Murder in the streets! With General Vicar's help, Saturion and his new friends narrowly escape the Cult of Gaial. But to stay safe, they must join Vicar on his journey to the countryside to investigate a mysterious madness sweeping Arcania.
The Show Begins
Last time on Dragon Shield Kingdoms: Vicar's Conquest
Saturion Deshane learned more about the Jester's Society, the sister organization to the Guild of Court Mages, and was given so-called tools of the trade needed to become a full-fledged jester. Saturion received his first official jester assignment to join a military company led by General Karosiv Vicar on a search of the Outlands for the source of a mysterious madness spreading across the countryside. Believing a general would not care for the wellbeing of a jester, Saturion plotted to flee the city in the night. He was transported from the Jester Society headquarters and dropped close to where a mob of armed cultists of the dragon god Gaial marched to find and kill a powerful mage known as a Wyvern. To his horror, the mob attacked The Drunken Bunk where Saturion's friends were staying. The assault on her home was enough to transform Citrine, the barkeeper's daughter, into a Wyvern, capable of incredible feats of magic. She single-handedly destroyed the cultists and almost killed Saturion until a man in golden armor appeared to stop her. He and Citrine's mother were able to calm her down and they joined Andros and Saturion in his wagon to escape. Before they could flee, backup Gaialists approached and demanded they turn Citrine over to pay for the crimes against their religion which states no power can be wielded without sacrifice. Wyverns, who sacrificed nothing for their great powers, were seen as an abomination. The man in golden armor revealed himself as General Karosiv Vicar of the Democratic Military and used his standing in the government to supersede the whims of the mob, declaring Citrine and the rest under his protection. The Gaialists begrudgingly let them pass but for how long…?
General Vicar hopped out of Andros's wagon and touched the tip of his bare blade to the marble inner Sylvania wall. Like a pebble dropped in a river, ripples of light coursed out in every direction from the point until the wall dissolved, leaving behind little more than glowing embers. Revealed in its place was a secret entranceway — or, in this case, escape route big enough for two wagons of average size. "Hurry," Vicar said as Andros urged his confused horse forward. "The wall won't stay open for long."
"Are there many secret passageways throughout the city?" Saturion asked, desperate to change the subject from the near-death experience they'd all just had at the hands of the unconscious girl in the back of the wagon. Citrine, now outed as a Wyvern, lay still as her mother Portia cradled her head in her lap. She rocked back and forth, humming, eyes closed.
Vicar neither confirmed nor denied the existence of further secret passages as they rode. The trail died as they approached a black forest in which light seemed to disappear. Saturion turned back just in time to see the wall behind them reform itself piece by piece.
Andros's horse Bartholomew neighed as the stars and moonlight disappeared beyond the barrier of the trees. Saturion tried to look at his hand but found he could not see it, so total was the dark. As the last twinkling of light disappeared, so did any hope of Saturion fleeing. He would never be able to find his way through the forest on his own and once they arrived at the fortress Vicar spoke of, he had next to zero chance to escape it. Hollis's voice rang in his ears: "Leave Sylvania and never look back." Saturion would leave but not in the way he'd hoped. He would have to make his peace with that. He was in it now, even if he did not know exactly what it was.
"What is this place?" Andros demanded.
"It is a throughway," Vicar said. "It is the closest route to the Fortress."
"I can't see a blasted thing," Andros complained. "And neither can Bart!" He leaned over and patted the horse on the neck. "Where did the damn stars go?" Andros took a torch out from the back of his wagon but Vicar put a gloved hand on his before he could light it.
"That won't work here," Vicar said. "The throughway is enchanted. No natural light can breathe in this environment."
"How in the hell do you expect me to navigate without light?"
"There are methods," Vicar said. "Our enemies must not find the headquarters of the Democratic Military.
"Enemies?" Saturion asked, his voice wobbling as Vicar unsheathed his sword.
Vicar held his obsidian blade up to his face. The red inlaid Dust burned faintly against the dark with red Dust flaring up and jumping out of the blade to form little firefly-like creatures called Dustflies. They flew haphazardly and glowed intermittently. The blade cast a ghastly glow across Vicar, drenching him in blood red light so that the heraldic gold of his armor transformed into a twisted and wicked version, as if bathed in blood to achieve the hue of the dying. Saturion shivered although there was no breeze. No wind. No sound other than their own. Vicar was like the forest in that way. Completely, totally still.
"Enemies abound, young jester," Vicar said. "Whether you can see them or not. Here," Vicar said. "My sword will guide you." He handed it to Andros who had trouble lifting it by the hilt.
"How heavy is this thing?" he gasped.
"As heavy as I need it to be," Vicar said.
"Could you need it to be a little lighter?"
Vicar replaced his helmet, perhaps to hide a smile. "Follow the Dustflies," he said. "They know the way."
Andros struggled to keep the sword aimed forward. Waves of Dust flared up and off of the blade forming new gaggles of Dustflies all the time, providing just enough light to see directly in front of the wagon.
They knew the end of the trail was near when the stars began to return. "Look," Saturion said.
"Yes, boy," Andros said. "I'm old but I'm not blind."
"Follow the path from here," Vicar said when they reached the edge of the forest. A winding obsidian pathway snaked through a valley with large peaks on either side.
"Do you hear that?" Saturion asked.
"Ocean," Andros replied.
A mountain took shape in the distance with a black fortress of twisting spires carved into the rock. Waves crashed violently behind the mountain as a shock of lightning broke across the sky. The light illuminated the entire valley and for a second revealed outlines of dragon heads made entirely of glimmering Dust. In the age before, real dragons roamed these skies. Now these Dust constructs, little more than their ghosts, remained, disappearing with the lightning strike. They reminded Saturion of the one he'd created in High Mage Valera's sanctum earlier that day. Did he somehow tap into the same Dustcraft used to protect the fortress? Could there be someone in the fortress that could teach him how to conjure them on demand? Saturion's palms grew sweaty as his heartbeat sped up, matching the rhythm of Bart's hooves clacking against the obsidian as they raced toward the Jet Fortress.
Soldiers stood like statues clad in silver at the entranceway to the fortress. They did not move an inch as the party drove along the winding mountain road and through the fortress courtyard. Saturion wondered if they were even alive or if they were automatons built from Dust to look imposing. Each bowed their heads as Vicar went by.
"Come," he said. "The guards will see to the wagon." He helped Portia climb out of the back. "May I?" he asked. Portia nodded and he lifted Citrine. The luminescent jet doors were as large as some mountains and seemed impossibly heavy. But as Vicar approached, they swung open easily, closing only when all five were inside the fortress halls. Saturion glanced behind as the doors closed to see the guards standing put, flashes of lightning dancing across their silver armor.
Vicar led the party through the winding maze of halls. Water dripped from stalactites built into the ceilings, causing the entire place to dampen. He asked Andros to open a door at the end of a long hallway into a bedroom. The bedroom was sparse by most standards of luxury but for the fortress was elaborately decorated. It had a four poster bed, a plush chair in the corner, a dresser, a desk, and a window overlooking the rocking sea. He lay Citrine gently on the bed. "This room was once reserved for royalty," he said. "Now we use it for visiting governors. You may use it for tonight. I trust you will find it comfortable."
"Thank you," Portia whispered, sitting on the bed next to her daughter.
"I will have a servant come bring you refreshments. If you should need anything, do not hesitate to ask him."
As Vicar turned his back to leave, Portia said, "You're taking her, aren't you? Tomorrow?"
"I am," he said without turning back. "She is a Wyvern and the Guild of Court Mages have assigned her to me."
"Am I a prisoner here?" Portia asked.
"No," Vicar said. "You are our guest."
"Guest, eh?" Andros said, speaking for the first time since arriving at the fortress. "Way I see it, you owe us. You'll make sure Citrine is safe, won't ye?"
"I will do my best," Vicar said.
"Good," Portia hissed. "Because I am not leaving here until you bring her back in one piece."
"Me either," Andros said. "I'm sure you've got plenty of war relics laying around. She goes missing, so do they. I am a merchant, after all."
"You are welcome to stay until we depart," Vicar said. "But then you must leave."
"To go where?" Portia asked. "My tavern is gone! We lived above it. Now you're taking my daughter. No, I think I will stay right here and enjoy the hospitality of the military."
"Me as well," Andros said. "Bart likes it here."
"Who?" Vicar asked.
"Bart! Bartholomew! My horse for goodness sake," Andros said disbelieving.
Vicar stood silent. Saturion listened to the drip-drip of the water falling from the stalactites. "There are… many methods to ensure the Wyvern cooperates," Vicar finally said. "You staying here is one of the more pleasant."
"Indeed," Andros said. "Now, where can I take a bath?"
Vicar closed the door on Portia and Citrine and as he did, it dawned on Saturion that this could be exactly the opportunity he was looking for when he came to the capital. Excitement bloomed like dancing Dustflies in his belly. Citrine would go with Vicar and she was a Wyvern; this was Saturion's chance to study her, to learn from her. To see how the powerful wield what is theirs. He would prove himself and when he returned, he would be somebody.
Vicar showed Andros to a similarly adorned room as Portia's but with a bathtub and Saturion to a room in a far corner of the fortress. His room had a cot and no window as opposed to the more lavish offerings his companions enjoyed.
"No royal guest suite for me?" he said.
"You are not a guest," Vicar said. "You are a company jester. These accommodations are better than you will find on the road. Enjoy them this night for tomorrow begins our journey. I will have your belongings brought to you. For now, I would rest while you can."
Saturion called after Vicar as he left. "What about refreshments? You going to just, uh, send a servant? I could go for a bite to eat and maybe an ale or thirty!" His voice echoed out in the empty hall. Saturion heaved against the door but it was far too heavy. "That's fine," he said, plopping down on his cot. That night was not for resting; it was for jesting. He needed to practice. In the morning, the show would begin.
Vicar marched into the strategy room of the Jet Fortress, helmet under arm. The strategy room was originally intended to act as a throne room for use by the first king Athram Arkinus, but the fortress had not been completed before his death. Now it served as the headquarters for the Democratic Military under the rule of a different kind of king: Vicar. Unlike the empty hallways of the residence quarters, the strategy room was abuzz with life as company members ran to and fro to deliver messages, to double check logistics, and to perform innumerable other tasks needed to make any military expedition a successful one.
"All rise for General Vicar!" one of the soldiers at the door called. The buzzing men and women inside froze in place, stood to the door, and put their hands to their temples, fingers out to resemble wings. It was a sign of respect, but one that took too much time and was entirely unnecessary in Vicar's view.
"As you were," he said, not stopping as he went to a long table in the center of the room facing sixteen empty thrones.
He was accosted immediately.
"General, can you sign off on this logistic report for the journey?"
"General, could you please look over the weapons inventory list so we can have it packed?"
"General, we are running low on fish cakes and rice wine so have sent a wagon to the city get more. It may delay the departure time tomorrow."
"A message came for you sir. From Volos."
That caught Vicar's attention. "Give it here," he said, waving the others away and taking the letter out of the messenger's hand. He broke the wax seal and read.
To General Karosiv Vicar, Reporting from the Outlands on the Subject of Spontaneous Madness
It is as we have feared. Madness has gripped the outlands like a plague. I do not know how we are to combat it. So far, the scouts and I have not contracted it, but it is difficult to say if or when this could change. You must come at once but do not come alone. Bring doctors and mages with you, those who might have a chance at diagnosing the cause and stopping it before it spreads beyond the outer territories.
I will write again soon. For now, we head to rendezvous with you at the established point of contact.
Sincerest regards in these troubled times,
Lieutenant Volos Brikler
Vicar read the letter twice before addressing the questions of his underlings. He did not view himself as royalty or a monarch and yet his soldiers understood his authority to be absolute. He signed off on the logistics report, inventory list, and demanded the supplies arrive without delay, then asked to make sure a few extra doctors and Dustcrafters were added to the company. They would be informed that night and expected to ride out in the morning. Not a pleasant surprise for some, but their services were needed for the good of the Democracy. They would understand. And if not, they would be compelled to comply.
Whereas the first king Athram Arkinus claimed his throne by virtue of wielding the White Dragon Shield, Vicar was given his command by committee. He was a servant to the Democracy, taking command only at the behest of the Committee on War and Skirmishes (CWAS), the oversight body responsible for all major tactical and deployment decisions on the continent. The committee was elected from within the Bureaucracy of the Democracy and oversaw the two major branches of the military: The Horde, made up of soldiers, knights, cavalry, and other ground forces, and the Leviathans, comprised of the Democratic Arcanian fleet and various naval ships. A third branch, the Skyswords, which incorporated all air-related and dragon riding military activities, had been decommissioned when the dragons disappeared. Within each were further divisions of structure and chain of command down to the most common soldier.
Vicar was not unique in his authority. Within any given squadron, company, or brigade, the commanding officer had full control. He or she who had attained the rank of General might only be overridden by a direct majority vote of CWAS. Otherwise, their rule on the battlefield and over the lives of those in their command was absolute. It used to make him uncomfortable but now he understood its imperativeness. In battle, one can not wait for handwringing policy bureaucrats to weigh their options. One needed decisiveness. Tyranny on the battlefield was not tyranny at all, but the acceptance of a great burden to lead.
Vicar did not take that responsibility lightly. All around him were men and women who fully trusted him to protect them on the battlefield. And yet, as they made preparations to leave Sylvania, he wondered if they were retreating from the true battle. The battles he knew from fighting the mercenary bands of Blackriders, Bitterblossoms and Darkscales were disappearing. In their place were riots, character assassinations and political warfare fought in the open streets of Sylvania and behind closed doors. On the battlefield of bureaucracy, he was as useful as a jester. Less, even. It scared him. He could feel the tide of change crashing onto Sylvania as sure as he could hear the waves crashing against the rock outside the fortress.
It would be more difficult to protect those under his command given the circumstances. He almost lost the girl that evening. Citrine. The Wyvern that Valera asked him to watch. To kill, if necessary. He might not know the intricacies of political warfare but he could not let the assault stand, for the Gaialists were masters waging war from the dark. He would need to enter a different kind of battle before he could leave the fortress, if for no other reason than to prove to himself that he could change tactics to protect those entrusted to him for their protection. He was not as rigid as the tree trunks outside but as nimble as the forest leaves. He would show the governors that he was not to be trifled with, for the Gaialists would only strike if they thought him a non-factor.
"Out," he said without raising his voice.
"Excuse me, sir?" a nearby soldier asked. "Did you say something?"
Vicar turned to the soldier, rage in his eyes. Keeping his voice steady, "I said, get out."
"Vacate the throne room!" the soldier called. "Orders from the general! Everyone must vacate the throne room." Those that could took their work with them while others simply left their stations around the room until Vicar was alone, doors closed.
He faced the sixteen thrones that lined the walls. They had been added to the throne room at the establishing of the governorships. Each one had the symbol of the governor's respective shimmer etched into the back of the throne. Vicar placed his helm on the long table in the center of the room.
A map of the world lay open on the table with markers for the best route to the outlands. When viewed from above, the similarities between the shape of the main Arcanian continents and the anatomy of a dragon was unmistakable. In truth, his charges were the people of Serpentia, the largest continent on Arcania. It was subdivided into regions based on the draconic features they most closely resembled. The central, major continent was called as The Belly, known for the breadlands, endless farms, rolling hills and sweeping plains. Valera had said that was Saturion's home. North along The Neck were the Umber Forests where the bulk of the loggers and hunters lived. Vicar's eye traveled further up the neck to find the icy tundra known as the Wraithlands in The Horns where it was said dragons made of ice still roamed. One day he would like to see if the rumors were true for himself. Across the Westania Ocean from the Umber Forest rested the mining regions of The Head where copper, metals, gems, coal, and innumerable other natural resources were harvested. His armor and blade were forged in the fires of the head. He owed their blacksmiths a great debt for it had protected him on innumerable occasion. Southeast from The Belly were the archipelago of The Talons and the great cities of SheSaNee and Sanctus. Eastania Ocean was home to The Tail and The Wings, both treacherous landscapes where nomadic tribes roamed and where mercenaries recruited.
Arcania. His home. He loved it from the horns to the tail. That is why he must confront any threat to it, whether it be a plague of madness in the outlands or a cult infestation in the capital. Vicar pulled a lever on the underside of the table. A small circular compartment unlatched from the middle of the table and went inside the wood revealing a compartment filled with Dustflies. "Summon them," he told the Dustflies.
More and more Dustflies flew from the compartment, fitting themselves into the grooves of the shimmer symbol etchings in the back of the thrones. They lit up with the various colors of the shimmers. Light ran up and down the thrones like a nervous system of energy as Dust began to form like so much sand ticking down from an hourglass. In the thrones sat fifteen Dust projections of the sixteen governors, each in various stages of dinner. Vicar knew that each of them had a table similar to the one he used to house the Dustflies that now displayed a perfect Dust replica of him. As a co-equal member of the Democratic military, the general had the right to summon and speak to the governors as his peers. That did not mean they were happy about it.
"Why have you summoned us during dinner?" the governor in the red throne boomed.
"How dare you?" added the yellow governor.
"Where is Ridrick," asked the blue governor of the empty purple throne next to him.
"Where do you think?" chimed pink. "At the whorehouse no doubt."
Raucous laughter from the five present secular governors. Nine of the governors wore pastel versions of their traditional gubernatorial dress. Off-color robes to demonstrate that true colors were reserved for Gaial and Gaial alone. They made no noise or movements. They watched.
"Excuse the intrusion on your evenings, governors," Vicar said. "But this concerns a matter that cannot wait."
"Well then, what is it?" Red again.
"This evening, one of my charges almost lost her life in an unprovoked attack by a mob of angry Gaialists."
"She killed those Gaialists, too," one of the Gaialist governors said. It was the governor of the white shimmer. His normally pristine white robes had been replaced with the off-white of the cult. "They were only carrying out their duty."
"To murder a girl in cold blood?"
"A Wyvern," the Gaialist governor said. "Not a girl. And they would not have murdered her. They were instructed to bring her into captivity."
"Regardless of what she is, she was placed under my command by this very body! A Gaialist was sent to inform her of this fact. What am I to think when but a few hours later a mob appears at her door? What is she to think?"
Murmurs as the governors spoke amongst themselves until the Gaialist governor raised a hand to silence the others. "Gaialists, like all religions, have followers of different degrees of devotion. Those you encountered this evening were… on the more zealous end of the spectrum. Not all Gaialists would react as such."
"I demand to know who is responsible for this," Vicar said.
"I am," the off-white robed governor, Tarantos, said. "High Mage Valera only informed me that she had sent a messenger to tell the Wyvern of her posting. She had no way of knowing that the messenger was a Gaialist. When I caught wind of it, I sent the more zealous among us to bring her in before you could invoke military protection."
Vicar had a difficult time believing Valera did not know a Gaialist messenger would be sent. What game was she playing?
"Now that you have invoked it, however, you should not concern yourself with further attacks or legal retribution," Tarantos continue.
"I wish I could believe that, governor," Vicar said. "I have been in the Democratic Military for longer than most of you have held your positions. I have seen the rise and fall of many political fortunes. I've lost soldiers on the battlefield and throughout it all, I believed we were fighting for the people of Arcania."
"Do you no longer believe you are?" asked an elderly woman, the non-Gaialist gold governor.
"My belief is unimportant. It is the actions of this body that matters. As it stands, the governorship seems to be no more than a pawn to religious rule. I would know where each of your loyalties lie before I take a daughter from her mother and lead more soldiers to early graves."
The Dust projections of the governors flickered as they murmured to each other in voices too low for Vicar to hear. Tarantos spoke. "That sounds like an accusation, general. Pray, have the courage to make it clear."
"I hold in my hand a letter from my lieutenant confirming that the madness continues to spread. It strikes me as odd that the madness began at roughly the same time as the Gaialists converted you," he said to Tarantos.
"A curious coincidence," he said.
"I do not believe in coincidence," Vicar said. "There is cause and there is effect. I swing my sword," Vicar did it to demonstrate the point. "And a head rolls. The head did not happen to appear underneath my sword."
"Watch your tone, general," the golden governor said. "Remember with whom you speak."
"I do, Minerva. I ask only this: Before I leave this great city, I must know that the religious leanings of the majority will not unduly affect the decisions of this body and that our mission is not religiously motivated but motivated by what is good for all of Arcania." In other words, that you will keep your internal war to a simmer until I return and root out the cause.
"You have our word," Minerva the golden governor said. "Isn't that right, Tarantos?"
The off-white governor's face had grown crimson. "You accuse me and my kind of somehow being responsible for the madness killing our people in the outlands. It is treason of which you speak. I do not take the accusation lightly."
"I am simply making an observation," Vicar said. "One that surely I am not the only to surmise."
"Regardless," Tarantos said, ignoring Vicar's response. "My colleague in gold is correct. We serve the people of Arcania. Even us Gaialists." The eight other Gaialist governors shared a knowing look that did not escape Vicar's eye. "You have our word on that."
"Is there anything else?" the exasperated blue governor said just as the purple one appeared wearing nothing but a bathrobe.
"Apologies, apologies," he said. "You caught me in the middle of a, uh, bath."
This time, all of the governors shared disparaging looks. Regardless of religion, no one much cared for Ridrick the purple.
"Will that be all?" Minerva asked. "My plate grows cold."
"Yes," the general said. "You have my thanks."
"Good luck on your expedition, general," the Minerva said. "We are all counting on you." One by one, the projections dissipated back into Dustflies and returned to the compartment within the table. All but Tarantos.
"Might I help you, governor?" Vicar said.
"You and I have known each other for how long, Karosiv?"
"Since we joined the military as enlisted men. Eggs," he said.
"It is for the love I still have for you after all these years that I issue this warning. Do not return to Sylvania, Karosiv. You have saved one girl this evening but a reckoning is coming."
"What do you mean?" Vicar asked.
Tarantos only shook his head. "If you value your freedom and the safety of your charges, you will heed my warning. Do not return, Karosiv. Sylvania will not be the same place you left when you do." With that, the image fell into a burst of Dustflies leaving Vicar, once again, in the dark.
As Vicar carried a message to the fortress courier, he heard Saturion practicing standup comedy in his room. At least the boy takes his jesting seriously, Vicar thought. Even if he isn't very funny.
The message he wrote was short but important. He prayed it would reach his lieutenant Volos without delay. It read:
Received your message. We leave tomorrow for the rendezvous in Caltrider. If I do not make it, know that the Gaialist's power and ambition grows. I fear we search outside the house when the fire burns from within.
Stay safe and stay sane. That is an order.
He prayed Volos would understand his meaning and that the occasion would not come in which he would have to.