The Heart of Alchemy (Paperback)
The Heart of Alchemy (Paperback)
Book 6 of The Portal Wars Saga
With the Chamber of Eternity secure, Otto must now recover the second piece of the Immortality Engine.
But that task will be far from easy.
For the second piece, The Heart of Alchemy, lies far to the east in the fabled Celestial Empire. Assassins, undead, monstrous beast, and demon worshippers all stand between Otto and his prize.
And even more daunting, Valtan, the last living arcane lord, is determined to stop him. The cost be damned.
Can Otto overcome the forces arrayed against him and take the next step down the road to immortality.
Otto Shenk stood in the hall outside the guest room his mother had been using and watched her pack. She’d spent the summer and most of the fall helping Annamaria with the baby. Mother had the magic touch and now Abby seldom cried. For that mercy alone he would have thanked her a thousand times.
He’d asked her more than once if she wouldn’t consider just staying at Franken Manor permanently, but she always insisted on returning home to Shenk Barony. Since Mother could be every bit as stubborn as Father, Otto had been forced to accept her decision. And that meant going ahead of her to have a chat with Stephan, his rather unstable eldest brother.
He sighed and she looked up from the trunk. The fine lines around her blue eyes were barely visible in the bright morning light. She wore a velvet burgundy dress and tough leather boots. Her heavy wool cloak hung on the back of a chair nearby.
“Are you still worrying?” Mother asked. “Bad enough Axel fusses like a mother hen, I don’t need it from you too.”
Otto smiled and tried to keep his unease from showing. “We both love you, Mother. And given Stephan’s temperament, not to mention Griswalda’s, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they might do something stupid. It’s unlikely, I admit that, but far from impossible.”
“It’s sweet that you’re concerned, dear.” Mother closed the trunk and straightened. “But I’ve been dealing with your brother and his shrew of a wife for years. You have nothing to worry about.”
Otto nodded and let the matter drop. Once he finished with Stephan, he really wouldn’t have anything to worry about. The ether swirled at his command and lifted her trunk. They walked together towards the stairs.
At the bottom, Annamaria stood with the baby snug in her arms, sound asleep. She wore a fine white dress, her hair brushed and flawless. Whenever he saw her done up like that, he was reminded of that first day when they met. He’d been so full of hope for his impending marriage. How quickly she’d disabused him of his illusions. Now he viewed her and the baby the same way he did the long dining table. They were both permanent residents of the mansion and he was stuck with them.
Edwyn sat at said table a few feet away and heaved himself to his feet as they approached. Otto hardly believed it possible, but his father-in-law appeared to have gained at least another twenty pounds since trade got back to normal. His girth now barely fit in the dining room chairs.
“We’re going to miss you around here, Katharina.” Edwyn bowed to her and smiled, setting his many chins to jiggling.
“We certainly will,” Annamaria agreed. “I don’t know how I would have survived the last six months without you helping with Abby.”
“She’s a sweet girl.” Mother leaned over and kissed Abby’s cheek. “Once the roads clear in spring, I’ll have to come again. Take care of yourself, Otto. You still look far too thin.”
“Yes, Mother.” Otto walked her outside into the blustery fall breeze. The leaves had started to turn on the many trees that dotted the estate. A hint of moisture filled the air and he suspected they’d have a rain shower before the end of the day.
Otto guided her trunk up onto the carriage roof where one of the guards secured it. Another opened the door and she stepped in without assistance.
“Have a safe trip,” Otto said.
The driver shook his reins and the carriage clattered down the path and out of sight. Otto waited until he could no longer hear the carriage, became one with the ether, and reappeared in the courtyard outside the keep of Castle Shenk.
Graves was pacing in the training yard despite the bitter wind. Only a few days’ ride separated the barony from Garen, but the weather felt like Straken. They’d have to hope the frost held off or a fair portion of the apple crop would freeze.
The good sergeant hurried over when he spotted Otto. He looked older than Otto remembered. More gray ran through his dark hair and new wrinkles lined his face. Time, it seemed, had not been kind to Otto’s former tutor in the way of the sword.
“Lord Shenk.” Graves saluted fist to heart. Since they’d seen the power of his magic, all the guards were now far more respectful around Otto. “I’m glad to see you here. Your father and brother…”
“Yes, I heard. I’ve been putting this visit off, but Mother set out this morning so I can’t delay any longer. Tell me, is the situation as bad as she made out?”
“Three days ago, they nearly drew swords on each other. The garrison is already starting to pick sides. I’m your father’s man for life, as are most of the older guards. But many of the younger men see Stephan as the future, despite his quirks.”
“You should be a diplomat, Graves. Stephan’s insane and we all know it. That can be useful in the right circumstances, which these are not. Right now, all that concerns me is my mother’s safety. Is she in any danger from Stephan or his miserable excuse for a wife?”
“I hesitate to say for certain, my lord. Stephan wants to be baron. That hissing harpy spends every spare second whispering in his ear. When the snows come and everyone’s locked up together for five months, heaven knows what might happen. Only a miracle will see both your father and brother alive come spring. In truth, I don’t know who to put my gold on.”
That was even worse than Otto had feared. “If Father falls, you and any of the guards that wish to leave will have a place with me in Garen. You remember Franken Manor?”
“It’s a hard place to forget.”
“Come to the gate and tell them who you are. You can bunk with Axel and his scouts in our barracks.”
“That’s very generous, my lord. I—”
“There’s a price. Whatever happens this winter, I want you to keep Mother safe. I will make the consequences clear to Stephan, but if he’s in one of his rages, rational thought might be out of the question. Protect her, bring her to the capital if you must, and your future, along with any guard that comes with you, is assured. If she dies, then it had better be after you’ve already been killed. If it’s otherwise, you’ll wish Stephan had gotten a hold of you. Clear?”
“Perfectly.” Graves actually looked vaguely offended that Otto felt the need to threaten him. Maybe he hadn’t needed to, but some habits were hard to break. “We all love Lady Shenk. There isn’t a guard here, new or old, that wouldn’t lay down his life for her.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear. Now, let’s see if I can’t talk some sense into my father and brother.”
Graves walked as far as the keep door with him, pulled it open, and stepped aside to allow Otto to enter. A fire burned in the great hearth and Father’s hounds lounged in front of it. One dog lifted his head, snorted at him, and lay back down. Once he was inside, the door closed behind him with an ominous thunk.
No running away now.
Otto straightened. He wasn’t some weakling to be pushed around anymore. Let Stephan try. It would make his life immensely easier if he had an excuse to burn the life out of the madman.
Now that he thought about it, Otto could kill Stephan in his sleep easily enough, but then he’d lose Axel to the barony and that didn’t suit him at all. Having a soldier as skilled as Axel sitting in a rural barony overseeing the apple harvest was beyond a waste.
Besides, Mother wouldn’t appreciate it if he did anything to Stephan. Angels bless her, she still loved the lunatic.
Stretching out with the ether, he quickly located Father downstairs in the treasury. Brooding over his gold no doubt. Stephan was upstairs with his family and the servants were scattered around the keep probably in hopes of staying as far as possible from either their current or future master. His home had become a fine mess, that was certain.
He turned toward the basement stairs. Best to talk to Father first. No need to threaten him though. Otto just wanted to hear firsthand how everything had gone so wrong.
A guard stood at the top of the basement stairs. The man wore a mail shirt inside the keep when there was no threat from outside forces. That told Otto a great deal about just how serious matters were.
The guard moved quickly to block Otto’s path. “Your father doesn’t wish to be disturbed.”
“I need to talk to him. If he doesn’t want to talk to me as his son, he will talk to me as a Crown representative.”
The guard winced and looked all around as if afraid someone might overhear him. “He doesn’t trust anyone besides Graves and some of the other veterans. Most days he stays holed up with that huge chest of gold. In some ways, he’s gone as mad as Lord Stephan.”
“Mother’s on her way home. He needs to pull himself together before she gets here. Let me talk to him.”
The guard weighed his options, which amounted to moving or having Otto move him. Finally, he shuffled a few feet to the right. Otto nodded and descended the narrow stone steps.
At the bottom, a pair of Lux crystals cast dull, yellow light across a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot room. A shelf held small coffers filled with taxes collected from the many little villages that dotted the barony. In the center of the room sat the enormous chest filled with gold double eagles that served as the dowry that secured Otto’s wedding.
Father sat on the chest, his double-edged sword resting on his knees. He wore a full coat of mail along with his usual leather and fur. His beard hadn’t been trimmed or his hair washed in weeks at least. Bloodshot eyes glared at Otto from dark, hollow sockets.
“What are you doing here, boy? I thought you had a soft place in the capital far away from us.”
Considering everything Otto had been through since leaving for Garen, he’d hardly call it a soft life. Aside from the quality of his bed, there was little soft about it.
“Mother’s on her way home and I wanted to see what she was returning to. From everything I’ve seen, calling it a mess would be generous. What happened?”
Father rubbed his eyes and let out a long, exhausted sigh. “Your brother came back from Markane even more hungry for power than when he left. It started out calmly enough. He suggested hiring more guards and getting everyone better equipment.”
“But you refused,” Otto guessed.
“Of course I refused! We have no enemies at the moment; there hasn’t even been a bandit attack this summer. You don’t hire extra soldiers just to have them sitting around collecting pay with no one to fight.”
“Then why did Stephan want to hire them?”
“I’m not sure he did. It was a test to find out if I’d let him make a decision of even minor importance. I would have, you know, if only he made a good one. It went from one thing to the next: tapestries, new feather beds, new swords, you name it and he suggested we buy it. Nothing we actually needed of course. Some I blame on his wife. The pig can see her place as baroness only a breath away and she wants it bad.”
“Bad enough to hurt the current baroness?” Otto asked.
Father surged to his feet as though ready to fight. “No harm will come to your mother while I live!”
Otto nodded. “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of. Graves said you two nearly came to blows a few days ago. What was that fight about?”
“Whether we had roast beef or pork for dinner.”
Otto stared. If he’d believed his father capable of telling a joke, he would have assumed this was one. But given his grim expression, it clearly wasn’t.
“It was just the final thing that broke the dam. We haven’t eaten together or spoken since. I keep to the downstairs and Stephan the upstairs. Matters can’t stay this way for long. We’ll have to settle it in the training yard once and for all. Once he’s dead, I’ll need Axel released from his duties.”
Otto swallowed a laugh. “Axel wouldn’t come back here if you gave him that chest and all the gold it holds. Besides, I have greater need of him.”
“That’s not for you to say.” Father growled like a cornered wolf.
“Of course it is. Believe it or not, there are far greater matters in the world than who inherits Shenk Barony. My advice, assuming you can actually defeat Stephan, is to name his son as heir. You and Mother can raise him and Mandel. With any luck, Little Stephan will end up less mad than his father. I further advise that you dump Griswalda in a deep hole filled with sharp rocks.”
Father snorted a laugh. “Choosing her as a daughter-in-law might not have been my best decision.”
“So, you and Stephan do agree on something. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but why don’t you wait until Mother gets home? Maybe she can work out some kind of compromise.”
Father thought for a moment then nodded. “If he agrees, I won’t kill him until Katharina gets home.”
“Fine, I’ll go talk to Stephan, see if I can coax a sensible idea out of that warped brain of his. Will you meet us in the dining hall?”
Otto retreated back to the first floor then climbed to the second. As he drew closer to Stephan’s room, the sounds of muffled shouting reached him. Sounded like Father wasn’t the only one Stephan was having a fight with.
He shook his head and knocked. The fighting didn’t drop in volume, but the door did open, revealing a small, glum blond boy. Little Stephan had grown about five inches since Otto last saw him. What was he now, four, five? Something like that.
“Uncle Otto, Mom and Dad are fighting again. Can you make them stop?”
It was such a pitiful request, Otto nearly said yes. The problem was, the only way to make them stop for good involved long pine boxes and deep, dark holes.
Instead he said, “I’ll try. Why don’t you go downstairs? Your grandfather is coming up and you can play with the hounds.”
“Okay. Bye, Uncle Otto.” Little Stephan darted for the stairs and was soon gone.
While they were talking, the fight ended. A moment later Stephan stalked toward the door. He wore a fur-trimmed robe and it appeared the last of his hair had fallen out. “What do you want, runt?”
“Peace. I have it, more or less, in the empire. Why is it you and Father refuse to give it to me in my own family?”
Stephan blinked and stared for a moment as if not entirely clear what Otto meant. When confused, Stephan defaulted to belligerence. “The old man should step aside. It’s my time to rule the barony.”
“Your time doesn’t come until his ends. You know that as well as I do. Are you truly that eager to count barrels of apple brandy and negotiate deals with merchants?”
“No, it’s the principle of the thing. He’s old and weak, I’m young and strong. That means I should be in charge.” Otto shook his head at the stupid, simpleminded thinking. “What do you care anyway? You always hated Father more than I did.”
“I don’t care, Stephan. As long as the barony pays its taxes on time and doesn’t start trouble with its neighbors, you can cut Father’s head off and put it on a pike for all the difference it makes to me. But I want to make it clear that if anything happens to Mother, I’ll find you and skin you alive. And I have the power to make sure you’re awake for the entire process. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes. Believe it or not, I have no interest in harming Mother.”
“Good. She’ll be home before long. I suggested to Father that she might forge some sort of truce between the two of you. He’s willing to keep the peace until she arrives if you are. Shall I tell him you have an agreement?”
“Fine. What’s another week, right?”
“Right. If you win, congratulations. If you die…” Otto shrugged. “In any case, I’ve spent all the time on this I care to. Good morning.”
Otto paused long enough to pass the word of a deal to Father before vanishing into the ether. He sincerely hoped Mother didn’t arrive home to a bloodbath. But whether she did or not, Otto had done everything in his power to prevent it.