The Cult of Gaial reveal their final plan. Vicar and Valera share a secret. Citrine makes a sacrifice.
The Wyrm Gate
Last time on Dragon Shield Kingdoms: Vicar's Conquest
A dragon hatched from a comet and collapsed on Vicar but he was able to convince the spirit of the orange Dragon Shield that he was worthy enough to wield it. The shield bonded with him and gave him the power to push the fire dragon back until he could absorb it into the shield itself. Vicar, Volos, and Saturion then headed back to the infirmary to catch up with the rest of their company but found it burning with all but Citrine dead. Four Gaialist mutants awaited them in the fire. Vicar made quick work of them with his new shield and learned that the Gaialists wanted to "raise the gate," although he did not understand the meaning. Saturion recalled an old nursery rhyme his mother used to sing to him about something called the Wyrm Gate. As Vicar, Volos, and Saturion contemplated their next move, Saturion realized that the song might be more than a nursery rhyme after all…
"You have your orders. Let's go," Saturion said mockingly, moving his arms emphatically to mimic Vicar. It took him all of two hours to get lost. Gnats and mosquitoes circled him like a dark storm cloud.
"The worst part about all of this," he said to himself, "Might be the smug look Volos will have when he hears I got lost." Saturion came to a boulder in a clearing along the road and sat down. His stomach hurt. He hadn't eaten in almost a day. It hadn't bothered him when adrenaline coursed through his veins but now, sitting alone, he had little left but thoughts of food to keep him sane. Otherwise his thoughts would drift to Citrine, to the lacerations and mutilations of the mutated Gaialists. Is that what she had in store? Rough machetes used to sever off limbs so that they could be replaced with vines or water or fire? "Why is it always fire?" Saturion said, closing his eyes and rubbing his temples. He could save her. He knew he could. If only he could find the blasted trail.
But that might be impossible. He had to admit, he wasn't the best tracker. He could wrangle sheep when they got lost on the farm, but if they wandered too far he figured they were lost to the foxes. He could feel the insects biting and sucking, making a meal of him like the carrion birds that would come to feast on his corpse when he inevitably died from exhaustion, starvation, and stupidity.
"Eat up," he said to the insects. "One of us should." He felt a few mosquitoes wriggling beneath his tongue and swallowed. It wasn't the farm-fresh eggs of his youth, but at this point Saturion didn't much care.
He wished he had a mount. Any mount. Even Bessy. That would be better than wandering alone in the countryside. And if things got rough enough, he could always…
"Best not think of that," Saturion said. "Cows are friends, not food." His stomach rumbled its disagreement.
He slapped his cheeks twice and stood up straight. "Right. Enough of that," he said. "Vicar wouldn't let hunger slow him down, nor the lack of a mount. He'd keep pushing." Of course, Vicar had a Dragon Shield now. He had secret stores of Dust. He had military training and a loyal lieutenant that would follow him to the end of Arcania. What did Saturion, farmer's boy from Nirgrend have? "My charming personality," he said dryly.
"You know what Vicar also wouldn't do?" a voice said from behind Saturion. "Let his enemies walk up to him, obvious as you please."
Saturion spun to see three Gaialists in skin-tight, off-white leather. They wore masks depicting blue smiling demons. "How long have you been there?" Saturion asked.
"Long enough," one of the three said.
"Let me guess," Saturion said. "I'm going with you."
"You're coming with us!" the last of the three, clearly the dullest, exclaimed.
"Right," Saturion said, holding his wrists out to be cuffed. "On with it, then."
The Gaialists checked with each other to be sure it wasn't a trap before cuffing him.
Saturion smiled inwardly. It worked, he thought. There was no way he'd be able to track the Gaialists on his own. Better to let them track him.
The inward smile disappeared as the dullest of the three slammed Saturion's head into the boulder. His body went limp as the world went black.
No one would have believed that an orphan from a nameless village on the outskirts of Arcania could rise to become the most powerful governor in the Democracy of Arcania and leader of the Gaialists. If Tarantos had not been the one to do it, he would not have believed it himself. His thoughts raced from his past, begging for scraps in the refuse covered streets of forgotten villages, to his present, in which he descended a spiral staircase in the Castle of the Bow. As a boy, he never could have imagined that one day he would set foot in the governors' castle, much less run it as he now did. He still marveled at the effervescent green fire that lit the stairwells until the marble stairs became rough and black, transitioning from pristine white to the enchanted obsidian walls and floors of the dungeons. The obsidian that was inlaid with various shimmers of Dust and cast defused blue, red, and purple light across the cells from runes carved into the bars, the only source of light in the otherwise black dungeon.
He joined in as the prisoners sang their familiar songs of mercy and ushered toothless taunts of revenge, nearly dancing as he flitted from cell to cell. His plan was working perfectly. Well, his father's plan. By the end of the day, they would be reunited and Tarantos would no longer be an orphan boy without a penny to his name, stuck sucking discarded chicken bones and killing for coppers. Soon, he would have the power to write his own history, one in which his heroism could not be doubted. He would become a living legend.
But before that and perhaps more importantly, he would be someone's son. Not just someone. The All-Father's.
Today is truly a blessed day, he mused.
He reached a cordoned off area at the back of the dungeons guarded by four soldiers wearing the same Gaialist off-white robes Tarantos wore. They bowed their heads as he passed.
"Sing, my friends," he said jovially to the soldiers. "Do not let these prisoners sing alone! For today is the day we meet the All-Mother, the goddess Gaial herself. Rejoice! Be merry!" The soldiers looked at one another and started in on a half-hearted tune while Tarantos stepped onto a wooden lift and pulled a lever. The lift shook and began its slow, careful descent past the obsidian guts laced with pockets of emeralds, pearls, sapphires, and rubies beneath the Castle of the Bow, to where the Gaialists believed their precious All-Mother lay imprisoned.
It had taken but the slightest suggestion, a nudge in the right direction, a whisper in the correct ear to manipulate the Gaialists into the belief. They were, of course, wrong. The All-Mother was a myth, Tarantos knew, although the Wyrm Gate the Gaialists worked to raise did indeed exist. A dragon did live inside it, that much was true, but the All-Mother Gaial? No. Tarantos's father, the All-Father Vater himself, that was who lay dormant inside the confines of the Gate.
Once he might have believed in Gaial, when, as a boy, he prayed for divine intervention and a path forward so that he might not end up in some dungeon somewhere. But it was not Gaial that answered. It was Vater who spoke back, a massive figure of impenetrable darkness against a dying sun in a series of dreams. Vater, the great All-Father of the Black, showed Tarantos how he shed his radiant dragon form to pass as a human. He saw Vater in human form have a baby with a woman; his mother. He saw her die in childbirth as his father, desperate to reach her, became imprisoned in this very cavern beneath the Castle of the Bow. Imprisoned in the Gate. And he saw his future, in which Vater directed him to move to a new village and take a new name. Vater showed him how a stranger might become mayor of his new village, by promising the Gaialists freedom from persecution. The steps from mayor to governor were comparatively easy.
The hastily constructed lift stuttered to a halt at the entrance to a Gaialist temple carved into the rockwall underneath the castle. Gaialism had its tendrils in places of high power long before Tarantos got to the capital, although it had been buried and forgotten by most. Light reverberated out from the temple like sound waves, each pulse a different shimmer of the spectrum. Blue, then red, then yellow, then green and so on. Pure Dust, barely contained, leaking. Tarantos thought it almost beautiful, if not blinding.
The floor was made from millions upon millions of shards of stained glass, intricately and delicately arranged to depict scene after scene of the dragon Gaial and her three offspring, the so-called Astral Dracona. Gaialist legend said that all dragons were born from the yellow, red, and blue Astral Dracona, and that Arcania itself was nothing more than a great dragon egg that would one day hatch. All that remained in this world of the Astral Dracona were the Dragon Shields, said to be forged from the scales of those great beasts and to possess a fraction of their cosmic powers.
As Tarantos entered the temple, he remembered the lights and colors of Sylvania the day he first arrived. Then, like now, it was blinding. Overwhelming. Far too much for a poor orphan used to sleeping in mud colored rags on mud covered floors.
He crossed the sanctuary and opened a door onto a ledge that overlooked a gigantic chasm in the earth. Below, Gaialists dug with shovels made from a deep red and purple material formed from the walls of the chasm itself that they had begun to call Fusion. The material had unique properties; it was stronger than steel and fed on Dust, absorbing it and transforming it to assist in the digging. For maximum efficiency, they needed a tremendous amount of reusable Dust that the shovels could feed on. Dust that only Wyverns could provide.
"How goes it?" Tarantos said as he approached one of the overseers of the project, a Gaialist with a bushy mustache, black monocle, and bald head. He surveyed a blue scroll but on Tarantos's approach, rolled it up.
Light seeped out of the ground like pulses of a marvelous heartbeat. It covered the bottom of the chasm like a thick fog.
"We are close, Governor Tarantos, oh so very close. You can see that the energy from the Gate seeps out of the ground evermore as we get closer. By tonight, I suspect we will have undone King Arkinus's treason of hiding the Gate from this world. With it, we will call the All-Mother Gaial back to this planet and with her, usher in a new era!" Mustache exclaimed.
"Gaial be good," Tarantos said, ignoring the wails of agony that echoed across the chasm. Chained to the walls of the cavern, their wrists and ankles attached to the rock by Fusion cuffs, were nearly a hundred men, women, and children, Dust flowing from their bodies like waterfalls into the Fusion shovel heads below.
"To think," Mustache said, "We finally found a noble use for the abominations known as the Wyverns. They should be thanking you for allowing them to play a role in the All-Mother's return."
"I require no thanks," Tarantos said. "Only compliance."
"The Fusion material gives them little choice in the matter. It has a hunger of its own," Mustache said, voice dripping with satisfaction.
"More deaths?" Tarantos asked.
"Four more this week," Mustache said. "Wyverns sacrificed on the altar of the All-Mother."
"What of our special delivery?" Tarantos asked.
"Arriving any moment," Mustache said. "There is something you should know, though, sir. We expected the energy from the Gate to leak into the rest of the world…"
"Go on," Tarantos said.
"But we could not predict the exact form it would take. New reports from our assassins in the field say that this energy birthed new dragon whelps but the whelps were unstable on their own. They reverted to Dust that birthed a larger singular dragon. Much more stable that way, I suppose!" He tugged at one end of his mustache.
"Is that right?" Tarantos said, amused.
"That is not all, sir. General Vicar… he bonded with the dragon somehow. He reforged the orange Dragon Shield and now wields."
Tarantos nearly faltered but recovered. The orange Dragon Shield. That could be problematic. Not even the governors of the Castle of the Bow had Dragon Shields. They were artifacts impossible to destroy by any normal means. Instead, they could only return to Dust and reforge themselves by choosing new champions to carry them forth. That was not to say they could not be coaxed to appear from time to time, given enough power and the right circumstances.
"I see," Tarantos said. "Then it is even more imperative we harness every speck of Dust remaining in these Wyverns before he returns. With the power of the Gate and the All-Mother Gaial, one Dragon Shield will not be enough to stop us. How far off is the girl?"
"The Platinum Wyvern," Mustache said in hushed tones. Citrine. Her killing of the eleven Gaialists had earned her a reputation among the faithful. Most other Wyverns were afraid to use their powers, lest they be discovered. The Wyverns assembled here were not soldiers; they were siphoners, adept at channeling Dust but little else. Besides, their shackles were made from Fusion and drained any energy they might have to try to escape.
"What if… what if the Fusion doesn't work on her?"
"Why would that be?"
"She is special, is she not? Is that not why you want her here?" Mustache asked.
He had heard of the seers' visions in the Tower of Mages. The seers saw silver smoke and black plumes that formed the mouth of a dragon with a man in black riding a platinum Wyvern into the dragon's mouth. Citrine Belafonte was undoubtedly the Wyvern and he, the man in black, shrouded by the All-Father's energy. The dragon's mouth represented the Wyrm Gate and the dragon itself, Vater. He needed her not only to fulfill the prophecy, but because of how her Dust manifested. Her tendrils were extensions of her soul; if shown how, they could suck dry the souls of others, like mosquitos gorging themselves on blood.
"She has a role to play," Tarantos allowed. "As do we all in Gaial's great plan."
"Gaial be good," Mustache said, seemingly cowed.
How easy they are to manipulate, Tarantos thought. Simply invoke their goddess and all critical thought flees their heads.
Just then, the ground shook. Rubies and gemstones came loose from the cavern walls above. Light from the chasm exploded, a thousand wisps reaching for the heavens.
"What is it!?" Mustache called.
The Wyrm Gate. The true source of all Dust and dragon-kind, its secrets long distorted by ages of stories, rhymes, riddles, and jokes. There wasn't a child in Arcania who hadn't heard of it, but as a boy Tarantos was one of the few drawn to it, and the treasures it contained.
Now, after half a lifetime of waiting, plotting, praying, and digging, The Crown of the Cosmos was nearly his. More powerful than the Dragon Shields combined, the Crown had the power to transform its wearer into a God, fit to rule the Gate and everything its Dust touched. Not even King Arkinus had worn that crown. But Tarantos would. He would claim it and with it, claim this world for the All-Father, for he was the Son of the Black, destined by birth to rule.
But seeking the Wyrm Gate did not come without sacrifice. They had lost many Gaialists and Wyverns in the search. No great loss, as far as Tarantos was concerned. They had learned an important lesson from their deaths. Simply standing too close to the Gate could kill you if you were lucky, or mutate you beyond recognition if you were not. When the first mutations started, Tarantos knew they were getting close.
"What does your blue scroll say?" Tarantos said, almost mockingly.
Mustache unfurled the scroll with trembling hands. "Quite a few very interesting mutations have occurred. The All-Mother offers her followers gifts of the Gate. Many of those who touch it continue to be blessed with new abilities, new bodies. New power."
"Is that all?"
Mustache glanced from the scroll to Tarantos, as if trying to decide whether or not he should share the next piece of information. Tarantos would force it from him one way or another; Mustache came to a similar conclusion.
"…We found more fusion shards scattered among the chasm wreckage. At first we thought they could be carved into additional shovels but we could not cut them. That's when we realized they seemed to fit together like puzzle pieces."
"Get to the point," Tarantos said.
"It is better if you see for yourself. Would you be so kind as to follow me?" The mustache man bowed his head and led Tarantos back into the sanctuary, through a hidden door carved into a mural of a dragon's mouth and down a winding pathway lit by candles to a vault made of pure gold. Inside sat three of the mutated Gaialists, each uglier than the next, but these Gaialists were different. Unlike the other mutated pawns, these Gaialists kept mutating. Their bones shrunk, reformed, protruded, grew, expanded. Pain wracked their faces when they had faces. Tarantos almost fell ill at the sight but quickly recovered. The artifact laying on the table between them broken in six distinct pieces took his breath away.
"Gaial be good," he said. "Is it what I think it is?"
"We believe so," the mustached man said.
Tarantos took a knife from inside his robe and sliced his hand from thumb to the edge of his palm. He held the bleeding wound over the broken pieces as they began to shake. The blood disappeared inside of the pieces as they emitted a low, monstrous howl. Thousands of tiny insect-like legs formed at the edges and began to move, pulling the pieces together again until they merged.
"Gaial be good," Mustache said.
Tarantos lifted the Fusion Dragon Shield from the table. The shield was alive, renewed by his blood. More than that, he could feel the All-Father's watchful eye. It was a shield of the Black, given to him by the All-Father, he was sure. Most people did not understand the true nature of the White and the Black. It did not define the Dragon Shields any more than it defined any given individual. Tarantos was a servant of the Black, of the All-Father's domain, which would allow him to more easily bond and wield the fusion Dragon Shield, as it, too, drew upon the All-Father's power. But that would not stop him from finding the other Dragon Shields and wielding them, as well, bending them to his will and corrupting them with the influence of the Black. In the end, notions of the Black and the White were speculative. Actions mattered. In this case, Tarantos understood his finding the Fusion Dragon Shield as receiving a gift from Vater, a reward for closing in on the Gate, each piece scattered among the layers of the dig to encourage further digging.
Thank you, father, he thought. "Let us test this new power."
Tarantos led Mustache and the three others from the room and into another chamber that had been converted into a prison cell. Chained to the wall and stripped naked were the five governors who still refused to join the Gaialists. It had been easy enough to convince most of them to hand over their Wyverns but these five had proven difficult. Tarantos took Minerva, the gold governor's chin in his hand as the humming outside reverberated. "Do you hear that, Minerva? It is the sound of progress."
She spit in his face. "You are a tyrant and you will be defeated," she said defiantly.
"No, I don't think so," Tarantos said. He raised his shielded arm and the circular center of the shield began to twist and turn. It glowed and seeped energy that snaked its way up all five of the governors' bodies. Their hands became liquid flesh and retreated into the bone as their mouths sealed shut. "Now they won't be able to resist while you have your way with them. They won't even be able to scream. Have your way with them." Tarantos nodded to the three ever-changing mutants as he strode out of the room and went back to the balcony overlooking the chasm.
"Are the forces ready?" he asked Mustache.
"Ready and waiting."
"Good. At dawn, they strike."
The man nodded as Gaialists wearing skin-tight off-white leather enhanced with Dustcraft to provide stealth arrived. They carried a jester in a black robe and a half-dead girl whose entire body had been riddled with holes. "Just in time. What is wrong with her?" Tarantos asked, disgusted by the sight of her wounds.
"She used too much Dust. Ended up backfiring," said one of the Gaialists. "She's dying."
"No," Tarantos said, taking her chin in his hand. "Not until I'm through with you." He raised his Dragon Shield. It whispered to him, just like the All-Father whispered to him, telling him what to do, how to wield its power. The center circle spun again and dark red energy poured out of the shield, covering every wound on her body and filling them like small drinking glasses. She opened her eyes with a gasp, eyes that shone with the same dark shade of red. "Excellent," Tarantos said. "Lower her into the pit."
Valera floated cross-legged above her driftwood table, eyes closed. It was just after midnight. The Dust normally siphoned from the enchanted ceiling of her sanctum surrounded her in a protective circle instead of sifting into the decanters as usual. She meditated as the city of Sylvania shook beneath her. She placed the back of her hands on her knees, and water began to form from the Dust held in her palms. Two geysers shot upwards, meeting in the middle like a rainbow. She concentrated on the mist that fell and probed with her mind's eye into the Castle of the Bow. She could conjure all kinds of visions in liquid but when she tried then, all she saw was darkness.
Ah, but what is this? She focused and the Dust spun faster around her. From the darkness she saw… smoke. Silver smoke. Black plumes. A man riding a platinum wyvern and a dragon's mouth. The dragon! It saw her! It saw her and opened its mouth and with its roar came a flamethrower and she was burning and…!
She opened her eyes and tumbled to the table, nearly passing out from the strain. Vicar dove to catch her as the water splashed across the desk and onto the floor. He was too late and she bounced on the hard driftwood. The Dust that had circled her had fallen, too. She took a breath, stood up, and flicked her wrist. The Dust lifted itself off the floor and went back into its proper containers.
"How did you get in here?" Valera demanded.
"The portal in the archway," Vicar said.
"Only court mages…"
"I know," Vicar said. "But I took a risk, thinking this might let me through." He raised his arm. On it was the glittering orange Dragon Shield.
"Oh… oh my," she said.
"We do not have much time," Vicar said. "Volos is outside the portal keeping the guards and your mages at bay. We are not your enemy, Valera. The enemy…"
"Is Tarantos," Valera said. "Yes, I know."
"Then why isn't the military in the streets!?"
"They will be," Valera said. "But not fighting on the side you might wish. Tarantos has taken command," Valera said.
"Two more governors swore their allegiance to Gaialism since you've been gone. The other five are missing."
"The girl," Vicar said. "He took the girl. The Wyvern. Citrine."
"Then he has the platinum Wyvern to add to his collection," she said.
"He has taken prisoner the Wyverns assigned to every territory under a Gaialist governor. I believe he is using fusion Dust to channel their powers and raise the Wyrm Gate."
"So it does exist," Vicar said. "Saturion said… but I had hoped he was wrong."
"The Jester," Valera said. "He lives."
"He might be the only one of my company left," Vicar said. "Save Volos." As if on cue, Volos crashed through the archway portal closely followed by four battle mages. He ran toward Vicar and Valera. "High Mage, you know the top of your tower is floating? Wasn't doing that when I left." He dodged a burst of bright light from one of the battle mages. Then to Valera, "A little help here?"
Vicar raised his shield and in an instant Valera understood. The madness was a result of the Wyrm Gate regaining its power, birthing new dragons into the world. Elemental dragons. Orange dragons made of Orange Dust, used mostly for fertilization capable of coaxing in numerous ways. It could fertilize the land, the womb, even, enhance the mind. But it could also decay and corrupt all the same. Orange Dust could drive people to all sorts of acts, not just madness. Vicar held them in place but just barely. Orange Dust could not be controlled for long. Its natural state was wild. "You will stop this fighting at once," Valera snapped to her mages. "We are on the same side." She nodded to Vicar who took that as permission to lower his shield.
"If we do not have the military and the governors have fallen, who else besides the mages do we have that can fight?" Vicar asked.
Valera flashed an uncharacteristic smile. It reminded Vicar of their time together years before.
To the mages, she said, "You four, go warn the others. The Gaialists are coming. We are at war." Then to Vicar and Volos: "It was not long ago that the only Dragon Shield in Sylvania belonged to the office of the High Mage." She raised her hand and the water that she had used to scry levitated off the ground, encircled her wrist and expanded like raging rapids. Fins emerged along the top, extending into an open dragon's mouth that spit a deluge of clear, turquoise liquid Dust. The liquid formed an arrow-head at the bottom as miniature storms raged near the tip. A bronze, tasseled amulet emerged from the water a quarter of the way from the bottom and spun wildly, as if stopping the flow of Dust. When it stopped, the storms ceased and melted into the transcendental metal of the shield. It rippled with turquoise light that extended into Valera's arm and throughout her body, giving her skin the sheen of one just below the surface of the water, light dappled across her skin. Her hair floated as if she lay in the ocean and turquoise light cascaded from her eyes. "Come," she said, her voice rippling as if underwater.
"Much has changed since you both left. The best way for you to understand is to see it for yourselves." She raised her Dragon Shield. A platform glowed beneath Vicar, Volos, and Valera, lifted, and sped upward through the ceiling of Valera's sanctum, rocketing up the Mage's Tower, always up, through the top of the tower to the floating floor above where reinforcements were just waking up.