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 h