Arthur walked into the Rare hatching room, the site of the promenade, and stopped short in surprise.
The last time he had been there, the line to stand in front of the Rare egg had circled the room. Many more noble scions and hangers-on had filled up the space in the middle, chatting and talking. That hadn’t counted those who had taken their socializing and arguments into the hive’s small dueling space to settle grudges. He heard the list of those allowed to spend time with the egg directly to encourage it to hatch was 9 pages long.
That had been several weeks ago. Arthur had chosen to lay low and let “Ernest Kane” fade into the background.
It seemed he had missed an exodus.
The room had barely a quarter of the people it had held before, and that was with a generous estimate. There was no longer even a line of people waiting for the egg. Now they clustered at the stage in loose groups, chatting and barely throwing glances up at it. Others milled around, exchanging gossip and drinking.
Arthur knew what had happened: Those who had come there to meet with their peers and arrange deals under informal circumstances had gone back home. The rest either had nowhere to go, hadn’t yet concluded their business, or actually wanted to try for the egg.
It was a depressingly small amount overall, and it made him feel insulted on behalf of the Rare hatchling.
His indignation turned into mild chagrin when he remembered he wasn't trying for the egg either.
A young woman peeled off from a tightly gossiping group and walked over. It was Cressida, and she looked stunning in a green dress and a fiery necklace that reminded him of her flame bear.
She smiled as she approached. Arthur found himself smiling back.
“I trust you washed the canal water out of your hair,” she asked in greeting.
“Just for you,” he lied, having not had the time or the extra coin to waste on a bath. He didn’t think he smelled like the canal. In any case, Cressida didn’t flinch away when he extended his arm out to her.
She took it, but she was the one to steer him into the room. Not to the group of gossips she’d just left, but up to the stage.
The egg was just as impressive as it was the first time Arthur had seen it. Standing nearly as tall as his waist, it looked like it was crusted with a rainbow of gemstones. This was an illusion as dragon eggshells felt like any normal egg. But the look of it was said to indicate a shimmer quality dragon inside — a rare or powerful card holder.
As he got closer, Arthur saw striated cracks running from the top downward, though none of the shell had chipped off. It looked like it was in the beginning stages of hatching.
By all rights, it should be surrounded by onlookers. Instead, the well-dressed nobles watched nearby with careful disinterest.
Where were the common folk? He wondered, glancing around. He didn’t spot anyone not dressed as if they’d had a personal tailor.
Arthur himself was likely the cheapest dressed among them, but he covered it well with an expensive vest and a new shirt.
No, there wasn’t any common folk here other than Arthur and the guards.
He supposed it made sense. People who went to the expense and effort of getting enough shards to create a Rare card either sold them for a top price traded them, or used them to advance in a guild. People paid money for Rare craftsman’s wares, and towns that hired Rare guardsmen attracted high-quality residents.
The hive life still seemed luxurious to Arthur who had grown up in a border town. He didn’t think it would be to people not used to sickness and starvation.
“What do you think?” Cressida asked.
He blinked, realizing he had been lost in his own thoughts. “In general, or…?”
She swatted his arm playfully. “The egg, of course.” Then she turned back to gaze at it, tilting her head. “I think it’s an illusion-type.”
He suspected the same but didn’t want to admit it. “Not earth type, with all those gemstones?”
She made a face. “There is no way a dull brown dragon pops out of an egg that spectacular.”
“Earth cards have their uses,” he said, not liking her snobbery. “I hear they are invaluable helping farmers manage their fields and can turn the ground against the scourge.”
“But it’s the nature greens who force-grow crops in emergencies,” she countered, “And I’ve heard some have deadly spore powers that can rot entire swaths of scourgelings where they stand. And,” she added, “this egg is supposed to be a high grade shimmer. Green shimmers have portal powers.”
“I never understood that,” Arthur said, just to be contrary. “How do grass dragons get teleportation?”
“They don’t have powers over grass, they have powers over nature strong enough to create a stable hole from here to there.” Cressida flicked her hands. “It’s not teleportation. Some purples have teleportation.”
“You don’t like purples, either?” he asked, catching the note in her voice. He didn’t know how to talk to girls, but he found it very easy to tease Cressida. Unlike most here, she seemed strongly fixated on the dragon.
The noble girl faltered. “It’s not like I don’t like them. But… have you ever heard one speak? They’re not conversationalists.”
Arthur smiled, remembering Tess.
“Purples aren’t that bad,” she continued so defensively he knew he must have hit a nerve. Then she lowered her voice, tilting down to speak lower — almost into his ear. “I heard one of the Hives just had a Legendary laid by a purple.”
He glanced at her in surprise. “Yes, it was here.”
“Here? Are you sure?”
When he nodded, Cressida bit her lip and threw a glance up at the Rare egg. She looked guilty. “Why in the world haven’t they announced it?”
“Waiting for this egg to hatch, I suspect.” He hoped it wasn’t that it got taken away to another hive.
Something tingled on the edge of his awareness. Arthur started to turn unconsciously without fully realizing why. He caught sight of a cluster of nobles about thirty feet away. In the usually empty room, they stood out.
He caught the murmur of upset voices and realized several of the boys were trying to calm down and separate two others who were glaring daggers at one another.
Cressida followed Arthur’s gaze and then snorted through her nose. “Here we go again.”
"Again?" Arthur asked, but his question was answered a moment later.
“That’s enough! I can’t let this insult stand!” One of the boys threw out his hands and crescent-shaped shimmers of force extended out from his palms. The friends who were trying to calm him down were pushed, staggering away.
The other boy, who looked like he’d had triple-portions for every meal of his life, shouldered free from his old friends. He stepped up, and the challenger didn’t give an inch. The result was they stood nearly chest to chest, yelling insults in each other’s faces.
Arthur couldn’t catch what they said coherently — it was typical noble talk of family honor and refusing to let some insult go. Nothing he hadn’t heard a hundred times before when too-drunk nobles thought they weren’t getting the respect their bloodline deserved.
He looked to Cressida. “Shouldn’t they take this to the dueling room?”
“They would if this had anything to do with the egg. This is just an inner family grudge match.” Standing next to him, she slipped her arm around his and pointed, “See, that’s Viscount Cornfellow’s third son. I’ve heard he has a terrible gambling problem. Anyway, the big one, Granton, is only the son of a Baron, but he’s firstborn, so—“
She didn’t finish before Big Granton sneered and stomped his foot.
The stone rolled out from under the impact as if he’d thrown a stone into a pond. Arthur was watching for it and still, the jolt was almost enough to knock him off his feet.
The issue was, this wasn’t a mere Common or Uncommon earth skill. It was Rare, which meant Big Granton’s earth manipulation card had some more tricks to it.
The ripple wave hit the stone walls and reflected back. And because the walls were unevenly spaced, some ripples hit and reflected before others. Soon ripples were hitting other ripples and reflecting off each other, which created more jarring ripples in a cascade effect that shook the entire room.
Chairs and tables were toppled over. People lost their balance completely and fell over once again while trying to get up.
Arthur crouched down, trying to lower his center as much as possible. Cressida tried to copy him but fell. He reached for her, only to have her wrench out of the way, pointing back towards the stage in alarm.
It had come loose off the pedestal and rolled across the stone stage. The guards standing beside it lunged to grab it, but they both were knocked off their feet from an ill-timed double jolt.
“No!” Cressida yelled. “Help it!”
She flung out her arm and a bear made of living flame galloped forward.
“Cressida, don’t! You’ll burn it!” Arthur yelled. She hadn't summoned the gentle warming bear. This was the powerful combat version — he had seen it used to take down Penn. It was both powerful and deadly.
Fortunately — or unfortunately — it was also incorporeal. The bear ran at top speed and just managed to reach the edge of the stage as the egg did.
It reared up on its hind legs as if to catch the thing… and the egg fell right through, leaving a smoky hole where the bear’s torso had been.
The egg toppled over and fell, likely to shatter into shards on the unforgiving floor.
Except it didn’t. The brilliantly jeweled egg stopped in mid-air.
Arthur managed to climb to his feet in between jolts.
New skill gained: Balance (General Class)
Due to your previous experience and your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 5.
He barely glanced at the notification. His gaze flicked from the egg to the side entrance.
Leader Whitaker stood there as steady as a rock even though several stone ripples flowed under his feet. His hand was outstretched as he held the egg safe in mid-air.
Valentina walked out from behind him, took one look at the scene, and sniffed. “That is quite enough.”
She tapped her cane once and the ripples simply… stopped. They sank into the floor as gently as water draining away.
The power of a Legendary versus a Rare.
With a flick of his wrist, Whitaker returned the egg to its spot. Several more cracks marred the shell.
“Now, who’s bright idea was this?” Leaving Whitaker to deal with the egg, Valentina shuffled across the floor, tapping every other step.
She was a tiny thing with flossy gray hair tied into a thin braid that went down her back. It should have made her look girlish. But there was a presence about her that spoke of power. It was in the way her voice carried louder and further than it should, how the spilled water formed puddles as she passed them by and the distant torchlight bent and flared towards her, throwing wild shadows across the room.
Valentina was angry and the elemental powers she commanded with her Legendary card spoke that quite clearly.
People drew back as she approached, including the Viscount’s son. The only one who stayed in place was Big Granton — and that was because every eye was on him.
The boy’s face was spotty with a flush, and sweat beaded his brow.
“It was my card,” he said, chin up and ready to take his punishment.
And why not? Arthur thought bitterly. Nobles were never truly punished. Whatever fine or scolding Valentina leveled wouldn’t erase the fact that, for a moment, everyone had been affected by his card’s power. Unable to keep their feet, they had been helpless. And all from one stomp of his foot.
You couldn’t buy that type of intimidation for a hundred gold pieces.
Valentina shuffled up to him. Soft slippers were visible under her floral gown, but they did nothing to soften her appearance.
“So,” she said in a normal volume that nonetheless could be heard by every ear in the room. “You thought you would throw your weight around a little, hmm? Give us all a show?”
He shook his head. “I apologize for the disturbance. I tried to warn Cornfellow—“
“That you have no control?” she asked, lightly.
His lips twitched into a scowl but his expression smoothed a moment later. “Once released, the energy must dissipate on its own.”
Arthur hissed from between his teeth and from the shuffling and murmurs, he wasn’t the only one.
Sometimes cards had drawbacks — some were so specialized they became unbalanced, and some were a flat-out double-edged sword. The more powerful the card, the greater the potential risk.
Arthur’s Return To Start trap card was a lesser version of this. If he was attacked using a card power, he would be instantly transported to a set point without a limit for distance. That set it apart from most teleportation cards which had a strict distance limit. The instant transportation upon being attacked had saved his life.
The downside, naturally, was Arthur couldn’t be certain what counted as an attack. A sickness seeker running an intrusive charm without Arthur’s knowledge? A prank where someone charmed a paper animal to bop him on the head? A pickpocket using a Sneak card to get fingers on his valuables?
Arthur could never be sure and until he finally traded for a Common card — at great expense — that nullified one card in his heart deck on will, he had been on edge.
Thanks to that Nullify card, he hadn’t been yanked out of the room when the Earth Ripple charm went off.
Granton continued. “It was a mistake to set off the card in a room with so much stone. I didn’t realize the ripples would reflect so easily.”
Valentina smiled a grandmotherly smile at him. That was what made her next words all the more biting. “No, you stupid boy, your mistake was thinking you would make any kind of dragon rider with an uncontrollable power.”
Granton’s flush deepened. “I’m certain that any dragon who linked with me would have a card to fit my own—“
“By that, you mean to magnify your power.” Valentina shuffled a step closer “If you think I would anyone with uncontrollable cards anywhere near an eruption with civilians running from their lives, you have another thing coming. Furthermore, I believe it didn’t matter. All you want is the linked card. Not the dragon, or the duty that comes along with it.”
“That’s hardly fair,” he began.
She turned away. “How many of you noblelings have seen an active scourge-eruption with your own eyes? Not the aftermath, not the rotten land or diseased people? How many have seen the cone? Come on. Raise your hand. You want to be dragon riders, and dragon riders are not shy.”
Reluctantly, Arthur raised his hand. Two others did as well.
Perhaps he should have kept it to himself, but that had been a pivotal day in his life. Not acknowledging it felt like a betrayal.
Valentina’s eyes fell on him for a moment. He looked back, steadily.
After a moment she turned back to Granton. “You’re out. You aren’t fit to link with a Common Slug much less a Rare dragon. Furthermore for endangering a hive egg, you are sentenced to two weeks of hard labor in the dragon soil fields.”
The boy sputtered. “You can’t do that!”
With one flick of her finger, a small puddle of spilled water lifted off the ground and slapped Granton across the face. His head snapped to the side and he took a step back in shock.
“You’ll find that I can,” Valentina said. “Guards, get this idiot out of my sight.”
The two guards that had been attending to the egg stepped off the stage to collect Granton. Arthur suspected one of them had a subduing charm up his sleeve as Granton didn’t make much of a fuss out.
“Now that nonsense is over with,” Valentina said. “If there is anyone else among you with a similarly uncontrolled card, or feel they may not be suited for a life of killing scourge, please leave. Well? Anyone? The door is open.” She pointed helpfully.
There were some looks shared but no one made a move to go.
The other leader, Whitaker, spoke up from his place by the egg. “I’d take her seriously, ladies and gentlemen. If she finds out your lying and you’re unlucky enough to link with the hatchling, she’ll just slit your throat and have the dragon choose again.”
A few uncomfortable coughs came from the audience. This time, three people left, shoulders hunched and shamed. Arthur and everyone else did them the courtesy of pretending not to see.
“Well then,” Valentina said, sunny and cheerful again. “Now that’s over with, let’s get this egg hatched. You, you, and you. Terra Smithstrider, Ruban Hawker, Ernest Kane.” She pointed to the three who had raised their hands to indicate they’d seen live eruptions. “You’re up to greet the hatchling first.”