Scott Marlowe
Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

The Five Elements (The Alchemancer: Book One) Preview–Chapter 3

The Five Elements is the first book in The Alchemancer series of science fantasy novels. Here’s a preview in the form of chapters 1 through 3 to give you an idea what it’s about. For other chapters, please see the chapter preview index page.

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3. The Flood

BECAUSE ELLINGREL'S STAIRWELL WAS NARROW and bare at its topmost floors, Aaron readily saw the spidery cracks that spread across the walls. The stairs showed signs of damage too, but the thick wood felt solid enough beneath his feet that he made good progress down the first few floors. The stairs soon widened and, at each floor, let out onto a wide space dotted with arches and doors. Aaron was surprised he saw no one. This high up, chambers were occupied by a variety of scribes, scholars, pages, servants, and, in some cases, their families. Many had to have already retired for the evening before the first tremors had started. Yet Aaron found one floor after another empty. Aaron was just beginning to think the Tower had been deserted when, midway, he heard the distant sound of voices rising from further below. Another few floors and, as Aaron paused to catch his breath, he heard what sounded like a full-blown commotion. One more floor and he saw the first Tower inhabitants. Some were huddled against walls, shock and fright masked across their faces. Others were more animate, pacing, or speaking with disbelief about recent happenings with neighbors. Another floor and the frequency of people along the stairs and at each level grew until Aaron was forced to slow his pace and choose more carefully a course between or around them. Aaron saw in them a ménage of grief, fear, and, in some, anger, and while he recognized every one of them—he never forgot a face or a name—he said nothing though many looked at him with expressions that sought answers and guidance. Aaron had neither. He averted his eyes and did his best to not meet their stares.

There were more than just residents of the Tower here now. Men, women, and children huddled in groups or interspersed amongst Tower-folk were easily distinguishable by the motley array of clothing they'd hastily thrown on and the fact that all were dripping wet. Though he'd seen the water flowing into the city, he remained uncertain as to how much water had invaded the area. He stopped to listen to conversations, trying to learn anything he could. People were scared. He needn't listen to know that much. But they also refused to move higher, though certain individuals were attempting to prompt them to do so. Aaron wondered at their objection, but only until the image of that first structure crumbling returned to him. Then, he didn't blame them for not wanting to go higher. Aaron moved on, soon learning why they were being encouraged upward at all. More people were arriving at the Tower every minute. So many that the lower floors were fast becoming a scene of gridlock. Determined to find Shanna, Aaron took a deep breath and began fighting his way through. Forward progress deteriorated to a crawl, but he never lost ground as he used his slim body to full advantage by slipping between any gap that presented itself. Then, just above the ground floor, his progress came to an abrupt halt, for the entire ground floor was submerged in a black, oily soup of seawater and city muck. Not only that, but it was clear that the toxic mixture was rising.

Ellingrel's apprentices—the real apprentices, who studied and performed magic of their own—were there. Rufia, who was the best amongst them, had taken charge, directing both apprentice and others alike in lifting a steady stream of refugees from the water to relative safety. Lanterns served as a beacon, guiding folk in from the outside. Only some entered through the main doorway, for while the door no longer hung on its hinges—Aaron spotted it floating nearby—all but the top of the arch was underwater. People swam through windows instead. No one was tall enough to touch bottom, and most everyone used some sort of debris as temporary life rafts. Aaron was stunned to see so many. It took him a moment before he joined the others already pulling people from the turbid water. He wanted to reach Shanna more than anything, but he had a duty here as well. He would help for as long as he could, then he would leave the Tower to find her.

The first person Aaron helped was a man gone pale with cold. Then, a blank-stared, middle-aged woman who murmured the name of a lost husband or child. The next, who bled from a cut at her forehead, cried hysterically until someone behind Aaron led her away. A man with two small children came next. Aaron descended the stairs, going knee-deep into the water to help him with the younger of the two children. Someone else grabbed the other child, and both, along with their father, were ushered to safer, dryer floors. The flow of people entering Ellingrel was an endless tide. Aaron quickly lost track of time and the number of people he helped pull from the water. Only when someone stepped forward to take his place did Aaron, with hands and feet gone numb with cold, relinquish his post. It was not to retreat to the safety of Ellingrel's upper floors, though, nor to seek the warmth of his own room which as far as he knew might have been requisitioned for use by some of the refugees. Kicking off shoes and taking a quick moment to ensure all of his alchemicals were secure in his vest pockets, he lowered himself into the muddy, roiling water. A gasp escaped his lips as the iciness penetrated straight through his clothing. Clenching his teeth to keep them from chattering, he pushed himself from the stairs. Some threw glances his way and one of the apprentices—Jerl by the sound of the voice—questioned where he was going. Aaron answered only that he was going to find a friend. Thereafter, no one objected or moved to stop him. He swam to one of the windows, only having to wait a moment for a gap to form between those coming in. Outside, the darkness greeted him along with the rise and fall of the floodwaters. The further he moved from the Tower's light, the darker it became. As a result, Aaron saw little of the devastation. Still, some signs were impossible to miss. Dwellings and lesser towers had been reduced to piles of broken wood and stone that jutted from the waters like tiny, misshapen islands. Estate walls that Aaron knew exceeded the water's height were missing. Only those dwellings taller than a single storey—and not toppled by the earthquake—were still visible at all, for ground floors were underwater. Of those, none appeared unscathed. Windows were shattered, walls cracked, and for some, roofs and entire floors had collapsed inward.

Logically, Aaron decided to start with Shanna's last known location. The hospital was not far from Ellingrel, but navigating the way whilst swimming in near complete darkness was a challenge. Still, Aaron knew the precise distance, and so with a best guess on course and a quick conversion of distance traveled by foot to distance traveled by swim stroke, he was soon lifting himself through one of the hospital's second story windows. It took Aaron all of one second to realize the futility of quickly finding Shanna, for the place was embroiled in chaos. The ordinary occupancy of a handful of patients had been replaced by a score or more, with more spilling in with each passing moment. Some lay on beds, on the floor, against the walls. Others—healers, nurses, physicians, volunteers—moved with practiced care amongst them. With similar consideration, Aaron picked his way through the room. Not seeing Shanna, he made his way to an outside corridor that was no less crowded than the hospital room. Even here, it was not immediately obvious if Shanna was present. Aaron was dreading the thought of having to search through every room and hall when he spotted Jadjin.

"Your friend wasn’t here when it all started," the woman said in answer to Aaron’s inquiry. "Foolish girl left before she’d even taken her medicine."

Aaron left the hospital via a different window than the one he'd come through. Trying not to think about the frigid, filthy water, he gritted his teeth and lowered himself in. Swimming over a collapsed section of the bailey's wall and past several manors, Aaron navigated out onto Lantern Street. Social status held no meaning anymore as Aaron saw folk of all stripes being helped to safety through second story windows. Not wanting to deal with the press of people inside the establishments, but wanting to get out of the frigid water, Aaron swam around one such building to a metalwork staircase at the establishment's rearward side. There, he pulled himself out of the water, dripping, cold, and fatigued. It'd been a long night, with no end in sight. While Aaron wanted nothing more than to find a dry place to sleep, he steeled himself and went on, climbing the outside stairs, up and up, to the rooftop. There was a latticed barrier, with a locked door to keep the casual thief at bay, but the whole affair had fallen over. Aaron crawled across it with little difficulty. Beyond, Aaron found a scene of exquisite dining, or what might have been had high-backed chairs and candlelit tables not been displaced by a throng seeking safety from the flooded streets. Aaron sifted his way through to the roof's other side. More of the latticework had collapsed or been torn down, and so he gained the next rooftop easily. Similar scenes awaited him. Rooftop gardens, smoking alcoves, and normally quiet dining venues were crowded by all manner of folk. Some hailed him, asking if he needed assistance. Aaron waved them away and kept moving. It was not a straight path, for some roofs had collapsed, or were torn with holes. He made his way around these, until the rooftop crowds grew sparser and he found himself mostly alone. He stopped then, both to catch his breath and, now that he was further away from the center of Norwynne, to survey what damage the rest of the city had experienced. He wandered to the roof's edge, covering his nose and mouth with one hand as the pungent odor of brine and seaweed hit him. There was more rubble and a sheet of inky darkness where streets had once been. He saw some unrecognizable wreckage bobbing in the water. Then he recognized the shapes. Bodies. Bodies floating in the water. Though he saw no faces, the too pale skin and lifeless limbs caused him to look away.

He moved on, though his gaze fell too often on the water below where the presence of the dead only grew worse. Though he tried not to look at them, they nonetheless drew the corner of his gaze until the only way to avoid them was to run faster and faster. Clutching his stomach in revulsion, he lengthened each stride, running on and on, his pace a thing of madness as he leaped down to a lower rooftop and then to a series of catwalks spanning the flooded streets. Once, then twice, he stumbled and nearly fell. But he never stopped running. Great sobs wracked his chest and he didn’t realize he was crying until tears blurred his vision so badly he had to wipe them away to see.

He stopped.

Clearing his eyes, he found he was alone. He heaved in a great breath, the coolness of the air burning his lungs. He exhaled slowly. Then, looking about to get his bearings, he realized he’d arrived. Furthing’s Deep. Relief was short-lived as he took stock of the water's level. There was an arch that lent entrance to the Deep and its passage into the Underkeep, but only the very top of the arch's coign remained above water. Furthing’s Deep was completely submerged. He was too late. The sinking feeling Aaron felt stopped dead in its tracks as he looked closer. Furthing's Deep was most certainly not flooded. He brought his mind back into focus, running through the calculations. He considered rate, time, volume, and quickly came to a conclusion: there hadn’t been enough time for that much water to drain into such a large space. The Underkeep was vast. Modern maps showed only a fraction of its halls and chambers. The rest lay undiscovered and unused since the time of the dwarves’ departure from Norwynne. Aaron examined the water’s level more closely, finding it was steady. Someone had closed a door—a dwarven door—to keep the flooding at bay. Only a door crafted and fitted by dwarven hands sealed so well. Aaron let out a breath of relief, then, clinging to that bit of hope, set about finding an alternate way in. Fortunately, he knew of one, and not too far away.

He navigated a series of catwalks that extended from one second story quadrangle to another. At the end of one such walk, he found an oil lantern someone had left hanging from a ring hook, a low ember still burning at its center. A quick turn of its key and Aaron quickened his pace with the lantern lighting the way. The catwalks ended in a shadowed, elevated lane that, in turn, led to a great arch and a dark chamber beyond. Though he remained above the worst of the flooding, the water here was up to his mid-shin. There was a current too, moving in the same direction Aaron wished to go. He followed the current, making his way down the lane with care to the great arch where his lamp revealed a series of thick columns. Navigating his way amongst them, he quickly found himself at a small archway that consumed the floodwaters in a steady stream. Beyond was more darkness.

Aaron had all but taken his first step through when a shambling form emerged and, with reckless abandon, plowed right into him.

"G-Get off me, Squeak!"

"What are you doing? Where are you going?" Aaron asked as Corrin shoved him away. Aaron just barely managed to stay upright.

"G-Gettin' out of here, that's what I'm d-doing."

Corrin was soaked and shivering. Aaron’s lantern provided only a glimpse of a face drained of color, and then Corrin was walking past him.

"Wait!" Aaron said.

Corrin didn't stop.

"Have you seen Shanna?"

Corrin shouted a reply from over one shoulder. "No." Then he was gone, disappearing into the dark from which Aaron had just come.

Aaron turned to the pitch of the archway, allowed himself one deep breath and a slow exhale before stepping through. He followed the stream of water down a stair and through a hall whose width kept the water’s flow tenable. The hall ended in another arch—dwarves were fond of arches—where Aaron stumbled into a group of Underkeepers. Dressed in bedclothes, with scarce anything on their feet, they moved in a huddled mass with only one small torch to light their way. Aaron traded his much brighter lantern without question. While they made the exchange, Aaron inquired after Shanna. Though several claimed to know her, none had seen her. They took their turn inquiring about the keep. How bad was it? How many had died? How many still lived? Memories of what he’d seen caused the words to constrict in his throat. He answered them all with only a shake of his head. They murmured their thanks for the lantern and shuffled off, leaving him alone again.

Aaron saw other groups, though these were better organized with several lanterns between them and a clearer sense of where they were going. All were headed to the surface. Like the others, they inquired about the condition of the city above and the status of survivors. In answer, Aaron said only that the remainder of the way was clear before he slipped past them. One such time he heard whispers naming him as Elsanar’s apprentice, but no one questioned his purpose.

He encountered no one else after that. He guessed much time had passed while he’d sloshed through the wet and the dark. He wondered if he was the only one left in the Underkeep. Such thoughts were banished the moment a series of cries for help reached his ears. There was a short stair, leading down, covered by a cascade of water. Aaron leaped over the rush, plunging to his waist into a flooded hall. He half swam, half ran its length. The cries grew louder. The hall ended at a juncture—Bronzehome—where a handful of other passages led away. Aaron needed no directions to know which one to go down. The way ended prematurely at a stone slab—a dwarven drop-door—that had slid from the ceiling and now completely barred him from going any further. The cries, louder now, were just on the other side of the door.

"Shanna, are you there?" Aaron shouted through arrow slits drilled into the stone. "Shanna! It's Aaron!"

A voice responded. "Corrin! If that's you, you worthless—"

"No, Shanna! It's Aaron!"

Silence from the other side, then, "Aaron? Is that you?"

"Yes!"

Aaron took a moment to inspect the door. It was sealed tight. The water only reached about midway, but it was rising on his side. Bending so that his ear just touched the surface, he plunged his arm into the water, reaching as far as he could. He felt a gap, between the bottom of the door and the floor. It hadn’t sealed all the way. With water flowing beneath the door, it was only a matter of time before his side of the passage and the one at the other side of the door were completely submerged. Aaron straightened to speak through the slits.

"I'm going to open the door."

A voice from the other side, not Shanna's, said, "Corrin already tried. It's too heavy." Aaron heard others assenting. Shanna shared her room with eight other girls, plus there were many more with rooms nearby. All girls, unless a boy had snuck in, which was always a possibility considering their ward mother was a drunk who spent more time minding a bottle than her charges.

"Yeah, Corrin tried all right," Shanna said. "Then he turned tail and left us here! If I ever see that worthless worm again…"

Aaron ignored the remainder of Shanna's statement, focusing instead on the problem at hand. Dwarven drop-doors were used to stop invaders. A quick flick of a switch and down it came. Of course, the dwarves had to have a means by which to raise the door once the threat was gone, and so, with another flick of the switch, a drop-door was lifted back into position by a system of pulleys and winches hidden inside the wall. Damage from the quake must have triggered or broken the lift mechanism. Since the access panel was on the opposite side of the door, Aaron had no way of even attempting to repair it. Curious as to what was holding the door up at all, Aaron plunged his arm into the water and discovered a solid, metal object—a chest, he figured—jammed beneath. He let his hand slide along the door's bottom edge and, cautiously, to the frame rails at either side. Pulling his arm from the water, Aaron shouted into the arrow slits, "Stay here!" He realized too late how stupid that sounded. "I'll be right back."

"Aaron?" It was Shanna. "Where are you going? The water…it's rising."

She was right. He had to hurry. "Not far. I'm coming right back. Don't worry!"

"Aaron! Don't leave—"

He heard the fear in her words, wishing as he sloshed away that he'd more time to offer reassurances. One of the other girls—it sounded like Rachel, who had never really liked him—yelled, "I always knew you were worthless, Squeak!" Aaron ignored her. The moment he was able to pull himself from the water, he set off at a run, backtracking until a juncture led him down another passage, through an arch, and to the workshop of Marcus Gentry. It was locked, of course. Fortunately, Aaron had a key. Not a real key, but enough syrin acid stowed away in one of his vest vials to melt away the knob at its base. A quick dash of pedric neutralized the acid, allowing him to manipulate the exposed workings and undo the lock. Aaron dashed inside, finding the items he needed in no time at all.

When he got back to Shanna and the others, the first thing he heard was arguing over his departure and the belief that he wasn't going to come back. It sounded as if Shanna was the only one defending him. A yell from Aaron silenced them all.

"Someone get a chair," he said. "A strong one."

"What good is a chair going to do?" one of the girls asked.

"We're going to lift the door."

"With a chair? You're an idiot, Squeak!" Rachel again. "You're wasting our time. Why don't you go find someone who can lift—"

Sounds of a scuffle. Then Aaron heard a sharp cry of pain.

"Call him that again," Aaron heard Shanna say, "and we'll leave you behind!" That was that. Shanna prompted Aaron to go on.

"Take these!"

Aaron tossed his nearly spent torch into the water and, using both hands, handed off two short but thick iron wagon axles through the opening beneath the drop-door. "You're going to lift the door using the axles as levers. Slide one end underneath, then as many of you that can fit along the remaining length need to lift. Do it together. Don't waste your strength." Aaron waited for the barrage of protests and condemnations, but there was nothing but silence. He took it as an acceptance of his plan and went on. Or almost did. One look at the briny, soupy mix, tainted with dirt and dust and the death he'd seen above was enough that he had to take a moment to shake off a sensation of disgust and fear. "I'm going under the water. Once you lift the door I'll prop it up using the peg holes in the rails. Lift it as high as you can and hold it there until I return to the surface and tell you to let go. But be careful! Ease it down gently, or it might not hold at all."

"We understand, Aaron!" Shanna said. "Tell us when to start lifting!"

Aaron took a series of breaths, readying himself. "Now!" He took one last breath, then plunged beneath the surface. He kept his eyes closed against the stinging filth, using his hands instead to judge their progress. Right away, he received confirmation that his plan was working as Shanna and the others raised the door above one and then another of the peg holes, which ordinarily were used to hold the door in place during repairs. Aaron pulled some of Marcus's iron wheel spokes from his satchel and felt for the exposed holes, shoving the spokes in one by one. It was a tight fit, but with enough twisting he was able to force the spokes home. When the door's progress slowed and rose no higher, Aaron inserted one last spoke before shooting to the surface. The water had risen even higher. Aaron asked them to lower the door the moment he'd drawn enough breath to speak. It went down inches and—Aaron breathed a sigh of relief—held.

Aaron didn't have to tell them what to do next. There was some hesitation, for they must have felt the same dread Aaron had before he'd submersed himself in the fetid water. But they did it, swimming through the enlarged gap to come bursting to the surface. They were all girls, something Aaron became more and more conscious of as each emerged. Every one of them thanked him. Rachel managed only a nod. They clustered together a short distance down the hall, cold, numb, and frightened.

Shanna emerged last. Aaron's heart leapt to see her, but before he could transform his elation into words Shanna locked both arms around him in a tight embrace. Then she pulled away just enough to kiss him full on the mouth. Whatever Aaron had wanted to say was lost amidst the sweet saltiness of those lips and a mind-numbing sensation that rose from every part of him at once. The kiss lasted only a moment, then Shanna pushed away to smooth wet hair from her face and to adjust her borrowed cloak that she still wore draped over her shoulders. "Thank the Old Gods you came! There was someone…then Corrin, but they couldn't… They both left us! I thought for sure we were going to… What are you staring at?"

Aaron felt the heat rise in his face. "I'm not—I mean, I wasn't—"

A rumbling from the earth put an end to Aaron's stammering. Ripples raced across the surface of the water as, beneath their feet, the floor vibrated. The tremor—an aftershock, Aaron realized—lasted only a moment, but it was enough to drive the girls into a panic. They fled down the hallway in one accord. Aaron and Shanna, in no less of a hurry, followed. The group made it as far as Bronzehome Juncture—not very far at all—when the earth awoke again. The girls plunged into the water filling the juncture, managing in their mass hysteria to listen to Aaron's direction as he bid them return the way he'd come. The last of them had just managed to fight through the rush of water flowing from the passage and leave the juncture when Aaron and Shanna heard the ceiling above them cracking apart. In desperation, they plunged forward, trying to reach the other passage.

Too late.

Great chunks of rock and a streaming avalanche of water fell from above, extinguishing wall lanterns and creating a chain reaction that shattered the floor beneath their feet. Aaron barely managed to grab hold of the edge of one passage's railing. Shanna somehow found his other hand. For one terrible moment, as the floor collapsed and Shanna's weight jolted his, Aaron thought both of them were going to fall. They didn't, though almost immediately Shanna's grip on his hand began to slip.

"Don't let go of me!"

Aaron had never heard such intense panic from Shanna before. It rose above the roar of falling water and debris, stirring a panic in him also. He tried to tighten his grip, but it seemed the more he squeezed the more Shanna slipped free. Aaron tried to cry out to her, but his mouth filled with water and he fell into a fit of choking instead. Unbalanced, he lost what footing he'd gained. Unable to see, hardly able to breathe, Aaron focused everything on holding fast to Shanna's hand. Sheer thought was not enough though. Their hands slipped further.

"Don't let go of me!" she said again.

The earth groaned, beckoning Shanna into its embrace as the water streaming past them tried to pull her away from him. Aaron wanted to shout out, yelling that the earth had taken enough and that it could not have her too. But he'd no strength left. Only their fingers touched now, and then not even that. His fingers slipped along hers. Then her hand was gone.

"Shanna!"

He knew she couldn’t hear him. She was gone, taken by the water's ferocity. He shouted anyways, sobbing her name until he was so drained of strength he could do nothing but hang in place while bits of rock and sheets of water continued to fall from above. Minutes—or hours—passed before Aaron lifted himself to safety. He made it only a short distance down the passage before he collapsed. He stayed there for a long time.

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The Five Elements (The Alchemancer: Book One) Preview–Chapter 2

The Five Elements is the first book in The Alchemancer series of science fantasy novels. Here’s a preview in the form of chapters 1 through 3 to give you an idea what it’s about. For other chapters, please see the chapter preview index page.

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2. Waves

AARON'S PLAN TO START SEARCHING for answers was derailed almost immediately. After he and Master Rion had left Shanna in the capable hands of a caregiver, the sorcerer insisted that Aaron pay Master Elsanar a visit. Unable to do anything but comply, Aaron had left the hospital and gone to Ellingrel with Master Rion as escort. Now, as Aaron stepped into his master's study, leaving Master Rion in the outside hall, he was greeted by the familiar scent of apple and cherry wood pipe smoke. Noticing the light fading from the room's sole candelabra, Aaron went to refresh its candles straightaway. The new candlelight did little to chase away the worst of the darkness, but combined with the layer of pipe smoke hanging heavy in the air it created a pale glow that Aaron found comforting as he moved to stand between the two high-backed chairs that faced his master's desk. The sorcerer, who leaned back in his usual faded, leather-bound chair, was just visible between multiple stacks of papers, scrolls, and books. One corner of his mouth sucked at his chestnut pipe while the other exuded gentle puffs of white smoke in timed rhythm. Robes similar to those worn by Master Rion were draped around his slight form, though his were more worn, the dark satin gone light, the ends frayed from years of wear. As Aaron bowed his head to indicate he was at his master's service, he spied the elder's favorite doeskin slippers just poking out from beneath the desk. Without removing his pipe from his mouth, Master Elsanar spoke.

"I understand there has been an incident." His voice was soft and gravelly with age.

"Yes, master," Aaron said.

Elsanar leaned forward just enough to look Aaron up and down. He lifted his head to see better through his spectacles, which hung at the tip of his long nose. "You are unhurt?"

"I am well, master."

"And your friend? This Sarna. She is well, also?"

"It's Shanna, sir." Master Elsanar's inability to recollect names was the stuff of notoriety. "Yes, she's recovering. Master Rion and I brought her to Jadjin. She says she will be fine. There was a man, sir. He was trying to kill us. Shanna tried to stop him, but—"

"I know, Aaron." Elsanar's voice remained calm, reassuring. He leaned back once more, one hand stroking the length of a beard dominated by gray. "Why don't you sit? There are things we need to discuss."

Aaron started to round one of the chairs, then froze. A sheathed sword was leaning against the chair and a satchel rested on the seat. Aaron knew neither belonged to his master. The bag was of plain leather, bereft of design, with a fur-lined shoulder strap and nothing to distinguish it from any other bag. But because the sword was there, eslar glyphs so plainly etched on its bone hilt, Aaron knew exactly to whom the items belonged. He also knew that sword, satchel, and owner were never far from each other. Probing the darkest of the shadows, he saw nothing at first. Though his gaze swept over the remainder of the room, it quickly returned to that single corner furthest from the light. Even then, he did not see him until he chose to reveal himself. First, stark white eyes appeared from the gloom. Then a sleek, blue-black skinned face crowned by a shock of rust-red hair emerged. The rest followed until a man stood revealed. No, not a man. An eslar. Master Ensel Rhe Alon. Tall and lean, he was dressed for nocturnal events: black brigandine armor and dark leather elsewhere. A long coat stained dark with dampness from the road reached nearly to the floor. Without a word, the eslar came forward, the starkness of his eyes never leaving Aaron's. He lifted the satchel from the chair with one hand. He extended his other toward Aaron.

"My sword," he said, his words a near whisper.

Aaron looked with apprehension upon the eslar's weapon. It reminded him too much of the assassin's knife, only larger and, he guessed, much deadlier. He swallowed, then forced himself to take hold of it. With a hand he fought to keep from trembling, he held the weapon out to Master Rhe. The eslar received it with a slight nod, then he pulled his coat back to secure the blade at his belt. Aaron spied an assortment of other weapons there: a pair of throwing knives, a dagger whose dark sheath matched that of the sword, and a short blade identical to those worn by the soldiery of Norwynne. Ensel Rhe let his coat fall into place and straightened the strap of the satchel across his chest and shoulder.

The eslar possessed an evil reputation. The satchel bore most of the responsibility, for people said Master Rhe was a collector, and that the satchel held his bounty. Now, it looked empty. But other times it bulged, or so folk said, full of the things the eslar collected. Those things were scalps. The scalps of men, women, children. People whispered Master Rhe's name any time someone showed up dead in or outside the city walls. No matter if the corpse was missing its scalp or not (none ever did as far as Aaron knew). Master Rhe was always to blame. Of course if there was truth to any of it Aaron figured he would have been arrested long ago. Also, the fact that Master Elsanar consorted with him absolved Master Rhe of blame as far as Aaron was concerned. Still, the eslar did nothing to dispel the stories swirling around him. Perhaps he liked it that way. Aaron could not be sure, for he'd never talked to him. If Master Rhe really was collecting scalps and carrying them around in his satchel, then Aaron at least hoped his victims were deserving of such a fate.

Ensel Rhe nodded in Elsanar's direction. "I take my leave."

The master wizard raised his pipe in answer and, as Elsanar stood, Master Rhe swept past Aaron without a glance and quietly exited the study. Aaron let out an audible breath at his departure.

"Never mind, Ensel," Elsanar said, coming around the desk and gesturing for Aaron to sit. Elsanar slid the other chair around so it faced Aaron's. The master had just settled in his chair when a wailing noise from behind a small, closed door filled the room.

"Ah, tea!" Elsanar said. "I forgot I put the water on."

He made to rise, but Aaron was quicker. "I will tend to it, sir."

Aaron darted off to the adjoining chamber which served as the sorcerer's laboratory. The room contained a small stove which more often than not boiled the sorcerer's concoctions, but also did well to heat water. The stove's small fire provided enough light for Aaron to navigate the room and prepare the tea before returning with the pot full and the drink brewing. Elsanar seemed content to wait until the tea was ready, so they sat in silence while steam rose from the teapot's spout. Aaron slumped in the high-backed chair that was too big for him, looking about the shadowed room while they waited. No wall in Elsanar's study was left exposed: bookcases were crammed with hide-covered tomes, scrolled maps, and stacked sheets of parchment that lined row after row of shelving. There were no paintings or tapestries, just the shelves packed with a weight of knowledge Aaron had done his best to plow through. Yet even after four years of apprenticeship, he'd barely scratched the surface.

Aaron tested the tea. Finding it brewed sufficiently, he poured the steaming drink into two polished wood cups he had brought with him from the laboratory. Elsanar took a sip, then leaned back in his chair.

"Now," Elsanar said, shifting, "let us speak of this man who tried to harm you. You have questions, I know. Questions about this assassin. Yes, I call him such because that is what he was. The truth of it is that he was not the—"

A bell sounded from the laboratory. Nothing unusual, for many of the master's monitoring devices were tied to chimes, bells, or whistles. This bell was really no different from any other except that it rang and rang, and kept ringing until, after exchanging a glance with Aaron, Elsanar stood and, without a word, hurried into his laboratory. Aaron knew the patterns of all the sounds his master's devices made and how many times each rang to indicate that some threshold had been reached or crossed. While the chime of this one was familiar enough, its frequency was not. Aaron followed, so fast he almost ran into his master. He stayed close as Elsanar approached a work table set into the room's furthest corner. He narrowed his gaze at the indicator on one particular machine. The metallic needle of the gauge showed an energy measurement of five peta-joules and rising. It hit six and then seven peta-joules. All the while the bell continued to ring.

The noise was loud enough to draw attention. Master Rion, who still waited outside in the hall, came running into the laboratory. He said nothing at first, but seemed just as interested as Elsanar in the rise of the needle. Aaron looked from one master to the other, not knowing what to make of their interest in the gauge or their silence. He did know, however, that the needle should not be rising so high, nor so fast. Of course, he wasn't entirely sure what it was measuring. While Master Elsanar had designed all of the encorders in the room, Aaron modified and calibrated them. But not this one. Aaron looked at it more closely. There were extra chambers inlined with the compression tubes and additional measurement crystals, pulsating now as they absorbed the ambient energy waves to which they'd been tuned. Aaron considered asking his master the purpose of the modifications, but Elsanar was so intent on making his observations that Aaron dared not interrupt him. Master Rion was unapproachable as well. His full attention was on the machine's reading.

Finally, Elsanar stepped away. "It is confirmed then."

Master Rion still inspected the gauge, which by now had risen above ten peta-joules, a remarkable reading by any measure.

"Are you sure?" Master Rion asked.

Master Elsanar found a stool to sit on. "Yes."

He suddenly looked old and tired to Aaron's eyes.

Rion straightened. "Then we haven't much time."

Aaron looked from one master to the other, waiting for an explanation. When he realized none was forthcoming, he set out to examine the machine himself. Half a dozen encorders just like this one were scattered around the laboratory. The energy such devices measured might be magical, alchemical, potential, relative, reactionary, elemental, emotional, or one of a thousand other types. Much of it lie in how the crystals were tuned. Small and cut precisely, there were half a dozen in this machine. Principles, laws, and equations all revolved around the operation of those crystals, but, at its simplest, they absorbed ambient energy and passed on measureable information via emitted pulses to any number of compression tubes, tension gauges, valves, vats, or gears. The end result was a quantified measurement. This machine was showing a level Aaron was quite certain he'd never seen before. By the looks on their faces, neither had the masters.

Aaron needed his lab vest. As he walked quickly to take it from the hook beside the door, he removed the satchel he'd had over one shoulder nearly all day and hung it in place of the vest. Though they had a rule about only storing alchemicals in their proper, safe place, it was a lax one as long as the alchemicals in question were not explosive, and so the vest was already lined with an assortment of vials containing his and Master Elsanar's most often-used substances. One of those was aqua vermillion, a conducting agent which Aaron sprinkled onto a nearby measuring wand. He picked up a handheld calibrating meter and, with wand and meter in hand, returned to the machine. He waved the wand over the encorder's crystals while his eyes remained fixed on the meter. There were two needles on the device, both with different scales. The larger one went right to 56. The smaller, 3579645. Taken together, 56.3579645.

An elemental frequency.

Elsanar stood. The look of frailty was gone, replaced by one of purpose. "Aaron, my staff."

Aaron put the instruments down. "But, master, I—"

"Aaron!"

Aaron quietly did as he was asked, fetching the wizard's staff from its usual laboratory corner.

"Rion," Master Elsanar said, "see that Aaron is taken somewhere safe. Stay with him. They might try to take advantage."

Rion nodded in reply. "Come with me, Aaron. Time is short."

"But…" Aaron handed the staff to his master, all the while trying to stammer a sentence out. Finally, he blurted, "What is going on?"

That got Master Elsanar's attention. The sorcerer paused, then beckoned Aaron closer. He placed a comforting hand on his apprentice's shoulder.

"There is no time for explanations, Aaron. Rest assured that come morning—or sooner should this business conclude as I think it shall—you and I will sit down once more and I will tell you everything. I promise. For now, though, you must trust that myself and Master Rion have your best interests in mind."

Aaron knew of only one way to respond. "Yes, master."

Rion put an arm at his back and guided him from the laboratory with such haste Aaron barely had time to snatch his satchel off its hook. Elsanar followed them into the study. Before Master Rion had ushered Aaron out into the hall, he took a moment to look at his master one more time. The old wizard had his back to him as he fumbled with something on his desk. Master Elsanar was a quiet, reserved man, rarely prone to rashness. Yet now, his quick movements and haste almost spoke of panic. The thought turned Aaron's stomach and made his skin go cold. As he turned away from the old sorcerer, he wondered if the two would ever have their promised conversation.

 

* * *

 

Shanna opened her eyes to find herself lying in bed. Not her bed, if the softness of the mattress and pillow was any indication. So whose, then? Shanna turned her head and immediately regretted it as a flash of pain ignited the spot where she'd been struck. While she waited for the pain to subside, memories returned: saving Aaron from Clubfoot, their run-in with Master Rion, the trip afterwards to Graggly's Tower, and last, the man with his knife, coming at them with murder in his eyes. Shanna shuddered, immediately wishing she hadn't as the side of her face lit up again. Thankfully, the pain did not last as long this time. Through careful experimentation she found that by turning her neck ever so slowly she could take in her surroundings with minimal pain. She was in a dark room lit by a smattering of low burning candles. More beds were to either side, only two of which were occupied. By appearances, her roommates slept or were deceased, for Shanna thought she smelled leenum, a fragrance used to mask the scent of the dead.

A woman emerged from the room's only doorway. Shanna watched her walk to the first occupied bed. A quick inspection, repeated at the next, then she was quietly pulling up a chair next to Shanna. The woman—Shanna recognized her as Jadjin the healer—smiled. Jadjin was a slender, dusky-skinned woman, some said a gypsy, come up from the reaches beyond the Four Fiefdom's borders. She'd entered into service here in Norwynne long before Shanna'd been born, her knowledge and skills as a healer guaranteeing her a place for as long as she wished.

"Now," Jadjin said, "let's take a look."

She held a hand to Shanna's forehead for a moment. Satisfied, she leaned in closer to inspect Shanna's cheek. Shanna, unused to the attention, tried to withdraw further into the bed. Jadjin only smiled at her display of discomfort.

"You have a nasty bruise," Jadjin said, her voice smooth and comforting. "But nothing that won't heal with time."

Shanna tried to speak, but her words emerged as an indecipherable croak. Without comment, Jadjin rose. She returned a moment later with a cup of water and arranged the pillow behind Shanna’s head so that she could drink. Shanna eagerly took the water, surrendering the cup only when it was empty.

"Who brought me here?" Shanna asked, her voice a whisper.

"Master Rion and one of the Tower apprentices."

Shanna licked her lips. "I need kuma seed. My cheek, it hurts." She'd never had the drug before and wouldn’t have known of it had Aaron not been given some after he fell and bruised his leg last year.

"Kuma seed?" Jadjin smiled. "You and I both. If I gave you kuma seed, there wouldn't be enough for the lord or his daughter. It doesn't grow here. Doesn't abide the salty air." Jadjin shook her head. "For you, I have willow bark."

Willow bark.

Already Shanna felt the bile rising in her throat. The stuff had a repugnant taste and did not sit well with her at all. The last time she'd used it, she'd spent more time recovering from the resulting stomach ache than from the original ailment.

Jadjin started to turn away, but not before Shanna asked, "Where's Aaron?"

"Aaron? Oh, the apprentice!" A broad grin lit up her face. "That boy sure was concerned about you, dear. Fawned over you the whole time till I finally had to have Master Rion take him away. Be careful! That one's got his eye on you. Such a pretty girl, it's no wonder." Shanna sank further into the bed, her eyes straying from Jadjin's as her cheeks turned rosy. The healer raised a hand to her lips to suppress a laugh, lest she wake her sleeping patrons. "He said he would come see you in the morning. Now, rest while I fetch the willow bark."

Shanna watched the woman retreat the way she'd come. Then, tossing the covers off, she eased her legs over the side of the bed and tried to stand. It took a moment for the room to stop spinning, but she gained her feet without too much wobbling. Save the willow bark for someone else. She wasn't taking it. Nor was she staying here any longer. She could recover just fine in her own bed. Shanna found her shoes and the cloak she'd borrowed—left behind by Aaron—at the foot of the bed. Jadjin must have gone off to some other part of the hospital to grind her witch's brew, for the room beyond was empty. Shanna exited the building unobserved.

Almost immediately Shanna wished she'd taken the offered medication, for every step brought a new jolt of pain from her cheek. That, and the aching in her head showed no signs of going away. Pain or not, though, she had no intention of changing her mind. It was a matter of principle now and a particular point of soreness, too, that some always got the best of everything while others had to make do or get nothing at all. She crossed her arms, the direction of her thoughts causing every footfall to hit the hospital's walkway like the strike of a hammer. They'd taken her inside the walls of the lord's keep, likely only because of either Aaron's presence or his insistence. That nasty master who'd run into them probably would have dumped her at the nearest hack's shop. She kept her head down, stomping her way round the vine-covered walls of the lord's estate, which was the centerpiece of the large, rectangular yard. The stomping did her no good: each impact sent a shock of pain up her body and into the welt on her cheek. Also, it attracted the attention of a passing guard. The man stopped for a moment to observe her, but he said nothing and soon returned to his silent patrol. Shanna kept walking.

Next thing she knew she'd cleared the whole of the bailey, completely passing her intended exit-way. If she went any further she would be square in front of the door to Ellingrel, Norwynne's Tower of Sorcery. Shanna leaned back to take in the fullness of its height, trying to locate the window that was Aaron's. But even with scattered openings lit like beacons across its gray stone it was difficult in the night's darkness. She knew he was in there, somewhere. Briefly, she considered knocking on the door and asking to see him. The answering apprentice would probably just turn her away, though. Opposite the Tower, she saw more lights, this time coming from the high windows of the lord's keep. Thoughts turning dark again, she imagined Lord Vuller and his pain-in-everyone's-arse daughter swallowing their kuma seed. She hoped they choked on it.

Beneath her borrowed cloak, Shanna ran her hands up and down her arms for warmth. The fabric of her shirt was coarse and worn thin, with a patch at one elbow and the beginnings of a hole at the other. Matching patches were at the knees of her pants. The vest was the only thing close to new, given to her by Aaron just last year. Of the clothes she owned, she much preferred the current ensemble to anything else. But the garments had seen many years and many washings, and she knew she'd have to buy new ones soon. That meant she'd have to start saving from the pittance that was her pay. Either that, or she'd have to ask Nora for an advance. It was within her right; Shanna worked for the woman now as her apprentice, though 'laborer' was more like it. Who would have thought soap making such an arduous chore? She'd barely started learning about the fragrances and what worked best with what and already she hated it. Almost as much as she hated asking anything of her new mistress. Especially this, for Nora abhorred Shanna wearing 'boy's clothing,' and probably would turn her down. She'd done as much plenty of other times. Once, Shanna had wanted an extra candle to read by. Aaron always loaned her such wonderful books, with pictures and tales of such strange, faraway places, that she'd wanted to remain awake all night reading them. Hard to do that with only a single, stunted candle to her name and no money to buy a new one. Nora had dismissed Shanna with a laugh and a sharp admonition: better she spend her time sleeping to meet the next day's labors rather than wasting her time reading. There'd been other times too, enough that Shanna decided she'd not ask Nora for an advance or anything else ever again. She'd save the money on her own, even if it took months of squirreling away drams. At least then she could buy what she wanted with no one able to say otherwise.

Shanna knew she'd likely not see Aaron again until mid-day, after she'd finished her chores and he his lessons. That meant she'd have to wait that long before learning why anyone would want Aaron dead. She knew she hadn't been the assassin's target. The man had brushed by her almost as if she wasn't there. Her feeble attempt to stop him had nearly been a disaster. The man's knife, so close to her. Shanna shuddered at the thought of it. It had made her own blade look like a butter knife.

Knowing Nora would not see her bruised cheek as an excuse from her duties, Shanna started heading home. She crossed the quietness of the yard until she came to a lesser used postern gate where she had to ask the single guard stationed there to raise it. He did so only after some grumbling. Out on Lantern Street, the nighttime activity of the avenue's finer pubs and eating establishments was just getting started. While Shanna didn't run in such circles (and probably never would, she told herself), there was always someone lurking about in which to engage in idle chatter or a game of chance before a night watchman ran them off. On any other night Shanna would not have hesitated. But this night, she just wanted to go home.

It was a long ten blocks. With the night growing colder with each step, she was relieved when she passed beneath the familiar open arch leading into her plaza. Furthing's, it was called, and while it wasn't large, it did have its own well and benches for sitting. Shuttered windows rose up all around: multi-storied apartments where all manner of people lived. But not Shanna. Her home was below, in Furthing’s Deep. The deep—it was only one of many—was part of Norwynne's underkeep, where dwarves had once dwelt. It had been a long time since any dwarf had called the Underkeep home though, and those who remained—men, mostly—saw no reason not to make use of the space. 'Underkeepers,' they were called. The name had never really bothered Shanna. She'd been one as long as she'd been in Norwynne, so it was something she'd grown used to as she had bounced from one Underkeep orphanage to another. The past year, she'd found some stability, and now shared a hearth-home with eight other girls.

Furthing was one of only a few plazas that had a working dwarven elevator. But at the moment it wasn't running, so she went instead to the stairs that led down, down, down into the dark. She lit a torch to guide her and was just about to take the first step when she was beset by a wave of dizziness. The spell nearly clocked her. For a moment she thought she might fall down the stairs. But she caught herself against the wall, staying like that until it finally passed. When it did, the dizziness was gone completely, as if it had never happened. Shanna took a long breath and blinked her eyes. The blow the man had given her must have hurt more than she thought. Resigned to crawl into bed the moment she got home, she held her torch before her and descended into the Underkeep with careful steps.

 

* * *

 

Somewhere safe for Aaron, it turned out, was at the very top of Ellingrel.

Already worn down from a long day, Aaron had not found the idea of climbing to the Tower's roof appealing at all. His best protests, however, fell on deaf ears as Master Rion ushered him to the top without remorse, allowing neither time for rest nor opportunity for Aaron to ask any of the questions swirling through his head. By the time they'd reached the halfway point, he was too tired to speak anyway.

As soon as they gained the roof Master Rion went straight to the edge where battlements similar to those of Graggly's Tower encircled the top. He settled in quickly, the fullness of his attention on the ocean-side of the city or on something beyond. Moving more slowly, Aaron took a moment to regain his breath and gather his strength before he fought the whipping wind to join the sorcerer. Ellingrel stood roughly at the center of Norwynne, but closer to the landward side. Still, its great height afforded the observer an uninhibited view over the lord's keep, the surrounding city, and, beyond the assortment of buildings poking up in irregular patterns, the great outer wall, Regrok, which legend said had never been breached. By day, the view was spectacular. Now, it was an ebony screen punched through by the faint light of street lanterns and a chaotic pattern of lit windows. Beyond Regrok was the Barrens. The great, empty ocean, Norwynne folk called it. Now, true to its name, it was inky blackness, for a blanket of clouds obscured even the light of the moon.

Aaron saw activity on Regrok's wall walk: Master Elsanar, small compared to the wall's massiveness, standing amidst members of his coterie. Keep soldiers were there too, in greater numbers than usual if the number of torches reflecting from armor was any indication. At one end of the walk, a cluster of them parted as a single figure emerged from a corner guard tower. Aaron saw hands jump to brows in salute as the man—who could be none other than the Lord of Norwynne, Lord Vuller—passed. He stopped only when he stood face-to-face with Master Elsanar.

"What do you suppose they're saying?" Aaron asked above the howl of the wind.

His eyes never leaving the dark of the horizon, Master Rion's answer came quick and short. "I don't know."

Aaron thought Master Rion did know, if not the conversation's exact words then at least the general content, but Aaron did not press the point. Instead, he asked, "What are we doing up here?"

"Master Elsanar felt this place would offer you the most protection. The Tower is a sorcerer's tower. It is protected. You know that." Again, the master sorcerer's eyes never left the horizon, though Aaron was quite sure there was nothing there to see.

"Why do I need protecting? I mean, what about everyone else?"

Over ten thousand people called Norwynne home, not to mention another five hundred or so who worked the surrounding farmlands. The Market Day Festival was nigh, also. That added at least another two thousand. What about them?

Master Rion's gaze left the distant horizon long enough to fix Aaron with a hard stare. "If there were time to tell you all, I would. Come morning, Elsanar will explain everything." He looked away and said nothing more.

Resigned to gathering whatever information he could on his own, Aaron returned his gaze to Regrok. More torches had been lit and now Lord Vuller, who still consulted with Master Elsanar, finally broke away, returning the way he had come. One-by-one, soldiers followed him. Not just one or two or even ten, but every one of them until the full length of the wall walk was abandoned but for Master Elsanar and his fellow sorcerers. Aaron counted fifteen, save Master Rion. The sorcerers spread out in a line, each taking a position twenty paces from the other. Every one of them faced the ocean.

Aaron heard shouts coming from the streets below as word spread about the nocturnal activity occurring along the wall-walk. Light from torches and lanterns appeared in windows while avenues and courtyards soon filled with folk milling about looking for answers. Soldiers, perhaps the same ones who'd abandoned Regrok to the wizards, took up positions along byways and at lit street corners. Whether their task was to quell or placate, Aaron could not be sure. Either way, Aaron envied them. At least they'd been given something to do.

A ruckus started on the landward fringes of the city. Herd animals brought inside the city walls for the night bleated and baaed with intensity. Soon horses, cows, and now the howling of dogs joined the litany. Master Rion gave the ruckus a sharp glance before returning his attention to the wall.

Then there was a crack, a noise so loud Aaron winced from the sound of it. It was followed by a shuddering as the earth trembled beneath the city. It rolled across Norwynne as if a wave, then faded and was gone.

"Stand fast, Aaron!"

Master Rion braced himself with one hand on his staff and the other on the stone of Ellingrel. Without question, Aaron grabbed hold of the Tower’s battlements in like fashion, though without a staff the best he could do was place both hands on the stone.

Then, it started.

From deep down below, the earth rumbled, letting loose such movement that right away Aaron felt the Tower sway beneath his feet. Though it was only that at first, it quickly grew worse. The masses below, gone silent at the first hint of the earth's awakening, exploded now into a dissonance of fear and confusion. Another eruption drowned them out as the Tower quivered and then jolted so that his hands loosed themselves from the battlements. Vibrations ran up his legs and into his stomach and chest until he shook as much from fright as from the Tower's movement. He yelled a desperate cry at Master Rion, but the words were lost in the earth’s deafening roar as another convulsion rocked the Tower. Only Master Rion's outstretched hand kept him steady. Another jolt, this one accompanied by the crash of rock and timber coming from multiple sources below, tossed Aaron against the battlements where he tried again to take hold of the stone with both hands. He looked out over Norwynne, seeing some of the same city lights he'd viewed moments ago now swaying, as if someone were signaling with them. One such grouping ran vertical and represented a line of windowed apartments. Back and forth they swayed, until suddenly, one-by-one, from top to bottom, the lights winked out. Seconds later, Aaron heard the accompanying crash. He shook his head in slow motion, refusing to believe what he'd seen. But though it was dark, he couldn’t deny what had just happened. He blinked his eyes, unable to speak, almost unable to breath. Then it happened again. A tower half Ellingrel's height rocked in impossible fashion. Get out! Get out! Aaron yelled in his mind. Too late. Unable to withstand the sheering forces, the tower disintegrated into a cloud of rubble and dust that choked out the screams of those trapped within. The shock of it reverberated through Aaron, and he sank to the floor. He covered his ears, hoping to somehow mute out the continued sound of grinding rock and splintering timber. He heard and felt more structures crumble and fall. More people died. Though some had to have escaped to the streets, he knew there was no safety there. He'd seen the great chunks of falling debris.

Elsanar!

The master sorcerer would stop this. Aaron stood. He was relieved to find Regrok still intact. The members of the coterie were still there, too. But none of them were doing anything. They all still faced the ocean.

Then, just as sudden as it had started, it stopped. The tremors, the swaying, the grinding of stone on stone all lessened until, gradually, they were no more. Minutes passed. But for the wails of folk below and the wind whipping over Ellingrel's battlements, there was no sound. Aaron looked at Master Rion. "Is it…?"

"It isn't over," the sorcerer said.

Aaron followed the master sorcerer's gaze through the haze of dust risen above the city to Regrok. There, finally, Master Elsanar held his staff up to the dark, clouded sky. To either side of him, all along the wall walk, the other members of the coterie did the same. One by one, each of their staves flared with such brilliance that soon their very persons were obscured. The power of each joined with the next until a line of cerulean energy surged across the wall walk. Its greatest point of concentration was Master Elsanar, who now swung his staff in a great circle before him. The motion left in its wake a sheet of power that moved unilaterally in all directions. Up, down, across, it buttressed the might of Regrok in one direction while extending its height in the other.

"The waves," Master Rion said, "they've stopped."

Aaron listened. It was true. The normally persistent sound was noticeably absent. Even at lowest tide, that never happened. Aaron was just trying to work out an explanation when he saw the tidal wave.

Seen through the azure film of Elsanar's wizardry, it was frothing liquid set ablaze, a wave so massive that, even at its current distance, it dwarfed Regrok and the hundred foot cliff it sat upon. He reminded himself that Regrok had never been breached, that the keep had never fallen and that Elsanar, greatest of wizards, was here. Such reassurances fell by degrees as the wave loomed closer and closer until, finally, it crashed into the wizard wall. It hit like a battering ram, jolting the azure barrier and causing the flare of brilliance surrounding each of the wizards to intensify. Knowing the danger of such exertion, Aaron winced as if in pain himself when three of the lesser sorcerers convulsed, then shriveled to blackened husks. Immediately, as the brilliance of those three dissipated, the wizard wall's strength diminished. Still, the barrier was enough that only a dousing of seawater broke through. Aaron let out an audible sigh of relief as the water fell away in sheets across the wall's length.

It was over.

"Aaron, stay here."

Aaron’s gaze went slowly to Master Rion.

"You'll be safe here," he said. "Do you understand?"

Aaron felt the blood drain from his face. A shiver ran through him.

"Do you understand me, Aaron?"

Aaron managed to bob his chin.

"Stay here! Ellingrel is the only place of safety now."

Aaron watched as Master Rion leapt between merlons much as Shanna had done earlier.

"Where are you going?" Aaron managed to ask.

"Elsanar needs me."

Without another word, the master sorcerer stepped from Ellingrel's roof. He did not fall, but instead drifted through the lingering haze down to Regrok's wall walk. He'd barely taken the place of one of the fallen wizards when another tidal wave hove into view. Master Rion had only seconds to add his strength to that of the others, seconds that were not enough as the second wave slammed into Regrok and its wizardly reinforcement. This time, like glass, the wizard wall shattered, and Regrok, which had never been breached, shuddered, cracked, and broke. The wizards—Elsanar and Rion amongst them—disappeared beneath the wave's frothing mass.

Aaron suddenly couldn't move, couldn't breathe. The shortness of breath was infectious. His legs lost feeling. His knees gave way. He remained standing only because he leaned heavily against the Tower's battlements, watching as the water exploded through Norwynne's streets, absorbing people and debris and finishing off structures made unstable by the earthquake. Aaron watched until so much water filled the streets that there was no longer anything to see. Then he backed away, not stopping until he came up against the Tower itself.

Its presence kept him standing. In that moment, it became his strength. Aaron clung to it, not moving, not thinking. He was safe. If he just stayed here, as Master Rion had advised, nothing could harm him. For an hour, as the shock of it all drained from him, that was what he did. But the longer he stayed put, the more he considered his predicament. He was safe, but what about everyone else? If it was over—even if it wasn't—folk needed help. Aaron slid along the wall, his outstretched hand probing for the door. Shanna, too. She might have been lying in the hospital when it started. Or, possibly, in her hearth-home. Aaron imagined the seawater flowing into the Underkeep, flooding the halls, trapping her.

It was all the prompting he needed.

Master Rion’s words were forgotten. The moment Aaron's fingers found the doorway, he slipped through. He left the door swinging on its hinges, not looking back.

Read Chapter 3.

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The Five Elements (The Alchemancer: Book One) Preview–Chapter 1

The Five Elements is the first book in The Alchemancer series of science fantasy novels. Here’s a preview in the form of chapters 1 through 3 to give you an idea what it’s about. For other chapters, please see the chapter preview index page.

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1. Assassin

AARON PLUNGED INTO THE CROWD, hoping the chaos of the marketplace was enough to throw off his pursuers. He knew two were behind him, but he also suspected others were ahead somewhere, waiting to close the noose. Uncertain what to do next, Aaron let the natural flow of the crowd take him deeper into the square. Despite the jostling, the autonomous sense of movement cleared his mind, allowing him to review his predicament with some modicum of logic. Turning around and going back the way he’d come wasn’t going to do him any good. Nor was moving ahead. Corrin and his gang of Jackals were smart enough to keep the main paths leading out of the square blocked, and cunning enough to expect a move toward one of the more narrow, less traveled side alleys. They’d wait for him, springing the moment he showed his face. But for how long? A plan began to form in Aaron’s mind, one which was both logical in its conception and simplistic in its implementation. All he had to do to put it in motion was wait, exercise patience, and—Aaron took a deep breath and let it out—remain calm.

Which was not so easy as the crowd continued to sweep him along, moving him closer and closer to the market’s other side, where Aaron was quite certain Corrin and a handful of his bullies waited for him. Aaron tried to stop his forward motion. That didn’t work, and earned him the glares of several people whose progress was slowed by his perceived inconsideration. He tried to go back, which proved even more futile; in addition to more glares, several curses were hurled his way as well. So he cut a path sideways, fighting for each step and apologizing as he went, until finally he burst from the crowd to land right in front of a stall where wooden figurines were laid out for sale. Aaron gave the trinkets nothing more than a cursory glance; his concern right now was behind him, where he looked to see if any of his pursuers had noticed his change in direction and decided to follow. When no one he recognized appeared, Aaron let out a sigh of relief and turned back to the table, where his gaze naturally fell on the display. On a whim, he decided to take a closer look. His plan involved copious amounts of waiting, so he saw nothing wrong with occupying himself with the seller’s wares while the rest took care of itself.

But first, he paused to straighten his sorcerer’s robe, correct the position of his satchel’s shoulder strap, and make a half-hearted attempt to fix his hair, which had started mussed this morning and probably looked no different now. Then he leaned closer to the table. Each figurine represented a different person or animal, and all were smooth and polished. Intrigued despite his earlier dismissal, he picked one up. The carving was of a soldier dressed in light armor. About as big as Aaron’s hand, the figure stood at ease, with one wooden hand upon the pommel of a sheathed sword while the other held a footman’s shield. The soldier looked to have been carved from a single block of walnut.

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

Aaron returned the figurine to where he'd found it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron nodded, and though he stared at the soldier for a moment longer, he finally opened his satchel and placed it inside.

As he turned back, intent on disappearing into the mass of moving bodies, rough hands grabbed him from behind. The merchant, whose attention was drawn elsewhere, noticed nothing. Aaron caught a brief glimpse of sneering faces before a hood was pulled over his head. He twisted and strained until a punch to the gut doubled him over and rendered him helpless. He was lifted, one arm wrapped about his torso and another around his legs, then carried away. If anyone noticed what was happening they made no move to interfere. Noise from the square fell away and, for a time, Aaron heard only the panting of his captors as their feet scurried across Norwynne's cobbled streets. Gulls screamed overhead while the crash of waves from the Barrens grew louder with each passing moment. Noise from the city faded and the wind, unhindered of a sudden by walls or dwellings, penetrated Aaron's clothing, sending a chill through him. He heard a boot splash in a puddle. Pant legs swished through tall grass. If his estimate of their rate of travel was accurate, they were in a field outside the walls. All at once, a burst of hollering broke out ahead. Aaron’s captors stopped only when they were thoroughly surrounded by the noise.

"Time to see if the mighty sorcerer's apprentice can fly!"

Whoops, hollers, and a raucous bedlam of laughter drowned out the sound of waves pounding the nearby cliffs.

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

"Where you goin', Squeak? Don't you wanna fly?"

Corrin leaned over Aaron and let loose a puff of breath so foul Aaron screwed up his face and sank as far as he could just to get away from the stench. Corrin was an ogre of a boy, a brute whose beady eyes, bull nose, stringy mop of hair, and club foot had to mark him as the saddest, ugliest scamp in all of Uhl. His appearance was not made any better by the rash and telltale signs of nails scratching across his cheeks where Aaron had splashed the reagent upon him. Plenty ridiculed Corrin over his appearance. Aaron never had, though. Such cruelty did not suit his disposition. That, and he also knew what it was like to be different. When he’d first met Corrin, Aaron had tried commiserating with him. That had not gone well, for Corrin had mistaken empathy for pity and hated him for it. Since then, Aaron had been marked as the bully's favorite target. The nickname Corrin had anointed him with, 'Squeak,' had come about because, starting around two years ago, Aaron's voice had begun to change, often rising in pitch at the most inopportune times. Even though the embarrassing instances had decreased in frequency of late, Corrin continued to use the tired moniker instead of his proper one.

A crowd had gathered, obviously tipped off to what the Jackals had planned. Spread out across the misty field were many familiar, but not friendly, faces. Though Aaron liked to think none of them truly wished to see him harmed, they were all jeering and, possessed of a mob mentality, joined together in calling for Aaron to make good on his claim or else have Corrin do it for him. That claim had been made over a year ago. No doubt the recent reagent dousing had rekindled thoughts in Corrin's mind of making Aaron prove his assertion once and for all. Which meant in order for him to get out of this Aaron only needed to figure out how to fly.

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

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

"I never swore," Aaron said in a low voice, splashing at the water that had pooled at his stomach.

"–that he could fly. But did he?"

The crowd's response came as one.

"No!"

Aaron wanted to point out that most of them hadn't actually been there, so how would they have known what he'd said, but he was not given the opportunity.

"Has he?" Corrin continued.

"No!"

"Will he?" Corrin didn't wait this time. "Oh, one way or another, he will!"

The crowd erupted.

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

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

While the mob whooped and hollered, Corrin set his Jackals into action. Two manned the firing lever while a pair—Elof and Cliff, no less, whose faces were still red from scratching—moved to stand just close enough to Aaron to make sure he didn't go anywhere. They must have thought he'd given up when he didn't make one last attempt at escape. Elof shrugged, and then Corrin gave the order to loose.

The firing lever was pulled. The catapult lurched as the coiled rope was released. The great throwing arm jolted forward, but it was only a short jolt. It lifted two feet, then slowed across two more before finally stopping altogether. In all, it had not even risen half the distance to the center cross. Though jarred, Aaron remained safely ensconced in the basket.

He stayed there for just a moment before he slid out, avoiding the outstretched arms of his guards to run lightly down the throwing arm. Landing at the base, he took in the confused, surprised, and outright annoyed expressions of his tormentors first. The mob, so eager to see him 'fly,' fell into murmurs and then silence. Knowing the moment was his, Aaron swept an arm across the ensemble.

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

Corrin was not amused.

"I'll make you disappear, Squeak!"

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

"Ha!" Anger turned to mirth as Corrin stopped, slapped a knee, and laughed. "Now that's a good trick, Squeak!"

The others—first the Jackals and then the crowd—added their laughter to his. Some amongst them pointed. Others doubled over. They all enjoyed watching as Aaron struggled to rise. He slipped once on the slick grass—an action which set off the onlookers all the more—but managed to keep his feet and stand. Shaking mud from his hands, Aaron looked at the faces of those who mocked him. He should be angry. He thought he almost felt a sensation—a burning—that struggled to flare deep within his chest. But the spark only glowed and then went out as clear thought prevailed. There was fantasy, where he leaped at each of the Jackals and laid them low, and then there was reality, with Aaron knowing he was too small to do anything to Corrin and too alone to take on any of the others. He had a hard time working up any ire against the crowd. They were only there because he'd opened his big mouth. He could get angry, but what would he do with it? Better to count his blessings and hope the Jackals just let him go. He might even—

"Hey, Clubfoot!"

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

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

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

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

"I know what's going to happen this time, girly."

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

"What did you just call me?" she asked, spitting out the words like acid.

Just like that, Corrin's resolve melted.

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

"Aw, c'mon," he said. "I was just kiddin'. I didn't mean nothin' by sayin' that."

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

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

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

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

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

Shanna smiled. "Of course, Aaron."

"We should probably go," he added.

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

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

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

Then she spun out of Aaron's grasp and skipped ahead into the crowd. She went amongst them as if a conquering hero, smiling and slapping any outstretched hand held her way. Aaron followed in her wake, his steps not nearly as enthusiastic. No one looked at or paid any particular attention to him, which was perfectly all right with him. He'd had enough of their attention for one day. Now, he wanted nothing more than to go home, put on some dry clothes, and spend the remainder of the evening reading from the odd assortment of scrolls and tomes that comprised his current reading pile. He told Shanna as much the moment she'd turned around to see what was taking him so long.

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

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

"Is not," Shanna said. "It's only five o'clock."

Aaron glanced at the gray sky. "More like six."

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

Aaron shook his head. "I can't, Shanna. I still have work to do before—"

"Work, work, work. You're so boring sometimes, Aaron."

"I am not. I just have—"

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

"There'll still be plenty of time to read your dusty old books," Shanna said.

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

Her voice was a whisper. "Wait here."

"Shanna, what—"

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

"What is this for?" Aaron asked.

"To keep you warm, of course."

Aaron groaned. "I don't need a stolen cloak to keep me warm."

"I didn't steal it! I borrowed it. There's a laundry line and—you said you were cold, right?" When Aaron didn't answer, she said, "Look, don't worry. I'll return it…someday."

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

"Not here you don't."

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

"Of course."

Aaron was not convinced.

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

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

"Now," Shanna said, "let's go find something to eat."

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

"Beat you there!"

Shanna was off before the last word escaped her lips. Aaron bounded after her, but Shanna was too fast. She emerged from the alley half a dozen paces ahead of him, out onto the cobbles of Sandy Shore Lane where she promptly disappeared around the corner. Aaron didn't miss a beat. By the time he realized Shanna had come to a full and complete stop, it was too late to keep from crashing into her. He drove them both forward, crashing them into a figure garbed in the midnight satin robes of a keep sorcerer. Unable to keep their balance, they all went down in a tangled mass.

"Gods damn it!"

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

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

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

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

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

Words spilled from Aaron. "We weren't watching where we were going, sir. We—"

"You weren't watching where you were going!" Shanna said. "I, on the other hand—"

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

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

"Fifteen," Shanna said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why don't you stand up for yourself?"

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

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

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

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

"It wasn't magic," he replied. "The rope was wet."

Shanna's quizzical stare prompted an explanation.

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

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

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

"Why not?"

"Because he doesn't deserve it."

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

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

"Aaron?" Shanna stirred at his side. "Promise me we'll always be friends."

"What? Of course we will." Then, actually thinking about what she'd said, he asked, "Why wouldn't we?"

"Because someday you'll be a great wizard, and I'll still just be…down amongst the riffraff."

"Shanna, I don't think—I mean, Master Rion didn't mean—"

"I know what he meant."

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

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

"Who the hell are you?" she demanded.

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

Though Shanna asked her question with the same tone she'd so often used with Corrin and his gang, it seemed wholly ineffective now as the man's only response was to reach one hand under a sleeve. With a quick pull, he drew a small knife. The blade and the manner in which he held it spoke of slit throats and murder.

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

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

"Shanna, get out—"

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

"Shanna!"

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

In the last moment, salvation arrived.

"Aaron!"

Midnight satin robes rose up behind the assassin.

Master Rion!

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

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

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

"Who sent you?" Master Rion demanded again.

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

Aaron and Master Rion converged on Shanna. The sorcerer at first seemed concerned only with Aaron's well-being. Once he was convinced that he was unharmed, Master Rion gently pushed Aaron away so he could make his own inspection of his fallen friend.

"She's only unconscious," he said, "though she'll have a nasty headache when she wakes. We should get her to a caregiver immediately."

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

Read Chapter 2.

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Why buy direct from me?

I’m venturing into direct sales of my eBooks. This post lays out the reasons a reader would want to buy direct from me.

As a reader, you have many retailer choices when it comes to purchasing your next great read. I’ll never tell someone to not shop at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, DriveThruFiction, Libiro, or any other book retailer. However, buying direct from a content creator is a great way to thank an artist for their effort by providing them the best possible royalty rate.

Here’s why I encourage you to consider buying direct from this site:

1. Higher Royalties to the Author

My royalties help sustain my business. While some retailers do offer a generous royalty, I make more when a direct purchase is made. This additional revenue helps pay for the good work of the various editors, proofreaders, and cover artists I employ to help create my finished products.

2. Buy once, get multiple eBook file formats

When you buy direct, you get Kindle/MOBI, EPUB, and PDF formatted files, all from your single purchase. You may only have one type of eReader (I know I do), but sometimes I like to have the Kindle version for my eReader and the PDF version for my tablet. Or maybe you own a Kindle, but want to share the EPUB version with a friend so he or she can read it on their Nook. Yes, this is perfectly fine with me, so if you’re in this position, please do share it.

3. No DRM

The eBooks files I sell do not contain DRM. This is important to readers who wish to share their eBooks with friends and family or wish to remain eco-system agnostic. These things are important to me, too, so you’ll never have to deal with DRM when you buy direct.

4. Lowest prices

I sell my eBooks at the lowest prices possible, meaning I price-match Amazon to ensure readers are always getting the best deal.

5. Your purchase is 100% secure

I use Gumroad to facilitate transactions and provide download links to my eBooks after a purchase is made. Your transaction is protected by full HTTPS encryption and your purchase information is never stored anywhere (unless you tell them to save it). The purchase process is simple, quick, and easy. Read more about the purchasing experience.

6. Pay with any major credit card or PayPal

All of the usual pay options you expect are available, including PayPal.

Have questions? Made a purchase and need to get in touch with me for any reason at all?

Then contact me. I’ll get back to you ASAP and I’ll get your questions answered or your concerns addressed. I stand behind this process 100%, so if something doesn’t work, I’ll make it right.

Interested in seeing a walkthrough of the purchasing experience? Then go here.

The Direct Purchasing Experience–Step by Step

I use Gumroad to facilitate the direct purchase of eBooks from my web site. Making purchases through Gumroad is easy. Here’s how.

1. Visit my Books page.

2. Titles available for purchase will have a “Buy Now” button associated with them.

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3. Click “Buy Now” and you’ll see, for example:

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4. Click “Buy this” when you’re ready to finalize your purchase. You’ll see the following dialog where you can make your purchase with any major credit card or PayPal.

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5. Fill-out the required info, click “Pay,” and you’re done! You’ll see a receipt similar to the following with info on where to download your new eBook (the “View product” button).

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You’ll also receive an email receipt which includes the download links.