“But I thought you were..." Calvan didn't finish the sentence, dropping the knife and running forward to grab his son in a tight hug.
Arthur hugged him back and was shocked at how thin he felt. While Arthur had grown, it seemed Calvan had shrunk.
Calvan pulled back to look at him, eyes wide. "You shouldn't be here. How are you here?!"
In answer, Arthur shifted aside. The remains of a thin package lay under his butt. In it sat a tiny pebble. One on which he had keyed his Return To Start card.
He held up the pebble.
"A dragon rider dropped this off?"
"Just last night," Calvan confirmed, sounding faint. "Talking nonsense about me placing it out somewhere out in the open. I had no idea what she meant, but when a dragon rider asks you to do something..." He trailed off, hand still on Arthur's shoulder as if he wasn't sure his son was real. "You've grown, boy." Then he embraced his son again. This time, Calvan's shoulders shook in suppressed sobs. "I thought you were dead."
Pain lanced through him. He could very well guess why, but he had to hear it. "Red?"
"That sonofabitch." Calvan leaned back and swiped at his eyes. "I told him to take care of you, and he lost you in a scourge-eruption. There was no body, but... no word, either."
Arthur shook his head, self-directed anger making his heart ache. "I was saved by a dragon and taken to a hive. I've been at Wolf moon for years—I should have sent word, but..." He trailed off, looking down.
He could have sent a letter, but it was both risky and expensive. Instead, he had unintentionally let his father think he was dead.
"I'm sorry," Arthur whispered.
"No... no, you couldn't have reached out. It wouldn’t have been safe. You shouldn't be here!" Calvan insisted. "Why are you here son? You got to a hive. You made it. This village is the last place you should be."
"I needed a place to lay low for a bit. And I wanted to help."
"Help?" he repeated.
In answer, Arthur pushed off the table and stood. He reached into his storage space and removed a box of slightly wilted lettuce. The vegetables were too far gone to make for proper eating in the hive's city, which was why the entire box had been set out by the trash of a popular restaurant.
Then Arthur plucked out a crate of tomatoes, again, slightly off with fruit flies buzzing over it. But still eatable. More importantly, the seeds were good for planting.
Next came two full crates of plump potatoes. Nothing wrong with them. He’d purchased them himself.
Then he pulled out more and more slightly off vegetables, until boxes and crates covered the floor.
Then came the late-season chicks. Three baskets in total including one of ducklings. Finally, Arthur removed one squealing piglet.
"The rest I have isn't fit for eating," Arthur admitted with a grimace, knowing it likely would be eaten anyway. What was a little spoilage to someone who was starving? "I got it from the trash around the city, but the seeds should be good for storage and would make decent deer bait.”
His father, who had been quiet all this time, only stared. Finally, he blinked as if coming back to himself.
"Of course. You managed to get another card. You were at a hive. That… that makes sense.”
He looked like he wanted to sit down.
"I've got more than one card,” Arthur admitted. "Dad... we need to talk."
First, Arthur took a ladle full of water from a nearby bucket. The bracing yet bitterly iron-tasting water was both nostalgic and helped soothe his throat.
Then he returned to sit across from his still-stunned father and started talking.
He gave a brief outline of his life: his stay with Red’s caravan, how he made it to the hive, and some of his minor exploits there.
Then he told his father all about meeting his uncle.
Calvan jerked in place as if he had just been stung by a bee. After that moment’s shock, he slowly nodded with acceptance. “I’m glad to hear Lional has taken the duchy.”
Now it was Arthur’s turn to be shocked. “How can you say that? The duchy should be yours — it ought to be my mom and sister’s home. Mine too!” he added in indignation.
He hadn’t let himself dwell much on it, but seeing those carefree noble kids, all well-kept and dressed like they had never known anything but the best… Well, it had stung.
His father gave a defeated sort of smile. “The duchy hasn’t been my own in a long time, but it has been in our family for centuries. So yes, I’m glad that the bloodline still has some control — however long the King allows Lional’s leash to be.” Finally, a little bitterness entered his tone. “I wish Lional luck. It can’t be easy.”
Arthur couldn’t let it go. “What if taking over the duchy was Lional’s plan? If he cared anything for the bloodline, couldn’t he have gotten us out of this village? Arranged something? You got Red to take me in.”
“And you saw how that turned out. Red had the care of you for how many weeks before he almost lost you to the scourge?” Calvan shook his head. “Besides, Lional could never remove me or your mother from this place. We swore an oath to stay on one of the king’s own cards.”
He stared at his father. “You swore an oath?”
“Most of the convicted adults do,” Calvan said. “It’s why we stay.”
“And… the kids?”
“They’re allowed to leave when they turn eighteen, or before if it can be managed,” his father said with the ghost of a smile.
Arthur exhaled in relief even as his mind chewed over this new complication. Well, there was only so much good he could do in one night.
“Lional could have gotten my sister out, if he really cared,” Arthur muttered. “Or me.”
His father shook his head in answer and then leaned over to place a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve done well for yourself, son. But… I’d be lying if I wasn’t worried about what all this cost you.” He looked around at the boxes of fruits, vegetables, and the young meat animals meaningfully.
“Well… there’s something else you should see,” Arthur admitted.
Then he reached into his storage space and withdrew the card box he’d taken from the carriage.
About the size of a breadbox, it seemed to glitter with ornamentation in the dim candlelight. Now Arthur had a chance to look at it while not being half-strangled, he realized that the raised gilded edges and fanciful arrangements of glittering stones had a purpose.
The box was covered in rune. These went well beyond his current Lockpicking skill as they used mana. Also, he had no key.
His father stared at the box as well. “This is a card box. Arthur… what have you done?”
“You told me to steal a card if I had to,” Arthur said. “I might have gone a little overboard.”
“Don’t tell me…”
“Lional and his son were selling off parts of their private card library.”
Calvan stood so abruptly that the bench seat behind him tipped over. He stared at the box with a flood of emotions crossing his face. Foremost was horror.
“If it helps,” Arthur said as the silence stretched on. “I like to think of it as my inheritance.”
“I… don’t know what to say.” His father pulled one hand down his face. “I know your early years had you growing up wild out here, but Arthur… to steal from your own duchy…”
Arthur shot to his feet. “It’s not my duchy! My uncle left me to die—Mom and my sister diddie. Now they’re selling off pieces of land and what should be all of ours to other nobles.” Only respect for his former home kept him from turning his head and spitting on the ground. Instead, Arthur growled, “Lional’s lost my loyalty. I hope losing these cards hurts him.”
His father seemed to deflate. Silently righting the bench, he sat back down. “It will.”
Arthur stared at him, expecting something more. Growing up, his father seemed to be a never-ending fountain of wisdom. He always knew what to do and what to say.
Now he looked old. And tired.
Eventually, Arthur sat back down as well. “I don’t know how to open it,” he admitted. “I wasn’t able to grab a key from the guards.”
His father heaved a sigh and then looked at his son ruefully. “Well, it’s not as if you can return the thing now you’ve brought it out here. Leave opening it to me.”
An hour later, Arthur was alone in his childhood cabin.
After his pronouncement he knew how to get the card box open, his father had gone for the door and told Arthur to stay put.
“The Baron is paranoid about his people collaborating with bandits,” he had said. “He has more guard patrols here than he used to, and they wouldn’t react well to a new face. Stay here.”
Then he left.
Arthur spent the first few minutes organizing the boxes of produce. He stacked most in the secondary room, which seemed empty except for bits of firewood.
Then, for lack of anything else to do, he organized the contents into new boxes so each held a measure of different fruits and vegetables. All were ready to be distributed to the rest of the village.
After that, Arthur paced.
Now that he had nearly reached his full height, the two-room cabin seemed tiny. It was even smaller than the apartment he shared with Horatio.
How in the world had his father managed to fit an entire family in here? He remembered the eastern wall being where he had kept his own sleeping cot. How small had that bed frame been?
Mostly, though, he tried — and failed — not to worry about his father.
It was as if something vital was missing from the man. The spark he’d always had even when he faced challenges and tragedy. It had given him an air of dignity and resolve.
Now that spark was snuffed out.
Arthur wasn’t sure if it had simply worn down over the years, or if something specific had happened. And he didn’t know him well enough anymore to know how to ask.
It bothered him that his father didn’t approve of him stealing from the new Duke Rowantree. It made Arthur question himself.
Back when Arthur had been new to cards, he’d been worried that taking the Thief Class would change him. It was a part of his Master of Skills Card which lived in his heart.
But Arthur had never stolen from other people, robbed, or extorted them.
Not until today.
Now that the deed was done, he was a little alarmed with how easy it had been to plan. How he never stopped to ask himself if what he was doing was right.
Stealing these cards would strike a blow against his own family by blood.
And still… Arthur couldn’t find it in himself to feel regret or shame.
If his plan worked as he hoped, these cards would do real good. They wouldn’t just be sold to other nobles who wanted a little more power to give them an edge over their peers.
That was worth any risk or pain to his former duchy.
A scrape at the door alerted Arthur that his father had returned. The front door swung wide, and his father stepped in. At his heels came a sickly-thin looking woman with an unfortunate, weasel-like face.
The woman’s watery blue eyes went wide as she saw Arthur. She dropped into a clumsy curtsy. “Milord.”
Arthur glanced at his father in confusion. Then it hit him. He had the vitality of health of a carded man. To anyone used to seeing the state of others in the borderland village, Arthur would look like a high noble.
“Please stand. I’m no noble,” Arthur said awkwardly.
His father stepped forward to introduce them. “Arthur, this is Lena. She was sent here because she possesses a certain… skillset.”
“For the right price,” Lena muttered, eyes still warily on Arthur.
Arthur knew exactly how to deal with that. He strode to the attached room where he had stacked the extra foodstuffs. Bringing out a full box, he set it on the table.
“Will this do?”
Lena’s eyes widened and she nodded quickly. “What do you need me to do, Milor-“ She stopped and glanced hesitantly at Calvan.
Calvan didn’t look happy, but he gestured for Arthur to explain.
Again, Arthur went to the secondary room. This time he came out with the card box. “I need you to unlock this.”
“I see.” Lena’s gaze sharpened, the look of wonder replaced with professional interest. “Could I trouble either of you for a piece of paper?”
A moment later, Calvan provided her with the back of an invoice and a piece of charcoal to serve as a writing instrument.
Lena set the paper on the table and started to scribble.
“Do you mind telling me how your process works?” Arthur asked. “I have an interest.”
An interest in gaining a new skill…
Lena’s hand didn’t stop her scribbling for a moment as she spoke. “Well, you see these runes are usually arranged in patterned chains. Unlocking them is usually a matter of finding which pattern doesn’t match. But it’s not as easy as spotting a break in the chain. The differences can be subtle, especially with well-made locks like this.”
Arthur peered carefully, realizing Lena was copying the vague swirls and dots that made up the filigree and gemstone coating.
Next, he glanced at the box but had a tough time finding the exact part of the pattern Lena was looking at. It completely covered the box, like staring into the depth of a mosaic.
Only after about ten minutes, and when Lena turned the box to the other side, did he finally spot the exact place from where she was copying down.
Borrowing another blank page from his father, Arthur tried working the problem on his own.
Lena was clearly an expert. Perhaps even to Master level. Arthur’s efforts were basic at best, whereas Lena saw more patterns than he knew to look for.
Finally, something clicked.
New skill gained: Rune Lockpicking (Thief Class)
Due to your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 3.
And just like that, Arthur saw more patterns in the ornamentation.
Still, he only had an inkling of how it worked — enough to help him open a very simple rune lock. This box was well beyond him.
It took Lena the better part of an hour, all the while copying all six sides of the box before she finally identified the one she needed.
She pointed to a pattern at the corner. “This is what we’re looking for.”
Arthur squinted but couldn’t quite identify the change in the pattern. He had to trust that Lena knew what she was doing. “So, we can unlock it now?”
“Sure, if we had a key. That’s what fits at the top of the box. The best I can do is break it without blowing us up along with the entire cabin.”
Both Arthur and Calvan took a step back from the box.
“You’re joking,” Calvan said.
“I’m not.” Lena slapped a hand on the top of the box, making father and son jump. “There’s a lot of magical energy contained in these beauties.”
“Will you harm the contents inside by breaking the box?” Arthur asked.
“It depends on how delicate those contents are. Fine dishware may not survive.”
She didn’t know this was a card box?
The fact she was so confident about breaking it open but wasn’t aware of what it actually was made Arthur nervous.
Magic cards were supposedly durable, but he’d never heard of one being caught in the middle of an explosion before.
Calvin looked at his son. “It’s up to you.”
He shrugged. “Well, they aren’t doing any good sitting in that box.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Lena’s grin was skeletal. She picked up the box. “Best we do this outside. Just in case.”
Lena’s solution to the problem was to write down what she said was the missing part of the pattern, impale that slip of paper on the end of a pointy stick, and poke at the correct spot on the box.
Also, she used a long stick.
Arthur braced himself. The moment the missing part of the pattern touched the runes, the wooden box shattered like struck glass. Which was odd because it was made of wood.
“Told you!” Lena crowed, walking to it. She kicked the splinters aside. Within the mess sat a smaller, metal box.
Arthur wasn’t sure why he was surprised. His Master of Skills card had been doubly protected as well.
Lena spent a moment inspecting the smaller box for traps. After declaring all clear, she brought it back into the cabin.
“This is a real pickle,” she said.
“How so?” Calvan asked. Arthur was relieved to see a little interest in his eyes. He might disapprove of stealing from the duchy, but this was a fascinating problem to solve.
In answer, Lena pointed to the top of the box. It was completely smooth and without any seams or decorations except for a single wide circle on the top. Inside the circle was a flat depiction of a single red droplet.
“This is a blood lock,” Lena said. “Whoever set this one did it with a blood inheritance card. That requires a member of the family to open it.”
Arthur and Calvin looked at each other. Chances were the Duke had set this up before transferring custody to the guards.
“I’ll do it,” the two said at the same time.
Calvan turned to his son. “I won’t allow you to risk yourself. There might be a backlash if it wasn’t Lional.”
“There may be backlash for you even if it was him,” Arthur shot back. “Didn’t you just tell me you were under a King’s oath? Would that interfere with unlocking something made by a king’s servant?” He directed this last question to Lena.
She hesitated. “It might.”
“See? Besides, I’m the one who brought the box here. It’s my risk.” Plus, he had the health and vitality of a card wielder. His father didn’t, anymore.
Calvan looked like he wanted to argue, but Arthur had already withdrawn his belt knife and pricked his finger.
Holding his hand over the lock, he allowed a single drop to fall into the circle.
The blood hit and started to sizzle. Then the metal began to melt away as if it were hot wax.
In its place, bundled up in parchment paper, was a stack of magical cards.
Lena inhaled a sharp breath. Her hand went out as if to touch them. She retracted it just as quickly. Likely, she was under an oath as well.
Arthur carefully lifted the stack and unwrapped the parchment.
The top card was, of course, the Legendary.
Master of Body Enhancement
This card grants the wielder the ability to gain proficiency in any body enhancement technique or muscle-memory based skill.
In addition, the wielder will be able to view their base attributes translated into a numerical value with twenty being the base-point human average.
Newly learned skills and techniques start at a base level three, and are learned at a base 25% accelerated rate. Previous experience and/or the learning of a skill or technique taught by a master may increase the starting level and further accelerate proficiency.
This is a body enhancement only card. Seek additional cards in this set to include combative, skill-based, magical, and other special abilities.
This was it. A card which was a brother to his own. Part of the same set.