“You know how to use this?”
Before Arthur could answer, Second pushed the handle of a simple dagger into his hands. It was cheap and not well maintained, with rust spots on the spine of the blade. At least the edges looked sharp enough.
“I can use it,” Arthur said with more confidence than he currently felt. His only knife skill came from meal preparation.
He now bitterly regretted learning different ways to shuffle cards instead of different ways to use a knife.
“Good. You’ll get the opportunity soon.” Second turned and waved toward his cart.
One of his men, Hivey, broke off from a conversation with Axel and jogged over with a gleaming machete in one hand and a heavy mace in the other.
“Here you go.” He handed the mace to Second.
“You made it stronger?”
“Yeah, it won’t break even if you spent all afternoon bashing it against a rock.”
The man must have a material reinforcement card, like the one he’d seen in the general store.
Arthur held out his dagger. “Can you do mine?”
Hivey barely spared him a glance. “Gotta save my mana.”
And that was that.
Second didn’t seem to care either. Silently, he turned to stride toward the line of trees. Hivey followed, and after a moment’s hesitation, so did Arthur.
They weren’t the only ones leaving the caravan. Men in pairs and small groups were heading toward the tree line, leaving only a few people behind to guard the carts and animals. Every group was spread out, none coming close to one another.
Above their heads, dragons were still battling occasional flying scourglings. The sky was much clearer than it had been a few minutes before. Judging by the whistling cries and distant booms, the main bulk of the battle had moved to the other side of the ridge, toward the small valley.
Arthur followed behind the two men, letting them break a trail through the foliage. It seemed they were ignoring the road completely, though he saw several men heading there.
Soon, Second located a deer trail which cut through the worst of it. Second glanced over his shoulder at Arthur.
“If you come across any scourglings, you stab them and try not to get scratched or bit. That’s how you get scourge-sickness. Anything that gets bit, you lose.”
“So watch your dick,” Hivey said with a high-pitched laugh.
Arthur shuddered. He’d seen his fair share of scourge-sicknesses and knew how fast they rotted a body. “Will that happen, even if you’re carded?”
Second snapped around. “You’re not carded, are you?"
He realized his mistake at once. “'Course not. I thought you said we could get cards out here.”
Second looked at him for a moment as if weighing the answer. Arthur just stared back with what he hoped were wide, guileless eyes.
Finally, Second gave a slow nod. “Don’t get greedy. We might get enough card shards to make a card or get lucky enough to come across a whole one. But I get the first pick of the loot. Hivey’s second and if anything’s left over, you get some. You understand?”
Arthur made a show of reluctance, going so far as to sneak a look behind himself as if he were considering going back. If he weren’t carded, it wouldn’t be an act. “I don’t want to lose my… uh, I don’t want to lose anything,” he said and Hivey snickered like a child who had just heard a dirty word.
“Then act smart, be quick, and keep a lookout. Hivey and I don’t have to worry about scourge-sickness. We’ll take the hit if we need to.” Second said, but the quick, unsure look Hivey sent him wasn’t reassuring. It was good to know Arthur had some protection because of his card, though.
He nodded as if he was relieved anyway. Satisfied, Second turned back.
New skill gained: Acting (Thief/Performer)
Due to your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 3.
Really? He hadn't received a skill for lying but he got one for acting? Arthur didn’t like to think of himself as a big liar, but he had sold Red and the rest of the men a few fibs during his weeks here.
Maybe it was the stakes that counted. All the fibs he had told to Red and the others had been small. Now he was in a dangerous place with men he didn't trust. Arthur had to sell any lie for all he was worth.
They continued, pushing through the vegetation back toward the direction of the valley. Second led them in a direction that wound around the low spar of the ridge.
The distant racket of whistles, roars, and crackling magic grew louder. The sheer quality of it grew thicker. Arthur assumed this was because dragons continued to pour out of the gaps in the sky. They had joined the fray and he wasn’t sure there would be anything left soon.
That was both a relief and a disappointment. He didn’t want to get killed by a scourgling, but he did want a shot at a card. Or a card shard.
“What are card shards?” he asked.
Second ignored him completely. He’d snatched Hivey’s machete out of his hand and started slashing at the thick underbrush.
It was Hivey who answered. “Shards are tiny parts of cards. You put enough of them together, like a jigsaw puzzle. Then you get a card out of it. See?”
Arthur didn’t. “So you have to find the right shards out of the hundreds of scourglings—"
“No, no. Except for the corner and end pieces, most of them look the same. And they’re blank — scourglings start with card shards, but if any of them live long enough, or eat enough, then they might develop a full card.” He smiled as if he found the next thought funny. “And if they eat somebody with a card, then they add that to their own.”
“They can use magic cards?” Arthur asked, feeling sick.
“We’ll be out of here before any of them grow strong enough to cast spells,” Second grunted, and with a final slash, the thick vegetation parted in front of him.
Handing the machete back to Hivey, he pushed on.
They moved for a few more cart lengths. Suddenly, Second stopped so quick that Arthur nearly ran into his wide back. Stepping around, he looked to see what had caught the man’s attention.
Ahead, the underbrush opened thanks to a huge, ancient tree with graceful branches. The light was low under the tree, but it was still visibly wilting before their eyes — leaves drying out brown and curling up inward.
Arthur concentrated. It was hard to tell over the background of battle beyond, but he thought he heard something scrabbling. Wood fibers parted and the grand old tree shivered.
Slowly, the three of them walked around. Something had dug a hole at the base of the tree and the weeds all around it had blackened.
“A digger,” Hivey whispered. “Shouldn’t be too hard.”
“But what’s it doing?” Arthur asked. “Eating the tree?” The scourgling — because that’s all it could be with the land gone dead like that — seemed to be digging right to the root ball. That didn’t make sense. If it wanted tasty wood, why not scrape off the tough outer bark and start on the inner flesh? Even Arthur had occasionally chewed pine needles on hungry days.
“They go for the life force,” Hivey said. “The base of the tree, near the root's is where—"
“Shut up,” Second snapped.
It was too late.
Either the scourgling had heard them or sensed them some other way. The frantic scrabbling from inside the hole stopped. A moment later two beady eyes peered out, cast in red light like burned coals.
With the high whistle of air escaping a teakettle, the thing launched itself at them.
Or, at least, it started to.
Second blurred in that same too fast to see motion he’d used that time he’d saved Arthur in the stables.
One moment he stood in front of Arthur. The next, he was bringing his mace down on the charging scourgling.
The mace landed solidly on the head, crushing the skull in an instant.
Arthur had barely begun to step back in surprise and the scourgling was already dead.
It had been about the size of a house cat, completely bald. Its skin was mottled gray that looked faintly rotten. Though it had the round shape of a beaver, there hadn’t been a tail. The big front teeth — or what was left of them — were like two jagged daggers.
With a grunt, Second placed one foot on the forequarters of the thing as if worried it would get back up, splattered brains and all. He didn’t need to worry. A moment later, a visible green light emanated from the creature’s chest.
Second bent and gestured at it as if wafting up a loop of smoke.
A tiny triangular shard of white obediently floated up. To Arthur’s eye, it looked like cardstock.
Second snatched it out of the air and brought it close to his eyes to examine it. “Common piece. Figures.” Then he stuffed it in his pants pocket. “Let’s go. I bet this one was one of the first to erupt and got the jump on the others out here, but there will be more.”
They walked on. The noise grew louder and louder — a constant resounding chaos that all melted together until Arthur couldn’t pick out one tone. He wanted to put his hands over his ears but didn’t want to look like a weakling in front of the men.
Finally land broke into a clearing. They were on the edge of the ridge, the land pointed sharply down. From there, they had a view of the valley.
Arthur gaped. What had been a cone of dirt maybe the size of the largest building in his old village had grown. Now the base of it took over a good quarter of the valley. Its peak stretched up nearly as tall as the ridge as they were on. More soil and scourglings fountained out of the top.
It was a true volcano.
The sky all around it was thick with dragons: flying, roaring, battling in mid-air. It was a free-for-all between scourglings and dragons, the air thick with magic.
Flames of all colors, lightning bolts, ice bolts, weather anomalies that spun wind to suck scourglings into miniature tornadoes, and hundreds of other techniques that either flashed by too quickly to identify, or Arthur had no name for.
Those were only the battles in the air. The valley even beyond the cone was decimated. Everything that had been green was now black and dead. From this angle, Arthur saw it had once been farmland. The homes that dotted the fields were on fire or just gone.
And the earth was a crawling morass of scourglings.
Scourglings which were being pummeled from above and below by earthen spikes, crushed by giant golems made of tree limbs, drowned by mobile puddles of water, and melted by green clouds of acid.
Yet many survived to range out and eat anything still alive. More erupted out of the volcano in a never-ending stream.
Arthur’s legs shook. “I’m not going down there.”
“Of course we’re not, idiot,” Second snapped. “We’re staying near the outer edge. Whatever scourgling crawl out from the valley, we kill and harvest.”
Well. That didn’t sound too bad. Especially since Second had killed one in a single hit.
Second continued. “Any dragons or riders fall, we go for them, first.”
Arthur started to nod. He was grateful for the brave dragons and their riders for protecting them against the scourge. Of course they would help.
Then he noticed the grim looks on Second and Hivey’s faces.
“To help them, right?” he asked, half afraid of the answer.
Second slapped him upside the head. “What do you think? You go for their cards, idiot.”
“But we can’t! They’re out there fighting for us. We can’t just—"
“If they've fallen, they’re already dead,” Hivey said.
Second took one step towards him, looming dangerously. “If that happens, you do what you’re told. I don’t want to hear you sniveling—"
There was no warning. Then again, it was hard to hear anything over the fighting.
A scourgling the size and shape of a naked, gray wolf leaped out from the underbrush. It landed with teeth clamped on Hivey.