“Don’t shift your weight around so much. You’ll tip me over,” Marteen called, which didn’t help Arthur’s nerves at all. Especially since he didn’t think he had been shifting his weight.

Arthur froze, every muscle clenched so tight he was in fear of getting a cramp. Then he would likely fall off on his own.

By this time, they were several house-lengths above the roofs of the city. He caught sight of a large, squareish building that might be the orphanage. For a second, he allowed himself a hope that Freyja or someone would come out and wave the dragon back down… but of course that didn’t happen.

Dragons came and went all the time near the hive, and he was so far up, there was no way anyone would recognize him.

New skill gained: Dragon Riding (Animal Husbandry/Dragon Rider Class)

Due to your card’s bonus traits, you automatically start this skill at level 3.

With the new skill came a trickle of knowledge. Arthur was aware of how stiffly he sat, and how by grabbing onto Marteen’s neck he was surely shifting her center of balance. He was in danger of her tipping forward, not side to side.

Though every instinct screamed to wrap his arms around the dragon’s neck and hold on tight, he instead eased his weight back so that his legs and torso were angled towards her wings.

He thought he heard Marteen sigh in relief — or maybe she was just puffing for breath. Flying seemed to take a lot of work. Every wing beat bobbed them up and down in the air. Either Marteen was not very good at flying, or just young and inexperienced.

But she didn’t seem to be in danger of falling. Slowly, Arthur started to relax.

Up above, adult dragons in every color flew to and fro the hive itself. None so much as glanced down at the floundering silver and the unauthorized rider.

Arthur wasn’t about to let go of his precarious hold to try to wave one down, either.

But as terrified as he was… a part of him was crowing in delight. Last time, he’d been too shocked by Tess’s rescue and possibly the spatial sickness to take in the view.

Now he could properly appreciate the sheer size of the city. It ringed the hive cone, which was in itself the largest thing Arthur had ever seen. The streets and buildings seemed to go on and on, with only the winding rivers and the off-shoot canals to break them up.

Horatio had complained many times that this was a small hive, but he couldn’t imagine anywhere bigger than this. The sprawl only stopped at the edge of rich brown fields. Thanks to his new perception and the scent in the air, Arthur guessed that was dragon soil left to bake out in the sun for a year and a day. From there, it would be sent to the border to help reclaim the scourge-lands.

Maybe he was looking at the soil that would go to his old home.

Speaking of home…

“Where are we going?” Arthur had to yell to be heard over the rush of wind.

“Where you belong!” Marteen said, which was no help at all.

Within a few more wingbeats, she had stopped climbing and leveled off. This made it easier for Arthur to shift his weight to her center since he no longer felt like he was going to slip off over her tail.

New skill level: Dragon Riding (Animal Husbandry/ Dragon Rider Class)

Level 4

Still, Marteen breathed heavily, and her wing beats were laborious — not at all like Tess, who buzzed back and forth. She seemed to fall and catch herself with every wing beat, making Arthur’s stomach flip-flop.

“I don’t belong at the hive,” he called back.

Marteen ignored him, still breathing hard.

As they drew closer, he realized what he’d always thought were bushes hanging off the side of the hive walls were full-grown trees. From top to bottom, the cone-shaped structure had been cut into terraces to plant gardens and allow for roads. Thousands of tiny entrances dotted up and down the slopes, making them look like the cells of a beehive.

Soon, they’d drawn so close that he was able to pick out more levels of detail. People had planted individual gardens and some of the entrances were decorated with bits of fabric and signs.

Commissary Level 4

Mail Room - Level 4

Chip Exchange - Level 4

Level 4 NW Egress Point

Arthur had the funny feeling they were at level four.

A girl stood on an open-air balcony-like structure. From her pinched, angry expression with her hands on her hips, Arthur guessed this was Marteen’s rider.

He had never gotten a good look at the girl before, other than to notice she was older than him, at seventeen or eighteen. With dark hair, eyes, and skin, she had her tight curls bound up in a no-nonsense bun. The expression in her eyes was stormy.

Making a happy burbling sound in her chest, Marteen headed right or the balcony. Very, very fast.

Arthur braced himself, but the landing was exactly as bad as he feared. The rider stepped to the side just in time for Marteen to hit heavily and skid to a stop.

Arthur was launched forward, flipped end over end, and landed on his back on the rocky terrace. The air was knocked out of his chest.

Over his wheezing, he heard the rider say, “I can’t believe you did this—that you flew off without me. Who is that? What have you done?”

“I found him! The one that had smelled so good. The one I’ve been looking for!” Marteen danced from foot to foot, a little like Tess, but much heavier.

Arthur curled up, trying not to get stomped. He might as well have not bothered. Marteen reached down and once again gripped the back of his shirt — more seams popped and this time he heard a rip as he was heaved up like a prized toy.

“Marteen! Drop him!”

The girl came around the other side of her dragon and helped catch Arthur as she dropped him. Luckily, he only fell a few inches and was able to stay on his feet.

“I am so sorry!” Looking horrified, the rider began brushing the dust off Arthur’s torn clothing. Before Arthur could say anything, she turned to her dragon, “You just kidnapped a child from the city? We are in so much trouble…”

Arthur sensed an opportunity. “I won’t say anything,” he rasped, having gotten most of his breath back. “Just point me the way home. I’ll go.”

“You can’t go!” Marteen objected. “You just got here.”

The rider sighed. “I’m sorry about her. Silver Mystics tend to think of the rules of society more like suggestions, you know what I mean? Oh… your shirt’s ruined.”

Now he was upright, he could feel air in the rips in his shirt. But Arthur had more to worry about. If someone high up, someone he couldn’t say no to learned he had a Legendary Card…

Arthur reached for his Acting Skill.

“I just want to go home.” The wobble in his voice came naturally like he was a child on the verge of crying.

The rider frowned at him and then turned to Marteen. “He’s just a kid. Are you sure?”

Marteen nodded in an extremely human-like fashion. “This is a good one.”

“Okay.” She took a deep breath and aimed a smile at Arthur. It looked fake but not like she was hiding dangerous intentions, more like she was trying to get herself under control. “Let’s start over. I’m Kenzie, and that’s Marteen. If you haven’t guessed, she’s my dragon. What’s your name?”

“Arthur.” He looked down as he couldn’t summon any tears. “I just want to go home.”

“What about your shirt, Arthur? Won’t your mother or your father be upset if you come home with it all ripped? I can get you a replacement— “

“Don’t have any,” he interrupted. “I live at the orphanage and I gotta report in before nightfall. It’s a rule. They don’t care about the shirt—I can buy another one. I just need to go back.” The anxiety in his voice wasn’t completely faked.

Kenzie frowned briefly, then brightened. “Well, that’s one problem solved. Marteen?”

In answer, Marteen raised on her haunches and let out a fierce bellow to the sky. Arthur cringed back but Kenzie put a hand on his shoulder.

“It’ll be all right, Arthur. Watch.”

Sure enough, within half a dozen heartbeats a purple dragon had zoomed down from a level above. It was about the size of Marteen, though side by side the proportions couldn’t be more different. The purple’s four wings beat so fast that they practically blurred into invisibility. It was racing-dog thin with a sharp skull and big, dim yellow eyes. The rider sat half-crouched like a jockey with almost no room to spare.

“Who’s the recipient?” The purple rider called. They hadn’t bothered to land, just hovered in the open sky a few feet back from the terrace.

Kenzie turned to Arthur. “What’s the name of your orphanage?”

Had Arthur been less surprised, he would have claimed not to know. Instead, he blurted out, “Wolf Cub.”

“I know them. They had a girl link up a Common last month.” Kenzie looked at the other rider. “Tell Freyja at Wolf Cub Orphanage that Arthur will be staying at the hive overnight.”

“But—“Arthur protested.

Kenzie flipped the other rider a wooden coin, which was deftly snapped out of the air. With a salute, the purple and rider buzzed away.

Arthur watched them go, feeling sick.

“There now, that’s all settled.” Kenzie heaved a sigh and aimed a bright smile down at Arthur, showing a large number of teeth. “Let’s get you some new clothing and talk about what’s got Marteen in such a tizzy.”

Placing her hand on Arthur’s shoulder, she led him into the tunnel. He felt, roughly, like he was stepping towards his doom.

The tunnel inside was made of polished stone, which surprised him. White was the predominant color, with swirls of brown, jade green, and rust red. He had never seen anything quite like it before.

The air was noticeably cooler, too, and blew outward as if the breeze originated from the heart of the hive. Though Arthur couldn’t figure out how that was supposed to work.

And they weren’t alone.

They passed a young red dragon a few dozen feet in the tunnel. As dark red as a drop of blood, it was roughly Marteen’s size. However again the proportions were much different — more like the red that had given Arthur his Legendary card. Standing low to the ground with elbows and knees thrust out, it walked with an ominous sway. Its neck was short and thick, leading up to a blocky head, and sharp black ridges stood out along its back pointed up like knives.

Marteen showed her teeth at the red as they passed. The red looked briefly surprised, pumpkin orange eyes widening, before it showed teeth back and slunk away.

“That was rude,” Kenzie commented.

“This boy is my prize, not Roody’s,” Marteen sniffed.

“Prize?” Arthur asked.

Kenzie smiled down at him. “Sorry, she’ll probably think of you as her property until you link with a dragon of your own. Hang a right here.” She pointed down another tunnel.

This led to a sort of General Store labeled ‘Commissary, Level 4’.

Several assistants were helping other dragon riders. Arthur hung back by Marteen as one came to Kenzie.

Arthur looked around, more interested in the other dragon riders standing nearby and gossiping about the latest scourge-eruption than the clothing and jars of goods for sale… at least until his gaze landed on several cards.

They were placed in the middle of the store on thin, bent pieces of metal to display them upright.

The cards were ripe for the picking.


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