Vicar’s Conquest: Chapter Seven
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Last time on Dragon Shield Kingdoms: Vicar’s Conquest
Citrine Belafonte received word that she was accepted into the Guild of Court Mages and had been given the role of siphoning Dust for Vicar’s company. But Vicar, expecting Citrine’s powers would be necessary in the near future, decided to take her as his apprentice and train her in combat. Before they could begin their first lesson, however, the company was attacked by an off-shoot of the mercenary band called the Blackriders. Saturion tried to enter the fray but could find only a cow called Bessy to use as a stead and ended up running away from the battle instead of toward it. Meanwhile, Volos, Vicar’s first lieutenant and friend, arrived in time to join the fight. Vicar realized that the Blackriders were not actually dying when slain; rather, they were being resurrected with a mysterious fire. Vicar coached Citrine in how to use her powers to put an end to the Blackriders, but at great personal cost to her. Vicar emerged from the battle holding Citrine’s lifeless body.
The bells on Saturion’s jester cap jingled as he tapped his foot nervously. A thick fog had floated in from the north turning the entire world mean and gray. The early morning would have been calm except for the screams crashing out of the infirmary Saturion sat against. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the blood red brick building, clenching his teeth as he listened to Vicar’s soldiers get amputated, sewn, and euthanized. Just then, he would have given anything to have the power to stop this. To heal. To help. With every screech and scream, it felt like his heart was being wrenched from his chest. Was it Citrine screaming? He could never be sure. Agony sounded the same for everyone.
The night had passed in a feverish whisper as those in Vicar’s company who could rode hard through carrying the wounded until they came upon an infirmary outpost. The closest village was still half a day’s ride out but this infirmary existed to help travelers in need. It had but one elderly doctor with his two daughters serving as nurses. It was not equipped to handle thirty dead and dying at once. There were too few beds, too few instruments, and far too many hands. The company had gotten lucky; the madness had not spread to the outpost. Yet.
Vicar had forbade anyone from entering the infirmary except for his lieutenant, the surviving Dragi that could use Dustcraft to heal, and the nurses and doctor. He relived the moment of his failure again and again. Why had he taken that stupid cow? He should have demanded a horse. He should have found a way to jump into the fight. He should have done something! Instead, he did nothing when the Blackriders attacked and he could do nothing now but sit and wait and think.
He had seen Citrine’s body. Riddled with holes from head to toe, as if a thousand thin spikes had torn straight through. Saturion wondered if Portia knew, if word had reached her somehow. Portia, her mother. She could take losing The Drunken Bunk, her tavern and home, but losing her daughter?
“That’s it,” Saturion said, standing up with a jingle. “I can’t just stand here.”
Vicar and Volos exited the infirmary as Saturion marched toward the wagon where they kept the Dust. “Where are you going, jester?” Volos called.
“Out,” he said.
“You will not!” Volos roared. “You will sit and wait.”
Saturion stopped in his tracks. He heard a small voice in his head urging him on, cackling when he turned to face the lieutenant. Volos had brown skin and short cropped hair and stood almost a head shorter than Vicar. Saturion stood his ground, getting close enough to smell the teeth rotting on Volos’s breath. “I said I am going out,” Saturion said. “You are welcome to try and stop me.”
Volos nearly fell down laughing. “You are a good jester, indeed,” he said.
Laughter. It infuriated him. Saturion was not a joke. His feelings were not jokes. Citrine dying was not a joke! He reared back, made a fist, and punched.
Vicar caught his hand before it made contact with Volos’s face. “That’s enough,” he said. “Where do you plan to go?”
Saturion tried but could not move his hand. Vicar’s grip was remarkably strong. With Vicar holding him, Saturion wasn’t going anywhere.
“You might think I’m just a jester, but I’m more than that. Someone I care about is in there,” he said, pointing to the infirmary. “I am going to find the people who did this and make them pay.”
“The Blackriders are dead,” Vicar said.
“Not all of them,” Saturion said.
Vicar let Saturion’s hand go but grabbed his wrist and pulled him into a hug. Saturion’s entire body struggled against the embrace but soon calmed and melted like a burning candle, allowing this man to comfort him. Saturion cried as Vicar held him. On the other side of the brick wall, Citrine struggled to breathe.
When Saturion had control of himself again, Vicar let him go. “Volos is putting together three dozen soldiers to ride for the artist colony of Caltrider tomorrow morning. That is where Volos’s team was ambushed by the Blackriders.”
“Is that what they were?” Saturion asked. “I heard some of the survivors talking. They said…”
“The Blackriders we encountered were not ordinary men,” Vicar said. “What they were, exactly, we plan to find out.”
“I… am sorry,” Volos said begrudgingly. “I have a wife and three little ones down south. If something happened to any of them I wouldn’t…” he shook his head before continuing. “I believe there may be survivors who in Caltrider that can shed light on strange events happening.”
“Would you like to join us or would you prefer to stay here until Citrine wakes?” Vicar said.
“Citrine,” Saturion said. “You used her name.” Vicar had only ever called her Wyvern before.
“She fought bravely,” Vicar said. “She has my respect.”
“Come with us,” Volos said. “Most are going to stay behind to keep a watch. Not like the infirmary has many defenses. We could use an extra pair of motivated hands.”
Saturion wiped his eyes on his robe, his jester’s hat jingling as he did. Stay behind and guard the Dust Citrine siphoned, you mean, thought Saturion. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll go. As long as I don’t have to ride Bessy.” For a moment, Saturion’s emotional mask had slipped. He had shown his rage, had given into it. But already he was regaining control. He would wear his metaphorical mask as a shield so that tragedy would not get him. Not again. It was his way of coping. Make a joke. Make light. Pretend to be more than you are. Show them they can’t hurt you, he reminded himself. Fake it till you make it. “Let’s go now,” he said.
“Not wise,” Vicar said. “We are wounded, physically and spiritually. We must take time to recover or we risk never finding the answers we seek.”
Spiritually? Saturion thought. Vicar had never struck him as a particularly spiritual man. What else did Saturion not know about him? Vicar had always seemed straightforward to him. Could he be faking something too beneath that golden armor?
“Fine,” Saturion said. “At first light. But not a second later.”
“You have my word,” Vicar said. He held Saturion’s shoulder comfortingly and then turned to survey all he had lost.
Traces of Ghosts
Caltrider was not as colorful as Sylvania— no place was— but Vicar had enjoyed its festive free spirit on many occasions. In better times, children played freely in the streets and greeted strangers with gifts of painted coconuts. The buildings were built into massive branches of the oak tree at the center of the village and painted cobblestones followed the winding branches throughout the village. Vicar expected soft piano, bashing symbols, and sweet mandoline to waft out of the village like the smell of freshly baked bread as street vendors hocked paintings and enchanted lemons that never lost their flavor to tourists. He was used to seeing the men and women of the colony through their glass windows as they wrote and sang and painted. They created their own inks and paints from the different colored sap of the branches and dyed silks and cotton to trade with the rest of the continent.
But the Caltrider they rode into had blood smeared along the cobblestone paint. The wooden doors had been smashed open, doorknobs forgotten, as glass windows lay shattered. Instruments were strewn in the streets. No children came to greet them. No one, in fact, was there at all.
“Check the buildings for signs of life,” he commanded, hitching his mare to a post. “People might still be here somewhere. And if not, I want to know where they went.”
Vicar peered into the windows of the closest gallery. Paintbrushes hovered mid-air spinning slowly. Globs of paint free-floated, unconcerned by gravity. He popped his head in and the paint and paintbrushes fell, as if they were caught doing something they weren’t supposed to. Volos appeared at his side shaking his head. “Even the children,” he said, almost choking up. “We… can’t even find the children.”
“Stay strong, my friend,” Vicar said. “We may find them yet.
But as more and more of the three dozen soldiers they’d brought concluded heir searches, it became apparent that no one had found a thing.
“This is ridiculous,” Saturion said, cupping his hands over his mouth. “HELLO! IS ANYBODY STILL HERE!? COME OUT, COME OUT, WHEREVER YOU ARE!”
Vicar suppressed a grimace. It was not a tact he would have sanctioned but on the whole he had to admit, the jester had grown on him since High Mage Valera asked him to bend his rule against morality boosters. Saturion was not useless, which was more than he could say for most jesters he’d met. Louts, drunkards, and freaks, most of whom had found their way to jesting by accident and only when all other options had been extinguished. Saturion might not have become a jester by choice, but he had a talent for it and a fire about him. Vicar had promised Valera he’d keep an eye on Saturion for her but Vicar had to admit: He had his own interests in seeing where this jester’s potential would lead. He was… endearing, which was more than Vicar could say for most men, much less most jesters.
“No one’s here, boss,” Saturion said when his call went unanswered.
“Yes,” Vicar said. “We’ve noticed.”
“Why, though? And how? An entire village doesn’t just get up and walk away, do they?” Saturion said.
“No, I think not,” Volos said. He gazed around the village looking once more for signs. “Wait,” he said. “Do you see that?” Volos pointed to a concentration of painted dots on the cobblestones. They could have been an accident, someone spilling blue paint onto a yellow surface, except that they grew thicker as they followed it. It led them to the base of the oak tree where they disappeared beneath the trunk. “Let me just…” Volos touched the bottom of the trunk and pushed.
A hovel in the oak tree, wide enough for five Vicars, sunk back and flung open.
“A secret passageway,” Saturion mused. “How very… atmospheric.”
“Shut up,” Volos said. “Listen.”
Vicar leaned into the oak and strained.
“Do you hear it?” Volos whispered.
“Singing,” Saturion said. “Come on! There’s people inside!” Without thinking, Saturion bounded into oak and disappeared into the blackness.
“Wait!” Vicar called.
“He’s not waiting, sir,” Volos said.
“I can see that, lieutenant,” Vicar said. Then, “You three, stand guard outside. You two, go back to the entrance and make sure no unexpected visitors surprise us. The rest of you, follow.” Vicar lead Volos and nearly thirty others into the oak. There was a small drop that opened into a cavern that stretched out for miles.
“It’s the root system,” Volos said. “Big tree, bigger roots.”
“Yes,” Vicar said. “Someone built a catacombs into the roots.” All around, the walls were a mixture of human and dragon skulls.
“Took you guys long enough,” Saturion said, appearing from behind the first corner. “Come on! The singing is up here.”
“Careful,” Vicar warned, unsheathing his sword. “I sense danger.”
“You sense danger?” Saturion replied. “I think we all sense it, big guy.”
The catacombs rumbled as they ventured further in, following the sound. Soon, a faint orange glow appeared in the distance, growing brighter all the time. They turned a corner and entered a chasm alight with fire.
Massive dragon jaw bones and teeth formed a circle in which the artists of Caltrider danced, blood strewn across their naked bodies like war paint. Many shook and convulsed while others spoke in tongues. Others still were tied to burning teeth that jut out from the jaw bones like pyres. They did not scream as they burned. They laughed.
“Told you they didn’t just get up and walk away,” Saturion said, his voice shaking. “They got up and… went into a tree where they could set themselves on fire. Right. Makes sense.”
Both men and women appeared almost as if they were pregnant with bellies bloated well beyond their natural size.
“Not now,” Vicar said, banging his sword against the catacomb walls. “Stop this at once!”
The dancers stopped. For a second, recognition dawned on their faces. Recognition and terror.
But then their stomachs began to bulge. Underneath the skin, something moved. Their bellies burst in fiery explosions of molten light. Creatures made from living fire crawled out of their bellies and took dizzying flight, zipping around the catacombs, melting the skulls along the walls as they came near.
“Dustflies?” Volos called.
“No,” Vicar said. “Stay back!” He did not recognize the creatures at first, for what he saw was impossible.
“Dragons,” Saturion said.
Dragon whelps. The people of Caltrider had been used to birth a horde of elemental dragon whelps. But it could not be. Dragons were dead. They had been for four centuries. All that remained were eggs captured in amber and the Dust that wasn’t siphoned. Siphoners could create their own Dust but what existed already had come from dragon scales. That was their momento to Arcania, literal pieces of themselves leftover.
“The walls,” Volos said as the integrity of the catacombs began to crumble from the melted skulls. They were in tree roots. Trees and fire did not mix.
“Go!” Vicar hollered. The company tore through the underground maze but not fast enough for most. The dizzying pathways meant that some took wrong turns and ended up in dead-ends where they met grizzly fates. Others were picked off at the back of the group by hungry newborn dragons as they ran the several miles to the surface, shaking the tunnel walls with each labored step. The whelps followed like giant, crazed hornets, quickly overtaking the soldiers at the entrance and exploding through the hidden doorway at the base of the oak.
Vicar climbed out of the door and into a world on fire.
The oak tree petrified before his eyes. His company horses reared and neighed, desperate to break free from their posts. The shops and homes built into the sprawling tree trunks burned as the whelps tore through the wood. Then, all at once, the whelps began to slow.
“Attack!” Vicar called, pointing his sword.
The first few soldiers to try were those Vicar had left outside the tree. They were turned to ash on the spot as whelps flew threw their bodies before joining their brethren rising in the air. A low, stirring rumble came to them on the breeze.
“What’s that?” the jester said.
It was preternatural, unlike anything Vicar had ever heard. Low and melodic. Entrancing.
“The song,” Volos said. “Except… more, somehow.
“Something is calling to them,” Vicar said.
More and more whelps flew upward, spinning now like a cyclone until they began to smash into one another like flames joining flames. They lost their individual shapes and formed a tremendous ball of fire in the sky. It rocketed like a comet from the burning colony of Caltrider to follow the source of the song on the horizon.
“Quickly, find your horses!” Vicar called as his company died all around him, perishing in the flames.
Saturion ran for his horse — more a pony, really — but it had run off. “Typical,” he said, as Volos picked him up from behind and placed him on his horse.
When they were far enough to no longer feel the heat, the survivors slowed and took stock.
They had started their journey with just over a hundred. A third of that had died or been incapacitated in the fight against the Blackriders. Another third had stayed behind to care for and defend the wounded. Of the third that had carried on, a scarce ten remained, including Vicar, Volos, and Saturion.
The fire ate through Caltried as Vicar’s remaining ten caught their breath.
Saturion was the first to speak. “What now?” he asked.
“We press on,” Vicar said.
“But… where?” Saturion said through labored breath.
Vicar traced the comets’ tail in the sky with his blade. “It is showing us the way.”
“To what?” Volos said.
“To the madness,” Vicar said. He was not sure how he knew but suddenly he had never been more certain of anything in his life. If they followed that comet, they would find what they came to find.
“Well, let’s get on with it,” Volos said, riding off.
Part of Vicar hoped he was going mad. That what happened in Caltrider was an illusion, a fever dream of the crazed. But he knew in his heart of hearts that it was not so. The first tenant of the Gaialist faith said that all Dust must be paid for by sacrifice. The artists of the colony had used Dust for decades to make their work more vivid. They had most certainly paid. But it was the second most repeated tenant of the Gaialist faith that concerned him now. The second tenant prophesied the return of the dragons. Vicar had seen elemental dragons birthed from the corpses of human hosts. It was a miracle.
It was enough to drive anyone insane.
When the Madness Came
Saturion’s nostrils burned with the smell of fire and smoke. They had followed the comet from the artist colony of Caltrider to the blood-soaked outskirts of the western territories. General Vicar and Lieutenant Volos led the dozen soldiers still alive after Caltrider into the village called Letson, where mutilated corpses littered the streets. Saturion, who brought up the rear, had almost grown used to the sight.
The killing, it seemed, had just ended. Fires still burned and smoke plumed into the sky. The bodies were warm and told the stories of their deaths. Pitchforks stuck out the middle of some while wooden swords lay broken in others’ necks. Friends turned on one another in senseless killing and the cobblestone streets were tarred with dried blood.
“The comet passed over this village,” Volos said. “It must have driven these people insane when it did.”
“Why not us, then?” Saturion said. “It passed over us, too.”
“Lucky, I guess,” Volos said.
“No, not luck,” Vicar said. “It wanted us to follow it.”
“But why?” Saturion asked.
“We will find out soon enough,” Vicar said, kneeling at the corpse of a young golden-haired boy strewn in the middle of the street.
The boy, no older than twelve, had freckles dotted across his face and his mother’s blood smeared from ear to ear. In one hand, he held a toy soldier. The other hand was severed, found by his mother’s feet along with the ax she’d used to hack it off. The general took off his helmet. Similar golden hair sprawled out. He said nothing as he grieved, bathed in the crimson light of destruction, the comet’s streak still burning in the sky, smoke pluming into the evening air. Volos knelt beside him. One by one, the rest of Vicar’s command joined in kneeling.
Saturion had felt powerless as the Blackriders attacked and Caltrider burned. He’d felt worthless as Dragi worked to heal Citrine, leaving him to sit and wait. But here, in this moment, there was something he could do. He reached into his robes and withdrew a small sack of copper Dust. Barely a pinch remained from his lessons with Citrine but he thought it would be enough. He blew.
The Dust, laced with shimmering coppery light, encircled the boy’s toy, lighting the soldier up with a copper sheen. It stood on its own and pulled itself free from the boy’s grip. Clumsy, it walked over to where Vicar and the others knelt. The general opened his eyes and saw the toy kneeling, too, paying his respects to his lost friend.
The magic of the Dust ran out before the others in the company could notice anything amiss with the toy. It collapsed as the others rose.
“Spread out!” Volos ordered. “See what you can find.”
Six soldiers and one Dragi did as they were told. Before Vicar joined them, he caught Saturion’s eye and nodded. Saturion bowed his head respectfully. When he rose, Vicar had joined the search.
Vicar’s forces searched the village from thatched roof to mud entryway. They searched the houses, the fields, even underneath chamberpots. Saturion would have joined in the search but truthfully he had no idea what they were looking for. He suspected they didn’t either but the act of searching made them feel like they were doing something. Saturion understood that. He was doing something, too, as he sat on the short village wall, legs bouncing backward and forward. He was thinking.
Dragons. He had seen living, breathing dragons, the first in four hundred years. But how? And more importantly, why? Why now? Too many coincidences were piling up. Was it coincidence that Citrine had been discovered as a Wyvern just the day before Vicar was sent to find the source of the madness? And what about the madness itself? Could the dragons be the cause? The artists in Caltrider had certainly been driven insane but they had been used as incubators. Did that mean the other reports of madness were of a similar nature? No, that couldn’t be. Someone would have said something. The dragon revival was too miraculous to keep quiet. Only the Gaialists believed the dragons would return. They had long prophesied it. Was it mere coincidence that only after a majority of governors convert to the religion that the prophecy prove true?
His head spun with the possibilities. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples, turning his attention to happier thoughts. For a just a moment, he blocked out all worries about conspiracy and unanswered questions and imagined what life might be like if he had never left Nirgrend. It had been less than a month, but his life had changed dramatically. He wondered if he could convince Citrine to run away with him back to Nirgrend or to another farm somewhere quiet, away from politics and fighting and dragons. He imagined life with her, surrounded by kids and animals, Portia hollering about the prices of meat at the market, Andros stopping over from time to time on his travels. Saturion smiled.
“Does the sight of so much death bring you joy, jester?” Vicar snarled.
“General!” Saturion jumped with surprise.
“N-no,” Saturion stuttered. “Not at all. I was just thinking.”
“About?” Vicar said, taut.
Saturion paused, then dove in. He shot off his questions rapid fire. Vicar stood totally still. When Saturion finished, he removed his helmet and sighed. His entire body seemed to shrink in the gesture, as if he were letting out a part of himself.
Then he said, “Thank you. For what you did.”
“Come again?” Saturion nearly wheezed.
Vicar opened his palm. In it was the toy soldier.
“Oh,” Saturion said. “It was nothing. I’m not good at funerals. Or… whatever this is.” He gestured to the still-burning village and thought he could hear screams coming from the corpses.
“I do not have much respect for your profession,” Vicar said.
“Profession? You mean jesting? That’s not my profession. It’s just, uh, my day job. Trust me. You’ll read about me in history books one day.”
“I am sure,” Vicar said dryly. “As I was saying, I have little respect for jesters not. But when I was a boy, I wanted to be a jester,” Vicar said, his tone softening considerably.
“Is that so?” asked Saturion.
“Those in your… day job, as you say, can show a surprising amount of empathy. I envy that trait. It is one you must quench in war,” Vicar said.
“Balderdash,” Saturion exclaimed. “You’re empathic! You care, general. More than most. It’s clear to anyone that has served under you. Don’t let the last few days rattle you, big guy. You’re doing the best you can.”
Was that true? Vicar wondered. Once, he considered what it might take to reshape the world so that future generations would never know fighting, only empathy. Compassion. Sympathy for others. It would take rivers of blood, a price he had not been willing to pay. Vicar pushed those thoughts from his mind and with surprising fluidity did a short jig. “I am light on my toes. A good skill for jesting.”
And for fighting, Saturion thought. Before he could say another word, the clanking of heavy armor and a gurgled scream broke their conversation. One of Vicar’s soldiers appeared from the direction of the village, limbs flailing wildly, his body aflame. He threw his helmet off to show bubbled and popped skin roasting inside his armor.
Saturion hadn’t imagined the screams. They were coming from Vicar’s soldiers. The madness had found them.
Vicar dashed back towards the village, replacing his helmet and drawing his sword. Saturion followed the village wall to the end where it died into one of the houses. He reached into another pocket in his robe and took out a handful of blue Dust. He blew. The Dust circled his feet, granting him the power to bend the rules of gravity. He leapt from rooftop to rooftop with ease, chasing Vicar as he tore a path through the village, using his blade to suck up fire as he went.
“Volos!” Vicar called, his voice guttural.
His first lieutenant replied from behind a collapsed wall. “Sir!”
“Report!” Vicar demanded.
“It seems the soldiers have gone insane,” Volos observed, his umber armor glowing reddish in the firelight as an insane Dragi made a ball of flames and shot it at his head. It broke against the wall and in half a second, Vicar knocked him out. “Incapacitate them,” Vicar ordered. “Do not kill them.”
“And if I go insane, sir?” Volos asked, crashing his Morningstar on the foot of one of his own men.
“Don’t,” Vicar said. He tore a path through his own retinue of soldiers.
Saturion watched in awe as Vicar parried, sliced, dashed, rolled, all the time the flames growing all around. I get it, Saturion thought, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, just barely keeping up. Vicar never stopped dancing.
Vicar used the red in-laid Dust of his sword to absorb as much of the fire as he could, but it spread too quickly. He could not get it all.
Saturion felt in his robe and clutched three completely full containers of Dust. He had swiped them from the wagon Citrine had filled before they left the infirmary. He figured they might come in handy. But what to do with them? Could he even control them? He did not have time to see which shimmers they were before they left and did not know if they would help.
That’s when he saw the impossible for the second time that day.
“General!” Saturion called, jumping from one roof to another as the building under his feet collapsed. “Fire!”
“Yes, I see the fire,” Vicar called, taking a sword swing to the middle. His armor saved him from serious damage.
“No. Look at what’s in the fire!”
Volos knocked Vicar on the shoulder. “He’s right!” The two men, the only soldiers not yet taken by madness, turned to face the flames. From the bellies of their compatriots, house-cat sized dragons clawed their way to life, disappearing into the fire before emerging, their bodies comprised entirely of snapping flames.
“Run!” Vicar commanded.
An End to Slumber
Vicar was not a man who took retreat lightly, but as the snapping, burning hot jaws of the elemental dragons drew nearer, he knew it was his only chance. He, Volos, and the jester ran into forest that surrounded the village. The darkness thickened with every step, giving him a small comfort. Vicar had passed many days wandering the Black Forest outside of the Jet Fortress. He was comfortable in total darkness. It was the only place where he felt he could truly reflect, truly be himself.
But this forest was nowhere near as dark as the one back home and there was no time for meditation. Above, large oaks with branches that normally jut out in every direction were twisting unnaturally skyward before bending to the point of breaking at the tips.
“The trees are all bending in the same direction!” called Saturion.
Even the leaves, sparse as they were, followed the bend, as if trying desperately to reach out and touched whatever lived in the center of this forest. Before Vicar’s eyes, the leaves dissolved. Semi-circles burned within forming heaping globs of molten bark in the center of the tree trunks. Firelight spread like veins up and down each of the trees until the bark charred, crumbled, and exploded into endless pieces of fiery shrapnel.
Between the bits of hurtling bark, dragons spewed into the night air.
The dragons were of varying sizes, some as small as fireflies as others rapidly grew to pumpkin-sized monstrosities. Vicar stood his ground, turned to face the beasts and unsheathed his obsidian blade. It glowed with red and purple Dust. He could try to absorb more of the fire with the red side, but he feared it would be too much. If he tried and failed, it could shatter the blade in two. The dragons surrounded him now like a tornado of locusts with him in the eye. The heat was too much. He dropped his blade, fell to his knees. Tried to claw his helmet off as he boiled beneath his armor.
From somewhere impossibly far away, he heard Volos calling his name. He thought he could see Saturion fumbling in his cloak, pulling out containers of some sort. It didn’t matter. Those were concerns for the living. Vicar, soon, would be dead.
“Is this how the mighty General Karosiv Vicar dies?”
Kneeling next to him was the golden-haired boy from the village.
“Are you here to take me to hell, spirit?” Vicar said. He said it without making words, as his teeth were melting in his mouth.
“I am here to ask, why do you retreat when the battle is not yet lost?” The boy cocked his head, reminding Vicar of the golden retriever he had as a boy. The one his father made him strangle with his own hands after it relieved itself in his father’s bed. He missed his dog, yearned suddenly to see his dog again on the other side.
“Just let me die,” Vicar said.
“That would be a mercy, wouldn’t it?” the boy said, his freckles almost glowing in the reflection of the fire. “When have you ever shown mercy?”
Vicar was no longer kneeling in the tornado, no longer in that forest or even in that time. He was standing on a battlefield holding a regular steel sword. His armor had been silver when the battle began but was now crimson, crusted over with enough blood and viscera that it would never totally come out. He had killed two hundred men that day before losing count, most with his bare hands, strangling them like he had his dog. What had these men done to deserve such deaths? He could not remember. It did not matter.
Reality swirled around him and he was standing in the Castle of the Bow. The sixteen governors were standing in a V-shape formation fanning out behind the then-Governor of the White at the fore. Vicar wore newly commissioned golden armor. He accepted the exquisite obsidian blade as a gift from the Democracy for his service and as a congratulatory present for earning the rank of general. It only had red Dust woven into the metal, then.
Before he could blink he was in a new room. Valera’s room. Her bed. She lit a long, thin pipe. His golden armor lay discarded on the floor.
“We must end this, you know,” Valera said.
“Is it the age difference?” Vicar said. “I told you I don’t mind that you’re over three hundred years my senior. I like older women.”
“It is not that and you know it,” Valera said. “You are a general now. I am the High Mage. It is not proper for our branches to co-mingle.”
“Come back to bed, Valera.”
“No,” she said simply. “You must leave. You are no longer welcome.”
She turned to face him, silent tears running down her cheeks. She touched the tip of his obsidian sword as he dressed and when she lifted her hand, purple Dust had been woven into the blade, too.
All the time, the golden-haired boy watched. He watched as they flitted through Vicar’s life, back to when he lost his first child and its mother. Vicar had barely been older than the golden-haired boy when he buried them both. Then to his father’s funeral. No one else had come. Off to meeting Volos and Tarantos, the current Governor of the White and leader of the Gaialists.
“Why are you showing me this?” Vicar demanded. “Answer me!”
“Because I am searching,” said the boy.
“Searching for what?”
“For someone who can find the Gate.”
“Who… are you?” Vicar said.
The boy turned his attention away from the memory playing out before them and back to Vicar. He smiled and from between his lips, tiny dragon whelps crawled like spiders and then flew like bats out of a cave.
“I am the one you think impossible,” the boy said. His head cocked again but this time too far. “Do you still wish to die, Karosiv Vicar of the Western Democracy?” Vicar heard the boy’s spine snap. His voice changed. It was higher now. Fiendish. Demonic.
Before he could answer, Vicar was back in the present, in his own body. Dying.
The tornado of fire dragons closed in on him distorting the air inside the tornado with their heat.
“Karosiv!” Volos called, but it was no use.
Vicar tried to stand but fell. He crawled to the tornado wall. His armor singed and smoked as he got closer.
“Stand back!” Saturion yelled from outside the eye.
“What are you doing?” Volos asked.
“I don’t know exactly. But here it goes!” Saturion threw the three containers of Dust he’d swiped at the tornado. The containers opened mid-air and sprayed different colored Dust in every direction. Before a single grain could touch the ground, Saturion reached deep inside himself, reached for the laughter he knew would be there. His mother’s laughter. Fire raged all around and he felt like a child again, alone in that burning house as his mother perished in the flame. He would not let that happen again. Not this time.
He opened his eyes and saw that the Dust in each of the containers had turned red.
“But… how?” Volos said. “Dust can’t change color.”
Saturion let instinct take over. He moved like the flames, letting the heat guide his limbs, letting the smoke fill his lungs and whisper to him the secrets of the fire. Then, he moved the fire, telling it to go. A high pitched whine came from the tornado as the dragons fought against Saturion’s red Dust. Saturion’s ears began to bleed but he did not relent. With a final push, he imagined heaving the tornado into the sky and to his surprise, it dissipated just as he imagined it would.
Silence descended on the forest.
“It is… over?” Saturion asked as Volos ran to help his fallen friend.
A low and melodic song came floating in. Just as entrancing as the first time the three had heard it in Caltrider, but now it came from everywhere. The dying embers that were the dragons Saturion had defeated rose again, each one singing. More dragons came from all over the countryside, birthed from the husks of broken men and women. They came and transformed, their bodies dissolving into pure, unadulterated orange Dust that reached into the sky and reformed the comet. The ground began to bubble. Insects squirmed through the soil, desperate to escape as it dissolved like quicksand, turning red before transforming into a chasm of molten rock. Steam shot into the sky as geysers burst. That’s when Saturion realized that the comet was no comet at all; it was an egg.
Saturion knew he would die and laughed. Like mother like son, he thought, unable to speak. Powerless after all.
General Vicar lay in the lava, armor reddening, Volos at his side.
In the sky, the comet cracked open and living fire took a breath. Saturion knew then that the dragons they’d faced up to that point were nothing. Not when compared to this creature. A true dragon. The first true dragon 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 pulled his hair out in clumps 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.