It wasn’t the scales that made them nervous, or the signs of blood, the struggles, or the bandits. Or even the great chains that littered the crater, forged out of blood hardened steel. Or even the skeletons littering the floor, picked clean by blight beasts for spare parts.
No, it was the massive welt of heartflesh they found in that crater. Larger than a man, twice as sturdy, all four of them stared upon it. Half rotted, hands had torn into the mass. Teeth and sawn at the edges.
Whoever the dragon had been was dead.
The dragon was dead.
In terms of diplomacy, there were few things on the entire plane that could sour things faster than a dead dragon. The dragons were largely immortal, and bred rarely, leaving their population just under a thousand. Their mountain ranges were unexplored, and mostly untouched by the great plagues.
Those thousand scared the living shit out of everyone else. A single dragon was a match for nearly a hundred men. If anything were to disturb the rest of the dragon empires…
Many places still remembered the rule of the old dragonlords, and the Akri still remembered the shackles they had come from.
Lyn swore under her breath again and stepped around the great welt. “That’s…”
“That’s a dead dragon,” Brighton said intelligently. “That’s… That’s not what we were looking for but there it is anyway.”
Jacob put a hand on Brighton’s shoulders and squeezed. Brighton raised his hand to cast.
Dan swatted his hand down. “Don’t. Dragon flesh rebukes spells.”
“It does?” Brighton asked.
“It does. Far more effectively than Blight-beasts.” Dan took a step away from the heart flesh.
“Why’d they leave this?” Lyn asked, taking a step closer. Her eyes were half glossed, staring at the muscle. Ichor, gore, compounded rot. She drew her sword and gently poked the side.
“Better question,” Dan said. “Where’s the rest of the dragon?”
Nobody had a reply.
“Mission accomplished,” Jacob muttered, turning away.
“We’re done?” Brighton asked. “But we don’t know anything.”
“We know plenty,” Dan said. “They were organized tighter than bandits, they were involved with the death of a dragon, and they knew how to get in and out of blight territory.”
“Which means…?” Brighton asked.
“They’re a rival guild, working for a national power,” Lyn said, sheathing her blade. “I just don’t know who.”
Jacob shook his head. “Could just be a mercenary company.”
“Not much of a difference.” Dan muttered. “Shall we reclaim our horses?”
“What’ll we say?”
“We’ll stick with Aer first,” Dan said, flicking his eyes to the others. “Agreed?”
“What’ll your guildmaster do that ours won’t?” Jacob challenged.
“Our guildmaster had the original contract,” the wizard pointed out. “And has a history of positive diplomacy.”
“We were hired by the nobles,” Jacob said. “That makes our ties stronger.”
“Yes, I understand that,” Dan said. “You can talk to them all you want. But until we figure out what’s going on, we need to keep this low.”
“Why?” Brighton asked.
“Because it looks like a small mercenary contingent managed to down a dragon.” Lyn sheathed her sword. “And something happened to the rest of the body.”
“It looks like the forces of humankind are responsible,” Lyn continued. “We might be able to argue that the blight took her, and the bandits were merely taking advantage, but…”
“It’s a bad look,” Dan said. “If we spread around the wrong story, it won’t matter what the facts are, everyone will start panicking.”
“So what?” Jacob asked. “What makes your guildmaster more trustworthy than mine?”
“Do you really think this is the only thing we’ve had to sweep under the rug?” Dan replied. “Do you know how many noble families would kill to keep their secrets intact, that we’ve stumbled upon in their ruins?”
“So, experience?” Brighton mutters. “You’re saying your guildmaster has more experience?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Dan said, shaking his head. “I don’t want to stick around here any longer than’s necessary, is what I’m saying, if it means we get out of here before whatever business is going on out here leaks.”
“To the horses?” Lyn asked. She turned to look at the two additions to their party, and if only for a moment, imagined they were other people, and then something like sadness trickled across her nose, and something like memories that she’d long since swallowed settled in her stomach, devoured like the great jaws of the god wolf. “You’re with us now,” Lyn decided.
Tiana sat in Aer’s office, long legs looped over his desk. She chewed thoughtfully on the edge of a leaf, tucked between her lips.
“I don’t understand how that disguise fools anyone,” Aer noted, leaning back in his desk. “What is with you all and picking flashy disguises?”
“Nobody cares this far from your capital,” Tiana pointed out, dryly. “All they care about is a brief moment of respite from their boring lives, and they can’t even comprehend something as exciting and worldchanging as what I could be.”
“Worldchanging is hardly apt,” Aer said, just as dry. He sighed, tossing her another packet of leaves. She chewed on them. “And I believe I told my sister, explicitly, that I was not to be involved.”
“Saniss is late,” Tiana said. Her teeth came together on the leaf, blunted edges marking his family’s messenger. Her eyes were slitted now, staring at Aer.
Aeronis closed his eyes, and for the first time in a long time, wondered about what he’d left behind. His sister, for one. “How is that…”
“Your problem?” Tiana replied. “She’s your sister, Aer. Or did you trade your heart as well as your scales for this petty business?”
“This petty business has done more for the world than a thousand years of hoarding pointless baubles,” Aer said, irritated. “For every poem and story Saniss squirreled away under the guise of library keeping, how many people benefitted?”
Tiana’s lips rimmed with embers, and she blew out a smoke ring from the ignited leaf pulp. “Your idea of politics isn’t the point here,” Tiana said, levelly. “Your sister is late. Many now know that she went to the lands of the Queen to look for something.”
Aer rubbed his forehead, pinching the skin. “She left my company intact, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“I’m implying that you don’t have a bone left in your body. Did you trade those two, to play at a kindly old man?” Tiana hissed. “Saniss is your sister.”
“I don’t know if you remember,” Aer said. “But I’m not considered much of a dragon around those parts. Not anymore. The affairs of your kind don’t pertain to me.”
“Then here are words that will pertain to you,” Tiana spat. “Forged in the heart of war, soured by the soft rain of spring, plucked from the heart of an empire.”
“Don’t,” Aer said, holding up a hand.
“Quenched in the heart of a traitor,” Tiana continued, crossing her legs. “A crown to hold the grasp of God. A throne to complete the change.”
“Stop. Please,” Aer said, quietly, but finished it. “And the soul of a knight in a golden ring.” Aer finished softly. “Tiana, there are no more wars. There haven’t been any in decades. The closest, the very closest, have been these blight campaigns. There are no soul forges left.”
“You took care of that, didn’t you?” Tiana asked, quirking her brow.
Aer sighed. “I don’t like that accusation.”
“If you’d succeeded-”
“Enough,” Aer cut in, far harsher.
“If you’d succeeded-”
Aer’s fingers, gripped into the side of the desk, dug in through the wood, cracking the finish, and Tiana shrugged at him. “Your sister always spoke of you with high honor, Aer.”
“Clearly,” Aer ground out through his teeth. “It was misplaced.”
“So you’ll refuse to help, even now?” Tiana asked.
“My brother,” Aer said. “Will get himself killed.”
“And in the meantime? What of the others?”
“They were fully ready and willing to cast me out,” Aer pointed out, his eyes closing. He took a deep breath, choked with heavy ice, foggy from the moisture in the air, and then hissed it out of his teeth in a dense cloud. “They can reap what they sow.”
Tiana drew her cards out of her sleeves. Aer glared at her. “And what are those?”
“At a guess?” the dragoness asked. “All ashes for you,” Tiana said, lazily, flicking the cards up. The first bore a picture of a burned queen, withered and purged of the plague. The next bore the picture of her son.
The third, however, bore a hammer. A great knight stood over the ashes of a hell beast, teeth shattered into chunks of ivory, overtop of a roaring fire in the background.
“Queen of hammers,” Aer muttered.
“Hmph,” Tiana said, and flipped the other two over. A burnt horse, half skeletal. A dragon, gleaming in a pool of ash, eyes golden and molten. “I have… four out of five isn’t bad.”
Aer leaned forward, tapping his fingers on the center card. “I was always partial to hammers.”
“You would be,” Tiana groused. “They’re just cards.”
“And what happened to your belief in the future?” Aer asked, flipping the card up. “Do you mind if I keep this?”
“Now you steal from me?”
“You don’t hoard cards,” Aer said. “You hoard stories. I’m sure you can hoard the story of the hiding wretch who stole a precious card.”
Tiana hissed at him illnaturedly, but Aer refused to return it regardless, slipping it into his ledger.
“Fine,” Tiana snapped. “But when I’m next here, you’ll give me a story.”
Aer closed his eyes and leaned back into his chair. “There’ll be a story here worth telling,” he groused. “Regardless of whether or not I want one.”
“So you think it’s inevitable?” Tiana asked.
“My brother will get himself killed,” Aer said. “But I don’t know how many others will die first.”
Tiana shook her head, gathered the rest of her cards, and left in disgust.
Aer laughed quietly to himself, dug into the cabinet behind him, and poured the bourbon. When it came out of the bottle, it was already ice cold.
Then he sighed, for he had nobody to drink with.
“There’s no afterlife for them,” the sheriff said. Aaron cocked his head to the side, looking up from where he sat.
Tanarie, the Akri deputy, was inspecting the wanted posters. “Sure you should be mentioning that theory?”
“Why not?” The sheriff asked, looking over at her. “There’s no theory about it. I’m an invoker, I can see the god-ways. There’s no afterlife for those tied to the Grey God, not while he’s gone.”
“There’s… nothing?” Aaron asked.
“What happens to their souls when they die?” Justin cut in. “Do they just…”
‘I assume they just vanish,” The sheriff said.
“Spreading those ideas around…” Tanarie started.
“There aren’t many Grey-folk left. Not true ones,” The sheriff cut her off. “The ones at the capital go to the same afterlife we’re all destined for. The proper ones, the ones that come from the great dead place up north, who walk the lifeless paths, who extend their life through any means necessary,” The sheriff paused. “Well, they’re not going anywhere when they die. They just cease.”
“That’s why you hate Lyn?” Tanarie asked.
“He hates Lyn?” Aaron muttered. Justin shook his head.
“We shouldn’t get involved with grudges.”
“No, Justin.” Aaron raised his hand. “This is interesting. For the noble record, what are your thoughts on Lyn?”
The sheriff turned an interesting shade of red, and looked away, his hand drifting to his holy symbol. The invoker shook his head. “I bear no ill will… specifically towards her.”
Tanarie shook her head, feathers puffing up on the raptoroid’s body, and swept past him. “Dig your own grave, boss,” She teased.
“But one in her situation might be… tempted… to take exotic means to extend their lives,” The sheriff said, his eyes flicking over to Aaron. “Such as the situation at the capital.”
“An isolated incident,” Justin said.
Aaron held his hand up higher. “No, I want to hear this. Go on.”
“I don’t know…” The sheriff said, pausing. “This is starting to sound like an inquisition. What does this have to do with the incident at the blight?”
“I’ve been curious,” Aaron said. “For a long time now, what exactly happened to the souls of those struck by the plague?”
The sheriff paused. “Why, they went to the afterlife, I believe.”
Aaron kept his gaze level on the sheriff. “And don’t you find it strange that the gods fled the plague?”
The sheriff looked down at the ground. “I don’t understand where you’re going with this.”
“And now he talks about his pet theories.” Justin shook his head. “Ignore him, the noble brat speaks out of hand.”
“Be quiet, dearest friend,” Aaron teased, hard edged. “I’ve been sent here to figure out how to deal with the situation at hand.”
‘The bandits?” Tanarie asked, poking her head in.
“The bandits,” Aaron said. “The blight, the gods. I’m assembling a great report on the entire affair.”
“And how do the grey priests tie into it?” The sheriff pried.
“The Blight was a spell,” Aaron declared. “And something is still fuelling it.”
The sheriff stared at him incredulously, his fingers slowly curling around the holy emblem until it dug into the flesh of his hands, white knuckled. “You can’t mean-”
“The Blight feeds on the souls of the lost,” Aaron said. “That is why it lingers. The Grey-priests are all lost souls. There is no heaven for them to rest.”
“”That’s an accusation,” Justin pointed out. “Not something to just throw around.”
Aaron lowered his hand, looking over at Justin. A quirked eyebrow, and then he looked over at the sheriff again. “Keep this between the few of us,” Aaron said. “But when the High Grey was killed for his crimes against humanity, his body moved long after it had been bled dry of blood. There was simply no place for the soul to go.”
There was no resting place for the Greys when they died.