A half-hour later, Arthur lay crouched under thick brush on the side of a road while he waited for a cart to arrive.

This felt familiar.

Now he was a well-grown sixteen years old, not a scrawny, underfed little boy. He had the tools, skills, and allies to help him out.

This time, he wouldn't be at the mercy of a dragon to give him a card. He would take the prizes himself.

Traffic on the forested road was sparse. A light merchant cart pulled by a donkey and a single rider passed by. Though Arthur was shielded by the underbrush, he concentrated on his Stealth skill to keep him hidden.

No one so much as glanced his way.

When the Duke's safe cart rolled up, Arthur again felt a surge of deja vu.

It was an ostentatious thing painted blue with silver filigree, pulled by four black horses, and accompanied by uniformed guards on foot. One leaned an oversized hammer against his shoulder like Arthur might carry a stick.

Arthur took a bracing breath, pulled his dark hood over his head, and an obscuring strip of cloth over the lower half of his face. He didn’t know how many people had powers of seeing through time like Doshi and his rider, but it was best to conceal his identity as much as possible. Lastly, he checked to make sure his Nullify card was set to stop his Return to Start trap card from activating.

There came a shattering roar from above.

Sams had dived down, using the sun’s angle to keep the guards from spotting him. When he reached the height of the treetops, he snapped open his wings and roared out his entrance.

He blazed like the sun itself. All shadows beneath him evaporated.

Without a rider to link cards with, Sams wasn't a full-on threat. But he could provide an effective distraction.

No one expected an unfriendly dragon so close to the hives. Especially not one with a rider on its back.

The guards shouted and either staggered to the front of the cart to face the dragon or calm the plunging horses. But they were all working half blind. Sams at full power was eye-wateringly bright.

Horatio was wearing similar coverings to obscure his face and had been directed to pull a sleeping mask to save his eyes from the light. He was only there for show, to throw off the trail so the guards would not report a riderless dragon later on.

Keeping his eyes firmly on the ground, Arthur scrambled out of his hiding spot and tried to Stealth his way to the cart. The land all around was still painfully bright. He stumbled through watering eyes, and his only saving grace was the guards were doing the same.

"What is the meaning of this?!" one guard bellowed up at Sams. "Rider! Call your beast off and explain yourself!"

Horatio called, "We have received reports of contraband being brought into the hive. By order of the Wolf Moon hive, you are to stand down and show your paperwork and proof of entrance fees.”

"How dare you! We will do no such thing. This is a legal transport, vouchsafed by my employer--"

And so on.

Arthur hardly listened. He needed to move fast.

Squinting and half-shielding his eyes, Arthur made out the form of a guard standing a few feet from the carriage’s side door. The man had his back turned, paying more attention to the argument than what he was supposed to be guarding.

On silent feet, Arthur crept up and pulled out his lockpicking tools.

Every spare minute he had spent not buddying up to Penn or working on the logistics of this plan, he had been practicing his Lockpicking skill. He picked his way into his apartment, solved toy puzzle boxes, and purchased cheap locks from second-hand general stores with the very last of his coppers and worked until he sprung those, too.

As a result, his Lockpicking now stood at a very respectable level 24. He only hoped it would be enough to get him past the door.

So he was utterly shocked--and a little affronted-- when the door sprung open at a pull. It wasn't locked at all.

The inside of the carriage was a dark, incomprehensible mass to his bright-blind eyes. Arthur crawled in and closed the door behind himself. The silent hinges didn't make a sound.

Unfortunately, he was all too obvious to the guard riding in the carriage.

A card-strength enhanced hand grabbed him by the base of the throat and shoved him up against the closed door.

"Laramie!" the guard called. "We've got a break-in!"

"I knew it! Fire on the dragon!" the guard outside bellowed.

Arthur heard the twang of a bow, Sams roar, and rapidly beating wings as the dragon retreated.

Gasping, Arthur scrabbled behind him to find the lock on the door and pull it. The lock engaged with a click.

"Clever," the guard commented, unconcerned. His grip tightened on Arthur's neck, nearly cutting off all his air. "How'd you rope a dragon rider into your scheme, kid? I thought they were supposed to be above all that."

Arthur pounded a fist against the man's wrist, but it was like striking a wooden beam.

If he was arrested, he had to protect Sams and Horatio. "Nothing to do with it," he croaked. "Saw the carriage stopped... tried my luck."

With easy, deliberate effort, the man slammed him against the door for his obvious lie.

"Want to try that again?"

Someone tried the door on the outside, found it locked, and started pounding against the wood.

"Otto! What's going on in there?"

"Just having a chat with my new friend," Otto called. "Be out in a moment. Now," again his fingers tightened on Arthur's neck.

Arthur gagged, trying to pry the fingers loose. It was no use at all.

"Who are your accomplices?" Otto asked.

"Don't... have... any..." Arthur choked. His eyes had cleared of Sams' brightness, and he could make out the form of Otto. He was a massive bear of a man who seemed to take up the entire interior of the already-large cart. There was no chance of defeating the man by force.

A gilded box sat on Otto's other side. The box Arthur needed but couldn't reach.

"One last time," Otto said. "Name. Your. Accomplices." Each word was accompanied by a squeeze that made Arthur's windpipe feel like it was about to collapse.

Wheezing for air, Arthur shook his head.

His sight had returned with enough detail to see Otto roll his eyes.

"Fine. We'll see what the captain has to say. He's not as nice as me. Hope you’re not too attached to your fingers and toes."

With his free hand, Otto reached to his own forearm -- the one currently choking Arthur. The man’s sleeve was rolled up, showing a visible card anchor tattoo.

Arthur's next move was one of pure desperation.

He slapped his hand over the tattoo a moment before Otto did and reached for his Card Shuffling skill.

The ghostly edge of cards flicked across the pads of his fingers. He drew out the top one straight from Otto’s card anchor deck.

A card appeared pinched between Arthur's fingers.

Otto jerked and let out a strangled sound of pure surprise.

He had no air to say the words, so he mouthed them, instead.

Full Body Bind.’

Arthur felt something pull from his center. He had never cast a spell before, but the mere act of it took effort.

Otto went stiff from head to foot. Though his fingers were locked around Arthur's neck, the tension was gone. Arthur pulled away and to the side, sucking down fresh air.

The guard, meanwhile, fell flat to the floor of the carriage. Only his darting, wide eyes moved.

"Otto! Otto, what's going on in there?" Whoever was outside pounded his fists so hard the door shook. "Stand back, we're coming in!"

No time to think. Arthur threw himself across the bench seat, grabbed the box, and shoved it in his personal storage space along with the card.

He had time to reach for his Nullify card and toggle it off Return To Start card before the carriage’s side door was ripped away.

Arthur wasn't sure what kind of card they used on him--some sort of magic effect eraser was his guess because a cool light washed inside the carriage. Otto immediately jerked back into motion and reached for Arthur again.

Conditions for Trap Card met.

Return To Start Activated.

The next moment Arthur found himself laying on his back on something flat, wooden, and unforgiving. A kitchen table.

Adrenaline pumping, Arthur sat up and looked wildly around. He was in a simple two room cabin, the walls patched and dirty, with a weak fire burning on the stove.

"Thief!" bellowed a voice. "Get out of my house!"

Arthur whipped around to see an old man stagger out of the secondary room. There was more gray in his hair than Arthur remembered, with thin clothing and sunken skin. He held a knife, but Arthur didn’t fear him.

His voice came out rusty from emotion and the trauma of nearly being strangled.


Calvan stopped short. He took Arthur in like a stranger, like he didn't want to believe his eyes. "Arthur?

A note from HonourRae


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