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Arthur held his dagger out in front of him as he walked – part threat, but mostly a talisman.

He looked around, alert for any sign of scourglings. Or the fallen dragon rider.

Inside, his heart seethed.

They were close to the valley. So close that when he got glimpses down below through the tree breaks, he could pick out individual scourglings rampaging down below. The air had taken on an acidic burnt flavor. It was the tang of dead land. To Arthur, it tasted like home.

The only thing he had going for him was the fact he was carded. But Second didn't know that. He had just left Arthur alone to find the dragon rider or die.

Or maybe find the dragon rider and die.

He should have listened to Red. Should have told Second to stuff the favor he thought Arthur owed him where the sun didn't shine. Arthur had never asked him for help with Bert and his boys. In hindsight, he would have rather taken a beating than face down scourglings.

But that sense of rage and injustice wasn't enough to make him turn back. That dragon rider might be alive and need help. And... well, the fact of it was Arthur wanted to collect card shards of his own.

His newfound determination carried him through the next patch of vegetation, right up until the bushes next to him started to crackle and shake.

Whipping around, Arthur held his dagger in a ready position. His face was stern and cold. Inside his thoughts, however, he blubbered, Oh no, no, no I'm not ready... just go away...

Several men walked out of the bushes. They all wore boiled leather shirts and rawhide coverings over their pants and carried mean-looking swords.

They seemed as surprised to see Arthur as he was to see them.

"Hey kid, what are you doing out here?" one asked.

Arthur jutted out his jaw. "Hunting scourglings. What're you doing out here?"

"Bullshit. You're looking for that dragon rider, same as everyone else." The man leveled the point of his sword at him. "You find him yet?"

Arthur gulped, eyes locked to the point. "I saw him land that way," he invented, pointing to the right which was not at all in the right direction. "But he's on a rock spar. I... I was trying to find a way around."

 

New skill level: Acting (Thief/Performer Class)

Level 5

 

The man didn't lower his sword. "That's what I thought." Then he jerked his chin. "You walk ahead of us. You'll be the scourgling bait."

Arthur made a show of nodding and stepped to do as he was told. The moment he got more than an arm's length from these guys, he planned on running. He couldn't say why exactly, since they all were bigger than himself, but he didn't think they were carded. They didn't have the magic to stop him.

Carded or not, they were full grown and stronger. As Arthur passed, one snatched his dagger from his hand.

"I'll be taking this," he said, "As pre-payment."

"Payment for what?" Arthur snapped. The moment he'd said it, he knew he had just made a mistake. The mask he had put on to show he was meek and harmless had slipped. Well, he was probably harmless to these taller, stronger men. But he wasn't meek.

The man's face crinkled in rage and then he punched Arthur, hard in the face. It wasn't anything like the dismissive slaps that Second and the others used. This was a real punch.

Arthur fell to the ground, cradling his head. The skin and bone around his right eye was a blaze of pain, and though his instincts screamed to get up and fight the world around him was swooping and unstable.

One of the men picked him up by the collar and settled him on his feet. It was everything he could to stay upright.

"March!"

Someone shoved him and Arthur staggered, nearly falling again before he righted himself.

He strode forward blindly for the first dozen or so yards. Then his head started to clear. They had pushed him towards the direction where he thought the dragon rider must have fallen.

Second would be around here, too. If he saw Arthur's predicament, would he save him?

Maybe. Maybe not. If he did, he would claim Arthur earned him another favor. He wasn't sure if he could bear that.

He wanted a second card with a burning fervor. Even Second's fingernail sharpening card gave him the possibility of protecting himself.

Instead, what did he have? A Gambler class, Animal Husbandry skill... ugh, Tidying...

Wait. He had Stealth.

It was stuck on basic level 9. He still didn't know what it would take to break into apprentice but his ability to blend into the shadows wasn't too bad.

With that in mind, Arthur subtly angled his walk toward the denser part of the forest. He kept his gait a little awkward as if he were still reeling from the blow. That wasn't too much of an exaggeration. Already, he could feel his eye swelling.

The men followed behind without much comment. They knew if there were scourglings ahead, Arthur would be the first to go.

There was a big, wide tree not far ahead with a nest of other saplings near what would have been the sunny side of the trunk. They grew so thickly together that the area was shadowed.

That was the best chance he could get.

Fiercely concentrating on his skill, he stepped around the tree and to the small grove.

Something changed. His footsteps felt fluid as if he were sliding through the thick saplings and not through them. Barely a branch rustled.

Something told Arthur to kneel down low; stay out of their direct eye-line. One hand slid to his chest, pressing over his heart.

The men knew he was pulling something the moment he'd stepped around that tree. But they had been more than a dozen feet behind and it took them a few moments to catch up.

They came around, glancing back and forth.

"Where'd he go?"

"You see footprints?"

"Here." The leader – the one who had punched him – stalked directly for the tiny grove. He frowned at the thick bunch of undisturbed saplings. His eyes focused up around Arthur's chest height.

Arthur held his breath, mentally holding onto that skill with both hands. The hand over his chest curled into a claw as if he were willing the skill to work.

 

New skill level:

Basic Stealth (Rogue/Thief Class)

Level 10

For reaching level 10, your skill has been upgraded from Basic to Apprentice.

 

After a moment, the man turned away.

"Let's keep going. If he finds the rider's body first, we'll–"

He was interrupted by a whistling shriek from ahead in the brush. It was followed by another, and another.

The men instantly clustered together, their weapons drawn.

Something crashed through the brush to their right and the whistling took on a fevered pitch.

A scourgling broke through the trees at full gallop. It was roughly shaped like a boar – one of those monster creatures half the size of a donkey. Only in place of a pig's snout it had a sharply pointed muzzle utterly filled with teeth.

It was followed by two more, equally as large.

The men made a brave show of swinging their swords. Even the dagger they’d stolen from Arthur came into play. None of it helped. They were overwhelmed in moments.

For a moment, Arthur was dragged back to the moment where he had hidden under the bushes back at his border village. Too terrified to move, watched the red dragon kill the baron's men.

This time, he didn't intend to be caught once the scourglings were done. Holding onto the Stealth skill like a lifeline, he slowly backed further and further into the grove of saplings. He kept each movement smooth and slow to create as little noise as possible.

That was difficult, especially when the scourglings started to eat the bodies of the men. It turned out Arthur had been wrong: One was carded, though the card obviously hadn't been combat oriented.

The scourgling pulled it out of the man's heart and gulped it down. It flared briefly blue as if it had gained a new power, then continued eating the organ meat.

Arthur reached the other end of the grove. He backed up and then slowly rose.

Then he jogged away.

 


 

He wasn't sure of the direction that he ran. Somewhere along the line, he had gotten completely turned around. The roar of the village battle was easy to pick out, so he decided to head away from that.

Screw Second and the favor that Arthur owed him. He was done.

Which was, of course, the moment he found the dragon rider.

A scrap of cloth caught his eye. Mostly because it was garishly pink and stood out on the green and brown forest floor.

The man hadn't had the fiercest-looking dragon, but he had been proud enough of it to wear its colors into battle.

Swallowing, Arthur stepped forward. There were broken branches above that the rider had snapped on the way down.

He was dead. Obviously so with a visible bloody crack in the skull where his head had hit a rock. Though judging by the broken branches above and scattered around, he had probably been gone before he hit the ground.

Arthur had seen a lot of people die. He'd just seen three men eaten a few minutes ago. This sight tightened his throat.

A throb of – what? Greed? Obligation? He wasn't sure – made him step forward.

The man had been large and burly, and it took some effort to roll him on his back. When he did, Arthur saw there was a glow emanating from his chest.

No one else had found the body yet. He still had the card.

Arthur had seen card harvesting done a few times, though hadn't ever tried it himself. Kneeling over the rider, he waved his hand in a beckoning gesture over the glow.

Something tugged at his fingers as if invisible spider strands had stuck to his hand. When he lifted it, not one but two cards lifted from the man's chest.

Which, of course, was the moment he heard Second's voice right behind him.

"I thought I'd told you to call for me if you found him."

Arthur had zero time. Something twinged from his Gambler Class, pulling his attention to the leftmost card.

His only hope was that his body would block his actions from Second’s sight.

In one flick of his fingers earned from his Card Shuffling skill, he snapped the left card under his palm while he grabbed the other. He half-turned, pressing the first card into his heart.

Images of the card flashed before his eyes. He ignored them, extending his hand with the other card held out to Second.

"Bad idea to start shouting," Arthur said. "I saw other teams looking for the rider, too. But I got the card. Here."

The other man was striding up to Arthur, a dark scowl on his face.

He snatched the card from Arthur and looked it over. The card was golden in color as if someone had dripped sunlight onto the back, the back a twisting mass of woven vines. Some sort of plant-based card?

"Uncommon-rank," Second sneered. “That’s all?”

It was an effort to not look at the blinking presence of the other card in the corner of his awareness. His new card wanted his attention, but Arthur had to live past the next few moments, first.

"Uncommon's not bad, right?" he asked brightly, adding, "It's better than the one you offered me. It's got to be worth something, right?"

Second grunted and pushed the card to his chest where it slid into his heart. Then his gaze fixed on Arthur. "Is that all you found on him?"

"Yeah?" He looked the man right in the eyes, trying not to sweat.

"Then why aren't you angling to keep it for yourself?"

"W-what?" But he had the sinking feeling Second was right. If it were the only card on the rider, Arthur would have argued at least a little to keep it or trade it with another one of Second's.

No wonder he hadn't gotten another Acting skill level.

Second's face darkened as if he just had his suspicions confirmed. He held out his hand. "Give it."

"I... I just did. There wasn't another card, Second. I swear. I didn't call out for you because other people are looking for the rider. I ran into a group of them. They got eaten by scourglings and I just got away." He was babbling. He could hear himself do it but couldn't stop.

Arthur backed up a step and his heel hit the rider. His arms pinwheeled as he fell back over the body.

Second advanced on him. "I told you what would happen if you crossed me, Piss-Ant."

"I didn't, Second. I didn't!"

"Guess there's one way to find out.”

He gestured to one of the branches above. With a creak of wood, the branch twisted as if called to his hand.. Arthur flashed to the back of the Uncommon card – how the back decoration had looked like vines. Second must be trying it out.

His father had told him it took time and practice to adjust to a new card, but other than a look of fierce concentration, Second wasn’t having difficultly.

Arthur turned to run.

The branch shot out. The tip sharpened to a spear point.

Sharp pain bit at the side of his throat, just under his chin. Then the world went white.

 

Trap Card Activated: Return To Start.

 

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A note from HonourRae

Just to manage expectations: This is not a time-loop story.


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HonourRae

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