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A note from HonourRae

Welcome back. First, this is a long chapter I hope will answer some questions! Second, I've started a Patreon for those who are interested in advance chapters. Right now it's 4 chapters ahead (likely 5 by the end of the day) and I expect there will be more soon!

 

Arthur and his father trudged back to their cottage to find it in shambles.

It was obvious their small home had been searched multiple times throughout the day. Everything that had been inside the building not nailed down had been tossed out the front door. The two windows with the thick, warped glass had been broken out for good measure.

As they got closer, an acidic smell told Arthur that the blankets had been pissed on.

He stood there, looking at the shattered remains of his bed, the food they’d set out for storage which was now ground into the dirt, and the shards of what used to be his mother’s favorite plates. He was so angry that tears fell silently down his cheeks.

His reaction was nothing to his father’s.

Calvan let out a bellow of rage and pain. He grabbed broken splinters of what had been their table and flung them into the forest. Kicking the wet blankets, he stormed into the house. From the open doorway — the door now hung off its hinges — Arthur saw him beat on the walls as if he were trying to knock new holes into them.

Seeing his father so out of control snapped him out of his own despair.

He had never seen his father like this. Never under the weight of all the little cruelties that came with every visit from the baron’s men. Not even when Arthur’s mother and little sister died.

Fear took root in his heart. Arthur stepped back, nervously, to the tree line. Not that he was afraid his father would turn his fists on him. It was just that his dad was the only one he had left.

If he were to learn that Arthur was the cause of all this…

I’ve got to keep the card a secret for a little bit longer. At least until I’m sure the baron’s men have left, he thought. Then I’ll dump it in the forest. I’ll bury it in a hole so deep not even the treasure seekers can find it.

Finally, his father seemed to tire himself out. The noise of pounding stopped and even from outside Arthur could hear him taking ragged, controlled breaths.

“Arthur,” he said in a too-calm voice. “Go get wood for the fire.”

With a quick nod, Arthur scampered into the woods. The sun was less than an hour from setting. Daylight grew thin through the winter-bare branches. Arthur ranged out further than he normally did, both because he wanted to give his father space and because he realized he could see better in the dimming light than he ever had before.

Another benefit of the card. Regret twinged at his heart but it was far outweighed by the guilt on his conscience.

The townspeople had suffered because of him. All their possessions, their food was destroyed…

Wait, was that fair?

He stopped in place, frowning. It was easy to blame himself for this mess… like rolling a rock down a steep hill, where the bottom was self-loathing.

But what if Arthur had never followed the carriage? The dragon would have still attacked and then flown away with the card. The baron would have blamed the townsfolk, just because they were the closest nearby, and he could.

This wasn’t his fault. Not really.

It didn’t make him feel any better.

He returned home with his arms full of dropped dead-fall branches, which made good kindling. There was also a small shed outback where they stored seasoned wood. Thankfully, the baron’s men had ignored it.

Going to the shed, Arthur picked out several pieces of the split and seasoned logs — oak, which would take a while to catch fire but would burn hot and long. These few pieces would see them through the night.

When he returned to the cottage it was to find that his father had scavenged several unbroken items from the pile. Nothing special: A stone pitcher they used to store fresh drinking water, a few unbent utensils, and slab of polished wood they used as a cutting board but would now be their plate tonight.

The roots and smoked meat had been thrown into the dirt, but the animals hadn’t yet had time to take it.

With his father organizing the food, Arthur bent to the wood stove which seemed untouched and started the fire.

It was a task he had done hundreds, maybe thousands of times before. Taking out a blade so tiny and inconsequential that not even the baron’s guards had looked twice at it, Arthur used the sharpest edge to shave bits off the sticks of kindling until he had made a nest of thin wood and sawdust.

Then he took a flint rock his father had laid out and started knocking sparks into the nest.

Within three strikes, a spark large enough to catch hold fell into the kindling. Arthur blew gently on it, feeding it more out of the nest until he had a viable flame. Only then did he place the first oak log — raised just above the first using the two inner edges of the wood stove.

If he hadn’t gathered so much kindling, he would have used poplar to help it catch. However, the oak was well dried. All it would need was time.

 

New skill gained: Fire Making (General Class)

Due to your previous experience and your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 7.

 

Arthur blinked. It seemed all those times waking up to a cold house and patiently feeding a fire while trying not to shiver had paid off with extra levels.

As before the message came along with more knowledge.

His eyes went to the flew and he realized he hadn’t checked it. It was still dampened and the fire was in danger of eating all the air inside, snuffing itself out.

He quickly adjusted it. Hot air rose up the pipe and sucked up whisps of smoke before it could drift through the house and choke them out. The flames instantly leaped and the outer edges of the dense oak started to catch.

Without the knowledge from the card, Arthur might have caught the error… but not before they were coughing on smoke.

“Dinner’s ready,” his father said, breaking Arthur out of his wonder.

He turned to see his father had made up a single plate of sliced apples and cheese. Usually, apples were saved for dessert on special occasions — they were carefully hoarded for the sweetness.

But the thin red skins were bruised from the rough handling today. They’d go bad soon if they weren’t eaten.

His father looked down at the cutting board they were using as a single plate and grimaced. “What little dinner there is.”

“Did they get to the smokehouse?” Arthur asked. While they kept some strips of meat in the cottage, the majority was in a separate lean-to on the other side of the far wall. He hadn’t had time to check it.

Calvan nodded. “They took everything.”

Arthur winced. When he grabbed the slice of apple, he made sure to eat it slowly. No doubt the entire village would be hunting food for tomorrow, which would make game harder to find.

They ate in silence while the sunset. Soon, the only light in the cottage came from the open door of the wood-burning stove. The candles had been destroyed.

Gradually, his father relaxed. Arthur kept shooting glances at the door he’d propped up against the door frame until the hinges could be fixed. It wouldn’t keep out a stiff breeze much less the baron’s men.

“Dad?” he asked. “What will happen if the bandits don’t have that card? Will the baron’s men come again?”

To his surprise, his father chuckled. “The baron be down on his knees and praying to all the Gods that those bandits have that card.”

But they don’t have it, Arthur knew. He swallowed. “Why?”

“Because some cards are worth more money than a noble’s entire holdings. Most use high cards as a type of currency.”

“They use them like money?”

“There’s no point in lugging around boxes of coins when you can trade a card instead. Some high lady’s entire dowries can be a rare card.” His grin was a little sideways. “I don’t doubt the baron lost a good one. Maybe even a rare one. Did you see how desperate he looked?”

Arthur thought back on it. He didn’t notice before, but now he reexamined his memories of today, he realized something he had missed. “He looked scared.”

“He is. He may not have the money to pay back the worth of that card, depending on its rarity.”

Arthur didn’t know much about cards, but he would bet that ‘legendary level’ was rare.

Speaking of rare, his father hardly ever talked of cards, even when Arthur begged to know. And none of the other adults had a clue.

“How do you know a card is rare?” he asked, half certain his father would brush off the question.

Calvan leaned back against the wall since the two chairs they had were currently outside in broken pieces. Then, to his surprise, he answered. “It says on the card. There are five categories: Common, uncommon, rare, legendary, and mythic.”

Legendary was second from the top.

Yes. His card was likely worth a lot of money.

His father continued, voice bitter. “I hope the baron never finds it and whoever has the card has ran away... and keeps running. ”

He couldn't take it anymore. “Dad, how do you know so much about magic?”

His father looked away. “I’ve lived a long time. Picked up things.”

Except when the Treasure Seeker had touched his father’s chest, his card dashboard looked different from everyone else’s.

Arthur wasn’t stupid. His father had once had a card.

It wasn’t even a surprise. Arthur had vague memories of a life before his family had been forced to relocate to Border Village #49.

It had been a life of ease surrounded by smiling people. A time when Arthur had never known hunger or cold.

That had been a long time ago. His sister had been born in this village. And she had died here.

Guilt swamped him once more. It was too much. He thought he could say nothing, take the card and bury it in the dead woods… but even if his father ended up angry at him, he had to know.

A small part of Arthur hoped and feared that Calvan would ask for the card, himself. Surely, he would know what to do with it.

“Dad…”

Instantly, he felt his father’s attention on him. Something in the tone of his voice must have alerted him that this was serious.

Arthur swallowed and continued. “You know that carriage? The one that got destroyed? I followed it out of the village.”

His father gripped his wrist hard, his fingers strong and calloused. Arthur stopped and his father released his grip. The message was clear: Be silent.

Rising, his father rose to the door, leaned it back from the broken opening, and looked out as if he was afraid someone was listening from the other side.

Replacing the door, he looked at Arthur and jerked his chin towards the back of the cottage. It was two rooms in total. One room for living, eating, and sleeping. The other small closet-sized room for cold storage of root vegetables. Arthur had to step down into it as it was partially dug into the soil to keep cool in the winter months.

His father crouched down in the storage room and gestured for Arthur to do the same. If someone was listening by the doors or windows, they would be hard-pressed to hear them speaking from here. The soil built up around the storage room provided them extra security.

With all that, his father still spoke in a low tone. “You saw the bandits attacking the carriage?”

“It wasn’t bandits. It was a dragon.” The story spilled out of him. “It didn’t have a rider. It even spoke, dad! It killed the baron’s men and destroyed the carriage with magic. I don’t know how they could have thought it was bandits.”

Again, his father gripped his wrist but not nearly so tight. “Arthur, you will never speak of this again. Do you understand me? Even if the baron’s men come back, even if they threaten the whole village or me. You give them nothing.”

There was a light in the back of his father’s eyes he didn’t like. Arthur still nodded.

“Did you see what happened to the card?”

He couldn’t bring himself to say it — barely had words to even explain it. He simply touched his chest.

His father stared at him for long seconds that seemed to stretch into infinity. Then he chuckled, low. He shook his head. “They didn’t search the children…”

“Dad…”

Still chuckling, his father released his wrist, leaning back, now wiping at the sides of his eyes. “My boy. My bright boy. You fooled them all, and no one had any idea.”

“I didn’t mean for it to happen,” he blurted. “I didn’t ask for the card. I wanted to give it to you— “

That stopped his father short. “Do you know what you’re offering? No,” he shook his head. “You have no idea. No, Arthur. Even if I was inclined to take a spell card from my own child, I would be the first person in this village the baron will search if he comes back. You saw it today.”

“You’re saying I should keep it?”

Despite himself, a little hope leaked into his voice.

His father gave him a sad, wistful smile. “Yes. You proved you’re the man for that card today by keeping smart and not saying anything.”

A man. Arthur felt his chest swell a little in pride.

That odd light had returned to his father’s eye. “Remember, the baron and his men are the enemy. If you ever find yourself wavering, remember it will hurt the Baron more than you will ever know to keep that card away from him.”

“Really?”

“Really. Imagine what will happen when he can’t repay the value of that card. Every time you are tempted to say something, remember that.”

“But…” Arthur didn’t know a lot about the world outside his village, but he listened to the adults talk and complain. A vague memory of the time before his family had moved here worried him. “But won’t he tax the people to make up for the loss?” He wasn’t sure what taxes were, exactly, other than the adults thought they were bad.

Calvan shook his head. “We’re in the borderlands. Every single adult in the village is condemned here until death. There is nothing more he can take.”

Arthur frowned. It wasn’t something he hadn’t heard before but seeing the baron’s brutality today brought it home.

It occurred to him that he was six years off from being an adult, himself. It always seemed so far away, but if he were only a couple of years older, or better grown, he would have been searched by the Treasure Seeker.

“My boy is carded,” Calvan murmured, breaking into his thoughts. He seemed lost in his own memories for a moment before he refocused on Arthur. “Do you know what this means?”

“I didn’t get any magic spells, if that’s what you’re talking about,” he muttered, looking down. So much had happened since the dragon had attacked the carriage, he hadn’t had time to process it.

Every spell card he’d heard of were flashy, interesting spells like Fire Lance, Water Arrow, or Air Blade.

Arthur… he could now chop vegetables better.

“It doesn’t matter,” his father said. “Any carded child will grow up stronger, taller, healthier. You don’t have to worry about the scourge. You won’t ever be sick again—unless you cross paths with a plague carded. All cards provide this, even the minor ones.” He paused. “Do you want to show me your card?”

That was an odd way to ask. As if Arthur would say no.

“Is it safe?” Arthur asked anxiously. “Will the Treasure Seekers know?”

“Likely safe enough tonight since the baron and his men are off on a wild goose chase in the bandit village.”

His father seemed amused. Arthur just hoped that those bandits gave the baron’s men a lot of trouble. They’d always been described as hard-bitten men by the other villagers… whatever that was meant to mean. At the very least, they wouldn’t take kindly to noble visitors who demanded they turn over a card they didn’t have.

He looked down at his chest. From the stories, he knew it was possible to show someone a copy of the card without removing it first, but he had no idea how.

Calvan seemed to read his thoughts.

“You never let it leave your heart unless you are at the point of trade or switching it out for another. Even then, you never let your deck reach zero, or you lose all your health benefits. Do you understand?”

Arthur nodded, though he doubted he would ever have the fortune to add a second card to his heart deck. It was the luck of a lifetime to get one.

“Access your deck menu. There should be an option to view the card,” his father coached.

Arthur looked inward with what he was starting to think of his inner eye to view the deck menu. Sure enough, he found the option. An image of the card popped into his mental space.

He spent a few moments mentally gazing at it, and although he didn’t realize it there was a slight smile on his face. The affectionate expression of a parent looking down at a child or a favorite pet while it slept.

His father cleared his throat.

Arthur jerked in surprise and said, “Got it.”

“Good. Now focus on projecting the card — make it visible, but actively think about keeping the image small. The size of your hand at most. We don’t want an image of the card glowing over the roof.”

“That can happen?”

“Oh, I’ve seen it happen,” his father said. “I could tell you stories.”

Arthur waited a moment, but none of the stories came. They never did when they were tales of before they came to the village.

So, he nodded and did as his father had instructed. To his surprise, an image of the card popped into view in front of him, a thin cone of pale blue light connecting from the card back to his heart. At the tip of the cone sat the ghostly image of the card, all of the colors washed out.

His father nodded. “Good work.” He shuffled around to view the card from Arthur’s angle. “When you get better at this, you will be able to project the card so people can read it without having to look over your shoulder. But for now, this will do…” He trailed off as he read the card.

One of his hands landed on Arthur’s shoulder and squeezed, hard.

“It’s… legendary.”

“That’s good, right?” Arthur asked. He wasn’t looking at his own card — he knew the contents as if they were printed on his heart. Instead, he watched his father’s reaction and how his face drained of blood.

“Yes, Arthur. It’s good,” he said weakly. “It’s extraordinary. Actually, it’s legendary.”

His little joke fell flat as his father leaned back, looking like he was winded. “Dismiss the card.”

With a twist of his mind, the ghostly image faded back into his heart. Arthur turned to him. “What’s wrong?”

Calvan frowned and shook his head. Whatever his thoughts were, he kept them to himself.

“Nothing, Arthur. Nothing’s wrong. For once… I feel things are about to go right.”

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HonourRae

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