Vicar’s Conquest: Chapter Five
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Last time on Dragon Shield Kingdoms: Vicar’s Conquest
Saturion Deshane, the Wyvern Citrine, her mother Portia and friend Andros followed General Karosiv Vicar’s directions through a secret passageway in the walls of the capital city of Sylvania to escape a mob of Gaialist cultists. They traveled through the Black Forest until they came to the Jet Fortress, the hidden headquarters of the Democratic Military. Vicar provided rooms for them to recover but Portia and Andros threatened to stay at the Fortress indefinitely and even sell the rarest of war relics unless Vicar returned safely with Citrine and Saturion both, complicating his vow to High Mage Valera to kill them if necessary. Saturion grew excited at the prospect of traveling on the road and learning Dustcraft from the Wyvern. Later that evening, Vicar sought an audience with the sixteen governors of Arcania, demanding an answer from the leader of the Gaialists as to why they attacked Citrine. The leader explained it was a misunderstanding among the more zealous of his followers and promised it would not happen again. After the other governors left, the Gaialist leader confided in Vicar that Sylvania would soon become a dangerous place and it would be better if he did not return. Vicar then sent a letter to his friend and lieutenant Volos warning him of the danger to come and his growing suspicion that the madness they seek might originate with the cult of Gaial.
How to Atone
“You’re awake,” Portia said as Citrine slowly rose, holding her head in her hand.
“Where are we?”
“We’re in the Jet Fortress,” she said. “General Vicar brought us here.”
Citrine’s eyes became saucer-sized as she tried to jump up from the bed. “We have to get out of here.”
“Shh, sweet girl, lay back down.”
“Those men,” Citrine said. “I killed them.”
The waves of the sea at the fortress’s back rumbled outside the window.
“You had no choice,” Portia said. “They were coming to gut us both.“
“They’re going to kill me,” Citrine said. “And I’ll deserve it.” She collapsed back onto the bed. “I am the monster the Gaialists claim, aren’t I?”
For a brief flash, Portia was not looking into the face of a young woman but her little girl, pigtails and all. “Of course not,” she said.
“Come, we must find a way out of here,” Citrine said.
Portia put a gentle hand on her daughter’s shoulder and put just enough pressure to keep her seated. She shook her head. “No, Citrine. There is nowhere to escape to. Tomorrow you will join the general as the Democracy demands. You are safest under his protection. And if you truly wish to atone for the lives you took, you will use your power to protect the company from harm.”
“I don’t want to go,” Citrine said, her voice a whisper.
“I know. The general and I have come to an understanding.”
“What do you mean?” Citrine asked.
“He understands that he must bring you back safe and sound to me or I will haunt him for the rest of his life,” she said, tears in her eyes.
“What about you? What about the Bunk?”
“Don’t worry about me,” Portia said. “I’ll be fine. Andros and I will stay here until you return. We’re squatters now, I suppose.”
“No buts,” she said. “Sleep now, sweet girl. Sleep while you can.” You have many sleepless nights in your future, she almost said. Portia did not have to coax her daughter much, so exhausted she was from the immense energy she’d channeled earlier in her scrimmage with the Gaialists. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow, snoring lightly to the rhythm of the waves.
The Next Morning
Saturion was wide awake when the servant came to get him for the pre-journey morning meeting. He had not slept a wink and knew he would soon regret the decision, seeing as how he had a day of hiking ahead of him. The servant led him into a dining area where Andros sat drinking steaming coffee from a mug.
“‘Ello there,” he said jovially as Saturion grabbed two bread rolls off a platter. “Ready for your very first tour of duty?”
“No,” Saturion said. “Why, does it matter?”
“I suppose not,” Andros said. He stood and pulled Saturion into a hug, nearly choking him on his own bread. “Be safe, boy,” Andros said. “And do your best to keep the atmosphere light. Everyone could use a laugh on the road. Your job is to keep them from remembering where they are for as long as you can.”
“Aren’t you going to tell me to take care of Citrine?” Saturion asked.
“Ha! I asked her to take care of you!”
“Good idea,” Saturion said.
“Jester! The entire company is in the valley except for you!” screamed the servant. “Move!” As Saturion lugged his trunk behind him, he ignored the servant’s barely contained whisper: “Freak.”
The servant had not been exaggerating and Saturion gasped as he crossed through the fortress doors. Below him filling the valley were all manner of men and women. Soldiers, Dustcrafters, medics, cooks, animal tenders, wagons, supply cars, horses, blacksmiths, armorers, archers, cavalry. The youngest was half Saturion’s age and the oldest twice his father’s. Skin tones of every color from the isles to the Wraithlands stood waiting.
“Are they all waiting for me?” Saturion asked the servant.
“No,” Vicar said, appearing silently from the shadowy fortress hallway. “They’re waiting for me.”
“Oh, uh, that makes sense,” he said. Then, remembering his new role, he hollered into the valley. “I give you your excellency, General Karosiv Vicar!” Saturion made a show of overexcited waves and bowed deeply, removing the jingling jester hat from his head to touch his nose to the ground.
Across the valley, Vicar’s company gave him the Arcanian salute — two hands on either temple, fingers out to form a vague winglike shape.
“Thank you, jester,” Vicar said, his voice booming around the valley with magically enhanced volume. “For the rest of you, there is no need to use such an honorific as your excellency. I am not royalty. I am a humble servant to the people of the Democracy. You have all been summoned to come with me on a journey to the Outlands. We do not yet know the length or duration of our journey, only that we will be gone until we discover the source of disturbing reports of madness spreading in the westernmost territories. For some of you, this will be your first time away from the comfort of your mother’s breast. For others, this will be a third or fourth tour. And others still will undoubtedly not know how to conduct themselves when faced with the possibility of an on-going venture such as this. To all, I have this to say: We are always in service of the Democracy but while we are on the road together, we are not a democracy. I take responsibility for the lives and the deaths of all those in my charge. You will do as I say when I say it. I may not be a king but on the road, you will obey my commands. Is that understood?”
A soft murmur ran through the crowd.
“I said, is that understood?”
“Good. Then we are off.”
The First Week
For the first few days, Citrine refused to ride a horse or be carried in a carriage. She refused a cot or a sleeping roll, did not partake in Saturion’s nightly shows, nor did she speak to anyone. She kept to herself, thinking about the men she’d killed and the power she could not yet fully control. She saw their faces in her nightmares as her tendrils ripped them apart. But as the company left the sprawl of Sylvania and turned north from the main road, Vicar insisted she ride in a palanquin next to him. “You’re too valuable to risk getting hit by a stray arrow,” Vicar said.
“Do you believe we will encounter many stray arrows on this journey?” Citrine asked.
“One never knows,” Vicar replied before ordering her to close the palanquin curtain.
Citrine did not have to work hard to keep herself ostracized. Rumors about the platinum-haired girl who massacred men in the streets had spread through the company like wildfire. Everyone avoided her save for Vicar.
And Saturion, who swung a cream pie at her face one evening at supper.
“Hey!” she said, unable to dodge in time. The cream splattered across her cheek and fell into her bowl of stew.
“I really thought you’d duck that!” he said jogging over, a gaggle of soldiers to young to shave laughing. He gave her a wink. “Sorry about that.”
“Not as sorry as you’re going to be,” she said, picking up the self-refilling container and chucking it at his face. It plopped against his nose and hung off its bridge before sliding down his black robes smearing them white. The crowd went wild.
“Okay, I see how it is,” Saturion said. “Do you like flowers?” From an inner pocket, he produced a flower with seven different colored petals. He squeezed the stem and water shot out, formed itself into a galloping unicorn, and collapsed onto her head. She screamed from the cold and clutched for his robe, closing her hand on a kerchief. Saturion ran, the kerchief trailing behind him from his robe, growing ever longer. It had no end and Citrine realized it must be enchanted. She closed her eyes and called to her Dust, felt it stirring inside her, inside the kerchief, and spoke to it silently for the first time since the massacre. It was hungry. It wanted to strike out, to slay the fool Saturion where he stood. But she would not let it, willing it instead to transform. In a puff of silver Dust, the kerchief grew scales and a tongue and hissed. Saturion shrieked and flung the snake from his robe up in the air, where it returned to its original kerchief form and tumbled harmlessly to the ground.
Both he and Citrine breathed heavily as the crowd, larger now, applauded. They looked to each other then both took a bow, grinning. It was the first time anyone in the company looked at her without malice or fear. They looked at her as they looked at Saturion; with amusement, with appreciation. She found herself longing for that feeling to stay.
After the show, Saturion found Citrine by herself just inside the company barrier. Dustcrafters created a low-powered force field around the company to keep the most basic forms of projectiles and animals away. Maintaining the field required an immense amount of Dust and concentration so they only did it at night or when they were stopped longer periods.
“It was nice to see that, you know,” Saturion said.
“See what?” she asked.
“You smile,” he said.
She rolled her eyes so hard they almost cracked in her skull. “Smooth line.”
Saturion grabbed at his chest as if stabbed through the heart. “You got me,” he said. “But really, I haven’t seen you that happy since we met at the Bunk.”
“Feels like a million years ago,” she said wistfully.
“Yeah,” he said.
“I guess you didn’t make it into the Guild of Court Mages,” she said.
“Nope. Turns out I was destined for greater things.”
“Like cartwheeling.” Saturion attempted a cartwheel and fell flat on his face. “Ow.”
Citrine cracked a smile but tried to hide it. “You’re not a very good jester, are you?”
“About as good as you are at hiding your feelings,” Saturion said. “Still beating yourself up, huh?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Citrine said, anger flaring. She started walking back to camp.
“Wait!” Saturion said. He looked at her like the soldiers looked at him. With warmth. “You were just doing what you had to do. I can respect that.”
“Eleven men died because of what I did,” she said. “I didn’t mean to do it but it doesn’t matter. When I get like that, when I go full Wyvern, I can’t fully control my actions. But I am still responsible. Some part of me must have wanted to make them pay. Do you know what that’s like? To want to kill and have the power to actually do it?” The words streamed out of her like a dam breaking.
“Yes,” Saturion said, his voice sad and low. “I do.”
That stopped Citrine in her tracks. She saw a darkness wash over him. He was reliving something. A memory. One powerful enough that she could almost see it in his eyes. He regained control of himself quickly, but she had seen what she’d seen. And it scared her.
“You just haven’t learned to control your power yet,” he said once the darkness passed.
“Don’t you think I’ve tried?” she said, almost defeated.
Saturion shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know much about you. But I’d like to learn.”
“Here we go,” she said, tired. “Another line?”
“Why? Did it work?”
Citrine did not deign to respond.
“Look,” Saturion continued. “You want to learn how to control your power and I want to learn Dustcraft. They say the best way to learn is to teach, so why don’t you teach me?” Saturion placed two hands together in front of him and bowed. “Master Wyvern, I seek your guidance.” He glanced up, smiling, hoping he had at least gotten her to crack a smile.
She did not.
“Just leave me alone,” Citrine said.
“I’ll be the best student ever,” Saturion said. “I promise! Look, I’ve already pretty much mastered two shimmers. Pretty, pretty, pretty impressive, no?”
Citrine stared, dumbfounded. “Are you serious?”
“As a dragon attack,” he said. “Hey, neither of us expected to be out here. It might make the time go by a little faster and a little easier if we could at least pass the time together. So, what do you say?”
Citrine considered it. If she could master her powers, perhaps she could start to atone. To do good. To prove the Gaialists wrong. “My Dustcraft comes naturally,” she said. “I don’t know if it can be taught.”
“I’m willing to find out if you are,” he said. Another smile. She could not gauge if it was sincere but she supposed it didn’t matter. The fool had a point.
“Fine,” she said. “But it’s Citrine, or Trini. Not Master Wyvern. Got it?”
“Got it,” Saturion said. “I offer you the distinguished honor of calling me by what my friends do.” He bowed. “The name is Tury.”
“Not like that,” Citrine said, correcting Saturion’s Dustcrafting form. The two were huddled in the back of a tavern, velvet bags of different-colored Dust spread out before them. Vicar’s rowdy company took up most of the remaining tables. They had come to a stop in one of the larger villages five days outside of Sylvania. Many such cities existed, in which the fashions and fortunes of the capital influenced the people nearby. Known as Circle Center, the village was a favorite stopping point on any traveler or trader’s adventure as it was conveniently located at a crossways toward any of the cardinal directions. Vicar warned them to enjoy the downtime while they could as the next stop in a village of any size wouldn’t be for a week at the earliest.
Saturion held his index and middle finger together with the ring finger on his right hand bent at a thirty degree angle and his thumb and pinky in a semi-circle formation clutching a pinch of copper Dust. Sweat bubbled on his brow as he concentrated on the copper. He rubbed his pinky and thumb, coaxing the Dust and managing a slight glow as it flew from between his fingers to a fork on the table.
“That’s it,” Citrine said. “Keep going.”
Saturion grit his teeth as he rubbed his fingers together, willing the Dust to animate the fork. The fork clattered from side to side, hovered and nearly stood upright before collapsing to the table. Saturion slammed his fist on the table, knocking over his ale and crushing a small yellow flower in the process.
“It’s impossible!” he said.
“It’s not,” Citrine said, apologizing to the customers next to them as she cleaned up the spilled ale. Without looking, Citrine made the hand formation. Dust flew from between her fingers and surrounded the fork and the spoon next to it. The two jumped to attention and began to dance. She let the form go and the cutlery went still.
“Easy for you to say,” Saturion said. “You’re a Wyvern.”
“Do you want me to help you learn Dustcraft or not?” Citrine asked.
“I do,” Saturion said.
“Then stop complaining and do it again.” She placed her palm over the empty bag of copper Dust on the table and filled it by siphoning Dust from nothingness. It was one of a Wyvern’s most powerful abilities. Saturion reached into the bag next to it, withdrew a pinch of turquoise Dust. He felt it buzzing in his palm as he blew. It scattered, surrounding the yellow flower, bringing it back to life.
Saturion’s face broke in joyous laughter. He was like a child discovering he could walk for the first time. Citrine smiled and almost held his hand.
“I have something for you,” she said.
“You do? What is it?”
She took a book out of her bag and passed it to him across the table.
“Just what I always wanted! A book!” He was nonplussed.
“Just read it,” she said, pulling both hands back.
“Sure,” he said. “Right after I make this fork bring me a piece of that guy’s steak.” He took another pinch of copper Dust, did the formation and sent his fork flying across the room to another table where it snatched a piece of steak off of a man’s plate and whizzed back into Saturion’s mouth before the man could see where his meat disappeared to.
“I see we’ve found the proper motivation for you to learn,” Citrine said as Saturion swallowed.
“And how,” Saturion said.
That night, Saturion opened the book and began to read.
“BENDS OF THE BOW: DUSTCRAFT FOR BEGINNERS” AUTHORED BY LOW MAGE AUGUSTUS MARTIN
“While an infinite amount of Dust exists in the universe, that does not make it infinitely accessible. Special Dustcrafters, called Channelers, have the ability to siphon Dust from the fabric of existence itself. Unlike Wyverns, who are born with the innate ability to use a near-infinite amount of Dust without training, it takes years to become an adept Channeler and years more to pick out certain strands of Dust from others. When one channels, one might create a gathering of yellow, blue, and green Dust, for example. It takes time and skill to separate this gathering into the desired strands. The time-intensive process of siphoning Dust is one of the reasons why it is so highly prized and used as currency across Arcania. Pure strands are often worth more to those who know how to use them than gold. Mixed Dust, on the other hand, might as well be useless. While Dustcrafters might purposefully combine strands of Dust to great effect, raw mixed Dust has little effect whatsoever. One must always be on the lookout for those claiming to have Dust for sale, as the practice of faking the substance has become particularly prevalent in unregulated markets across the continent.
Each ounce of Dust requires the average Channeler eight months to siphon. Adept Channelers might cut this to six months. Novice Channelers can expect to spend anywhere between twelve and sixteen months to siphon their first raw ounce. That is why even in the capital of the Democracy, pure Dust is difficult to come by and is often reserved for the Court of Mages, the rich, and the military. Each general is afforded a limited supply of Dust for his or her Dustcrafters. Quarrels between the guilds, the military, the court, and the Jester’s Society are common, as the Jesters are afforded a slightly larger allowance of Dust to use in their enchanting and performances. While some in the Democracy argue that the mood-lifting quality of their acts are worth the expenditure, others believe better uses for Dust exist. The most religious among us take particular umbrage to the Jester’s Society use of Dust, believing it sacrilegious.
With this knowledge, one can better appreciate a Wyvern’s skill to siphon all the Dust on command that they would ever need. The ministers of the Gaialist order, for example, believe Dust to be a physical form of the All-Mother Gaial’s scales and as such should be reserved for only the most pious of uses. Enchanting flowers to spit water, as the Jester’s Society is want to do, does not meet their standard…”
The text went on but Saturion could not bear to read another academic word. Dust could not be understood from a book. It had to be experienced, wielded, let loose like a wildfire. Only those who had been burned knew its true power. He chucked the book against his trunk and closed his eyes, picturing Citrine’s smile from when he made that fork fly.
A Village Notice
Nearly a week later, the company came upon a market in a new village. Most markets were willing to give representatives of the Democracy anything they required. They were not all happy about the prospect of giving up their crops, clothes, or shelter, but they were willing to considering the alternative. To not cooperate with a General would be treated as treason with death the lightest penalty.
Even so, the pineapple vendor at the York market seemed a little more eager than usual to give away his fruit. Saturion did not notice the sign pinned to the notice board as he took a large bite into the rotted produce.
—A News Clipping
MADNESS SPREADS ACROSS THE WESTERN REGION. DO NOT EAT THE PINEAPPLE. I REPEAT. DO NOT EAT THE PINEAPPLE. FIND ANOTHER FRUIT. ORANGES, FOR EXAMPLE.
-This notice provided by the orange growers of York
Saturion laughed and took the clipping as a souvenir.
That night, the company feasted on oranges and danced around a fire pit as General Vicar’s bard Mephistopheles, or Les, as he was preferred to be called, sang for their entertainment.
The fool danced and frolicked and bowed to the sheep
While the Wyvern made do crafting Dust from the deep
As the general schemed, plotted, refusing to sleep
His company marched to the beat of barkeep
His company marched to the beat of barkeep
Ignoring the clamor, the cries of the weak,
The madness, it spread, bitter harvest to reap.
Across the fire pit, Saturion caught Citrine’s eye. She still did not talk much but had warmed up to the others in the company. They saw Saturion getting along with her and some of their goodwill toward the jester had rubbed off on her. Saturion flashed her a smile and she smiled back.
That night, Citrine invited Saturion to her tent. Next to her bedroll was the flower he’d saved at the tavern.
She slept fitfully, nearly knocking the flower pot over as Saturion lay awake staring at the tent ceiling. It had been two weeks since they left Sylvania. The company had found nothing except hunger, soreness, and exhaustion. Many were beginning to grow miserable with the journey. Complaints were louder and more frequent. And yet, Saturion found himself happier than he’d ever been. It was not just spending time with Citrine, although that was an unexpected boon. It was spending time with so many other people at all! His home village of Nirgrend was small, important in its function as a wheat farming community and member of the Breadlands, but not a destination of any importance. Saturion had never been around so many men and women. Back home, the loneliness had been terrible. It left him alone with his thoughts: That he was useless, that he was a killer, that he’d die having never done anything but farm wheat and burn his mother. Here, surrounded by so many people, by making them laugh, he found he could push the loneliness away. He tried to savor it.
But at night, with the dark hanging over him like it did the night as a boy he sparked the traveling jester’s red Dust, his memories found him. That deep familiar sunkenness filled him, a loneliness so profound it threatened to drown him.
He turned to his side and touched Citrine’s shoulder. He would not give in. He woke her to do what the lonely do. Together.