Where Snow never Melts: Quest for Knowledge

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4 of Where Snow Never Melts(Ongoing fantasy novel) Magnus comes face to face with the very being he tracks: A dragon....


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Author's ramblings: I didn't expect chapter 3 to stir such strong emotions within you, cherished readers. I mean, I did cry while writing it myself, but that's because I had to search for the right approach to get me into that state. To hear that you were equally moved by it means a lot to me, as that further proves that my writing evolved to the point where it transmits the right emotions across.

That being said, the story retains a bit of its gloomy mood during chapter four, although an encounter with a dragon will give it a happier note, hopefully. Yep, the dragon Magnus meets in this chapter is the same one on the cover. Isn't she beautiful?

Chapter 4: Quest for Knowledge

Pard had such intriguing rosettes.

Magnus tried to find two alike on her chest, up on her neck, down on her thighs. His index finger traced the exquisite shape of every single one of them, his eyes narrowed in focus as he tried to find a matching pair.

He couldn't, for there was no matching pair. Each rosette was unique, just like Pard.

"I never gave your fur the praise it deserved," Magnus said under his breath, his voice raspy, his throat parched. "I always loved the white spots on your ears on that dark background, the ticklish touch of your whiskers upon my face, the playful swings of your tail. Just not enough to mention this to you..."

He resumed tracing rosettes, his lips tightening every now and then when his rumbling stomach cut through the silence of the forest. Ravens cawed, birds chirped, leaves rustled.

Yet all Magnus heard was silence. Without Pard's melodious purr to fill his ears, the world became eerily quiet to him, devoid of color and uniqueness. Leaves looked the same. Trees bore the same color and pattern to their bark. Every raven boasted the same dark plumage, broad beak, beady eyes.

Only Pard was different. So different, that Magnus failed to find a matching pair of her rosettes before the sun faltered and the darkness engulfed everything.

He only left her to make his water. Although his stomach growled like a vicious beast, bile rose up Magnus' throat at the prospect of putting food in his mouth when the scent of decay permeated this grove. He settled for a few gulps of water, then assumed his side position next to Pard, pressing his finger pads against the sharp tips of the claws sheltered within her stubby fingers.

"So sharp. You never scratched me, though. Not even once..."

Magnus closed his eyes, released a deep, shuddering sigh, and tried his hardest to recall the times spent in Pard's embrace.

He didn't dream of her.

When Magnus cracked an eye open to the boisterous caws of the ravens, his head pounded under the weight of duty. Every fiber in his body throbbed with it, trying to snap him out of his stupor.

Was that what he had dreamt of and forgot? That focking dragon?

His first instinct was to place his head upon Pard's chest and forget about it, but the night left her fur cold and uninviting, and her clogged blood acquired a more pungent scent, enough to make Magnus' stomach lurch.

"That's your mate, you squeamish wretch," he rasped. "You made a promise to her, that you will never leave her side."

No, your mate is dead, a fate shared by other Zharyi due to their masters' reckless ambitions, his cold logic whispered within his mind. Pard had already obtained her freedom, and it was up to Magnus and The Order of the Five Storms to to see to the liberation of their entire race from human clutches.

With great difficulty, Magnus shifted onto his trembling legs, looking around the grove, seeing it for what it was for the first time: A graveyard.

"Start by scouring the camp," he gave voice to the errant thought that roused him to his feet, least it slipped from his numb mind. "Find out what these wizards knew and use it to your advantage."

Easier said than done. His wild, unfocused eyes danced across the the corpses, tents, scattered belongings, trying to find that particular something to start with. Yet, every time he took a step forward to inspect a tent, Pard's fur colored the edge of his vision, sending icy claws down his spine.

"Snap out of it. You can either grief, or make a difference."

Magnus tried making a difference, but how could he, when his muscles protested at every footstep and his eyes moistened with the sudden urge to let all of his pain flow down his cheeks?

Is that who Pard fell in love with? A whimpering weakling who broke down into fits of sobs at every hurdle?

Magnus squeezed his eyes shut, recalling her nonchalant voice when she had offered to help him deal with the wizards. No twinge of remorse, no doubt. She was doing what was necessary to protect her mate.

Now, it was Magnus' turn to safeguard her entire people.

He cupped his face in his palms, rubbing the soreness out of his eyes with grime-stained fingers. When he opened them again, Magnus' limbs turned taut with purpose, his eyebrows scrunched in effort as he tried to come up with a plan.

His gaze hovered towards the two dead mages--two, not three. One of them was missing, the one they had left behind after their quarrel. He would bring a party of his own to track down the dragon. Bigger, with more thugs and scouts, maybe an assassin or two to take out his already dead friends.

Magnus gathered their belongings into a pile, then started searching through them. Satchels, pouches, bags--he emptied them all and fumbled through the baubles for a crumpled map. Thick and drawn with dark ink, the crude thing was a rough approximation of the mountains and forests surrounding Willowveil, with tiny notes and even smaller footnotes.

Magnus stuffed it in his dark leather satchel and pulled out a thin, leather bound journal from a satchel. He leafed through it, narrowing his eyes to try and make out the twisted text. To no avail; the letters shifted across the white, smooth paper, taunting Magnus with every breath he took. Magnus blinked several time to summon enough focus to read it, yet the pounding of his temples left no room for that.

Magnus groaned and threw everything into the only deerskin knapsack he came across. It bore the same white spots and pattern as his, and Magnus scrunched his eyes to fight back the surge of emotions creeping through him. The more he loitered, the closer Ponytail and his party got to the dragon.

He slung the knapsack across his shoulder, winced at the sting of its weight, and shuffled out of the camp. His neck jerked with the urge to twist and favor Pard one last glance, but Magnus slapped himself whenever weakness got the better of him. She was dead, cold, still. There was nothing more to see.

And even so, Magnus' head reeled under the weight of his emotions. The borrowed time he had to find the dragon, along with the promise he made to her people, were the only things that moved the empty husk his body became.

Cold gusts battered his shivering form, and every gulp hurt his parched throat. Magnus pressed on, stride after stride through the thick underbrush, snapping twigs and slashing his sword at the crooked boughs that sprouted in his wake.

He kept his rapid pace until the sky blazed with fiery hues and the ground slanted ahead. One step upon the treacherous incline littered with pebbles forced him to take two steps back when his knees shivered like melted butter. He swallowed, hard and fast, trying to rally his faltering strength, yet merely winced at how sore his throat felt.

Spent and unable to take even a few more steps up the incline, Magnus crashed near the trunk of a tree, leaned his back against it and placed the knapsack in his lap. He dug through the pouches, satchels and books with trembling fingers, until he brought out a waterskin, bread, cheese, jerky, and an apple. He wolfed them down, washed them with water, then pulled out the map from his dark leather satchel and spread it across his thighs.

Every mountain, hill, river and clearing of the surrounding area was in there, along with arrows pinpointing the native species surrounding Willowveil. A hunter's map, judging from the careless smudges and the hefty footnotes.

Magnus bent over and squinted at the caves littered at the base of the mountain looming before him. The first was ground level, just across the gully Pard mentioned, while the remaining caves climbed atop the slopes, too high for Magnus to reach. There were more than twenty caves in number, each harder to access after the first.

Magnus gritted his teeth, threw everything into the knapsack, and pushed onto his feet. Sharp pain shot through his thighs, making him crumble onto his bottom with a faint cry. He rolled his eyes at that, used his arms for leverage.

His shoulders ached from the knapsack's burden as soon as he put weight onto them.

"Gah," he groaned. It wasn't that heavy during the first day!

"Because she carried it in my stead," Magnus whispered. He clutched the knapsack tight to his chest, running his fingers along the smooth, velvety texture of the fur. It wasn't even his. Yet it looked the same, smelled the same, felt the same.

Magnus scoffed at that. "Wonder how much those oafs paid the innkeeper to get this."

Not as much as him. If the Order of the Five Storms had not spoiled him with coins, he would not have afforded Pard's services, and would not have...

"She was more a man than I ever was," he said in a desperate attempt to hold from cracking under the surges of grief ramming at his resolve.

He remembered the first night with her, how she tricked him into her bed with great ease. The morning that followed, when she defended her own master from his ire. The trek up the mountain, where her agile paws almost seemed to float over the ground.

A wry smile stretched across his wind burnt lips as he pulled his hair back to clear his gaze. "I trained and sweated since childhood, and a female zharyi climbs better than me with two knapsacks slung across her shoulders."

Her big, hazel eyes flashed before him, along with her comforting smile and resolute gaze that she always attained while trying to make him accept the beauty of his flaws. Her tail tip twitched ever so slightly, and her ears stood erect, showing no signs of embarrassment at having a mate who failed to make her orgasm during the joining of their bodies.

Magnus snapped.

A moan burst from his raw throat, and his vision turned hazy from the tears filling his eyes. To muffle his shame, he dug his face into the knapsack, hugging it tight, holding onto it as if his life depended on it.

Everything poured out of him; the pain, the regret, the hate, until his eyes ran dry and his mind turned blank.

"You have--have things to do," he whispered under his breath, too numb to remember where he was and what he had to do. "Focus on them."

He couldn't. Not when she appeared before him every time he closed his eyes. She still lingered for a moment when he opened them, and Magnus had to blink hard and fast to make her go away. She wasn't with him, for no purr filled the air, no tail swished, no paws rustled as they disturbed the bedding of leaves.

She was dead, where Magnus had left her, together with the other wizards.

Apart from one. The rowdy wizard with the ponytail, who scoured the wilds while Magnus trembled in defeat.

"No," Magnus said with a firm shake of his head. "I'll get to the dragon first. I'll kill it. I'll put its heartstone to good use."

Magnus collected himself, tossed the knapsack across a shoulder and wiped his tears on the blood stained sleeves of his woolen shirt. He took a wobbling step forward, another, and another, until his head cleared and his eyes narrowed in focus. The gully sprawled at the base of the hill that loomed before him, with a narrow berth the farther it stretched from the mountain. Magnus scrutinized the hill, its harsh slope and treacherous blanket of decaying leaves. Too few trees sprouted from its rocky surface, not nearly enough to use for climbing.

He turned left to round its bulbous base, in spite of the wan light of the noon bearing down upon him. Magnus increased his pace to compensate for the detour, teeth clenched against the dull ache of his protesting muscles.

It worsened to a stinging pain after he crossed the gully, and cold shivers settled over him when the sun bled in the sky. He stopped long enough to drink his fill from a waterskin, splashed the last of its droplets upon his sweat drenched brow, and strode forward, bending and twisting whenever boughs blocked his way. Swinging at them would just fatigue his arm, and even well rested parties perished during their encounter with a dragon.

Magnus winced at the thought. A shudder crept through him, cold and ominous. He rested against a nearby tree, panting as he fumbled through the dark leather satchel until his fingers found his spell book. Magnus flipped through several pages of notes and drawings. Each curve, each glyph stood out, crisp and clear.

"Dragons are a conduit for magic, they draw energies from one of the five primordial planes. They possess innate knowledge of every element, although very few know how to do a proper Binding, least dabble in Shaping. Claws, teeth, can fly...highly intelligent, yet no scholar dabbled in such research because all we need is their heartstone, and all dragons are good for is dying," Magnus added, more than irritated at the scarce amount of information.

He snapped the book shut and flung it inside the satchel with a groan. He knew everything about dragons: Size, hunting and mating habits, instinctual urges, nesting preferences. Yet, whenever his eyes darted towards the imposing mountain rising to his left, his knees buckled and his grip around his sword's pommel faltered.

"She died," he hissed through clenched jaws. "She died because of your mad quest. See it done."

Easier said than done. As soon as Magnus took a step forward, his heart skipped a beat at the swishing of leaves under his foot. He dropped on his knees, cupped his dirt caked face in his hands, and pictured several killing blows. Pierce its lungs with a side slash, cut open its throat if it lashed out with a clumsy strike, gouge its eyes, cut its wings...every killing technique he had researched flashed through his mind, yet none seemed feasible. Wolves, bears and big cats sometimes killed wizards, and they didn't have a durable scaled hide to deflect blows and wings to soar. Wizards had magic to compensate, yet Magnus staggered with doubt as soon as he got onto his feet.

"They got lucky," he croaked. "All of them. The same will go for me."

And if it didn't...

Magnus brushed aside the errant thought, unsheathed his sword and crept forward with muffled footsteps. The ground shifted to short, uneven slants, and the firs and maples thickened the closer he got to the smooth base of the mountain. Several clearings surrounded him, yet Magnus slunk around their fringes, keeping to the dense, forested areas. Trees and branches ought to hinder a dragon's flight capabilities, right?

Magnus bit his tongue to suppress a yelp when a rustle came from his left. He whirled and pivoted on his right as he turned towards the thick, furrowed trunk of a maple tree.

Nothing behind it, or around it.

He licked his lips and gulped hard. His heart thundered in his chest, and his temples pounded so hard, his head hurt.

Another rustle. Then a faint swish.

Magnus Bound the wind into a billowing breeze to mask his scent and darted into the direction of the sound. Dragons couldn't be taken by surprise, but he would surprise this one.

He burst past the maples and raced down a slope, where a shimmer of green and yellow vanished past a narrow ridge. Magnus flew towards it, slashing at the branches blocking his way with terse swings. Strength surged through his limbs, a liquid fire that consumed every trace of fatigue within him. He picked out every rise and fall, ducked and danced around every obstacle with nimble strides.

He was the one chasing this beast, not the other way around.

A smile crept on Magnus' lips as the shadows thickened ahead. Wherever this dragon attempted to flee, the forest grew too thick to accommodate its bulk. It was only a matter of cornering it and...

Magnus tensed up when the creature leapt past a bush and released a harsh squeak. It didn't even flap to augment its jump, the thick foliage swallowing the leaf-shaped tip of its emerald tail.

Magnus gritted his teeth at its uncanny agility on land. He clambered the incline with broad strides and dropped on his fours near the peak, his hands tearing at the soil for purchase. Faster! He needed to go faster!

He faltered and slammed shoulder-first against a fir tree once he clambered to the top of the hill. The dragon already reached the bottom and zipped towards a clearing with its pounce-like dashing. Magnus squinted hard against the ruddy glare of the sun, blinked to clear his eyes, swallowed to wet his parched throat, and panted to recover his breath.

The dragon was lost to him. It already fled for a clearing to take to the skies.

"It can't fly," Magnus whispered under his breath as he followed its maladroit dash. The creature pounced instead of running, and only its right wing sprawled and flapped feebly to adjust its sharp turns. The other stood limp to its side, the washed yellow membrane striped and splotched with crimson. And it was so small! Slightly bigger than a lion, with an emerald hide too deep a shade to blend in with the forest.

Magnus gasped at his sheer luck and hurled himself forward, downhill and towards the opening up ahead. Crimson streaks marred the ground, yet Magnus only had eyes for the fleeing prize that squeaked and yipped and shrieked in front of him.

For such a clumsy creature, it sure had the speed of a big cat. Magnus' panting breaths turned to ragged huffs as he burst into the clearing. He lunged after the staggering dragon, yet it ran so fast! One of its leaps covered three strides of his, and it already disappeared into a thicket before he had the chance to even draw his sword. Its shrieks grew fainter, until the pounding of his heart filled Magnus' ears. He skidded to a stop, staggered and crashed onto his side. The sword flew from his feeble grip to clang onto the hard packed ground.

Pain burst in his chest, raw and overwhelming. Magnus squeezed his mouth shut and scrunched his eyes to suppress the fiery torrent rushing through his spent frame. His stomach lurched, and he coughed several times to dispel the haze of stars that speckled his vision. A short dash, and he already coughed his lungs out. Magnus attempted to rise, yet fell limp onto his back as soon as a stinging lash whipped his stomach.

He stood there, still as the grass around him, listening to the rasping breaths he drew. Too harsh, too many, too deep. It was the sound of weakness, a hymn that never ceased to remind him of his many failures. It had started with the taking of their house, led to the seclusion of his Magicless family into the outer slums of the city. That triggered Father's descent into madness after Mother had become and died a whore, and now Pard's death. All because he had lost all these battles and panted in defeat afterwards.

Not this time.

Magnus bit his lower lip, hard enough to draw blood. Its sharp, metallic taste flared his numb senses, and he reeled to a standing position as he scanned the ground for claw marks and blood. There were plenty of both, yet not enough light to reveal them. Gloom replaced the blazing streaks in the sky, too deep to make out more than just the glossy stains of blood.

Magnus followed the trickle of clues around the base of several hills before the song of crickets burst to life. He rubbed his eyes sore in a failed attempt to enhance his vision and shuffled along a patch of bushes. Under the navy evening sky, everything looked the same: Leaves, flowers, the dangling poisonous fruits, or the dragon's blood. Magnus blinked, rubbed his eyes once again to clear his sight, squinted at the small paw marks, and shuffled along them. He made it to a hollow surrounded by hills on every side, and that's where the trail of clues vanished. No amount of blinking and squinting and fumbling through the darkness helped Magnus pick up the trail.

He fell to his knees, felt the ground for possible droplets of blood, but all he drew back was grime bearing the earthy tang of dirt. Circumstances had contributed somewhat to past defeats, but how did one lose track of a crippled dragon, half his size, that couldn't even fly?!

The thought made Magnus' blood boil. He hacked off the limbs of the first tree he happened upon, dashed to another to chop more branches off, then to another. He sweltered within his garments when he stopped, despite the biting chill of the night. Magnus removed his leather jerkin, piled his belongings besides a trunk, and gathered the wood he chopped into a big, neat pile.

At least the knapsack had flint and tinder, enough of it to create a hearty blaze before Magnus' muscle chilled and the shivers took over. He pulled out whatever food was left, stretched his head to take a bite...

And froze when a rustle came from somewhere. He dropped the morsel, lunged to his sword and shot onto his feet, his poise taut. Twigs crackled and snapped behind him, and the blaze grew harsh enough to cast swaying shadows up to the crests of the surrounding hills. No speckle of green, no rustle, nothing.

Magnus grunted. He grabbed the toughened hunk of bread, stuffed the bit of cheese in his mouth, filled it with bread, and chewed hard and slow before he swallowed. His gaze darted around the hollow, and he twisted his head every three heartbeats into another direction while he maneuvered the food with his free hand. He thrust the sword into the ground once the scant food filled his growling stomach, washed the remaining bread with water, and folded his jerkin atop the knapsack to muffle the ridges.

As soon as he rested his head upon the makeshift pillow, another faint swish came. Magnus perked his head, reached for his sword when it grew in intensity, and rolled onto his feet to whirl around as a twig snapped, too soft to be the fire.

Yet, to his bleary eyes, the hollow seemed as empty as it was when he had first arrived. Only, he now had a fire to ward off most of the beasts.

And so did a dragon.

Magnus' knuckles turned white from the force exerted upon the handle of his sword. He scrutinized the hollow, over and over again, until he learned the shape of every shadow the fire cast.

"That's being paranoid," he said to stoke his faltering courage, yet his muscles remained stiff and shivering. "A whelp so small can't even breathe fire."

If it was a whelp. Dragons came in various sizes, ranging from small ones such as this cripple to those big enough to tower over a mansion. How wizards actually managed to kill those, Magnus had not the slightest idea. They had been killed first for their enormous heartstones, and Endoria expanded upon their bones until only the lesser dragons remained.

That's what this one was. A helpless, crippled, lesser creature.

Magnus half scoffed, half chuckled at his poor attempt to muster his courage. Wounded beasts fought the hardest, and only a handful of wizards tracked and hunted down dragons on their own, all well versed in the four elements and bearing at least one of the five elemental gemstones.

Magnus had wind magic, trembled like a leaf from a simple Binding spell, and blinked to keep himself awake. His eyelids drooped until they half covered his eyes, and even a simple turn in the direction of a rustle made him stagger due to dizziness.

He slapped himself to rouse his senses from the stupor, cut some more wood to feed the fire, then stood on guard. Whatever lurked about, it gave no sign of its presence. Magnus lied down on his back, one hand atop his sword and the other clutching his spell book. Weren't dragons able to manipulate fire? He glanced at his own campfire, shrugged, and gave in to fatigue. If this dragon knew how to Shape fire, then he might as well die in his sleep, the painless way.

He woke up with a muffled groan, to a light weight pressed against his chest. His eyelids still heavy, Magnus coughed weakly and tried slapping it away, yet his palm met a hot, smooth, scalemail-like surface.

His knapsack? The texture felt odd to his rough, callused palms, yet its weight resembled its contents, and the warmth it oozed felt so good to his torso, if a bit demanding. Still dazed from the rough awakening, Magnus tried to push it away, over and over again. When it didn't budge, he attempted to shift onto his side, only to groan from the increased pressure exerted upon his chest.

The sharp squeak that followed made him jolt to his senses. His eyes snapped open in an instant, to the huge, imposing outline of a dragon--the one he tracked the day before. It had its bulk placed perpendicularly to his side, its neck placed atop his chest, its head arched left to stare right into his eyes with its slitted, amethyst one.

Her lips curled into a faint snarl, a hiss breaking through her tiny, razor-sharp teeth.

The bestial sound sent an electric jolt through Magnus' frame. It petrified him, rendering him unable to twitch as much as a finger. All he could do was blink and flare his nostrils to take in deep, panicked breaths.

Why didn't she kill him yet? Why not pin him under her bulk? Why keep her paws rested atop his thigh, her slender, slightly curved claws so far away from his vulnerable guts?

She's afraid of hurting me, Magnus realized. Afraid of damaging her prey before she had her way with it.

Although wizards killed dragons on sight, the scaled beasts sometimes took captives. For which purpose, nobody knew, for no survivors ever returned. It had to be related to the exchange of knowledge, and once the dragon learned everything it wanted to know from the human...

"Dr--dragon," he mumbled, his lips half numb, his mouth dry as a desert.

The dragon's nostrils widened for a moment, her eyes shifting back and forth as she took in his features.

"You understand words?"

The fins growing along her jaws expanded, covering her slender ebony horns behind a leathery, light green curtain. Her slender, triangular head inched forward, growls of various intensities vibrating in her throat.

Magnus assumed she didn't, her response too bestial and savage. It chilled his blood, made sweat trickle down his brow in the form of icy droplets.

I have to kill it before it loses interest in me, Magnus realized. The urgency of his plight made his heart thunder in his chest, his head pound so hard Magnus found it nigh impossible to conceive a plan when the throbbing of his temples stole his wits away.

He had to kill it, but how? His fingers curled around nothing but dirt, his legs fell limp under the weight of her paws, and her snout stood inches from his face.

His survival instincts roused the more he stared into those stark amethyst eyes of hers. Cold, with narrow slits that instilled terror into his heart the more he held her gaze. Was that the helplessness people felt when faced with death itself? If Magnus hadn't seen and caused so much death already, he would have soiled his breeches the moment he opened his eyes.

Instead, his eyes bore into hers while he took in great whiffs of her hot, steamy, slightly pungent breath. It bore a mixture of sharp tints mixed with stale ones, yet not the overwhelming reek of decay one had to expect from a dragon.

Suddenly, the dragon's fins folded back under her horns, a series of guttural squeaks escaping her maw as she tilted her head from side to side. After a terse battle of wits, the dragon grew bored with his face and now began inspecting his ears, tunic, and arms.

Distractions. That's what Magnus needed, for the beast to grow complacent with its vulnerable prey. Then, all he had to do was grab his sword, thrust it into the side of his captor, or use magic to distract her if needed. Simple, and to the point, if he had a sword to begin with.

It wasn't at his side. A careful petting of his side revealed as much.

It wasn't in the surrounding area either. Or maybe it rested against the tree rising behind the dragon. Her bulk covered its base, and her sprawled wings concealed it under a yellow veil sooner than Magnus anticipated.

It must have been there. Why bother stretching her wings then?

"Eep?" The dragon uttered, curling her neck to fill his gaze once again with her majestic features. Up close, the dragon had a wild beauty to it, undeniable to anyone who found themselves trapped in one's clutch. Her slender snout had the distinct features of a female, soft along the jaw line, with a narrow brow flaunting a leathery crest that ran all the way down to the tip of her broad, leaf-shaped tail tip.

Dark horns tilted across the back of her skull, slim and pointy, their smooth surface denoting her young age. No chipping, scratching, or signs or scarring from battles or altercations with other dragons.

A loner, then, one who became quite proficient at evading danger. Every dragon who had managed to survive thus far had to adapt to a life of fending off parties of wizards. It bewildered Magnus, how a dragon with a lame wing, barely bigger than a lion, nested so close to Willowveil. Her hide must have helped her blend in, along with her small stature.

As if sensing his thoughts, the dragon's forepaws reached for his hands, her slim toes clutching his wrists hard enough to draw a rough groan from Magnus.

"Grrrrrrrrr!"

Her growl lowered in pitch, turning from a mellow thrum into an ominous sign of unease.

Magnus clenched his jaws, least he snapped at a beast who couldn't even comprehend basic language. Not that it helped. In the end, his frustration with this whelp bested him.

"I'm no threat," he rasped. "You stalked me. You made sure of it, else you wouldn't get so close to a potentially dangerous human."

Her features relaxed in an instant, crest lowering slightly as she drew back her head. She pointed at his hands with her snout, then switched her attention back to him, letting out an inquisitive squawk.

"They're called hands. Every human has them. They're harmless, useless, only good for gripping stuff."

Magnus bit his lip to suppress a yelp when the dragon's neck curled backwards, her budding snarl calling out his bluff. She narrowed her round, amethyst eyes, the ebony slits within them sharpening to thin lines.

A beast, yet a shrewd one. She must've understood the meaning behind his flushed features, tensed frame, sweat-drenched brow, desperate gaze.

"I can show you, if you let go of me for a moment nghhh," he cried out when the might of her grip made his knuckles pop.

She had him pinned, through and through, and all Magnus could do was draw short, hissing breaths while thinking of a way out of this.

He started with the obvious.

"You want something from me. Show me what it is?"

She dabbed her snout at his wrist, her gaze dancing back and forth between his arm and Magnus, her frills flexing suggestively.

"I'll keep still, yes, but first you have to let go of me."

It took a great deal of willpower to keep his fingers from clenching into a fist once her grip unraveled. Her snout filled his hand right away, the ridges of her nostrils tickling his palm, making it jerk. She growled at first, but continued to sniff, prod, and sniff some more, until she was satisfied enough with with Magnus' compliance that she let go of his other hand.

"There. See? I'm harmless. I don't have claws like yours, and all that hands can do is grip and caress."

Her crest flared up at that last word. The dragoness scrambled to her feet and pressed a clawed paw upon Magnus' chest, hard enough for the sharp tips of her claws to pierce his leather jerkin and show him that, for better or worse, he still belonged to her as her personal prey.

Magnus grunted in agreement, nodded his head, and her faded green crest shivered with excitement while the thin fins flattened under her horns. She snorted, and her paw hovered across his chest and towards his palm. She pressed the washed yellow underside of her paw against his palm, covering it under soft, warm padding of soft, slightly flecked scales. Her eyes darted back and forth between him and her flexing paw, until Magnus' fingers grabbed it like he would a human's hand. She trilled at that, her enthusiasm with her new discovery making her tail tip jerk.

"That's what you want? To know more about humans?"

Her snout returned to his palm, pushing against it slightly, until Magnus lifted his hand. In an instant, she snaked her snout under it, forcing Magnus' hand to slide across her snout briefly before he retreated his hand. A shudder crept through him from the foreign touch of warm scales upon bare skin. They were soft, smooth, firm, unlike anything Magnus ever touched before.

"Rrrrrrrrr," the dragoness trilled, lowering her head towards his hand for a second stroke.

Magnus gave it to her. First with the tips of his fingers, then with the entire surface of his fingers before summoning enough courage to allow his palm to glide over her chin, along the underside of her neck, guided by her flowing movements.

"Yes. That's what caressing means," he said after the dragoness ended the contact. "And you do know my language."

She tried to nod, a jerking motion that was too broad, yet enough to get her point across.

"So that's what you want? To learn about humans?"

Absolutely ridiculous, but the dragoness dipped her head in acknowledgement once again, making Magnus' muscles relax from the surge of relief that washed through him.

He had time. More than he ever hoped for, enough to stall this encounter in order to find a reasonable way to get hold of her heartstone. The gruesome procedure through which he had to do that made his stomach lurch, yet the necessity of it washed away his doubts. Fascinating or not, this creature had a limp wing and little means to evade danger or hunt big enough prey to sustain its slender frame. Putting a predator of the skies out of its misery was both a kindness and a necessity. Of that, Magnus had no doubt.

The dragoness flicked her tail, over and over again as her eyes bore into his, sparkling with hidden intent. Magnus followed the translucent, leaf-shaped fin at the tip of her tail, swallowed hard to contain his rising apprehension.

"So, what do you want to learn?"

He stifled a gasp when she placed a set of limbs on each side of him, practically straddling his form to tower above him, an imposing mass of scales and wings and fangs. Her chest so close to Magnus, he realized her emerald scales lost their roughness and thinned along her flanks, turning smaller and denser until they faded into the light yellow ones of her belly. Soft, overly small and dense, they swayed in unison with her breath, their texture flimsy enough for the deed to be done.

He gulped hard, trying to force his mind off his quest. The more he dwelled on it, the better chance the dragon had at noticing his apprehension and assume the worst.

A light dab on his cheek made Magnus shudder back to his senses and the dragon to whip her head back and squeak, almost equally panicked. Her paw found his hand, cupping his palm gentler this time, almost reassuringly.

"Aren't you supposed to let me inspect you?" Her dancing eyes seemed to say.

"Right, knowledge about human anatomy." Magnus tried to shrug and feign indifference, but the stiffness of his shoulders prevented that. He nodded instead, a gesture that the dragon was familiar with, eliciting a tender growl from her as she pushed her snout forward once again.

Magnus squeezed his eyes shut to block her flared nostrils, and winced as her touch ran through his greasy hair. She snorted, inhaled and snorted again as she ran her chin along his scalp, until she retreated with a soft murmur. Her frills expanded, her crest tucked against the back of her skull, and her pink tongue dashed against her thin snout, too fast for Magnus to catch its shape. She cocked her head, and Magnus pressed his arms tight to his sides to prepare from what her gaze suggested: A thorough inspection. His legs turned taut, and his breath gained a higher pitch as her nostrils trailed along his torso and down to his crotch.

Her frills twitched, and Magnus cocked an eyebrow before a yelp burst from his throat. A similar squeak left the dragon's snout as she dabbed at his member. Soft, terse strokes at first, followed by broader ones. Her nostrils shivered, and a hum flared in her throat, filled with an obvious touch of longing.

"You've seen...some acts of bonding that humans perform, I take it?" He asked, trying to distract the dragoness enough to leave his groin alone.

She blinked at him once, a soothing croon igniting in her throat as she resumed her inspection.

Five hells. What attracted her such to a male human's anatomy? She couldn't be in heat. Magnus would have known if she was. To confirm his suspicions, he tilted his head left to take a peek between her haunches while her snout circled his groin, curious growls rippling in her chest.

There it was. A narrow slit of medium size parting the yellow scales of her underbelly, thin and dainty. From her position, with her haunches barely spread apart, her tightly sealed lips revealed not a speckle of pink, least the inner formation of her walls that indicated her anatomy.

Magnus' hands curled into fists as her prodding became more persistent. The warmth of her breath seeped through the leather, and her tantalizing touch rubbed his manhood quite gently for a dragon. He began to squirm slightly in spite of himself, making his discomfort known with a harsh grunt that put an end to her to it.

As soon as she drew back with an excited yelp, the dragoness noticed his gaze and twisted her neck in its direction to make sure he had, indeed, peeked under her tail. Did it even matter to a dragon?

Even if it didn't, Magnus' cheeks still turned beet red in an instant, more from being discovered than anything else.

And she seemed to like it!

Her wings folded neatly against her flanks, and she stepped away from Magnus to lie down on the right side--the one with her healthy wing, a hind paw aloft to reveal her sex to him.

"Mrrrp," she warbled before rolling back onto her belly to stare at him.

"Fair enough. You now know I'm a male, and I know you're a female."

The dragon didn't think so. Her eyes flashed for a fleeting moment before she pounced to his side, ripped his dark leather satchel, leaped away from him and dropped it between her paws. She then settled on her belly, one paw on top of the satchel to hold it still while the other tried to undo the latch.

"Hah, I'd like to see you trying," Magnus said.

She didn't only try. She succeeded in a matter of seconds, a sharp, victorious squeak heralding her success before she gripped its bottom in her maw and pulling it up to spill its contents.

The spellbook came out first. She secured it between two talons and swatted the cover aside with her snout, blowing the pages one after another with audible snorts.

Magnus paled. "Stop!" he roared, harsh enough to send the birds into frenzy. His stomach sank, and his vision whirled from the sudden realization.

He was dead.

But he was also free from the dragon's clutches.

Magnus rolled to his left, scrambled onto his feet and took a sideways stance, his hands raised defensively, in spite of the futility of it. She had wicked talons and fangs, while Magnus only possessed magic that he was too distressed to call upon.

The dragon flared her crest and frills at his upright position, squeaked with disinterest, slapped her tail against a flank and resumed her task of fondling the ink bottles between her paws. She dabbed her snout at them in turns, curling her lips around the corks, then using her fangs to try and pull them out without success.

Magnus wiped the sweat off his brow, glancing from one trunk tree to the other for his sword and knapsack. Where in the five hells were they?! Only leaves and scales and wings and amethyst eyes filled the hollow, along with the smoking remains of the fire.

Magnus didn't wait and concoct another plan. He ran. Up a hill, on his fours when it turned steep, and lunged forward onto a slope far too slippery. His feet twisted, and down became up, then down again as he rolled, and rolled, until everything stopped and burning pain shot through his frame.

No time for it. Magnus shook his head to dispel his dizziness, staggered to his feet, wailed and crashed face first onto the ground when his left ankle gave in. It seethed, as bad as his sword hand when he put weight on it. Magnus gritted his teeth, yet moans still escaped him as he trudged towards the nearest tree.

A rustle filled the hills, followed by echoing squeaks and shrieks. Magnus clutched the trunk of the nearest fir tree, pulled himself up, and propped his back against it just as the dragon slid down an incline. Only a wing unfurled and flapped, while the other twitched in its socket, its faded yellow membrane brazed by thin, bloody tears. An obvious swell stood at the base of her wing joint, where the bone splintered or broke. Her left wing stood askew as a result, not enough to stand out, but still visible to one who stood a few steps from the dragoness.

Magnus opened his mouth to say something, or shout, or plead, yet his teeth shook and his head spun. He thrust his arms forward and switched his weight on the good foot, ready to lunge to the side in case the dragon attacked.

She lifted her paw instead, stretched it forward and thrummed at him, blinking at him slowly, almost reassuringly.

Magnus looked from left to right, then back at her, more puzzled than ever. What was that supposed to mean? He gulped down a mouthful of emptiness, then blinked to make sure the dragon did, indeed, stretch her paw forward in a friendly and obviously human gesture. Where in the five hells did she see that?

She bowed her head in that awkward way of hers to nod, flared her frills and wobbled forward onto three legs, her paw still outstretched.

Magnus licked his lips, tilted forward and grabbed it. A shivering moan left the dragon's throat as her digits curled around him, soft enough to trap him into her hot grip. Magnus grunted, shook his hand, and the dragon's paw relaxed. She sniffed at it, licked it once, placed it down, then stared at him.

"What is--what's this?" Magnus stuttered. Everything pounded, and stars still speckled his vision from the earlier fall.

The dragon yelped, wrapped her elongated tail around his arm and tugged forward, hard enough for Magnus to lunge and stagger to keep up with her strides. He managed to limp for several steps before he crashed onto his side. The dragon shrieked and leaped away, alarmed, her crest and frills flat against her scales.

As if he did it on purpose! She approached him again, with slow, twitching steps, cocking her head and humming every time her paws met the ground. Magnus' hand slithered towards a stick, yet he relinquished it as soon as her shadow loomed over him. Bad idea, to grab something that the dragon might consider a weapon.

For better or worse, he had to follow her lead, and hope that his knapsack and sword made their way into her den for hoarding purposes.

Magnus pushed himself onto his fours, signaling him to approach with a hand.

She only cocked her head at his strange gesture and tried imitating it with her paw.

"No, not that. I mean--"

"Irrrrp?" She tried flicking her other paw, swinging at the air as if swatting away insects rather than beckoning at somebody. Silly creature...

"The tome," Magnus croaked, his ankle and wrist too sore, his temper too foul. "Is that what you want? The knowledge that lies therein?"

She pushed at his arm with her snout, over and over again, until Magnus rose.

"Spells? Magic? I can teach you, in exchange for..." he pressed his lips tight against one another, then said, "my freedom?"

She yipped, nuzzled his hand, then coiled her tail around his arm. Magnus limped after her, then slowed to a maladroit shuffle when she glanced at his boots and released a soft whimper. She stopped to raise a paw, flex it, then yelped as soon as she put it on the ground to mimic his discomfort.

"Yes, I'm wounded. You're very perceptive," Magnus drawled.

She bowed her head, then raised it in a curt nod.

A wry smile plastered on Magnus' face. It was one thing to read about a dragon's intelligence, and another to see it.

"Show me what you want already."

She perked up, thrust her head towards the mountain, and squeezed his arm tighter with her tail before shuffling forward, dragging Magnus after her.

***END NOTES***

Magnus never seems to have it easy, does he? The predator becomes the prey in a most surprising way, and he now has to see what this dragon requires of him. That also gives him a moment to put his own nefarious plans in motion, as his original purpose lies just before him. Can he acquire the heart of a dragon and help fulfill his promise to Pard? Come back for chapter 5 in order to find out.

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