the inversion zone as quickly as possible.
Inside, the zone was darker than outside, grayer, the smoky city streets quiet and deserted. Streetlamps remained lit, which didn’t surprise him since no one had come to turn them off, but the flame color was not the usual red and orange but blue with inflections of… violet? The display was odd enough that Aaron wondered how he hadn’t noticed it during their flight from the palace last night.
Filing that seemingly innocuous mystery away, he took cautious steps down the first main avenue he came across. Smoke from a nearby fire blanketed the street like fog. Aaron used his sleeve to cover his mouth and nose and kept going. Three Rivers Bridge was ahead, and the palace a little beyond that, but he hoped he didn’t need to go that far to find the inverted. After a block and a half, the smoke cleared, yet Aaron still saw no one. Checking the diminishing power level of his suppressor, he started worrying, but then he spotted a pair of inverted not far ahead. As he drew nearer, he saw a dozen more past those two and, at the other side of the street, a little further down, still more. Considering Brighton’s population and the radius of the inversion zone, Aaron settled on a staggering figure of about ten thousand people impacted by the Inversion Engine’s activation, meaning that test subjects were plentiful. But since he only needed a single subject, finding one should not be an issue.
Aaron approached the pair closest to him. A man and a woman, dressed sharply for a night on the town and who showed no interest in Aaron or anything else around them, stood in place with their heads down. Their hands, which had turned ashen in color from the inversion effect, twitched, but they did not move. They reminded Aaron of Serena’s parents, who had attended the earl’s coronation celebration along with most of Brighton’s upper echelon. A closer look at their colorless faces and eyes gone gray revealed they were not them. Past those two, the other inverted exhibited similar behavior. Before, when they had first encountered the inverted, the affected individuals had complained of feeling cold and how they desired the warmth of the living. These two made no such pleas. Aaron knew it was because of his suppressor, which shielded his presence even though he stood right in front of them. Curious about the suppressor’s effect, Aaron took a few steps back and turned it off. Immediately, the heads of the gentleman and woman shot up to look at him. Also, he felt the inversion sphere’s influence manifesting again in the trembling in his knees and the weariness in his limbs.
“Cold,” they said, almost in unison. “Please… need warmth…”
The inverted staggered toward Aaron, along with the dozen or so others further down the street. With the suppression field down, Aaron pointed his encorder at the pair. As expected, the readings were negative. The individual values of each were different, but nothing unusual there. Like an individual’s personality, each person’s inherent energy possessed unique characteristics. Frequency, capacitance, elastance, and other measurements all yielded unique values. Occasionally, near identical numbers might occur, but they were only close and never precisely the same. Each measurement also had a normal range, and Aaron found the first set of figures he took from the pair fit nominally into those ranges, albeit on a negative scale.
Still taking readings, Aaron backed away from them. He was not prepared to find out what would happen should one of the inverted touch him.
“Now that’s odd.”
Bio-capacitance levels were normal, though negative, but dropping in absolute value, almost as if the life energy—or death energy, as the case may be—faded to zero. The change was almost imperceptible and not unusual since life force readings often fluctuated to some small degree. Except these weren’t fluctuating but moving slowly toward zero with no noticeable increase.
“Cold… Need warmth…”
Though small, the steady decrease in bio-capacitance was troubling. If the inverted’s life force energy reached zero, they were effectively dead, and he had no hope of saving them. He’d have to investigate that later. With the inversion effect continuing to wear him down, Aaron knew it was time to reactivate his suppressor. As soon as he had, the inverted lost interest in him. Like before, they grew listless and soon stopped moving altogether. Also, the inversion effect’s influence on Aaron dissipated, and he soon felt his old self again.
Aaron had the initial data he needed, so he set his sights on his secret workshop. The place had once belonged to the engine’s creator, and if not for Acharat, the skeva chieftain of Xirklx, Aaron would never have known it existed. He passed other inverted, but none took notice of his presence. Aaron soon found himself lost in thoughts of the experiments ahead until he noticed some of the nearby inverted stirring. Alarmed, he checked his suppressor, which had minimal power but still functioned. Whatever had attracted their attention was not him, yet something prompted them to shamble as one toward a side street, where they disappeared from view. Curious, and fearful for anyone who had entered the inversion zone without knowing the danger, Aaron was about to follow in their wake when two airships sailing overhead distracted him.
They were both wide, like galleons, with massive balloons supporting them, but their winged, cylindrical shape differed from anything Aaron had ever seen before. Twin propellors spun too fast for the eye to see, pushing each vessel forward, and then they disappeared from view as quickly as they had appeared. They both headed in the palace's direction. Aaron wondered if they belonged to Lord Malcolm, though he’d never heard of the Baron of Rockhaven having dirigibles at his disposal, let alone such exotic ones. He briefly considered investigating, but he already had a more immediate problem at hand, so he hurried his pace and caught up to the group of inverted.
“Cold… Warmth…,” they moaned.
One block later, Aaron discovered the source of their consternation. A host of inverted stood outside a shop, pressing against the door and windows to get at a smattering of living, breathing people trapped inside. With their numbers bolstered by the new arrivals, Aaron figured the inverted numbered about thirty. He didn’t know how many people were inside the shop, but he saw a few faces, including the livery of a city watchman, between the press of inverted. In the next instant, the pressure of all those bodies pushing against the shop window became too much as it cracked and finally gave way. Someone screamed inside, and a guardsman lunged forward to stab the first of the inverted to attempt the breach. Though the blade cut deep, the inverted paid no attention as it reached for the guardsman. Other inverted piled in, pasty hands also grasping for the man, dragging him outside where a host of inverted clambering for his warmth immediately smothered him.
“Cold… Need warmth…”
The man cried out but was helpless under the crush of bodies. Another guardsman leaped from the store, but his sword did little to stop or distract the inverted. Other inverted came at the newcomer. He tried to back away from them, but he stumbled and fell.
Aaron checked the charge on his suppressor. Almost empty now, which meant expanding the field was not an option. His encorder, on the other hand, had more than a sufficient charge. Dropping to one knee, he opened his encorder and took out the alchemical power cell inside. He’d make himself a target the instant he deactivated his suppressor. But he had his data. Now was the time to help people. Taking in a sharp breath, he switched the device off. Not looking to see what reaction it had on the closest inverted, he kept his focus on his work, replacing the nearly spent power cell in his suppressor with the one from his encorder. Then, sliding open a front access panel, he removed the buffering node, which steadied the flow of energy to the output relays, before he closed the panel and stood.
The first guardsman still struggled under the crush of the inverted, though his cries had weakened and his movement had become almost imperceptible. The second, meanwhile, had regained his footing and put a small distance between himself and the inverted. Some of the inverted had noticed Aaron’s presence and closed on him. Aaron backed away from their approach, holding the suppressor before him. Then, with a flip of a switch, he reactivated the device. The attention of the inverted shifted to the suppressor, which radiated energy—and heat—now. Adjusting it to increase its output, Aaron continued to hold it before him as he backed away. More of the inverted noticed and came his way, but not all. He made one final adjustment, increasing the power output as high as possible. At that setting, the power cell’s lifespan was limited, but he only needed to give the people inside the shop enough time to get out and get away. With the modified suppressor outputting energy at maximum, the remainder of the inverted took notice, rising from the guard lying on the ground or breaking off from the other who’d come to his rescue. They came at Aaron with characteristic slowness, so Aaron backed away at an easy, consistent speed, easily maintaining his distance from them.
At the first intersection, Aaron placed the suppressor on the ground. He intended to slip past the mob of inverted while they remained attracted to the heat of his modified device, but as he moved to the center of the intersection, he saw more inverted shambling toward him from other avenues. Opposite those, even more came down yet another street. Their numbers, while indeterminate, were still enough that circumventing the original group was no longer possible. That left only one way clear, but even that route was soon closed off as even more stumbled into view. Aaron had suspected his anti-suppressor would work, but not this well. Past the shambling horde, he saw the people trapped inside the shop exiting. At least they were safe. Then he had to focus on his own predicament. He briefly considered summoning Krosus, but the inverted were so close he knew there wasn’t time.
He needed another option. Then the most straightforward and obvious of solutions hit him. Fumbling at his anti-suppressor, he restored the buffering node, sealed the panel, and, nearly dropping the device, switched it back on. The expected suppression field formed around him, immediately causing the inverted to lose interest. Aaron breathed a sigh of relief, but it was short-lived because now their attention returned to the others who didn’t have the benefit of hiding their energy signatures. As one, the inverted stumbled toward them. Aaron shook his head in frustration. But he had an idea for this as well. He didn’t like it, but he didn’t have much choice. Making a few adjustments to his suppressor, he expanded the field to engulf the inverted around him. The effect was immediate as they seized up and collapsed. Aaron ran to the people he was trying to save. The field went with him, encompassing inverted and laying them low all along his path. Once so affected, the inverted rose no longer, at least for now.
Everyone had gotten out of the shop. Some stood alone, but others—parents holding children close—stood together. None looked well, thanks to the lingering influence of the engine. The guardsman who’d come to the other’s rescue had retrieved his comrade and held him up with the help of another. The man hung between them as if lifeless, though his chest heaved with shallow breaths. Briefly, Aaron wondered why they hadn’t run to safety when he realized they were waiting for him.
“What did you do to them?” the guard asked.
Aaron shook his head. “No time to explain. Follow me. We have to get out of the inversion zone. At least we still have my suppre—”
The suppressor went dead. One moment it hummed in Aaron’s hand. The next, nothing.
“We should head for Old Gate,” Aaron said. “We’ll be safe in Lower Brighton. Can you manage with him?”
The near-lifeless guard still showed no signs of waking. In response, the other guard heaved him over his shoulder. “I’ve got him. Now, let’s get out of here before any more of those creatures arrive.”
Aaron took the lead, taking them down a side street and then a back alley. They had to turn around almost immediately when a host of inverted blocked the way. Backtracking, the guard suggested an alternative route. Aaron agreed. They made it two blocks before inverted shambling ahead forced them to take a detour. Around a turn, they found themselves facing a canal, but a walkway along it led them to Three Rivers Bridge, which Aaron had used to cross the canal earlier. On the other side, the unsettling feeling soon faded, and Aaron knew they had passed through the inversion barrier. Even the maltreated guardsman showed renewed signs of life. The other guard lowered him to the ground with relief, and some others came forward to help him.
“We won’t see any more of the inverted,” Aaron said, confident that passage through the barrier was impossible for them. They needed the inversion zone’s energy to sustain them, so leaving it meant death.
With everyone’s vigor restored—even the wounded guard soon walked on his own—they made good time down the main thoroughfare that led straight to what remained of Old Gate. One of the gate’s towers was a mess of wood and stone half-fallen into the ground where a massive crater had formed. The iron gate was twisted and broken, and the other tower, which still stood, had a tremendous crack running through stone and mortar. They started to see other people, either singly or in small groups, but they hurried along with their business and, other than quick glances, paid Aaron and the others no attention. Once they’d picked their way through Old Gate’s ruins, Aaron stood to one side to signify he would go no further with them.
The watchman who’d carried the other stopped to address Aaron. “Name’s Trevin Small. I’m taking these people to my brother-in-law’s inn. There’s plenty of room. Come with us.”
Aaron shook his head. “Thank you, but I can’t. I have somewhere else I need to go.”
Trevin’s brow wrinkled. “You handled yourself well back there, but you shouldn’t be out here alone. Do you at least have somewhere safe to hide until we restore order?”
Aaron did, so he said as much.
The guardsman extended a hand. “Thank you for saving my family and me.”
A woman standing nearby with two small children nodded at Aaron. He returned the gesture with a slight smile.
“Can I ask one thing before you go?” Aaron asked. “How did you wind up inside the inversion zone?”
Trevin shook his head, confused about the question.
“It’s hard to explain right now,” Aaron said, “but there’s a space around the palace that everyone should avoid.” He considered which landmarks to name to make it easier to understand. “It ends south of Three Rivers Bridge, and I’d say it’s contained to the east of Green Bridge, west of Alter’s Bridge, and south of Bright Bridge. Please, if you can, keep people out of that area.”
“I will do what I can,” Trevin said. “I need to get my family to safety, then I’m heading back to my company. I wasn’t supposed to leave for this long, but I didn’t expect to run into any trouble either. When all hell broke loose last night, I was on duty. We did what we could to help people, but it was chaos. Sergeant gave us short leave to see to our families and such, but once I made it home, I found the building…” He shook his head. “Everyone was all right, thank the Old Gods, but we couldn’t stay. We came through Trader’s Borough, and everything was fine until we crossed over Bright Bridge. Those things came at us not long before you found us. Do you have any idea what the hell is happening? What are those things? The explosions, the skeva, those monsters…”
Others nearby echoed the same questions.
“I don’t know why the skeva attacked the city,” Aaron said, “but a man named Persimmius set the explosives off.”
“Persimmius?” Trevin searched his memory. His head jerked back when realization dawned on him. “The pyromancer? Are you sure?”
“I don’t know why he set off the explosives, but he’s still loose in the city somewhere.”
Trevin scratched his chin. “Did he do something to those people? They are—or were—people, weren’t they?”
“No, he didn’t have anything to do with them. But, yes, they were—are—people. Or they will be again soon, I hope. Let people know that if they harm the inverted, they’re harming their own. I’m here to change them back. But I need time to figure out how to do it.”
Nodding his acceptance of all that, Trevin said, “At least tell me who you are, so when I try to explain this to someone else, they’ll believe me.”
Aaron rubbed the back of his neck. His name carried no weight here. This wasn’t his city, and no one knew him. But he’d been given a title and a job to do by the earl himself. Before that, he’d been apprenticed to the great Master Elsanar. A sorcerer’s apprentice, though he had no magical ability whatsoever. While he craved anonymity, this wasn’t the time for it. As a matter of credibility and to give these people some reason to believe things would get better, he drew himself up and spoke in his most confident voice. “Tell them Aaron Shepherd, sorcerer, alchemist, and chief scientist of Lord Phillip’s Department of Alchemy and Science, told you these things. Tell them I know what caused this and that I’m working on a solution. Oh! Also, make sure to tell them everything else I said too, especially about staying away from the inverted.”
“I will tell everyone I see, Chief Scientist.” Trevin wrinkled his nose, and he almost turned away before he said, “There’s a woman in the Slums named Dasinda. She’s been spreading the word about someone called the Alchemancer. Any idea who she’s talking about? Does she mean you?”
Aaron shook his head. He didn’t know the woman, nor had he heard anything about this before now. He wasn’t even sure what an alchemancer was. “It’s not me, whoever it is.”
“Well, anyway, I’ll do as you say and tell everyone I see.”
Aaron nodded appreciatively.
The others were leaving, and he was about to do the same when a girl detached herself from the group. Aaron hadn’t noticed her before, but as soon as he did, he realized he knew her.
She looked about as disheveled as the last time he’d seen her in Furthing’s Deep, one of the underground neighborhoods beneath Norwynne Keep. That time, the keep had suffered an earthquake and a series of massive tidal waves. Aaron had braved the flooded underkeep to find Shanna, but he’d rescued many more trapped with her, including Rachel. She never seemed to have anything nice to say to him and hadn’t even thanked him once she and the others were free. It hadn’t bothered Aaron at the time. He was just happy they were all safe. But given her dislike of him, he couldn’t imagine what she wanted.
She brushed a stray lock of brown hair out of her face. “I thought I recognized you, but I wasn’t sure at first. Then you said your name and, well, you’ve moved up in the world, haven’t you?”
Aaron didn’t detect any jealousy or bitterness in her tone, only sadness.
Like many others in Brighton, Rachel was a refugee from Norwynne Keep. Aaron too, though his real home was further south. But he’d lived in the keep long enough that he’d felt the same loss when the city had sunk into the Barrens Ocean. He felt it more because he’d been part of the cause.
“Rachel, I’m glad you’re all right, but what can I do for you?”
“I wanted to say thank you.” She wore a coat over bedclothes, which wasn’t any different from what she’d worn the last time he saw her. The circumstances weren’t much different, either. She drew her coat tighter about her as she went on. “You’ve saved me twice, and I know I was never very nice to you. In fact, I was downright horrible at times. I’m sorry for all the mean things I said to you.”
Caught off guard by the apology, Aaron remained silent.
“I know what happened to Shanna and that you weren’t a part of what she did. At least, I heard the stories, and I knew her, so I wasn’t surprised when…” She swallowed. “This won’t turn into another Norwynne, will it? I don’t know if I—if anyone—can go through that again.”
She bit her lip, eyes pleading with him. She was lost, looking for something to hold on to. Aaron didn’t know if he could give her the reassurance she needed. He meant what he’d said about finding a solution, but there were no guarantees. Still, she didn’t need to know that. Better to give her and the others hope, at least for now.
“I’ll do everything I can to make sure this doesn’t turn into another Norwynne. I’m going to fix this.”
His tone elicited a thin smile and a short, vigorous nod from her. Then she ran to catch up to the others. She didn’t look back.
As he watched her leave, Aaron took a deep breath and let it out. He’d told Trevin and Rachel what they needed to hear. He hoped it was enough to keep them going over the coming days, weeks, or even months, though Aaron doubted they had that long. Whatever Ingrid Kane had done had set something bigger in motion. She’d said so herself. The modifications, the reactant material she’d introduced to the final sequence, and the inversion of the engine’s normal process all had something to do with the next stage. Aaron looked in the palace's direction. Whatever that next step was, that was the epicenter. Also, he realized it was where he needed to go. He had to know why Ingrid had modified the engine and what role the inverted played in her plan. He needed to know everything. Since the day an assassin tried to kill him, he had been on his back foot. The chain of events since then, all the way up to the current plight of the inverted, had forced him to react or suffer consequences not worth thinking about. No longer. Now, he had the means and opportunity to do the one thing he couldn’t do before: prepare himself. He had a workshop filled with tools and materials, a variety of data on the inverted and a means to stop them if necessary, and an enemy who didn’t know he was here. He’d considered the pair of airships sailing over the city and knew they weren’t friends. Their arrival was too soon after the events of last night. They had been close, waiting, but now they were here and probably not to help.
Thinking about everything he had to do, Aaron quickened his pace. First, to the secret workshop to gather more fuel cells and other instruments. Then, to the palace. He had a lot of work to do and little time to get it done.
Read Chapter 3.