The Inversion Solution is the 3rd book in The Alchemancer series. Here’s chapter three in its entirety for you to read as a preview.
ENSEL RHE LISTENED FROM THE chilly morning shadows as the hum of the ship’s engine filled the yard and the whoosh of gases filled her balloon. Jakinda and the others were safely onboard, and the vessel was already prepped for takeoff, so soon Ensel Rhe watched as the ship lifted from the ground and was on her way to safer ports. He had no regrets about the events of last night. He’d saved his daughter, killed an enemy, and now stood ready to unravel all the carefully laid plans put in motion by Ingrid and his brother-in-law. He felt no regrets or sadness about sending his daughter away so soon after they were recently reunited. She had Gerwyn, whom she trusted more than anyone, and Serena, who had the potential to become a friend in time. Regrets. Sadness. These were not the way of the sinjee. Ensel Rhe remembered the emotions but no longer felt them. He’d sacrificed much in exchange for the ability to wage war on his enemies. For many years, he’d felt very little other than anger and the burning desire for revenge, so he found it strange when, watching his daughter sail away on the dirigible, he felt something he scarcely remembered. He felt relief. Relief that Jakinda was safe. He basked in it, letting it wash over him until he lost sight of the vessel in the glare of the rising sun. Then he turned his attention to Brighton and the work that lay ahead.
The city was on the verge of collapse. Alchemical fires burning across the cityscape sent plumes of smoke heavenward in a score of places. The same explosives responsible for the fires had also torn apart streets and brought down buildings. He’d seen the destruction firsthand during their flight from the palace to the shipyards. Half the city’s populace had survived, but the other half roamed those broken streets as monsters hungering for the life ripped from them. Tales of old harkened back to him. Stories of the eslar necromancers, Ill Sigith and Jux Jeorn, who had raised an undead host and nearly conquered Panthora with it. The undead of Brighton—Aaron had spoken of inversion, though Ensel Rhe’s people called them the etiolated—represented the perfect army. With no need for sleep or provisions, they’d not stop until every living person inside the walls was either dead or made into the same type of creature. Then, with no resistance left in the city, they’d turn their attention to the woodland towns of the Dormont Forest and, eventually, Rockhaven, where his daughter went to seek sanctuary. No longer safe, she’d have to either flee or stay and fight. Ensel Rhe felt he knew his daughter well enough that, with a city to defend and an enemy at the gates, she’d choose the latter. But there was only one outcome against such an enemy. Trapped and alone, Jakinda would die with the rest and likely rise alongside the undead legion as an etiolated herself. Ensel Rhe already had many reasons to want his brother-in-law dead. He’d count this as another.
Walking along the city’s outer wall to Slum Gate, Ensel Rhe hoped to find the gate open or blasted apart by the pyromancer’s explosives. He found it closed, fully intact, and saw no one manning its towers. With no other recourse, he climbed the wall, using irregularities in the stone and gaps in the mortar to gain purchase and hoist himself up onto the battlements. The door into the gatehouse, a thick slab of oak, was closed tight, though Ensel Rhe was more interested in the street right now, which he scanned for any sign of the etiolated. He saw none, though he noticed plenty of other signs that last night’s calamity had taken its toll on this part of the city. Carioles and other wagons lie on their sides or upside down, their teams of animals broken loose and long since fled. Curbside shops had doors smashed open. Windows were shattered. A handful of bodies, stripped of boots and likely their valuables too, littered the avenue. He heard a moan, quickly identifying the source as a ragged pile of dirty linens and the bare feet of a living person lying in front of one shop. Whether sleeping and possessed by some nightmare or simply close to death, Ensel Rhe wasn’t sure. On the street’s other side, movement inside an alley drew his attention, but it was only a young girl clinging to a cache of food. She took a long time peering up and down the street before she dashed across and disappeared into the adjacent alley. Soon after, some others—a man with his family in tow—emerged from a shop. This one was more careful. He looked up, seeing Ensel Rhe right away. But though the eslar’s presence gave him pause, Ensel Rhe stood easy and offered no threat, so the man ushered his wife and two sons out onto the street where, huddled together, they hurried down the road toward some perceived place of safety.
Next to Ensel Rhe, the gatehouse door creaked open to reveal a disheveled man wearing the livery of a city guard. He put a hand to the hilt of his sword the instant he realized he was not alone.
“Hey, no one’s allowed up here,” the guardsman said in a raspy voice.
Behind the guard, Ensel Rhe spotted a hint of flaxen hair. A child’s mewling echoed from the gatehouse’s interior.
“You’ve nothing to fear from me,” Ensel Rhe said, returning his attention to the street. “Come out and see what remains of your city if you wish.”
The man hesitated, but then he stepped out. The woman and child, a baby swathed and held in the crook of her arm, followed. Neither the guard nor the woman said a word, though Ensel Rhe heard the woman’s sharp intake of breath as she glanced over the smokey cityscape. The guard looked on in stoic silence.
Ensel Rhe turned away from the city, spotting the airship that carried his daughter to safety, small now in the morning sky but not at the location he expected. Rockhaven had been mentioned, yet she’d gone too far south if that remained her destination. He saw why when he spotted the other vessel in pursuit. Narrowing his gaze, Ensel Rhe saw two more ships heading straight for the city. Their configurations were distinctly eslar, and as he made out the finer details, he realized they were men o’ war. Warships. As they drew ever nearer, he identified their primary flags. The highest, a display of solid blue and maroon separated at the diagonal, confirmed Panthora as their nation of origin. The next, silver and gold surrounding the pillars of commerce, as ships of the Trader’s Guild of Isia, Panthora’s capital city. The last, which identified the owner, displayed a symbol that made Ensel Rhe’s hand stray to the hilt of his khatesh. That final flag of three intersecting triangles identified the ship’s owner as Balrabbek Ren Arapatha, Ensel Rhe’s brother-in-law and the man he’d sworn to kill.
“You know those ships?” the guard asked. He’d put a consoling arm around the woman, holding her and the child close.
Ensel Rhe said nothing. He had intended to find Aaron first, then, with his help, unravel whatever plan Ingrid Kane had put into motion. But the approaching ships changed things. Here, now, was his enemy, and he might never have another chance at waylaying him. Sparing one last look at the solitary airship, he accepted that there was nothing he could do for Jakinda and returned his focus toward Balrabbek’s approaching warships.
With no specific plan in mind other than intercepting one or both of them, he dashed through the gatehouse and ran down the wall walk. The two vessels’ trajectory would take them directly over the eastern wall, which was opposite his current position. If only streets and tenements stood in his way, he would have already leaped from the wall to run a straight line to intercept them. But Brighton’s founders had built their city at the intersection of three rivers: the Silvercross, Whitecrest, and Highbrook. While those waterways made Brighton a unique metropolitan of canals and bridges, they also made crossing the city problematic, even at the best of times. So he stayed on the wall despite the distance it added, running through the next guardhouse and the next, startling soldiers who had also noticed the ships but moving too quickly for them to react. The one time he came upon a closed door locked tight, he focused his ka into a kick that tore the door from its hinges. Inside, guards scrambled for weapons, but Ensel Rhe had already undone the bolt on the opposite side and left them behind before they could confront him. Soon after, he ran out of wall. Persimmius’s explosives had done their work well here, turning the entire span for a good thirty paces into a pile of rubble. Guards posted along the breach faced outward as if expecting an attack. Ensel Rhe commended them for their foresight, but too bad the approaching enemy was about to fly right over their heads. Ensel Rhe paid them no more attention as he leaped from the wall onto the rooftop of a nearby building. The distance, twenty paces if not a few feet more, was beyond any normal person’s ability, but not for a warrior of the sinjee. After one more rooftop, he had to leap to the ground to continue his pursuit.
Unfortunately, he landed on the wrong side of Falcon’s Bridge, which had also been torn apart by Persimmius’s explosives. Neither slowing nor stopping, he ran onto the short span that remained, startling a group of onlookers as he leaped as far as he could into the gap, where he landed on a pile of the bridge’s rubble. With water rushing all around, he plunged into the flow, fighting his way across until he emerged onto a boat ramp at the other side. With coat dripping, he resumed his torrid pace, dashing along the narrow strip paralleling the canal until Eastern Gate was in sight. He almost simultaneously saw the pair of eslar warships flying over the wall. They moved in fast, one heading straight for the palace while the other veered off to circle the city in a wide arc. The latter ship’s intentions were soon revealed as smaller vessels separated themselves from the larger one. First one, then a second, and, finally, a third launched, each sailing off to a different location inside the city. Ensel Rhe kept his eyes on the nearest transport, watching as doors opened to reveal rows of troops inside. Whatever Balrabbek’s eventual plans, he meant to secure the city first. Ensel Rhe did his best to gauge its approximate landing site as the transport descended in a tight spiral. Before it had disappeared beneath the line of rooftops, Ensel Rhe was on the move again. He ran three blocks, stopping when he knew he was close. Peering around the corner of a graystone, he saw the ship at the center of an intersection, eslar marines armed with bows already forming a perimeter around the vessel. He counted twenty marines in all, with more continuing to disembark. The light transport might hold fifty-odd soldiers or one whole platoon. Their armor, banded leather dyed maroon, black skull cap helmets, waist sashes, and small round shields, identified them as Omega Agazi, the special combat troops of the technocracy’s 6th Navy. Ensel Rhe knew them only by reputation. Specially trained to operate behind enemy lines, their mission was to disable infrastructure, kill enemy personnel, and foment fear through intimidation. Theirs was not a proud tradition but a necessary one in times of war. Neither hired mercenaries nor members of a private force, the Omega Agazi were soldiers of Panthora. While their presence on private merchant ships was unusual, the arrangement was not without precedent. Yet only the Consortium commanded Panthora’s soldiers, so Ensel Rhe wondered at the pacts and promises Balrabbek must have made to secure their presence here.
Ensel Rhe withdrew, moving to the backside of the graystone, where he used a service ladder to gain access to the rooftop. Peering over the rooftop’s edge, he studied his enemy. The archers hadn’t moved, though they continued to keep a watchful eye on the surrounding area. Across the way, a third-story window opened. A woman stuck her head out long enough to take in the soldiers and their ship, then she slammed the window shut. Ensel Rhe heard shouting from the building, starting at the woman’s level, then quickly spreading as word of the soldiers’ presence made its way through the tenement. Though the Omega Agazi noticed all this just as Ensel Rhe did, they made no reaction to it. Even when a man from another building gathered the courage to step out onto the street, the eslar archers did nothing more than note his presence. Inside the transport vessel, seen through the open hatch, two officers argued. One pointed a finger at the citizen who’d emerged from the building while the other officer shook his head. Ensel Rhe watched it all, wondering what was amiss.
Boots stomping on cobbles drew everyone’s attention as a small host of city patrolmen ran onto the scene. With a raised hand, their sergeant brought them to a halt twenty paces from the eslar transport. The sergeant sucked in a deep breath and yelled, “State your business!”
The officers stepped outside the ship to scrutinize the sergeant, but they made no reply to his demand.
“This city is under the protection of Lord Philip, Earl of Kettering,” the sergeant bellowed. “Any attack—”
A hand gesture was made, and arrows flew. One caught the sergeant in the throat, silencing him immediately, while another finished him by hitting him square in the chest. More arrows ended the lives of four more guards in an instant. Two of the remaining five charged forward with swords drawn while the remaining three stepped back, fear and uncertainty guiding them. A single eslar archer stepped forward to greet the pair. Still holding his bow in one hand, the Omega Agazi drew his sword with his other. One guard managed a thrust, but that was all, as the eslar’s blade, a crimson-sheened yard of steel, sliced his abdomen open. On the return stroke, the eslar did much the same to the other. The three guards who’d hung back turned and ran. One officer—a lieutenant, Ensel Rhe thought—barked a command, and once more, arrows flew. The three went down with shafts sticking from their backs. A door slammed shut as the man who had emerged from his apartment wisely went back inside.
The Omega Agazi stood idle no longer.
The transport’s full complement of soldiers assembled outside, then sharp commands from the officers sent them off at a fast run in different directions, a squadron at a time. One headed for Eastern Gate to secure it, Ensel Rhe surmised. Another west toward the city’s inner districts. The third and last squad went south, where tenements dotted the morning sky. Using the rooftops, Ensel Rhe followed the last squadron. He spotted the man o’ war still sailing the city’s perimeter, as if sizing up the city’s damage or trying to determine why half the city’s citizens remained alive. Ensel Rhe thought it unlikely that Persimmius had aligned himself with Balrabbek or Ingrid, so to find the city in such a state must come as a surprise to them. The airship heading for the palace must have touched down already, for he saw it no longer. No transports had sailed from it, which was just as well since Brighton’s defenders needed no additional enemies roaming the streets.
The Omega soldiers traversed mostly deserted avenues, though doors and windows slammed shut at their passing, and warnings rang out as the soldiers entered each block. The Omegas did nothing to hide their presence, though they hugged the buildings to make themselves smaller targets as a matter of training and precaution. No one confronted them unless one counted the emergence of a woman holding a child close who hadn’t heard her neighbors’ shouts. Though the Omega archers had her clear in their sights, they allowed her to scramble to safety inside her home. Then they moved on. This repeated itself twice more. Each time, the soldiers, known for their sheer brutality and terroristic displays, allowed folk to escape unscathed. None of the citizens were armed, though Ensel Rhe did not think the Omegas would show mercy only because of that.
Ahead, city guardsmen armed with crossbows stood behind two wagons that had been driven together to form a makeshift barricade in the middle of the street. This time, no talk passed between the defenders and invaders. Crossbow bolts flew. None hit their mark, but the volley forced the Omegas to seek protection behind corners and within doorways. Behind their barricade, crossbowmen rotated with others who already had their weapons loaded, but as these new crossbowmen stepped up, preparing to fire, the Omegas were ready for them. One guard with crossbow raised stood too tall, and three eslar arrows peppered him in the chest before he pulled the trigger. The crossbow fell from his hands before his body slumped to the ground. More bolts flew, bouncing from stone or wood but not hitting their targets. Again, the guards rotated positions, and another was picked off. At every pause in the guardsmen’s assault, the eslar used their shields to protect themselves as they moved strategically, always positioning themselves to counterattack and move closer. After another ineffective volley, eslar archers were in a position to take down guardsmen at will whenever they left themselves vulnerable. But as long as the city guardsmen kept low, they had at least achieved a stalemate. Ensel Rhe knew the Omegas would not stand for this for long, so when three soldiers with intentions of flanking the defenders broke off and ducked into a nearby alley, he was already in position around the corner at the alley’s midpoint, waiting to ambush them from above. The moment they were beneath him, Ensel Rhe drew his khatesh and leaped from the rooftop. He fell fast, his target chosen and his sword ready so that his blade clove through the shoulder of an Omega soldier right before his boots touched the ground. Landing in a crouch, Ensel Rhe ripped his blade free, spun around, and thrust it into the back of another. With his sword ready, the third came at him, but a side kick folded him in half. Slipping a knife free, Ensel Rhe fell on him, placing a knee on the other’s chest to still his struggling while he jabbed the knife into the man’s throat. A flick of the wrist sliced his carotid artery. Blood fountained from the cut, diminishing in time along with the man’s struggles. Milky white eyes looked no different in death, but muscles went slack and his mouth, which emitted an incomprehensible garbling that faded to a hoarse whisper and then nothing, remained open in a silent moan.
Ensel Rhe took the dead man’s shield, sliding his arm through the straps as he returned to the site of the battle. As part of their flanking maneuver, eslar soldiers were already on the move, charging the wagons until, in just moments, the city guardsmen had entirely lost their advantage as the battle quickly degraded into pitched hand-to-hand combat. Ensel Rhe emerged from the alley, fully intent on taking advantage of the chaos. The first Omega never saw him as he cut the soldier down from behind. He’d almost dealt a similar fate to another when an archer on the street’s other side attracted his attention instead. The eslar raised his bow to loose but then lowered it slightly when, with a tilt of his head, he saw that Ensel Rhe was eslar. Still, he’d just witnessed Ensel Rhe slay one of his own, so he lined up his shot and yelled, “Stand fast and identify yourself!”
Other Omegas took notice and closed on Ensel Rhe’s position, fanning out while remaining careful not to obstruct the archer’s shot. Still waiting for Ensel Rhe’s reply and uncertain of his identity, they hesitated. It was all the opening Ensel Rhe needed as he whipped his blade up to cleave into the nearest eslar. Spinning, Ensel Rhe sliced the throat of the next one closest and, as he completed his rotation, kicked the last in the face. On the street’s other side, the archer loosed, but Ensel Rhe, ready for him, caught the arrow on his shield. Then he finished off the last soldier with a thrust that punched through his armor and slid into his chest. At the same time, a guardsman on the other side of the street engaged the archer, so Ensel Rhe met the charge of another nearby soldier. Ensel Rhe deflected his attack, then, focusing his ka, kicked the Omega’s shield so hard that the eslar soldier flew backward to smash into one of the wagons. He crumpled to the ground and did not rise. Another eslar archer loosed an arrow that Ensel Rhe again caught on his shield before he closed on another soldier with sword held ready. Their blades clashed, and sparks flew. A momentary opening allowed the archer to loose one more time, but Ensel Rhe used his shield to turn the missile at the last moment. Not wishing to take any more chances catching arrows, Ensel Rhe maneuvered so that his sword-wielding opponent stood between himself and the archer. Free from the distraction of the bowman, Ensel Rhe feinted and, with speed the swordsman couldn’t hope to match, slipped his blade past the soldier’s shield and stabbed the man in the throat. Using the dying man’s staggering corpse as cover, Ensel Rhe closed the distance with the bowman, who had tossed his bow away but struggled to draw his sword. Ensel Rhe leveled a shoulder at him, ducking beneath a wagon, came out the other side in time to shove a guardsman aside, saving his life as his eslar opponent lunged forward with an attack meant to disembowel him. Ensel Rhe deflected the weapon, then rammed his sword to the hilt in the eslar’s abdomen. Kicking the dying man away to free his blade, he whipped around and made quick work of two more eslar. One of the city guards, his face livid with fear, must have seen another enemy in Ensel Rhe, for he swung his sword at him with deadly intent. Deflecting the attack with little effort, Ensel Rhe grabbed the man by the collar and drew him near enough to say, “I am on your side.” Then he shoved the man hard enough that he staggered and fell to the ground. Turning to face his next opponent, Ensel Rhe found none left to kill. Those remaining—Ensel Rhe counted four—beat a hasty, orderly retreat the way they’d come. A soldier hobbling with blood running down one leg slowed their progress.
“We’ve won,” a guardsman said. “This skirmish, at least.” The guardsman bled from half a dozen cuts, but none were life-threatening. “We’ve you to thank for saving what’s left of us.”
Ensel Rhe’s focus didn’t waver from the retreating eslar. The platoon’s lieutenant was amongst them.
“Last night and now this,” the guard said. “Have you any idea what any of this is about?”
The soldiers ducked into an alley as more city guards ran down the street ahead of them.
“I know you’re not with them, but you’re eslar,” the guard said. “You must have some idea why they’re here.”
“I do not.”
Paying the guardsman no more attention, Ensel Rhe ran after the four soldiers, ducking into a parallel alley in hopes of ambushing them. He rounded two corners, backtracking before he saw them ahead. The wounded Omega’s condition had gotten worse, slowing their progress further. Ensel Rhe was a dozen paces away when the eslar spotted him. Two soldiers met his charge while the lieutenant hung back with the wounded man. When Ensel Rhe was close to the pair, one feinted, hoping to lure him in while the other maneuvered to attack his flank. Ensel Rhe recognized the move, so he made little more than a cursory effort to engage the first soldier. When the second lunged at him, he spun away, knocked the blade aside, and pierced the man’s torso beneath his breastplate. Then he side-kicked the other, sending him hurtling into the wall. A quick cut across his neck, and the eslar slumped to the ground. The lieutenant came at him next. Ensel Rhe side-stepped his charge and, wanting him alive, rapped him over the head with the hilt of his khatesh. He fell to the ground with a thud. That left only the wounded soldier, whose ragged breathing spoke to his weakened state. He leaned against the wall, unable to put weight on his injured leg. Though he posed no threat, Ensel Rhe had no intention of leaving witnesses.
“Who are you?” the soldier yelled.
He tried to raise his weapon at Ensel Rhe’s approach, but he was too weak, and the sword’s point fell to the ground. Ensel Rhe thrust his blade into him. Blood spilled from his mouth, and he slumped over, dead.
Grabbing the unconscious lieutenant by the collar, Ensel Rhe dragged him deeper into the alley until he found a building bordering a canal that looked deserted enough. Kicking in the backdoor, he entered a storeroom where a wide-eyed man brandished a broom at him as if it was a sword. Behind the man huddled a woman and a teenage boy.
“I mean your family no harm,” Ensel Rhe said. “Is there access to the roof?”
The man swallowed, his white-knuckled grip on his improvised weapon not lessening one bit. His eyes went to the unconscious man, but he slowly nodded.
He extended a finger indicating direction. “In the back,” the man said, his voice quivering. “There’s a ladder.”
“You should leave,” Ensel Rhe said. “Return in an hour.”
The man and his family backed away as Ensel Rhe dragged the unconscious lieutenant to the ladder and then to the rooftop, where he unceremoniously dumped him onto the flat, tarred surface. A nudge from Ensel Rhe’s boot elicited a groan from his prisoner. A more forceful one woke him. The officer took in his predicament with a glance. Once he had, he looked at Ensel Rhe with pure loathing.
“What do you want?” the lieutenant asked.
He was young, with short, rust-red hair, a clean-shaven face, and simmering, milky white eyes. The blue-black skin of his face was pulled tight in a snarl.
Ensel Rhe made sure the door to the rooftop was closed, then he addressed the lieutenant. “I wish to know why you are here.”
The soldier sneered. “Keep wishing. I’ll tell you nothing.”
“You will tell me everything.”
“Or what? You’ll kill me?”
“I am going to kill you regardless. It is only a matter of a slow, agonizing death or a quick, painless one. I’ve no doubts concerning your fortitude. I know you are Omega Agazi. But I have come to know methods of extracting information you could not imagine even in your darkest nightmares.”
Ensel Rhe drew a knife. Crouching, he held the blade before the eslar’s face, ensuring he saw its length and sharpness. The lieutenant took note of both, but after Ensel Rhe’s demonstration, the man only squared his shoulders and directed his gaze forward.
“I will tell you nothing.”
“Then we shall do this the slow, agonizing way.”
Ensel Rhe tightened his grip on the knife and started his work.