It was the sound of a tumbling crash that alerted him to trouble this time.
Qiao Yifan whipped around, hand already grasping at the small key dangling from his neck, just in time to lock eyes with the magical spirit.
Standing across the street, the Glory Card froze. Next to him, a wooden cart had been upended, half-falling apart from the impact, and there were already bystanders rushing over to investigate. None of them seemed to notice the Card standing next to it, despite its - his? - distinctive appearance. Long messy hair, an open half-vest over his bare chest, a wicked-looking claw weapon on his right hand. But Qiao Yifan certainly saw him.
The Card stared back at him. And then, broke into a grin. And then, ran.
Qiao Yifan gave chase.
Luckily this was a small street, empty of cars at the moment. He weaved around the passerby with mumbled apologies, keeping his eyes glued to the wild head of hair. But the Card was fast, good at taking erratic paths that obstructed Qiao Yifan’s line of sight. It wasn’t very long before Qiao Yifan rounded a corner, and found nothing there.
Qiao Yifan looked around frantically. Where could it have gone?
From Qiao Yifan’s pocket, a small voice piped up. “He’s still nearby, I can feel him.”
Qiao Yifan nodded. Spotting an alleyway a few paces away, he ducked inside and pulled forth the key charm from around his neck. Even if people generally accepted the existence of magic, magic-users tended to stay hidden. It was safer for everyone involved.
With a whisper of the incantation and a “release!”, the Sealing Key expanded to its true form in his grasp - a tachi sword just longer than his arm, a purple tassel dangling from the end.
From his pocket, Qiao Yifan withdrew one of his captured Glory Cards, just about the size of his hand from base to fingertip. All of the Glory Cards had the same backing, black embossed with gold in the pattern of a winged gear. The front of this Card in particular depicted a young man wearing a witch’s hat, eyes closed and smiling softly. There were glass bottles hanging from his belt, and he held a broomstick in his two hands before him.
Qiao Yifan tossed the Card into the air before him and thrust his sword toward it. “Kind Tree, take me up,” he said.
The Card froze in place when his sword touched it. It glowed with white light, then dissolved into pale green energy that surrounded his sword; when the glow faded, Qiao Yifan was no longer holding a sword, but a broomstick with a cloth pouch tied to the handle. He flipped the broomstick in his hand, mounted it, and then kicked off from the ground into the air.
Lord Grim at last emerged from his hiding place in a pocket, tiny wings fluttering as he kept pace with Qiao Yifan’s flight. “It’s Steamed Bun Invasion,” said the little fox spirit, flicking his tail. “He mostly just likes to have fun, but he can be a bit… chaotic.”
The buildings here weren’t very tall, so it only took a second to surpass the rooftops. Qiao Yifan scanned the area, and spotted their target immediately, who was casually lounging upon the roof of one of the buildings, stuffing what appeared to be a steamed bun in his mouth.
Lord Grim snorted. “Maybe he was just hungry?”
At that moment, the Card saw them, made an expression of exaggerated shock, and then turned to leap across to the next rooftop.
Fortunately, Kind Tree’s broom was fast, and Qiao Yifan had grown more accustomed to using this card since he’d first captured it. As Steamed Bun Invasion leapt between the buildings, Qiao Yifan felt himself closing in as he flattened himself against the handle.
Suddenly, the Card half turned, whipping a brick at him that forced Qiao Yifan to swerve narrowly to dodge. It was enough for the Card to widen the distance between them once more.
“You need to stop him now, Yifan!” Lord Grim shouted, and Qiao Yifan realized with a jolt that they were approaching the main street. If this Card disappeared into the throngs of people there, or worse, attacked them…
As the Card prepared to leap across the next building gap, Qiao Yifan skidded to a stop upon the current roof. As his broomstick shifted back to sword form, Qiao Yifan was already pulling forth another Glory Card for use.
“One Inch Ash!” he called, tossing it into the air before him and stabbing down toward it with the point of his sword. A circular seal expanded around his feet, glowing light blue, and a moment later, the same seal appeared right where Steamed Bun Invasion was about to land upon the next roof. Unable to change his direction midair, the Card slammed into the boundary and immediately fell to his knees, thick ice crystals growing around his legs and trapping him in place, unbreaking even as he slashed at the ice with his claw.
Qiao Yifan called upon Kind Tree once more to fly over, and then stood before the trapped Card - Steamed Bun Invasion stopped struggling as he approached, but looked up at him and stuck out his tongue. Ignoring this, Qiao Yifan pointed his sword at the Card’s head.
“Return to the form you were meant to be in, Glory Card,” he declared, and the spirit’s body began to glow white, dissolving into energy that coalesced into the rectangular shape of a card. The glow faded, and the new Glory Card floated into his hand. The long-haired young man’s eyes were closed - it seemed to be a common trait across the Cards - but his grin was just as wide as ever as he struck an enthusiastic pose.
“You can’t go around causing trouble whenever you want,” Qiao Yifan told the card in his hand, sternly. “Behave, okay? I can buy you more buns later, if you want.” There was no audible reply, of course, but he felt a faint pulse of what felt like amicable agreement from Steamed Bun Invasion.
Well, that was a relief. Pulling a pen from his pocket, he wrote his name on the Card, feeling the magic settle, and then tucked the Card away with the others with a soft sigh.
“Good job,” Lord Grim told him. The fox - small enough to fit in the palm of Qiao Yifan’s hand - flew over to give him a little pat on the head. “You’re becoming a real Cardcaptor, hm?”
“Thank you,” said Qiao Yifan. He could feel his legs shaking a little, either from the lingering adrenaline or the impending exhaustion. Using the Cards always took a bit of a toll.
“Let’s head back,” he said, checking the time on his phone. “I’m supposed to meet Yingjie for dinner, he’ll worry if I’m late.”
It was just another day, he thought as he made his way down from the rooftop, another day in this new life he’d been thrust into.
This all started when, three weeks ago, Qiao Yifan stumbled across a certain book deep in the library archives.
It was hard to say what, exactly, prompted him to pull it from the shelf. It was rather thin; its spine was decorated with complex patterns in gold foil, but featured no labeling words. Regardless, the book felt solid in his hands, bound in quality black leather. It seemed out of place next to the other, battered, plastic-covered books on the shelf.
He turned the book over and ran his hand lightly across the cover. “The Book of Glory,” he read aloud softly; no author was listed. Crisscrossing lines of gold and silver foil seemed to trace out the figure of a beast, its wings folded around a circular gear and a crossed pair of swords.
A clasp on the side sealed the book. Almost of its own accord, his hand moved to open it.
And then there was a roar.
Qiao Yifan stumbled backward, shielding his eyes with his arm as a sudden shockwave rippled through his body. The book slipped from his hands, but it remained floating in midair, opened flat and facing upward. Shining energy flooded forth from its pages, which blasted up into the air and passed straight through the ceiling.
Nothing had ever prepared him to face something like this, but after a few moments of paralysis, he came to his senses remarkably quickly. Whatever he’d just done, whatever this magic was, it couldn’t be good. He had to stop this.
One foot in front of the other, he pressed toward the book, against the strange energy that seemed to force him back. Reaching forward, he grasped it in both hands, and then with all his strength, slammed it shut.
Abruptly, the energy ceased. After a few moments of tense stillness, Qiao Yifan let out the breath he’d been holding.
Qiao Yifan yelped and dropped the book. This time, it hit the ground with a dull thud.
“Hey there, be careful with this.” The voice was still talking, and to Qiao Yifan’s utter shock, something emerged from the cover of the book. A head, and then a body.
This moment easily could have been something out of a horror movie. Except the creature that flew forth was small, with pointed ears and snout, reddish-brown fur, a bushy tail, and two small wings. Rather cute, all things considered, although it seemed to smell faintly of smoke. Qiao Yifan watched warily as the fox-thing darted in a circle, and then lifted the book into the air with its tiny paws, even though it was larger than itself.
“What… are you,” Qiao Yifan said, when he figured out how to make his voice work again.
A flying, talking fox plush. At this point, Qiao Yifan felt that this weirdness might as well happen. If this really was magic - and it must be magic, for there was no other explanation, really - then who was to say what was possible anymore?
“I,” the creature informed Qiao Yifan with a sharp grin, “am the Guardian of the Seal, Lord Grim. Congratulations on awakening me.”
“Guardian… of the Seal?” It was hard to imagine this tiny thing guarding… anything, let alone what this “seal” was.
“That’s right!” The fox nodded. “My job is to protect this Book of Glory, and keep the Glory Cards within safe. See?”
Lord Grim let go of the book, which stayed floating this time, to fly around and tap the latch on the front. Qiao Yifan flinched back, but when the book opened, there was nothing like the earlier explosion. It simply opened up like a normal book, and Qiao Yifan saw that the center of the book’s pages were hollowed out in a rectangular shape, presumably to hold what Lord Grim had described as cards.
“The Cards are powerful magical spirits. They all have many different powers, and some have very strong personalities,” explained Lord Grim. He continued talking, as Qiao Yifan tentatively reached inside for the Card he saw. “They were created by a great sorcerer, and they could cause a lot of trouble if they were let loose out into the world. So my master created this Book to contain them, and he created me to protect them.”
Qiao Yifan nodded. That made sense, as far as he could tell. But… “Is it just this one?” he asked, holding up the Card he’d taken. Upon it, there was an image of a young man with closed eyes, surrounded by mysterious circular patterns and strange pale wisps. One Inch Ash, read the script at the bottom.
It was a beautiful artifact. But although Lord Grim had been talking in the plural, this had definitely been the only card inside.
The fox, who’d been facing Qiao Yifan the whole time, turned to look. “What do you mea…”
There was a long pause. Lord Grim looked at the singular Card clutched in Qiao Yifan’s hand, and then at the decidedly empty space in the Book of Glory.
“Huh,” he finally said. “Well, that’s not good.”
Qiao Yifan winced. “I… it might have been my fault,” he said, and he described what had happened the first time he’d accidentally opened the book.
For a few moments, the fox only muttered to himself, his tail swishing. Qiao Yifan waited anxiously, feeling the guilt and worry gnaw at him. Lord Grim had just described the terrible potential of this magic. What, exactly, had he done?
But the fox suddenly did a little somersault in the air, and flew directly in front of Qiao Yifan’s face. “This is fine,” he said. “Maybe it was intended. You shouldn’t have been able to open the Book at all, so there might be something interesting going on here. At least, we know for sure that you have magic.”
“I do?” Magic wasn’t unheard of, but magic users were quite rare. Qiao Yifan had never met any himself, let alone ever considered the possibility that he was one.
“Sure. The Book can only be opened by a magical person,” said Lord Grim. “Say, what’s your name?”
“Um, Qiao Yifan…”
“Alright then, Qiao Yifan. If the Glory Cards are out there, someone has to seal them away before they cause their disaster.” He held out his paw to the side and a glowing sphere was pulled from the clasp of the Book, spinning and resolving into a solid form - a tiny key, dangling from a purple tassel.
“What say you to becoming a Cardcaptor?”
It was a relief to be able to share these things with Gao Yingjie. He was the only one Qiao Yifan told about this whole Card capturing business; he could never hide anything from his closest friend.
The magic side of society was very secretive. Most of the general public only knew of the rumors. But as it turned out, Gao Yingjie knew a little more than the average person did. Apparently his family had a history of involvement with the magic side, even if he himself wasn’t magic.
“So how many of the Cards do you have now?” Gao Yingjie asked him, leaning forward. Sometimes they invited each other over; back in Gao Yingjie’s room with just the two of them, it was safe to talk about these things openly.
“Four,” Qiao Yifan said, pulling them out to show him.
First was One Inch Ash, which had been the only Card that hadn’t escaped the Book. Then there was Ashen Moon, an assassin-like spirit. Kind Tree, a witch with broomstick and potions. And then Steamed Bun Invasion, which he’d only just newly captured.
The artwork on all of them was exquisite. “They really are beautiful,” Gao Yingjie murmured. He looked up to meet Qiao Yifan’s eyes, and for a moment Qiao Yifan thought he was about to say something else, but it seemed as though he changed his mind. “And dangerous too, I know,” Gao Yingjie added instead, with a slight frown. “How many are there left?”
“Nineteen total,” said Qiao Yifan, “so fifteen left.”
To be honest, he was a little worried about the pace of his capturing. Lord Grim had mentioned the disaster that could result from these Cards running free, but there was no timeline on that happening. Was his current pace fast enough to prevent anything terrible from happening?
At the same time, there wasn’t much that Qiao Yifan could do about any of this. He could only sense and seek out a Card when it became active. Until then, it was just a waiting game.
“Please be careful,” said Gao Yingjie. “When it comes to magic, I know that-”
But at that moment, he was interrupted by a red-brown blur zipping out of Qiao Yifan’s pocket. “Yifan!” the fox said urgently. “Do you feel that?”
Qiao Yifan started, and then immediately closed his eyes and concentrated. If Lord Grim was saying this, that meant he’d sensed a Card nearby. Qiao Yifan should be able to detect it, as well. There was no time to waste.
He stretched his senses out, probing the darkness with his mind - there!
“That way,” Qiao Yifan said, pointing behind himself and a little to the left. “The direction of the park?”
Lord Grim nodded. “Let’s go, let’s hurry,” he urged.
Qiao Yifan had gotten to his feet immediately, but then he realized that Gao Yingjie had stood up, too. “I’ll go with you,” Gao Yingjie said, a spark of nervous determination in his eyes.
“No, you should stay back,” said Qiao Yifan. “If something happens-”
“Please,” said Gao Yingjie. “I won’t get in your way, but maybe I can be of some help.”
Qiao Yifan hesitated, glancing at Lord Grim. “Okay,” he said, when there was no objection, “but you have to stay careful too.”
The sun had already set, but the sky hadn’t yet fallen into total darkness. Qiao Yifan dashed along the streets with Lord Grim flying at his shoulder, Gao Yingjie following several steps behind.
His ears suddenly picked up the sounds of a scuffle just ahead, and he quickened his pace. But even with the warning, he wasn’t prepared for the sight that awaited him.
This was the first time he’d seen a Card attacking someone directly. And, he realized, his heart tightening, it was actually someone he knew.
At the entrance to the local park, Lu Hanwen was bravely defending himself, holding his backpack before him like a shield. Qiao Yifan had run into this classmate from the year below a few times, and every time, Lu Hanwen would greet him by name with a bright hello and a big grin. Even now, it looked like he was baring his teeth in a bold smile as he tried to deflect the attacks coming toward him. But honestly, what good was a backpack against a real, magical sword?
His assailant, the Card, was wielding its sword with frightening speed and accuracy. It was hard to get a good look, because it seemed to have full control over its movement through the air. Zipping about, it was a pale blur as it slashed toward Lu Hanwen again and again from every angle. Its sword moved so quickly that blades of wind sliced through the air with every slash.
Qiao Yifan almost froze as he took it all in - almost. But the adrenaline was already kicking in, propelling him; there was an innocent here and he couldn’t let them get hurt. Not when this whole mess was his fault in the first place.
“I’m going to get its attention,” Qiao Yifan said. “Yingjie, can you-?”
Gao Yingjie grasped his meaning immediately. “Yes.”
Qiao Yifan snatched a rock up from the ground and sprinted forward. He didn’t want to call forth his sword right now, not when Lu Hanwen could see everything. They had to get him to safety first.
“Hey! What are you doing?” Qiao Yifan yelled, hurling the rock in the Card’s general direction. It was moving too quickly, he didn’t expect to actually hit it, but that was alright.
With the distraction, the Card stopped in midair, and, just as he’d hoped, turned to look at him. Qiao Yifan finally got a proper view of the spirit, who took the appearance of a young man. Messy hair with a small braid tied on the left of his face, a metal headband framing his brow, a scarf tied loosely around his neck. And most notably, of course, the sword gripped in his hands that flickered with magical energy.
“That’s Flying Sword!” Lord Grim said. “Watch out, he’s the fastest Card out of all of them.”
Qiao Yifan kept his eyes locked on the hovering Card, but was aware of Gao Yingjie carefully circling around toward Lu Hanwen. Their younger classmate was taking full advantage of the momentary breather to back away. Fortunately, the Card didn’t seem absolutely intent on keeping Lu Hanwen trapped. But if Gao Yingjie was going to help him get away, Qiao Yifan would need to do a little more.
“What kind of Card is he?” Qiao Yifan asked Lord Grim, under his breath.
“A very good fighter. But not usually this aggressive, I’m surprised he attacked. Values strength highly, though, wants to be the absolute best swordsman.”
Qiao Yifan thought quickly. He could use that information, couldn’t he? And by now Gao Yingjie had reached Lu Hanwen, supporting him on his feet.
Gao Yingjie glanced back at Qiao Yifan exactly once, looking conflicted. But Qiao Yifan nodded firmly, and Gao Yingjie helped Lu Hanwen quietly slip away.
“Only weak swordsmen go and bully the defenseless!” Qiao Yifan shouted. His hand grasped the key around his neck, which expanded into its tachi form. “Don’t you want to prove your strength? Why don’t you challenge someone who can fight back, huh?”
It was a typical sort of provocation. But Flying Sword tilted his head, as though considering. And then, he lifted his sword to point directly at him.
That was all the warning he got before the Card lunged.
Even prepared for it, Qiao Yifan barely managed to deflect the strike. A Card was already between his fingers, and Qiao Yifan wasted no time in calling forth, “Kind Tree!”
He kicked into the air on his broom and sped deeper into the park, in the opposite direction that Gao Yingjie and Lu Hanwen had fled. Fortunately, the Card pursued.
Lord Grim was actually laughing. “That was good!” he said, sounding genuinely impressed as he kept pace with Qiao Yifan’s flight. “You don’t even need the knight Card!”
“Is there a limit to his flight?” Qiao Yifan called.
“No,” was the succinct reply. Qiao Yifan supposed that would have been too much to hope for, with a name like Flying Sword.
Closed at this hour, the park was fortunately empty. Qiao Yifan zigzagged around the trees, swerving on pure instinct in order to dodge the magical slashes that the swordsman was sending his way.
“You can’t flee forever!” Lord Grim said urgently. “Some Cards are like this. If he’s locked onto you, you’re going to have to fight him back eventually!”
Lord Grim didn’t answer immediately, and Qiao Yifan, too, thought of what he had at hand.
“Kind Tree, can you help?” he whispered. As he flew, he tugged open the pouch dangling from the end of the broomstick’s handle and reached in, feeling his hand close around a glass vial. One of Kind Tree’s magical potions. He didn’t know what it was, its contents glowing orange, but it was something the Card thought would be useful and that was all that mattered.
Wasn’t this just like how he’d chased Steamed Bun Invasion earlier? Except now the roles were reversed. Qiao Yifan gripped the vial and then hurled it as hard as he could behind him, toward where he guessed Flying Sword was.
Crack. Qiao Yifan chanced a glance backward, only to see Flying Sword still tight on his tail, silhouetted by a flash from whatever the potion had done. No, Qiao Yifan wasn’t good enough at using the various potions that Kind Tree could produce, not when he had to worry about evasive flying at the same time.
What other Cards did he have? He thought frantically. One Inch Ash was too slow to trap such a fast-attacking Card. Ashen Moon specialized in one-hit kills, but Lord Grim said that Qiao Yifan hadn’t built up enough magical reserves yet to use that Card - if he tried now, the drain could kill him. And Steamed Bun Invasion was… who knew what would happen if he tried to use that Card?
“You could cut down a tree?” Lord Grim finally offered, nodding toward the many trees that surrounded them in the park.
Qiao Yifan was a bit speechless. “I-”
From behind him, another boom suddenly shook the area.
Qiao Yifan yelped, broomstick trembling as he lost control for a moment. He swung around, just in time to witness the aftereffects of a magical explosion. Flying Sword was suddenly nowhere to be seen.
Squinting through the flashes, he slowly distinguished two silhouettes duking it out. One, of course, was the sword-wielding Card spirit, who’d been swallowed up in whatever that explosion had been. The other… was a human?
Carefully, Qiao Yifan flew closer to get a closer look. The human was a dark-haired young man, dressed in the traditional, flowing clothing that was so favored by magic-users. Its red matched the color of the tassel tied near the tip of the magician’s spear, so bright that it seemed aflame in the evening darkness.
And… he was actually holding his own.
His spear jabbed forth over and over in a scarlet blur, its long reach actually forcing the Card spirit to stumble back. Qiao Yifan was frozen as he watched the other magician flip gracefully through the air, striking and striking again with unerring accuracy even as the Card attempted to outspeed him. The magician’s feet were balanced upon two flying, flaming wheels - just like the stories of the legendary hero Nezha, Qiao Yifan thought.
One final stab struck true, and Flying Sword crumpled to his knees.
“Yifan, now!” Lord Grim shouted. Shaking himself out of his shock, Qiao Yifan plummeted down to the ground, broomstick changing back to tachi.
“Return to the form you were meant to be in, Glory Card!” he called, pointing his sword. Upon its tip, a glowing rectangle formed, and the spirit dissolved into magical energy that flowed into the Card form.
When the glow faded, Qiao Yifan extended his hand. But unlike all of the previous Cards, it didn’t fly toward him. Instead, he watched as it looped in a graceful arc, and landed in the hand of the other magician.
They met eyes, and Qiao Yifan was startled. He’d initially assumed that the magician was significantly older than him, but upon closer look, he actually appeared to be around the same age.
“Who are you?” the other boy asked him, without preamble. His eyes slid to the purple-tasseled sword in Qiao Yifan’s hand, and then to the hovering Lord Grim. “Don’t tell me… this is the Guardian of the Seal? The Selector chose you?”
“Yes,” said Lord Grim coolly. Before Qiao Yifan could react, the fox had flown forward. “Do you have a problem with that, little Jiashi?”
The magician’s expression suddenly shifted to frightening anger, and he slammed the base of his spear against the ground. “What are you thinking?” he snarled at Lord Grim. “Dragging a barely-fledged magician into cleaning up this mess? Because you weren’t doing your job guarding the Cards?”
“My magic and knowledge is far greater than yours, human," Lord Grim said. There was a hard edge in his voice that Qiao Yifan had never heard from the carefree creature before.
“Knowledge isn’t wisdom, and we humans are not your playthings,” the other magician snapped. “Your carelessness is going to get someone killed!”
Abruptly, his gaze shifted from Lord Grim to Qiao Yifan, and Qiao Yifan flinched back.
“Give the Glory Cards to me,” he said, his tone softer, but his expression no less serious. “You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into. The magic side is dangerous. The Cards are learning that you’re the one capturing them, and soon enough they’re going to start targeting you and the people around you. Can you really protect them all?”
Qiao Yifan felt the pounding of his heart in his chest, and the answering thrum of magic emanating from the Cards in his pocket.
They… there were only four so far, and he hadn’t even had them for very long. But he thought of One Inch Ash’s soft smile as he guided Qiao Yifan to cast his first boundary, Kind Tree’s bright excitement when they flew up into the air… These were his Cards. He couldn’t just let them go like this. And he’d already made a promise to Lord Grim, and to himself - he had to follow through on this quest to capture the rest of them.
“I’m keeping my Cards,” said Qiao Yifan. “I won’t give up.”
Qiao Yifan had expected further argument, or, if things came down to it, a fight. But the other magician, surprisingly, only sighed. “What’s your name?” he asked instead.
“Qi… Qiao Yifan.”
“I’m Qiu Fei,” he introduced himself. “The first goal is to recapture all of the Cards before they cause their disaster. If you’re still determined to do this, then I won’t get in your way.”
Qiu Fei held up the Flying Sword Card. Upon its front, the spirit was frowning as he held his blade pointing up, half-covering his face.
“So long as,” Qiu Fei continued, narrowing his eyes, “you don’t get in mine.”
[Qiao Yifan]: everything good?
[Gao Yingjie]: yea, got back safely! hanwen actually doesn’t seem like shaken at all, what a kid
[Gao Yingjie]: you got the card? :3
[Qiao Yifan]: mm actually…
After recounting what happened, Qiao Yifan let go of his phone and slumped over his desk, resting his head on his arms. What had happened tonight… it worried him. Lu Hanwen was only an acquaintance. But if that Qiu Fei was right, and the Cards were aware of Qiao Yifan now, and were starting to converge on him…
Qiu Fei had clearly been a trained magician, most likely from a full clan on the magic side. Lord Grim had called him a Jiashi, he remembered, perhaps recognizing the outfit. Many magicians were independent, but some formed clans of mutual support.
Qiao Yifan could replay the brief fight in his mind’s eye. The easy grace with which Qiu Fei moved and fought, that just wasn’t something that Qiao Yifan could hope to match up to with his meager handful of weeks of experience.
“Do you think I should have just given the Cards to him?” he asked softly.
Lord Grim had been digging through a box of chocolate pocky on his desk, and when he paused to look at Qiao Yifan, the cookie stick dangled from his mouth.
“Well, what do you think?” Lord Grim said.
Qiao Yifan was silent for a moment, tracing circles on the surface of his desk.
“I know what I want,” he said. “I don’t think I could give up this magic. But does that make me selfish? If I succeed in capturing the Cards, and become the Master of the Cards like you said… am I even fit to do that?” He smiled helplessly. “I mean, I still don’t know anything about any of this…”
“You overestimate the importance of background,” said Lord Grim, crunching on the pocky, “and underestimate the importance of attitude. Skill and power will come with time, but you have the mind, mentality, and spirit needed to handle magic. I can tell you, I do take my job seriously, and I would not choose someone I did not believe to be fit.”
Lord Grim flew over until he was right at Qiao Yifan’s eye level. “But ultimately, I can’t just give you the confidence you need,” he said seriously. “That’s something you need to figure out for yourself.”
Qiao Yifan nodded. That was… very reasonable. “I’m going to keep going,” he said, almost like a mantra for himself. “I’m going to do my best. I will capture all of the Cards.”
“You’re doing well, kid,” Lord Grim said, and he flew up to pat Qiao Yifan on the forehead with his tiny paw. “Now, get some rest, you need it.”
The rogue Cards appeared at irregular intervals, but overall, the rate probably averaged out to about one a week. Sometimes the capture went very smoothly, and Qiao Yifan was always grateful for such instances. Like the time the city’s local river had been churning too violently for boats to pass through - although it seemed to be a dangerous power, when Qiao Yifan went to investigate, it turned out to be a rather polite Card spirit, who allowed himself to be captured without much fanfare. Blue River, Qiao Yifan read on the Card’s surface, which depicted a young man with a blue ponytail and flowing robes, wielding a sword that channeled the stylized element of water.
Othertimes, things were a bit more chaotic; such was the nature of magic. One incident had been particularly troublesome. He’d been heading home one day when he turned a corner and stumbled upon a full-on street brawl, except at a frighteningly large scale, with easily over a hundred people going at each other’s throats. Terrified, Qiao Yifan leapt back from the sight.
“They’re being rioted up,” said Lord Grim. “Emotion-affecting magic. Do you feel it?”
If he focused, then yes. He flinched at the sounds of shouting and shattering glass, and asked urgently, “Can I catch them all in a ghost boundary?” He needed to stop them before they hurt themselves further.
“I think so,” Lord Grim said, after flying over to take a brief look at the mob. “You’ll have to work fast to find the source, though.”
It was the largest ghost boundary Qiao Yifan had ever attempted with One Inch Ash, but when the sounds of fighting quieted, he knew he’d succeeded in putting them into temporary sleep. With Lord Grim’s help, he was able to pinpoint the Card’s presence, just atop the roof of the nearby building. Dressed in heavy plate armor, sword and shield loose in his hands, the knight-like Card was seemingly unconcerned as he greeted them casually. He had one foot propped up on the roof's edge, and he rested his arm on his knee as though surveying his kingdom in a heroic pose.
Unfortunately for Qiao Yifan, finding the Card proved to be only half the battle. The other half was long, painful, frustrating, exhausting, and just all-around awful, because this Card apparently had the ability to provoke him solely into direct attacks, preventing him from summoning his Cards. All he could do was helplessly slash at the spirit with his sword, over and over again. But Qiao Yifan was never particularly physically strong, and the spirit, wearing his armor, didn’t even seem to feel the blows. And that actually turned out to be a whole other issue entirely, because the Card was occasionally glowing with bursts of green, and it wasn’t until Lord Grim’s heads-up that Qiao Yifan noticed that the green light was actually healing him. He’d barely manage to cut the Card’s cheek, and a few seconds later it would simply seal up.
“There’s a second Card! You have to take that one out first!” Lord Grim had shouted, and Qiao Yifan almost dropped his sword right then. Unbelievable.
After much struggle, Qiao Yifan was able to regain control of himself just long enough to summon the spirit of Negative Nine Degrees, one of the Cards he’d managed to capture recently. The archer was able to locate and snipe the healing Card, who’d been hidden behind one of the windows of the building across the street. With that, they finally, finally managed to take down the knight.
Overall, an absolute mess of an ordeal, and Qiao Yifan all but fell to his knees at the magical exhaustion. But at least he’d made it through, with two newly-captured Cards in hand.
“There’s seriously a Glory Card called… Unrivaled Super Hottie?” he asked, staring at the Card’s surface. Somehow, the knight spirit looked entirely too smug, even just as a still image.
Lord Grim snickered. “The spirits of the Cards chose their own names,” he said. “Although, my old master did have an interesting sense of humor.”
“Do they choose their own powers, too?”
“Sort of? Broadly, each Card has its own type of magic, innate to who and what they are,” explained Lord Grim. “On top of that, they also have their own quirks and specialties, which mostly depends on the Card’s personality. Some are quicker to anger, some are better at long-term strategizing, things like that. Then, because their magic is so versatile and they have such strong individual intent, they can develop new abilities on their own.
“The Glory Cards weren’t ‘designed’, they were born, and they’re always growing. That’s what makes them so powerful, and so dangerous.”
Qiao Yifan hummed, digesting the information. “Then what about you?” he asked.
“You said you were created by the same magic, right? So what are your powers like? What are your specialties?”
Lord Grim blinked, and then grinned, his tiny fangs glinting in the light. “Why, I’m good at everything, couldn’t you tell?”
As the weeks passed, Qiao Yifan could feel himself getting better with magic, the more he called upon his Cards. He practiced whenever he could, under Lord Grim’s guidance. Even though most of the Cards couldn’t speak, some of them were still quite sociable, and he made sure to give them the attention and play they wanted.
Still, the ordeal of dealing with a rogue Card was a drain, physically, magically, mentally. It was a relief that there were only nineteen of them in total. In between his card-capturing adventures, he was still able to balance his life as an ordinary student.
Occasionally when he rushed to the scene of a Card, he met Qiu Fei. As it turned out, the other boy was also a student in the same year. He attended one of the other schools in the city, though, so Qiao Yifan didn’t see him very often unless something was happening. They would take down the Card, it would go to one of them, and then they would go their separate ways.
So it was coincidence - or perhaps not, it was always hard to tell when magic was involved - when they happened to run into each other at the entrance of the library one day. Qiao Yifan and Gao Yingjie had been heading over to work on a project; the other boy was there alone.
Recognizing him, Qiu Fei nodded politely. That would have been that, except when they stepped through the doorway into the building, the three of them found themselves in not the familiar space of the library, but… somewhere else.
A maze, Qiao Yifan thought instinctively.
They were suddenly standing at the intersection of corridors. Walls loomed up around them, stretching impossibly high and blocking any view of what lay behind the corners just a few steps away. Whatever this realm was, it was dim here, the only sources of light from glowing orbs mounted on the walls.
“A Glory Card,” said Qiao Yifan. The feeling of the magic that surrounded them was quite familiar to him by now, and he released his sword into its true form.
Qiu Fei noticeably paused, shooting a glance at Gao Yingjie.
“It’s fine, he knows,” Qiao Yifan said. Qiu Fei frowned, but he held forth his hand and silently summoned his spear. Gao Yingjie’s eyes were wide, but he didn’t say anything.
“I doubt we can fight this spirit directly,” said Qiu Fei, testing the point of his spear against the nearest wall. There seemed to be some kind of energy ripple on contact, some invisible barrier protecting its surface. “Most likely we just have to get out, and it’ll be weak enough to seal. Do you know which Card this is?”
Qiao Yifan shook his head.
“Where’s the Guardian?”
“At home.” At Qiu Fei’s incredulous and almost outraged look, Qiao Yifan clarified, “I told him he didn’t need to stay with me all the time, that I was fine on my own.” He figured it was exhausting and boring for the little fox to constantly have to play dead when he was with him. Besides, Lord Grim had recently taken a great interest in the fighting video games Qiao Yifan had on the console in his room. Apparently he’d used to play similar games against the other Card-spirits, and apparently he was quite good at it, too.
Qiu Fei still looked somewhat disgruntled, but all he said was, “I’m going to fly up. Maybe we can see the way out.” He stepped up upon the flame-wheels that materialized under his feet, and then skated into the air.
Higher and higher, to the top of the maze’s walls - but, as Qiao Yifan watched, the walls grew. Qiu Fei was still ascending, but the walls were stretching with him, the crest always just out of reach…
It wouldn’t work, Qiao Yifan thought. This magic wouldn’t let them. Would they have to find the exit the intended way? Whatever that meant?
“Look at this,” said Gao Yingjie. He was pointing at a small rectangular panel embedded upon the wall, right at eye-level. Somehow Qiao Yifan had missed it the first time he’d looked around.
Qiao Yifan hurried over, but before he could read what was written, something else caught his eye first - the bandage wrapped around the tip of Gao Yingjie’s pointer finger. “Wait, what happened to your finger?”
“This? Oh…” Gao Yingjie laughed, a little embarrassed, and then switched the hand he was using to point. “I was just clumsy earlier, don’t worry about it. Anyway, what do you think about this?”
Qiao Yifan was rather unimpressed with his friend’s obvious evasiveness, but he trusted him enough to turn his attention to the panel. But where he’d been expecting to read words or maybe numbers, it was instead covered in strange squiggling symbols, divided by the occasional vertical or horizontal line. Qiao Yifan squinted at it, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
“A riddle? Or a puzzle, I guess,” said Qiao Yifan. Qiu Fei, who’d rejoined them, made a noise of agreement as he looked over Gao Yingjie’s shoulder.
“This whole thing, maybe it’s like a massive escape room, except we’re trying to escape this entire domain. Solve the clue and it’ll lead us out?” As he spoke, Gao Yingjie pulled off his backpack and started rifling through for paper and a writing utensil. “This just seems like a basic logic puzzle. We should be able to figure it out?”
Qiao Yifan gave him a baffled look. “…How?”
“Well, there’s a blank space right here, so I’d guess we’d have to figure out what goes there. These symbols all look like paths through the maze, so maybe following the correct one will take us, and if we consider these lines to be like equation separators, then…” He trailed off, muttering to himself, and then pressed his paper against the wall and began writing.
Gao Yingjie had always been clever, thought Qiao Yifan, and talented in many ways. Seeing him sink into concentration, Qiao Yifan stepped back to give him a little space, and Qiu Fei followed suit.
“You don’t have any Cards that would help?” Qiu Fei said to him quietly, leaning back against the opposite wall and crossing his arms.
Qiao Yifan had, of course, already been thinking. “Nothing that comes to mind, if we can’t break through or fly over,” he said, running his finger along the edges of the Cards in his pocket. “There’s Negative Nine Degrees, but he doesn’t seem confident. He’s good with handling locations, but if we’re already surrounded by the Card’s magic, it’ll all feel the same to him.”
“How many do you have right now?”
“Nine.” Maybe he shouldn’t have been so quick to answer, Qiao Yifan belatedly thought, but somehow his instinct told him that it was fine to be honest with Qiu Fei, that he could trust him and expect the same in return. Even if they were supposedly competitors for the same goal. “You?”
“Five. None that could help with this, though, I think. Most of my spells are also more combat-oriented.”
Nine and five… That meant, after this one, there were only four Cards left to capture, and then… and then what? What did it mean that multiple people held the Cards? Qiao Yifan realized that he didn’t actually know, and he made a mental note to ask Lord Grim about it later, if - when - they got out of this mess.
“Say,” said Qiao Yifan, leaning against the wall next to him, “why did you want to start collecting the Glory Cards, anyway?”
“On orders from my clan,” Qiu Fei said.
Qiu Fei nodded. “It’s no secret that our clan has been on the decline in recent years,” he said. “Capturing the Cards would grant us the power we need to keep ourselves from dissolving completely.”
Qiao Yifan was quiet as he thought that over. He’d improved with using magic over these months, but he still knew so little, relatively, about the magic side - who all the magic clans were, what their dynamics were, what tied them together. But he didn’t want to bother Qiu Fei with his own ignorance, so he asked a question along a different track. “Would you still be capturing Cards, if you hadn’t been told to?”
“If they were posing a threat, then yes,” said Qiu Fei. He took a breath to say something else, but at that moment, Gao Yingjie spun around to face them, waving his paper triumphantly.
“I got it! I think.”
Gao Yingjie’s explanation of his solution was rapid as his finger darted around the page to point out details, but from what Qiao Yifan could understand, it sounded reasonable enough. Starting from the corner of the intersection, facing the panel, the three of them began to walk down the maze’s pathways, making turns as the puzzle’s solution instructed them to.
They were quiet, aside from Gao Yingjie’s occasional direction. The paper was getting wrinkled in Gao Yingjie’s hand from how tightly he gripped it, Qiao Yifan noticed, and he bumped against his friend’s shoulder in silent reassurance.
Then they rounded a corner, and came to an abrupt halt at the sight.
“What… is this…”
Up to this point, they’d been walking through what was basically an ordinary maze. Maybe that had lulled Qiao Yifan into a false sense of security, so much that he’d forgotten that this whole thing was, in fact, very magic.
The hallway opened up into some kind of entirely new dimension, a vast space with no visible bounds. Sideways staircases, floating platforms, walls turning into floors, it looked like something out of one of those impossible optical illusions. Qiao Yifan stumbled back a step, feeling a little dizzy just trying to take it all in.
Gao Yingjie’s voice was a bit shaky. “We’re supposed to… get through this?”
“We can fly,” said Qiao Yifan, though his words sounded uncertain even to his own ears. Would the magic react poorly, like it had when they’d tried to fly over these walls? Would flying even help them navigate this chaos of a multi-dimensional maze?
“Is gravity even going to work the same way?” said Gao Yingjie, his mind evidently following a similar train of thought.
“There’s another panel there,” Qiu Fei said, walking forward. Upon the ground, right near the edge of where the floor dropped off into the unnatural space, was another panel just like the one they’d looked at earlier. “This one has words,” he announced. When he glanced to the side and found both Qiao Yifan and Gao Yingjie still standing several paces back, he let out the barest of sighs and said, “Let me read it out loud.”
Qiao Yifan listened, for sure, but at the same time he couldn’t quite focus on whatever this new riddle was. Of course, it had been naive of them to assume that just that one puzzle would show them the way out. But how many clues like this were there? If they were already stepping into such a crazy, physics-defying space on the second clue, what else was in store? Would they just keep getting harder and harder challenges thrown at them indefinitely? What would happen when they ran into the one they couldn’t solve?
Surely there had to be another way?
As Gao Yingjie clenched his teeth and stepped forward to join Qiu Fei at the panel next to the abyss, Qiao Yifan withdrew his Cards from the Book in his pocket. He had enough now that they formed a deck in his hand, albeit a rather thin one.
He’d already thought through all of his options. But maybe the Cards would know something he didn’t? Maybe they could show them the best way forward.
“Please, help us,” Qiao Yifan whispered to the backs of the Cards. Then, following his instinct, he drew the top card of the deck.
Steamed Bun Invasion.
Qiao Yifan’s heart sank. How… was this supposed to help? He sensed an enthusiasm from the Card, but that was nothing new when it came to Steamed Bun Invasion. He’d feel the same excitement if they were near a food stall on the streets.
He was a chaotic Card, as Lord Grim had said. But… maybe that was what they needed right now? It was at least worth a shot, wasn’t it? Qiao Yifan shrugged to himself, and used his sword to activate the Card.
The spirit materialized before him with a flash and a grin. He looked around, taking in their surroundings with wide eyes, and then - to Qiao Yifan’s shock - spun to the side, sprinted straight into the wall, and vanished.
“Wait, wh-” Qiao Yifan instinctively lifted his hand to follow, but where Steamed Bun Invasion had disappeared, the wall was totally solid to the touch. Pressing his sword against its surface produced that ripple-effect barrier just like before.
“Come… back…” But of course he knew it was already too late. The Card was long out of earshot.
“Did you give him an instruction?” Qiu Fei asked, noticing what had happened. He sounded more curious than judgmental, but Qiao Yifan still felt embarrassed.
“He just… ran off,” Qiao Yifan said. “I mean, I can still feel him, my magic is still connected, but…”
The ground suddenly rumbled beneath their feet, forcing Qiao Yifan to brace himself against the maze wall for support. Just as quickly, the vibrations stopped. And before Qiao Yifan even had the chance to wonder aloud about how an earthquake could occur in this magical realm, Steamed Bun Invasion toppled back out of the maze wall.
This time, he wasn’t alone.
It took a few moments for Qiao Yifan to understand what he was looking at - Steamed Bun Invasion had his arms wrapped tightly around the struggling body of another spirit. The spirit was thrashing about so much that all Qiao Yifan could distinguish was the light blue hair that matched the color of its robes. But even so, he recognized it immediately as another Card spirit.
No matter how the rogue Card struggled, Steamed Bun Invasion held firm. He even had the time to rap the other Card’s head, as though scolding a child, and the absurd sight of that action finally spurred Qiao Yifan into motion.
“Return to the form you were meant to be in, Glory Card!” He thrust his sword forward, and the spirit began dissolving into pale energy. At the same time, their maze surroundings warped and stretched, pulled into the rectangular space that was the new card being formed.
And a few seconds later, the three of them were standing back outside the entrance to the library, and Qiao Yifan was holding two Cards in his hand.
The new Card showed a young man in robes and glasses, holding a short staff. “Concealed Light,” Qiao Yifan read. What strange magic it had used, quite distinct from most of the other Cards he’d encountered so far. He would have to experiment with the magic of this Card sometime.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to help after all,” said Gao Yingjie. When Qiao Yifan looked up, he saw him squeezing the straps of his backpack. “Without magic, I know I’m not of much use…”
“Don’t say that,” said Qiao Yifan immediately. “You were a huge help in figuring out what was going on, and I’m glad you were here. Or, well,” he amended, “I guess I shouldn’t be glad that you had to suffer through that too. But you know what I mean.” To his relief, Gao Yingjie cracked a smile at that.
“Good job,” Qiu Fei said to Qiao Yifan. Despite having failed to capture this Card, he seemed quite calm. “You have a close connection with your Cards; I’m glad that didn’t take too long. What did you come here for today, anyway?”
“We…” Qiao Yifan felt like groaning as he remembered. “Had to work on a project for school,” he said, as Gao Yingjie slumped beside him. After handling all this magic nonsense, they still had to deal with the incredibly mundane reality of their schoolwork…
Qiu Fei regarded the two of them. Then he said, “Want to go get bubble tea?”
Qiao Yifan blinked.
In the daylight, Qiu Fei seemed far less intimidating, far more… ordinary. He was a bit serious, but kind in his own way, and in the end, wasn’t he just a student like them?
“…Sure,” Qiao Yifan said, breaking into a smile, “yeah, that’d be nice.”
When Qiao Yifan finally got around to asking about what happened after all the Cards were sealed, Lord Grim’s expression became unusually serious. This was surprising, as Qiao Yifan had been half-expecting that there was no “and then.” Capture all the Cards and they’d be done with this whole thing, right?
“I don’t want to scare you,” the fox began instead, which, Qiao Yifan thought, was a fairly surefire way to scare anyone.
“I’m already in this deep,” Qiao Yifan said, frowning. “I need to know what comes next, if I’m going to be ready.”
“Yeah, I know.” Lord Grim flicked his tail in that way he did when he was agitated. “Can you take out the Book?”
Qiao Yifan obliged, and Lord Grim levitated it into the air. “The Cards of Glory have two Guardians,” he said. “You know me, Lord Grim, Guardian of the Seal, the Selector, whatever.” He motioned toward the cover of the book, which was mostly blank, save for gold decorations framing the center.
Wait. Had the cover always been blank like this? That day he’d opened it for the first time, hadn’t there been some… creature depicted on the cover?
“Yeah, that was me. Like I said, I was guarding the Cards,” said Lord Grim, when Qiao Yifan asked. He raised an eyebrow. “You never realized?”
“It… You don’t look like that, though?” said Qiao Yifan. It was somewhat hazy in his mind, now, but he remembered some fearsome-looking winged figure, and Lord Grim, while many things, was not exactly… fearsome.
“I’m stuck in this borrowed form until the Cards are sealed!” Lord Grim said indignantly, spinning in a circle to emphasize his point. “Then you’ll see how cool my true form looks! What, did you really think this whole time that the Guardian of the Seal was just some plush toy?”
“…” Qiao Yifan wisely kept quiet, but, well, yes? This was all magic anyway, what was he supposed to think?
Lord Grim cleared his throat. “ Anyway. That’s me. The other Guardian is the Diviner.” The Book rotated in the air to show the back cover design. But if the front cover had been a faithful depiction of Lord Grim’s true form, the back only showed some kind of magic circle, accented by triangles and four-pointed stars. Qiao Yifan wasn’t sure what it meant, if anything.
“Once all of the Cards are captured, there is one final trial, conducted by the Diviner,” Lord Grim told him. “Both you and that other kid will be tested. If you pass his judgment, you will formally become the new Master of the Cards.”
Qiao Yifan’s mouth suddenly felt dry. “What do you mean by trial?”
“The Diviner has full discretion. But most likely, it’ll be trial by combat.”
Qiao Yifan was silent. Of course. Months of learning the quirks of the Cards and how to talk to them and befriend them and call upon their magic to solve any problem, and in the end, it would still come down to a straight fight, ever still his weakness…
“I didn’t want you to worry,” said Lord Grim, frowning as he lowered the Book back to the surface of the desk. “This thing-”
“I’m not worried,” said Qiao Yifan. He looked at Lord Grim, gaze firm. “I have my Cards, and I have you. But I need you to help me prepare.”
“I’m sorry this took so long,” said Gao Yingjie, pushing a wrapped package into Qiao Yifan’s hands.
Qiao Yifan had no idea what he was talking about, or what this was. But he carefully unfolded the paper, until he reached the soft, teal cloth inside.
Shocked, Qiao Yifan met Gao Yingjie’s eyes. “This is… you…”
“You’re a magician,” said Gao Yingjie, as Qiao Yifan pulled the cloth out further. “You need to look the part. A magician’s outfit serves many purposes, you know, it protects your identity, declares your power…”
Qiao Yifan knew this; he’d seen the occasional flash of stylized clothing during his night adventures. Normal people knew to stay away from magic-users in action, and fellow magicians tended to keep their distance as well. Of course Qiao Yifan had wondered before how it’d feel to be one of those magicians, to have that legitimacy, but it’d never been more than an idle thought…
“You sewed this yourself?” Qiao Yifan whispered.
“Yeah,” Gao Yingjie said. He smiled sheepishly, and Qiao Yifan suddenly remembered that bandage on his finger. “Well, I had help, otherwise it wouldn’t have turned out well at all. The cloth has special properties, standard for magic wear.”
“And you even embroidered this too…” Gold thread traced intricate designs along hems, and as Qiao Yifan looked closer, he realized they seemed like more than just arbitrary decorations. In fact, it was almost like…
“They’re runes,” explained Gao Yingjie. “Charms written in the ancient language, for magic resistance, fall protection…” There was a flush creeping up his neck, and he looked to the side. “I don’t have any power to weave into the letters, it’s not real magic like what you do. More just tradition and superstition, I guess.”
But Qiao Yifan cut him off, reaching forward to clasp his hand.
“Yingjie,” he said, “it’s real to me.”
The final two Cards attacked together.
Qiao Yifan hadn’t realized, at first, that there even were two Cards. When he’d arrived on the scene - an empty, out-of-the-way street in the middle of the night - it had just been that one spirit, a young woman wielding a spear longer than she was tall.
She’d caught sight of him and the sword in his hand, and then immediately lunged, a dangerous aura of red-violet-blue roaring to life along her weapon, the silhouette of a dragon bearing down upon him.
With twelve Cards to his name now, with Gao Yingjie’s handiwork as his armor, Qiao Yifan could hold his own. But so aggressive, so vibrant she was that Qiao Yifan wasn’t able to think much of how odd her attacks were, how they managed to hit him when he thought he’d dodged. And his own strikes were often just barely missing their mark, a grazing scratch instead of a proper slash. He thought he could see openings, chances to strike, but somehow they would still be deflected at the last moment.
Qiu Fei arrived just in time to help.
He used one of his captured Cards to blast a pillar of energy from the sky, targeted right toward the spirit. Qiao Yifan leapt back as the other magician engaged, and with the chance to catch his breath and watch her fight from an outside perspective, he figured out what was going on.
“One Inch Ash!” he shouted, and slashed with the Card’s ghostly energy to sever the bond between the battle mage, and her shadow.
Two Cards. The shadow resolved itself into a second spirit, a young man in gray armor wielding his own spear. Qiu Fei engaged him in a whirl of flame, while Qiao Yifan fought the first Card. And together, they defeated their respective opponents, and the Cards were sealed.
Soft Mist to Qiao Yifan. Combat Form to Qiu Fei.
“So… that’s all.” Somehow, it had all come to an end so much faster than Qiao Yifan expected. He looked down at the Card in his hand, seeing Soft Mist holding the spear across her chest, her eyebrows furrowed in determination even as her eyes remained closed.
Lord Grim, who’d stayed out of the way most of the battle, flew over to hover by his shoulder. “Congrats! You don’t even need my help anymore.”
“It’s only thanks to your help that I’m here now,” Qiao Yifan answered, reaching forward to scratch Lord Grim’s head.
To the side, he saw Qiu Fei nod at him, and then write his name on his Card. Qiao Yifan pulled out a pen to do the same, and as he completed the final stroke, he felt the now-familiar flare of Card magic.
“Finally,” said Lord Grim softly, almost a sigh. And then his wings - which were so tiny that they’d always seemed more decorative than functional - began to grow.
Qiao Yifan’s mouth fell open. It wasn’t like Lord Grim hadn’t told him about this, but still… it was one thing to hear about it, and another thing entirely to witness for himself the sight of the wings growing as large as Qiao Yifan was tall, and folding around the Guardian’s tiny body.
And then with a flash of light, the wings unfurled, revealing Lord Grim in his true form. He was still distinctly a fox, with pointed ears, elongated snout, and slender legs, but he was significantly larger now, coming up to Qiao Yifan’s chin when he stood upon the ground. Gold fur covered his sleek, powerful body, and his wings - white and feathered, like those of an angel - flared out, before he shook them and folded them back against his body.
Most notably, the fox had six tails - though they were so strange as to be almost unrecognizable as the tails of a fox. Ony still looked normal, the fur matching the color of Lord Grim’s pelt. One glowed with a holy light. One was surreal, a dark tear in reality in the rough outline of a tail, bleeding shadow. One was made of an intangible swirl of crackling magenta energy. One looked like a flat sheet of metal, bent at right angles. And one was simply a jet of flame, blue bleeding into orange.
Lord Grim grinned, revealing a row of sharp fangs. “So?”
Qiao Yifan smiled. “Yes, you were right,” he said, stepping forward to run his hand along the fox’s neck, “you’re very impressive, of course.” He could feel the Guardian’s overwhelming magical strength, rolling off like waves, so different from the unassuming plush toy he had been.
“Are you ready?” Lord Grim then asked him, the joking tone fading away. His voice was deeper in his true form, as befit his larger size, but it was still recognizable as him. “We can’t wait for too long, but you can rest, if you need to.”
“I’m alright,” said Qiao Yifan. He wasn’t tired yet. In fact, his magic felt stronger than it ever had before, as though a missing piece had finally locked into place with the sealing of every Card. The magic thrummed along his veins, circulating energy through his body, bringing him strength, bringing him courage.
“Good,” said Lord Grim. “Yifan… I wish you the best of luck.” He gently bumped his head against Qiao Yifan’s side, and then stepped away. He turned to Qiu Fei, who had carefully approached.
“Qiu Fei, of Clan Jiashi,” said Lord Grim. His words suddenly took on a formal tone, as though reciting the words of a ritual. “You who have gathered six of the nineteen Glory Cards. Although you were not Selected, you now have the same opportunity. Do you wish to proceed to the Final Judgment, and prove your worth as a potential Master of the Cards?”
There was something like reluctance in Lord Grim’s eyes when he spoke, as though he still begrudged him for the insult during their first meeting. But he dutifully carried out his job without complaint.
“I do,” said Qiu Fei, without hesitation.
Six out of nineteen. From what Qiao Yifan understood, entering the Final Judgment with under a third of the total Cards was a daunting challenge. But Qiao Yifan knew the other boy well enough now that he hadn’t expected Qiu Fei to back down at this stage.
Nor, Qiao Yifan realized, had he wanted him to. He wanted both of them to have the chance to prove their worth. If Qiao Yifan was to become the new Master, he wanted to do so fairly and completely.
Lord Grim nodded, and then turned to Qiao Yifan. “Qiao Yifan, the Selected. You who have gathered thirteen of the nineteen Glory Cards. Do you wish to proceed to the Final Judgment, and prove your worth as a potential Master of the Cards?”
Lord Grim nodded, his face somber. “Then, take out the Book.”
When Qiao Yifan held it out before him, it levitated up of its own volition, surrounded by a circular glow. It opened, and the Cards it held flew outward to surround Qiao Yifan. He glanced at Qiu Fei, and saw that his own Cards had been pulled forth as well.
Thirteen Cards floated in a ring around Qiao Yifan. Six around Qiu Fei. They faced the open Book together, and Lord Grim, who had been standing between them, took a step back.
“Cards of Glory,” intoned Lord Grim, “You have each been sealed by one who wishes to become your Master. I, Lord Grim the Selector, now present the candidates to be judged.”
A magic circle suddenly spun and expanded beneath their feet, with the Book at its center. Triangles and pointed stars, Qiao Yifan recognized. It flared with silver, the light extending into the air, growing sharper and brighter until he was forced to squeeze his watering eyes shut.
Eventually, the glow faded. When Qiao Yifan opened his eyes again, he saw that the Book was now being held in a pair of hands.
The second Guardian took a humanoid form, though it was mostly hidden beneath a long, navy-blue cloak, shaped by jagged silver metal upon the shoulders. A matching hat, pointed with a wide brim, rested upon silvery blue hair, and a jeweled half-mask covered his left eye.
Not human, no matter how much he might have looked like one. Like Lord Grim’s, his was like the magical presence of the Cards, amplified tenfold.
“Lord Grim,” the second Guardian greeted. His voice was soft, musical. “It’s been a while.”
“Vaccaria,” replied the winged fox. “It sure has.”
Floating unsupported in the air, Vaccaria was able to look down upon the two candidates that stood before him. Where Lord Grim might have said a few words to lighten the air, Vaccaria appraised them silently. Qiao Yifan felt the weight of the Guardian’s gaze upon him, a gaze that seemed to pierce the very core of his soul. This wasn’t the trial proper, but he certainly felt himself being judged.
But the presence of his Cards floating around him was a comfort. He glimpsed their faces as they slowly spun, and stood up straighter.
“Congratulations on sealing the Glory Cards,” said Vaccaria, finally. “Now, it is my duty as the Diviner to test your worth. If you pass my judgment, the nineteen Cards, as well as their two Guardians, will recognize you as our new Master of the Cards.
“If both of you pass, the Selected will become the Master. If neither of you pass… then all will reset.”
Reset. The Cards’ disaster, a magical failsafe to protect themselves. Lord Grim had alluded to it, but no matter how Qiao Yifan had pressed him, he refused to give more information about this one detail. “It won’t help you to know, because it won’t happen,” Lord Grim had said. “Keep your eyes up.”
Vaccaria paused for a moment. When neither of the two candidates said anything, he said, “There is no need to delay. First,” he turned to Qiu Fei, “the one who was not Selected.”
He swept his cloak in an arc. The two of them folded into its shadows, and vanished.
Qiao Yifan let out a cry of surprise, but Lord Grim flicked a tail at him. “It’s a parallel dimension, there’s nothing to worry about. They’ll be back soon.”
Indeed, they didn’t have long to wait. It couldn’t have been more than five minutes before they reappeared in a swirl of dark fabric. As Qiao Yifan watched, Qiu Fei - the ever-strong, immovable Qiu Fei - fell to his knees.
“It was a good challenge,” Qiu Fei said softly, staring at the ground. “But I lost.”
Conflicting emotions warred within Qiao Yifan. What did that mean for Qiu Fei, and his clan? What did that mean about the challenge that Qiao Yifan was now about to face?
But before they could exchange any more words, Qiao Yifan heard Vaccaria say, “And now for the Selected.” And shadows swallowed the world around him.
He was suddenly standing in a vast open field, domed by a glittering midnight firmament, black that bled into indigo near the horizon. When he tried to peer upward into the sky, dizziness washed over him, and so he pulled his gaze back down to survey his surroundings. Light from an unknown source illuminated the rich green of the grass underfoot, and the crumbling pillars of white marble that loomed around him, the ruins of some once-great arena.
Vaccaria was facing him, standing some distance away.
“Cards of Glory,” he intoned, like Lord Grim had earlier. Around his feet glowed his magic circle. “There is one wishing to become your Master. A boy chosen by Lord Grim the Selector. His name is Qiao Yifan.”
When Qiao Yifan had been pulled into this realm, the Cards were returned to his inner pocket. He felt them now, warm against his chest, resonating with his beating heart as he silently recited their names in a mantra.
After months of fighting with these Cards that he’d collected… they believed in him. They wanted him to win.
He could do this.
“To see if he is truly worthy of this power…”
The Guardian extended his hand to the side, and a silver broomstick coalesced from mist to settle in his grip. Behind him, his cloak flared out with an unseen force, revealing an expanse of stardust that mirrored the sky above.
“…I, Vaccaria the Diviner, shall now conduct the Final Judgment.”