Saturion and Citrine grow closer but Citrine yearns to atone for her sins. When a mercenary band attacks Vicar's company, she gets the chance she thought she wanted. Vicar reunites with an old friend.

Episode 6 - Blackriders

Blackriders

Last time on Dragon Shield Kingdoms: Vicar's Conquest

Saturion and Citrine started on their expedition with General Vicar's company. Saturion found that he enjoyed performing as a jester while Citrine struggled with the weight of having killed eleven Gaialists, even if it was in self-defense. Saturion convinced Citrine to teach him Dustcraft as a way to learn to control her powers. The two became close, finding comfort in one another's company on the hard road as General Karosiv Vicar leads his company further into the western territories of Arcania where madness and monsters await.

Becoming Useful

Citrine began each day on the road with Vicar's company laying in the dark in her unadorned tent wrapped in a bedroll too small for her, sinking slightly into the muddy ground, exhausted from the tossing and turning of the night before. Each day, a helmeted man would come to get her. She would dress quietly, the man standing guard at the opening. He would say nothing as he led her to the palanquin where Vicar insisted she ride during the day. She would have much preferred to ride on horseback or walk, but Vicar would have none of it.

They had been on the road a little over two weeks now, or so she thought. It was difficult to keep track of time in the palanquin. She could make out only vague shapes through the sheer magenta curtains of the palanquin. They were speckled with pinpricks of light but almost opaque so that she could not see out. She relied on her other senses. The feel of the velvet purple pillow she sat on, too light and sunken after the hard feel of the ground where she slept. She heard the grunting of the men that lifted her each day, their mumbling just out of earshot. She assumed they were complaining about her, about getting stuck with the duty of carrying her. She thought she heard them call her "princess" and recoiled at the thought. She smelled stew cooking in the pot during lunchtime and could almost taste the over salted broth before a single armored hand opened the curtains, handed her a bowl, and left without showing any more of the person whose hand it belonged to.

The days were at once too long and too short, with the time spent alone dragging on leaving her with her thoughts. Vicar's company went to bed shortly after dusk, far earlier than she was used to. At the Drunken Bunk, she would stay up until the night became the morning. She'd wait until every patron left before scrubbing the counters, cleaning the booths, washing the mugs. She'd make herself useful. Then, just before dawn, she'd crawl into bed and grab a few hours of sleep before waking to help her mother with the morning shipment. It was not an exciting life, but it was her life, one that her mother had worked hard to provide for her. One in which the only violence she experienced were bar fights and betting disagreements instead of the battlefields where Wyverns were often sent. Now, she ended each day with a headache from the bumpy road and a scant few hours before mandatory bedtime. She hardly had time to eat supper much less make friends, even if she wanted to. Not that she thought she deserved friends. Not after what she did.

The days began to bleed into one another, a life surrounded by magenta fabric and dark tarpaulin until she thought she would be driven mad by the redundancy if the mysterious madness they sought did not take her first. "I can't live like this," she said one day, and at lunch she waited until the man with the bowl appeared between the slits in the fabric. She grabbed hold of his wrist, pulled him forward, but propelled herself out and into the dirt, the bowl of stew laying toppled in the road.

"General!" Citrine exclaimed. "It's you!"

"Yes," Vicar said, standing and wiping stew off his armor. "How observant of you."

"I— I'm sorry!" Then, "Wait. You've been bringing me lunch?"

"Why not?" Vicar said.

"Don't you have more important things to do? Like, I don't know, run the company?"

"Your safety is paramount," Vicar said. "I cannot risk anyone tampering with your food or drink. I watch it to make sure it is safe and taste every bowl myself."

The sun felt oppressive and heavy after so many days sitting in the palanquin. The sounds were louder, with Saturion performing one of his JesTuries for the younger members of Vicar's company a few yards away. He was dressed in the traditional jester's cap with the bells on the end, making a fool of himself. The bells jingling sounded like a gong to her. "General, I'm sorry I fell on you but I just… I can't sit in there doing nothing anymore. I need to be useful. I need to do something."

"You are doing something," Vicar said, picking up the discarded bowl. "You're staying safe."

He did not mean it to be insulting but just then, Citrine could not take such a thought. Why should she of all people have extra precautions taken when she was a killer? When she could not protect her mother or the Bunk or her friends? People laughed behind her at one of Tury's jokes and a dark envy crawled into her chest, wriggling out into her lungs.

"Everyone here… they hate me," Citrine said.

"No one hates you," replied Vicar.

"Yes, they do," she said. "Please. Let me help."

Vicar considered, moving the bowl from one hand to another as if measuring his options. "You know they are still after you," he said.

"Who?"

"The Gaialists," Vicar said. "They will not stop."

"All the more reason for me to be prepared," she said. "To train or something." She imagined her mother's disapproving scowl. Training. Fighting. She had done everything to prevent Citrine from having to go to battle and here she was signing up willingly. Sorry, mom, she thought.

"Isn't that what your lessons with the jester are for?" he asked.

It took Citrine aback. She did not think that Vicar would pay attention to their lessons. She wondered what else he knew and then realized that he probably knew everything that happened in his company. There was no point in trying to hide anything from a man like him. "I am teaching Tury Dustcraft, that's all, what little I know of how to control. I need proper combat training to protect myself."

"You want to make up for what happened in Sylvania," Vicar said.

Citrine hanged her head. "Yes," she whispered.

"You will," Vicar said. "In time. For now, I have a different mission or you. Come."

Citrine's heart beat fast as she followed Vicar. She imagined her mother floating after her like a ghost, protesting as they walked. Citrine had spent her entire life hiding the fact that she was a Wyvern. Learning her power, flaunting it even, excited her as much as it scared her. Then she pictured the faces of the Gaialists she had killed in Sylvania, their broken teeth and sunken skulls, the punctures gorged into their chests and stomachs, and darkness swallowed her heart.

Vicar stopped at the back of a tarp-covered wagon. He removed the tarp revealing seemingly endless empty bags and bottles.

"What is this?" Citrine asked.

"How you make yourself useful," he said. "You will fill these containers with Dust," he said. "The Dragi will use them should the need arise to defend ourselves."

The Dragi. The designation given to Dustcrafters who had chosen the join the military instead of the Guild of Court Mages. They were adept soldiers who wielded Dust like the finest of swords.

"This is not what I had in mind," Citrine said.

"If you are lucky, young Wyvern, you will never see combat and therefore do not require combat training."

"And if I am unlucky?"

Vicar did not respond.

He changed the subject back to the containers. "This afternoon," he said. "You will begin to fill these containers with Dust."

"Don't you have Dust for the Dragi?" she asked.

"This company's Dust reserves are not your concern," Vicar said. "Your concern is to do as I say." He did not say it, but Citrine knew the conversation was over. Vicar turned without saying goodbye and walked away from the glow of Saturion's JesTury, disappearing into the darkness of his tent at the far end of camp.

You Are Enough

Citrine spent ten hours a day for the next week siphoning Dust as General Vicar commanded. She sat in her palanquin with her eyes closed and her hand over a bag or a jar until it was filled with Dust. Then, she would trade it out for an empty container and fill that with a different shimmer of Dust and so on. It was exhausting work. The palanquin curtains were almost opaque, allowing just enough light in so she could see when the jars were full but little more. She saw no one during the day except for when Vicar brought her lunch.

It was possible that the company Dragi would use the Dust she'd siphoned as Vicar said but it was equally as possible that she was being used to make Vicar rich. Pure Dust like that which she made was worth a fortune. If she were charitable to Vicar, she supposed the Dust could be sold for the so-called "good of the Democracy." She'd heard rumors that the Democracy sold Dust to mercenary bands from time to time, using it as leverage to force one band to take out another. This was to be her lot in life from now on, she figured. Siphoning Dust in a dark and dingy room until she keeled over, drained of her power, never to see the sun again.

Except for at lunchtime when Vicar collected the containers and dropped off new ones with her stew, the company was under strict orders not to interrupt her. Even Saturion, who enjoyed flouting rules and who spent his days riding with different members of the company, did not visit. She might be forgiven, then, for shrieking back like a banshee when a courier of the Democratic Postal Service pulled back her curtain without warning to deliver a letter she was not expecting.

"Sorry," she said, embarrassed for how she'd reacted. The sunlight stung her eyes. She stopped falling bottles of Dust from smashing on the ground with a flick of her wrist.

"No worries, miss," the courier said, handing her a letter sealed with he wax sigil of the Guild of Court Mages. Her stomach dropped at the sight of the sigil. It could only mean one thing: The court had decided what to do with her upon her return to Sylvania. She broke the seal and read slowly, dread caught in her neck like an apricot pit.

That evening, she showed the letter to Saturion in her tent. He was wearing a tragedy mask with a black tear painted underneath the left eye.

"Amazing that the courier could even find you all the way out here," he said still wearing the mask. "Wherever here is. The Democratic Postal Service remains the most trustworthy and efficient institution in all of Arcania." He scanned the letter. Despite the mask, Citrine could tell the exact moment it broke his heart. His body hung like a teardrop. "You've been accepted into the Guild of Court Mages. I guess that was bound to happen," he said. "Should I congratulate you?"

"No," she said. "Keep reading."

"'Citrine Belafonte, you have been assigned the role of Channeler by the High Mage, responsible for keeping the Democracy's supply of Dust filled. This esteemed honor has been granted to you after much consideration. Upon your safe return to the capital, you will begin your duties,'" Saturion read aloud. "What's this mean?"

"It means this might be the last time I ever have anything close to freedom," she said, taking the letter from him. "I did not want this. Any of it."

"Well you've got it," Saturion said. "You might try to be a little more thankful."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Citrine asked.

"Nothing," Saturion said. "Never mind. Forget it." He turned to leave.

"Tury! Would you take that mask off and talk to me?"

He hesitated, but turned around and raised the mask. "Look," he said. "I get that this isn't what you wanted. But you have power. One day you could have influence. You could change things in Arcania! Who wouldn't want that?"

"I'd rather be loved," Citrine demanded. "Like you."

"I'm a jester, Citrine," he said.

"So?"

"So everyone pities me. I'm an oddity. Someone to make fun of. I'm a joke."

Citrine felt like she was seeing him clearly for the first time. That beneath the bluster and the pompousness, the jokes and the show, Saturion was angry, hurt. He was alone. She softened at the realization and spoke calmly. "Tury, I want you to listen to me now. Listen well." She pulled him into a hug, although his body stayed rigid as a drying board. "You are enough. Just as you are."

"Citrine, I…"

"You are enough." She held him tight until he wrapped her in his arms. "At least you're not getting carried around all day. I'm getting fat just sitting in there."

"I wasn't going to say anything but…" Citrine slapped him playfully. "Look, none of this has to be forever. I bet Wyvern Channelers are treated like royalty. At least you won't have to fight anyone." He tried a smile but it did not reach his eyes.

Maybe," she said, easing her voice for his sake. "Let's see if we survive this journey before we start thinking about the next one, yeah?"

He kissed her and she could taste the blood from the wound inside his cheek. Later that night, they lay together in her too-small bedroll, limbs entangled, the fight all but forgotten. The conversation had turned to their lives before, a much more pleasant topic than what might come.

"You must have had a lot of friends back home, with your humor," Citrine said wistfully. "It was hard for me to get to know anyone for long at The Bunk."

"Actually, I rarely talked to anyone. Most of my friends were animals," Tury replied, his hands nervously fumbling with the bedroll.

"Really?" Citrine cocked an eyebrow in disbelief. "Then how'd you get to be so...well, funny?"

"I used to tell jokes to the hens every morning." Citrine stifled a giggle. "No, really. It helped them lay better eggs."

The conversation trailed off until Saturion fell asleep. He snored lightly in tune with the crickets outside. She could not help but gaze at the tragedy mask and wonder which Saturion was the real him: the jester, the brat, or the farm boy? She wanted to find out.

Several more weeks passed and the relative ease of the first couple became apparent in retrospect. Now, the troops grew restless. Tired. They hadn't seen a village in four days and they were leaving the relative safety of the western plains to start through the wooded area to the north. Visibility would be low and highwaymen, mercenaries, bandits and thieves could easily hide among the trees. Each night the tension grew more palpable as the tree trunks grew larger in the distance, like ghostly sentinels shifting in the fog.

Citrine spent most of her days thinking of and missing Saturion while she siphoned and Saturion wrote new jokes to share with her at night. At least for the time being, he was content to be the jester.

"What's the difference between the general and a tree trunk?" he asked her one evening.

She shrugged. "What?"

"One's a thick pile of bark stuck in his ways and humorless, and the other's Vicar!"

Citrine did not laugh. "Was that supposed to be funny?"

"Yeah. It's a joke."

"I take back what I said. You're not very good at this.

"Come here, you," he said, chasing her around the tent until they both fell onto her cot, laughing.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi back," she said.

"You are enough," he said, leaning in to kiss her. "Even if you think my jokes are crap."

She smiled but as he leaned into kiss her and she closed her eyes, she saw a vision of tendrils escaping her body like sharp serpent tongues, tearing into Gaialists in the Sylvania streets, turning their off-white robes red with blood.

She grabbed his hand and opened her eyes.

"What is it?" Saturion asked.

"I… need to be alone," she said, voice shaky.

"Are you sure?" Saturion said. "Did I do something wrong?"

"No," Citrine said. His face had turned into that of the dead Gaialist's. She blinked and it was back to normal. "No, you didn't do anything wrong."

"Okay," Saturion said, getting up from her cot. "I'll see you tomorrow then, yeah?"

"Yeah," Citrine said. She winced as he kissed her on the cheek and left her alone with her ghosts.

Citrine rose before dawn the next morning, to find the fully-armored Vicar waiting outside her palanquin. "I received notice of your acceptance into the guild," he said without preamble.

"Good morning to you too," Citrine said, barely containing a yawn.

"The bureaucracy is a slow moving kraken. You should have been accepted as soon as you were discovered."

"I would just as soon not be accepted at all, thanks."

"I have had a change of heart," he said. "I do not believe your talents are best used as a Channeler."

"What are you saying?" she asked.

"As a member of the Guild of Court Mages, you will be called upon to provide counsel and wisdom to those you are assigned. And in times of great struggle, you may be called upon to use your powers to protect those who cannot protect themselves. It is this calling for which you must prepare, not for filling the coffers of the governors."

"Uh huh," Citrine said, not sure where Vicar was going with this.

"Therefore, I have decided to take you on as a pupil. You will become my Egg and I your Wing as I train you in combat, tactics, and court politics. I am not so good at the latter, but even a rudimentary education will serve you upon our return."

"But… why? What about the High Mage's letter? Her assignment?"

"The High Mage is not infallible," Vicar said. "As for the why, I believe your talents may be called upon sooner than she knows. I will write to her and inform her of my decision. Come. We will begin your training at once."

A scream ripped through the camp like a dagger through a belly. Vicar broke out into a run chasing the sound, Citrine close behind. Soldiers were leaving their tents, gearing up and grabbing their weapons as Vicar and Citrine approached the center of camp. Specks of gray and black dotted the sky. A clump fell on Citrine's face. She touched it and felt the soot slick between her fingers.

Ash.

Ash fell from the sky as the trees on the horizon burned.

The stampede was immediate and deafening as the company rose to action. General Vicar had his armor and helmet on and already sat astride his black mare barking orders. Citrine absently thought she would not be surprised if he slept in that armor.

"Dragi, arm yourselves with a full Dust bag and stay close to the infantry. Talon Rank, grab your spears and march! Teeth, your swords and move in!" He turned his attention like a burning, all-seeing eye on her. "Wyvern, with me!"

She felt compelled to obey and so ran before she had time to tell her feet what to do. With a single arm, he swept her up and onto the back of his mare.

Saturion, wearing nothing but his jester's cap and gray undershorts with yellow ducks embroidered in them (a gift from the Jester's Society, no doubt), tripped over himself trying to get to them. "Wait!" he called. "I want to help! What can I do?"

"Stay out of the way," Vicar snarled. He raised a fisted hand as a third of his company surrounded him on horseback. "With me!" he hollered, pointing his fist forward. His mare took off and close behind, the cavalry.

Citrine could hear her veins pumping blood in her ears like crashing waterfalls. Gaial, if you are real, please lend me strength, she prayed.

Bessy

"Most people would run away from fire," Saturion said to himself as he spun around looking for a free horse. "Away. Not toward. So what is good old Tury up to? Finding a way to chase everyone toward the danger, of course!" He spoke nervously to try to calm himself. It did not work.

As a jester, he did not have his own horse. It was his responsibility to ride with a different member of the company each day to try to brighten it on the harsh road. He dashed toward the animal pens where the handler stood, arms crossed, chewing a bit of hay.

"I need a horse!" Saturion gasped.

"No extra," he said. He did not seem perturbed by the fire or how the soldiers jumped into action. The scars on his cheek and across his large arms told Saturion that this was not his first rodeo.

"Please! I can't just sit here!"

"You can ride Bessy," he said. "If you can get her to take you."

"Great, that's fine. Which one is Bessy?"

The handler stepped aside and gestured to the biggest cow they'd brought. It mooed as Saturion climbed on. "Yip yip?" he said and Bessy took off running — in the opposite direction of the fire.

Saturion could hear the handler's laughter ringing as he rode.

The Sentinels Among the Fog

Citrine had never frightened easily. She had grown up with a quiet confidence that bordered on aloofness that girls prettier than her usually had claim to. She knew from a young age that she was different. Special. She could make things happen. She could see between the lines of reality, could see what reality might be if only someone cared enough to change it. It didn't take long before she reached out and realized she could. None of that confidence was with her as she rode atop General Vicar's mare. She had forgotten it, just as she had forgotten to breathe.

The air was thick with ash and the fog had turned black from the debris.

"Lesson one," Vicar barked. "Use umber Dust to surround us with a shield."

"I don't know how," Citrine whispered as an arrow flew by, narrowly missing the horse's neck.

"You have seen the other Dustcrafters put up the barrier at night, haven't you?"

"Yes," she said.

"You can do that, too. NOW!" Vicar roared.

Citrine forced herself to take a shallow breath and to see between the lines, between the fire and the smoke to the Dust that was inside it all. She closed her eyes and imagined the Dustcrafters at night, raising their arms with elaborate motion to form the shape of a tree trunk, their fingers spread at the top to mimic leaves. She did the motions and felt the familiar sensation of Dust forming at her fingertips. She could almost hear it asking, What color would you like? She replied, Umber.

When she opened her eyes, umber Dust had coated Vicar, his mare, and herself like tight-fitting plate. Another arrow hit her in the chest but broke and bounced off its surface.

"Good," Vicar said. "Keep it moving with us."

They were past the trees and Citrine could see Vicar's soldiers all around them. The swordsmen, known as the Teeth, on foot, dashed forward as the Dragi harnessed the blue Dust Citrine had siphoned to encircle their feet and increase the Teeths' speed. Just behind were the Talons, who carried lances and pollards and galloped on horses toward an army dressed in severe black armor with helmets with six spikes jutting out from either side. On their chest, a golden tribal dragon breathing fire.

"Blackriders. We must end this quickly," Vicar said. The Blackriders were one of the three most infamous of all Arcanian mercenaries. Citrine caught sight of the courier that had delivered her letter hanging from one of the burning trees. The poor man must have been followed and ambushed, leading the Blackriders straight to the company. This, too is my fault, she thought. If the courier had not come for her, the Blackriders would not have followed him and found them. More to atone for as death bloomed all around her, soldiers being cut down like bloody ribbons on both sides.

Vicar pushed his mare toward the closest clump of Blackriders and swung his obsidian blade. Citrine grit her teeth as she concentrated on maintaining the umber reinforced plate. Vicar's strikes were vicious and dealt with such force, he cut through one man's black armor at the shoulder, sending the arm flying. The right side of his blade flickered with red inlaid Dust, granting it the Dust's fire rending properties. Fire sparked at the armless man's flesh and ate up his neck and face. Vicar then threw the blade up, spun it to the opposite side, and caught it with his left hand where the left side shimmered with in-laid purple Dust. The next Blackrider's head came off as if the neck had been disintegrated with concentrated acid. If not for the circumstances of her seeing it, Citrine would have marveled at the double-Dusted sword. The art of double-Dusting had been lost to time and only few such weapons still existed.

A barrage of arrows from the dark volleyed toward them. Can I do that, too? Citrine thought, inspired by the sword. Could I double-Dust? She had little time to think as the killing arrows flew toward her. She reached for the umber Dust and in her mind's eye, carved a circle with her finger in the sand-like substance. Where she carved, umber gave way to purple and from the purple Dust, tendrils rose to swat the arrows back. The impact shook Citrine's body physically. Her Dust creations were an extension of her physical self. The arrows did not hurt, exactly, but the impact rattled her concentration, weakening a point in the umber plate where one arrow broke through. She screamed, concentrated, and reinforced the weakpoint halfway around the shaft, the point close enough to scratch Vicar's helmet.

Soldiers fell all around them until the forest shrubbery grew slick with viscera. "This isn't right," Vicar said. Citrine wasn't sure if he was talking to her or himself. "This is a frontal assault. The Blackriders prefer stealth, pinpointed attacks in the dead of night. Why now? At dawn? I am missing something crucial."

A Blackrider with a war hammer came running toward Vicar at surprising speed, his hammer above his head ready to crash with deadening force. Citrine doubted the umber plate would hold and screamed, "Watch out!"

But another man that Citrine did not recognize, this one dressed in umber Dust-reinforced armor, dashed between Vicar's mare and the hammer. He caught the Blackrider's arm and swung his Morningstar, crushing the Blackrider's skull. He crumpled to the ground, a mess of blood and guts in black.

"Still getting into trouble then, General?" the man in umber called. His armor had a similar, if more potent effect to the one Citrine conjured.

"What is life without it?" Vicar replied.

Citrine did not know how the two knew each other but decided it was better to focus on maintaining the plate and defensive tendrils than worry about it.

"Wyvern, follow," Vicar said, leaping from his mare to join the man in umber. Citrine scurried off, pushing her energies to increase the number of tendrils to defend all three of them while still maintaining the umber plating. The three stood back-to-back. "It is good to see you, Lieutenant Volos," Vicar said.

"Likewise, General."

Between pleasantries, the men swung and slayed.

"Where are your compatriots?" Vicar asked.

"Dead, I'm afraid," Volos said between swings of his Morningstar. "Blackrider ambush as we were coming to meet you in Caltrider. I alone escaped."

"Then this skirmish is unrelated?" Vicar said.

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," Volos said. Vicar turned his sword to the red side and slid two fingers from hilt to tip, activating the Dust. When next he swung, fire spread and snapped like serpents.

"Who is this?" Volos said.

"Wyvern," Vicar said.

"The Wyvern has a name," Citrine said.

"Not now," Vicar said.

"How do they keep coming?" Volos asked. "There's so many of them!"

A one-armed Blackrider ran headfirst at the trio. He bounced into the shield, was repelled, and tried again. Citrine cringed under the strain.

"Impossible," Vicar said. "I slew this man already."

The Blackrider's skull was caving in and yet he kept pushing.

"Apparently not," Volos said.

"Don't know… how much longer…" Citrine fell to her knees as the tendrils, now up to twelve swinging wildly at oncoming attackers, began to dissipate one by one. The one armed threw himself on top of Vicar just as the umber plate waned. He turned his sword to the purple side and ran it through the Blackrider's heart, the armor melting from the acid.

"Their numbers haven't increased," Vicar said. "We're fighting the same Blackriders over and over again."

"How could that be?"

"I don't know," Vicar said, more curious than desperate or afraid.

Vicar and Volos widened their stances and stood around Citrine as she tried to catch her breath. She closed her eyes, breathed in the smoke and blood, tasted the iron on her tongue. But that wasn't all. She tasted the air, death hanging heavy in it. She tasted the Dust, her Dust, but something else, something ancient… something powerful. There, in the infinite blackness of her closed eyes, she saw a flame. It flickered, so small at first, before erupting into a pyre. A pyre in front of a gate.

She opened her eyes and screamed.

All around her, Blackrider soldiers stood. Limbs missing. Heads on the ground. Holes and punctures and slashes having torn deeply into their flesh.

Yet they stood, and where once there was flesh now burned a deep orange fire. Missing arms erupted at the shoulder in whips of flame. New heads made of fire with eyes of ash grew from severed necks. Wounds glowed with living lava just beneath the skin.

The Blackriders circled Vicar and his troops. They were everywhere. The forest was alight with their demonic flames.

"Wyvern," Vicar said. "I want you to listen to me very carefully. You are going to end this before any more of our people die."

"Me? What am I supposed to do!?"

"Something," Volos said as the widening circle closed in on them, pressing Vicar's forces to a center for slaughter.

"I can't! I can't do anything!" Citrine had never felt so helpless.

Vicar knelt down, sticking his sword into the ground beside her. He lifted his helmet and looked her in the eye. "Citrine," he said, calm. "Do you remember the Gaialists?"

She nodded.

"You will do that again," he said.

When a mob of Gaialist cultists came to her mother's tavern and set it on fire, she had transformed into something… else. A Wyvern. She killed eleven Gaialists before her mother could calm her rage. Now Vicar wanted her to let that power loose again? She was supposed to recompense for those murders, not commit more.

"No," she whispered. "I must atone."

"She's not doing anything, General," Volos said.

"Citrine!" Vicar hollered. "This is how you atone! You protect those who cannot protect themselves."

This is how you atone. His words echoed in her ears and rang of truth. She was a Wyvern and like the great dragons before her, she could command reality, bend it to her will.

All she had to do was push.

"Are you ready?" Vicar said. His eyes, which went from gray to blue, were piercing cerulean in the firelight.

Citrine shook her head no but whispered yes. This is my chance, she thought.

"Then strike!" Vicar yelled.

Citrine screamed and pushed against reality with all her might. Purplish-red light seeped from her eyes as her body exploded with shimmering, showering Dust. A hundred spiked tendrils surging with crackling energy shot from her body in every direction, slipping through the cracks between Vicar's forces to strike the Blackriders. The tendrils tore through their bodies, lifting them off the ground. Citrine rose with the soldiers and as she lifted her arms, the tendrils and the Blackriders harpooned on their ends, lifted, too. With a final, primal yell, all hundred tendrils jut upward through the Blackriders' bodies, wrenching them in two in an explosion of light and fire and blood-tinted Dust.

The trees bent with the force of a massive shockwave that sent Saturion tumbling off of Bessy's back. He had just managed to send her ambling off in the right direction but the force of the wave, whatever it was, bent the forest trees back and sent anything not nailed down flying.

Saturion checked that nothing was broken and pushed himself up. Intense light burned between the trees, sizzling and popping with lightning. Like a dying candle, the light grew dimmer and dimmer until it went out.

The breeze carried the smell of rot as Vicar's army began to emerge. They were covered in blood and slime. A quarter of those that entered the forest did not return. Saturion scrambled to his feet and ran toward them, calling, "Citrine! Citrine!"

Vicar emerged in the middle of the pack holding Citrine's limp body in his arms. Black holes were riddled all over like miniature cauterized puncture wounds. Saturion tried to run to her but a man in umber armor he did not recognize held him back as Vicar carried her into camp, his normally emotionless face broken in sorrow.