Season one finale. Saturion makes a pact. Vicar defends Arcania. The world changes forever.

Episode 10 - What Came First, the Dragon or the Egg?

What Came First, the Dragon or the Egg?

Last time on Dragon Shield Kingdoms: Vicar's Conquest

War is upon Arcania. Saturion Deshane tried tracking the Gaialists who kidnapped Citrine but was captured by Gaialists himself. Back in Sylvania, the governor of the white and leader of the Gaialists, Tarantos, checked on the progress of his Gaialist followers in an ancient temple underneath the Castle of the Bow. In the weeks since Vicar left the capital, Tarantos had taken full control of the governorship and moved every Wyvern in Arcania to the temple. Using special daggers found onsite, his forces coerced the Wyverns into using their powers to help uncover the hidden Wyrm Gate, a mystical portal with which the Gaialists believe they could summon their goddess, Gaial the All-Mother. Tarantos, schemed against his followers with plans to recover the Crown of the Cosmos, an artifact with the power to make its wearer a god, from the Wyrm Gate, and summon the All-Father, Gaial's evil counterpart. During the excavation, Tarantos's forces found the Fusion Dragon Shield and gave it to Tarantos just as Saturion and the half-dead Citrine arrived at the temple. Elsewhere, in the Mage's Tower, General Vicar and Lieutenant Volos fought their way to High Mage Valera's chambers to warn her of Tarantos' betrayal. She revealed that she already knew of his treachery. She summoned the Turquoise Dragon Shield with which she would implement a counterattack.

Sunset at Dawn

The newspaper boy hated getting up before the sun. He hated running down to the corner to pick up his stack of leaflets, hated waiting on the street in the cold until the first customers came out of their glittering Sylvania buildings. He hated how raw his voice got after a day of yelling, "Git your Daily Sylvania! Daily Sylvania HERE!" He hated his wage, barely enough to get a scrap to eat, and how the people looked at him, like he might as well have been a notice board.

He did like one thing about his job, though. He liked seeing the city as it slept, the twinkling colors of Sylvania's buildings, how they somehow seemed to keep the nighttime darkness at bay. In those quiet moments before the city woke, when only he and the rats and the bakers were awake, he knew the city and it knew him. It was his. For just a few moments every day, he was a king.

Then the sun would rise. The bakers would come out of their shops to throw away their leftover bread, sometimes even tossing him a stale loaf. Then the rats would feast on the rest, and the people would come. The city would stir and spread like a lazy cat in the summer sun before rising for another day with the dawn.

That day, the newspaper boy stood on his corner holding his leaflets like every other day. He watched across the harbor as the sun rose and then… stopped. It stopped rising and retreated, dipping back below the horizon as darkness extended its reach across the entirety of Sylvania.

The Gaialists emerged in droves, their off-white robes emitting the only source of low light from in-laid Dust. They came out of buildings, from the sewer grates, off of ships. They jumped over the rooftops, appeared from the alleys, stepped out of trolleys and wagons. They held pole arms and lances, halberds and spears. They chanted as they marched.

"Gaial be good, the Gate shall rise.

"Gaial be good, the Gate shall rise.

"Gaial be good, the Gate shall rise!"

Hundreds. Thousands. An army swarming the streets of Sylvania as panic quickened the newspaper boy's heartbeat. He tried to run but his fingers grew slick with nervous sweat and he dropped the leaflets. He did not know why he went back for them. He hated his job, after all. He hated those leaflets. But just then, when faced with the end of the world, he had a job to do and he would do it. He tried picking them up but slipped and fell onto the path of the oncoming horde. He hardly felt the spear go through his back. No, not a spear. An arm that wasn't an arm. An arm that had been… mutated. Transformed. These Gaialists were not men; they were monsters.

The newspaper boy was the first to die that day. As his blood colored the flyers red, he wondered why the Gaialists were headed to the Mage's Tower. What could be there that they wanted so badly? Never mind, he thought. Doesn't matter. He stared at the headline as the last of his life drained from him. He wished he'd learned to read and wondered if anybody would mourn him as he became food for the rats.

The Best Use of a Wyvern

Wake up, demanded an ear splitting voice. It reverberated around Citrine's skull. It was the same voice from before, from the infirmary. It was closer now. And more powerful.

"What is wrong with her?" the voice said, this time aloud. She recognized it. Tarantos.

Wake up it said again.

I can't, she whispered telepathically. The pain. It's too much.

"She used too much Dust. Ended up backfiring," said another voice. A Gaialist. One of her captors. The pain… the pain was unbearable. Her skin felt like someone had taken shearing knives to her fingernails, pricking her eyes with poison-tipped daggers. "She's dying."

"No," Tarantos said, taking her chin. White hot agony spread from the point of contact. "Not until I'm through with you." He raised his arm. She heard a churning as if a gear spun and all at once, the pain dulled, like stepping into a hot bath to ease her muscles at the end of a long shift at the Bunk. The pain wasn't gone, but it was bearable. She slowly opened her eyes. She could sense him.

Tury. Her Tury. He was there with her. Citrine spared a glance at the purplish-red energy that filled the holes along her body, energy the same color as the shield Tarantos held. Fusion energy.

"Excellent," Tarantos said, Citrine's eyes scanned her surroundings for Tury. "Lower her into the pit."

"Wait, what?" she tried to say. The words came out, "Wai…shu'wa?" Her lips were numb. She struggled to move until she spotted him, held by two Gaialists, stirring.

"Tury!" she exclaimed.

Saturion shook his head and glanced around. "Uh huh," he said. "Looks about right for an evil lair. My head hasn't hurt this much since I fell out of the rafters chasing hens." He spotted her. "Hey, Trini."

She tried to smile as she dug deep for the power inside. Her Dust. She could feel it stirring but it was… distant. It, too, was dulled.

"Wha ha' you done… my powers," she said.

"Fusion Dust covers your entire body. Amazing substance. I control the Dust, which means I control which power escapes, and which I absorb. Try to use your Dust and you will succeed only in making me stronger," Tarantos cautioned.

Saturion struggled against the grip of his captors. "Trini! Get up! Run! I'll distract them!"

Tarantos faced him. "Really? How are you going to do that?"

"Like this!" Saturion slipped his cuffs, one of the skills he picked up from his time on the road jestering, and reached into his robe to retrieve an empty pie tin. He flung it at Tarantos's face. He easily blocked it with his shield but the tin had filled itself as it flew, spewing cream in every direction until it splattered against the shield exploding in an array of cream and crust. His captors, surprised, loosened their grip enough for Saturion to wriggle free. He dashed to Citrine, slung her arm over his shoulder. "I've got you." He grinned. The chances of escaping were minimal, he knew, but for a second, he allowed himself to pretend that he was more than just a farmer's son, more than a joke. That he, like Vicar, could be powerful. Could be a hero. Maybe, if he was lucky, Citrine would be fooled.

Citrine howled in pain. The fusion energy where Saturion held her receded. She begged him to let her go.

"Cute trick," Tarantos admitted. He pulled Saturion by his shoulder-length hair and slammed him to the ground.

"Lea 'im alone!" Citrine cried as Tarantos delivered a rough kick to Saturion's head.

The Fusion Dragon Shield's gear spun and energy ripped through Tarantos's veins until they popped. He lifted Saturion by the neck with preternatural strength. He turned so Citrine could see him; his face covered in blood, teeth protruding through his bottom lip. "You will do as I say, Wyvern, or I will end this insufferable jester."

"Say that… to my face…" Saturion managed.

"If I do… you'll let him go?" Citrine gasped.

"On my honor as a Gaialist," Tarantos declared.

The fusion salve had returned. She was thinking clearly for the first time since the attack on the Blackriders, the pain a dull echo of what came before. She knew that she could not win. She heard Saturion struggling to breathe. She heard something else, too.

Humming.

For the first time since arriving in the cavern, she looked up to where the men, women, and children were chained, Dust flowing. She gasped. She had never seen another Wyvern; now she could make out at least four dozen. "What do you want me to do?" Citrine asked.

Saturion kicked at Tarantos. "You have a unique ability, Citrine Belafonte. Your tendrils are raw expressions of power. You know how to use them offensively. I want you to use them strategically."

"How?"

"Below us is the Wyrm Gate. It is locked by latches made from the Dust of the White Dragon Shield, impenetrable by any but the shield that bound it. You will coax that shield from the Dust, Citrine Belafonte, using the life force of the Wyverns you see here. You will call it forth from the depths of the Dustscape and use it to unlock the Gate. Do that, and your jester lives."

"What is he to me?" Citrine said. "Just a farm boy pretending to be something he's not. Special."

Tarantos guffawed. "You are trying to shake me from my good mood. It won't work. You know, I did not believe a woman as severe as Portia Belafonte could have given birth to such a rarity as you. It defies logic, truly, but the All-Mother works in mysterious ways. Do you think she will scream when I crush her windpipe? Or will she struggle as the jester does? In vain?"

Citrine's heart fell. "Is she alive?"

"For now," Tarantos said. "I was ever so pleased to find her and the old man in the Jet Fortress when I conquered it."

"Don't… do it!" Saturion yelped.

"If I do what you ask, all those people will die," Citrine said. "I don't even know if it will work."

"Oh it will work," Tarantos said. "For I have seen it. Besides, can't you hear them? Listen."

Kill us, they wailed using Dust to communicate. Kill us!

It was a prayer, much like the one Citrine had said as the pain destroyed her sense of self. It would be an act of mercy. She would free them. And she'd save her mother and Andros. She'd save Saturion. Her Tury. It would not make up for all she had done, but it could be a start.

"Okay," she said.

"Good," Tarantos said. Two of the leather-clad Gaialists grabbed her by the arms, pulled her to a lift built into the side of the balcony, and descended into the eerie gray of the thick fog below.

The Dragaviary

Vicar, Volos, and Valera vaulted upward through the floors of the Mage's Tower atop a circular platform propelled by Valera's Turquoise Dragon Shield. They rose at increasing speed, with Volos trying to count the fifty-some tower floors passing by on all sides, before finally breaking through into the open sky above the tower itself.

They were now contained within a shaft of brilliant turquoise light that started on the ground below and reached the base of an impossibly large structure floating above their heads. Volos gave Valera a questioning look.

"The Dragaviary," she stated calmly. "Before King Arthram Arkinus sealed the Wyrm Gate, dragons roamed Arcania freely. Many called the top of the Mage's Tower home, coming and going from here as they wished. Then, King Arkinus hid the Gate, sealing Arcania off from its magic, limiting our access to Dust and the sustenance necessary to sustain all dragon life."

Volos listened but kept his eyes fixed on the base of the structure above them as they continued to speed upwards, surrounded by turquoise light.

"That seal has been weakening for some time, even before Tarantos began digging for the Gate," Valera continued.

"Why are you telling us this?" Vicar demanded.

"I want you to understand what I am about to show you. You must understand in order to accept."

"Accept what?" Volos asked, his eyes still not meeting hers.

"That the world is changing. We are entering a new age. A new age of dragons." The platform slid neatly into a small hole at the base of the dragaviary and at once, Vicar and Volos understood. They were at the bottom of a large bowl, not unlike the floor of a colosseum, only the stands surrounding them were replaced with archways that opened to dark sky. In what had clearly once been individual roosting areas for dragons long ago there were now dozens of large eggs. They were encased in amber and each had a pair of Dustcrafters beside it, working their magic to expose the eggs.

A few steps away from their platform was a single fully-grown dragon, frozen mid-roar in its own bed of amber.

"Valera, what have you done?" Vicar asked, suspicion creeping into his voice.

"If history will view Tarantos as the father of this new age, then I will certainly be remembered as its mother."

"Something's wrong," Volos said. "The sun. It should be up."

"The Gate rises," Valera replied. "The sun bows in respect. It is time."

She approached the fossilized dragon. The Turquoise Dragon Shield on her arm liquified, a mixture of water and Dust, as Valera unleashed its torrent upon the dragaviary. It flooded the space, finding every groove, every arch, every nook and cranny and gap and crack in the eggs and their amber prisons. Excess spilled out of the openings and over the rails, vaporizing in the inky blackness.

The watery substance filled Vicar and Volos's lungs and eyes and for a second they both felt like rats trapped on a sinking ship before realizing they could still breathe. The liquid Dust quickened the eggs and all at once, the eggs soaked it in. The air was cleared by a brilliant turquoise shockwave radiating out from where Valera stood. Mages on the higher levels of the dragaviary were nearly knocked over the edge of the floating roost, and even the sure-footed Vicar was brought to his knees.

He tried to rise, and found he could only bow.

Serpentine tails curled around Valera as mighty wings stretched skyward, freed from the fossilized amber after four hundred years. Dragons surrounded Valera. The children of the Gate had awoken. And they were hungry.

"Good morning, Methestique," Valera whispered as she pet the neck of the great dragon, newly reborn. "Are you ready to fight, General?"

"Always," Vicar said, finally upright once again.

Without another word, Valera and Vicar ran and jumped off the exposed side of the dragaviary, and Methestique followed close behind to catch them as they fell.

"What about me?" Volos called out to no one in particular. "Don't I get a dragon?"

Hundreds of mages, the dragon's wet-nurses, dove after Valera riding dragons of their own, many no larger than a wagon. Only Methestique was fully grown but even a small dragon was better than none. Just before Volos could sigh in frustration, a dragon nudged him off the side of the floating tower, catching him with its teeth in the free-fall. Volos held his Morningstar high and hollered a battle cry as he soared through the unnatural pre-dawn sky, descending upon the Gaialists below. To war.

The Gate Rises

Citrine stood in the thick of the fog, holes still riddled across her body. She felt no pain but knew deep down that it was a lie. The pain was still there if hidden. But it would return. Nothing could stay hidden for long. Not pain. Not even the Wyrm Gate.

Citrine stood on shimmering, braided clasps made from pure white Dust. Beneath it, she could feel the pulse of the Wyrm Gate. White Dustflies, said to bring good luck, burst from the braids like dolphins through the sea before diving back below. "I could use a little luck," Citrine said, the words still feeling strange on her numbed tongue.

Citrine got on all fours. She closed her eyes and brushed her hands over the intricate braiding. To think, six weeks prior she had been in this same position scrubbing The Bunk's floors. "Same thing, right?" she said to herself.

"No. It was not the same thing at all," said a regal voice.

The fog swirled and took the shape of a man. A tired man with a long beard and scar over his right eye that kept it shut. She recognized his face from pictures on money. King Arthram Arkinus.

"Great," Citrine said. "Now I'm seeing ghosts."

"Spirits of the Dust," said the king. "We all return to dust. Occasionally, the Dust returns to us."

"I'm busy," she said.

"Oh child. You are so lost. You do not have to do this," said the king, his voice gentle.

"What choice do I have?" she hollered. "He's going to kill Tury!"

"I buried the Gate to keep the darkest forces of the Black away," the king said. "You would free it to save one jester?"

Citrine bit her lip hard enough that she felt the pain even through the numbness. "If you have to ask, then you don't understand," she said.

"Citrine… WAIT!" But the king was too late as Citrine called on all the power that coursed within her. She pictured Saturion's smiling face, pictured him sending his fork to snag a piece of steak off another man's plate. She held onto that picture as tendrils tore through her flesh anew, until she could not help but scream.

"NO!" Saturion rasped, knowing he was too late as hundreds upon hundreds of inky black tendrils shot up and out from Citrine's body. The tendrils punctured the throats of each of the wailing Wyverns. Even more tendrils turned sharp and slit the throats of the Gaialists still in the temple, so deep their heads almost came off. Saturion watched Mustache as faint recognition dawned that his life was over. Tarantos blocked the tendrils with the Dragon Shield.

The Dust that had been falling off of the wyverns like summer rain turned stormy as it contorted itself around the tendrils. Instead of falling down, they fell inside, the various colors of the Dust disappearing into the tendrils. Citrine pulled, sucking on the souls of the chained until her body felt full to bursting.

Let-it-out-let-it-out-let-it-out

Tendrils many times thicker than the others erupted from Citrine's chest, pushing her up off the braided clasps. They held her in mid-air, thick as tree trunks, black as tar. She channeled the Dust of the Wyverns into her tendrils and sent them down the throat of King Arkinus's specter.

"Do you feel it, jester?" Tarantos said. "The White Dragon Shield emerges."

King Arkinus's spirit served as a gateway. Through it, Citrine sent her tendrils into the space between reality, the space she could always see but never truly touch. Now, she touched it and spread her tendrils throughout the far reaches, searching for the hidden shield. Her entire body shivered, her bones shattering from the strain as she ripped King Arkinus's body apart to pull the White Dragon Shield free.

The shield hovered in the air flickering. "It's too much," Citrine screamed.

"Good, girl," Tarantos said. When had he jumped into the pit? Who was that he had with him? A bloody-faced man with shoulder length hair. He was familiar but Citrine's head swirled. She couldn't place him.

Tarantos threw the man at Citrine's feet as he reached for the shimmering shield. I command you to open the Wyrm Gate he said in his way of speaking without speaking. An orb of white light formed around it, preventing him from getting too close. It exploded in a shower of starlight and everything went white.

*

Saturion opened his eyes. He lay in a meadow next to Citrine.

"Hey," he said.

She mustered a smile. Her face, untouched by the scars of her power. The rest of her body had more holes than remaining bits of flesh.

"You did it," he said. "We're in the Gate. I think."

Citrine's body convulsed.

"Bit of a showoff, though, aren't you?" he said. He tried moving his legs. "Oh." He found blood. He had been skewered at some point, either during the fall or from one of the tendrils. He could not tell which. "Looks like we're both leaving soon." He tried to laugh, coughed up blood. "It's nice here, though," he said. "I wish you could see it." He tried to touch her platinum hair but could not reach.

Citrine Belafonte was dead.

The Vortex

Tarantos stood on a long rickety wooden bridge surrounded by a swirling vortex of color and light. Scholars said that the Wyrm Gate manifested in different forms throughout history. It was a place of wild, untamed magic, a passageway between worlds where raw Dust came into the universe. He stepped forward and the expanse of the platform shrunk so that he now stood at the base of a console formed from the gigantic tongue of a dragon statue. At least, he thought it was a statue. He glanced down as a flash of lightning shook the hurricane of light and color, illuminating for just a second an impossibly large mouth belonging to a dragon many times larger.

"I… I have come for my father," Tarantos said. "Vater. I am here."

Laughter shook the vortex. Tremendous waves of Dust crashed against it with such ferocity Tarantos feared they would break the thin invisible barrier between him and it. The barrier held.

"YOU ARE A FOOL, TA-RAN-TOS," the voice he knew as his father's said. "YOU COME HERE AND DO NOT ASK FOR THE CROWN?"

"First, I would see my father. In person." he said. "That is what matters most to me."

Images flashed through Tarantos's mind. The dreams, each time he had been visited by his father, they were all lies. It was not Vater. Not the All-Father. Not even his father. It was another dragon, one who could meld truth with lies, fusing what one wanted with what it wanted. The fusion dragon without a true name, known only as Decay.

Fusion energy ran up the sides of the console, off the tongue and to Tarantos's body where it permeated every pore, swallowing his screams, transforming him from the inside out. The Fusion Dragon Shield slid into place along its back between its wings

"AS I SAID, YOU ARE A FOOL. BUT YOU WILL SERVE DECAY NONETHELESS."

The Battle of the Bow

Vicar had not remembered how much he enjoyed war. He had forgotten the thrill of the bloodlust, of watching a man's head explode in an array of viscera and blood. Of feeling bones crack beneath his hands, of entire lineages dying with a single swing of his sword. It had been too long since he had a fight against so many foes, a seemingly endless army intent on destroying him. It had been even longer since he allowed himself to fight without rules, without mercy, without concern for those he killed or those he fought with. Everyone he fought with was dead. All but Volos, who knew to keep his distance in the heat of battle. Vicar had gotten too used to the title the Democracy had given him. General Karosiv Vicar of the Democratic Military.

Before that, he had a different title. A more fitting title.

Vicar the Conqueror.

He did now what he did best. Conquest.

It tasted sweet, his victims' blood and bone like his morning dew and honey.

All around him, bodies. Death. He could just make out Valera's dragon shooting turquoise energy from its jaws, taking out swathes of mutated Gaialists at a time. She used her Dragon Shield to heal those she could but even her powers could not save them all. Her mages, many of whom still rode smaller dragons, struck fast and hard despite the risk. It was as good a day for killing as being killed.

But the Gaialists had changed. Proximity to the Gate had given them extraordinary powers. Some avoided the dragon fire by liquifying their bodies and stretching out of the way. Others had become more rock than human and could endure the blasts as weapons bounced off their newly hardened skin. Others still had learned to control fire and turned the dragons' assaults back on them, burning the newborn dragons and their riders alive. Then there were the three leaders, or so Vicar surmised them to be. Their faces were in a constant state of flux, adapting to their needs in the moment without a thought. They were the perfect soldiers, each of them capable of taking out an entire army. And they surrounded Vicar.

"Come then," Vicar roared. "Fight me!" He pounded on his chest with his shield-bearing arm and held his sword in a defensive position. Two of the face-changing Gaialists attacked, leaping forward. Vicar parried and swung but missed both as the third appeared underneath his legs, little more than a puddle of goop. The puddle grew a lance-holding arm and tried to eviscerate him but Vicar was too fast. He dodged but the two others were on him. They fought as one, not as three separate soldiers but as if they were part of the same mind.

Beneath his helm, Vicar smiled. Enemies worth fighting, even if he was outnumbered.

One of the three collapsed under the weight of a Morningstar. "Looks like you could use some help," Volos said.

"Glad to see you, my friend."

"One more time?" Volos said, his back to Vicar's.

"Let us hope not," Vicar said, relishing the morn, even without a sunrise.

He gathered his strength to strike again when the earth shook. Everyone staggered as the middle eight spires of the Castle of the Bow imploded, raining down multi-colored shrapnel. A dragon as large as the castle itself shrieked as it spread its hooked, crooked wings wide. It spoke with Tarantos's voice and had the Fusion Dragon Shield embedded in its back.

"This is my world, now." It soared over the battle. Its underbelly shifted as it moved, forming and reforming itself, bubbling until a fresh crop of dragons burst from black tar and dropped from onto the battlefield. The dragons stood on their hind legs. Tar dripped from their bodies and burned like acid. One punched Vicar, who just barely blocked with his Dragon Shield. The force of the hit sent him flying into the crowd where hundreds upon hundreds of feet barreled over him. He could not breathe, could not stand, nor could he tell where Volos went. Blood and dirt blinded him and all at once, his body felt heavy with the weight of the battle. The dragon that had emerged, the one that used to call itself Tarantos, was large enough to blot out the sky.

"Is this how Vicar the Conqueror dies?" It was the golden-haired boy from the village, the spirit he knew inhabited his Dragon Shield.

"You are not the boy from that village, are you?" Vicar said without making words. The battle froze around him. It was just him and the boy.

"No, I am not," the boy said.

"Who are you then?"

"Does it matter?"

"It matters to me," Vicar said.

"I am the spirit of the Shield. You and I serve the same father."

"I serve no one," Vicar said. He closed his eyes thinking of all those in his company who had died. All those he failed. "Not anymore."

"You do, Karosiv Vicar, even if you do not know it yet. You, me, and him." The spirit pointed to Tarantos. "Our unfortunate, misguided brother is throwing a bit of a tantrum."

"You call this madness a tantrum?"

"You can end it," the boy spirit said. "You hold the key."

"What key? I carry a sword and little patience for riddles."

"No," the boy said. "You are lying there taking a rest. Not a very conqueror-y thing to do."

"Tell me, then," he said. "You say you are the spirit of the shield? Well I am your bearer. I demand you tell me what you know."

The boy smiled. "All you had to do was ask."

All at once, Vicar knew.

The spirit disappeared and time resumed. The battle continued. Vicar pushed himself up just as the tar dragon flung itself at him, an acidic ball of fury, followed closely by the three faceless Gaialists.

Vicar held his Dragon Shield high. The orb of fire where he had captured the elemental dragon — Ignicip was its name, he now knew — glowed. From it, the dragon emerged, living fire. It spread its wings and cast light back into Sylvania and with a flap, Dust rained down on the combatants. Dust. And madness.

Vicar had started out on a journey to discover the source of the madness. He ended it by gaining control of it. By wielding it.

"Kill," he said. "That is my order."

The madness took the Gaialists and the tar dragons and they turned their considerable powers onto each other.

Soulcraft

Footsteps approached through the meadow as Saturion tried to think of a joke. Something about a jester and a dragon playing hopscotch. He hadn't worked it out. Given more time, he was sure he would come up with something.

Citrine's lifeless body lay next to him. Her eyes had gone dull but he still felt her presence. Perhaps the Wyrm Gate was like the afterlife and her soul would linger. That would be nice. He did not want to die alone.

"You need not die at all," a woman's voice said. "Unless, of course, you want to."

Saturion felt someone move him so that he faced the figure in the meadow.

"…Who are you?"

"You don't recognize me? I'm hurt, Tury. I'm your mother."

"My mother is dead."

She smiled… but the smile was wrong. It kept going, cracking along her cheeks to show a tooth-filled jaw. "I thought taking this form would give you comfort," the creature said. "I wanted to come to you as a friend." His mother's body immolated. Her shrieks became laughter as her body reshaped itself in the flames. Saturion shut his eyes. He did not want to see his mother disappear. Not again.

"Open your eyes, Saturion," said a new voice. A dark voice.

The meadow was gone, replaced by a room made of masks. Tragedy masks, comedy masks, warrior masks, magical masks. Everywhere he looked, masks, each of them moving, each of them alive. He lay now on a floor of bones and in front of him a pathway of skulls led to an obsidian throne. The throne's back forked out to look like a jester's hat. The black dragon rose from behind the skull pathway.

"It is so good to meet you," the dragon said. "I have been waiting a long, long time."

"Who are you?" Saturion said. "What do you want? What did you do with Citrine?"

"You may call me Signoir," the dragon said. "I have done nothing with Citrine. She is back in the meadow. As for what I want… freedom. I want to help you and to earn my freedom."

"Haven't you heard?" Saturion said. "The Gate has risen. You're free."

"No," Signoir snapped with alarming violence. "No, I am not free! Never free. Never. Never ever. Not unless… unless you agree to my proposal," he said, gaining control of himself again. "It is simple. I will save your life, Saturion Deshane. I will grant you the power you crave. The power to defeat my brother Decay and the human he inhabits Tarantos. The power to save Citrine. Power even to rival Vicar… if you help me escape this place."

"Sounds too good to be true," Saturion said. "What do you take me for, a fool?"

Signoir's neck coiled out, getting close enough for Saturion to smell the death on his breath. "You do not believe I can do as I say."

"No," Saturion said. "I don't."

"Tury."

Saturion found his wound had stopped bleeding. His legs had not fixed themselves but it didn't matter. He was able to stand. He turned and faced a fully healed Citrine. "Trini! How… No. You're not real. You're just like my mother. Just an illusion. A cruel illusion."

"Not this time," Signoir said. "This is Citrine Belafonte. What is left of her."

"My soul… lingers." Her image transformed so that her body was once again filled with holes. "My time is short. I feel it… pulling. I want… you to live," she said. "I want… to be with you."

"You can't," Saturion said, his voice cracking. "You're dead, Citrine. You're dead! How could you be with me if you're dead?"

"There is… a way," she said. "He showed me." She pointed to Signoir.

"I can join your souls together forever," Signoir said. "It is the power of the black dragons, older than time immemorial. I will do this thing. If…"

"If I help you, yeah, I got that part."

"Do you accept?"

"What do I have to do?" Saturion said, tears filling his eyes.

"Give me your heart," Signoir said.

"Oh, just that?" Saturion almost laughed. "Sure, why not? I'm not using it anyway." He looked to see if that had made Citrine smile.

"Do not enter this contract lightly, Saturion Deshane. I will enter your world camouflaged in your flesh. It is the only way. Do you give me your heart in exchange for my power?"

Saturion hesitated. What would Vicar do, he wondered?

You know what he would do, Saturion said to himself. You saw it. When faced with death, he found the strength to fight. You think you're so special, Tury? Then fight!

"Yes," Saturion said. "I guess I don't have much choice." Saturion gasped as Signoir plunged his claws into Saturion's chest. The dragon pulled his chest cavity apart as he wrapped a claw around his beating heart and snapped it from its valves. Signoir devoured Saturion's heart as he watched.

"That… was not… part of the deal…" Saturion said, in shock.

"Did you think Dustcraft was the only form of magic? This is an even more ancient form. It is called Soulcraft. Your soul and mine will be bonded forever," Signoir said. "With your body, I will escape this prison King Arkinus put me in. It is done," the dragon said, its body turning to black Dust. The masks and the skulls of the room screamed as fire lit up their eye sockets. They burned as the dragon's black Dust swirled into Saturion's chest, stitching the wound closed with black thread made of Dust in the shape of three deep scratches that formed a star-like crosshatch. It scabbed and scarred oozing black blood where he had been ripped open.

His heart was gone, replaced with a beating black egg. Black veins stretched out like spider-legs across the wound on his chest. Masks fell off the walls until the room collapsed into a dark abyss, sucking Saturion and Citrine down with it.

"Tury!" Citrine's called.

"I got you," Saturion said, reaching for her hand… He grabbed it and held on tight as the world around him disappeared again. Now there was only Citrine and him. Just the two of them in a vacuum between worlds.

"Where are we now?" Saturion said.

"In the space between reality," Citrine said.

"Don't look behind you," Saturion said.

"Why?" asked Citrine.

Two draconic figures, one shining with radiant white light and another made from crushing darkness, filled the sky completely. They ignored him; Saturion would remember that. He would not be ignored for long.

"Never mind," he said as the figures faded.

"Hold me, Tury," Citrine said.

"Always," Saturion said. He held Citrine to him and closed his eyes, smelling in the soft lilac of her platinum hair. Her body dissolved and joined his like a light breeze, causing the black spidery veins on his chest to burn. He could feel her inside him, her soul next to his.

Signoir was there, too.

Soulcraft.

He closed his eyes, felt Signoir's power mixed with something… else. Citrine's spirit whispered to him like they used to behind Vicar's company wagons. He breathed deep, searching for Dust that had never been there before, and found it.

Blue Dust trailed behind like a shooting star as he burst through the Wyrm Gate and out the top of the Castle of the Bow.

Gaial Be Good

The cultists chanted as a new figure appeared in the sky.

"What are they saying?" Valera asked as her dragon flew next to Vicar's.

"Listen," Vicar said.

"Gaial be good!"

"It is the All-Mother! Rejoice!"

"Oh," Valera said. She held her head, nearly fell off her dragon.

"Valera, what is it?"

"The Black," Valera said, silver tears rimming her eyes. "The vision. The jester is returned."

"Saturion?" Vicar said. He followed the Gaialists' gaze to see a new figure emerge from the Castle of the Bow, a man in a black robe and a jester's hat surrounded by dazzling purplish-red energy that formed the outline of a dragon as large as Tarantos.

"How?" Vicar demanded.

Valera could only shake her head. "I do not know."

The dragon Tarantos roared, a mixture of rage and disbelief. It sped toward Saturion. It crashed into him with all of its size and weight, sending Saturion flying. Saturion stopped himself midair and held his hands to either side.

"Let me ask you a question, Tarantos," Saturion said, his voice reverberating across the battlefield. Not just his voice, but a trio of voices, Citrine's and another Vicar could not place. "What came first, the dragon or the egg?"

Black, spiked tendrils formed on Saturion's chest and ripped his wound open. From it, more tendrils pushed an egg through his chest cavity, holding it in place as it grew larger and larger until the egg opened. The sky distorted forming the outline of a black dragon whose body filled the horizon, dwarfing even Tarantos. Saturion hovered in the place where the dragon's heart should be, a prawn against the sea. It was ethereal, like a constellation of black holes made real as with one massive claw, it ripped the Fusion Dragon Shield from Tarantos's back. It consumed him piece by blood-rending piece.

When it had its fill, it laughed, shaking Arcania with the force of it.

Another blinding flash and the dragon was gone, replaced by the egg. It shrunk and, guided by tendrils, returned to its place inside Saturion's chest. Saturion lost consciousness and fell to the Sylvanian streets as Gaialists killed Gaialists.

Vicar urged Ignicip forward and caught him before he crashed. "I got you," Vicar said. "At least I saved one of you. At least I saved one."

Valera flew next to Vicar. "I will take him," she said. "Perhaps his application to the guild should be reconsidered."

Vicar handed him over. Together, Valera and Vicar surveyed the wreckage.

The black sky began to lighten as the sun finally rose to its rightful place. Vicar recalled the madness he had unleashed and the killing slowed, then ceased. The streets were red with blood and black with tar, the buildings destroyed in over half the city. The Democracy was demolished, the government in shambles. The military corrupted. Most of the Guild of Court Mages decimated. Dragons had been reborn.

They would need to rebuild. Vicar would take the responsibility. He would save this world from itself so that nothing like this ever happened again. If he could save just one of his charges, even if it was a lowly jester, then perhaps he was not as useless as he had begun to fear. Perhaps he could save more still. Even if it meant conquering the world that existed now and replacing it with something better.

"You said a new age was starting," Vicar said.

"The New Age of Dragons," Valera said.

"No," Vicar said. "The Age of Conquest." He took off his helm and let it fall on top of the corpses below. He smiled, blood in his mouth, his skin unnaturally radiant, like a barely contained bonfire beneath the flesh. "The Age of Vicar."

Beneath Saturion's robe, the black veins stretched a little further across his chest. They glowed. They burned.

Epilogue

"Your drinks, sirs," Andros said, taking two large mugs of ale off of his serving tray and putting them in front of two robed figures. They were seated at the back of the rebuilt Drunken Bunk. Andros had overseen its reconstruction after the Battle of the Bow and had stayed on to help manage things. Portia could not do it all herself. Not without Citrine. Vicar had kept tabs on them, made sure their coffers were full. No amount of gold could make up for what he had cost Portia, but he would do his best to make what life she had left a little easier.

"You grow sentimental in this new age of ours," Valera said from across the table. She sat, hood up, face shrouded in shadow, pretending to sip from her mug. Valera was not a woman to give her self-control over to anyone or anything, alcohol included.

Vicar took a swig, drinking deep from his mug. He let the hops slide over his tongue, savored the bubbles and the sweetness of the peach undertones. "Life is too short, Valera," Vicar said, "To deny yourself little joys."

"I would insist you do not use that name here," Valera said. "I have agreed to meet at this establishment to appease you but I will shortly become less agreeable if you continue on as such."

"Right, sir," Vicar said, using Andros's term.

Half a year had passed since the Battle of the Bow. Construction efforts were ongoing. Funerals were occurring daily. Surviving Gaialists were being rounded up and jailed with no notion of a trial or sentencing.

"What have you learned on your travels?" Vicar asked.

"My fears have been confirmed," Valera said. "My counterparts in the north and south agree. The Gate is free."

"What does that mean, exactly?" said Vicar.

"It means it roams again. The Wyrm Gate is not a physical place, not in the same way that this tavern is." The inn was packed to the brim with new customers, everyone wanting to drink where the Platinum Wyvern fought the Gaialists. No matter how poor the people became, coin for drink always flowed freely.

"Can it be found?" Vicar asked.

"Yes," Valera said, hesitating. "But not on purpose. It has a mind of its own and it has been imprisoned for a very long time. I doubt it will allow anyone to find it for quite some time yet."

"But someone will find it," Vicar asked. "Someone will try to use it."

Valera nodded. "Certainly. They will come now from across the seas, from the Wraithlands in the far north, from the furthest corners of Arcania. They will come to this continent in search of the Dragon Shields. When Tarantos unlocked the Gate, he unleashed the floodgates of Dust itself. The shields are tied to the dragons and now that the dragons are rising, the shields will follow."

"We must find them," Vicar said. "We must protect them."

"Yes," Valera said. "Before any others can. One man with two Dragon Shields might tip the balance of power in this world forever."

Vicar took Valera's gloved hand. "That's why we make such a good team," he said. "Two shields between us."

Valera shrunk back from Vicar's touch.

Vicar, scorned, took his hand back and sipped at his mug. "What of Saturion?"

"The jester?"

"The very same. Is he awake?"

"No," Valera said. "And with luck, he will never wake again. I do not know what kind of transformation he has undergone but I will find out."

"I thought you were reconsidering his application," Vicar said.

"It has been denied. He is too close to the Black," Valera whispered.

"He may prove useful after all," Vicar said. "As you suggested all those months ago."

"He is dangerous," Valera said, growing dark.

"Where is he, Valera?"

"I told you not to call me that."

"Answer the question."

"Somewhere I can keep an eye on him," she said, swirling the ale in her mug. She gazed into it, past the little circles rippling across its surface. She could always use liquid to scry but it was different now. More potent with less energy required. A side effect of using the turquoise Dragon Shield as much as she did. It was handed down from High Mage to High Mage, but its powers had been dormant, hardly a fraction of what they were now. She wondered what side effects Vicar would experience from the orange shield that caused so much madness. She pushed those thoughts aside and willed the ale to show her, and only her, the jester mage.

He hung by his wrists from a chain in the ceiling of the Tower of Mages dungeons. Valera's mages poked and prodded, cut into him and sliced pieces off. No severity of pain had woken him and no manner of instrument had managed to scratch the cross-hatch shaped scarring on his chest or the black veins that slithered out from it. Not yet, anyway. They studied him like the rat he was and one day, when Valera uncovered the truth of his powers, she would snap his neck like he did her rat. She relished the thought and almost smiled.

"What now?" she said, shaking the mug lightly so that the image dissolved back into the ale.

"Now, I order another ale," Vicar said, raising his hand to get Andros's attention. "Then I find the rest of the Dragon Shields and with them, change the world."

The Jester Mage

Saturion felt every poke, prod, puncture, cut, burn, slice, and stab. He felt his wrists, bloody and slick from the metal chains of the dungeon. He could almost see the mages that worked on him, trying in vain to unlock his secrets. He absorbed it. Embraced it. Pain could be pleasure. Pain could be power. He endured all so he could continue to snatch moments from the jaws of death.

While Saturion's body hung in the dungeons of the Mage's Tower, his soul traveled to the meadow of the Wyrm Gate where he and Citrine had a little house. It had a fireplace and a stocked pantry. They sat on the porch, waiting and watching as gentle breezes came and went. They lived a quiet life far from battles and Dust and dragons. When they ate dinner, they held hands. He finally worked out the dragons playing hopscotch joke. It made Citrine smile every time.