Vicar, Volos, and Saturion must fight for their lives and discover the origins of the mysterious madness as Citrine struggles to recuperate.
The Age of Wakening
Last time on Dragon Shield Kingdoms: Vicar's Conquest
Vicar brought his wounded company to an infirmary where the single doctor and his two nurse daughters did everything they could for Citrine and the others. Saturion insisted that they press on to the artist colony of Caltrider, where they found the insane colonists in a catacomb. The colonists' bodies burst, giving birth to small dragons made of fire. The dragons burned the colony to the ground before forming a comet in the sky and blasting off. Vicar's company followed the comet to a village called Letson where they found corpses in the streets. The madness spread to all but Vicar, Volos, and Saturion. The now insane soldiers were torn apart as more fire dragons erupted from their bodies. Volos, Vicar, and Saturion ran to the nearby forest where swarms of dragons made of fire attacked, surrounding Vicar in a vortex. But before they could kill him, the spirit of one of the village corpses, a small boy, appeared. He showed Vicar memories, saying he was searching for someone who could "find the Gate." Saturion and Volos mounted a final attack on the vortex and victory seemed imminent. But then the dragons reformed the comet in the sky. It cracked open, revealing it was no comet at all, but a giant dragon egg. The madness took Saturion and Volos just as they realized it had originated with the dragons all along…
In the sky, the comet cracked open and living fire took a breath. The first elemental dragon born in four hundred years roared.
The roar sent shockwaves through Saturion's body. He wanted to kill. To murder. To slay Vicar and Volos, to feel their skin as he stripped it from their bones. Volos clawed at his cheeks like a rabid animal and shook his head violently. This is the Black, Saturion thought, distant, no longer in control of his body as he inched toward Volos. He had one last pocket and from it, withdrew a dagger. He would kill him as the dragon demanded.
The dragon made of fire descended on Vicar.
Vicar felt something small and hard in his hand. The toy soldier from before.
The golden-haired boy appeared again and knelt beside him. "I will ask you one more time. Do you still wish to die?"
Vicar thought of Valera. Of the Gaialists' schemes. Of the Wyvern and the rest of his company waiting for him to return. He would keep them safe. All he wanted was to keep them all safe.
"No," he said.
"Ask me to let you live."
"I want to live," Vicar said. "I ask… no, I demand you give me the power to live!"
The boy's smile widened until the entirety of the bottom of his face cracked. He touched the toy soldier in Vicar's hand. "Remember, you wanted this. I will see you again, Karosiv Vicar." The toy soldier began to glow and the little boy disappeared.
Impossibly, Vicar stood up holding what looked like the sun, miniature, in his hand. The sun moved up his arm and changed shape, completely enveloping the man in bright light. The sun solidified and formed a gleaming orange shield with unnatural rivulets that seemed to ripple with living fire, as if a dragon had been turned to metal; yet Vicar held it easily as if it had no weight. At the top, an orange dragon not unlike the one he faced formed. Vicar and the shield roared as one.
The elemental dragon screeched and threw all of its weight atop Vicar, who buckled under the strain. But with reflexes that weren't his, he raised the shield, creating a barrier between him and the dragon.
"Begone!" he commanded, pushing the dragon back with the shield. The dragon fought, slamming down on the shield again and again with all its fire and fury, threatening oblivion with every passing second. "That… is… an order!" Vicar hollered. The shield lit up. The dragon roared as its body was siphoned like a cyclone into the shield until the only traces of it was a swirling orb of light just beneath the shield's surface.
The forest, or what was left of it, quieted. The madness was siphoned from Saturion's body as the dragon was siphoned into the shield. His hands shook as he dropped the dagger inches from Volos's neck.
Vicar stood in the spot where the orange dragon had been. His armor had reddened, turning into a rosy gold that went beyond his armor, creating a shining aura around him. His body was miraculously healed.
"It can't be…" Volos said.
"I think we're way past can't be," Saturion said.
"It's… a Dragon Shield."
"Come," Vicar said, starting to walk back the way they came. The aura dissipated with each step, like the flickering of a flame almost out. "It is a long way back to the capital."
"Karosiv," Volos said. "What... how..."
Vicar stopped, knelt down and placed something on the ground.
It was the toy soldier from before.
Volos, cheeks bleeding from self-inflicted scratches, glanced at Saturion before following the general. He'd follow him anywhere. That was Volos's way.
Saturion listened to the breeze rustle through the dead forest. Ash fell in clumps and stung his eyes and nose. He took a deep breath, then could not contain himself. He doubled over with laughter. His laughter mixed with his mother's still ringing in his ears until all he heard were the maddening laughs of one on the verge of tears.
Volos and Vicar did not wait and so when he got ahold of himself, he jogged to try to catch up, running right past the toy soldier Vicar had left as a marker for where miracles came back into the world.
Where dragons woke.
Citrine lay completely still, her entire body racked with pain. She could not tell if a sheet had been laid over her lower half or an anvil, such that the slightest pressure felt like hot pokers going through her eyes. For all she knew, they might have been as she found she could not muster the strength to open her eyes and see for herself. She could hear, though, when she wasn't screaming internally. She heard the doctor speak with his nurses and in moments of lucidity surmised that she was in an infirmary somewhere with other soldiers from Vicar's company.
Where is Tury?
The thought came over and over again like lightning shaking her skull. She knew she was dying, that the doctor could do nothing for her, that the Dragi, if they were still there, could not heal the wounds she had inflicted on herself. This was the end and all she wanted was to see Tury one more time.
When had that happened? She wondered. When did he become so important to me?
Over the next several hours, she slipped into and out of consciousness. She dreamt. She dreamt of her mother, sitting with Andros in the Jet Fortress waiting for word. Her mother would try to force Vicar to keep her safe as he promised. She would fail. Citrine dreamt of the tavern where she taught Tury how to use copper Dust properly. She dreamt of hidden moments stolen in the shadows of wagons, between late nights turning to early mornings, secret keeping and secret kisses shared between her and Tury and the overwhelming joy they brought. Joy. To think such a thing had ever existed for her. It was laughable. She almost laughed out loud.
"Doctor!" Citrine heard one of the nurses call. "She's trying to say something!"
The doctor came over and placed two fingers on her neck to check her pulse. He may as well have run her through with a great sword. She tried to scream but couldn't. "Just discharge," he said. "It doesn't mean anything. Grab a rag and clean her mouth up."
"But there's more of it," the nurse said.
"Do as I say," the doctor said.
The rag, too, was agony. The Gaialists had wanted her to suffer for her powers, to make some kind of cosmic exchange with whomever granted them to her in the first place. As if she had asked for them. As if she wanted the power to kill so easily. If only they knew. She would gladly give her powers back if it meant never having killed those men in Sylvania or suffering this pain now.
I should have let them take me.
Perhaps you'll get your chance to correct that particular error.
Who is that!? She shouted wordlessly to the voice in her head. Someone was talking to her telepathically. But who? And why?
Sleep now, little Trini, the voice said. We'll see each other soon.
The nurse came over with a cup of water, tried to get Citrine to drink but tripped and dropped it. The cup clattered from her neck to her torso and the water flew like scalding lava across her arms. Citrine passed out from the pain.
She dreamt again. This time of only one thing. A man. A man in off-white robes standing at a balcony bannister overlooking a chasm where others, others like her, were chained. They were screaming. The man smiled and looked at her. Right at her! He burst into white hot flame until his body disappeared, his robes eviscerated, and all that remained was the black imprint of his smile and wicked eyes against the lustrous white.
Boom, she thought, seconds before an explosion rocked the infirmary.
Saturion could not wait to get back to the infirmary to see Citrine. With any luck, she'd be awake. Maybe the Dragi had succeeded in closing the holes all over her body. He wanted to hold her, to tell her all that had happened. He wanted to talk to her about the dragons. But most of all, he just wanted to make sure she was safe.
His hope shattered as the explosion rocked the distance.
"What's that?" Saturion gasped.
"Dragon?" Volos asked.
"No," Vicar said. "No, I don't think so. Saturion, do you have any more Dust?"
"Saturion? You mean me?"
"Answer the question," Vicar posited.
"Fresh out," Saturion said noting that he and General Vicar were on a first name basis. I suppose that's what you get for trying to save a guy. Never mind. Back to the matter at hand, Saturion thought. "Do you think it's coming from the infirmary? Is it Citrine?"
"I do not know," Vicar said. He unsheathed his sword and unscrewed the jewel-encrusted hilt. It swung open on a small latch. Inside were several thin vials of Dust.
"Holding out on the company, General?" Saturion asked, eyeing the Dust.
"This is my emergency store," he said, selecting the blue Dust. "I saw you use this to leap onto the rooftops in the village. Can you use it to speed our pace?"
"Absolutely," Saturion said.
"Are you sure?" Volos asked.
"No," Saturion said. "But let's do it." Vicar handed him the vial. Saturion uncorked it and dropped half of its contents into his hand. He closed his eyes and thought of Citrine. Thought of their lessons together. His heart beat a little faster as he blew. The Dust swirled from his palm, circled the three mens' feet and beat in tune with his heart. Saturion leapt into the air and covered three times as much distance as if he were walking with that single bound.
Volos and Vicar followed suit.
What are you doing? Citrine thought. Hands all over her body, lifting her. She felt like a baby left alone in storm waves as she rocked back and forth. So much darkness. So much fear. So much pain.
"We got her!" she heard someone say.
"What do we do with the others?"
"Burn them all."
Heat. Screams. The black bliss of unconsciousness took her again.
From a mile up, Saturion could see the infirmary burning. "NO!" He landed in a huff and flung himself the last half mile to where Vicar and Volos had already landed and stood facing the flames.
Four figures in off-white robes stood unperturbed in the fire. Gaialists.
But something was wrong. "What is this?" Volos said. After all that the three had seen, the Darkriders turned into creatures, the colonists used as incubators, and the rebirth and capture of the first true dragon in four centuries, Saturion thought nothing could surprise him. He was wrong.
As the blue Dust wained Saturion saw that these people had been altered. Changed. Mutated. The flesh on their faces had been hacked off with the ragged edges of rusted hatchets. One was missing an arm and in its place grew a whip made of vines, seemingly impervious to the heat. Another had two malformed wings growing from his back and razor sharp teeth spinning in a circle in the hole where his nose used to be. The third's hands and feet were made from gushing water that expanded and contracted at will while the last seemed to be half-shadow, half-corporeal. They each had tremendous scarring all over their bodies and seemed to relish the heat of the dead infirmary.
"Taken your belief of pain before power a bit far, haven't you?" Vicar called.
Saturion looked from Vicar to these… what were they? Creatures? People? Cultists. Was Vicar implying that these cultists had done this to themselves? That they had hurt themselves as payment of some kind for the mutations they saw now?
It didn't matter. Those were questions for another time. Only one question mattered, one question Saturion needed answering.
"Where is Citrine!?"
"Gone," the cultist made of shadow said. "But not where you're going."
The four attacked. Volos crossed his arms and the umber Dust inlaid in his armor glittered before activating, providing him with reinforced strength and durability. The Gaialist with the vine for an arm flung him like he was a rag doll anyway.
Saturion yelped as the shadow man disappeared, reappearing in front of him, shadow arm turned into a scythe. He swung at Saturion's legs but Saturion leapt just in time, a small burst of residual blue Dust lending him a little extra air. It dissipated completely as he landed atop the blade. The shadow Gaialist grunted as he transformed the blade from corporeal to shadow, causing Saturion to trip and fall to the ground.
The woman with hands and feet made of water and the winged Gaialist launched themselves at Vicar. He stood, calm and strong, and lifted the Dragon Shield to meet the Gaialists as they struck. A wave of energy reverberated out from the point of contact. Saturion could actually see it distorting the world around them as it echoed. Vicar pushed them back with the shield; it covered nearly half of his body. The dragon head near the top came alive and roared as he pushed. His attackers swung but it was no use. "Help!" one of them called. The shadow Gaialist and Vine Arm leapt off of Saturion and Volos to attack Vicar from behind. With his free arm, Vicar unsheathed his obsidian blade and cut them in half before they landed. With a mighty heave, Vicar pushed the winged Gaialist and the amputee off balance and with a calculated stroke, lopped the winged man's head from his neck and rammed the pointed edge of his shield into the stomach of the amputee, pinning her to the ground.
"You do not yet have my permission to die!" Vicar roared as the pinned woman coughed up blood. "What is Tarantos planning? Answer me!"
Volos and Saturion looked at each other. Tarantos?
The woman's laughter broke as she convulsed.
"The Gate rises," the woman said through blood splattered words. "Gaial be good, the Gate shall rise."
"What Gate!? Where did they take the Wyvern? Who did this to you? How? Tell me what you know!" Vicar demanded. The woman mustered a smile and spit a glob of bloody saliva at him. She shook as if hypothermia had set in. Her skin turned blue as she died.
Vicar slammed his fists into the top of the shield like sledgehammers. It dug deeper into the dead woman's pelvis.
"Damn it!" he roared.
"Give him space," Volos told Saturion. "See if you can find any survivors."
Saturion nodded. Just then, he would have given anything to escape Vicar. His rage was palpable and its gravity immense, like standing next to a black hole. Saturion looked for what he could find. It wasn't much. The charred corpses of the doctor and his nurses. Many other unidentified bodies, likely the members of Vicar's company they had left behind. Most of their supplies were left untouched, except for one wagon that was conspicuously missing.
He waited until Volos went to Vicar first. If Volos was there, it might mean Vicar had calmed down. "They took the Dust wagon," Saturion said as he rejoined the others.
"Of course they did," Volos said. "Worth a fortune, that was."
"They won't sell it," Vicar said. He removed his helmet and wiped sweat from his brow. Vicar's skin had changed color. He used to have a fair complexion but now his skin had tanned. More than that, it appeared his skin had been burnt with fire that lived now underneath the first layer of skin, giving him flesh that was at once bronze, orange, and crimson. His golden hair now had the colors of flame, too. Saturion contained a gasp.
"She said the Gate rises," Vicar continued. "It is not the first time that I have heard mention of a gate." He remembered the little boy's spirit. What had it said?
I am searching, the boy said, for someone who can find the gate.
"Gate? What gate?" Volos said.
Vicar shook his head. "I don't know. I don't know!"
"You said Tarantos," Volos said, changing the topic before the black hole inside Vicar opened up and swallowed them all. "You think this is his doing." It was not a question.
"Who?" Saturion asked.
"The governor of the white," Volos said. "But shouldn't you know that?"
Saturion shrugged. Nirgrend was governed by the green governor and he only knew that because she visited once when he was small and gave all the children chocolate. He wouldn't have been able to pick her out of a line. "What does he want with the wagon? With Citrine?"
"Not clear," Vicar said, wrenching the shield up and out of the woman Gaialist's body. Saturion noted how Vicar had gotten used to the shield so quickly, despite its girth and weight. He moved like it had always been part of him and did not bother wiping the blood and guts off. The shield seemed to feed on it, to glow slightly more radiant where around the body parts. Saturion shut his eyes tight and opened them to make sure he wasn't seeing things. Then, "You think they're going to kill her?" Saturion asked. "Make a show of it for the Gaialist followers?"
"No," Vicar said. "Tarantos wants her alive. Otherwise they would have killed her here."
Volos said, "Before you left to meet me, you wrote a note. What was it that you said? That the Gaialists were up to something and the fire…"
"…Burns from within the house," Vicar said.
A chill ran up Saturion's spine. He knew all about fire burning inside houses. He waited to hear his mother's maddening laughter ringing in his ears, now a near daily occurrence but it did not come. Half-formed words, a memory distant and foggy came floating back to him.
Vicar eyed the shield on his arm. "Dragons and Dragon Shields. The mythical made real." Vicar seemed distant, contemplating deeply. As if trying to remember something from long ago, something that evaded him but could hold the key to understanding everything. "The Gate rises," he said.
Saturion heard his mother's voice reciting a nursery rhyme she used to tell him.
The Wyrm Gate sleeps underground
The Wyrm Gate sleeps underground
My crowned baby.
Dust and brick beneath the bow
Beneath the bow, beneath the bow
Dust and brick beneath the bow
My crowned baby.
Blood drained from Saturion's face. Dragons and Dragon Shields. The mythical made real.
"What is it?" Volos asked. "Speak, jester."
"I know what they're after," Saturion said. "They're trying to raise the Wyrm Gate."
"The Wyrm Gate?" Volos said, scoffing. "That's impossible. It's a legend! Nothing more."
"Like how dragons and Dragon Shields are legendary?" Saturion said, puffing out his chest and pointing righteously to the orange Dragon Shield on Vicar's arm, still trailing small intestine. "I'm telling you, it's real and the Gaialists have found it. To raise it, though, that would require an incredible amount of Dust. More than any normal Dustcrafter could handle. More than a Wyvern, even."
"More than a single Wyvern, perhaps," Vicar said. "But a dozen? Two dozen?"
"You are not seriously considering this?" Volos said to the general. "Talk sense, Vicar!"
"We can't let him raise the Gate," Saturion said. "It was hidden for a reason. You have to warn High Mage Valera. You have to get her to understand, to martial the mages, to fight Tarantos and the Gaialists," Saturion said. "I'll go find Citrine."
"And do what?" Volos said. "You're nothing but a jester!"
Anger flared in Saturion's eyes. "Oh I am much more than a jester. Do you need me to show you?" He let his mask fall away to reveal the rage underneath. Volos took an involuntary step back.
"Enough," Vicar said. "Citrine is one of my charges. From the looks of it, she may be the only one left. Saturion, can you save her?"
The sound of his name calmed him. The fiery rage returned to embers. "Yes," Saturion said.
Vicar stared at him hard, then nodded. "Good. Do not let her die."
"You can't be serious!" Volos roared.
"He loves her, Volos," Vicar said. "He will do what it takes to save her. You and I are the only ones that can speak to the High Mage and get her to act."
"You're assuming the jester's theory is correct."
"You know the jester is right here," Saturion said. "And I am right."
"How do you know? What if you're not? You would have the High Mage and the military start a war with the governors over a hunch?"
"The Gaialists started this war," Vicar said.
"The Gaialists are not the governors!"
"I fear you have been gone from Sylvania for too long," Vicar said. "Now, they are one. But if we are fast and we are lucky, we may still find allies in the Guild of Court Mages. Assuming they have not thrown their allegiance in with the Gaialists already."
Volos stared agape. "That can't be."
"We do not have time to argue amongst ourselves. Saturion, you will follow the trail to catch up with the Gaialists. Volos and I will take a shortcut back to Sylvania to meet with the High Mage."
"But sir…" Volos said. "The Democracy… it cannot fall. Can it?"
"Anything can fall," Saturion said, a murder of crows cawing above, circling, ready to prey on the flesh of those that perished in the flames.
"Indeed," Vicar said. "We have our orders. Let's go."