"In the red corner,” said the announcer. “Shawna Shadow Sorceress.”
The crowd cheered and Shawna turned and waved. As she did, Arthur noticed she held a stick in her hand about a foot long with a painted red end on it. This must be the marker Horatio talked about.
“And in the blue corner, we have the Master of Multiplication!”
The man on the other end was a little harder to see due to distance. However, as the crowd cheered he took off his top hat and bowed to them all.
“Tonight we battle under normal Uncommon dueling rules: The first one to mark the opponent’s skin wins. Now… fight!”
With the last word, the announcer dropped his hand and quickly backed to the far wall, presumedly to stay out of the way.
Shawna Sorceress reached for her left forearm. There was a dark, rectangular mark on her skin. Arthur couldn’t see the fine details, but Shawna seemed to pull out a card from her skin.
She held it out in front of her. “Shadow Veil!”
Instantly, a cloud of shadow engulfed her half of the arena. It was inky black and impossible to see through. For a moment, it seemed the cloud would roll up to engulf the audience but at an angry buzzing sound, the cloud sank back again to puddle back on the grounds.
“What did I tell you,” Horatio sighed. “If there’s any fight in there, we won’t be able to see it.”
The Master of Multiplication hadn’t been resting on his laurels. With the hand not clutching his own marker, he reached under his long, flowing jacket and held up his own card.
Instantly, a crowd of exact copies of him sprang from where he’d been standing and charged headlong toward the darkened half of the arena. Arthur could not tell which was the original, which was likely the point.
Before the first of the copies reached the shadow cloud, Shawn’s voice called out.
“Dark Tentacles of Power!”
The shadowy clouds boiled and coalesced into long whip-like arms that slashed at the oncoming copies. All that struck passed through, proving that the copies were insubstantial illusions.
The dark tentacles couldn’t reach all the copies. Several plunged through and disappeared into the dark cloud.
Arthur half stood, desperate not to miss a thing. “What’s going on? I can’t—“ He stopped himself before he blurted out that he couldn’t see anything.
Horatio laughed. “Told you.”
He didn’t have to worry. A moment later the dark clouds thinned and boiled away in patches, revealing copies of the Master Multiplier holding up identical cards that beamed bright light.
It seemed to break Shawna Sorceress’s illusion spell entirely, and as the clouds shrank back, she was revealed looking caught off guard.
Shawna reached for the black mark on her arm, pulling out one card after another and looking a little panicked.
“She’s either arrogant, or she’s planning something,” Horatio said.
Three of the Master of Multiplication spotted her at the same time and ran at her. Only one held a stick tipped with red at the end — his marker. That likely meant he was the real version.
He lunged at her, thrusting the marker like a saber.
Shawna cracked into a hundred pieces and fell away — she had been an illusion, too.
“Trap illusion!” Horatio cried, and the crowd applauded and whooped.
Suddenly, the bare edge of the shadows boiled away to reveal the real Shawna standing not six feet away from the Master.
She plunged forward with her blue stick.
Several of the audience members screamed out a warning, but they were drowned out by the still-exuberant crowd.
The Master must have sensed something because he began to turn. But not before she swiped the end of her blue wand against the back of his neck.
… Only he puffed away in illusion smoke as well.
A look of pure fury crossed Shawna’s face. The crowd, however, went wild.
Meanwhile, the real Master stumbled out of the last cloud bank shadow and pulled out his card.
“Baker’s Dozen!” he yelled again.
This time, only four copies showed up.
“He’s running low on mana,” Horatio said. “Uncommon cards are mana hogs.”
“Then how is she able to do that?” Arthur pointed to Shawna who had called the last of her inky clouds to her. She disappeared into the middle and the whirling dark ball split into two separate clouds, which advanced on the Master and his illusions.
“All her card powers are alike. I bet she has part of a set—mana costs usually do down when you had a Special card into the mix.”
Either way, Arthur could tell this duel was coming to a close.
The two clouds moved with eerie—though slow—grace toward the Master. Meanwhile, some of his doubles were visibly illusions. The colors were washed out and one looked like a walking painting, flat and unreal. It dissolved leaving four others and the real master.
They approached the oncoming dark clouds. By the frown that crossed their identical faces, Arthur saw they were facing a choice. Which cloud was Shawna hiding in?
It reminded him of the shell game. If his illusions were more realistic or better formed, maybe they could have searched both.
As one, they surged for the cloud of the right.
But then both clouds seemed to grow sharp teeth. They opened their dark mouths in a silent roar that gusted such fierce wind, three of the Master’s illusions popped and the real man was pushed to the ground.
Abruptly, Shawna staggered out of the left cloud and clumsily swiped her blue-marked wand over his arm.
She collapsed a second later and so did the final wisps of both clouds, but it was enough.
“The Sorceress of Shadows is the winner!” Called the announcer.
Arthur cheered and clapped along with the rest. When he thought he could be heard over the roar, he turned to Horatio.
“Each one of those powers came from a card? You think she had more than him?”
“It’s not about the number of cards,” Horatio said. “My dad used to say it was the synergies between ‘em.”
“Synergies,” Arthur repeated, committing that word to memory.
Down below, Shawna and her opponent were picking themselves up and being ushered off to clear room for the next duelists. As they did, Arthur saw them shove their used cards either in the jacket for the Master or the mark of her arm for Shawna.
Was there such a thing as an arm deck?
Arthur turned to ask Horatio, but he was busy signaling a vendor who was selling bags of popped corn.
“Hey, popcorn guy!”
A minute later, Arthur found himself paying for a bag of popcorn. Horatio paid for his own, though he grumbled about it.
“How did she pull cards out of her arm?” Arthur asked, between handfuls of popcorn. It was the first time he’d had it — he’d eaten corn before but had no idea it could be made like this.
Horatio rolled his eyes. “How have you gone this long being so ignorant? Yeah, it’s a card anchor mark. Kind of a false deck so you’re not shoving powers into your heart. Fancy ladies have it on purses, and you can get tattoos and stuff.”
“Why doesn’t everyone use a card anchor?” Had Second known about them? If he had, why would he have gone through the trouble of hauling tobacco?
Horatio grabbed another big handful of popcorn and chewed obnoxiously around his answer. “‘Cause that’s how people get cards stolen. Can’t steal from here.” He tapped his chest.
Made sense. And a card anchor might be exactly what he was looking for: A place to hide his rare trap card without it accidentally triggering on him.
The next fight was called: It was to be a duel between Common earth card artists.
Horatio perked up. “Elemental duels are always good, even if it’s just Commons.”
“You’ve seen a lot of duels, then?” Arthur asked, trying and failing to keep the jealousy out of his voice.
“Oh yeah. It’s great fun in the winter when it’s too damn cold to go riding—“ He stopped and shook his head. “Anyway, maybe they’ll show a fight between Rares. They usually have enough mana to fill up the arena…”
He chattered on until the next duel started.
The earth duel was a slugfest between a man who had an earth golem and a man who seemed to have control of stones the size of his head. After that was another illusionist, though he faced a man who could juggle anything — even knives.
As exciting as the duels were, Arthur found himself yawning by the end. He had a long walk back as well as class and work duty after that. He wasn’t looking forward to climbing up that pipe back to their window, either.
Even Horatio didn’t complain as they made their way out.
The streets outside the arena were as festive as ever. Not everyone wanted to watch duels, and several bands of musicians —carded and otherwise— started trying to outplay each other on different street corners.
Arthur looked around, tired but still entranced.
That was likely the reason he didn’t notice the dragon.
“A silver’s on the hunt,” Horatio said casually.
It took Arthur a beat to register his words, as he was watching a carded man play the guitar using only wind and not his fingers. Then it hit him, and he glanced up. “Huh?”
Horatio jerked his chin to the right.
A silver dragon roughly the size of Tess was hopping down the street, long ungainly wings threatening to knock people over. Something about its proportions, from overly large feet to the big luminous eyes, made Arthur think that it was very young.
The girl following after, practically begging him to stop, seemed inexperienced, too.
“Marteen, stop! You’re going to knock someone over. Marteen… listen to me!”
“I smell one!” Silver Marteen insisted in a high, young voice. “There are good cards here. I can tell!”
Horatio snorted. “First time out of the hive and it probably smells a noble’s brat’s first card. This should be fun— hey!”
“We need to go.” Arthur grabbed his elbow and pulled him aside.
Marteen and her rider were still several shops away, and Marteen was casting around — likely confused by all the scents and carded folk — but he had no doubt she smelled him.
He was surrounded by strangers. If someone knew he had a Legendary card—
“Here he is!” Marteen trilled.
Sure enough, the silver had stopped short next to a very well-dressed family and was currently sniffing one of the children up and down. They did not look amused. Marteen’s rider was beet red and mortified.
Horatio shook his head. “That dragon's got to learn there's a time and a place to sniff out good cards— all right, all right, I’m coming. Stop pulling me.”
He started walking, which was a good thing because Arthur was at the point of ditching him completely.
As he rounded the corner he heard Marteen tell her rider, almost plaintively, “But I smelled two good ones…”
Arthur kept walking, ignoring Horatio’s gripes about being in a hurry to get back for no reason.
Luckily, the young silver didn’t follow.