Aer’s plotting and scheming was draconian. A last throwback to his heritage he hadn’t yet discarded in favor of mortality, it still served his purposes well. Accrual of power led to his investments being protected from those who might harm them.
It didn’t mean he didn’t get surprised.
There were six people standing at the front of the guild. Not the four he was expecting. Aaron, Justin, Lyn, Dan, and two others he didn’t recognize immediately. One bore the marking of the latter day church of war, long lines of black paint sloping out of the corner of his eyes and down his neck, rippling over the traditional scars carved across the soft flesh. Aer marveled at the daring. What strange things the flesh-folk did to festoon their skin.
The other bore no such trinkets or strangeness, but a sword and the gleam of a natural magic behind his eyes. Curious.
The sole joy Aer could take from being surprised was to watch the flicker crawl across the man’s eyes, the shimmer fading slightly as he swept forward. Draconic antimagic.
“Ah!” Justin said, turning to wave at Aer. “The guildmaster arrives. I hope you don’t mind, but I hired a few trusted members of another guild to help us out. They’ll be going in our stead.”
Aer’s eyes flicked back to the natural mage. Up down, and then he saw the sign of one of his many rival guilds stitched there. White black checks, a gryphon roaring.
Red Talon. A competitor to his own Reclaimers.
Aer didn’t like changes to his plans.
His hackles rose and he looked over at the two.
“Do note,” Aer said. “That my employees are insured. If they are hurt, and I find out that you two have caused it, I will be taking it up with your guild.”
“My apologies for the change in plans,”
“We’re but a vanguard,” The priest said. Aer looked at Lyn, then back at the other worker of war. “Red Talon has decided that the guild quarters here are in need of expansion; so we’re doing a bit of work here at a reduced rate to spread the word. We wouldn’t harm that with poor service. Besides, guildmaster, your temper is legendary.” Lyn’s lips were curled into a half sneer, like she smelled something vile.
But that was more than likely on account of the other religion’s presence, rather than a sign. After all, their motivations were simply economic. The Blight seemed like it was about to light up again. Anyone involved with fighting it back, well… there would be immense money put to their interests.
And if Lyn’s distaste was a sign, well.
Aer could trust Lyn to survive. If Dan couldn’t keep track of what was happening with Lyn then…
Well, Aer could count on Lyn keeping Dan safe too.
He ignored the priest and looked over at the client. Aaron looked perfectly calm and collected, a grin on his dark face. His friend looked rather relaxed as well.
Unlikely to be a case of coercion, but Aer detested surprises, and he was already having to deal with one.
“Brensh not coming with you?” Aer asked, curious.
“She decided to stay behind for further training,” Lyn explained. Her pack sat on her back. The horses were gathered at the stables.
This was goodbye, for now.
“Stay safe,” Aer advised.
The mission was simple. Another scouting run, deeper into the Blight. A change in plans at the last second wasn’t the worst, when it was this simple. And now he didn’t have to worry about the client getting himself killed despite Dan’s best efforts.
They already knew there were hostiles in the area, so additional fighters would only make it easier for them, especially while escorting the King’s men.
Aer bit his tongue. Was he being too logical about this? Should he listen to the mortal part of him, that he’d been honing for seventy years, that things were going to go wrong?
He shouldn’t immediately think of his sister crying out for help. It was… it wasn’t good logic to assume that just because he’d been found, every bad thing that happened to him would be related to it.
It wasn’t good for his mind or his heart.
“We will,” Lyn promised. Her hand drifted down to her sword. A finger against the hilt.
She was suspicious. Good. He wanted them to stay safe.
How odd was it to be a dragon with a wandering hoard at all? Uncouth, unconventional. Dan tugged at his hat, making sure to keep the majority of his face hidden.
Rewarding. Very rewarding.
Aer shook his head and let them go on their way. He had his own investigations to do, after all.
“Tell me,” The natural mage said. Lyn tasted his magic, foul complex, hovering in the air. She didn’t care for him more than she could throw him. “Is it true that you two have set a record for blight missions?”
But, properly prepared, she could throw him quite far, if she adjusted his aerodynamics correctly, and murder was frowned upon, so taking pre-emptive action would be incorrect.
Dan replied, walking over to their stables. “I doubt it still stands, but when there were still four of us, we led quite the movement in. Liberated a few outposts from blight-mothers, you know. I think there’s a song about it.”
“Temper your ego,” Lyn suggested.
“No need,” The mage said. “I’ve heard the song before. The legendary Reclaimers… I was afraid he was going to send one of his B-teams out this time.”
“I returned from my sabbatical,” Lyn said.
“Great. I suppose that means he’s taking this very seriously,” The mage said.
“Aren’t you?” Lyn asked. “There are very few natural mages left in Queen’s Grasp. I suppose that means you’re also the best.”
“Don’t make me blush, Lyn,” The man said, placing a hand over his heart. “I’m Brighton. This is my companion, Jacob.”
Jacob silently inclined his head. He didn’t look at Lyn. He was from another, rival church. Same god, nonetheless.
“Not a man of words,” Dan said.
“Not as such, no,” Brighton said. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Lyn felt Dan’s eyes on her. “I’m used to the silence. Where’s he from?”
“Unsure, actually,” Brighton said. “All I cared about is that he can hold a sword.”
“A good way of looking at it,” Lyn said. “Horses again?”
“Please,” Dan said. “I don’t think I’m up for one of your legendary walkabouts.” as
Lyn say Jacob’s lips curl into a smirk, and she stepped in front of Dan so he didn’t see. She bared her teeth.
His smirk slid back into a level look ahead. She nodded. She turned to face Brighton just in time to catch a curious look. “Aaron- that’s the one that’s convinced the investigator not to go on this one- called us in, on account of needing magic or religion to get anywhere in the Blight.”
“We won’t be going that far in,” Dan said.
“It never hurts to be careful,” Lyn said. “We might have to go farther than we think.”
Lyn picked her horse. It was the one that was least likely to try and bite her, and the one that was also least likely to run after she tried to bite back. They still remembered her. Dan picked out his, and the Red Talons had their own to work with.
Then they were off. They had scouting to do. Hopefully, it’d be as easy as finding the camp and obliterating it.
Lyn had small hopes for that. The Blight was legendary for complications, after all.
Morning found Aer in a private area, tucked at the back of the building. Lannon had received a note, tucked under his door, on where to go. It was time to make good on his training.
Across one wall, a small memorial sat, square and stout. He gently stroked the wet cloth in his hands across it, making sure every name was perfectly visible. Care was needed.
He’d led these people to their deaths, after all. Even if his mind did not process grief the same way, he would force himself to feel it. Every day, every week.
It would not do to let the sociopathy of his species make him forget for even a moment what he’d done in his travels.
Flowers grew from everyplace that wasn’t the path. Wildflowers. There was a certain joy in letting nature decide what to grow in the memorial garden; just as there was a certain joy in listening for Lannon’s reaction as the Akri slid in behind him. Claws on the paced stones, polished lovingly.
This was where Aer disappeared to when he was not balancing books or checking on supplies. A home for the fallen. Filled with wild things, like the people he’d adopted. Vines looping over trellises, fat with buds and blooms.
A work of single minded passion. Aer took no joy in the labor, though he took joy in the product.
Lannon gasped. Aer turned to smile at him. “Welcome to my sanctuary.”
Lannon squinted at him, flicking his head about to look at the flowers. He sniffed one, then tilted his head to look behind Aer. A moment of confusion, and then realization struck.
“Oh. I… are you sure this is alright?”
“It’s fine,” Aer said. “I had this place built to have visitors, after all.”
“I thought I was going to learn how to read?” Lannon asked.
Aer gestured behind him at the wall. “It would please their spirits, I imagine, if you learned how to say their name. Don’t the Akri have similar walls?”
It wasn’t an Akri tradition he was mirroring, but a tradition from one of the dead cities. A moment where he had been taken aback by beauty despite the screeching of the damned and the screams of those who had not yet lost everything that made them who they were. Polished marble mixed with the frosted rime-corpses.
“I…” Lannon chewed on his words, the proto-bird’s feathers puffing as he mused. “I think mother’s on one of them,” he decided. “I was there once, when I was a lot younger.”
Aer wasn’t quite finished cleaning the letters of pollen, so he took his time with it while Lannon looked around. Then he twisted, looked back at Lannon, and gave him a smile.
Red-green-gold were Lannon’s feathers. Red for Passion, Green for defence, Gold for vitality. Spear colors. The spear in his hand just fit in, he’d had it custom made for himself. The Akri favor fluted weaponry to reduce weight, which leant their weapons certain collector’s value, especially among his own sister’s horde.
Aer’s eyes settled on the raptor’s face and he tugged himself back into the persona of guildmaster. It was a rare time that he was allowed to be so draconic. It’d take a long time before he was comfortable shoving the endless weighing and unweighing of scales out of his mind.
“Good, you brought the spear.”
“I didn’t think that humans cared for fighting in memorials,” Lannon said.
“They were all warriors,” Aer said.
“And you’re not human,” Lannon said.
Aer smiled. “I’m not. I have a faint bit of the old elves in me, if you haven’t gathered.”
“That’s what Sis said,” Lannon hefted the spear nervously. “Er, that’s not rude, right?”
“We’re in private,” Aer said, standing up. He wiped bits of moss from his knees, and reached behind a pillar for one of the ornamental spears he’d set aside. He hefted it, curled his fingers around it until they touched the palms of his head, and then turned face Lannon.
The raptor’s eyes followed the motion, and Lannon slowly slid into an approximation of an Akri style.
He’d been through the Akri lands, and recruited many of the despondents from their crowded homes. It only fit he’d learned their styles as well.
Lannon was using a derivative from one of the southern city states. He wasn’t entirely familiar with it, but spear craft wasn’t that hard to figure out.
“What drew you to the spear?” Aer asked, taking a step in to stand next to him. Lannon’s eyes flicked to follow the guildmaster.
“Monsters,” Lannon said. “You use a spear to fight monsters, in a group. Dad was good at that.”
Aer nodded once. He took a step forward, Lannon mirroring him, and then they went through the first few Akri spear moves.
First, to stop momentum across the wide bands at the base of the spear head, spreading a horse assault (originally meant to kill the races of man and their reliance on mounts, but it worked perfectly well on a boar or daemonite) and then the next, pulling free to slice at jugulars.
Aer had learned the same way everyone else had when he had started wandering; he’d joined a team at the southern edge and fought his way to a hellmouth.
Lannon clicked his teeth and whistled. “You’re good at this.”
“Anything I ask that you do, I have learned how to do, and have done,” Aer said. “So I know what I’m asking, and how hard it may be.”
Another step, and another, and Aer’s eyes were locked on Lannon’s stance to diagnose issues. Lannon had been willing to learn. That was good to have in a guild member; it wouldn’t do if he accidentally snuffed out that enthusiasm.
Three more steps, and Aer tapped his foot on the ground. Instantly, Lannon stopped. “That’s all?”
“This is our first session,” Aer said. “And I’ll be putting together something for us when we meet next.”
Lannon took a step towards the door, and Aer laughed. “Come on over here, the memorial won’t read itself.”
The Akri’s feathers drooped and he skulked over to the wall, his eyes going wider and wider as he stared.
“Is that real gold?” Lannon knelt down before the black stone and squinted at it.
“Gold leaf,” Aer said. “Do you want me to help you with pronunciation, or do you want to sound it out?”
Lannon flicked his eyes over to the guildmaster, then back at the wall. “You won’t get mad if I mispronounce their names, right?”
“Of course not,” Aer said. “Shame is a poor tool to use in the classroom.”
“Okay…” Lannon trailed off. Aer settled down beside him, taking a seat on an edge of fine tiles and soft delicate blues. Lannon settled down as well to be more comfortable.
“Go on,” Aer said.
“Shhh chharliiiitta.” Lannon said, squinting. His feathers moved uncomfortably.
“Charlotte,” Aer corrected.
“Charlotte,” Lannon mirrored.
“She was one of the first mages who came with me. She still has her lab set up in the back, if you ever want to see it.”
Lannon puffed up. “I don’t much care for mages.”
“She was from the academy,” Aer continued. “Wrote several important theses, I’m told.”
“What happened to her?”
“Chemical exposure,” Aer said. “One of her components was overly contaminated beyond her specifications.”
“Oh,” Lannon said. There was silence.
“I broke the business that sold her that component,” Aer said. “They are no longer extant.”
Lannon swallowed. “Gau-ffre?”
“Jeffry,” Aer pronounced. “He tended our horses. He sourced most of the stock we have, actually, taught me about lineages and the importance of choosing horses that wouldn’t spook in our line of work.”
Horses that wouldn’t spook when a dragon was near, no matter how well disguised, were more or less worth their weight in gold.
“And…?” Lannon asked.
“Old age,” Aer said. “There’s only so much medicine in the world to treat it, and time runs out for mortal men.”
“Not you?” Lannon asked.
“My time will come,” Aer said. “Don’t worry about it, however. Our lessons will be over long before I am taken.”
And so it went. Lannon came to know all of the friends Aer had made, and by the time he was to the end, and had relaxed slightly and listened to Aer’s stories, his pronunciation had changed enough that he understood, a little, what letter pairs made what noise.
It was an improvement.
Aer would bring the books next time.