The food the inn served was excellent. Freshly baked bread, still warm from the oven, sliced roast beef slathered with thick gravy, and some kind of steamed vegetable Red had called broccoli. It had an intense, earthy green flavor he found he liked a lot.
The meal was so good he wished he had spent more time in the kitchens to learn how to cook. This was a meal that would have definitely earned him another level.
Though the mug of ale that Red had ordered for him was watered down, Arthur found himself blinking tiredly anyway.
Red told him to get to sleep and Arthur stumbled off to the stables, glad he didn’t have to stay up and wash the dishes for once. He wished they could stay in inns every night.
Was this what his father meant when he said Arthur didn’t know about the wider world?
There was nothing more he wanted to do than to stagger into his bedroll set in the straw and fall asleep. But if he did, he would miss his chance.
With a groan, he instead fished through Red’s saddlebags until he found a stiff boar-hair brush. Then he went to Red’s donkeys and gave them all a thorough brush-down.
He had already been cared for by the stable staff, but it had been cursory at best and Arthur needed to move to stay awake.
By the time he was done, some of the ale had worked its way out of his system. He was feeling more alert and the donkeys looked positively gleaming.
Finally, after checking their hooves for stones he was rewarded with another notice from his card.
New skill level: Basic Equine Care (Animal Husbandry)
He had been steadily gaining levels toward this skill and now had a very respectable nine. Soon, he would move the skill up to apprentice.
What would happen then? And would the skill help him if he ever tried riding one of the donkeys?
He figured it might not help, but… it might not hurt, either.
That was a matter for another day.
Lights still blazed through the inn’s windows. No doubt the men were all up, drinking and playing cards.
Arthur stayed up too, walking in slow loops around the interior of the large stables. He kept an eye on the doors in case the kids from the dice game came back.
There were no signs of them. Likely, they’d leave him alone as long as he didn’t come to them looking for trouble. It was only a matter of pennies, and it was probably pride that had caused them to come after him more than anything.
Finally, one of the workers from the inn came out to extinguish the oil lamps which burned at the entrance to the inn, and the one that lit the pathway to the stables. That was their way to indicate they would take no more customers tonight.
Soon, the lights from inside the inn went out, one by one.
Ideally, Arthur would have liked to make sure that Second or any of his men were asleep in their rooms, but it was very late now. This was as good of a chance as he was going to get.
He tiptoed to the cart and examined the tarp. The knots tying it down were well made — likely reinforced after some of the leaves had “accidentally” fallen out before — and were now almost ridiculously convoluted loops.
It would have been far easier to cut them away and lift the tarp, but that would have given him away for sure.
So, with his tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth, Arthur worked at one of the knots. It was so tight that the tips of his fingers were sore by the time he unknotted one.
That had taken forever. Too bad he didn’t have a skill for knot-work… or could he?
Arthur bit his lip, considering. Then he walked across the stables to a little side-nook where the stable hands stored supplies. There was all manner of tools and odds and ends, as well as pieces of extra rope.
He grabbed a small length and proceeded to start knotting it, then untying it again.
He knew three basic knots: The regular loop, the slipknot, and the knot he used to tie the laces of his boots. He had always done them unthinkingly since he’d first learned to lace up his boots as a small boy. No doubt that was why he hadn’t gotten a skill yet. To earn a skill, he had to be deliberate.
So, as he worked, he focused hard on every twist and loop. Then he would undo his work and start again.
It only took him about five repetitions to gain a skill.
New skill gained: Basic Knot Tying (Sailor Class)
Due to your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 3.
Arthur had never seen so much as a large lake, much less the ocean. Oh well, he’d gotten the skill anyway.
One day, he was going to have to figure out what these classes meant.
Returning to the cart, he started working on the next knot down the line. This time was much faster with the aid of his skill. By the time he had unknotted that section of tarp from the cart, he had gained another skill level.
He carefully lifted the loose corner of the tarp and carefully considered his next move. If he was right, the smelly tobacco was a cover for something else. He couldn’t sort through the pile without the risk of an avalanche of leaves falling on his head.
First, he had to make sure his guess was right. If this was a cover for something, it would make sense that the treasure was in the middle.
He grabbed a push-broom from the tool-nook. Flipping it, he carefully poked the handle into the mass. It took some prodding, but eventually, the end of the handle struck something hard sitting in the middle of the pile at the very bottom. Some that, when he tapped against it, felt wooden.
The giant mound of tobacco was covering a wooden box.
He moved the handle back and forth, up and down, trying to feel out the dimensions.
It was slim, which was good for him.
Gnawing at his lower lip, Arthur started pushing the box very slowly across the bed of the cart to the other side. He worked carefully so as not to unbalance the leaves. Eventually, he went to the other side of the cart to unknot that corner of the tarp and push away some of the leaves to keep them from piling up in front of the box.
Finally, after nearly an hour of continuous, careful pushing, the box emerged.
It was smooth, polished wood, so dark that it was almost jet black. Utterly beautiful.
Something that could contain jewels, money… or something even better: Cards.
It was also locked. Of course.
Arthur rubbed his forehead, feeling like an idiot. Why had he expected this to be easy?
However, unlike the lock that had protected his card, this one didn’t look magical… unless there were some hidden runes that killed someone who tried to break in. Arthur had heard stories.
He considered for a moment and then shrugged, deciding he had come this far. He might as well continue.
There were some farrier and construction materials scattered among the disorganized nook, including a pile of very thin nails.
Arthur wasn’t a hundred percent sure how to pick a lock, but he would at least give it a try. He just made sure to be very careful not to scratch the polished metal lock.
He poked a nail in and moved it around, listening very carefully for some sort of give. One of the mechanisms gave a click when he pressed upward with one nail. Holding it there, he added a second, hoping to engage. Most small lock keys had two main, teeth, didn’t they?
He didn’t have luck for a long time. In fact, he was halfway nodding over his work on the verge of dozing off while sitting up, when he heard a second click.
Arthur froze in place, unsure if he had dreamed the sound or not.
New skill gained: Lock Picking (Thief Class)
Due to your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 3.
“I’m not a thief,” he said as he carefully shifted to use his pinky finger to see if the lid for the box he had stolen would open. To his shock, it did.
All his brave ideals about not being a thief were blown out the window when he saw what lay within.
He hadn’t dared to hope. But of course, the box could only hold one thing: Cards.
There were five magic cards in the box. All of them were as common as dirt — that same papery white color with the golden etching on the borders.
But to his amazement, it was a complete set. The twining golden filigree on the sides was the same, and there was an indefinable something about them that made them feel like different parts of a whole. The cards he had seen for sale at the General Store had not had it.
With trembling fingers, he picked one up. While his senses told him it should feel like a thick piece of paper, it was as hard as metal and faintly warm as if it held its own life.
Type: Elemental Affinity
The card grants the wielder a basic affinity with soil. As affinity levels are gained, the user may gain additional empathy and knowledge of the living skin of the earth. Affinity does not extend to rock or rock-based substrates.
What was the difference between soil and rock? Arthur shook his head and skimmed on. The others were in the same class.
Minor Earth Illusion
This card grants the wielder the ability to create minor, short-term illusions out of earth-based substances. All illusions are light-based. As levels and proficiency is gained, these illusions may take on tangible qualities.
Minor Earth Strike
Cast a spell to fire a ball of earth at an opponent. The wielder must be in physical contact with the earth to cast. Two-second cooldown.
Minor Earth Golem Summon
Summon a minor earth golem. The wielder must maintain physical contact with the earth to continue casting. Golem increases in size and strength with additional levels. Twenty-four hour cooldown.
Minor Earth Card Cohesion
Anyone who has two or more cards in the set may combine them into complementary powers. This card also reduces the overall manna and stamina cost for all activations with the set by 50%.
He understood a little what his father had meant by the special card. It had no power on its own, but when combined with others in the set it became valuable.
Arthur traced his fingers over the cards. He wanted to shove them all in his heart deck and activate them. They weren’t much individually, but certainly more than what he could currently do with magic which was zero. And with the whole set…
He could defend himself. He could go anywhere and get a job on any farm. He could go back home and help till the dragon soil into fields faster and better than anyone else.
But no. Cards weren’t allowed back in the border village. Plus, he would never make it back there. Second would kill him. Literally, kill him.
I could take them and run away, he thought. He had maybe four hours of darkness left. He could take Bella the donkey or maybe one of the old horses, and run.
He could steal from people who had trusted him to guard his things. Who, while they had slapped him around, hadn’t been overly cruel. Red had never hit him and hadn’t had an unkind word. Second had saved his bacon just today and Arthur owed him for that.
Arthur would be betraying all of their trust.
Scrubbing at his face, Arthur gritted his teeth. He wanted these cards. They would solve his problems… and pile on so many more.
Even if he stole them, played innocent, and stayed, he had no idea how often Second checked the box’s contents. What were the chances he wouldn’t check the box after the cart had been out of sight all night? If Arthur were in his place, he would have a latch under the cart or something to reach up and—
Arthur tore himself from the box, and crawled underneath the cart.
Sure enough, there was a latch leading to a drop-hinged door right in the middle. That was probably how Second had stuffed the box up there in the first place.
Arthur cursed himself as an idiot for spending so much time with the tarp and poking the box out of the leaves. He would have to use this drop-latched door to make sure the box was properly positioned. Or else Second would know.
He closed his eyes and groaned, head flopping back against the ground.
He wanted those cards with a fierce intensity that scared him a little. But it would be foolish in every conceivable way to take them. Most importantly, that wasn't the man he wanted to be.
“I’m going to get a second card,” he muttered to himself. “More, if I can help it. But not like this.”
Feeling glum, though knowing he was doing the right thing, he returned to the box. He made absolutely everything looked pristine before he closed the lid. It automatically relocked.
Then he crawled back under the cart and used his lock-picking nails to work on the latch. This was a lot easier seeing as he didn’t have to worry about scratching anything. By brute force poking the nails in, he got the latch to open.
Leaves started spilling out. He quickly shoved the box up and in, reclosing it.
The next hour was spent cleaning up after himself. Arthur shoved all the leaves that had fallen out back under the tarp, kicked straw around the crumbles left over, and then retied the tarps. The knots weren’t exact, but he thought they would pass muster with a quick check.
Then he looked down at his hands. Handling the tobacco leaf had left a greasy black film on his fingers which had turned black.
Maybe Second was smarter than Arthur had thought. He’d picked a plant that would leave evidence of tampering behind.
Well, Arthur had buckets of water and stiff brushes all around to take care of that. It took some effort and there was little he could do about the blackness under his fingernails. Hopefully, people would think it was dirt.
Finally, he dragged himself to his bedroll and closed his eyes. Dawn was due soon.
The next morning, he was woken up by the roar of a dragon.