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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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 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."
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.
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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