First Draft Fridays #4 — Failure No More (Side Story: Ahrs Conclusion)

Note: If you haven't read parts one, two, and three of Side Story: Ahrs, please back up to the previous blog posts to experience the full story in order. Side Story: Ahrs is a good example of three-act fiction. Yes, I know, there have been four total posts showcasing four total scenes. Yet the initial two segments—Ahrs's motivation and his first timid steps on a journey of self-discovery—can be rolled into a single act.


If you don't believe me, take a look at the quintessential hero's journey: Star Wars. In the space of thirty minutes on a single planet, Luke meets Obi-Wan, decides to take on the Empire to avenge his Aunt and Uncle, and enlists Han Solo to help him reach Alderaan. One Act that encompasses his call-to-action, mentor unveiling, and vehicle for progressing the story. So if act one launches the hero's journey, what are the other acts? The "pit of despair" and the "moment of triumph." At the end of act two, Luke watches Obi-Wan be cut down before his eyes, whereas Ahrs falls to his knees as Savion abandons him to the local guards. In the case of Star Wars, we all know what comes next: Luke listens to his dead mentor's guidance, Han shows up to clear the path, and the underdog rebel takes out the Death Star. The once starry-eyed youth emerges from his crisis as the greatest freedom fighter in the galaxy. What will Ahrs's third act triumph look like? Read on and see for yourselves.

Side Story: AhrsPart Four "Eat up."

The bowl clattered on the floor next to Ahrs's prostrate form, splattering an unidentifiable green goop across his cheeks and nose. He didn't bother wiping it off—not that he could, at any rate. His hands were still tied behind his back, left that way because of his association, however brief, with Savion. If Ahrs couldn't use his hands, he couldn't activate a hidden Talisman.

"I can't use magic!" he'd told his jailers time and time again. He'd also explained that he'd only met Savion today, a fact that apparently didn't matter. "Why would a stranger happily wash that scoundrel's wagon?" the noble had sneered at him. Ahrs couldn't think of a way to talk his way out of that one without incriminating himself as a draft dodger, so he'd remained silent until they tossed him into a cell.

He glanced up at Jorren, the local sergeant, and his three flunkies. Anticipation was written on their smug features. Either they'd get entertainment from watching him try to eat his slop using only his mouth, or they'd enjoy the pleasure of using him as a punching bag. Probably both, as Idenstalen's rickety, one room jailhouse had only two rusted cells and the other was unoccupied. Nabbing him was likely the first excitement they'd seen in months.

Several minutes passed, the evening light streaming through the tiny barred window above Ahrs's head dimming bit by bit. When it became clear their prisoner wasn't going to touch his gruel, everyone but Jorren lost interest and left, wandering over to a small table near the door.

"Should we deal you in, boss?" one called, opening a sled's pouch and emptying out the pieces.

Jorren shook his head. "No, I think I'll watch our new pal a bit longer." He grinned, one hand straying to the cudgel on his belt, which prompted Ahrs to squirm toward the far wall as quickly as he could.

"So what's to be done with me?" he blurted, desperate to distract his captor.

Holding up the scorched wooden weapon, Jorren gave it an experimental swing. His smirk deepened when Ahrs instinctually cringed back. "Do you know who that noble who Savion tried to kill is?"

"Kill? He hardly—"

Clang! The cudgel slammed into the bars, startling Ahrs and cutting him off. Jorren began to pace in front of the cell, dragging the weighted implement back and forth, one way and then the other. Clink-clink-clink-clink, clink-clink-clink-clink.

"Why defend him? He got you into this mess. I'd want to gut him if I were in your place."

And you'd probably sleep soundly afterwards, Ahrs thought with a gulp. Terrified as he was, his response surprised him. "The noble was in the wrong. He wanted to pay half of what Savion was owed."

"You think that matters?" Jorren barked a laugh and jabbed the cudgel between the bars. Fortunately, the cell was deep enough that he'd have to open the door to reach Ahrs. "Lord Raichstel has ruled this area for fifteen years, as his father did before him, and his father before him, and so on for as long as anyone with a quill up their backside has bothered to record. And you know what my family has done? Licked their boots for the same span, all in the name of preserving this little kingdom you see before you."

Jorren spun in a circle, arms spread to encompass the jail and the dismal, candlelit game table. "You don't buck the system. You don't fight it. You keep your head down, do what you're told, and hope to do just a little better than the rest of Identstalen's sorry lot. Which is why drifters like you and Savion rub me the wrong way. You come into town, make a mess of things, and force me to have to do something. And if I can't fix things, it's not just your heads on the line—it's mine as well. So I hope you don't mind taking responsibility for the humiliation your friend Savion has inflicted, seeing as he's skipped out on our dinner reservations and all."

Stooping, Jorren lashed out with his cudgel, flipping the gruel bowl so that its contents splashed across Ahrs. It was greasy and cold, but not as cold as the despondency in his heart. Savion had betrayed him. Left him as a scapegoat for his crimes. Their japes and cruel cackling all but rolled off Ahrs, deadened as his soul already was.

Wiping tears from his eyes, Jorren nodded at the slop dripping from Ahrs's chin. "You might want to slurp a bit of that up, seeing as it's your last meal and all."

"What?" Ahrs flung himself forward in disbelief. Unfortunately, that brought him into Jorren's range, and the sadistic jailer gave him a wicked belt that sent him staggering back against the wall.

"Oho! Who said you could get gruel on me?" He pretended to wipe a bit of ooze from his pants, much to the hilarity of his sleds-playing subordinates. "And what did you think would happen? Lord Raichstel's entire domain saw you and Savion make fools of him. If he let you live, it would encourage others to do likewise."

"Not," he amended with a chuckle, "that I'm complaining about getting a chance to send a head rolling. About how thick is your neck, do you think? A bit on the scrawny side like this?" He waved the slim cudgel around, eliciting another bout of laughter.

Ahrs's mind churned, each thought as slippery as syrup after the blow to his jaw. I was sent here to avoid dying by skipping the national conscription. But if I'm to be executed anyway, what was the point of all that effort? Why did I come here? Why did I trust Savion to be anything but the rogue everyone paints him as?

"I'm . . ." Ahrs sluggishly sat up, vision swimming. Three Jorrens. Two Jorrens. When there was only one thug standing on the other side of the bars, the candlelight framing him yellow and orange instead of blue and green, Ahrs sighed and spoke the truth he'd been running from for weeks.

"I'm about to turn seventeen. I was sent to seek employment with Savion in order to evade the conscription laws, the ones that mandate all youths go before an army board on their nameday to determine if they're fit for service. If you read the letter in my robe's inner pocket—"

"You mean this one?" Jorren drew a crumpled envelope, red wax seal somehow still intact, from his side pouch.

"Yes! If you take a look at the contents, you'll understand that my parents are also minor aristocrats, so letting me go will—"

Before Ahrs could finish speaking, Jorren shoved the letter into the flames of the sconce mounted torch behind him, leering gleefully as the flames devoured it. Ahrs felt another piece of his soul die. Aside from his soiled clothes, that message, penned in his mother's elegant, graceful script, was all he had left of home.

"Why?" he mumbled, sinking to the chill floor. If he could sink into the stones themselves, melting into a puddle and draining through the cracks, he would.

Snarling, Jorren rounded on Ahrs, his face contorted in a hideous rictus of wrath. "Because I hate nobles."

"By the way," he continued in a low, surreptitious growl. "You only have to die tomorrow. So if I torture you within an hairsbreadth of that point—wrenching out your nails, pulling your teeth, smashing your bones—no one . . . will . . . care."

Jorren took the keys from his belt, selected one, stuck it in the lock, and turned the bolt. As Ahrs whimpered and tried to press himself through the corner, the door creaked open with a weighty inevitability. Cudgel in hand, Jorren stepped forward.

And stopped.

"Hush!" the sergeant demanded, trying to silence Ahrs's sniveling. He was asking the impossible, but both of them could still hear the noise despite his plaintive mewls: snoring coming from the room's opposite end.

"Am I really that boring?" Jorren turned around, staring in disbelief at his slumbering soldiers. They'd fallen asleep in the middle of their game, collapsed atop the table amid scattered, glimmering game pieces, overturned mugs, and spreading pools of mead. At the center sat a pile of geldars—not a fortune, but enough to have an evening of enjoyable diversion. Ahrs was almost curious why they'd left it untouched.

When none of the guards so much as twitched in reply, Jorren stalked toward the table, yelling, "I don't give a Voidspawn's arse if you laze about or play games all days, but you bloody well better stay awake while you're doing it!" He hooked the leg of a chair with his foot and yanked it out from underneath the oldest of the jailers, a balding man with a keg for a belly. Tumbling backward, he crashed to the unswept floorboards, the whole room shaking at the impact.

Even that didn't wake him. Jorren gaped at his splayed form, then at each of the others in turn. "What in Oblivion's name is . . ."

Before Ahrs could further contemplate the absurdity of the situation, the wooden wall of the adjacent cell erupted inwards. With its door open, splinters and shards of varying sizes cascaded across the chamber, careening off bars and landing as far as the opposite side of the prison. The nearest incoherent sentry, chair back to the explosion, was thrust onto the table, his open mouth scooping up carved tokens and geldars as he slid to a stop. Jorren flinched away but stayed upright, the worst of the blast blowing past him with a few centimeters to spare.

Dust and little fragments of shredded lumber floated in front of the jail's newest entrance, shrouding the darkened alleyway beyond. Ahrs held his breath. A shadow! Someone was out there, moving through the debris cloud and into the light, waving his arms, coming to save . . .

Oh, it's just him, Ahrs thought with a sigh.

Coughing into his hand and blinking, Savion stepped into the adjoining cell, taking care to avoid the larger pieces of jagged timber in his way. He halted in the middle of the tiny space. Unhurried, he looked around, nodded to the bewildered Jorren, and at last noticed Ahrs. Glasses glittering, Savion cupped his chin and laughed.

"Ha! I figgered they'd put ye in the second cell."

"Y-you what?" Ahrs stammered, still wrapping his head around this absurd development. Savion came back for . . .

"It was a fifty-fifty shot. First gamble I've got'n right in years. Glad I marked the spots on the outside with ma' dagger last time I was 'ere."

. . . me. The euphoria surging in Ahrs's chest died a stillborn death, crushed by the realization that, as with everything else, Savion was making things up as he went. "If you'd picked the other mark I'd be dead!" Ahrs raged, gazing at the path of carnage his mentor's spell had cut. Most of the hundreds of slivers strewn about the prison would've impaled his skull, neck, and spine.

Savion winked. "But I didn't." Pulling out a stack of sturdy cards from one of his coverall pockets, he strode over to the bars separating the cells, flipping through them on the way. "Besides, ye would've had yer head lopped off tomorrow—"

"Because of you!"

"—so there wasn't much harm in speedin' up the process a smidge. Now, pick one o' these."

A fan of palm-sized strips of paper were shoved through a gap, right in front of Ahrs's face. Faint yellow lines, tracing a variety of mesmerizing geometries and patterns, filled them from top to bottom, and a single crimson blot stared at him from the center like an aggravated eyeball. Crusted and dried, it was clearly a drop of blood—the blood of the original men'ar donator, if what Ahrs knew about Talismans was true.

"What do you want me to do with these?" Ahrs asked.

"Take one an' use it." Savion pushed the dormant Talismans closer. "Can't train someone wit' no talent, an' there's no time like the present to see if'n ye got the spark."

In response, Ahrs shifted, displaying his bound, bleeding wrists. Even if my hands weren't literally tied, I can't use magic, he thought soberly. Not now, not under these conditions, without practice, without . . .

"I guess that is an issue," Savion acknowledged. "Though a master engraver could use their mouth or toes."

Ahrs shot him an incredulous glare, whereupon his mentor shrugged and placed his pinky finger on the leftmost strip, one with verdant green paint framing the perimeter. It immediately began to glow in the same color, and a gust of visible wind surged from the clotted blood. Ahrs shrieked as it rushed toward him, but it skirted his body—brushing his robes and flesh, tousling his hair—before slicing his restraints in twain.

Task accomplished, the spell dissipated and the Talisman wilted, vibrant hues fading to grey. Stunned, Ahrs gingerly sat up. His wrists were raw and stingy, yet the spell hadn't left so much as a scratch; no additional blood had been shed.

"Thank you," he mumbled to Savion, who tossed aside the spent scrap and proffered the Talismans again. Guess I'm not going to get off that easy, Ahrs decided. With shaking, hesitant fingers, he reached for one with a dazzling silver sheen. He'd likely fail. He always did, no matter what duty his father set for him. But he owed Savion this attempt.

No, that wasn't entirely accurate. Ahrs owed himself this trial. Taking a deep breath, his fingers tightened on the coarse cepyrus paper.

Clang!

Ahrs jerked back, dropping the Talisman and scrambling away from the piercing noise until his back hit the prison wall. Removed from Savion's grip, the strip floated to the floor, coming to rest halfway between Ahrs and the figure dominating the cell door.

"Oi, don't you louts go forgetting about me," Jorren menaced, cudgel tracing a lazy arc between master and apprentice. In his off-hand, more dangerous by far, was a disused short sword, blade chipped and crossguard missing. "Now," Jorren adjusted his stance to face Savion, obviously the greater threat, "What did you do to my men?"

Ahrs glanced at the Engraver hopefully. The wiry, unkempt man had blown his way in here; surely dispatching the savage sergeant wouldn't take too much effort. Yet Savion flashed a roguish smirk and clapped his hands together with a practiced flourish. Expecting an attack, Jorren fell into a defensive posture.

That attack never came. Bare palms raised, Savion sidled out of the ruined cell and past the astonished jailer, whose jaw all but dislocated when it became evident the Talismans he'd held were gone. Vanished, whether into one of his pockets or the ether itself.

It wasn't until Savion reached the game table, moving aside the guards' limp forms and scrutinizing their sled's hands, that Jorren regained his composure and leveled his blade at him. "I don't know what you're playing at, drifter, but it ends now."

"Hmmm, playin' . . ." Savion paused, scooping up the line of radiant tiles belonging to the guard Jorren had dumped on the ground. "I can tell ye Rhov here weren't playin' ta win." One by one, the Engraver set the pieces back on the table, forming a different pattern than the one the soldier had been using. "He was goin' ta reveal a weak 'Captain's Review' when he had a 'Courtesan's Knife' with a few switches. Some people forget how strong the 'rhil' tile is." He shook his head and moved on to the next player, the only one still in his seat.

"Those tokens!" Jorren exclaimed. "They've never glowed like that before. You did something to them!"

"Not quite." After a moment's examination, Savion smiled approvingly and clapped the dozing jailer on his chainmail covered shoulder. "Nice hand, very nice. Cronin always was the best o' ye lot; explains why he just had ta have a sled set I was sellin' at market a few years back. Thing is, he didn't want ta pay. He acted tough, expectin' me ta argue, but I was happy ta oblige; even offered ta etch some special designs on the back o' the pieces."

Savion whipped his hand down the five tile line, somehow flipping each one as he went. Once turned, the shapes practically blazed in the air, painting the ceiling in a tapestry of glorious swirls. Some still moved, breaking apart and reforming new symbols second by second.

Jorren staggered under the sudden enhancement of the Engraved incantation. Even Ahrs, as far from the spell's origin as possible, felt his eyelids droop, heavy with fatigue. Just before he fully succumbed, a bestial roar drew him back into that desperate moment.

"You accursed charlatan!" Step by ponderous step, Jorren marched toward Savion, wicked sword held high in both hands. "You planned for this . . . enchanting my men . . . setting up Lord Raichstel, making a Voiding mockery of us all! But why now? Why waste this chance on scum like him . . . when you could've used it to kill that sodding Raichstel instead?"

Rounding the table, Jorren stumbled, one arm overturning the surface as he sought to steady himself. Geldars and sleds tiles went flying, disturbing the ephemeral mural that had so briefly transformed the drab prison. But as furniture and bodies clattered and crashed, the possessed sergeant pushed off one knee and lurched onward, determined to reach the odious Engraver.

"He's a draft dodger!" Jorren snapped, spittle flipping from his loose, numbing lips. "The lowest of the low—a traitor to this nation and everyone who lives in it! Why do you care about this craven's fate?"

His malicious words stabbed Ahrs's heart like a frozen spear, slicing apart flesh and leaving what was left to slowly shatter. It hurt because it was true. Ahrs had run because he was afraid. Of dying. Of failing. And, more than anything else, of never measuring up to the expectations of those around him. Worse yet, Ahrs was a child of taboo; his father a nobleman desperate for a son, his mother a maid employed for the express purpose of bearing an heir. The union had succeeded, so why did his father look at him with revulsion and loathing? Why did his mother cower whenever his Lordship raised his voice?

Can we not be happy because I did something wrong; because my magic never manifested? Am I the reason?

Savion stood his ground, not moving a muscle despite being physically outclassed by his foe in every single way. "Refusin' ta fight in ol' Syval's wars, is he? Good on 'im I say."

Towering over Savion, steel poised to strike, Jorren paused. "Syval? Sychon rules now; his father's been dead for years."

"Bah, one tyrant's the same as the next."

The blade fell, awkward and off-balance. Savion ducked under the brute's reaching arms, adroitly spinning round to his rear. But instead of countering, he glanced over at Ahrs. "I can't use another Talisman while using my enhanced torpor enchantment. Ye have ta cast the one I gave ye!"

"I-I can't!" Ahrs huddled into a ball, just like he did whenever his father's irate screams and the sound of shattering glass filled their home. "Not me, find someone else, anyone else. Ican'tIcan'tIcan't . . ."

"Ye can." Another wild swing, aimed at Savion's midriff. Another narrow dodge as his thick paunch pulled out of the way. "Ye wouldn't take no for an answer before; what's stoppin' ye now?"

"I have no magic!"

"We all have magic."

"Stay still!" Jorren bellowed, cleaving deep into the table as Savion tripped over it. By some stroke of fortune, he rolled with the motion, coming up on his feet. Unable to free the sword, the jailer roared again, picked up the entire structure, and threw it at Savion. The Engraver ducked, allowing it to crash to splinters on the wall behind him, but Jorren raced in, cudgel swinging. A blow caught Savion on the elbow—lowered to protect his ribs—and he went flying across the room with a sickening crunch.

"Savion!" Ahrs shouted, coming partway to his knees.

Grunting, Savion grinned and waved a weak thumbs-up at him. "I'm fine . . . jus' need a little rest. Big bugger, ain't he?" Ahrs watched in horror as Jorren kicked debris from his path, making his way to the downed form in front of the cells.

"You . . . or your apprentice? Which is first?" he ground between froth-flecked teeth.

Savion sighed, not turning to look at the heaving, monstrous guardsman towering over him. Chainmail clinked. The cudgel rose. This was the end for both of them.

Unless . . .

"You heard the beast, Ahrs. What's it gonna be?" Savion's eyes, shaded a strange metallic color that wasn't quite black or grey, twinkled at him beneath his spectacles. "I, for one, think you outta just say yes. Beats the snot outta sayin' no—for anythin', really, 'specially when dyin's involved."

Malignant delight oozed from Jorren's too wide sneer. "Master first it is." He swung.

We all have magicYou're a failure.

Savion came back for meHe abandoned you to begin with.

You can't do itJust say yes!

Live, Ahrs's mother said, pushing him out into the night with tears streaming down her face.

Eyes all but glued shut, crying at the top of his lungs, Ahrs leapt forward and grabbed the fallen Talisman with both hands. Silver light instantly filled the room. Jorren froze mid-strike. Savion beamed at him.

Then, without any amazing reversal or mystical invocation, the blinding glow began to fade.

"Hahahaha!" Jorren cackled, his flicker of fear replaced once more by triumph. "You failed. You thought you'd fail and you did! Hahahaha!"

"But, the light, the warmth. I—"

Every fragment of metal in the room shot toward Jorren. Swords, spears, pikes. Chainmail, pauldrons, greaves, gauntlets, and the bodies attached to them. Mugs, geldars, plates, silverware. Nails strained against the walls and floorboards, some tearing free and joining the deluge. The cells rattled like chained spirits. The front door hurtled inwards and strained desperately against its hinges.

But the initial storm was more than enough. Jorren wailed piteously, his own armor locking him in place, as the mass of weapons and everyday implements impaled him from every side. In seconds, bruised, bloodied, and battered, he fell silent.

"Turn it off! Turn it off!"

Ahrs averted his gaze from the transfixing—thrilling—display long enough to realize Savion was floating in the air, drawn toward Jorren by his own belt buckle. "How?" he asked, looking at the Talisman he held. Unlike the ones the Engraver had used, his wasn't draining of what remained of its light and color.

"Tear or crumple it! Break the blood's connection ta yer men'ar!"

Sad to end the incantation, but desiring to help his master, Ahrs took the cepyrus strip in both hands and ripped it in half. Everything dropped; armor, weapons, and other odds and ends like a short lived rain of clanking hail; Jorren without a sound; and Savion and the other guards with pronounced 'oofs.'


Shaking himself off, Savion extricated himself from the pile and set to meticulously pocketing every geldar in sight. "I did it . . ." Ahrs breathed. His skin still tingled, and his heart was beating out of his chest.


"You did," Savion concurred. Kicking over Jorren's corpse, he yanked the sergeant's coin purse from his belt and added its contents to his own. There was something profoundly wrong about desecrating the dead, but given what had happened, and Savion's role in his rescue, Ahrs chose to keep his mouth shut.


He surveyed the destroyed prison. Between the flashing lights, maelstrom of metal, busted wall, and all their screaming, it was only a matter of time before Lord Raichstel's personal guards showed up to investigate. A few curious townsfolk were already standing in the street, summoned from their beds in shifts and smocks by the clamor.


There would be no coming back to Identstalen; even if he had somehow survived, Ahrs would've be exiled from the territory, and Savion had burned his bridges with the lord as well. In the end, he had sacrificed much—to the point of injury and death—for Ahrs. And I thought he'd abandoned me at the first sign of trouble . . .


Changing the past was impossible. His own life was evidence enough of that. What mattered now was the future—a future that was, for once, as bright as the sleds tiles Savion was currently collecting.


"Not going to leave them a parting gift?" Ahrs asked, wearily rising to his feet.


Savion looked appalled. "This? I put far too much effort into this set to leave it behind; it's worth at least two qunari. Besides, like I said, I only gave it ta Cronin ta pull off this fancy little maneuveration. He can find a new one when he wakes." He eased the man's snoring head aside, plucked a gleaming token from behind his ear, then walked over to Ahrs while smacking the dirt from his palms.


Feeling content for the first time since he'd left home, Ahrs swept the train of his robes back, bowed deeply, then stood tall and extended his hand to Savion. "Let me reintroduce myself: my name is Ahrs Brandson, a prospective student from Antris on the Sydari River. Will you accept me as your pupil, Savion the Engraver?"


Savion grunted. "Don't make me take back my yes."


"Veneer forbi—" Ahrs started, only to exhale in relief when Savion reared back and gave a full bodied guffaw. "In that case, what now? Where to next?"


"We'll figger that out in good time. First things first though." He hesitated, sniffing at the air. Whatever he smelt struck him the wrong way, for unbridled disgust filled his gaze and he shrank away from Ahrs while covering his nose. "I'm no fashion prude—Creator as ma' witness—but we gotta do somethin' about that dung heap yer wearin'." This is the current conclusion to Side Story: Ahrs, but rest assured he and Savion will return. Their part in the story of Divinity's Twilight is not yet finished . . .

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