Welcome to Embers of Alour-Tan release day! The second Release Day Tidbit is the full and complete text of Chapter Two!
The dirt clenched in Finton’s fist felt dry and depleted. For the last several months, he had ignored an ever-growing number of little signs, convincing himself they were all in his head. Nothing more than the faint echo of old instincts, he told himself, flashes of memories from life as a simple farmer in a tiny village shut away from the world. That line of thinking had worked until now. He loosened his grip and allowed the soil to flow between his fingers, noting the similarities between it and him: dry, withered, stretched beyond natural life. His continuous magical workings had done this.
With a sigh that swirled air through his long-dead lungs, Finton called forth a sense-image that he now knew all too well. Thaumaturgy, the working of magic, depended on the meticulous construction of a perfect mental experience for the desired effect. In his mind, sprouts shot up through the ground and matured into fruitful plants in seconds. The rich scents of cultivated land wafted through the air, replacing the crisper indigenous odors of the Āzamvult. He imagined hearing the plants’ growth as they groaned and creaked in protest against rapid expansion. While the phantom stimuli flit through his head, magic surged within him. Warming his entire torso, the power built and radiated out into his limbs, enmeshing with the beleaguered dirt beneath his knees. The sense-image binded with an intense emotional need to manifest it and he channeled the need into a whispered Albizar command, “Vuccz.“
The power shot into the soil with a resonant whump. From his core to his extremities, everything tingled with pleasant effervescence. No matter how accustomed Finton grew to the working of magic, the experience always left him giddy even as it threatened to wear on his body. Fortunately, physical strain made little difference to a dead man and the fatigue faded in seconds.
“It will only get worse from here.” The gravel-rough voice might have come from the world itself, rather than the squat, stocky body of a stony old twerg. Finton turned away from his study of the dirt beneath him to regard the white-maned Dehn. Though kneeling, Finton’s eye-line still hovered above that of the standing twerg. Thick, snowy hair concealed most of Dehn’s face and the few areas of exposed skin revealed wrinkles like cracked granite and hooded eyes that balanced timeless wisdom with wry mirth.
“I know,” Finton said. While his working took effect, Finton rose from his knees and brushed off the dirt clinging to his robes. All around them, miles and miles of the once-grassy, rolling hills surrounding the dragon city of Olkelban now boasted the most fruitful cropland the greater Āzamvult region had ever seen. Row upon row of cornstalks stood beside orchards of apples and peaches. Plots of carrots grew beside potatoes and cabbages. The sprawl of harvestable crops stretched from the Āzamvult’s dark border to the base of the towering Āzamkadda mountains that segregated western Ceteynia from the rest of the continent.
In the center of the teeming growth, Olkelban itself gleamed like a beacon. Massive walls concealed much of the city from view, but the bright white Citadel of Olkelban swept skyward, rising high above any other building in the city. The light reflecting off of the Citadel’s smooth surface rivaled the sun, but its beauty made it difficult to look away. No matter how near or far, the gleam always remained at the razor edge of painful and enthralling.
“I know,” Finton repeated. He pulled his gaze away from the brilliant spire and returned his attention to the ground beneath him. Sprouts peeked through the surrounding soil, just as he had envisioned. His working amplified their growth rates and crops that could take weeks, months, or years of natural cultivation now provided bountiful sustenance within hours or days. The working went even further, prompting continuous accelerated life cycles. Pick an apple one day, another grew in its place the next. “The soil’s depleting faster and faster. Two years of this, I’m surprised it didn’t happen a lot sooner. We’ve been growing everything, everywhere, non-stop and that’s just not going to work forever. But look at all of this.” He swept his arms out toward the cropland. Though taxing on the land, Finton couldn’t help but take pride in his work.
Dehn cast a scrutinizing eye across the fields. He grunted. “Many have benefited from it.”
“Olkelban’s populace has never been so well-provisioned. The chaos Deowyn wrought could never happen again.” Though he gave voice to the words, he knew as well as Dehn that they belonged to Examiner Jankin—the human-apparent persona of Jankinolkelizont, last of the Olkeli Dragon Lords, unquestioned ruler of Olkelban, and Finton’s master.
“So it is,” Dehn allowed. “Not altogether of your own volition, though.”
Finton crossed his arms and held them tight against his chest. He knew where the conversation headed. They had argued the matter time and again. “He saved my life, Dehn. I wasn’t going to say no.”
“You speak as though you had a choice,” Dehn said. “A choice between servitude and oblivion is no choice.”
“Seeing as how oblivion was my only recourse unless he interceded, I’m not all that inclined to complain.” Finton’s perfect memory, a byproduct of his second lease on life, often replayed the deadly battle between Deowyn and Jankinolkelizont with crystal clarity. Every detail of that day, including the injuries he endured and the pain they caused, remained as intense as when he first experienced them. “You weren’t there for that part. Nothing any of us threw at him mattered. Even the examiner couldn’t do anything more than keep him at bay.”
“I also remember the story of why you decided to blow yourself up.” The twerg’s eyes twinkled. “No one wishes to revisit the attack. But all of this? This is too much, Finton. What cost do we pay?”
Rather than responding, Finton started the return trip to the city’s walls.
Dehn fell into step beside him, bending over to scoop up a handful of depleted dirt as they walked. “What he tasks you to do is far beyond what ought to be done. No magus or dragon wields the unlimited power you do, nor could they accomplish what you have. All magic occurs in balance. The acc—”
“‘Acceleration of natural forces,'” Finton interrupted. “‘To make something hot, something else has to grow cold. To blow a gust of wind in one place, the wind elsewhere grows still.’ I never forgot any of what you taught me. I’ve tried to use the balance in my workings ever since.”
Without Dehn, the sole source of Finton’s continued magical training would have been Jankinolkelizont and the vast Hoard of treasures the dragon had accumulated across centuries. Dehn provided a vital counterpoint, his values stemming from different priorities than those held by the dragon. He sought balance, allowing the natural order to unfold and making only small perturbations where necessary. To the dragon, magic was a tool to be comprehended and mastered. Finton’s own timeless, magic-fueled nature predisposed him to fall into the draconic way of thinking, which made him that much more wary of it. He gave great weight to Dehn’s counsel.
“And all of this?” The twerg held up the dirt.
“Accelerating growth when you’re already dead turns out to be pretty easy to balance. What do I care if I slow my own life?” Finton left unsaid old doubts about whether or not he had any life processes to drive Olkelban’s crop growth. With a visceral working like the creation of fire, the counter-effect was intuitive and easy. With something more nebulous, where or how that manifested grew less certain. At least in the case of the crops, he felt his restorative powers counteracting the drain of each working. He knew they drew from him.
“This is not the product of a wise path,” Dehn continued after a beat. “The city, too, is changed. I have dwelt behind its walls most of my life. Olkelban of today is not the Olkelban I have known.”
“Everything destroyed by Deowyn had to be rebuilt. The walls were repaired. The Āzamlåda bolstered every aspect of the city’s defenses. Olkelban’s at its strongest since the other Olkeli dragons left. It’s safer.” Finton didn’t even sound convincing to himself.
“Is it?” Dehn arched a bushy, white eyebrow. “Perhaps. Or perhaps this is the calm before the next storm. And while Olkelban feasts, the Jabianites struggle to rebuild their armies, the Tulifô Barony struggles with an emptied treasury and yet more blight, and despite all their efforts to rebuild, Āzamhān’s road to reconstruction is blocked by the mad magus having rendered the Engine of Creation dormant.”
Excitement throbbed through the magic binding Finton together, much the way a jolt of adrenaline affected a living human. The Engine of Creation had become an obsession of Finton’s ever since he learned of it. The powerful piece of arcanitecture that rested in the heart of Āzamhān gave rise to the unique marriage of magic and engineering that defined albiz culture. Mere mention of it filled him with the giddy fascination of a child discovering puddles for the first time. To date, though, it remained for him nothing more than a research hobby. Jankinolkelizont kept him too busy for a journey south to see the now-dormant Engine in person. “I thought Āzamhān had finished most of its reconstruction, anyway.”
Dehn grunted an affirmative. “All the more impressive that they did it without the Engine. But soon, the time will come when they’ll fashion no more fantastic contraptions. They’ll make no more cannons. The clever mechanisms that allow the city to thrive will come to a halt and Āzamhān will suffocate.”
Finton stopped. “What do you mean?”
Dehn stopped a few paces beyond and turned back to Finton. “The way they work magic is unlike yours or mine, but it is magic all the same. The source of that magic has always been the Engine of Creation. Deowyn’s attack on their city took that away from them. They have been laboring with what little reserves remained and now those reserves are nearly gone. Beyond even the role it plays in their new construction, though, the Engine kept Āzamhān livable despite existing within the rocky walls of a mountain. I do not know the specifics, but I know that when their reserves are gone, they will have to abandon the city. When that happens, a piece of who they are goes with it. Without the Engine, they are albam that inhabit the Āzamvult. With it, they are the Āzamlåda.”
“How come I haven’t heard anything about this before?” Finton asked. “This seems like the kind of news that should be all over Olkelban.”
“In some places, it is,” Dehn said. “Your master has been most clever in tailoring just how much information you get about the goings on in the greater world.”
“Maybe, but why didn’t you say anything before?”
Dehn’s head tilted to one side. “Perhaps I tried. Perhaps there are consequences for doing so. Regardless,” he said with enough haste to suggest he didn’t want to dwell on the topic, “many harmed by Deowyn’s cruelty have struggled to rebuild. It is to them the dragon should send you. It is them you should aid. Olkelban does not need all of this, no matter the dragon’s insecurities. The problems of the Jabianites and the Barony are worldly. Leave such matters to worldly solutions. Only you can bring the Engine of Creation out of dormancy. That’s where you talents belong.”
The magnitude of the task muted some of Finton’s initial excitement. “Has anyone tried anything like this since the time of Alour-Tan?”
“No. Even before the cataclysm, when the island’s magi influenced every facet of life across Ceteynia, across all of Tryneya even, no single magus could have made the attempt.”
“But you think I can?”
Dehn crossed his arms and gazed up at Finton’s glowing red eyes with the stony resolve that only a twerg face could convey. “No single being should have the kind of power you do. I fear what you are capable of, Finton. I have never made that secret. Had you been more like your former master, who can say what horrors would have been unleashed on the world? But the Watchers were kind. You have never shown me any reason to doubt your heart, inert though it may be. If you are to possess such power, then use it to help in ways no one else can.”
Finton didn’t know what to say. Here in Olkelban’s unnatural cropland, Dehn had always felt like his chaperon. He knew the twerg mistrusted Jankinolkelizont and always assumed that extended to Finton, too. He realized now that Dehn had grown to trust him, even while doubtful of his master. “Thank you, Dehn,” he murmured.
Dehn grunted again, stretched his hands out in front of him, and clapped them together; the customary twerg-rhodi salute. He turned and resumed his march toward the city. Finton took a few large strides to catch up and fell into step beside him.
“How long do they have?” Finton asked.
“I do not think even they know for certain,” Dehn admitted. “Not more than a few weeks.”
The statement stunned Finton. “But it takes, what, seven or eight days to get to Āzamhān from here? Even if I left today, that’s most of a week gone already.”
Dehn grunted. “Then you had best not dally.”
As they walked back to the city, Finton reflected on everything he had ever studied about arcanitecture and the Engine itself. His perfect memory gave him a clear mental picture of every page he had ever read in precise detail. Throughout those texts, a single word recurred over and over again. “One thing could stop this in its infancy,” he said. “Powering arcanitecture largely resembles any sort of intense thaumaturgy, but with one critical difference. Have you ever heard of a confactor?”
“A confactor,” Dehn rumbled, his gaze going distant as he dredged up some ancient recollection. “A metal rod, about the length and girth of a wagon wheel spoke? Yes, I know of them. Such things have not been made for centuries.”
“Another casualty of Alour-Tan?”
The twerg nodded. “Once, Alour-Tan supplied them on request to any who needed them. Even at the height of its power, though, the magi guarded the techniques of confactor creation so closely that only those sworn to its College could know the secret.”
“That answers my next question, then,” Finton said, deflating. “No one knows how to make one. I haven’t found a single tome that made any mention of how to create them, which fits with what you said about it being a closely-guarded secret. And if it was that much of a secret, I don’t think trying to figure out how to make one without a schematic for doing so is going to be an option, either.”
Dehn lifted a bushy white eyebrow in answer.
“And I suppose it’s too much to hope that you might simply happen to have one,” Finton ventured.
The twerg shook his head.
Finton gazed skyward. “So much for things being easy.”
“It is critical that you have one?” Dehn asked.
Finton held his hands out to either side and shrugged. “Every tome that makes more than a passing mention of confactors stresses how important they are. Without a confactor, magi working arcanitecture tend to end up dead in all manner of gruesome ways, generally torn apart by the magic churning through the artifact. A confactor functions as part conduit, part insulation. Of course, it burns itself out in the process.”
“What would kill a human, a twerg, or even a dragon has thus far only caused you minor inconvenience,” Dehn said.
Finton waved a hand over the length of his torso. “I thought about that. Given how much magic is binding me together, I think things would only be that much worse for everyone if I tried to go without. In cases where a magus decided not to use a confactor, only their death stopped the magical transfer. But with me? With that much energy unchecked and death that much harder to come by? Instead of just destroying me, it could level Āzamhān outright.” He shook his head. “We need a confactor if I’m going to try do this.”
“And the vast Olkeli Hoard does not contain a confactor?” Dehn tried to make the question sound contemptuous, but Finton knew the twerg well enough to detect the surprise hidden underneath.
“If it does, I don’t know how to find it,” Finton said.
“Your master would,” Dehn rumbled.
“Yeah,” Finton agreed, looking away from him. “The Examiner would know exactly where it was, what it was situated next to, how long it had been there, and who put it there. Still unnerving every time I see him demonstrate that draconic instinct. If a dragon is nearby and anything enters or leaves their Hoard, they know.”
“A pity your master is not around to help you find what you seek.”
“That would certainly make things easi—” Finton realized too late what Dehn had coaxed out of him. “Stop that.”
Mischief twinkled in Dehn’s eyes. “The last Olkeli dragon takes undisclosed leave of his brood’s prized city and you expect me not to inquire after it?”
“I never said he left the city. He disappears to be alone all the time. I can almost never find him myself. I always have to wait for him to come find me. It’s not unusual.”
Dehn shook his head. “You and I both know that this absence feels different. He’s gone somewhere. I can imagine few things that would entice him to leave.”
Finton frowned, his frustration with his master’s absence warring with both his loyalty and his desire to avoid a dragon’s wrath. He had long since acclimated to Jankinolkelizont’s sporadic and unpredictable appearances, but never before had so much time passed between them. Wherever he had disappeared to, Finton grew certain that his master was no longer in Olkelban. “I checked some of his usual retreats, but either he wasn’t there or he was well-masked.”
Dehn took the news in with a slow nod. Finton wondered what other pieces of information and gossip the mystic might have been weaving together with what he’d just been told. To call the tension between Dehn and Jankinolkelizont a power struggle overstated it by several orders of magnitude, but it was the best description Finton had.
Spurred by a sudden desire to move on from the topic of his master, Finton said, “For now, let’s assume the Hoard doesn’t have one. Do you think they might have one in Āzamhān already, maybe without even realizing it?”
Creases appeared in Dehn’s forehead as he gave the matter consideration. “Doubtful. Albiz magi would have been well-suited to their creation and even those not trained in working magic would likely recognize a confactor’s importance, but there have been no albiz magi since Alour-Tan. Such magi would have been the ones to possess any confactor belonging to Āzamhān.”
“Where else can I look, then?”
“Something so prized and potent, even in the absence of a magus trained in its use, would not be possessed lightly,” Dehn rumbled. “Rulers may yet possess them, or perhaps a rare few among the mystics scattered around the world, but all will be loath to part with them.”
“I haven’t heard of anyone other than you and me in the area with the kind of knowledge or training to make use of one. Rulers, though…” It stood to reason that any ruler would want to keep close tabs on the magically-inclined within their territory, even calling upon their services the way Jankinolkelizont did with him. None boasted even a fraction of Finton’s power or he would have long since sought them out, but the lesser peers of practitioners like Dehn would be of great use to rulers. Rulers who, not so long ago, had rallied to Olkelban’s defense. “I wonder.”
The greatest of Olkelban’s neighbors lay to the southwest and north. The southwestern power, Jabian’s Kingdom, had devoted a sizable contingent of troops to Olkelban’s defense, only to see those troops massacred by crazed victs and an army of revenants. Finton knew little about the Jabianites, though prevailing sentiment indicated a proclivity for violent solutions over diplomacy. “If a man such as Jabian had a confactor, would he be able to resist putting it to use at the first opportunity?” Finton asked.
Dehn’s eyes twinkled with approving amusement at Finton’s question. “I doubt it,” Dehn said. “Many are the remnant artifacts of Alour-Tan’s existence, but few in number persist in their original function. King Jabian no doubt holds in his possession a handful of such prizes that he would put to use if given any opportunity.”
“Right,” Finton said, bobbing his head in agreement. That left Olkelban’s northern neighbor, the Tulifô Barony and its master Tulifô-Parn. Finton shuddered as a memory flashed through his mind. Deowyn’s vict wolf-riders converged on hapless refugee carriages from Olkelban as they tried in vain to flee north to the safety of the Barony or return to the besieged city. The memory ended with equal abruptness, but left him with an uneasy chill. “Someone like Parn might not leap right into using a confactor, though.”
“Tulifô-Parn forestalls use of his own lungs until a desirable scent presents itself,” Dehn rumbled.
“He might have one, then,” Finton said. “It’s not as though opportunities for powering arcanitecture present themselves all that often.”
“And do you care to speculate on what price its use might exact?” Dehn asked, narrowing one eye while opening the other wider. Frustration with Parn numbered among the few things the twerg mystic shared with the Olkeli Dragon Lord.
The attempted evacuation of Olkelban came as a result of long negotiations between Parn and Jankinolkelizont. Finton had been privy to the conclusion of those negotiations, and though his time with the baron had been brief, he knew the ogre hid deceptive cunning behind a bombastic exterior. He could, after all, hold his own in negotiations with a dragon. “If we go to Parn himself, he’s going to want something costly in return.”
“And with the power you command and the uses the dragon has already put you to, I have no desire to see what ill-conceived designs Parn might have for you. Do not travel that road.”
“I never intended to ask the baron directly.” A grin spread across Finton’s face. “Tulifô may be Olkelban’s neighbor, but it’s still too long a journey north and not one to be undertaken lightly. I’ve got someone else in mind, who I’ve never known to be unreasonable when it came to matters of cultural importance, historical interest, or academic curiosity. Best of all, he’s right here in the city.”
Dehn studied Finton with a sidelong glance for the space of several slow breaths. “He won’t have one.”
“Not himself, no,” Finton agreed. “But he’s got the ear of the baron. If there’s a confactor to be had among the Tulifô nobility, then he’ll know exactly who to talk to and what to say in order to get it into our hands—all without having to waste time on what could turn out to be a fruitless trip.”
After a moment, Dehn nodded in agreement. “You have your work cut out for you, Finton. Armed with only your research, you must travel south to the city of the Āzamlåda and work the magic of several magi in order to reactivate one of the most complex magical constructs ever devised. And you must do this before the last of its remnant power fades for good.”
Finton bobbed his head up and down in time with Dehn’s list, his dry, papery skin feeling tighter and tighter as the enormity of the task settled on him. If he had any hair to stand on end, it would have. He forced a deep, deliberate breath through his lifeless lungs. “Better get started.”