Advertisement
Remove

Arthur’s mind was split three ways. He had just promised himself that he would now allow the thief class to change him. Yet here he was, tempted to put that Shoplifting Skill to good use.

The second part of his mind was occupied by the voice of his father.

“Get your hands on a low-ranked card — any card. Save up your money or steal one if you have to.”

The third part knew there was virtually no chance of him getting away with these. Yes, these cards had been placed out in the open. Several anxiously diligent shopkeepers attended to who Arthur assumed were dragon riders. But no one looked his way.

Whatever leftover brain power in his mind flashed back to that moment Second had yanked the card from his fingers. How he had promised himself he would not be so slow to act in the future.

Arthur stepped forward, casually looking around at the items stacked on nearby shelves: Jars of spices, long stripes of leather, and soft rope he assumed were used for the construction of dragon saddles. Decorative quilts in a geometric design. All simple items with a touch of luxury—things a dragon rider would need to furnish their living space.

Kenzie had stepped forward to get the attention of one of the shopkeepers. For a moment, her body blocked the closest shopkeeper’s view.

Arthur’s hand flashed out. He snatched one of the cards at random. He didn’t have time to look at it other than to note that it, and the rest, were Common rank. The card was a little too big to hide in the palm of his hand.

In one smooth motion, he stuffed it in his card anchor bag. Not in his heart deck—not until he knew what he was dealing with.

The deed was done. Arthur continued stepping forward as if interested in examining one of the oil paintings hanging off the wall. It displayed an impressive mid-air battle between a gleaming tan dragon and a massive scourgeling.

No outcry went up from behind him. No one had noticed. Yet.

He didn’t expect that to last.

The die is cast, he thought grimly, heart pounding. Now he had to figure out what to do next.

“Arthur,” Kenzie called.

Turning, Arthur stepped over to her. The shopkeeper tisked under his breath when he saw the state of Arthur’s shirt. A short discussion followed, ending with Kenzie handing the man a wooden chip.

In return, Arthur was given a well-made shirt and a heavy leather jacket to go over it.

He was a little stunned. One feel of the shirt’s thick fabric told him that it was much better quality than anything he’d been able to buy himself. Despite being brand new, it wasn’t scratchy at all. The stitches were so small they weren’t able to be seen.

The leather jacket was even more of a prize. His father once had something like this but was eventually worn to sinew in the harsh borderland winters. A whole jacket would keep him warm in any weather, he’d bet.

The value of these two items might be equivalent to a Common card shard.

Arthur looked up at Kenzie. “You’re… giving this to me?”

The girl smiled. “Yeah, Marteen ripped up your other one. Plus, you’re Marteen’s first official recruit so that’s worth a celebration, don’t you think?”

She briefly put an arm across his shoulders. “Let’s go.”

Squashing guilt, Arthur nodded. The stolen card seemed to burn against his skin.

Marteen, who’d been waiting outside, burbled happily at their arrival, sniffed over Arthur’s new jacket — he held his breath, but she didn’t seem to notice the card — and then trotted along beside them back down the tunnel. Thankfully, the tunnel was wide enough to accommodate her.

Arthur glanced around, hoping to spot a bit of trash or debris to ditch the card under. He couldn’t afford to carry it with him in case there were Treasure Seekers.

Unfortunately, the tunnels were clean and well-kept. Aside from doors leading off here and there, the only other feature was lighted sconces. The stone base sat nearly flush against the wall with the plinth jutting out as the tunnel curved. The top emitted a white light that didn’t seem to be made of fire and yet glowed.

Focusing on his Sleight-of-hand Skill, Arthur grabbed the card and slowed his step just as they came to a curve lit by a sconce. He sidestepped and used the pretext of gazing up at the light to slide the card between the plinth and the tunnel wall.

It took a few seconds for Kenzie to notice he wasn’t walking with them. When she looked back, Arthur’s hands were behind his back as he gazed up at the sconce. “What is this?” he asked innocently. “It’s not fire.”

She gave him an odd look, then nodded to herself. “Just a card-lit crystal. You’ve never seen— Oh, you’re from the orphanage. Right.” Kenzie stepped beside him, apparently as interested as Arthur was pretending to be. “The hive pays all sorts of service staff who have utility cards. One guy’s entire job is to go around and refresh these crystals through every public tunnel—on all levels. I heard it takes him two days to go around the hive. By the time he returns to the point he started from, the light’s already dimming.” She shrugged. “Sounds frustrating. He gets paid well for it, though. Come on.”

Arthur let himself be dragged away.

He carefully counted the curves and the number of sconces to memorize where he had left the card.

There was every chance a Treasure Seeker or just bad luck would have it discovered before he could return. But if not, he intended to collect it himself at the first chance.

He supposed he should have felt guilty about stealing from the hive. But really, who in their right mind kept their cards out in the open?

Kenzie led him through five more turns. His sense of direction told him they were heading deeper into the hive.

Finally, she stepped at an extra-wide door. A sheet of slate above it was marked in chalk “Kenzie and Marteen” in flowing script.

“This is me,” Kenzie said cheerfully.

The inside was a nice space, though there was no access to the outside. Instead, it was lit with slightly orange-tinted sconces that gave the room a golden, warm feel. A simple bed about twice the size of his cot was shoved up against the wall. Loose straw bedding covered in thick blankets dominated the other half of the room. Marteen went there to curl up, looking satisfied.

A second door to the side likely led to a private privy.

“It’s not much,” Kenzie said, “But it’s home. At least until Marteen and I earn ourselves a better apartment.” She sent a fond look to her dragon. “We’ll have to soon, or she’ll outgrow the door.”

Arthur didn’t mention this room alone was likely as big or bigger than the cottage he’d grown up in.

Kenzie gestured to the single chair set against the wall. “Have a seat. Let’s talk.”

He sat, hugging the folded shirt and the jacket close. He looked down, not offering information and pretending to be shy. They wouldn’t want to recruit a shy boy, would they?

Kenzie sat at the end of her cot and just… looked at him. As if she were waiting.

The silence stretched until Arthur couldn’t take it anymore.

“Why did Marteen grab me?” he blurted. “Am I really the first she’s… found?”

This second question was a test because he knew it wasn’t true. He had been outside the arena when he saw Marteen practically bowl over a noble family.

Arthur wanted to see how honest Kenzie would be with him.

“Well, you’re the first one she’s been able to bring back to the hive,” Kenzie said with a laugh. “Marteen is turning out to be a very sensitive mystic.”

“What does that mean?”

“You’re from the Wolf Cub orphanage, right? I know they funnel likely boys and girls to the hive. But what have they told you about dragon riders?”

She hadn’t answered his question, but Arthur played along anyway. “That you have to have a card to be one.”

“That’s right. All silvers have a special relationship with magic. Some are attuned to natural magic in the air, some concentrated areas of magic called ley lines, and some focus on magic generated by cards.” Kenzie gestured to Marteen at the last bit.

“We see magic,” Marteen added. She seemed content now that Arthur was in her home. “Some dragons see much better than others.”

“It’s an inborn gift, nothing to do with mine or Marteen’s card. All dragon colors have different inborn gifts. That red, Roody, generally have flame-based or transformative magics.”

“What about the purples?” Arthur asked.

She lit up. “You like those, don’t you?”

He hadn’t said that, but it was true. “I got saved by Tess. She was… nice.” He didn’t say that the flight was smoother and faster than Marteen had managed.

By the upward tilt of Kenzie’s mouth, she read between the lines.

“Purples have the inborn gifts of flight. They manipulate air so they’re more efficient. Most also have a strong sense of direction. Once a purple knows where the rider wants to go, they’ll know the fastest route through the air currents. Usually, purple hatchlings look for people with speed-based powers to link with their own. That’s why they make great couriers and rescuers.”

Arthur decided to be brave. “So… what’s yours and Marteen’s cards?”

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

There was a certain lilt to her voice, And Arthur felt a little… Funny. The tips of his ears were very hot.

Kenzie broke out laughing, clutching her knees and rocking back on her bed.

“Kenzie,” Marteen said. “That was mean. His face is on fire.”

“I’m sorry,” Kenzie said, grinning. “Here, I’ll give you a hint: Marteen here is an Uncommon, B rank shiny. That means her powers are fairly strong. Generally, the more glimmer that you see on a dragon, the more innate power that they have.”

Arthur nodded. Horatio had mentioned something about shiny dragons before.

“So,” Kenzie added with false casualness. “What card do you have?”

He had to try. “I… Don’t have one.”

“Yes, you do,” Marteen said. “It smells delicious.”

Well, it had been worth a shot. Arthur sighed. “It’s not what you think. It’s… It’s not very good, and I don’t want people to know about it because where I’m from, more powerful people will kill you if you have a high-rank card and won’t give it up. My card isn’t enough to keep me safe.”

Kenzie and Marteen exchanged a look, but neither tried to dissuade him. Apparently, this wasn’t shocking.

“All cards have their value,” Kenzie said. “And we won’t force you into a decision, but I need to know what Marteen is capable of sniffing out. She is still in training. And… If you have a high-rank card like I think you do, we might be able to help. The hive wants dragon riders.”

That much was clear.

Arthur sighed again as if he was reluctant to give out this information, though he had already made his decision.

“But Rare’s don’t hatch out that often, right?”

Kenzie sucked in a sharp breath, and Arthur knew he had her fooled. She must have suspected her dragon had sniffed out an Uncommon card. Now that he had let slip that he had a Rare, she would not be looking for a legendary.

It was sheer luck that Marteen was too inexperienced to know what she found. Doshi had, but Doshi had also been a Rare ranked dragon, himself

“Yes,” Kenzie said. “This hive hatches out a few a year. But that means we want a good pool of boys and girls to be available for them.”

Arthur shook his head. “You wouldn’t want mine. It’s a trap card.” Then, with a show of reluctance, he pulled his drawbag out from where he had tied it to a string under his ripped shirt.

Kenzie gave Marteen an odd look.

“You were able to smell the card when it was in the bag?”

“No, the card magic is in his heart,” Marteen replied.

Arthur thought fast. “It used to be in my heart. I took it out a few days ago.”

Kenzie whipped around to stare at him. “You took it out of your heart?

“Yeah. It… hurt.” Not physical pain, but by the way Kenzie winced, she understood. “It’s just… Well, look at it.” He took the trap card out and faced it in her direction.

Kenzie leaned forward to read it, her lips compressed. “That’s the thing about trap cards. Sometimes they can come with catches. But Arthur, that is not a bad card. If you are ever in trouble—"

“It’ll save me, sure. But if a healer ever scans me for sickness too rough, I get flung across the city.” Arthur did not have to fake the bitterness in his voice. “And I have a friend who used to live in a hive. He said people with trap cards like mine get sent to the most dangerous part of the eruptions. I want to help, but I’ve seen the scourge kill people and I don’t want to die like that.”

Kenzie’s compressed lips turned into a frown. “I see.” Now it was her turn to sigh. “I suppose I can’t blame you. Marteen’s not much of a fighter, either. Okay, Arthur. Fair’s fair.”

With that, Kenzie gestured to her own chest. A depiction of her card floated up between them, much like the way Arthur’s father had shown him.

Aura Eye

Uncommon

Body Enhancement

This card allows the wielder to view the auras of other people and sentient beings, which reflects basic personality characteristics and strong emotions back on the world. Mana may be used to obscure the wielder's own aura in order to hide in plain sight.

Marteen did the same.

Unusual Empathy

Uncommon

Body Enhancement

This card allows the wielder to share the surface emotions of a targeted individual. Mana may be used to sense deeper or hidden emotional states.

Arthur’s stomach dropped down to his shoes. Kenzie could read Auras. Marteen could read emotions and had linked with Kenzie. Did that mean…?

Kenzie smiled as if she were reading his mind. Based on her skills, she might as well have been.

“Yes, I know about that little trick you pulled earlier. What did you take from the commissary?”

“I… I…” Wildly, Arthur wondered if he would make it if he sprinted for the door.

“Ohh. That good, huh?” Again, she gazed at him and he got the uncomfortable feeling she was seeing down to his core.

“Don’t be mean,” Marteen chastised, gently. “You’ll scare him away.”

To his surprise, Kenzie laughed.

“Sit down. The shopkeepers didn’t catch you, did they?”

Only then did Arthur realize he had been half standing, tense and ready to bolt.

Kenzie reached over and patted his knee. “I came from a farming town up north where the ground is too hard half the year to even try to plant in. If you think I came across my card easily or honestly, you’re mistaken.”

Arthur’s mouth worked several times before he settled on. “Oh.”

“Oh,” she repeated. “But I’ll tell you the truth: This is by far the best place I’ve ever lived in. I have an idea of what you took, and I can’t blame you. But… you’re not a Common card type of boy, are you?”

She had him to rights.

“I didn’t want it for myself,” he admitted. “I didn’t even get a good look at it. I just wanted to sell it. I’m aiming for a good Uncommon or another Rare.”

She looked surprised. “That’s not a bad idea. How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

Kenzie nodded. “I thought you might be a little older than you look. Do you want to be a dragon rider?”

He thought of the affection he’d seen between Tess and Johanna, how Doshi spoke so highly of Chancy, and the fast partnership between Kenzie and Marteen. How their cards linked perfectly together to create a stronger whole.

And he couldn’t ignore that things were better made in the hive, that he’d have the opportunity for card shards and to help people during the eruptions. That, if he became high enough ranked within the hive, he might be able to help his father and the rest of the border villagers.

“Yeah,” Arthur said. “I do.”

“Then you and I need to strike a bargain,” Kenzie said, her eyes sharp. “You need me to keep quiet about what happened in the commissary.” Marteen made a sound of protest, but Kenzie held up her hand, forestalling her. “More importantly, there is no better place than the hive to buy and trade cards. We are where most raw card shards come from. Card shops will overcharge you, and trading in the back alleys is a good way to get you stabbed in the kidney. But here,” she waved a hand around. “This is the cheapest place you’ll find for trade. And you have to have a connection with a dragon rider to get in.”

Carrot and stick. But it was a juicy carrot. “What do I got to do in return?”

“It’s easy: you officially register as Marteen’s recruit.”

“Why?” Arthur asked, bluntly.

She tilted her head back and forth in a so–so gesture. “For Silvers, recruiting people earns you a kind of second currency in the hive. I can put it towards better lodging and more benefits. Marteen and I might be able to move up to level five just from you alone because you have a Rare card.”

“But I don’t want to tell anybody I have a Rare,” Arthur said.

She waved his concerns away. “Oh, the list is kept secret. You aren’t the only one. The hive has noble brats coming in all the time for this sort of thing. Plus, being here even part-time will be good for you. Prices for goods are less when you buy from the hive, work pays better, and you can visit the hatchlings whenever you want to get used to the idea of being a dragon rider for when a Rare egg is laid.” She must have seen that Arthur looked uncertain because she added, “None of the lesser ranks will give you a sniff, even if you’re holding a dozen Commons in your heart because of that Rare.”

Arthur was tempted. Extremely tempted. But he also knew he still had a card to play: Kenzie needed him to say yes.

“I have one condition,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“I have a friend who’s working towards a Rare card, too. You give him the same deal and I’ll say yes.”

“I can get him a discount on Card Shards,” she said. “But only if he promises to let Marteen recruit him when he gets that Rare in his heart.” She eyed him. “You’ve got to put yours back in your heart deck, too. Trap or no trap.”

“I will,” he lied. Marteen wasn’t smelling the Rare. She was smelling the Legendary, but didn’t know it. “And I’ll make sure Horatio knows the deal, ftoo.”

She eyed him for a moment, and he imagined she saw something off in his aura, but couldn’t quite figure out what. After all, Kenzie was getting a better deal than she thought. If recruiting a Rare could get her moved up a level in the hive, a Legendary must be loads better.

Not that he’d let that slip — not until he was good and ready.

Finally, Kenzie spit into her hand and extended it to him. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

He did the same and they clasped hands.

Signing up was scarily easy.

Leaving Marteen to nap in the room, Kenzie led Arthur through the twisting and turning halls.

They finally came to a set of administrative offices which had a spectacular outside view of the last sliver of setting sun.

At Kenzie’s prompting, Arthur gave his name to a man at a desk. Then, haltingly, his card rank.

Several documents were signed with Arthur growing more and more nervous that they would have a way to check the card in his heart. But the official merely disappeared into the back and returned a few minutes later with a small disk of jade.

It was smooth and polished with a hole in the middle so he could string a piece of ribbon through it. Carved in black on one side were: Kenzie and Marteen. The other side was Arthur’s name.

“You take this.” He handed it over to Arthur. It was still warm from whatever magic had been used to carve the names on it. “Carry it with you at all times. If you are ever approached by another Silver and their partner, you will show them this chip so they know you’re already recruited. You will also show this chip whenever you want to enter or exit the hive.” His gaze turned stern. “So, make sure you do not lose it.”

“I understand,” Arthur said.

Kenzie was beaming as they walked out.

“That’s it?” Arthur asked. “They didn’t even check to see if I was old enough for a card.”

“Did you want them to?”

“Well, no. But—"

She laughed aloud and clapped him on the back, making him stagger forward. “I told you, they’re used to dealing with nobles who keep their cards close in their chest. So, they trust the Silver partners to check on that sort of thing. I’m made responsible if you were trying to pull something.” She grinned. “You aren’t, are you?”

Only the knowledge that she was getting a better deal than she knew allowed him to smile back. “No.”

“Then we’re good. Now, we got some extra apartments for guests. You can head back to the orphanage in the morning.”

“No,” he said quickly, looking around to make sure no one was listening. He lowered his voice. “Could you point me back to the commissary?”

Kenzie stared at him, and he was certain she could see the nervous energy roiling around in his gut. “Are you sure?”

“Will they take my chip away if I’m caught?”

“Not hardly. Not with a Rare, but you’ll get a few days in the Dragon Soil fields.”

He nodded. “I can take care of myself.”

To his surprise, she grinned again. “I can appreciate a good angle.” Then she pointed down a tunnel. “Those are color coded. The blue will take you to the tunnel which leads back to the commissary, the red will take you out. Good luck.”

Arthur did as he was told. As soon as he was around the first bend and safely alone, he reached into his draw bag.

Do you wish to activate (Trap Card) Return To Start?

“Yes.”

 

Advertisement

Support "All The Skills - A Deckbuilding LitRPG"

About the author

HonourRae

Bio:

Achievements
Comments(134)
Log in to comment
Log In

Log in to comment
Log In