With a scream of braying donkeys, the cart lurched forward so hard that Arthur nearly lost his seat anyway. Red grabbed him by the collar and hauled him back into place.
Every other animal hooked to a cart was rushing blindly forward. Meanwhile, the birds in the trees all shrieked as if the world was ending.
The cart bounced over stones and ruts in the road with enough force to put his teeth on edge. It would be a miracle if they didn’t break a wheel.
Red kept a tight hold on the reins, trying to guide the screaming donkeys as much as they would allow.
Turning, Arthur looked back toward the direction of the eruption. He could only catch flashes of it down in the valley, visible through thick brush and trees. Loose, gray soil was pushing itself out of the fissure.
As more and more built up, the new soil sprouting from the top to replace the old, a steeply-sided cone formed. It was just as Arthur had always imagined a volcano to look. That might be why people called it a scourge-eruption.
But dirt wasn’t the only thing coming from the top of the cone.
From this distance, the tumbling balls could be easily mistaken for clods of dirt, or boulders. However, as they rolled out they uncurled and sprouted legs. From there, they charged into the world with eerie whistling shrieks.
Some unfurled wings instead of legs and took to the air.
They seemed to come in a variety of different shapes and sizes. From creatures so small he could only figure out what it was by the fact it was moving to larger, plodding forms the size of one of the cart-oxen.
Wherever they touched the ground, the vegetation wilted back.
Scourglings were the opposite of life. Given enough time, their presence killed every patch of land they touched down to the nutrients in the soil that allowed roots to take hold.
The cart jolted again. Arthur looked ahead to see they were rounding a bend. This would take them to the other side of the ridge, putting it between themselves and the valley.
Would it be far enough to get away from the scourglings?
He glanced at Red. The man was serious and grim-faced, but he didn’t look frightened. Arthur decided that was a hopeful sign.
“Hold on,” Red advised again.
They had reached around the top of the ridge. In the next second, every cart practically careened down the slope.
Shouts came from ahead as the men applied handbrakes to the carts. They drew back on the reins to try to pull the panicked animals under some control. Gradually, it started to work.
Now that they were separated by vegetation and the land, the scourgling’s terrible whistling shrieks became quieter. But not gone completely. Straight up through the trees, Arthur caught flashes of flying scourglings flapping by on leathery wings. They were like twisted, halfway versions between dragons and vultures. Long-necked with cruel, sharp pointed heads and four grasping limbs tipped with claws. Thankfully, none hunted below the trees. Instead, they went for the calling birds... who quickly went silent. Or were silenced.
The road widened at the bottom of the hill as the land turned into a natural meadow, clear of trees.
Second was finally able to pull his animals to a stop at the edge of the treeline before they went into open meadow. Though, judging by the animal's heaving sides, stopping was more due their exhaustion than Second's skill. Red’s donkeys were not doing much better.
Once all were stopped and the handbrakes applied, every man jumped down to check on the animals and carts.
Arthur headed for Bella who was trembling from head to hoof. Her eyes were wide and rolling. Arthur did his best to soothe her, reaching for the power of his Animal Husbandry skill.
She and the rest of the donkeys slowly calmed.
Suddenly there was an almighty ripping sound like two giant hands had taken a piece of the sky and ripped it apart.
Arthur started in surprise and looked up.
There, hanging hundreds of feet up, hung a ragged black line in the sky. With stomach-dropping fear, he thought that the scourglings must have done this. He had no idea that they could ruin the blue sky along with the land.
Then something came out of the line. It was a dragon colored so deep green that it would have looked black except for the iridescent flashes when the sunlight caught its scales.
The dragon crawled out of the tear as if it were struggling from a narrow crack in a rock wall. Then its wings caught air and it flapped to the side.
Another dragon a similar shade, if a bit lighter, quickly followed the first but took position on the opposite side of the tear.
As one, the dragons took hold of the rip in the sky as if it were a physical thing and pulled it apart. It widened to a black crescent, as if it were a burnt version of the moon. The dragons flapped in place, holding it open.
Through this newly enlarged rip poured out more dragons. Just a handful at first, which came in all sizes from three times the length of the monstrous red to the size of Bella the donkey. Then a dozen, and then more and more. A rainbow of colors shading from snowy white to spring green, flamboyant pink, deep blue, and purple — most of them a glittering combination of two colors, with occasional three-tone triads.
Then a second rip in the sky tore itself open. Another pair of iridescent green dragons widened it and more dragons poured in.
Red came to stand by Arthur.
“Those would be the hives,” he said in satisfaction.
Arthur closed his mouth with a snap. His jaw had been hanging open.
Sure enough, the first of the dragons set upon the flying scourglings. One red and orange dragon dived down with claws that lengthened to curved, gleaming swords. It easily sliced a scourgling out of the air. The remaining body fell in chunks.
The sword-claw dragon folded its wings and dived down to the falling remains. As it did, it half rolled on its side. The rider, who was securely strapped on, reached out and grabbed the scourgling’s torso, ripping something glowing from it before tossing it away.
The sword-claw dragon righted itself and flew on.
“What was that?” Arthur asked. “Did he take a card from the scourgling?”
Red ignored the question. “I think we should be safe enough here. We have some distance from the eruption, and the hives will be on the hunt now.”
Ashamed that he had been staring and not working, Arthur glanced toward the rest of the caravan. The men were still scrambling around, but they weren’t busy battening everything down. Some were grabbing for cudgels or long daggers. They wore grim, anticipatory expressions.
One man brought two clenched fists together. When he pulled them apart, his arms up to his elbows were covered in glittering purple lines of magic shaped like gauntlets. Within a few seconds, the lines had crawled up each arm, building an outline of armor around his torso up to his neck. Lastly, the man put a rough, leather helmet on his head.
He must have a card power that armored his arms and chest… though it looked a little silly with his legs unprotected.
Second came striding up to Red. “You staying behind?”
“Yes, and if you had any sense, you would too," Red replied. "I tell you every time it’s not worth it, and every time you don't listen and come back less a man or two.”
Second shrugged. “We all take our chances. I come back richer while you miss out.”
Red scowled and shook his head. “I suppose you’ll be taking your whole team?”
“Not all of them. Axel lost everything but his trap card on a bad hand of poker the other night. He doesn’t have anything worth fighting with. That leaves me down a man, so I’m taking the Piss-Ant.”
Arthur went from being shocked that anyone would bet spell cards on poker to just flat-out shocked. “Me?”
Red growled, half standing from his seat. “That’s scourge-shit. He’s just a boy.”
“He’s old enough to hold a knife and watch our backs. Besides,” Second smiled over at Arthur. It wasn’t a nice smile. “He owes me one.”
Red swung around on Arthur, a question in his expression. When Arthur only stared back with wide, guilty eyes he grimaced and looked at Second. “He’s too young. He doesn’t have a card to protect himself.”
“Maybe he’ll get one today. What do you say, kid?”
He'd just called him kid. Not Piss-Ant.
Arthur knew this was Second’s way of buttering him up, but he still felt marginally warmer towards the man.
“He doesn’t need a damn magic card,” Red snapped.
Arthur looked from one man to the other. Red was supposed to be the leader of the caravan, but Second was nearly two feet taller than him and twice as wide. And he had just walked up and demanded Arthur, Red’s apprentice, like acquiescence was expected.
Red might talk tough and he might own the business on paper, but Second was the one with the power: He had the cards to back up any demand.
“What do you need me to do?” Arthur asked carefully.
Red’s expression sagged as if he had already lost the fight.
Judging by his widening smile, Second thought so too.
“Like I said, I need an extra pair of eyes to watch our backs.” He pointed a thumb towards the direction they’d come from. Towards the eruption. “Scourglings drop card shards, and dragons… well, they have a nasty habit of dropping out of the sky, too. That means there’s whole cards to be had. You want in?”
“Of course he doesn’t,” Red grumbled, but it was half-hearted.
Arthur took in a breath. He needed a second card. He would be a fool not to take this chance.
“Second’s right. I owe him,” he said stoutly then looked at Second. “If I go with you, we’re square?”
“Yeah, kid. We’d be even.”
Red tried one final time. “Whatever this is about, whatever you owe him, it can wait. It’s not worth your life.”
“I want to go,” Arthur said and hated the way Red's shoulder's sagged.
“Some idiots have to learn for themselves,” he said. “No card is worth your life.”
“I’ll be careful.”
With a shake of his head, Red turned away. “Do what you want. I can't stop you if you truly want to go.”
The dismissal hurt.
“Red—" Arthur started.
Second cut in. “We don’t have time for this. Come on.”
He turned and walked away.
Arthur hesitated, pained, but then followed after Second.
As he did, he made sure his Gambler class was still equipped. It granted him three points of luck, and he had the feeling he was going to need all of them today.