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It was nauseating.
Cast from pure silver and flecked with his own blood, the long needle laughed at Ahrs Brandson, scorning him as it rolled back and forth on the doctor's sanitized leather pad. Out of the corner of his entranced vision, he saw the man shake his head.
"Negative," the doctor pronounced, removing his monocle and wiping it on a pristine white cloth. Not until he'd pulled out a small velvet case, securing the lens fast within it, did he continue.
"Or as close to negative as to mean the same thing."
Ahrs's world swam. Not from loss of blood; the town physician had only drawn enough to fill a small vial, into which he'd sprinkled a salt-like powder. No, he felt sick—to the point of vomiting, of falling on the ground and clawing his nails raw against the cherry-stained floor—because of what the tint his blood had taken on implied.
His father, arms crossed in front of a robed suit-coat, said the dreaded words aloud. "My son is magic-less—a fleb'ilis, as they'd say in the old tongue."
"Not quite." The kind old doctor tapped the vial, liquid grey as the grave. As death itself. "This tiny, almost imperceptible yellow band means he may be able to use the most limited spells, perhaps Talismans or—"
"That won't matter to the recruiters," Lord Brandson growled, beginning to pace back and forth in front of the cold hearth like a chained beast. He paused. Flames, although long-absent from the fireplace, smoldered inside his black pupils. Grabbing the ivy-etched couch back, he leaned in conspiratorially.
"Can you . . . alter . . . the results?"
"Fake them, my lord?"
Lord Brandson's eyes narrowed. "I never said such a thing."
"Even so," the physician flustered, glancing to Ahrs, then his mother hunched in the sitting room's dark corner. "I couldn't possibly try to fool them. My lord, they're testers from the Ritter Order. Sarconia's judges! It would mean my neck to try!"
"How much?" the lord insisted.
Money. Ahrs sank further into his seat, eyes lolling to the crimson swab he loosely held against the inside of his elbow. In his father's world, money solved everything—even if they were the poorest of the aristocracy, the lowest rung of imperial nobility.
"I-I can't, my lord. Who would care for my ill wife? The townspeople? The—"
"Then get OUT!"
Bowing and scraping, the physician hurriedly gathered his things. In his haste, he forgot the loathsome syringe, scarlet fluid darkening as it clotted. The door banged when he exited the small manse, leaving their family to the solemn silence.
Yet it was an imperfect stillness. Ahrs's mother was weeping, his father was huffing with barely controlled rage, and the slow hardening of the blood on the needle sounded in his ears like an oven filled with crackling coals.
When his father finally spoke, the light filtering through the dusty curtains was dim and sharply angled. Had several hours passed?
"You're a failure," he said, looking straight at Ahrs.
The sixteen year old's lips, pressed tightly together with disuse, parted with a timid pop. "W-what?"
"You heard me," Lord Brandson spat, growing more furious, spinning up into one of his tantrums. "A failure! No magic! No skills! I've wasted sixteen years raising a lump of sorry flesh that's never found a trade, failed the academy entrance exams, and isn't even going to pass the imperial magic screening to be an officer when he turns seventeen . . ."
He hesitated, head in his hands. Then, balling his fists, he roared in Ahrs's face.
"You're DEAD! They're going to make you an infantryman, stick a rifle in your hands, and send you into a breach. You're a corpse walking!"
Face red and fists clenched, he came within an hairsbreadth of hitting his son. But a glance at his shadowed wife seemed to hold him in check. Straightening his coat, Lord Brandson stalked from the room, mumbling to himself.
" . . . failure is finished. Have to make a new heir . . . but she's too old for . . . "
Ahrs stared forward. Unspeaking, unfeeling, just as he'd always practiced. When his mind began to turn again, he'd figure out what to do next.
For now he sat . . . and listened to his mother's weeping.
* * * *
You have got to be kidding me.
Breathless, Ahrs Brandson stopped in the middle of the empty street, placing his hands on his knees as he surveyed his quarry. "Quarry" may have been too kind a word. Though the barmaid at the Indolent Iris had told him to expect a traveling wagon, Ahrs had imagined something other than . . . this, especially considering the notoriety of its rumored owner.
To begin with, the driver who parked the wagon must be lazy, drunk, or some combination of the two. It listed at a precarious angle, two wheels on the mottled street cobbles, two in the filthy gutter that ran the length of the thoroughfare. Most carriage-masters would be appalled at the scrubbing they'd need to give their vehicle after tracking it through such an odious collection of feces, rotted produce, and other unwashed runoff, but the shade of the spokes—many of which were missing—matched that of the grime almost too well.
Ahrs pinched his nose even though it strained his already belabored breathing. How did the wagon occupants, hidden from sight by a slapdash cab of garish, psychedelic boards of various shapes and sizes, stand the smell?
A jet of pitch black smog erupted from the bent smokestack on the rusted tin roof. Seconds later, a circular hatch on the rear banged open hard enough to shake the entire construct, and a nobleman wearing a soot-stained suit bumbled out. Red-faced under a solid layer of ash, he turned to accost whoever was still in the wagon before seeing Ahrs standing nearby.
"Bah!" he grunted, wiping down his ruined clothes—a futile act if ever there was one. "You aren't worth the curses, you old coot!" The man pulled an equally soiled pouch from his belt, shook out a few glittering coins, and flung them through the still open portal. "Half! That's all you're going to get, and count yourself lucky to be getting that, given what this silk is worth. I'll have you know that this is the very latest fashion out of Sarconia and—"
"Do I look like I care an arse-lick about what those prudes are covering their pale, wrinkly flesh with?"
Another blackened head poked out of the wagon, this one wearing smudged, centimeter thick spectacles and greasy coveralls. "That Engraved dowser I made ye is worth enough o' those cheap suits to hang ye five times over, pardon the metaphor. Yer farm will never want fer water, so I expect the proper payment I'm due—ten Qunari."
The nobleman had one arm free, the other wrapped tightly about a velvet-covered package as long as his leg. The former reached for a silver chain dangling from his coat pocket while the rest of his body shifted to hide the motion. Ahrs was no soldier, but he knew a mage when he saw one. He took three quick steps back to the far side of the street, easing carefully into a small crowd assembling to watch the ruckus.
Ahrs recognized the tavern-master by his mead-splotched apron. "Five Nirosi on Savion," he whispered to a wiry man with a well-trimmed beard beside him, the proprietor of the inn Ahrs had stayed in the previous night.
"You think I have geldars to spare on a foolish bet?" the inn-keeper retorted, folding his arms.
Sure, Ahrs thought, considering you charged me for dinner, bed, and breakfast, then were nowhere to be seen when I woke up. Instead he blurted, "That's Savion? The legendary Engraver? The Talisman-making genius unmatched in all of Lozaria? That plump, foul-mouthed runt of a man?"
Noticing him, the inn-keeper flinched away, pretending to examine the chipped stonework of the neighboring tax-office. His larger friend favored Ahrs with a beaming grin. "For a kid, you've got a pretty harsh tongue yerself—not that I mind."
"So is that Savion or not?" Ahrs pressed. He didn't bother to tell the brutish man he was sixteen - almost an adult, by Sarconian standards. The fewer who knew his age, the better.
The tavern-master's grin widened. "Watch an' see, watch an' see."
Huffing, Ahrs did just that, nearly missing the action in the split second it took to turn his head.
Silver flashed. Ripping the casting catalyst from his belt, the nobleman flung the long chain and attached weight at Savion and his wagon, chanting throughout the motion.
He didn't get to finish. Savion—if that was indeed his name—popped the clasp on his breast pocket, yanked out a strip of paper as wide as three fingers and tall as a hand, and held it toward his foe. Bright light filled the street, seemingly radiating right from the blocky script on the small scrap. Ahrs shaded his eyes; he would not avert his gaze and miss this moment of triumph.
Water gushed from the paper, a literal torrent of coursing white rapids. It was like the headwaters of the Sydari River: strong, savage, and unforgiving. Ahrs had seen stout bottomed barges shredded by similar flows while trying to make the transfer from Lake Lovare to the river. This nobleman shared their fate.
He, his package, his once-fine vestments, and all the muck built up in the storm-drain went sweeping off down the street, bucked back and forth between the stone foundations like a toy boat on a stormy sea. Ahrs winced each time the aristocrat struck a pole, a flight of steps, or some piece of flotsam. Stuck-up bourgeois or not, would he be alright?
Fortunately, the town of Identstalen was not overlarge. A few streets, several shops, and a small fishing wharf situated on the northwest bank of Lake Lovare. Within a moment, the nobleman and a week's worth of accumulated sewage washed onto the low-lying flats beyond the settlement, at which point Savion inhaled and crumpled the paper in his fingers. The deluge immediately ceased, reduced to a few drops squeezing from his fist. Any trace of its blinding glow vanished.
Stuffing the enigmatic wad of damp rubbish in another pocket, Savion jumped from his wagon and waved at the small gathering, many of whom whistled and cheered in response. Identstalen was a commoner's town. Nobility, Sarconian or otherwise, were suffered, not welcomed. Ahrs was fine with that; his blood was old enough, and dilute enough, that he'd walk whichever side of the fence suited him on a given day.
The applause died quickly, the townsfolk drifting back to their work as if this was a daily occurrence. Was it? Ahrs spun to ask the tavernmaster, but he was moving away, striding toward Savion with an outstretched hand.
"Told ya I'd get yer storefront cleaned today." Savion swept his arm across the two-story tavern, its lower reaches—right up to the two colorful planters bursting with blooms on either side of the entrance—scrubbed free of dirt.
"A deal honored," the tavernmaster said.
"A deal honored," Savion chorused, pocketing the proffered change. He made to return to his wagon, but the taller man tapped him on the shoulder, pointing at Ahrs.
"I think he's been lookin' fer ya."
And that was all the introduction Ahrs was going to receive. The tavernmaster walked up the steps to the Indolent Iris, walked inside, and slammed the door such that the dingy, scantily-clad girl on his hanging sign danced in defiance of her name.
Savion stared at Ahrs as the lad's mind raced, hooking his thumbs about the straps on his coveralls so they ballooned even further than normal. What should I say? Where should I begin? The letter of introduction? My magic? No, absolutely not! That pitiful display will just make him refuse me outright. Should I bow? Go for a handshake? Gah! This was so much easier when I thought he was a doddering old codger with no—
"Ya saw what happened to the last one, right?" Savion flicked a finger at the far end of town where rivulets of happily gurgling water were still draining toward the lake. When Ahrs didn't respond, the mage gestured at his clothes. "That frippery ain't 'burn-my-eyes-out' tier like the last bloke's, but ya don't seem like ya belong round here. Ya ken?"
Ahrs glanced down at his outfit. It was just a simple robe over a two-piece tunic and trousers. What was so . . . He looked at Savion, then at the carpenter's boy up the road in the opposite direction, dressed in a frayed grey smock as he swept sawdust from his master's workshop.
"Oh," was all he could manage.
Savion nodded sagely, underestimating him like everyone else, treating him like the dolt—the untalented brat—he was. "Now yer seein' sense. Go get some curic-milk from the tavern—Sally will give ya some if ya ask real nice—and then come see me tomorrow if yer still determined to fetch whatever papa sent ya ta find. I have a strict 'one customer a day' policy an'," he paused to scratch his prickly chin, "Given how things are trendin', I'm considerin' lowerin' that down a wee bit more. Can ya have ha'f a person solicit yer services? I'm bettin' a noble without their ego would amount ta that much."
He was serious. The loon was actually contemplating how to divest a person of their personality, right here in front of a complete stranger he had just insulted and dismissed. Ahrs wanted to laugh, cry, and rage all at once. This man was his final chance; his last shot to pursue a career in the magical arts that didn't involve getting drafted and sent to fight and die in a war a million leagues away. Well, Ahrs considered, Varas Fortress is considerably closer than that, but my point still stands!
In just a few short weeks when he turned seventeen, the Sarconian pressgangs would come for him, test his magical aptitude, and find him sorely wanting. Then they'd give him a rifle, a useless helm and hauberk, and have him charge a Rabbanite gun emplacement with bullets whizzing all about. Shells exploding, men screaming, mud flying, and . . .
Ahrs shook his head. That was not his future. This man . . . this Savion, legendary Talisman-maker, infamous the empire over, would be his way out. Pedigree be blasted! He would beg, grovel, and pander in the most unsightly way to squirm out of the fate so many of his former friends had shared. His parents would not receive that coarse enveloped letter, sealed in red and gold, soon to be smeared with snot and tears.
Ahrs's neck snapped up. Coals burning in his eyes, he raised himself to his full height—a head taller than Savion—and locked gazes with him.
"Please take me as your apprentice."
Clenching his teeth, gripping the letter from his father in his sleeve pocket, Ahrs prepared to fight the inevitable refusal.
"Not my usual shtick, but sure."
The letter whipped into existence in Ahrs's right hand; he'd practiced the flourish for hours until he could make the envelope appear as if from thin air. "This missal outlines the benefits to taking me on, as well as the financial restitution you can be expected to—"
"I said, yes. Don't need to read yer fancy poetry. Liable to change my mind, anyhow."
Confidence evaporating, Ahrs froze. "You said what?
"Just like that?"
Savion's thick eyebrows furrowed, coming together like two wooly caterpillars meeting face to face. "I don't mince words, boy. My 'yes' means 'yes,' an' my 'no' means 'no.'" He threw up his arms and began stalking away. "You upper crust types, always beatin' around the bush, using two-hundred words to say what two will do for."
Stunned, Ahrs raced after him, catching up in three steps. "Isn't this where you tell me you don't take apprentices? I've never heard of you accepting anyone before."
"Ain't no one ever asked before." I wonder why, Ahrs mused sardonically as Savion snorted, bulky glasses bouncing along with his mirth. "Anyway, I got plenty of work to do, so I'm happy to have you, neat nails and all."
Staring at his hands—which were, admittedly, immaculate and damage free—Ahrs nearly planted his nose into the side of Savion's wagon. His new master caught him by the train of his robe, and he breathed a sigh of relief that his dress clothes, worn to make a good first impression, would not be sullied today.
"So I'm your apprentice now . . ." he said hesitantly, trailing off as the implications hit him. Was this pile of mobile ek-dung to be his new home? Surely not! Savion likely worked out of it and stayed in inns at night, thereby separating his livelihood from his living.
"Yep. Reckon so."
Ahrs's heart soared. He'd done it! His life was spared, and his path to the magical arts lay open wide! Scarcely able to contain his excitement, he followed Savion around to the still smoking rear hatch. "Where do we begin? What will I learn first? Runes? Cepyrus crafting? Men'ar mapping? I've heard so much about your work but can't even fathom which subject to begin with!"
Savion stretched his arm inside, rummaged around for a moment, and withdrew a rag and bucket. Ahrs's smile disintegrated.
"Ya start by scrubbin' the outside o' the wagon. Ol' girl hasn't had a rinse in . . . well, Sarcon was pro'lly still kickin' then."
Dismay etched deep lines in his pale face as Ahrs took in the smoke-warped, grit-caked, rust-lined disaster that was Savion's . . . now their . . . wagon. He gulped. "A-and after I finish?"
Savion clapped him on the back as he clambered up a three rung ladder and into the cab. "What follows naturally! The inside!"
You have got to be kidding me, Ahrs groaned inwardly, his morning coming full circle.
* * * *
How could anything be so dirty?
Hands an angry red, ooze collecting between his fingers, Ahrs observed the end result of an hour's worth of labor: a patch of clean wagon no larger than his chest. The splintered, washed-out wood was in sorry shape, but the pitch-colored boards around it were in far worse condition. If only Savion had painted it black; then the contrast wouldn't be so stark. But no, there were dozens of hues represented beneath the muck—all of which peeled away with the slime, leaving behind lumber that was well on its way to rotting.
It took a considerable amount of effort for Ahrs not to groan and gag into the thin handkerchief tied about his mouth and nose. His muscles were shrieking, his nostrils revolted at odors he hadn't known existed, and his soft skin was blistering at an alarming rate. Would he last another hour? Was Savion's knowledge and patronage worth this . . . agony?
This is a test, Ahrs decided, nodding his head in satisfaction at his wise deduction. The old coot wants to see if I'm really dedicated.
Ahrs slapped his rag back into the swirling grey water, flecks of paint and mud floating on top like pond lilies, then squeezed it as hard as he could. For the briefest of instants, he imagined it was Savion's skull, slamming it against the next dirt-encrusted wheel spoke. The brown clump took the hit like an overcharged airship lume. Not a speck of dust dislodged. With a sigh, Ahrs leaned in, throwing his entire body into scrubbing.
Pride and dread filled the exhausted youth as, under the lashing of the merciless midday sun, he finished scouring one side of the wagon. It still looked horrid. Splinters poked from the sodden timber at every conceivable angle, and the bluish-bronze roof, holed and sagging, seemed like it might buckle and crush the wall at any time. But compared to the other side . . . Ahrs snorted. There was no comparison.
Yet no matter what a brilliant miracle he'd worked here, three more faces—and the ceiling, and the inside!—remained. Ahrs used his filthy sleeve to wipe sweat from his forehead. He immediately regretted the choice as sludge dribbled down his nose, forcing him to shut his eyes. Ducking, he reached for the bucket to dash water across his cheeks, only to catch himself at the last instant.
"It's Voiding everywhere!" Ahrs spat, gobs of silt literally spilling from his lips. Ruined. His robes were ruined, his tunic was ruined . . . He wiggled his pelvis, feeling something slimy slosh about near his nether region. Oblivion! Even my undergarments are ruined!
A couple of local brats playing with a poorly sewn ball stopped their game to jeer at him. They were used to being covered in garbage; what did they have to laugh about? Casting aside his dripping cloak, Ahrs thumbed his nose at them, which redoubled their hysterics. They made a series of hand gestures he'd never seen before, then scampered off down the street to annoy someone else.
Arms hanging, Ahrs trundled around to the front of the wagon, wanting nothing more than to curl up and cry. He was awful at cleaning, a source of amusement for the townsfolk, and just a chore boy for his new master, Savion. Though what had he really expected to gain from this desperate adventure?
His father had accepted his inevitable conscription, but his mother had insisted that Ahrs do something, anything, to avoid marching off to war. It was she that recalled Savion's visit to their city and the mystifying tolerance the Sarconian authorities displayed toward him while he peddled his magics. It was she who, with tear-filled eyes, had drafted his letter of recommendation, packed a traveling kit, and snuck him out through the kitchen garden under cover of nightfall a fortnight prior. Ahrs had trusted her then, but now . . .
Distracted, he mechanically raised his arm to wipe the driver's seat. Ahrs's rag never touched the bench. Instead, it and his hand struck painfully against something metallic, eliciting a dull clang that warbled through the air. Dropping the rag and clutching his fist, Ahrs gazed at the object he'd hit.
His jaw dropped. "By the Vene . . ." He caught himself midway through the old prayer. Even in a backwater like Identstalen, it was best to avoid speaking aloud anything related to the taboo Church of Light.
Still, Ahrs couldn't help but be awed at the sight before him. Savion's wagon didn't have a driver's seat. In fact, the whole front of the contraption was missing, replaced by a mass of welded plates, steaming pipes, and countless gears and wheels. Ahrs's first thought was of his own blindness. How had he missed seeing this device when he first arrived? It was parked toward the neighboring building, but should still be visible if one approached from either end of town.
More magic, Ahrs reasoned, stepping closer. Some sort of proximity based illusion, perhaps? Savion's incredible capabilities continued to be at odds with his abrasive personality—and his tidiness.
Curious, he flicked his fingers against the central segment, a cylindrical chamber that was similar to his house's boiler. Ahrs was prepared to jerk away, but the surface was cold to the touch. Bizarre. His understanding of scientific subjects was limited, but most magtech he'd seen had a tendency to glow, smoke, and shoot flames. Not, he glanced at his shivering fingers, dimple your digits with frost.
"I see ye've met Shenvel."
Ahrs spun. Savion was resting against the washed flank of the wagon, arms and legs crossed, countenance inscrutable. How did he . . .
"Shenvel?" Ahrs asked.
Savion came closer and rubbed his palm against a raised band running the length of the device's central portion. "This ol' girl. My wagon, store, home—'er beatin' heart, at least."
He kept rubbing for a moment, long enough that his skin should have frozen to the metal. Yet . . . Shenvel . . . didn't seem as displeased with his touch as . . . she? . . . was with Ahrs's. Acknowledging such a difference would, of course, imply sentience, and that was impossible. No matter how advanced Sarconian magtech became, infusing a hunk of metal with a soul was a feat too far.
Surprise at Savion's appearance fading, Ahrs pointed at the collection of softly humming parts. "Is this magtech?"
"Ha!" His mentor touched the band in a specific sequence—five different points along a space the length of his arm.
Slowly, like the dawn creeping over the Great Divide, radiance suffused Shenvel. It began as a trickle—liquid light tracing lines, swirls, and curves at the same spots Savion had pressed. From there it dribbled outwards, slinking between the gears, rounding the wheels, slithering up the pipes. Soon the entire apparatus was coated in glowing figures. Ancient, wondrous symbols whose like Ahrs had only seen in storybooks.
"Runes," he gasped, eyes alight with amazement. "They're breathtaking."
"Don't lettit take too much o' yer wind."
"Why's that?" Ahrs asked. With reluctance he tore his gaze from the gleaming metal, turning to look in the same direction as Savion. "This is exactly the kind of thing I want to learn from you, so I'd appreciate it if you'd show more interest in—"
Five men came barreling onto the road from an adjoining street. Ahrs recognized the man in front. Clothes rent and damp, thin hair plastered to his face, it was the same irate noble Savion had cast from his wagon not two hours prior. The men clanging after him were also known to him, their chainmail and crimson tabards ubiquitous the Empire round.
Savion's rejected client had summoned the local guards.
Clapping Ahrs on his sore shoulder, the Engraver scampered up a set of rungs welded on Shenvel's side, calling back a much belated answer to his question. "'Cus ye'll need it fer runnin', o' course!" Reaching the top, Savion pressed the flat of his hand to a raised pedestal. As it shone, light streaking around his digits, he uttered a single command.
Cold steam jetted past Ahrs, erupting from wheels that started to turn of their own accord. Ahrs stumbled back, eyes darting between the shouting soldiers, Savion perched above, and Shenvel gradually rolling away.
"You there!" screeched the aristocrat, even his voice like that of a drowned rat. He gestured animatedly at Ahrs. "Stop him! Stop that swindling cur!"
The wagon continued to pick up speed, its tail end nearing. Ahrs couldn't move. His brain tried to process half a dozen things at once. The grimy rag and waste water at his feet. The impossibly radiant carriage. An old guard swearing at him. Boots clanking and pikes swinging.
None of this is what I wanted, Ahrs reflected bitterly.
"C'mon!" Savion roared, waving at him with his free arm. "What're ye lollygaggin' around fer?"
The nearest guard must have heard him, for he quickened his pace and brandished his weapon. "The lad's wit' him! Grab the boy first!"
Ahrs wanted to shout, I'm not with him! for all the good it would do. Seeing red, the noble immediately began shaking his fist at him while the rest of the troopers changed course. Better to nab the guy on foot than run down a rumbling, racing contraption.
Ahrs slumped. His mother had sent him away to avoid the army, yet here the army was, chasing him. Sure, these were provincial cast offs. The old, infirm, or those with the right connections. But they would still catch him, clap him in irons, and, upon discovering his age, ship him off to a forlorn hope unit—the kind reserved for criminals whose chance of survival was best friends with zero.
Which left Ahrs one avenue for survival. And, ironically, it's the same one that landed me in this situation to begin with, Ahrs thought.
Laughter burst from his lips, startling the guards into inaction for the briefest of instants, and he took off after the accelerating wagon, crying out to Savion as he sprinted. "Will you teach me?"
"Already said I would," his master called back. The distance between them continued to grow; Ahrs was no great athlete, having never had a reason to properly exercise a day in his life, and Shenvel's wheels turned faster and faster.
People lined the street, once again drawn from their homes and workplaces by the commotion. They cheered Ahrs and jeered at the soldiers, a harmless act that could have severe repercussions—if the guards weren't otherwise occupied. Their aggravated cries grew closer, hounding Ahrs as his sore muscles propelled him down the uneven thoroughfare.
"Really teach me?" he yelled, blood pounding, lungs aflame. "Actual runes, and Engraving, and Talisman-etching instead of just menial chores?" Ahrs nearly tripped on a worn, slanted cobble, but righted himself and kept running. This was another test, just like the cleaning. Reaching Savion was impossible, but if he pushed himself his master would come back, save him, and share his secrets.
"For the last time, yes!" Savion bellowed through a cupped hand.
Then he turned, sat down on the wagon's roof, and leaned over the pedestal he'd used to operate Shenvel. Bright light flared around him, forcing Ahrs to squint. Was he activating a spell? Giving the wagon orders to turn around?
No. Wheels squealing, Shenvel leapt forward, doubling or tripling her pace. Young maidens clutched at their aprons and bonnets as the vehicle zipped past, fathers shielded their children, and the Sarconian banner hanging at the far end of town was torn free of its mountings as a jutting length of pipe snagged it. That elicited more applause from the crowd, but Ahrs couldn't bring himself to exult.
He fell to his knees, staring at the diminishing dust cloud beyond the Identstalen outskirts. Even when his face was thrust onto the grimy stones by a pair of rough guardsmen, he didn't look away from that sight. The chaffing of the rope tied about his wrists and the sting from the blow to his backside were nothing compared to the agonizing feeling roiling in his gut.
Ahrs had been abandoned.
* * * *
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 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.
"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.
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 magic—You're a failure.
Savion came back for me—He abandoned you to begin with.
You can't do it—Just 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: Thin-Blood (Ahrs), but rest assured he and Savion will return. Their part in the story of Divinity's Twilight is not yet finished . . .