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Arthur froze with the feeling like he had just been caught stealing raisins from the bowl. His first fleeting thought to deny it died when he saw the certainty in Kenzie's face — and remembered the feeling of out-of-control hysterical laughter.

Suddenly, he understood why Decan and his friends had left so quickly after she showed up.

"How did you know — Oh." He stopped as it came to him. Of course, his Trap card would have activated the moment Decan used magic on him.

"I get why it's inconvenient," Kenzie said. "You don't want to be transported somewhere at the drop of a hat. But keeping a Rare in a card anchor bag — especially a cheap one like yours is a recipe for disaster. You're supposed to be some sort of cook, right? You know recipes.”

Yes, he was supposed to be a cook. Too bad he didn't have the class for it.

"I told you, I am aiming for another type of rare card." He rolled his shoulder in a shrug. "If I stick that card in my heart, then will I grow up to be the type of guy who disappears when the going gets tough?"

That seemed to stump her. She cocked her head to the side. "There's something to be said for bravely running away. But it's your card. If you're going to keep it in that bag, you need to learn how to defend it."

Arthur started to perk up, but then almost as quickly sagged again.

His Master of Skills card didn't include combat or any skills which would enhance his body.

"I'm not any good at fighting,” he said.

"That's what practice is for. Even us dragon riders learn a few defensive moves. Here, I'll show you."

She stood and Arthur backed a step, shaking his head. "How will that help against someone who can stick me to a wall with magic?"

Her dark eyes flashed. "Because until you have cards to help you, you gotta use every tool you have. Why didn't you yell for help? Decan wasn't squishing your lungs, was he?”

"Well… No," he admitted. "Would it have done any good?"

"All dragon riders love getting new cards, but not everybody around here will go as low as to rob a little kid," she snapped as if offended. "Besides, what if somebody ran up to see what was going on? That might have given you a second to escape."

Again, escaping from somebody stronger and larger who wanted what he had… Well, it hadn't clicked to Arthur that it was possible.

Back in his old village, the baron's men took whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. They took from people who had next to nothing, and everybody just had to grin and bear it.

Nobody had stolen from him in the caravan, but he was well aware that Red probably could not have stopped them if they tried.

But he wasn't in the village, and by now he had lived longer in the orphanage than he had at the caravan.

The hive wasn't perfect, but it was both fairer and freer. And he was growing up. Soon, he wouldn’t be a little kid who had to take whatever unfairness an adult dished out.

He met Kenzie's eyes. "Okay. Show me."

He and Kenzie spent the next half hour or so going through three twisting maneuvers to break different holds. They practiced them several times with Kenzie gripping his arm and Arthur twisting out of it with various angles. Kenzie advised him to go for a man or woman's weak points. The eyes, the nose, and between the legs.

It felt strange to practice diligently at something and not receive a skill for it.

Arthur felt rusty and a little frustrated with himself that his practice came with no level indicators or random bursts of wisdom to help him out.

Still, Kenzie said he was doing good and promised next time to teach him some knife tricks if he purchased a good one.

When they broke for a quick break. Arthur bit his lower lip in consideration. "Kenzie, you said there are people who can mess with others’ minds? The white dragons?"

She waved a hand. "You'll probably never meet one. They live on the higher levels. People who can alter thoughts scare the nobles and the king, so there are all sorts of restrictions on them."

"Why do the nobles put up with them at all?"

Her expression instantly turned grave. "They're mostly pulled out when an eruption happens under a big city. You need a mind mage to keep people from panicking, stampeding over one another, or tearing each other to bits to get away from the scourge."

That painted a picture he had never considered before. Arthur shuddered.

But his curiosity grew. Was it possible to block that type of magic? And if it was, would that be considered a body enhancement skill, which would be out of his reach? Or a learned skill?

"When you made me laugh earlier… It was horrible," he confessed. “But in the end, I felt like I was close to throwing you off."

She gave him an odd look. "What do you mean?"

There was no point dancing around the subject. He decided just to ask. "Could you do it again?" Two or three more times, he added silently. That should be enough to learn if he could develop a skill against it. "I want to see if it's possible to toss you out of my mind."

"I'm not really in your mind. I'm it's more like I'm pressing down on your aura," she said. "And why? It's not like many people can do what I can."

He shrugged. "It's not all that likely I'm going to be mugged with a knife in the hive, but I'm still practicing."

She stared at him for a moment. "Are you worried that I am manipulating you? Because I'm only an Uncommon. My powers are a little like hitting you with a mallet. It's not subtle. That’s why I’m not up there with the mind mages." She pointed upward.

"I'm not worried about that," he said. "I just want to see if I can do it."

Again, she stared at him, and he got the impression that she was looking deep into his aura. Well, if she was, she would only see his curiosity. He wasn't afraid of her. He wanted to see what he could learn from her — and what he could learn about himself.

"Fine," Kenzie sounded vaguely exasperated. "But I'm not going to use fear or make you cry, you understand? Messing with emotions like this can get ugly."

"That's fine," he said quickly, and would have said more to reassure her, but in the next second it was as if all of the breath had been punched out of his lungs. He is next inhale came out as screamed laughter.

And this time, it was more of a scream than a laugh. It was not fun at all.

Kenzie cut it after a few seconds, leaving Arthur doubled over.

"Had enough?" she asked.

Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to shake his head. "No. That took me by surprise. Let me try again."

She looked doubtful, but this time waited for him to nod before she mentally pressed down on his aura.

Once again, Arthur was caught in the throes of hysterical laughter. And it hurt, physically. He was belly laughing and trying to stop at the same time, and it felt like the muscles in his core were trying to tear themselves apart.

Kenzie cut it off and said something that Arthur missed because he got a message from his card.

New skill gained:

Basic Empathic Resistance (Shield Class)

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

 

Shield class?

That was new. And he got the impression, through the link in the card that rested in his heart, that this was a borderline case. If Kenzie were a true mind mage and not a silver mystic, he wouldn't have been able to develop the skill.

He focused on what Kenzie was saying. "People are going to call the guards, thinking I'm torturing you in here. And they'd be right.”

"No," he said. “One more time. I almost have it."

"You're crazy. Wait, you don't like this, do you?"

He shook his head. "It's terrible. That's why I have to figure out a way to stop it."

Once again, she stared at him as if trying to read his emotions. And one more time, she was reluctantly convinced.

This time… Arthur still laughed, but it wasn't close to a tortured scream. It was more like near hysteria. That was a shade better.

He even got a new level out of it.

New skill level:
Basic Empathic Resistance (Shield Class)
Level 4

 

Kenzie cut off her influence and looked at him. "You know… I felt something there. Almost like you are pushing back, a little. I didn't think that was possible." Her expression darkened. "But I'm not doing that for a while."

Arthur, who was heaving in gusts of breath, nodded and wiped at his cheeks with the back of his hand. They came away wet with laughter tears. "That's fine. I'm ready for a break, anyway."

He had gotten what he wanted — a new skill. And the hint of an interesting class.

Once he could stand up fully, he reached into his vest and pulled out his card anchor bag. "How about a trade?"

He had seven Uncommon shard pieces in total which included Horatio’s pay. The other boy had trusted Arthur enough to trade on his behalf.

Kenzie, true to her word, exchanged them. Arthur got two regular Rare pieces for his four Uncommon, seeing as one of his had been a treasured corner piece. Horatio got one Rare for his three regular Uncommon pieces.

This was still a much better exchange rate than they would've gotten in the city.

Kenzie sighed in mock regret as she got the worst part of the deal. Her half of the agreement was that she would get both Arthur and Horatio as recruits. From the hints she had dropped, Arthur suspected that she would also gain an additional bonus if and when they linked with a dragon.

"I'm looking for a job, too," Arthur said as he put his new shard pieces away.

"A third job? Geez, kid, do you plan to sleep?”

"I worked harder as a farmer,” he said which was only a small lie. Working the dragon soil fields had been difficult and deadly, and starving was even worse. Arthur didn't mind working hard to get skills and regular food. "Do you know anyone who's hiring for kitchen work in the midmorning? I'm good at meal prep."

Kenzie opened her mouth, hesitated, and shut it with a shake of her head. "No. I mean, I know a place but… It's not for kids."

That got Arthur's interest. "What is it?"

"It's a gambling hall the Common riders use," she said. "It's on the first level, which means that sometimes the city folk uses it when they want the thrill of being in a hive. It's… Kind of a seedy place."

That sounded perfect. "Can you show me?"

Again, she hesitated but then nodded. “On one condition.”

“What’s that?”

Kenzie smiled. “You’re a hive recruit now. It’s about time you meet the hatchlings.”

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HonourRae

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