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A note from HonourRae

 

Old-ass memes aside, check out: https://www.royalroad.com/fiction/58440/tower-of-cards-1-spell-thief

No one knows why Gaia's Ark came to Earth, but with it came the secrets of her runic cards.

Almost half a century has passed since prison ships enroute to Australia discovered the mysterious tower. Monarchies, republics, and trading giants came together to build a city around it, and contain the monsters spilling out of the rune-covered structure. The few that dared enter and climb it, learned the magic of Gaia's runic cards. Now, people delve into the tower's depths for fame and fortune or in search of power.

Diya Sen climbs the tower hoping to find clues regarding his missing brother and solve Gaia's mysteries. However, the warring noble houses stand in his way. Only allies and powerful cards will help him overcome obstacles and function outside the nobility's control. His mission won't be easy. Not all cards are made equal and sources of power are outside his—an ordinary man's—reach. If the direct approach won't help Diya achieve his goals perhaps the talents of a Spell Thief will.

The city had a different feel to it during mid-morning. They were quieter than he had seen before. The children were in school or apprenticed in their future trade. The adults were either working their trade or craft or else caring for their households.

Arthur received a couple of long looks, but after passing his graduation tests, Freyja had given him a new chip to carry.

It was a circle of black, polished stone with a hole carved in the middle. It now sat strung on the necklace next to the one Kenzie had given him.

Arthur found the nearby canal and walked along the path beside it without being stopped. Soon enough, the canal joined the main river. Following the edges against the current, he bypassed shops that grew fancier.

Finally, Arthur came to the entrance of the hive.

Well, one of the entrances.

Eight ground-level entrances ringed around the hive in total. This one, South-East, was impressive. It was an arch of marble cut in blocks of rainbow colors from white on one end shading slowly up the spectrum to green in the middle through yellow and reds and darkening on the other through the purples and a blue so dark it was almost black.

Several large guards in impressive-looking outfits stood on either side of the large arch. They were the ones who examined and approved all traffic in and out. There was a line each for carts and people on horseback going by in either direction and a line for individuals on foot.

By the way some of the guards held out hands and murmured to themselves, they must have had a Seeker card. He was glad he had the foresight to deactivate his Trap card.

Arthur joined the end of the line for the people on foot. He stood out because he was one of the few who was not carrying a pack.

When he got to the front of the line, the guard frowned down at him.

“Are you coming to see your parents?”

In answer, Arthur pulled out the necklace with Kenzie’s chip strung on the end. “I’m here to see my recruiter.”

The man looked over it carefully.

“Kenzie and Marteen, eh?” He turned to an assistant who held a thick bundle of papers. “Ah, here she is. Level five, apartment 103.”

So, Kenzie had been promoted up a level. Was it because she had recruited him?

The guard continued, “Go straight up there with no dawdling. I’ll send a message on ahead.”

He nodded to a younger teen, who had a much less decorated uniform. The teen rushed off to a nearby hut. Likely to activate some card anchor advice.

“No dawdling,” Arthur repeated, nodding once.

That, of course, was a lie. He intended to meet Kenzie and exchange his card shards, but he intended to take his time about it.

The guard gestured him in.

Like the rest of the city, the area inside the hive seemed empty of activity. Most who were visible were workers getting on with their duties.

By now Arthur had seen the sheer mind-boggling work when a new scourge-eruption was announced somewhere within the kingdom. During those times, the hive became—well, a hive of activity. People and dragons boiled out of the hive through portals the shimmering dark green dragons opened. All support staff inside and outside were on high alert. Card shards flowed into the city, bringing wealth and the promise of new magic.

And dragons and their riders died. People didn’t talk about that much in the orphanage, but the teachers and staff were sure to prod the kids about interest in the hive after a difficult eruption.

Arthur wasn’t afraid of the scourgelings. Not much, anyway. And he knew that working with the hive was the best path to more shards and full cards.

But he was grateful that Legendary eggs were rare. He still had time to grow and develop more skills. He walked on.

The ground level of the hive was level 1. Arthur briefly glanced around before he found a staircase upward. The commissary held only the most basic of supplies with prices not different than what he would get in the city.

Arthur’s new morning job working in the Orphanage kitchen would take care of his basics.

Level 2 had a greater range of supplies for sale, including some new shirts and a quilt that tempted him. But surely the next levels would have a steeper discount.

The third level was better still, though there was no sign of trash-tier Commons for sale. Those would be on the fourth level.

However, Arthur passed by the fourth-level commissary completely. He didn’t think anyone had managed to connect him to the missing card, but he didn’t want to risk it.

Hopefully, Kenzie would take him to the fifth level commissary and introduce him to masters or anyone who was looking for some work.

The fourth level must have represented a significant barrier. When he got to the top of the staircase there, he had to show his recruitment chip to another pair of guards who barred the way. They barely glanced at it before letting him through.

The tunnels were busier with people, too. Most had depictions of dragons emblazed on their jackets or clothing.

Arthur walked by a small group of men and women chatting clustered in a knot—and taking up the entire tunnel. He scooted up against the wall to get past them.

A hand landed on his shoulder.

“What’s this? A little Common trying to get past without acknowledging his betters?”

Arthur looked up to see a tall young man with a streak of sunshine blond hair. He had the build and healthy, clear skin that screamed he was carded.

“Decan, what are you doing?” one of the man’s friends asked.

“I tire of these Common trash riders sneaking by without acknowledgment. It’s rude.” The man had a strange, formal way of speaking. Some phrases clipped as if they sat on the end of his lips.

“I’m not a rider,” Arthur said, unsure if this was a mistake or not.

“What are you doing in the dragon rider tunnels?”

“Seeing my recruiter.”

By the way one of the men’s friends snickered that had been a mistake.

Decan’s blue eyes lit up. “Ah, you must be new. I suppose your recruiter never told you about the toll?”

“The… toll?”

“To be among us. What do you have in those greasy little pockets of yours?” The man snapped his fingers impatiently. “Come on, now. Coins or shards?”

Arthur shrugged the restraining hand away. “I don’t got nothing.”

The man clicked his tongue. “Lying to a dragon rider. That’s a punishment. Now you owe me double.”

Twisting, Arthur turned to run.

He got two steps before an invisible force pushed him as if he had been shoved from behind. He took his next step long and landed hard. The push crashed down on his head and Arthur was knocked to his knees.

It only took a moment for Decan to reach him and haul him back to his feet. This time the force pushed him against the tunnel wall. His mouth opened in an involuntary grin as the skin from his face was pulled tight with the force.

Decan didn’t look concerned. He turned to his friends who were frowning but didn’t object. “Tell me he has something worth my time.” He looked at Arthur. “Else you’ll be shoveling my dragon’s shit to the fields for the next week.”

The male sighed. “He has something heavy with magic under his jacket. Right side.”

Arthur’s card anchor bag.

Decan reached for it. Even struggling against the invisible force, Arthur tried to fight him back. But the man was stronger and taller. And Arthur had no skills to help him. Combat was outside his card’s capabilities.

“What’s going on?”

Arthur’s heart leaped with hope at the familiar voice. Decan stepped away and Arthur turned his head to the side to see Kenzie standing not too far away.

“My, if it isn’t little Kenzie. The Silver who wants to be a White,” Decan sneered.

Kenzie’s hip cocked. “Are you hassling my recruit, Decan? That’s worth a duel.” She smiled. “How long did it take you to stop crying the last time?”

Abruptly, the weight pressing Arthur back vanished. He inhaled a surprised breath, tipping forward.

Decan caught him, all sweet and pleasant. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just helping your little pet find his way through the tunnels. It’s a real maze in here.”

“Uh-huh.” Kenzie jerked her head to the side.

To Arthur’s shock, the three walked away. They threw venomous looks at her, but if they had tails, they’d be tucked under their legs.

Kenzie gave Arthur a quick up and down. “Did he steal anything? Are you okay?”

He appreciated the pragmatism that made her ask about the shards before his health.

“No and yes.” He looked at their retreating backs and then at Kenzie. “I thought the hive was safe.”

“Well, you won’t get mugged by a criminal but you may get a shakedown by some reject nobles with an attitude problem. Come on.” She gestured for him to follow her. Then she turned and strode opposite of where Decan and his group had left.

Arthur hastened to catch up. Questions tumbled out before he could help himself. “How did you find me? Those were nobles? What did he mean about Marteen? Did you really beat him in a duel? How?”

She rolled her eyes. “Does he look like he could beat me in a duel?”

“He used magic on me. I couldn’t move— I was glued to the wall.”

“He rides an orange.” She tipped her hand back and forth in a so-so gesture. “They don’t go for the destructive/transformative cards like Reds, or the light-based stuff like the yellows. Decan repels people away— like his personality doesn’t do that enough. His dragon is the opposite. Sucks you in.”

“And you beat that?” He couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice. “How?”

“Same way I found you. Saw a whole lot of emotion coming down this tunnel.”

“But—“

Kenzie flicked two fingers in a twisting motion and suddenly Arthur was laughing. Hysterically. It was a little like being tickled in there was no real joy in it, just a bodily reaction as if something had their thumb pressed on a button where everything was funny, but at the same time, nothing was at all because he could not stop. He couldn’t tell if he was screaming or laughing or on the verge of sobbing.

And just as suddenly, it did.

Doubled over, Arthur heaved for breath. When he looked up, Kenzie gave him a sympathetic smile.

“What did you…” he started to say, voice raw. “What…”

“I’ve collected a few cards that have synergized with mine and Marteen’s,” she said. “It’s not a set but it works for the two of us. That’s why Decan’s pissy. White dragons mess with the mind.”

He had been warned about white dragons, Arthur remembered. Now he knew why. He licked dry lips. “Can they—can you—?”

“Read thoughts?” she asked lightly. Too lightly.

Arthur jerked back in surprise.

Now her smile had a definite tinge of sadness. As if she had said this many times. “Just emotions. I’m Uncommon, not Rare.”

He spent a moment wondering if that were true. Could she change his thoughts?

No. If she could read his thoughts, she would know about his Legendary Rank card. If she could change his mind, surely she’d make him give it up.

Arthur nodded. “You made Decan cry in the duel.”

“Like a baby who had his rattle taken away,” she said in satisfaction. Then, unexpectedly, she rested an arm across his shoulders in a big sisterly way. “You’re my recruit, so it’s my job to teach you to defend yourself, too.”

“Really?”

“Sure, I owe you.”

Then she turned him to the right and they came to large double doors. Kenzie pushed them open and then walked into an apartment easily twice the size of her last.

"So," Kenzie said, perching on the edge of her bed. "Why haven't you stuck that Trap card back in your heart yet?"

 

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A note from HonourRae

Meh. On second thought I'm not entirely happy about where this chapter ends. Look for another one this weekend.


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HonourRae

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