The scourge-wolf landed with its teeth clamped on Hivey’s shoulder. The man let out a high-pitched scream which almost blended in with the whistling scourglings.
Arthur’s body acted on pure instinct. Had he been thinking, he would have expected to freeze. He should have run.
Instead, he whipped forward and brought his dagger down on the hindquarters of the beast. The blade sunk deep and stayed there, hitting bone.
He’d reacted quickly, but not as quick as Second. In a blur, he had brought his mace around to hit the thing. His strike was off-center and didn’t crush the skull, but it did knock the beast away.
Whistling in distress, the scourge-wolf tried to get up, but the leg Arthur stabbed crumpled under it. It reached around to bite at the dagger still stuck in its hindquarters.
That gave Second enough time to bring the mace down one more time. That was all it took.
Hivey had collapsed, moaning. His shoulder was a mass of bloody, shredded flesh.
Arthur’s nurse skills kicked in. He knelt by the other man. The first thing to do was assess the damage: “Keep pressure on it.” Grabbing the man’s hand, he brought it to hold his shoulder. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”
“Idiot!” Second barked. For once it wasn’t aimed at Arthur. “I told you to keep your damn eyes open.”
Shoving Arthur away, he looked Hivey up and down. “Well? You going to let it fester?”
Hivey blinked as if he were coming out of a daze. Then he shifted to lift his good arm. Pure water started forming in the cup of his hand. He brought it over and, wincing, tipped it over his shoulder.
Hivey had at least two cards. One for strengthening weapons, one for conjuring water. Arthur made a mental note to remember that.
Second backed off enough for Arthur to help the man clean the wound. The scourge-wolf’s teeth had been like knives. The shoulder was bleeding, but the blood wasn’t spurting.
The man had gone pale, though if it was from pain or shock, Arthur didn’t know.
“That’s a neat trick,” he said, nodding to the water forming anew in Hivey’s hand.
“Minor-wellspring,” Hivey said. “Useful. I’m never thirsty, even in…ah!” He winced as a small movement shifted his wound. “Even in the desert.”
Meanwhile, Second had returned to the corpse of the scourge-wolf and harvested it. “Two shards,” he said and gave one to Hivey. The smaller one, Arthur noticed.
Hivey took it with his good hand and painfully tucked it into his pocket. “I think I’m tapping out, boss.”
“Are you serious? We’ve just begun. I’ve only got two shards. That's nothing!”
Arthur couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “He’s bleeding real bad. I think this’ll need stitches.” He didn't add that he thought Hivey might lose the arm, carded or not.
Hivey nodded. "Yeah... I'm out."
It was as if a thunderstorm passed over Second’s face. “Fine. If you’re quitting, you can find your way back to the trail yourself. Come on, kid.”
Arthur stared. “We can’t just leave him here.”
“Are you reneging on our deal?” The words were simple, the tone silky and dangerous.
Swallowing, Arthur looked back to Hivey. The man was all but pleading for help with his eyes. A few minutes ago he hadn't wanted to waste mana on making Arthur's dagger stronger. Now he wanted his help.
“Give me five minutes. We can fix him up — bind the wound. You can walk, right Hivey?” Arthur could hear the desperation in his voice — silently begging for forgiveness. He barely waited for the man to start to nod before Arthur rose and retrieved his dagger from the scourge-wolf’s corpse.
The beast was even uglier now he had time to get a good look at it. The mottled markings on its bare skin gave it the appearance of being infected with mange. The teeth were so large they jutted up, down, and out from the jaw in all directions. No wonder Hivey was so chewed up.
Pulling the dagger free, he returned and asked Hivey to wash the worst of the gunk off it. Then he cut the remains of the man’s sleeve off. With that, he tied it awkwardly around the shoulder. He hoped it wasn’t too tight.
Finally, he helped the man to his feet. Hivey leaned all his weight against him, nearly making Arthur’s legs buckle.
“Maybe a walking stick?” Arthur asked, through grit teeth.
“Yeah,” Hivey agreed, making no move to shift his weight.
Arthur looked to Second but the man had turned away in impatience and disgust.
He convinced Hivey to lean against the trunk of a tree while Arthur fetched a stick long and strong enough to help him. It was a crooked gnarled thing but it was better than nothing.
Using it, Hivey was able to stagger a few steps before he stopped, panting.
New skill level:
Basic Nursecraft (Healing Class)
“All right. Let’s go,” Second said. We’ve wasted enough time.”
Hivey seemed to agree. He made a few careful, stumbling steps back the way they’d come. He didn’t look back and he hadn’t thanked Arthur for his help.
He can make it, Arthur told himself. But it was with a sick feeling that he turned and followed Second to the downhill slope path again.
He didn’t like this. First, he had hurt Red’s good opinion of him. Now he was leaving a bleeding man to stumble his way back to the caravan.
No question that Arthur owed Second a favor, but he was starting to think the man’s price was too high.
They hadn’t gone more than twenty feet down the hill before they were set on by a group of small scourglings. These were half the size of the digger before and were shaped like bunnies. Demon bunnies with raking claws and a mouthful of needle teeth.
Thankfully, the group — warren? — was charging up at them at a steep angle. That gave Second plenty of time to ready his mace and Arthur to jump onto an outcropping of stone.
Second swept his mace like a scythe, clearing out several scourge-bunnies at a time. It only took him three sweeps to kill all of them. But not before one got close enough to tear a pant leg to ribbons.
Afterward, Second glared at Arthur. “Are you ever going to help, or are you just going to stand there?”
“I’m keeping a lookout,” Arthur said, from the safety of his higher rock. “You told Red that was my job.”
“That was then. Now we’re down a man. Either you help, or you don’t get paid.”
Second grunted and started harvesting the scourge-bunnies. Each one produced a shard. He had to have close to ten.
“I don’t have a card,” Arthur reminded him. “Do you have enough shards to make me one? Maybe if you put them together—“
Second whipped around to face him, nostrils flaring. “You don’t get paid before the work’s done, Piss-Ant.”
He was back to being called Piss-Ant. Arthur had known the man was just being nice to get him to join him, but confirming it grated on his nerves.
“Why should I lift a finger to help you?” he snapped back. “If I get hurt, you’ll just leave me out here to die like you did Hivey.”
Second took a threatening step toward him. “Because if you’re dead weight I’ll break your kneecaps and leave you out here for the scourglings.”
Arthur resisted the urge to step back in alarm. Second was a mean son-of-a-bitch but he wasn’t an idiot. Maybe he could be negotiated with.
“I want to help — I want to get shards and cards of my own,” he improvised when Second’s face darkened. “I really do. But I can’t fight scourglings with this.” He held up the dagger which looked small and pathetic. “And I won’t do it if it costs me a limb.”
Second stared at him for a silent moment. Arthur could practically see the thoughts churning behind his eyes. He had his attention.
So, he took a risk.
“I know you have more than one card,” Arthur said, adding hurriedly, “Hivey has two and he’s a nobody, when you practically lead the caravan. Just give me one. A Common-rank I can defend with. I’ll work hard to get you more cards, and either you can let me keep it or exchange it for something else.”
Again, Second was silent for a moment. “Do you know a man steals cards from another?”
“They… they have to kill them, right? If they’re not given willingly?”
“Smart boy.” Another step and Second was within easy arm’s length of Arthur. Not that it mattered with Second’s speed boost power.
Then Second pulled down the collar of his shirt and reached to his chest. He reached pinched fingers and pulled out a card.
From the simple mat-white look of it, Arthur knew it was a Common card even before Second flipped it around so he could read it.
Sharp as Nails
This card grants the wielder the ability to lengthen finger and toenails to sharp knife points using mana. Higher mana costs will result in sharper nails. Advanced levels allow the user more control over this body-enhancement.
Arthur had no idea Second was carrying that around in his heart. He’d never seen him use it. Just the quick speed attacks.
It made him wonder what else the man had been carrying around. More importantly, Arthur wondered what he could do with it. His very hands and feet would become weapons. While that wouldn’t do much to a scourge-wolf he could at least give scourge-bunnies a sharp kick.
Second met his eyes and smiled. He must have seen Arthur’s desire for the card.
“If you fail me, I’ll cut out your heart and take my card back. You get me?”
Arthur took the card. It buzzed warmly in his hand as if it were saying hello.
A desperate dragon shrieked high above.
There was so much noise that one more sound should have gotten lost. However, the shriek had been like a woman’s scream and it caught his attention.
He looked up, fully expecting to see a dragon in mid-battle with a scourgling.
Instead, he saw two large dragons — a brassy orange and a sky blue — attacking a smaller, delicate pink dragon.
The attackers didn’t use magical spells. No fire, ice, wind, lightning, or anything else that had run so thick around the eruption. They were simply ripping at the pink dragon with claws and teeth, ignoring its piteous shrieks and thrashing.
And then, with an even worse soul-wrenching cry, something toppled flailing from the pink’s back.
It was the rider.
The pink screamed again and tried to dive for its rider. The other two held it back and went for the neck.
Blood spurted. Suddenly, the brassy orange and sky blue were fighting each other for the remains — each reaching for the card now glowing in the pink’s chest.
Arthur was horrified.
The dragons should be fighting the scourglings, not each other. That had been… that had been a murder. Cold-blooded murder. And for what? A card?
Abruptly, Second snatched the Sharp as Nails card from Arthur’s hand.
“Hey—“ Arthur objected, but Second just pushed it back into his own heart.
“Change of plans,” Second said. “We’re getting that rider before anyone else can harvest him. You don’t need a card for that.”
Arthur shook his head, still reeling from the awful thing he’d just witnessed, and his change of fortune. He should have stuck the card in his heart the second he had his hands on it.
He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Second wasn’t waiting for him to get his head together. Grabbing Arthur by the back of the neck, he practically propelled him down the trail.
“Did you see where he landed? Over this way, right?”
He didn’t reply. It was everything he could do to keep his feet. Second wasn’t using his card to blur his speed, but he was still a powerful man with a longer stride.
They reached a flat area, still above the valley, but only just.
Arthur glanced up to see the dragons still fighting. The pink was nothing but a scrap of meat between them.
Around, other dragons wheeled and fought actual battles with scourglings. If anyone saw what had happened, they didn’t do anything.
That felt like a betrayal.
Second growled under his breath, looking around. “I can’t see him. Can you? Never mind, we’ll have to split up.”
“What?” Tearing his gaze from the sky, Arthur looked around. They were still above the valley, but closer than he would have liked. He half expected scourglings to leap out and get him at any moment.
“I’ll go this way,” he pointed to the left. “You go over there. Let out a shout the second that you find him. You understand me?”
“I… yes,” he said, still shocked but knowing Second wouldn’t take it well if he disagreed. The man was practically humming with frantic greed.
With a blur, Second was gone.
And Arthur was all alone with treacherous dragons above him and scourglings all around him.