Soon, Arthur’s days at the Wolf Moon Hive fell into a pattern.
Most of his days went like this.
He would awake at the sound of the breakfast bell being rung. It was a huge metal cylinder that hung at the entrance between the lobby and the communal dining room. The kids who were too young for work duty outside the orphanage — under ten years old— were required to complete kitchen duty in the mornings and evenings, instead. It was a reward to be the one who was allowed to take a maul and bash the morning and evening bells. The winner was usually enthusiastic.
Rubbing his eyes, Arthur would sit up in his bed and glance over at his roommate’s cot. Horatio slept like the dead and seemed to have trouble waking up every night. Usually with muttered complaints.
He was also the garbage boy who the Chef had complained about so bitterly. After knowing Horatio for a total of five minutes, Arthur knew why.
“Good morning,” Arthur usually said. He tried to start the day politely.
Horatio would ignore him as if he hadn’t said anything at all.
With a shrug, Arthur would dress and go down the hall to one of the shared bathrooms on the boy’s floor. If he was quick enough, he would immediately walk in to start his allowed five minutes (timed by one of Freyja’s assistants) to wash and do his business. If he hadn’t been quick enough, he would stand in a line with everyone else and wait five minutes for the line to advance.
Breakfast downstairs was a noisy, chaotic affair. Many of the children were orphaned farmer’s kids, rescued from previous scourge-eruptions. They were used to being up and at ‘em at the crack of dawn.
To his dismay, Arthur fit right in with the ten and eleven-year-olds at the end of the boy's table. Though he knew he was growing stronger by the day… he had a lot of catching up to do.
Horatio, who was eleven years old but towered over Arthur, would sit by him… if there wasn’t any other seat available.
“Pass the juice?” Arthur would sometimes ask.
Horatio would ignore him.
After breakfast, all children under twelve years of age were herded to the building next door, which functioned as a schoolhouse.
School was a novelty to Arthur. There certainly hadn’t been anything like formal education in his old village. On balance, he wasn’t sure if he liked it or not.
The lessons were a rich source of new skills, but he had never been made to sit in one place for a long period of time before. His teachers often told him off for fidgeting.
But they could not find any fault in the quality of his schoolwork.
Arthur had a head start on his Reading and Writing skills. Now, before he finished his first week of school, he had pushed back the Basic threshold in both and moved into the apprentice levels.
The quality of his handwriting improved, too. It wasn’t as pin-neat as Horatio’s who was like looking at the print in a book, but it was readable.
Where Arthur truly excelled was in the math lessons.
Within a few minutes of work, he received a message from his card.
New skill gained: Basic Arithmetic (Scholar/Mathematician Class)
Due to your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 3.
Due to your equipped Gambler Class benefits, you have received 5 additional skill levels. These levels will return to baseline once this class is unequipped.
Current level: 8
He had been able to do basic figuring in his head with his only official skill being Card Counting. Unknown to him, he’d also been doing rudimentary multiplication. He understood doubling and tripling on a fundamental level. So when his teacher gave him a multiplication table to memorize, he found it easy. Division was a sort of a reverse of that, and once he learned the steps to long division it became a snap.
He breezed through his standard Arithmetic tests. Soon, his teacher had him on fractions (easy to learn once he realized it was practically the same as working with potions in recipe books in the restaurant).
His teacher told him that if he kept up his work, he would be ready to start algebra next. Arthur wasn’t sure what that was, but since Horatio was the only other boy in their age group working on algebra problems, he wasn’t looking forward to it.
Classes ended at noon. After they were sent off for the rest of their day, all students were given thick slices of bread with a slice of random meat and vegetable stuffed in between.
Most of the boys — Horatio, especially — complained that the bread was dry, and the meat was a tasteless mystery. Arthur couldn’t believe he was allowed to eat so much regularly. Mystery or not, meat was a treat and bread was to be savored.
After his meal, Arthur would head to the restaurant to begin his work duty. All the ten to twelve year old’s did this, and once he finally graduated from classes at “twelve”, he’d go to work full time.
Horatio, who worked as the dishwasher/garbage boy, would sometimes walk along with him.
If Arthur ever tried to start up a conversation, Horatio would ignore him.
Thankfully, once Arthur made it to the restaurant, it became easy to ignore Horatio instead.
The other boy kept to his dark corner of the kitchen, scrubbing out pots with a sour expression on his face as if he would rather be anywhere else. He never started on the garbage duty until someone yelled at him, and most of the time the other cooks practically had to stand close and watch over the boy to ensure he didn’t do the scrubbing half-assed.
Arthur didn’t know why Chef didn’t fire him — he’d heard him complain to Freyja enough. But for whatever reason, Horatio stayed.
Arthur, meanwhile, was kept busy with his own work. Chef wouldn’t allow him on the line yet, which meant he wasn’t allowed to directly plate the food. Instead, he was put on food prep.
It was an intense experience. There was so much more to learn about cooking than he expected. He learned different ways to cut vegetables, from julienning long strips, to carefully mincing into the tiniest uniform bits to even decorative scouring.
His Knifework skill climbed to Apprentice 15, and Chef said if he kept it up he would teach Arthur how to cut radishes into flowers.
He gained two more valuable skills as well.
Butchering Meat (Cooking Class)
Basic Baking (Cooking Class)
Every time he added a new one, he hoped for the option to combine them into an actual Cooking Class card, like his Gambler Class. It hadn’t happened yet, but he could feel it was close.
Finally, after six hours of work, Chef let Arthur and Horatio out for the night. As children under twelve, there were strict rules about how much they were required to work.
They walked back (Arthur trying to strike up a conversation and Horatio ignoring him) and would arrive at the orphanage in time for dinner.
The younger kids had been working hard on the meals, if not expertly. Dinner was usually a bland but hearty soup with more crusty bread and a piece of fruit for dessert. Due to the Sickness-Seeker’s diagnosis, Arthur was allowed two bowls every night.
Soon after dinner, it was lights out for the younger kids—of which Arthur was one.
That last part stuck in Arthur’s craw. If people believed him when he’d said he was twelve years old, he might be able to go out again.
His fingers itched to practice his gambling class. He had left his deck of playing cards back in his pack at Red’s caravan. He wished he could at least spend those hours practicing his Card Shuffling.
He’d received five coppers in payment after his first week. If he were allowed to go out, he could practice his Gambler Class. Arthur just knew he would double his money — maybe even earn himself a card shard or two.
The room he shared with Horatio had a window that opened wide to let in the night air. A drainage pipe was bolted to the outside wall within arm’s reach. Perfect for climbing up and down if he sneaked out.
But he didn’t trust his roommate not to snitch.
True, Horatio didn’t say much, but Arthur had caught him staring with a resentful expression during classes and while cooking. His gut told him if Horatio thought he could get Arthur in trouble, he would.
Arthur gritted his teeth and resisted the urge to sneak out. But he wasn’t sure he would be able to do so for much longer. The sounds of the city floated in through that window. It called to him.
Thankfully, he had other things to occupy his mind. His favorite topic in class by far was Card Lore.
It was held during the last hour of the day, right before school was let out for lunch. Judging by the hushed silence that fell over the class during this time, he wasn’t the only one who looked forward to it.
One day, he knew he was in for a treat. It was all in the sly smile of the teacher who brought out a slim glass case from her desk drawer.
A card was suspended inside.
She held it up before the class, who all leaned forward as if pulled subtly in. Judging by the silver metallic sheen of the card, this was an Uncommon Rank.
“Today, we will be going over Crafting Cards,” the teacher said.
Instantly, the tension was broken. A low groan passed through the boys and girls.
Putting down the case, she shook her finger at them.
“I know they aren’t the flashiest of cards, but crafting is the unbroken spine of any city. Any Common rank cards will get you a foot in the door to a good trade. Most guilds will accept a crafter with an Uncommon rank or higher without question. Now,” she said, looking around at the class, “Who can tell me which category Crafting Cards fall under?”
Several hands shot up. Arthur kept his down, listening intently.
Horatio didn’t wait for someone to be called upon. He drawled out, “Utility Class.”
The teacher nodded and Arthur had to resist the urge to turn around in his seat and glare at the other boy. Horatio didn’t often speak up in class, but when he did, he never waited his turn.
Worse, none of the teachers told him off for blurting out answers without waiting to be called on, like they would for everyone else.
Arthur didn’t get it. Even Chef, who tolerated no nonsense or subpar work, only grumbled about Horatio’s work ethic. Nothing was ever done.
“Correct,” the teacher said. “Crafters are a sub-category of a Utility Class.”
“No good for dragon riding. So what’s the point?” Horatio grumbled.
Again, the teacher didn’t yell at him even though she normally tolerated no backtalk in her class.
She only said, “Remember, a functioning hive needs on average at least five support personnel for every active dragon rider. That means meal preparation for man and beast, laundry, cleaning, and every aspect of ensuring a hive runs smoothly so they can focus on fighting the scourge.”
Arthur hadn’t had the chance to set foot inside the hive. Non-riders weren’t allowed unless they had a permitted job. But from the outside, the hive was a constant bustle of activity. He could just imagine how it must be on the inside — and how many people it must hold.
“Common rank craft-based cards,” the teacher continues and there was a general rustle of activity as the students readied quill and ink to take notes, “usually enhance one aspect of a crafting skill within a narrow scope. For example, a minor woodworking ability may allow its wielder to manipulate wood into a particular shape. Or for farriers, the ability to size horseshoes to perfect accuracy. I once knew a man with the Common ability to drive in nails into a board at a gentle tap of his thumb.”
She paused for a moment to let the slower students finish their note-taking. Then she continued, picking up the encased card.
“Uncommon rank crafting cards like this one are usually broader in scope. Who can tell me how to identify an Uncommon card?” she asked.
Hands went up all around. She picked one at random.
“It will say ‘Uncommon’ on the description,” said a girl.
Arthur rolled his eyes and kept his hand up.
“Correct,” the teacher said. “Arthur?”
“They’re usually a base metallic color. Iron, Silver, or Copper,” he said. The teacher had shown several example cards already — all strictly encased in glass and watched over by an assistant when it wasn’t in the teacher’s hands. Not that he’d been tempted to steal it. Much.
“That is correct,” she said, “They have also been compared to polished steel. However, some Rare cards have a metallic appearance so it’s important to look closely. Anyone else?”
“Only an idiot would mix up a Rare and an Uncommon,” Horatio snorted. “Rares have moveable images. Uncommons don’t.”
Wow. Horatio was chatty today. Arthur also noted that he seemed to know what he was talking about. He had seen Rare cards before.
The teacher ignored his snark.
“Uncommon rank cards are broader in scope than Common cards. An Uncommon crafter may not only have the ability to manipulate wood into shapes but shave it down with their bare hands. Uncommon cards regularly have mana abilities or use mana at a reduced rate rather than Common users.”
She nodded at her own words. “Someone with a Rare card in their heart may be skilled in multiple disciplines within the same craft. For example, someone may have equal talent in carpentry as well as general woodworking. Any mana cost would be significantly reduced. They may be able to slick planks with their bare hands as well as create works of art.”
She turned to the card. “Now, what other crafts—“
Arthur held up his hand.
The teacher paused. “You had a question, Arthur?”
“What about Legendary rank cards?”
He heard a scoff that came from Horatio’s direction.
The teacher smiled sympathetically at him. “Not much is known about Legendary crafting cards. There are rumors that some of the highest guild leaders hold one, but they keep their secrets close.”
Arthur wasn’t surprised. Her lectures always went over the general aspects of Common, Uncommon, and Rare cards. Legendary rank was seen as too far out of reach.
It was a shame. He would have liked to see how his card stood up to the rest.
Still, it was during this card class that he first got to see a new card born into the world.
It happened the very next day after the discussion of the Craft Cards. An announcement must have gone out to the teachers because the entire class was herded out to the courtyard. There, they were joined by the littler kids from other classes. They were arranged into groups according to age. Arthur’s group, as the oldest, was near the front.
Standing pride in place was a girl in his class. He hadn’t had much to do with girls and didn’t know her name.
Freyja stood next to her, a proud hand on her shoulder as she addressed them all.
“Today, we recognize the achievement of Olive Sansbury. Olive came to us a year and a half ago and has worked diligently ever since. And today, she creates her first card.”
Arthur craned his head to see. There was a table set up with the card pieces laid out upon it. “What’s the rank? Can anyone see?”
He fully expected an Uncommon or Rare rank card for all this ceremony and effort, so he was surprised by the answer.
“Common,” said a boy next to him.
“A Common took her a year and a half?”
“Well, she had to trade for the corner pieces, didn’t she?” the boy scoffed.
Arthur wasn’t sure what that was meant to mean. Standing on tiptoes, he was able to see just over the shoulders of the boys in front of him. The card shards were placed together like an almost-completed jigsaw puzzle. However, most of the pieces were alike — uniform triangles that fit together.
The exception was the corner pieces which were also triangles but rounded on one side.
The card was mostly complete except for the upper right corner triangle.
Olive clutched the last piece tightly between her fingers like it was the most precious object in the world.
Interesting how Freyja never mentioned that complication when she was selling him on the idea of card shards.
Freyja continued speaking. “When you create your own card, it’s important that you are the one to arrange the pieces. The resulting card comes from your knowledge and will return to your heart.” She turned to the girl. “Are you ready, Olive?”
The girl nodded and stepped forward. She was so pale that her freckles stood out from her cheeks, and Arthur caught the hint of a tremor as she slid the last pieces into place.
“Think about what you want out of the card,” Freyja coached. “It may help guide the creation.”
“I want to be a dragon rider,” Olive murmured.
As the corner clicked into place, a shining white light suddenly glowed up between every single piece. It was so bright Arthur had to blink quickly.
It faded and the blank white card now had script on it.
All the kids leaned forward though no one crowded around Olive. They gave her space.
Staring down at her new creation, Olive broke into a grin. “It's an illusion! Minor camouflage,” she said, took the card between her hands, and hugged it. “I’m going to be a dragon rider!”
Around her, people clapped. Arthur did, too.
Behind him, he heard a scoff.
“I hope she likes delivering messages back and forth to nobles the rest of her life.”
Arthur turned and was unsurprised to see Horatio standing behind him. The other boy was so tall, that he practically loomed.
Arthur glared up at him. “What do you mean?”
“Sure, it’s not some useless utility card, but it’s not exactly a combat card, is it?” He made a dismissive gesture. “I’m sure there’s some Common purple desperate enough — they’ll match to anyone.”
Privately, Arthur wasn’t impressed with Olive’s new card, but she had worked hard for it. Horatio’s attitude rubbed him the wrong way. “Have you ever thought of just trying to be happy for her?”
Horatio gave him a look like he was an idiot and walked away.
A boy next to Arthur gave him a sympathetic look. “That guy is your roommate, right?”
“Yeah,” Arthur said.
“That’s bad luck.”
However, that seemed to be a watershed moment because Horatio voluntarily spoke to Arthur again that day. This time, in a rare lull in the kitchen.
“You won’t be seeing your girlfriend gain.”
“What?” Arthur asked, looking up from his pile of chopped onions. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a skill to keep his eyes from watering.
Horatio shrugged and bent to empty the pail of vegetable leavings.
“She went off to the hive. I saw Freyja walking her out just before I came here.”
“Just because she went doesn’t mean she’ll get chosen,” Arthur said.
“Nah, there’s always more Common hatchlings than there are people willing to take them. They’re scourge fodder. Why do you think the adults sell us on the idea of being a dragon rider so hard?”
Before Arthur could think of anything to say to that, Horatio slumped away.