Tower of Cards 1: Spell Thief [A Progression Fantasy] - Chapter 56
Fever dreams plagued Diya. His drug-addled mind cooked up scenarios showing what might have happened to Victoria after they left her. He saw her valiantly hold off the wild De Lawney men as they struggled against her vines. Then Edgar appeared out of thin air and thrust his disguised spear into her stomach. Victoria screamed and collapsed to the floor before all the men around her morphed into large shadow creatures and descended on her from every direction.
The following dream featured Edgar alone. Petals danced in the wind, swirling around Diya. Occasionally, Edgar would dart in and jab him with a flower-covered spear. Whenever Diya tried to retaliate, the lordling would burst into a cloud of petals and surround him as a raging tornado. Spears would burst through the moving curtain, trying to skewer him. The dream ended when Edgar finally landed a blow, striking exactly where he had in reality.
Consciousness hit Diya like a runaway cart. Pain spread from the wound like a sudden shock, and his back arched with the burning discomfort. He tried to scream, but no sound came out. Instead, ice-cold water dripped directly onto his tongue and throat.
“Easy there, Diya,” Gwyneth’s soft voice said. “I’m just changing the dressing. If you move too much, the wound will open again.”
Once she had finished speaking, a familiar sound filled Diya’s ears. He had heard it all his life while growing up, and helped soothe his throbbing head. It was the lapping of waves against hollow wood. The discomfort in his side subsided when a cold fluid trickled over the wound like honey. It quieted the pain and eased the aching muscles. Sleep threatened to take Diya again, but he refused to give in. He didn’t want to deal with the same nightmares again.
A muffled gasp escaped Diya’s lips when he opened his eyes. The sun shone directly above him, unhindered by clouds. Then he recalled where they were. Gwyneth had dragged him into the sixth floor just before he lost consciousness. The stories spoke of a collection of large islands, archipelagos, and endless reefs. Monsters didn’t just plague the land but the waters too. The seabed housed precious stones, creatures full of pearls and beautiful corals. However, Climbers tried their best to speed through the floor due to the complex traversal.
The Montagu house monopolised the travel industry on the sixth floor. Hiring boats and crews cost a pretty penny. The noble family regulated the trade of all materials—except cards—found on the floor. They didn’t care that climbers preferred to rush through their lands. Instead, the Montagus shipped everything they harvested to the mainland. Their jewellery business was on the rise too.
Gwyneth leaned over Diya as she worked on his wound, somewhat shielding his eyes from the sun. “Are you going to stay awake this time?” She asked, removing the soaked rag from his mouth.
“I don’t know,” Diya answered. He tried to raise a hand to shield his face from the sun but found his arms bound. “Have I been in and out a lot? Is that why you’ve tied me up?”
“I’m sorry about that.” Gwyneth chuckled. “I didn’t know what else to do. You kept thrashing and clawing at the bandages. After you opened the wound the second time, I thought it best to bind you.” She pressed a hand to Diya’s forehead again, nodded, and then untied him. “I’m sorry about the chafed wrists. It’s the lesser of two discomforts, though.”
“Thank you,” Diya said. As soon as his arms were free, he took her hand and squeezed it. “You saved my life.”
“We saved each other,” Gwyneth replied, squeezing back. “You wouldn’t have gotten hurt if we weren’t a party. Thanks to you—and Victoria—I’m no longer limited to their territory. The De Lawney’s hate the sixth floor.”
“Where are we?” Diya asked, groaning as he sat up. Gwyneth tried to keep him down, but Diya had been on his back for long enough. “More importantly, how long was I out?”
“It’s been a week and a bit,” she answered. Diya found himself lying on the deck of a long vessel with a tall grey sail. On looking ahead, past a pile of stacked crates, he spotted a green, mountain-covered island. “There weren’t any decent healers in the primary hub. This boat’s captain, Jagdish Singh, happened to be around, though. I told him what happened, and he rushed us onto his cargo barge. I don’t know if Victoria held the door until it disappeared or not. Fortunately, we didn’t have to find out. You’ve met Jagdish a few times now but were delirious with the fever before.”
“I guess I owe him my thanks.” A collection of islands floated in the ocean far behind them. “Where is he?”
Gwyneth grabbed Diya’s shoulder, keeping him in a seated position. “Sitting up is enough for now,” she said. “The spear bit deep. Whatever medicine Victoria gave us has accelerated your internal healing. Jagdish was kind enough to find us a doctor at one of the Montagu outposts. She said your insides are okay, but the outer tissue needs more time. Sudden movements can reopen the wounds.” Gwyneth leaned forward to look past the crates. “Jagdish should come around soon. It’s almost time for his rounds. He can fill you in on our location. I can’t keep track of the location on the water. These archipelagos and islands are far too confusing.”
“What about the poison?” Diya asked. “I’m pretty sure Edgar laced his spearhead.”
“By the time we got to the doctor, the poison had already left your body,” Gwyneth answered. “We think it was a combination of Victoria’s concoction and the Slime Lord’s tempering.”
It took some convincing, but Gwyneth let Diya rise to his feet and lean on the barge’s railings. He marvelled at the gorgeous waters and the schools of fish swimming under it. Boats of varying sizes floated around the verdant island ahead, and many vessels sailed away from it.
“I read finding an independent vessel here is a challenge and a half,” Diya said. “We got lucky.”
“The Montagus make it difficult for us to exist.” The new voice made Diya jump, pulling on his new bandages. The fever dreams and Edgar’s attack hadn’t just left physical scars. Diya guessed he’d need time to heal from the mental ones too. A tall, wide-set man walked around the crates into the sunlight. He wore his hair in a navy-blue turban and kept his long salt-and-pepper beard tucked into his belt. “We try our best to stay out of their way. I’m happy with whoever is running the show, as long as the houses don’t gut us, free agents, with taxes.”
“You must be Mr Jagdish Singh,” Diya said, recognising the man as a member of the Sikh community. He carried the signature sword on his belt and had the cheery smile his people were known for. Diya had never dealt with any of them before, but Baba admired their warrior spirit, sense of duty, and honour. “I owe you my life.” Diya tried to leave the railing, but Gwyneth forced him back against it. Jagdish rushed forward to shake his hand instead. “I understand if it weren’t for you, we’d be in a whole lot of trouble.”
“I couldn’t just let a fellow countryman die, could I?” Jagdish winked. Diya guessed he wasn’t a local of New Calcutta. Jagdish hadn’t wholly shed his accent yet. “The nobles don’t watch out for one another, but we do.” He made himself comfortable on the deck, sitting cross-legged. “It’s nice to meet you, Diya, officially. Gwyneth has told me a lot about you and the perils you’ve faced. How do you feel?”
“Like I took a spear to the side,” Diya answered, pressing his hand to the wound. “I’m surprised it took this long for me to recover, though. The tempering from my last monster card should’ve made my body more resilient.”
“You’re lucky to be waking up at all,” Gwyneth said. “Your tempered body likely used most of its energy purging the poison. I don’t know what Edgar used, but if not for your increased tolerance, the wound would’ve festered. Blood poisoning is no joke.”
“Can you tell us where we are, Mr Singh—”
“Just Jagdish is fine.” The larger man laughed. “I understand you’re in a rush to climb, but I’m pretty sure you’re in no shape to fight.”
“We really aren’t,” Gwyneth said, squeezing Diya’s hand before he could answer.
Jagdish pulled a leather cylinder out of his coat pocket and withdrew an old rolled map from it. He spread the yellowed parchment out on the deck and pointed at a blank spot between two clusters of land. “This is where we’re heading. Your quickest way up is to go for the gate there. Unfortunately, it’s guarded by a tribe of powerful apes. They reproduce faster than rabbits and can get ferocious. Most Climbers take them on in teams of four or more. Given your state, I wouldn’t recommend the route even if you had the numbers.”
“This sounds like a build-up to an alternative.” Gwyneth narrowed her eyes. “You’re trying to keep me around for longer, aren’t you, Jagdish?”
“Of course. As captain, I can’t drink with my crew,” he replied. “You’re the closest thing I have to a drinking buddy right now.” Jagdish’s scarred finger traced a line around their destination through a cluster of small landmasses and stopped at a crescent island. “The gateway here is controlled by the Montagu but is poorly guarded. If you have the means, you can pay for passage. If you can’t afford it or just don’t want to pay, stealth is also an option. Certain unsavoury factions frequent the route.”
“When you say unsavoury factions, you mean friends, don’t you?” Gwyneth teased.
“Friends?” Jagdish feigned offence. “Of course not! They’re family.”
Diya looked between the two as they laughed. He guessed they’d grown friendly while he was unconscious. “We’re already on the De Lawney’s blacklist. I’m sure they’ve got climbers watching the primary hub. Pissing off another noble house wouldn’t be in our best interests.” Shooting pains spread from Diya’s wound when he leaned forward to get a closer look at the map. The notes scribbled along its border had caught his attention, but the discomfort was too much, forcing him to resume his former position. “We don’t have many other options, though. I didn’t bring much money into the tower. Let’s try out luck there. If it doesn’t work out, we can track down a healer. Then we’ll try the apes or another gate.”
“That’s as good a plan as any,” Jagdish said. “It means I get to keep you around for longer! I’ll get the cook to whip up a celebratory meal. Do you like to fish, Diya?”
“My father hails from Old Calcutta,” Diya replied. “My people live on fish.” The pain in Diya’s side had intensified. Fortunately, Gwyneth was ready with a flask of sweet fluid. A comforting warmth spread down Diya’s throat as he swallowed. “I can’t repay you right now, Jagdish, but I can write up a contract—”
“Nonsense!” Jagdish exclaimed. “Gwyneth has been paying her way by keeping the sea monsters at bay. My crew’s happy since she’s been doing the heavy lifting. They haven’t suffered any major injuries the past week and have been lazing around with their feet up.”
“I’ll help in any way I can.”
“No, you won’t!” Gwyneth smacked Diya’s arm. “It’ll be at least a couple of more days until you’re fit to move, let alone fight. Leave the heavy lifting to me for once. The sooner you recover, the quicker we can fix your friend. Having met his family, I’m afraid he doesn’t have a lot of time.”
Diya couldn’t help but feel impressed by how well Gwyneth had integrated herself with the crew. They were almost all of the Indian descent, but that didn’t slow the Welsh woman down. After Diya had nourished himself with soup and bread—his stomach couldn’t handle much else, she showed him around the vessel. The frigate didn’t need a massive crew to function, but Jagdish valued his men’s safety. So, he had combat-oriented sailors on board too. Gwyneth introduced him to all of them, using nicknames and sharing inside jokes. Diya was sure it would take him a lot longer than a week to build such relationships.
Most of the crew had only upgraded their souls once. As Diya watched them in action, he realised their spirits were much weaker than his. Gwyneth explained that they had either settled for younger Cores or settled for something with low compatibility. They neither had the connections nor the luck to chance upon something powerful like we had. Jagdish has recruited individuals with spirits or upgrades best suited for work on a vessel and took care of his staff, though. Gwyneth had won the crew over by helping them plan for their spirit’s next upgrade.
The first mate, Ashish, had lucked out with a beast soul. Sparrows weren’t incredibly intimidating, but the rarity of avian spirits made him an asset. Unfortunately, he had ruined its potential by upgrading it with a mole’s card. It had granted him a strength and durability upgrade but taken away the base summons speed and agility.
Gwyneth had spent hours pouring over Jagdish’s compendiums and maps to find the best card candidates on the sixth floor. She theorised that they wouldn’t just rectify his screw-up but also mesh well with the mole’s card to give him two heightened senses instead of just super-hearing. Besides sharpening his eyesight, the azure hawk’s card would help him get faster and hopefully give him a flight-focused augmentation.
Watching the rest of the crew applaud her for similar guidance reminded Diya of how valuable a companion Gwyneth was. Her understanding of spirits, their growth patterns, and the interaction of foci with cards was unlike anything he had encountered before. Baba often advised Boleyn employees on how to nurture their spirits, but it didn’t compare to Gwyneth’s depth of knowledge.
“What are you going for next?” Diya asked her after they had finished the rounds. “The chances of finding another elemental card in this interval is unlikely, isn’t it?”
“If we’re lucky, we might find another shaman or spirit caller,” Gwyneth answered. “However, I’d rather focus on telekinesis or metal manipulation. The first card upgraded the lamp from a Hollow Spirit to one with purpose. I bet it will give an elemental spirit of the same level a run for its money. That doesn’t mean I should neglect the metal, though. It forms the bulk of the lamp.”
Gwyneth helped Diya take a seat at the vessel’s bough. She flumped down next to him, and they dangled their legs over the edge. The frigate had not long picked up speed, and Diya embraced the spray lapping against his bare shins and feet.
“It was a mistake Arthur made and later regretted,” Gwyneth continued. “He focused every card he found on the wind channelled through the flute and the resulting sound. Perhaps he’d still be alive if he’d invested a card or two in powering up the wooden shell. Your pen’s nib and barrel are as big a part of the south as the inkwell. I won’t advise you to invest in those next, but keep them in mind.”
“I understand what you’re saying, but don’t you think the Slimeskin gives me enough versatility?” Diya asked. “What about poison? Is it no longer an option.”
“I don’t know.” Gwyneth shrugged. “Wouldn’t hurt to keep your eyes open for relevant cards, though. It just feels smart to use every part of your spirit instead of just focusing on only one aspect of it. Say you find yourself in a situation where your ink is all tied up in summons. You have your coat and gauntlet out, filled the place with Slimeskin bindings, and now your inkwell is empty. Wouldn’t it be nice to have something more from the soul? It can be a staple, a trump card, or an emergency tool.”
“Prepare for everything.” Diya sighed. “No wonder Baba likes you.”
As the vessel docked to unload its wares, Diya recalled its location on Jagdish’s map. It was several days from the floor’s hub, but that hasn’t stopped the Montagus from settling there. The humble noble house didn’t draw much attention to themselves in New Calcutta and focused on export without relying on other families. Watching the busy town, Diya understood why. The Montagus had achieved self-sufficiency by spreading their control throughout the floor. They didn’t have to worry about anyone stronger than third interval climbers challenging them either. Spies in the city and primary hub probably kept them informed of parties looking to challenge their monopoly as well.
Even though the Ansons and DeLawneys had superior combative force, as far as Diya knew, the sixth floor’s terrain put the Montagus in control. He guessed both ‘greater’ noble houses were trying to copy the infrastructure in place. Diya assumed it would take the DeLawneys decades to expand as far as the Montagu house. Roads, tunnels, and bridges required a lot more time and investment than ships and barges.
The Ansons were most likely not far behind the Montagus. According to Baba, they had started settling the fourteenth and fifteenth floors decades ago. The rumours stated that they concentrated their efforts on developing fewer larger settlements with excellent transport links. It let them host larger assault and training forces. Having access to multiple second, third, and fourth interval Climbers didn’t just give them access to a wide variety of cards and resources but also gave them a powerful military force. As a result, the family had connections in the British royal family and several militaries worldwide. They helped strengthen the empire’s hold around the world.
According to the rumour mill, the East India Company were struggling to maintain their hold on the Indian subcontinent. They had recently entered talks with the Ansons to quell any war of independence—or mutiny as they called it—before it could begin. At the same time, New Calcutta’s Indian superpowers were taking on hopefuls from the homeland, training them and arming them with powerful souls. Then trade ships would smuggle them back to India to help mount their assault.
Diya had heard a variety of contradicting tales and didn’t know who to believe and side for. The government of New Calcutta called itself a neutral governing body. The council ensured no foreign power would ever dominate the city and had representatives from all majority populations. That never stopped the nobility, corporations, and wealthy from plotting.
Diya hoped whatever war blossomed in the mainland never spread to New Calcutta. If that ever happened, he’d move Baba into the tower and set up residence on one of the floors. They’d need to find a neutral faction with enough strength to hold its own without alliances first. Maybe if things went his way, Diya would start one of his own. The thought made him chuckle. Diya could barely see himself leading a party of Climbers, let alone an entire faction. It would be too much responsibility and tie him down.
Despite everything happening with Alexander, his focus was still to climb, write, and discover Gaia’s secrets. Gwyneth was the perfect companion for such an endeavour, and he hoped to find more eventually. Now that he thought about it, his days of partying with the Boleyns had always been numbered. Their reason for climbing had always been power and the family’s prosperity. Alexander’s responsibilities to the house would keep him from joining an expedition team. Lord Graham would most likely never let Victoria venture far past the fifth or sixth interval too.
Diya imagined he would end up leading the house’s expedition team. Of course, they’d give him the freedom to explore, but his focus would’ve been to find rare resources for the Boleyn house, not climbing. They’d want cards to strengthen their ranks, rare metals for weapons, tools or vessels, or hides for armour. Perhaps it was for the best that he and the Boleyns had parted ways. Diya would’ve preferred for it to happen on better terms, of course, but he couldn’t change the past. So, he focused on fixing Alexander and finding a path for his future.
Cardsmith is the answer.
END OF BOOK 1