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A note from Carrarn

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"Mum?" Irwin asked worriedly.

 

His mother was still staring at him, mouth slightly open.

 

He'd shown her how he could find things when the candles were out, and she just sat there.

 

"Did you hear-"

 

"I heard you, Irwin," his mother hissed as she looked at the door. "I can't believe this. How could Bronwyn find- never mind. It looks like a common, but you are right. Passive effects never occur on common."

 

She sighed and seemed to deflate, still not looking at him. "Irwin! You can't tell anyone! Not even Bronwyn! You shouldn't have even told me!"

 

Irwin leaned back on his stool, gaping at his mother. Why not? Wasn't this a good thing? He frowned, about to tell her that, of course, he would tell Bronwyn, when she looked up at him with eyes so wild he swallowed what he was about to say.

 

"They will try and take it from you," she whispered as she took a single look at his hand before quickly staring back at him.

 

"What, that's impossible," Irwin said. Everyone knew you couldn't take someone's card while placed.

 

"It's not. If someone who is carded dies, there is a small chance for their card to unslot for someone else to take," she stated. "It's not something people talk about, most don't even know, but your-" she sighed as she looked at the ground. "Your father…"

 

Irwin held his breath, too afraid to speak, praying to Gelwin she would continue.

 

"Your father had four cards, a full-hand-and-one, and one of them was rare," his mother whispered as if afraid someone would overhear. "Shadecat, with gigantism… large enough to tear Diflor apart and for Whyrdin to ride."

 

That would make him a noble, Irwin thought in disbelief. Didn't that mean they were nobles? Why did they live like this?

 

His mother's eyes were distant and clouded, her face warped as she seemed to relive old pains. "Four rangers came early in the morning, and I instantly knew something had happened. Bronwyn was playing in the room, so small, when they told me that Whyrdin had fallen at the peninsula wall. The ranger, an older one with black and green hair, said Whyrdin fought valiantly, killing a dozen Diflor as he guarded them. I almost broke down but managed to hold out. I invited them in, gave them thee…. Thee!"

 

She shook her head, so hard Irwin thought it might snap off. When she continued, her voice was dull and dead.

 

"There was nothing to bury, so I grieved at home. The midwife came many times as I was pregnant with you, telling me to calm down, relax... Pah! I sold the house the next day and moved in with my parents, knowing if I didn't do it, we would be evicted soon enough. Then, nary a week later, one of the rangers came to town after dark. I saw him because I had worked late at the Tanner household. He didn't see me, but I saw him and almost confronted him. He had a Shadecat! Young still, and not with gigantism, but I recognized it. It was the same as Whyrdin's!"

 

Irwin had completely forgotten about his night vision or what it meant for his card, wide-eyed, listening to his mother. She didn't seem to see him, appearing to be recounting something that she'd bottled up inside for far too long.

 

"I went to the city warden, told him, and he just sent me away. Didn't even want to investigate! I went to the rangers, but they said it was just a bad coincidence. Dalynris had gotten the card days after that incident, and that was that. Nobody believed me… not even my parents," she spat, her hands clenching on the table.

 

"Then Dalynris found me late the next evening. He tried to tell me I was wrong, that nothing had happened, but he was lying! I could see it in his eyes! When I continued confronting him, he must have realized I didn't believe him, and he grabbed me, snarling, and said that... that..."

 

Tears began running down his mother's eyes, but Irwin waited with quiet morbidity for her to continue. The heat in his body had faded, and with the weariness setting in, he was shivering.

 

"He threatened me! Said if I didn't stop making up lies, the babe -you!- might not come out right. Then he told me that it might be time for me to leave from Rom-"

 

The door was shoved open with a bang, cutting his mother off, and Bronwyn entered carrying a long wooden staff. He had a harried look but froze in his tracks as he saw the tears on his mother's face.

 

"What's going on?" he hissed, then shook and quickly closed the door. "Never mind, tell me later! There's trouble! Some of the nobles have banded together and are attempting to sneak their children out of town to hide them in Gloomforest until the sorcerer leaves!"

 

As if to punctuate his words, a dull boom caused the loose items on the shelves to rattle. Silence hung in the room, then screaming came from the distance, followed by more, smaller explosions.

 

Irwin looked at the wall, his head still filled with the story his mother had just told him… or told herself- he wasn't sure.

 

Bronwyn was standing facing the door, raising his hand. The familiar glow of a card came from his hand, and an owl the size of a dog appeared next to him.

 

"Attack anyone that enters the door," Bronwyn whispered. The owl blinked and then focused on the door, projecting a sense of readiness that made Irwin's hair stand on end.

 

Nobody spoke as the shouting, and fighting sounds continued.

 

The sounds lasted for another ten minutes before stopping as suddenly as they had begun. Irwin had his arms around his body. The cold of the night had crept into the house, causing his shivering to increase. He hadn't dared move, though, and remained on his stool, wondering which of the nobles was resisting and what would happen. After another minute, Bronwyn sighed and finally lowered his staff. He moved to the old table and sat down but kept clutching his staff.

 

"It's probably the Uldrots," their mother said. The distant look had left her, and she turned to Irwin, seeming the same as she had been before.

 

"Don't speak about any of what I told you," she said before turning to Bronwyn. "Don't ask him or me. I shouldn't have spoken, as it's too dangerous!"

 

Bronwyn looked at her, and Irwin saw his brother's jaw clench and unclench. He could perfectly imagine what Bronwyn wanted, knowledge about his father, where he came from, and what had happened. Bronwyn knew only bits and pieces of what had happened before and remembered only vague images of their father, which he'd shared with Irwin many times.

 

"Fine," Bronwyn said as he rose, surprising Irwin. "I'll go and check what has happened and what the consequences will be. Irwin, go sleep. It's the middle of the night, and you will have a long day tomorrow!"

 

Irwin nodded silently, wishing he could tell Bronwyn about his card but afraid to go against his mother's wishes.

 

"Bronwyn, you should stay. It's dangerous to go out now," their mother said, suddenly sounding worried.

 

"I'll be back before you leave," Bronwyn said, looking at Irwin before turning to the door. "Glint, let's go!"

 

The owl hopped after him, moving ungainly to the door, then disappearing outside. Irwin heard a flutter of wings and watched the door close with a solid thud.

 

Then it was quiet in the room.

 

Irwin looked at his mum, but she was staring at the door with clenched fists, muttering something.

 

"I'll go rest," he whispered, getting her attention. She looked up, and a sad smile crept on her face.

 

"Forget what I said, Irwin. I know it's hard, but it's ancient history- just learn from it! Cards can and are stolen. After I got here, I spoke with the librarians, and they know of more accounts of this happening. What you have? It's a common! Nothing more!"

 

"A common," Irwin muttered as he moved out of the room and into his own tiny bedroom. As he closed the door, the candlelight vanished, but he could still see just fine.

 

He quickly crawled into his cot and pulled the old blanket around him, but it only seemed to make him colder. Shuddering below the blanket, he suddenly thought of something and pushed them off. With markedly less difficulty, he summoned his tiny flame, and it flared into being. Heat radiated from it, washing over him. Feeling himself slowly warm up, he sighed.

 

He made sure not to look too closely at the flame this time, but at some point, he still lost himself, and time passed without his notice as he thought about what his mother had told him, about his card that wasn't a common, and about what he would have to do the next day.

 

The door that opened caused him to wake with a start. He was still sitting on the bed, his shoulders cramped, and the flame slowly flickering above his finger. He wasn't the least bit cold, but unlike the previous time he'd zoned out, the temperature wasn't extreme either. Just comfortable.

 

He heard footsteps from what he hoped was Bronwyn move through the room next door and got up, the flame disappearing as he did. Yawning so wide his jaw popped, he moved to the door, feeling guilty that he hadn't done as Bronwyn had said.

 

I should have slept, he thought as he pulled open the door.

 

Bronwyn was moving towards his door and stopped midstep. He backed up as soon as Irwin entered the living.

 

"Good, you're awake! Mum, wake up! We have to go to the school!"

 

"What is going on?" Irwin said as he felt the need to relieve himself grow, his bladder and bowels reminding him of the copious meal he'd had the day before.

 

"Warden Donderin has locked down the town. He and sorcerer Xourdin are waiting at the square, and the tensions are growing. Rumor is that two rangers of the noble houses were killed last night, though the rumors don't agree on whom. Those Xourdin selected are to go to the school before the first bell of dawn."

 

The only other door leading to their mother's room opened, and she stepped out with puffy eyes and tangled hair. She walked towards Irwin and hugged him without speaking, startling him. Bronwyn waited for a minute, then moved to the door and pulled it open.

 

"We need to go."

 

Irwin silently followed his mother, who pulled him through the streets. The cold wind bit into his bare hands and face, and Irwin wished multiple times he could summon his flame. He didn't, though. It wasn't a good idea to draw more attention.

 

"The cold is coming fast this year," Bronwyn said as they reached the square, and a cold wind blew their hair back.

 

Eight children stood next to two figures who were squared off before the school doors. Xourdin seemed small compared to Malorin's warden, Donderin, someone Irwin had only seen twice before, but the warden was the one who seemed on edge. He was blowing plumes of white air through his thick gray-peppered brown beard while the cards on his hand flickered occasionally. With a full-hand-and-one, two rumored uncommons, and a great deal of wealth, he was the most powerful person in the town… normally.

 

More people stood on the side, and Irwin recognized both nobles and craftsmen alike. A few women stood close together, crying, while two burly men, smith Randal and Dalsin's father, glared openly at the sorcerer, seeming unafraid.

 

"Most are here already," Bronwyn said as he turned to Irwin with a smile.

 

Irwin could see the pain in his brother's eyes and the clenched hands, and all of a sudden, what was about to happen hit home. He was going to have to leave, leave his home, his mum, his brother, and everything he knew! Until this moment, he'd somehow been going on automatically, but now the reality of it set in, and he felt his eyes begin to burn.

 

"Don't cry," Bronwyn said. "The others are watching, and you don't want them to think you weak. Not now." He stuck out his hand, and Irwin grasped the thick, calloused hand with his own as he ground his teeth, trying to refrain from crying. Bronwyn was right. He had to be strong! Then his mother's arms wrapped around him, and he almost failed. Holding his breath, he quickly wiped his face on her shirt before pushing himself free.

 

"Do your best to stay alive," his mum said as she looked at him, tears flowing freely down her face.

 

"I will," Irwin croaked.

 

"Hurry, the others are here," Bronwyn said, staring at another group walking down from the main road.

 

Irwin nodded, took one more look at his mother and brother, then turned and walked towards the other children. Greldo stood to the side wearing a cloak Irwin had never seen before and one that seemed greatly oversized. He smiled, slightly raising his hand for Irwin to notice the thin lines of a card. He couldn't make out what it was, but he thought he saw a clasped hand.

 

He got a body improvement one? Irwin thought, eyes widening. A day before, he would have been more than a little jealous, but now he was just happy for his friend. If they hadn't had to leave, the card would have made Greldo's life change greatly, as many craftsman would want him as their apprentice.

 

Now? Now Irwin hoped it would be enough to keep his friend alive.

 

"Where did you get the cloak," he whispered, getting a shrug and a glance in response.

 

"As they are all here, I'll be taking my leave now," Xourdin said, his voice silencing the angry murmurs. "I'll be back next year for the usual six, and I hope we don't have to resort to violence again!"

 

There was an angry hiss from the crowd but nothing more.

 

"We will abide by the rules," the warden grumbled. "Now leave. I have to clean up this mess."

 

Xourdin didn't respond but turned and stared at the children.

 

"Get ready to run through the portal, or you might be lost in the in between," he said. Then he raised his hands, and his calm face changed to one of complete focus. With a flash, his hands burned, and a dull blue glow appeared to the side, swirling larger and larger until a jagged, six-foot-high, four-foot-wide swirling blue portal of light appeared.

 

We have to go through there? Irwin thought, swallowing back his rising bile.

 

"Run," Xourdin snapped at the hesitating children.

 

Eldin was the first to move, running forward and almost sprinting through the portal, quickly followed by his friend Dalsin. The other children moved after that, and Irwin swallowed as he ran forward. Two steps from the portal, he thought he heard someone cry out his name, then he jumped headfirst into the portal.

 

An electric current ran through him, similar to when he'd touched the fur rugs of the merchants a few years ago. Almost complete darkness enveloped him, and he could only make out small details. Two long tentacles rushed towards him, and he screamed just as the darkness disappeared and he flew out of the portal on the other end. He slammed into someone who cursed, but all he could do was scramble away from the portal that shimmered behind him, afraid the tentacles would come out.

 

What were those things? he thought as the image of the tentacles seemed etched in his mind.

 

"Stupid brat, look what you did!" someone cursed, and he felt a kick against his back that caused him to fall forward with his hands in the mud. He looked up to see Dalsin glare at him, hands and tunic willed with mud splatters.

 

A crack came from the portal as Xourdin jumped out, the portal instantly closing behind him.

 

"I'll get you later," Dalsin hissed as he stepped away from Irwin.

 

A hand appeared to his side, and Irwin grabbed it as Greldo pulled him up. "We better stay away from them," his friend whispered.

 

Irwin nodded but didn't really listen. He was gaping at the rugged, bleak mountain around them. Gone were the familiar cobblestone streets and old, worn-down stone buildings that he had known his whole life.

 

"The Sorcerer towers," someone whispered, and everyone spun around to see one of the girls stare at a point behind them, her mouth hanging wide.

 

Six tall dark towers almost grew from the side of what looked like a broken-down mountain. From this far, the entire thing looked like a glistening black piece of firestone from which a shard the size of half a mountain had been ripped free.

 

"Follow me. It's half a day's walk, and we need to reach it before nightfall," Xourdin said as he waved at a path that wound away from where they stood. It seemed to start at where they were, a muddy area, oddly round and seemingly made for something.

 

"You at the front," Xourdin said when the children didn't move, and he pointed at Endil, who nodded dumbly and began walking.

 

Barely ten minutes later, Irwin's legs were protesting as he followed the others down a steep slope, slipping and sliding over the muddy stone. Xourdin walked behind them, seemingly unperturbed by the path, walking down as if on flat ground.

 

As Irwin slipped down the last bit and onto what from above had looked like a flat track up to the side of the hill, he realized it was a slight incline up. With a groan, he tried to hurry after the others who were a dozen feet ahead of him.

 

"You will need to increase your physical strength and constitution if you want to survive," a dull voice said from behind. Irwin turned to Xourdin, surprised and afraid that the sorcerer was actually talking to him.

 

"I'd advise you to trade the first common card you get for anything that can boost it," Xourdin said before turning back to scanning their surroundings.

 

Irwin nodded, even though the sorcerer wasn't watching. He'd planned to do just that, and he wondered why the sorcerer took the time to tell him.

 

Well, they are trying to close the portals, he thought to himself as he struggled onward. It wasn't as if they were forcing children inside to kill them… right? Which got him wondering: why did they only accept children and not adults? He took a peek at Xourdin but didn't dare ask.

 

Half an hour later, his curiosity was gone, replaced by pain as he wished for nothing more than to curl up and rest. The others were a good way from him, and even Xourdin had left him behind to his own devices. Walking on his own, shivering from the cold and not a little bit of fear of being left alone in the mountains, he focused on taking one step after the other.

 

The day passed in a blurry mess of pain and cold shivering, until he felt strong hands grip his shoulder. He blinked, realizing he was looking at two leather, scale-covered legs while his own foot was still trying to rise to take another step. As soon as he stopped, he slumped forward.

 

"Whoa there, you must be the weakest one I've ever seen sent here if you can't even last the track," a warm, gritty voice said.

 

Irwin forced his chin up and saw a dark-bearded man with glittering black eyes and a wide grin showing crooked teeth. A long, curved handle of some weapon angled across his pauldron-covered shoulder.

 

"Normally, I'd leave you out here to feed the wolves, but I guess with our current plight, I'll just have to help you," the man rumbled.

 

Only his smile told Irwin that he was joking. As the realization set in that he was safe, at least somewhat, he stopped. The two strong hands lifted him up and across a shoulder, and he relaxed. Within moments the swaying motion made him fall into a deep slumber, uncaring about the uncomfortable position.

 

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About the author

Carrarn

Bio: I am mainly a reader, but at some point, I found that I wanted to try my hand at writing something. As it goes with these ideas, it never really happened, that is until LitRPG's showed up. Something about the concept and idea greatly appealed to me, but I couldn't find that many stories I enjoyed. So back in 2018 I began writing my first novel, Nothing but Bones. I finished it half a year later and started on Minlings, which is still being written and is a GameLit. For the NaNoWriMo of 2019, I wrote a short story called Again and again, which is influenced by GameLit. For NaNoWriMo of 2020 I started writing a story called Kernstalion, a full on hard system LitRPG.

As I am not a native English speaker, I expect you will find many weird mistakes, especially the phonetic pronunciation mixups. Things like, 'Look up at the sealing!' might happen.

Books:

Upcoming: "Nothing But Bones: Undead AI: Part 2"

On 01-08-2022, "Nothing But Bones 3: The Lethargy", released on Amazon and Kindle unlimited!
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0B8G4LMR7

On 21-07-2021, "Nothing But Bones: Undead AI: Part 1", released on Amazon and Kindle unlimited!
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B09B2HV6KT

On 16-04-2021, "Nothing But Bones 2: The Chaos Rifts", released on Amazon and Kindle unlimited!
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0927J2KQP

On 14 May 2020, "Nothing But Bones 1: The Wasteland", released on Amazon and Kindle unlimited!
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B088C4YS7W/

On 10 September 2020, "Again and Again", released on Amazon and Kindle unlimited!
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08HKCLK97/

Stories on RR- updated 25-02-2021
Kernstalion [One chapter per week]
Minglings [Hiatus - Currently being edited and releasing on my Patreon]
Nothing but bones [Book 3 being released on RR]

Currently, Nothing but bones book 2 and 3 , and The undead AI: Part 1, are free to read on my Patreon.

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