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Arthur sprinted across the scourge-deadened fields. The soil was gray and lifeless and the black remains of weeds disintegrated under his boots.

Though he ran flat out, he breathed as little as possible, inhaling with quick gasps of air only when his burning lungs couldn’t take it anymore.

It wasn't a good idea to breathe in scourge dust. That's how rot got into the lungs.

A shallow ditch bordered the field at the other end, the water fetid with green scum on top. But even scum was still alive, which made it the opposite of the scourge.

Timing his running steps just right, Arthur jumped the ditch. When he landed on the other side, it was on scraggy yellowed grass.

This next patch of land had been reclaimed from the scourge last season. It wasn't alive enough yet to grow crops but any dust kicked up here wasn't actively toxic.

Putting his hands on his thighs, Arthur bent and breathed in deep whoops of air. Like most kids in his borderland village, he was small and skinny from too little nutritious food and too much time spent laid up in bed fighting off one scourge infection or another.

Now, straightening, he looked across the reclaimed field to the empty dirt road beyond. He grinned. His shortcut had worked. He wasn't too late.

Arthur stepped forward quickly, clutching a stitch at his side and limping just a little. The further away from the scourge-land he got, the thicker the vegetation underfoot. At the very edge, where the field met the road, stood a cluster of scraggly hedges.

He ducked in among them, laid low, and peered out.

He didn't have to wait long.

He felt the clop-clop-clop of shod hooves on the soil before he saw the carriage arrive. It was pulled by four gleaming pure white horses. Or, they had probably been pure white before the trip.

Now their legs up to their underbellies were coated in sickly gray. Arthur's village did their duty to reclaim the scourge-tainted land but they couldn't do anything for the dust blown in from the dead kingdoms. Hopefully, the drivers and footmen had enough sense to wash down the beasts of scourge-dust every night. Any dust that got into a wound — even a tiny one cut — would cause it to fester.

His attention went from the horses to the magnificent carriage they pulled. Nearly as wide as the road itself, it gleamed with fresh red paint. Golden filigree and ornamentation stood out from every edge, making it one of the finest things Arthur remembered seeing. Certainly the most colorful that had ever passed through his borderland village.

Best of all, it was guarded by five men in the baron’s colors of brown and rust red.

Not that Arthur had any warm and fuzzy feelings for the sight of the baron’s men. These weren’t the normal thugs and bully boys the baron employed to enforce his orders. They were carded men. Taller and broader than any man in the village, without a trace of pockmark or scar. They reaped the benefits of a spell card in their heart.

Come on, Arthur thought. No one is watching you. Loosen up. Do some magic. Any magic!

Just a little spell… please.

The men remained consummate professionals. Silent and forbidding, they even marched in lockstep. Their eyes scanned ahead of the dusty, empty road with occasional sweeps out to the dark and dead horizon to the west. None so much as glanced to the underbrush.

Arthur’s shoulders slumped as the last man passed by.

The chance to see real magic in action had been a long shot, but the disappointment still tasted bitter. All his life, he’d heard of the deeds of carded men. Some could shoot fireballs from their fingertips, turn a regular sword into a magical masterpiece, or have the strength to pick up a horse one-handed: All depending on the power and strength of their spell cards. He craved those stories like a man dying of thirst craved water. It was enough to put aside his distaste for the baron’s men to spy.

Looking on forlornly, determined to watch until they were out of sight. He knew he’d have to run back to the village and still be lucky not to be missed. There was a new dragon soil shipment and all hands were needed—

The air exploded above him.

A hurricane of wind kicked up out of nowhere. Branches and twigs from the brush rained down on Arthur, blending with the guard’s sudden shouts. Half shielding his eyes, Arthur glanced up to see the red underbelly of a dragon not fifty feet overhead.

He froze.

The beast was smaller than the stories said they were — a mere three times the size of the monstrous carriage instead of a mountain.

From where Arthur lay, it was plenty big. Each leathery snap of its wings drove more wind downward, throwing dust and debris into the eyes of everyone on the ground.

Despite that, Arthur felt his mouth hang open. A dragon rider? Here, at the border? He couldn’t imagine for what reason…

One thing was for sure: This was even better than seeing a magic spell!

Only… there was no saddle around the base of the beast’s neck. It seemed to be riderless. Did dragons leave their hives alone?

When the dragon looked down at the chaos it had caused, its yellow slit pupil eyes were angry.

The men guarding the carriage seemed to be as confused as Arthur. Several in the front tried to get the panicking horses under control. The two in the back swung around to face the beast. One held a massive sword Arthur was certain had not been there a moment before.

“What is the meaning of this?” the sword wielder demanded. “Explain yourself.”

The dragon’s voice came out in a growl, chewed up in dagger-like teeth. “You protect Baron Kane’s assets?”

Dragons could talk?! The stories never said that. This was better at seeing real card magic.

The sword man scowled. He didn’t look surprised that the dragon was able to speak. “That is no business of yours, worm! Return to your hive. That is an order!”

“Ah, but I come to fulfill a promise to your arrogant lordling.”

The man’s feet spread. The sword he held in both hands flashed bright blue at the edges. “You dare—”

“I do, and gladly.”

And with that, the dragon spit a gobbet of fire directly on the carriage. It landed at the yoke that connected the horses to the carriage. Wood splintered. The beasts screamed and bolted down the road, leaving the carriage behind.

The men reacted at once. One of the drivers slammed a flat hand on the side of the carriage. Wood erupted into sharp thorny spikes all around it like an angry hedgehog. His partner gestured upward and the spikes detached and threw themselves upward towards the dragon.

Meanwhile, the two men to each side raised their palms. Green acid arced towards the dragon.

The second turned cupped hands flowing with water over the still burning yolk.

There was a snap and a chemical smell as lightning erupted from the great sword, forking towards the dragon.

The lightning was the only spell to hit. It struck the dragon’s side, leaving a scorch mark the size of Arthur’s head. A massive wound to Arthur… but not much to the dragon.

The red dragon roared a laugh and breathed out a series of small purple flames as tiny and delicate looking as the tops of candles. Wherever these landed, they undid what they touched. The tiny flames ate into the oncoming acid stream and turned it orange before it exploded into vapor. The rest of the thorns burned into ash well before they reached the dragon.

This only consumed a small portion of the cloud of candle-like flames. The rest continued to fall, as ethereal as snow… but what they landed on was changed.

The wood of the carriage disintegrated in patches, as did whatever clothing the flames happened to fall on... and the same with flesh.

Arthur was lucky the carriage had already passed him by. The cloud of tiny flames fell with precision, blanketing the carriage and the men started to scream and their own magic spells failed them. It seemed none of them had shield cards.

Arthur covered his ears but didn’t dare shut his eyes in case he needed to make a bolt for it.

The dragon was terrifying, but Baron Kane’s men were the enemy. He wasn’t exactly rooting for them.

The moment the men were suitably distracted with their clothes catching on fire, the dragon dropped to the ground.

it landed with a too-light thud for an animal his size. The claws came down… and in the next few moments, the dragon showed that teeth and claws were every bit as effective as magical fire.

The swordsman got in one more lighting strike. This left a sizable hole in one wing and earned him a crushing overhead strike with a tail.

Finally, all the men were dead and the dragon turned to the carriage.

The odd flames were still merrily disintegrating whatever they touched. Half closing its eyes, the dragon breathed in and all the flames were extinguished.

The action must have caused it to catch Arthur’s scent. The dragon’s great head snapped to the side to stare down its nose right at the stand of bushes where Arthur had been hiding.

Every muscle in Arthur’s body locked. At that moment, he knew exactly what a mouse must feel under the gaze of a cat.

The dragon’s lips lifted over its teeth in an oddly human-like sneer. “What’s this? A coward hiding? You think you’ll live long enough to bleat news back to your master?”

“I… I…” Arthur licked dry lips. Half of him was still frozen in terror. The other half was gibbering in fear. The only thing he could think was that he didn’t want to die burning alive, should the dragon set the shrubs alight.

Arthur had seen enough death in his twelve years to know there were very bad ways to go. Better to be snapped in half with those teeth. At least it would be quick.

Somehow he coordinated his limbs enough to crawl out from under shrubs.

His legs shook too much to stand so he sat up on his knees. “I… I’m not…”

What he wanted to say was, “I’m not one of Baron Kane’s men and I sure as hell won’t be once I grow up!”

But all he could do was stutter and try not to piss himself.

The dragon let out a sulfur-scented snort. “Oh? A cub? Did I just kill your father?”

Pride reconnected his tongue back to his brain. “My father ain’t a baron’s man! He hates him. I do too!”

“A borderland serf with a spine? Interesting.”

The dragon seemed amused. It turned, discounting Arthur as a threat... which was fair because he wasn't one.

The once beautiful carriage was a wreck of its former self. Great holes and gaps showed through the wood. The paint and filigree Arthur had admired so much was cracked and ruined as if it had been left out in the sun for years without cover.

Arthur tried not to look at the dead bodies. Death was a fact of life in his village, but there was a difference between seeing someone decline due to an illness and seeing them viciously murdered.

"I won't tell anyone what I saw," he said and backed a step, glancing over his shoulder down the road. It was empty. It wasn't like trade ever came to his town. There was no one to come help, but maybe if he ran...

The dragon didn't bother glancing back toward him. "If you try to escape, you die."

Arthur swallowed and put his foot back down.

The dragon stood on its hind legs and sank clawed hands into either end of the carriage. Muscles rippled under red scales. With a crack of wood and a twist, the carriage split down the middle.

The inside must have once been luxurious. The fabric padding inside was dyed in bright pastel colors Arthur had only seen in rainbows. The feathers that exploded from ripped seams must have been actual goose-down.

It was also entirely empty.

Arthur hadn't considered it before, but surely there should have been screaming or something from inside once the dragon attacked. Why was a team of men sent to accompany an empty carriage?

His silent question was answered a moment later. The dragon reached into the middle of the wreckage and plucked out a single wooden box.

Like the rest of the carriage, the box had been decorated in intricate designs. The wood was beautiful and thin — proven when the dragon crushed it between its fingers like a nut.

Something slipped out of the shards and fell to the ground.

The dragon nodded down. "Pick that up, cub."

Obeying that order meant getting right up underneath the dragon. Arthur understandably hesitated but knew if he didn't, the dragon would surely kill him anyway.

With jerky steps, he walked forward. The dragon watched him with unblinking slit-pupil yellow eyes.

He saw that the wooden box contained... another box. This one was slim and metallic. Likely too small for the dragon to grasp within its claws.

He glanced up at the dragon for permission and then picked up the metallic box.

The box was heavier than it looked, bracketed on two sides by a clasped lock.

"Open it," the dragon said.

Swallowing, Arthur did.

The clasp was simple but his fingers shook so badly he fumbled it twice before he finally got the lid open.

When he saw what rested inside, he nearly dropped the box.

It was a spell card.

 

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