The bright light faded. Arthur found himself lying face down in the middle of a forested clearing.
Jerking to his feet, he stared around with wide eyes. He was in a different area than he’d been a moment before. Second was nowhere to be seen. Neither was the body of the dead dragon rider.
The clearing looked familiar, but it took him a few seconds to figure out why. This was the campsite the caravan had used last night. The one they had taken off from in the morning. Now that it was clear of carts, burden-animals, and people, it looked completely different.
Too bad it wasn’t far enough from the eruption. Scourgling whistles lifted through the forest in all directions.
Cautiously, he touched a stinging spot on the side of his throat. His fingers came back red with blood. It was only a deep scratch and could have been so much worse. What had the card done?
He turned his attention inward to the card that had been nudging at his mind for attention.
It was a deep metallic blue, shining like the finest polished steel. The glowing outline of a boy pulsed, faded to black, and then reappeared slightly off center in the card. That new outline pulsed and reappeared in another spot.
As with the Master of Skills card, as he read the card, the description imprinted itself on his mind.
Return To Start
When the wielder of this card is attacked with another card’s power, they will be instantly transported to a previously keyed-in location at no mana cost and with no restriction due to distance. If a location has not been designated, the wielder will be transported to the physical point they last started that day — either one second after the stroke of midnight or at the moment they last woke, whichever point is later.
This trap card has a once-per-sunset usage restriction.
After that was another message. The one that had attempted to get Arthur’s attention.
|Would you like to key in your location start point now?|
Slowly shaking his head, Arthur dismissed the message.
A Rare-ranked card. He suspected once the shock wore off, he would feel smug about that.
The answer as to why this card had not saved the rider was plain to see: The card activated when its wielder was attacked with another card’s power. The orange and blue dragons had attacked the pink with teeth and claws only.
It had been a brutal attack and showed they knew enough about this card to keep their prey from getting away. Since dragons linked their cards with their rider, the pink dragon likely had something similar in its deck.
They had planned out how to kill the pair of them.
Arthur gulped and rested his hand over his heart. He wouldn't make the same mistake. He'd make sure no one ever learned the conditions of this, or any other Trap card.
A scourgling whistle cut through the forest. Dropping his hand, Arthur turned toward it. Suddenly, he felt very exposed. His dagger was gone, and his new Trap card wouldn’t work until after the next sunset.
He was also more than a half day’s journey from the caravan.
He vaguely remembered the small valley on Red’s map. It had been surrounded on three sides by mountainous ridges with a lower lip on the southeastern side that led to a wider plain. This camp was somewhere on that lip. That meant scourglings would be spilling from the eruption on the other end of the valley and slowly filtering in this direction.
Quickly, Arthur searched the cold fire pits. He came out with a hearty branch with wood too dense to burn easily. It had a bulbous end. Better than nothing, though he wished he had something sharper.
The memories of how that other group of men was bowled over so easily, swords and all, were fresh in his mind. It was easy to imagine his cards being plucked out of his heart and swallowed down the gullet of a scourgling.
He didn’t think he was imagining it: The whistles had become closer and had a sharper tone at the end. It sounded like an excited hunting cry.
Did they smell him? Did they… Wait a minute.
He’d seen the scourglings go straight for the cards, first. Like the things had smelled the magic in him.
Doshi the silver dragon had smelled his Legendary rank card. Now Arthur had a Rare card to add to it. What if the scourglings could sense them? What if he had just made it worse?
He had to get out of here.
The heavy branch in one hand, he started down the road, opposite the way the caravan had traveled.
Arthur felt a stab of regret for that. He wished he could go back right now and tell Red everything that had happened — tell the man he was right and that Arthur shouldn’t have gone with Second. That he was sorry for… well, everything.
But even if he could find his way back to the caravan, Second would kill him. Red was not a carded man. He didn’t have the strength to stop Second. He’d pretty much said so himself.
Arthur’s only hope was to put enough distance between himself and the valley.
The hunting whistles continued. To his anxious, racing heart, they seemed to draw closer. Worse, Arthur couldn’t pick out the exact direction they came from. The trees were all a tall pine variety with thick underbrush that seemed to distort and bend the sound, somehow. Or maybe the sounds weren't bent: He was simply surrounded.
Arthur broke into a faster walk. Then a jog. A prickling on the back of his neck made him shift into a run.
A sharp whistle made him twist to look back. Behind him, a scourge-wolf leaped onto the road. The path it had broken through the brush was already shriveled and dying behind it.
The scourge-wolf’s mouth was a mass of teeth stuck out in all directions. Seeing Arthur, it let out a shrieking sound the equivalent of a howl, and broke into a run.
Arthur screamed and dropped the branch, sprinting with every ounce of speed he could pull on. He’d been fooling himself. A little piece of wood wasn’t going to do any good against something with a mouth like wood saws.
Leaning forward into every step, he ran like he had not allowed himself to do since he had first gotten his skill card. Not even when he’d gotten word of Ernie’s sickness.
I need a running skill, he thought wildly. But that wasn’t within his card's ability. Stealth and his Card Shuffling skill had saved his life twice already today. He wasn’t sure what other trick he had left to draw.
Risking a glance behind, he was shocked to see the scourge-wolf was still loping along at the same distance as before. Arthur wasn't outrunning it, but he was pacing it. If he had better endurance…
A moment later, the wolf was joined by another. Then a third. Then, absurdly enough, some of the scourge-bunnies joined in to run him down as a pack.
True wolves and bunnies would never come together like this, but each one of these creatures was a predator.
Whatever luck the Gambler class had given him had run out. Arthur seemed to be pulling the scourge in from all through the forest.
He panted, legs burning. He could go all day running messages up and back to the moving caravan, but he could only sprint at top speed for so long.
One wrong step and he would fall. Then they would be on him.
One thing wolves and bunnies couldn’t do was climb. Hopefully.
Arthur looked around wildly and focused on a large pine with branches low enough for his use.
He turned sharply toward it. The tree was just off the road, but those few steps he took brought the scourglings closer.
Arthur jumped and grabbed a branch, ignoring the rough bark that ripped at his palms. He hauled himself up with strength born out of sheer panic. He used the next set of branches like a ladder, climbing fast.
The whole tree shuddered as one of the wolves hit the trunk. One scourge-wolf leaped upward and hooked a branch with its paws, but then fell back. The branch it touched turned instantly black and started to die.
As did the trunk of the tree.
Arthur kept climbing. His only hope would be to find a spot to leap to another tree.
But there were none within a safe distance. He could try, but he would more than likely fall through the branches. If the hit to the ground didn’t kill him, the scourglings would.
He climbed on, hoping for some answer.
The tree was a tall one with the top ending well above the general canopy. The moment he climbed above the neighboring trees, he was buffeted by a hot wind.
Off in the distance, an orange dragon had summoned a fireball the size of Second’s cart. It exploded onto a mass of flying scourglings. Black and gray pieces fell down and the dragon swooped among them, the rider harvesting the chunks for card shards.
They either didn't hear, or ignored, Arthur's yells for help.
Arthur kept climbing until the branches became so small they snapped under his boots. He clutched the trunk for balance, feeling the tree wobbling. Though he couldn’t see it, he could imagine the base of the tree was rotting away under him. He'd have to risk a jump, and soon.
“Boy!” came a girl’s voice. “Tess comes!”
He looked up to see a small purple dragon shoot through the sky toward him. Its body was the size of Bella the donkey, discounting the tail. It had four wings: two on each side which flapped so fast they were a blur. It stopped to hover right in front of him like a hummingbird.
“Jump on Tess!” she said. It had been her voice, high and clear like a young girl’s. “Tess catch!”
A rider sat crouched low on the space between Tess’s wings and her neck, sitting a tiny saddle like a horse jockey. Their head was encased in a leather helmet, goggles, and a cloth mask over the bottom of their face.
As Arthur felt the tree shudder, the rider extended a hand. They were still too far away for comfort, but Arthur had no choice.
Gathering himself, he leaped from the tree. His hand scraped at the rider’s arm for a stomach-dropping second before he caught the wrist. The purple dragon squealed and dipped to the side, thrown off balance by his weight.
Then Arthur’s other flailing hand caught Tess's back ridge. With the rider’s help, he pulled himself up onto his stomach behind them.
Tess righted herself with a flick that almost sent Arthur tumbling off the other side.
There was almost no space between the back of the saddle and the wings. Arthur stayed on his stomach, legs in the air. All he could do was stick his fingers under the saddle straps and hold on for dear life.
Below him, the tree he’d been climbing toppled sideways to the ground.
“Tess caught boy! Tess caught boy!” the dragon cheered like a girl who had just captured a butterfly.
The rider said something he couldn’t catch. Suddenly, the wind screamed as Tess lifted higher — straight up, using her buzzing wings. Then she darted forward faster than any galloping horse.
Arthur never thought he would be afraid of heights, but he was very aware of the sheer amount of sky between himself and the ground. His fingers had a death grip around the saddle straps, every muscle coiled tight as he clung on to the dragon and tried not to die.
Below him, the valley seethed with scourglings, though it seemed the hives were mopping up the aerial battles. Tess shot back and forth, deftly avoiding the last scourgling flyers.
Arthur expected he would be taken to a safe spot: a nearby town or maybe even the caravan if he was lucky.
It took him too long to realize Tess was heading straight towards one of the dark rips in the sky.
Tess was taking him to a hive.
“No, wait. Take me to the caravan!“ Arthur wanted to say, but between fear and the screaming wind, his mouth had gone dry, tongue glued to the top.
The rip loomed larger until it seemed to take up the entirety of the world, the iridescent green dragons still holding it open. It didn't seem real: Flat black with nothing he could see beyond it, like they were aiming full force for a dark wall...
Then, they were inside.