Heart of the Mountain

Cover Illustration by Oouna: https://www.oouna.com/ https://www.furaffinity.net/user/oouna/

© 2019 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

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Disclaimer: This work of erotic fiction is intended for adults only. The story contains the following themes: Dragon, monstergirl, anthro, transformation, large breasts, gentle femdom, size difference, biting, scratching, oral, vaginal, blowjob, long tongue, tailjob, light bondage, boobjob, romance.

CHAPTER 1: WINGED TERROR

The morning mist hung low over the valley, the obscuring haze blanketing the forests and fields below, reflecting the vibrant reds and oranges of the rising sun. The shepherd shielded his eyes for a moment as he looked out over the vista, the chill wind whipping at his long beard and tugging at his cloak. He wrapped the garment around himself a little tighter, then whistled for his sheepdog, the animal coming bounding towards him from around a protrusion of jagged rocks. Her ears were pricked up, her eyes bright and attentive, her pink tongue lolling from her mouth as she raced towards her master.

The flock of sheep was making its way slowly up into the foothills in search of greener pastures, their bleating echoing across the mountain range. There were seven score and eight, he’d do another head count once they found a place to stop, just to make sure that they hadn’t lost any errant lambs on the way.

Away lass, away,” he said with a wave of his crook. The black and white hound followed his command, running around to the right side of the herd, corralling a few ewes who had wandered from the group to inspect a patch of scruffy plants. The beasts trotted back to their fellows, their white wool blowing in the breeze. “Good girl, come now.”

The shepherd turned his eyes to the ground, careful to avoid any rocks that protruded from the blanket of grass and moss lest he twist an ankle. He leaned some of his weight on his crook, leading his flock higher, admiring the purple heather that broke up the sea of green and grey.

He finally emerged onto a plateau of sorts, a relatively flat area of grassland where his flock might graze. The sheep spread out under the watchful eye of the hound as the shepherd took a seat on a boulder, its cracked surface covered in patches of clinging lichen. He set his crook down and took a moment to breathe. His calves ached from the climb, and he leaned down to rub his leg, glancing up at the mountain that loomed in the distance.

The sunrise was casting its craggy face into deep shadow, picking out every detail of the rocks and cliffs. Its tall peak was capped with brilliant, white snow, sheathed in wisps of cloud. The shepherd was used to the sight, but something about it seemed oddly ominous today. It looked so cold and distant, sharp and harsh, jutting into the blue sky like an arrowhead.

He narrowed his eyes as he noticed that something else was reflecting the light. There was some kind of object on the near face, glinting as it caught the sun. Confused, he took his crook in hand and stood up, whistling for his sheepdog. The hound ran over to him, wagging her tail as she sat at his feet, the shepherd scratching her head absent-mindedly as he kept his gaze fixed on the strange object. It was drawing closer, descending the mountainside like a swooping hawk on a pair of giant wings, a long tail trailing behind it. By the time he realized that it was coming in his direction, it was too late.

The great beast was upon the flock in a flash, a gust of wind throwing the shepherd off his feet, and sending the sheep scattering like woolly tumbleweeds as the flapping of its leathery wings kicked up a hurricane. He was peppered with a hail of dirt and small stones as he frantically tried to pick himself up, retreating behind the cover of the boulder, taking his sheepdog by the scruff of her neck and dragging her with him as she whined. The ground shook beneath the monster’s feet as it dropped from the sky, making a sound like a thunderclap, its long talons digging deep into the soil to leave furrows in their wake like a plow tilling a field.

Its bat-like wings folded across its back as it stood tall on its four legs, as thick and as round as marble pillars. Its serpentine tail waved back and forth along the ground, cracking like a whip. Its body was covered in a layer of thick, overlapping scales that resembled a suit of shining armor, catching the light in iridescent hues of sky blue and ocean green. They tapered to a lighter beige on its underbelly, the scales there smoother and finer, like a mosaic. Powerful muscles rippled beneath its hide as it moved, it radiated such power and strength that it was almost overwhelming, a force of nature more than a simple animal. He couldn’t believe its size, it must have been almost thirty feet from nose to tail, and its weight was enough to make the ground tremble.

The shepherd chanced a glance at it from his hiding place, cowering in terror even as his curiosity commanded him to peek around the rock, his dog huddling beneath him with her tail tucked between her legs as she tended to do when there was a storm.

Upon its long, winding neck was a head of massive proportions, near as long as a man was tall. Four twisted horns sprouted from a mane of pointed quills on the top of its heavy skull, almost like those of a ram, but straighter and swept back. The quills ran all the way down its spine, reminding him of the flowing mane of a horse. Unlike hair, however, these were stiff and wickedly sharp. They were patterned with faded stripes in the same beige as its underside, and as he watched, they began to move. The monster eyed the scrambling sheep, the quills shaking, making an ominous rattling sound that reminded him of the hiss of an angry snake.

Its scaly lips pulled back to reveal rows of pointed teeth as long as a man’s finger, its eyes burning with infernal heat, like a pair of smoldering coals. With every breath, it exhaled a plume of black smoke from its nostrils, as though there was a furnace burning inside of its very body.

It sucked in an enormous breath of air, rearing back on its hind legs until it was taller than the tallest of trees, its barrel chest inflating as it filled its lungs. It lunged forward, its jaws opening as it belched a plume of orange fire. The shepherd recoiled, the heat of it singing his eyebrows even from a distance, the nearby blades of grass withering before his eyes. Above the roar of the flames, he heard his sheep bleating in agony as they burned.

He no longer dared to look, wrapping his arms around his trembling dog as if to shield her from the heat, even the rock against his back seeming to warm in the firestorm. He heard snapping jaws, along with a low, guttural growl that shook his very bones. The monster’s feet made the earth shake, and then there was another gust of wind, its wings so powerful that they were able to dislodge stones and tear up plants. He could hear the debris pounding against the other side of the boulder, and he feared that it might be enough to cause a landslide. The flames were roaring now, its flapping serving as bellows, fanning the blaze.

The beast rose into the sky, and then with one last monumental flap of its enormous wings, it set off down into the valley. The shepherd watched as it flew over his head, so close that he could have reached up and touched its belly if he had been standing on the boulder, a pair of charred sheep clasped in its clawed forelimbs. Something rained down on him from above, clattering on the stone, but he was too awed by the sight to pay any attention. It banked, rising up towards the shadowy mountain from whence it had come, slowly shrinking until it was once again naught but a glimmer of reflected sunlight.

The shepherd rose to his feet unsteadily, releasing his hound, the sheepdog sticking close to her master as she whined unhappily. He rounded the boulder to see what remained of his flock, little more than charred corpses sitting atop blasted grass, the fires still smoldering amidst the blackened bones and scorched shrubs. He could smell the charred flesh, like overdone mutton. The creature must have devoured fully half of his flock, four score at least, and the rest had either been eaten whole or were too burnt to be recognized. The survivors had scattered, and he wasn’t sure that even the dog could fetch them after such an ordeal.

He coughed, choking on the smoke as he gazed at his ruined livelihood, and then he spied something shiny on the ground. He stooped to pick it up, turning the object over in his hand. It was a gold coin, heavy for its size, stamped with the seal of a kingdom that he did not recognize. There were more like it, scattered about everywhere that the beast had trod. Was this what had rained down on him as it had passed overhead? Had they been lodged in its scales, perhaps?

He began to collect them, growing more frantic as he went, dropping one of the coins and cursing as it burned his hand. It must have been blasted by the flames. Before long, his pockets were overflowing. He wasn’t an educated man, but he knew how to count sheep, and there was enough gold here to make up for his losses. He chanced another look at the mountain peak, but the creature was out of sight. Might that be its lair? He had herded sheep in these hills for his entire life, and he had never seen anything of the like.

Come, lass,” he mumbled as his dog cowered at his feet. “We must tell the magistrate what we saw, though I doubt he’ll believe aught that I say. They’d think me mad if it wasn’t for these coins.”

***

The rain lashed down on Iden’s cowl as his horse trudged through the mud, its hooves slipping in the filth. The terrain was hard going and uneven, difficult to navigate for a man wearing a heavy suit of armor, and so he was glad of his steed. There were tracks here, partially washed away by the water, but still visible enough that he could make them out in the gloom. Cartwheels, horseshoes, and boots. The path was well traveled.

This valley was a nightmare, there seemed to be dark clouds hanging overhead in perpetuity, and water collected at the foot of the hills like a wash basin. It was damp, muddy, and thoroughly miserable. He adjusted his pack, his armor clanking as he made his way along, finding it difficult to see more than a few feet in front of him in the downpour. He was burdened by his tower shield, too, as well as a long pike with a pointed spearhead. The horse’s ears flicked with irritation, it wasn’t happy to be out in the rain any more than he was, but it kept the pace dutifully.

He finally glimpsed the warm, yellow glow of a lamp in the distance, his destination was near. The village was nestled in the hills, hard to reach on foot, and quite out of the way of the usual trade routes. The wooden buildings almost seemed to be sagging under the constant rain, the water washing off their steep, thatched roofs in great sheets. Usually, when someone of his caliber was called out to one of these remote communities, it was to deal with bandits or highwaymen. Rarer still were Orcs and other such marauding creatures. This time, however, the bounty was for a creature so seldom seen that some doubted their existence.

A dragon had been sighted, and the crown had put a price on its head. The Paladins usually dealt with such matters, they had the ear of the King, but they weren’t about to march an army all the way out here to deal with a beast that was snacking on sheep.

A dragon slayer, Iden was not. They were creatures of legend, and their numbers had dwindled to the point that only one or two might be spotted during a lifetime. There had been no opportunities to earn such a title. But he was a hardened mercenary, and the promise of a hefty reward had gotten his attention, along with the beast’s hoard.

It was said that dragons nested in a hoard of gold and jewels, riches beyond men’s wildest dreams. If one could slay the creature, then they could also claim those riches for themselves. Coupled with the generous bounty, he would be able to retire early, and live out the rest of his days like a Lord. There would be no more trudging through the rain for Iden, only wine and women, until he expired on a silken sheet in the company of the best whores that money could buy.

He tugged the horse’s reins as they entered the village proper, directing the beast to a line of hitching posts. They were mercifully covered by a thatched awning that would protect the animal from the elements. His boots splashed in the mud as he dismounted awkwardly, clinging to his saddle to prevent himself from slipping. Gods, it was almost like wading through a bog. What kind of bumpkin farmers might choose to live somewhere like this? His horse stamped its feet as he tied it to one of the posts, and he glanced over to make sure that the nearby trough wasn’t full of scum. It seemed clean enough, and if there was one thing that these people didn’t lack, it was an abundant supply of fresh water...

With his pack and his heavy tower shield slung across his back, he took the haft of his pike in hand and made his way to what he assumed was a tavern. It was late at night, or at least that was his assumption, as the stars were obscured by the clouds and mist that hung over the village. This structure was larger than most, and there were lanterns lit on the inside, the yellow glow shining through dirty windows.

He put his shoulder to the oaken door, pushing it open with some difficulty, hearing the rusted hinges creak. If he lingered here for too long, his own armor might suffer the same fate. He had to angle his pike so that it would fit through the doorway. It was twelve feet long, perfect for stabbing a dragon in the heart from a safe distance, or at least that was his thinking when he had bought it. He also had a short sword on his hip for emergencies and non-draconic adversaries, a weapon that he was far more experienced with.

Finally, the roar of the downpour was silenced, replaced with the faint patter of rain on the thatched roof somewhere above. He found himself in a room lined with long, wooden dining tables, above which wooden chandeliers hung from the naked crossbeams. Their flickering candlelight cast deep shadows, joined by the dancing flames in a stone hearth, the heat of it staving off the creeping cold that had followed him through the door.

Iden closed it behind him, and then made his way towards a counter at the far side of the room. There were kegs of what might be mead or beer lining the shelves behind it, along with iron pots and pans that were hanging from hooks. He wouldn’t say no to a meal and a drink, he had been riding for days, subsisting on jerked meat and little else. There were a couple of doors that led out of the main hall, probably leading to the kitchen and the bedrooms.

As his weight made the uneven floorboards beneath his boots creak, he noticed that there was one other occupant in the room. It was a man with a tattered hood, his face obscured beneath its shadow, save for a long beard. He was nursing a drink, sipping at a large, wooden mug. He might be a fellow traveler perhaps, or maybe just the local drunk. The stranger looked up at him as he made his way across the room, but did not speak, and Iden arrived at the counter to find it deserted.

He leaned across the polished surface, glancing to and fro as he searched for the tavern’s owner, but there was nobody else in sight. He noticed a brass bell on the counter, and he decided to ring it. After a few moments, a woman emerged from one of the doors. She was short and portly, a little over middle-aged, and she was was wearing a very unflattering nightgown. It appeared that he had woken her, she was rubbing her eyes, and she gave him a less than friendly glance as she took up position behind the counter.

What’ll it be?” she asked groggily.

A room for the night, and a hot meal,” Iden replied. He placed a few coins on the counter, and after biting one in her crooked teeth to ensure that it was real, the woman retreated to what must be the kitchen to prepare his food. With any luck, she wouldn’t spice it with rat poison as revenge for rousing her at this hour.

Iden made his way back over towards the tables, leaning his pike and his shield against a nearby wall, and shrugging off his pack. It was a relief to take the load off, and he sat down on one of the benches, his plate armor making a racket. He was looking forward to being free of that too, but he’d have to wait until he was in the privacy of his room before stripping down to his gambeson and leggings.

He wasn’t sporting the shining garniture of a Paladin, nor did he have a colorful surcoat adorned with heraldry. Knights had squires to dress and undress them, along with teams of blacksmiths to maintain their armor, but Iden had no such luxuries. He was a sword for hire, he worked alone, and so his garb was more suited to his purposes. He wore a heavy chain mail coat that also had a hood to protect his head, extending down to his knees. Over the top of it, he wore a partial suit of steel armor. It was lighter than a complete set and more maneuverable to boot. He had enough experience to judge which parts of his body needed the most protection. There was a battered breastplate that was pocked with dents and scrapes from prior skirmishes, along with heavy pauldrons, and a helmet that resembled an upturned bucket with a folding visor. He wore vambraces and gauntlets to protect his forearms and hands, as well as a tasset and cuisses to shield his thighs. He had been witness to the demise of more than one man who had taken a blade across the leg in combat. Lastly was a codpiece, couldn’t forget about the family jewels…

He flipped back his hood and removed the helmet, placing it on the table beside him with a clank, letting his mane of dark hair fall free. Even beneath the hood and the helmet, it had somehow still managed to get soaked by the rain, and he stopped just short of wringing it out like a washcloth. His chin was already stubbly, the beginnings of a beard growing due to his lack of grooming during his journey, and his grizzled face bore a few faded scars.

Now he seemed to have the attention of the stranger, who was peering at him from an adjacent table. Iden made the mistake of meeting his gaze, and the man practically leapt out of his chair, his mug of mead in hand as he rushed over to take a seat opposite him.

You’re here to slay the beast, aren’t you?” the stranger asked. He pulled his hood back, revealing a weatherbeaten face from which a pair of beady, green eyes peered. His skin was tanned like old leather, he had spent most of his years laboring outdoors by the look of him.

What’s it to you, old man?” Iden asked. He cocked an eyebrow at the stranger, beginning to wonder if he was drunk, or merely crazy.

I’ve seen it!” the stranger added, pointing to himself. “With my own two eyes!”

Is that so?” Iden replied skeptically.

Aye, t’was I who reported it to the magistrate. I was up in the foothills when I saw it, a great, winged beast that descended on my flock like a vulture. Must have been thirty or forty feet long at least, stronger’n stouter than any carthorse or ox that I ever saw. Its footsteps shook the earth, and it belched infernal fire, burned four score head of sheep into ash in the blink of an eye.”

And how did you survive to tell the tale?”

Why, I took my collie in hand and hid behind a boulder, t’was only the stone that shielded us from the fires.”

Was this drunk the source of the story? Surely the local magistrate would not have put out such a hefty bounty without any kind of proof? If Iden’s time had been wasted by a crazed shepherd, then he’d give the old man more than a dragon to worry about.

What proof do you have of this?” he asked, and the stranger began to rummage through his pockets. After a moment, he withdrew a cupped hand. To Iden’s surprise, when he opened his fingers, a handful of gold coins spilled out onto the table. One of them rolled over to him, and he caught it in his gauntleted hand, bringing it up to examine it in the wavering light of the candles. It was heavy, certainly hefty enough to be real gold, and the stamps on either side of the coin were not those of any nearby kingdoms. The language of the text was foreign, impossible to read.

Where did a shepherd come by such a thing?” Iden asked, turning his eyes back to the old man.

They fell from the beast,” he explained, gathering his coins back up. Iden handed one back to him, dropping it into the man’s palm, and he stowed them back in his pocket. “Stuck to its scales, they were, like burrs to a dog.”

That was a significant amount of money, it must have made up for the shepherd’s lost flock and then some. Had such a small fortune really rained from the back of a dragon? Iden’s mouth began to water at the prospect, could it be possible that the beast’s horde was so huge that it didn’t even notice that it was covered in gold coins? Perhaps it rolled around in its pile of treasure like a pig in mud, and how large would such a pile have to be in order to accommodate the forty-foot monster that the shepherd was describing?

Yes, I came here to slay the dragon,” he finally replied.

I guessed as much from your spear,” the stranger said, gesturing to the pike that was resting against the wall behind him. “That looks long enough to skewer a horse.”

Or a dragon,” Iden added, and the shepherd nodded vigorously.

It’ll be a load off my mind to see that thing slain,” the stranger continued, “I daren’t take what sheep I have left beyond the limits of the village these days. I thank the Gods for these coins, without them, I’d be destitute.”

Their conversation was interrupted as the owner of the tavern returned to place a tray of steaming food in front of Iden. The scent of the meal rose to his nose, and he wasted no time digging in. There was a bowl of what smelled like lamb stew, a side of cornbread, and a slice of walnut cake. After spending so long on the road, a home-cooked meal was a taste of heaven. He washed it down with a long draw of mead, then thanked the owner, who just seemed relieved to be able to return to her bedroom. She placed a large, iron key on the table, then gestured to the second door towards the back of the tavern.

Yours is the third room on the left,” she said, then she returned to her bedroom without another word.

The old shepherd’s eyes followed Iden’s fork from his plate to his mouth as he ate, and he wondered why the stranger didn’t simply buy his own meal, he certainly had enough coin. Perhaps he feared the retribution of the surly tavern owner. There might be more than one dragon plaguing this village.

Where did you last see the creature?” Iden asked, pausing to take another draw from his cup.

Up in the foothills to the North,” the shepherd replied, pointing in the general direction. “But the beast resides on the mountaintop, that’s where it came from, and where it returned once its deed was done.”

Up on the peak?” Iden asked, and he nodded.

When will you slay the beast?” the man asked, waiting expectantly as Iden chewed on a slice of bread that he had soaked in stew. He swallowed ponderously before replying, spearing a floating vegetable.

I shall set out tomorrow morning.”

Before someone else claims the prize, he neglected to add.

CHAPTER 2: TAG ALONG

Iden breathed in the fresh air, the sun beating down on him. The wind was chilly, but above the mist that lingered down the valley, the clouds were sparse enough that he could see the azure sky. The rolling hills were a patchwork of green grasses, purple thistles, and colorful flowers that protruded between the craggy rocks. The mountains were already catching the sun in the distance, lit up in shades of orange and yellow, the atmospheric haze giving the more distant peaks a tinge of blue. He didn’t need any more directions from the shepherd, he could see the mountain that the old man had described, looming over the landscape as it jutted into the air like a jagged tooth.

The going was a little difficult for a horse, the terrain was getting rockier and steeper, and he had lost sight of the beaten path hours ago. When he reached the foot of the mountain, it might be better to set the beast free. If it suffered a broken ankle up on the peak, then it would be of no use to him, might as well spare it the pain. He could buy a new one if he succeeded in his task.

He had been following a stream that flowed down from the mountain, and he decided to stop for a while, giving his horse a moment to take a drink. As he rummaged in his pack for a bite to eat, he noticed that someone was heading up the stream behind him. It was a woman wearing a colorful shawl, and in her hands was clasped some kind of golden vessel.

He watched her curiously as she drew closer, and when she looked up, she seemed surprised to see him there. She faltered for a moment, perhaps considering whether a lone woman should be interacting with a strange man out in the wilderness, then decided to approach him.

Good morning,” Iden said, standing up to greet her.

Morning,” she replied, a little hesitantly. She clutched at the object that she was carrying, it looked like a large vase cast from gold, a rare and expensive item for someone of such obviously limited means to be carrying around in the open. Her shawl was patched in places, and the hem of her long skirt was tattered, stained with the mud that caked the valley below.

Might I ask where you’re headed?” Iden said.

She eyed his long pike and his suit of armor, looking him up and down.

To the same place as you, I’d wager,” she replied. Her features were still obscured beneath her shawl, and Iden couldn’t get a good look at her. “Are you here in search of the dragon, Sir Knight?”

Oh, I’m not actually a knight. But yes, I’m here to slay the dragon.” She didn’t seem as impressed as he had anticipated, bar wenches usually swooned over a man in armor. “What business do you have with the beast?” he added.

Legends say that if one brings an offering to a dragon, it will grant them mercy. It is only a matter of time before it descends upon the village, and it is my hope that this heirloom might spare my family’s farm from the flames.”

You’ll have no need to part with your heirlooms,” Iden continued, “I mean to claim the bounty that was placed on the dragon’s head.”

Are you a dragon slayer by profession?”

Not exactly,” he admitted, “but I’ve seen my fair share of battles.”

And by what means do you intend to bring it down?” the woman asked, “with that long stick?”

This is a pike,” Iden corrected, “it measures twelve feet. The tip is a blade forged from tempered steel, hard and sharp enough to pierce the hide of any beast, dragon or otherwise. From behind the safety of my shield, I shall spear its heart.”

Well...good luck in your venture,” the woman replied skeptically. She set off again, walking past Iden and his horse, but he called after her.

I’d advise you to turn back, milady. The mountains are no place for a lone woman, and your offering will be in vain. I will see that.”

She paused for a moment, then reached up to pull back her shawl. Her long, auburn hair fell about her shoulders, and as she turned to face him, he saw that she had handsome features. Her eyes were a shade of striking green, while her lily-white skin was free of any dirt or blemishes, her lips full and rosy. She was quite the beauty, a rose amongst thorns in this miserable village, with its population of surly barmaids and grizzled shepherds. He wouldn’t have said no to a roll in the hay with this farmer’s daughter.

Then perhaps you would escort a lady up to the peak, Hedge Knight?”

I would prefer Knight Errant,” he grumbled, “and I don’t think that’s a good idea. Are you certain that you can make the climb?”

I could ask the same of you,” she replied, planting her free hand on her hip as she cocked an eyebrow at him. “Have you ever scaled a peak before? The going will be hard in that heavy armor of yours.”

She was a feisty woman, it didn’t seem like arguing with her would be a good use of his time.

If I humor you, and you decide to turn back halfway, then I won’t be able to abandon my quest in order to carry you back down.”

I won’t be turning back,” she replied defiantly, and he shrugged his armored shoulders.

Very well, have it your way. Truth be told, the company will be welcome. It’s a day’s ride at least, and perhaps a second to reach the peak. Might I ask your name?”

Isabelle,” she replied, turning about and setting off again. “Let us not dawdle, Sir.”

Iden hurried to sling his pack across his back, mounting his horse and following behind her. She got ahead of him, and he managed to catch up, walking his steed along beside her and matching pace.

So your plan was to present the dragon with that vase?” he asked, gesturing to it with his reins in hand. Isabelle glanced up at him and nodded her head.

It’s the most valuable thing that my family owns, it was passed down from my Great Grandmother. It’s a ceremonial urn, forged from gold.”

What makes you think that a beast such as this can be reasoned with? What would you have done if you had found it to be as feral as a bear or a wolf?”

Are dragons not known to be intelligent beasts?” she asked.

Not to my knowledge,” Iden replied, peering down at her through his open visor. “This one seems to spend its days eating sheep, doesn’t sound like it has much reason to me. I expect it’s merely a wild animal, albeit one of impressive size and strength. If you ask me, the tales of their cunning have been exaggerated over the ages, when was the last time that a living soul even saw a dragon?”

I wouldn’t know,” his companion replied, “but my Grandfather oft spoke of them. He told of a time when there were dozens of dragons in these parts, they dwelt in the mountains, and they descended to hunt the forests for game.”

Were there dragons in his day?”

No, he was telling stories that his own family had passed down to him. He said that they were magical beasts and that they could commune with mankind.”

Magic?” Iden scoffed, “I’ve never seen any magic.”

You don’t believe in magic?” Isabelle asked, hopping over a protruding rock that was covered in lichen.

I’ve been in more battles than you’ve had hot meals, and never once have I seen anything that I could describe as magic. If people could...shoot lightning from their eyes, and raise the dead, wouldn’t they have done so to safeguard their keeps? To defeat their adversaries? If they can get their hands on modern siege equipment and repeating crossbows, then why not a wizard? Are there no conjurers who take payment for their services? No, I have no cause to believe in magic.”

You only believe what your eyes see, then?”

That’s right,” Iden replied confidently.

Then what of the Gods?”

Well, of course there are Gods,” he chuckled. “Can there be a sword without a smith, or a child with no mother? Something must have made the world, and that something must be far greater than mortal men, unless you know of someone who can chisel a mountain range from a block of stone.”

But how can you be sure if you’ve never seen a God?” Isabelle continued.

It’s just logic,” Iden replied, growing a little tired of this line of questioning. “Why does a farmhand concern herself with such matters? Don’t you have chickens to feed, and pigs to muck out?”

Says the hedge knight in a suit of hand-me-down armor,” she laughed. “I’ll have you know that I have ample time for reflection. I believe that magic is like a well, and that if too much water is drawn from it, it will eventually run dry. Perhaps there is naught but a trickle left.”

If you say so,” he said dismissively.

And what of you, Sir Knight? What about facing off against a dragon appeals to you?”

The reward, of course. The crown has offered fifteen hundred gold pieces for its head, not to mention the hoard of treasure that the beast might have accrued. The shepherd who first laid eyes on the thing told me that gold coins rained from its scales wherever it trod.”

Why would a dull beast collect coins?” Isabelle asked.

Magpies collect buttons and pennies, perhaps the dragon is of like mind.”

***

They continued on in silence for a while longer, the snorting of the horse and the whistling of the wind the only sounds that echoed through the valley. Isabelle walked along beside his steed, weaving between the rocks, and sidestepping the pointy thistles. She was a stout girl, a lifetime of farm work must have made her tough, and it had imbued her with stamina to spare. Iden was not one to violate strange women on the roads, he was no brigand, but perhaps he could woo the girl with tales of heroism and battle. She would make a fine sleeping bag warmer up on the frigid slopes of the mountain.

So where did you come from?” she asked as she navigated around a large boulder.

I journeyed to your village from the South, I am accustomed to warmer climes.”

So you’re a Southerner then? I guessed as much from your accent and your dark hair,” she said, seeming pleased with herself. “You traveled all the way to my little village for naught but a dragon?”

For more wealth than I could ever spend,” he chuckled, “the dragon is incidental.”

Have you been in a lot of wars, then?”

Yes, more than I care to count. That’s the profession of a mercenary, to offer one’s services to the highest bidder. Kings and Lords appear to command vast armies, but their conscripts usually have little to no practical experience. They are farmers and woodsmen equipped with armor and weapons of as poor a quality as their Lord can get away with. Knights are usually prissy and spoiled. They don’t know the realities of war, the grime, and the filth. They have never trudged through a field of mud and spilled entrails in search of a fellow man to butcher.”

You paint a lovely picture,” she scoffed, seemingly undeterred by the grisly imagery.

Mercenaries are invaluable during a battle, they’re more often than not the only attendants who have any experience, and they command an appropriate price.”

So how do you choose who to fight for?” Isabelle asked. “If there are two opposing Kings bidding for mercenaries, do you side with the one who offers the highest pay?”

Not...always,” Iden replied, a touch of hesitation in his gruff voice. “I do have some principles, after all. I wouldn’t offer my services to an invading army that meant to rape and pillage their way through a kingdom, or to thieves and brigands.”

And how picky are you, exactly?” Isabelle pressed. She had a mischievous glint in her green eyes, as though she enjoyed putting him on the spot.

Picky enough to sleep soundly at night.”

But you’ve killed plenty of young men who, by your own admission, have little to no experience.”

I suppose so,” he admitted with a shrug of his shoulders that made his armor clank. “But that’s just the way of things. I’m good at fighting, always have been. Would you have me lay down my sword and take up a life of poverty as a farmer or a laborer?”

The life of a farmer isn’t so bad,” she said as she skipped idly through a patch of colorful flowers, the tattered hem of her long skirt dragging behind her.

Besides,” Iden added, “you’ll be glad of the likes of me once I slay this dragon and free your village from its tyranny.”

If you say so.”

And what of you?” he asked, shifting in his saddle to get more comfortable. There was so much weight slung across his back with the shield and the laden pack. “Have you any stories to tell? Why would such a slight girl be tasked with delivering an offering to the dragon? Have you no brothers or cousins to make the climb in your stead? Is your father an invalid?”

She paused for a moment, considering her reply perhaps.

The men of my family are more...martially-minded. They are happy to see the beast slain, but I have little confidence in the abilities of mortal men to overcome magical beasts with naught but their steel.”

And so you expect me to fail?”

I do not wish it, but...probably.”

Then I shall have to prove you wrong,” Iden said. “We should stop to rest soon,” he added, changing the subject. “My stomach is starting to rumble, and the horse needs to drink.”

***

They stopped beside the stream to rest for a while. The sun was higher in the sky now, it was approaching midday. The mountain was looming ever closer, the terrain growing harsher the closer they ventured. Here, the stream cascaded over the rocks in a small waterfall, the bed lined with smooth stones. Most of the grass had vanished, replaced with hardier plants that could tolerate the thin air, and soil that provided poor nourishment.

Iden let his horse drink from the water as he set his weapons down, taking off his helmet and placing it on a nearby rock, shaking out his mane of black hair. Isabelle watched him curiously, it was the first time that she had seen him without it on, and she was getting a good look at his face. She had commented on his dark hair because it protruded beneath his helmet, but now she could see his collection of scars too. Iden thought that it made him look rugged, none of the women that he had lain with had ever complained about it. On the contrary, they seemed to find it attractive, proof of his strength and his martial prowess.

He rummaged through his pack, pulling out a handful of small paper parcels that were tied with string. It was mostly salted meats that he had purchased from the tavern owner before setting out, along with a couple of loaves of bread. There would be no more leathery, jerked meat on this journey. Once he claimed the dragon’s fortune, he could stop at a new inn every night and sample their best dishes to his heart’s content.

He unwrapped one of the parcels, bringing the salted mutton to his mouth, then paused as he looked over at Isabelle. Her green eyes were fixed on his meal, and she wet her lips hungrily. She had brought no supplies of her own, all she had was her vase. Iden ignored her, taking a bite and chewing loudly as the girl began to pout.

Some chivalrous knight you turned out to be,” she complained, “would you not share a bite to eat with a hungry girl?”

I never claimed to be a knight,” he replied over a mouthful of meat, “nor am I known to be chivalrous.”

Now is as good a time to start as any!” Isabelle insisted, watching his parcel of mutton like a hungry dog waiting for table scraps. Iden gave in, rolling his eyes as he tore off a chunk of meat and tossed it to her. She snatched it out of the air, digging into it ravenously. Perhaps she really was a pauper.

Don’t eat it all in one go,” he muttered, “I’m not here to feed you for free.”

A man who is poor of means,” she mumbled as she ate, “can still be rich of soul.”

Yeah, well until a bank teller will take my soul as a deposit, money will have to suffice.”

When he was done eating a rudimentary sandwich, he filled his canteen in the stream, finding the water clean and cool. Isabelle placed her vase on the grass, then knelt by the bank, drinking from her cupped hands. She dried them on her skirt, then stretched her arms above her head, letting the wind blow her long locks of red hair. Iden took another draw, trying not to stare at her too conspicuously.

If you succeed in slaying the dragon,” she began, “what will you do with the riches? Surely a dragon’s hoard is more than any one man could hope to spend? Besides buying a suit of armor that actually fits you,” she added with a chuckle.

Iden ran his fingers through his hair in exasperation, what answer did she expect of him?

I intend to retire, preferably to a large country manor, where I’ll live like a king until I’ve lost all of my teeth and my cock no longer works.”

She laughed at that, she seemed to have a good sense of humor for a sheltered farmhand.

You won’t give any of it to charity, then? You don’t want to feed the hungry, or help the poor?”

Why would I do that?” Iden asked, crossing his arms as he sat on his rock. “The poor are free to slay their own dragons if they wish. I’m risking my own life, is it not fair that I alone should reap the rewards?”

You believe in the Gods, but is it not written that men of great wealth seldom reach Heaven?”

Now you’re starting to sound like a Paladin,” Iden grumbled, taking another swig from his canteen. “Let the Gods judge me if they so choose, I’m not afraid of death, couldn’t be in my line of work.”

Perhaps you have more in common with this dragon that you know,” she said, shooting him a grin. “You both seek to brood over mountains of gold that you can never spend.”

The girl walked over to the horse, giving its flank a pat as it drank, its tail whipping back and forth idly. She seemed to have taken a liking to the beast. Horses were not farmed for milk or meat, and so she might not have come across them very often.

What’s her name?” she asked.

Doesn’t have one,” Iden replied.

You didn’t name her?” Isabelle said, looking back over her shoulder to pout at him. “Don’t worry,” she continued, turning her attention back to the horse. “If this brute won’t give you a name, I will. Let’s see...” She looked around for a moment, perhaps seeking inspiration in the patches of flowers and the scrubby bushes that protruded from between the rocks. “How about...Heather!”

It’s as good a name as any, I suppose,” Iden grumbled. “Do you name all of your livestock?”

Heather is a noble steed, not mere livestock,” Isabelle shot back. “Isn’t that right, girl?”

We should reach the foot of the mountain by nightfall,” Iden said, glancing up at the ominous peak. “Let’s keep moving.”

***

The sun had passed behind the mountain as it began to set, casting a long, dark shadow across the valley. Iden felt as though the temperature had dropped to that of a winter’s night, the cool wind now biting and harsh. Isabelle shivered beside him, rubbing her hands together beneath her tattered shawl as she lugged her heavy vase along. As unwieldy as his armor was, at least his gambeson was thick enough to insulate him against the cold to an extent.

He watched as the girl lost her footing, stumbling amidst the rocks that littered the ground. She grazed her knee, wincing as she struggled back to her feet.

Say,” she said, looking up at him from below. “Might I have a turn on the horse?”

First you eat my food without recompense, and now you expect to ride my horse? I can’t fit you behind me, there’s little room to spare with my shield and my pack.”

Just for a little while, so that I might rest,” she pleaded. “My feet are blistered, and hunger has made me weary.”

She looked so miserable down there, and he wondered again why she was so ill-prepared for this trek. What had she expected to happen? Could she really be so naive as to think that she could scale a mountain with no food, wearing a pair of farmer’s boots? He gazed at her for a few moments from beneath his open visor, then he sighed in exasperation, his armor clattering as he made to dismount the horse. Her sad eyes brightened as Iden dropped heavily to the ground, and he thrust the reins into her hands with a gauntleted fist.

Very well, but only because the exercise might warm me. And take some food from my pack. Naught but a morsel of bread, you hear? I won’t have you complaining about your stomach until we make camp.”

She scooted around behind him, and he felt her rummaging through his pack as she searched for the loaf of bread. He heard the rustling of the paper, and then she tore off a piece, chewing into it ravenously. With her meal in hand, she slipped one of her feet into a stirrup, struggling to mount the horse. Iden sighed, helping her up into the saddle. He realized that she probably didn’t know how to ride, and so he took the reins from her, leading the horse along as he started on his way. The last thing he needed was both his horse and the girl vanishing into the night if the animal got spooked by something.

Thank you,” she said sweetly, bobbing back and forth as she sat atop the horse and dug into her bread.

Uh-huh,” Iden grumbled from beneath his helmet. He was starting to wish that he had set off a day later, and that the dragon had made a meal of her. Not that she would ever have reached the peak without his help.

It was a little harder to see in the shadow of the mountain, but he was used to long marches, and he was none the worse for wear by the time they were ready to make camp. The sun had dipped below the horizon now, and the stars were twinkling in the cloudless sky, like bright beacons against the endless expanse of inky blackness.

We should make camp here,” he announced, the horse stamping its feet as they came to a stop. He raised a hand and helped Isabelle to dismount, then began to shrug off his shield and his pack. “See if you can find enough dry wood to start a fire, there must be some dead bushes and shrubs around here to provide enough kindling.”

The girl headed off to search while he unpacked his tent. He unrolled a bundle of fabric and drove a pair of sharpened poles into the ground. It was rocky here, and the earth was tough, he had to beat them with his gauntlet to drive them deep enough that they would stand upright. He draped the canvass over the top of the primitive framework, creating a wedge-shaped shelter with a flap on one end, perhaps three or four feet tall. It wasn’t luxurious by any means, but it was enough to shield a prone occupant from the elements. The wind was already tearing at it, and he retrieved some metal stakes from his bag, driving them into the ground to secure the four corners. When he was sure that the structure was reasonably secure, he began to move his gear inside.

There wasn’t much that he could do for the horse, but it wasn’t as if there was a blizzard. The animal would be fine come morning. He secured her lead to a nearby bush, if she uprooted it in a panic for some reason, then so be it. He couldn’t take her very much further anyway.

By the time he had laid out his sleeping bag, Isabelle had returned with an armful of gnarled sticks. He made a circle out of stones, and stacked them inside, striking a piece of flint into a bundle of dried plant matter. He blew on the orange ember until it sprung into flames, and then he pushed it gingerly between the twigs. Before long, the small fire was crackling, and the pair huddled around it for warmth as the flames cast dancing shadows.

Isabelle shivered, and he shared his canteen with her, starting on another piece of mutton as she watched.

Where will I sleep?” she asked, eyeing his one-man tent apprehensively.

I wasn’t planning on having company,” he muttered, talking with his mouth full. “I suppose you’ll have to squeeze in beside me.”

I can’t share a tent with a strange man in the wilderness,” she replied, “what would my father say?”

Not much, I’d presume,” Iden replied. “He’s letting you visit a dragon after all. Besides, what do you expect me to do? Should I cede my sleeping bag to you, and dig a hole for myself like a rabbit?”

Fair point,” Isabelle said, stoking the crackling fire with a long branch. “Are you...the type to take advantage of a woman in a compromising situation?”

What do you think?” he scoffed, a little insulted by the insinuation.

I think that you’re a large, strong man who doesn’t hesitate to take what he wants, at least where battle is concerned. A man who has been traveling alone for days or weeks, and who might have...pent up urges that he may seek to satisfy with a woman who would be powerless to resist his advances...”

If that’s what you think, then take the horse and head back to town,” Iden said as he gestured to the tethered beast. “Nobody is forcing you to stay with me.”

I didn’t mean anything by it,” she said, her tone apologetic. “I suppose that if you wanted to ravish me, you would have done so by now.”

Are you hungry?” he asked, and she nodded. He passed her a piece of mutton and another hunk of bread, and they ate together as they stared into the smoldering embers. It was so silent in the mountains, there were no chirping birds, no buzzing insects.

So what happens if you don’t prevail against the dragon?” Isabelle asked, glancing over at him as she gnawed on the tough bread. Her green eyes reflected the firelight from beneath the shadow of her shawl, the wind tugging at the patchwork of fabric and fanning the flames. “Are you survived by anyone? A wife? Children?”

No,” he replied tersely, washing down a mouthful of meat with a swig from his canteen.

Why not?” she continued, watching him expectantly.

I’m a mercenary, starting a family is the least of my concerns right now.”

Isn’t there anyone waiting for you back home?”

Home is wherever work is, I’m never in one place for very long. I sleep at a different inn each night, if I’m not camping out in the wilds, or marching with an army. I have my fill of food and women wherever I happen to be.”

I see, so it’s like that?” Isabelle chuckled. “And here I was starting to think that there was a heart of gold under all that metal and brawn.”

He realized that his cheeks were reddening, and for the first time in recent memory, he began to feel a little ashamed of himself. Tales of slaying his enemies and bedding scores of women usually earned the admiration of his comrades in arms, and the attention of loose barmaids. Isabelle was neither, and her sensibilities were quite different.

Perhaps...I have been on the road for too long,” he muttered. “But if I can claim this prize, then I’ll be free to settle wherever I wish. I could marry...maybe. If I could woo a noblewoman, then my children would be Lords and Ladies.”

I wouldn’t marry for money or for status,” Isabelle said as she finished off the last of her bread. She leaned forward to drop a few more sticks onto the campfire, giving it a prod with her branch, the wind carrying away the wisps of smoke. “I’d wait for the right man to come along.”

Let me guess, you’d wait for a charming Paladin in a bejeweled raiment to sweep you off your feet? You’ll be waiting a long time out here, girl.”

Don’t call me girl,” she complained, “I’m not as naive as you think. True love happened for my mother and for my father, for my grandmother and my grandfather. So why not for me?”

I never said that it wouldn’t” Iden added, “but you can’t sit on your hands and expect something like that to happen on its own. If you want something to happen for you, then you have to make it happen. You want love? Go out and seek it. The Gods won’t do it for you, and nobody else will care enough to arrange it in your stead.”

He began to unwrap another paper parcel, tossing the string into the fire and watching it burn. This one was some kind of spiced sausage, and he reached into his pocket, pulling out a knife and slicing off one end. He picked up a twig and speared it, holding it over the fire. It didn’t need to be cooked, but a little smoky flavor might do it some good.

I’ve seen too many people become complacent,” he continued, “sitting idle because they expect fate or destiny to fulfill all of their desires in good time. Men who see themselves with a beautiful wife and gold to spare, just as soon as the stars align in their favor.”

Is that what you’re doing?” Isabelle asked, “making your own fate?”

I’d like to think so,” he said, taking a bite of his sausage. “I’m not waiting for a fortune to fall into my lap, I’m going to take it for myself.”

And that’s why you like fighting so much, because you alone hold the reins, your life is in your own hands?”

Getting a little philosophical here, aren’t we?” he muttered. She went quiet, no doubt realizing that it wasn’t a subject of conversation that he wanted to pursue. The awkward silence was eventually broken as he rose to his feet, his armor making a racket.

I’m about ready to turn in,” Iden said, making for the tent. Isabelle stood too, wringing her hands together nervously, not looking forward to sharing a sleeping bag with him. He paused by the flap of his tent, holding it open with one hand as he waited for her to join him.

You’ll catch your death if you sleep out here in the open. Come on, I’m not going to bite.”

After another few moments of fretting, she finally gave in, approaching the tent and ducking in under the open flap. The interior was cramped, the tent was only intended to be occupied by one person, it was just enough to cover an average sized man while he lay on the ground.

It’s tiny,” she complained, and he laughed at her disappointed expression.

Were you expecting me to build an entire inn for you? I might be handy with an axe, but only when it comes to felling men, not trees.”

He had already laid out the sleeping bag, little more than a tube of quilted fabric, and she tested it like a cat kneading a blanket. She sat on it, then turned to watch as Iden began to remove his armor plating. He slid off his gantlets first, placing them on the ground, and then began to remove his vambraces. Iden always struggled with his breastplate, and he reached around his sides, trying to unbuckle the belts that held the two halves together.

I could do with a little help,” he grumbled, “can you lend me a hand?”

What do I have to do?” Isabelle asked, shuffling closer so that she was kneeling beside him.

Just unfasten those clasps for me...yeah, that’s right. Now help me get these pauldrons off.”

Pauldrons?” she repeated, not familiar with the term.

The big metal shoulder pads,” he explained, “just help me pull them off. They make it hard to raise my arms above my head.”

Why is it so dented?” Isabelle wondered, removing one of the heavy pauldrons and setting it aside.

If you see a dent, that’s probably where someone hit me. Before you mock me for my lack of luster, know that each of those blows could have mortally wounded me. This armor has saved my life more times than I can count.”

She helped him to remove the heavy pieces one by one until he was eventually stripped down to his gambeson and his leggings. The gambeson was thick and padded, both to act as a cushion that would prevent his armor from chafing, and to serve as a form of protection in itself. It was relatively warm, and so he saw no reason to remove it, least of all in Isabelle’s company.

There’s only one sleeping bag,” he said, “we’ll have to share if you don’t want to freeze. You’re pretty small, there should be room enough for the both of us.”

You promise to keep your hands to yourself?” she asked, eyeing him warily.

Cross my heart.”

Very well,” she grumbled. She slid off her boots and took off her shawl, but she kept the rest of her clothes on as she slid into the bag. She shifted uncomfortably, her face screwing up in displeasure. “It’s scratchy.”

Yeah, it’s lined with straw for insulation,” Iden explained. “Don’t tell me that the farmers in these parts can afford to sleep on mattresses stuffed with goose feathers?”

No, but ours are more comfortable than this,” she grumbled.

Perhaps I should skin Heather so that you might wear her pelt?”

No!” Isabelle protested, giving him a horrified look.

Relax, I’m joking,” he laughed. “Now scoot over, I need to get in there too.” After a lot of shifting and shuffling, they finally managed to get into the sleeping bag together. It was a tight fit, and Iden could feel her soft, slight frame pressing up against him. She had turned her back to him, perhaps thinking it a more modest position to sleep in, but her plump rear was resting against his hip as a result. He could feel her cheeks through the fabric of her skirt, firmer than those that he was accustomed to, shaped by years of labor.

Her body was probably sculpted beautifully beneath those billowing clothes, there was nothing quite like a woman who had been made hard and strong by the daily rigors of a physically demanding profession, like a stonecutter or a warrior. He had met a few female mercenaries during his travels, and he’d had the opportunity to bed one or two of them. They were aggressive and vigorous, and they possessed the stamina to keep up with him, a rare treat indeed compared to a giggling bar wench.

His instincts commanded him to throw a strong arm around her waist, and to drag her closer, to hike up her skirt and to slide his member between her smooth thighs. She was young, in the prime of her life, no more than twenty at the most. A ripe, juicy fruit waiting to be picked from the branch.

Perhaps he could entice her, whisper into her ear, and promise to instruct her in the ways of lovemaking. He was a brute of a man, rugged and dangerous, his own body a veritable playground for the wandering fingers of a curious girl. He was a clear foot taller than her, his muscles like slabs of rock, his hands rough and calloused. Iden knew what women liked, if they admitted it freely or not.

No, he had given her his word.

Iden rolled over to face away from her, driving the urges from his mind. Isabelle wasn’t like the other women that he had met during his travels, he got the feeling that she wouldn’t appreciate his advances. He was getting side-tracked, he had to stay focused on his task. If he could slay the dragon, then he would have all of the women that he desired. Maybe even Isabelle, if his feats impressed her enough.

Tomorrow, we shall begin our climb to the peak,” he heard her mutter as the wind battered the tent above them. “Are you still set on this course of action?”

I will not falter,” he replied confidently, “the dragon will die by my pike. And what of you? Do you still insist on accompanying me? Know that if the beast should turn its fury on you, I will not be able to guarantee your safety.”

I trust that the dragon will accept my offering. It is not my own life that I fear for, but yours. If you strike at the dragon with the intent to kill it, I have no doubt that it will respond in kind.”

Then so be it,” Iden said, “there is no great reward without great risk.”

***

You’re setting Heather free?” Isabelle asked, watching as he began to remove the horse’s saddle. The night had been uneventful, they had both slept off their exhaustion, and then Iden had made them a modest breakfast once the sun had begun to rise. The tent and the sleeping bag had been packed away, and he had enlisted the girl’s help in putting his suit of armor back on. Now they were ready to tackle the next hurdle of their journey, scaling the mountain itself.

I can’t very well have her climb a mountain,” Iden replied as he slipped the animal’s bit out of its mouth. “She’s no sturdy donkey, she’ll break her legs up there on the rocks. Better to see her on her way. When I descend this mountain, it will be with enough riches to a buy a legion of horses, or I will not descend at all.”

He gave the animal a pat on its rump, and it trotted away, heading back down towards the foothills.

Will she be okay on her own?” Isabelle asked, shielding her eyes against the sunrise as she watched the horse descend.

There’s water down there, and ample grass, the beast will be fine. As for us, however...”

Iden turned to face the mountain, peering up at the harsh peak that towered above them, sheathed in wisps of cloud. It was not the tallest mountain that he had ever seen, but it was a day’s climb or more, and at the top was the dragon’s lair.

This is your final chance to turn back,” he said ominously, “will you not heed my advice?”

I won’t,” she replied, hefting her vase in her hands.

Then so be it, we make for the top.”

***

Take my hand,” Iden said, reaching down to grip Isabelle by her slim wrist. He hauled her up and over a rocky outcrop, depositing her on the ground beside him. She fumbled with her golden vase, almost dropping it, but she caught it at the last second. He watched her exhale in relief, her breath misting in the cold.

There were patches of snow here that made the going slippery and which served to obscure some of the more dangerous rocks. There was no path, they had to make their own way, Iden driving the haft of his pike deep into the icy ground for purchase. His armor was a liability, weighing him down and making him clumsier than he needed to be, but there was no alternative. Facing the dragon without his gear would be suicidal.

We can’t be far off now,” he panted, “the snow did not cover more than the highest point when seen from the foothills.”

Hang on,” Isabelle gasped, leaning on a nearby boulder. “I need to rest for a moment.”

There were so many loose rocks here, it compounded the danger. One only needed to slip, and they would be sent tumbling down the steep face. There were no plants here, no grasses or shrubs, only the occasional patch of hardy lichen that clung desperately to the rocks that protruded from the shin-deep snow.

I don’t advise that,” Iden replied, pausing to look back at her. “Stay still for too long, and the cold will claim you. It will make you as stiff as a statue. We must keep our blood flowing, and our muscles moving, we have to stay warm. Take deep breaths, the air is thinning.”

She nodded, picking up the pace. As much as Iden would have liked to rest, his tent would do little against this harsh wind, and there was nary a flat surface upon which to place it. No, they couldn’t stop until they reached their destination. Charging into the dragon’s den while exhausted from his climb might put him at a disadvantage, but unless there was more than one cave, he would have little choice. He had fought after long marches before, he could handle it…

The conversation had certainly died down since they had reached the more grueling part of their climb, neither one of them could spare the breath. The freezing wind howled, and the snow crunched beneath their feet, the hollow clanking of Iden’s armor echoing.

Up there,” Iden said, gesturing ahead of them. There was a small cliff with a rocky outcrop that looked as though it might provide them with some modicum of shelter, massive icicles hanging over the lip. After struggling another hundred feet or so, they threw themselves beneath the rock, the structure forming a sort of shallow cave mouth. It shielded them from the buffeting wind, and Iden took the opportunity to lay his pack and his weapons down. Isabelle stumbled in after him, taking a seat on the cold floor.

Thank the Gods,” she sighed, “a moment of respite.”

She kicked off one of her boots and began to massage her foot through her thick sock.

This is as good a place as any to make camp for the night,” Iden said, reaching into his pack and withdrawing a bundle of sticks that were tied together with knotted string. “It’s a good job that we had the foresight to bring some firewood and kindling with us, there’s nary a plant in sight up here.”

Isabelle hovered about impatiently as he stacked the broken branches and struck his flint over a handful of dry moss, cupping his hands around the fledgling embers and blowing on them. After a couple of tense minutes, the flames finally took hold, the small campfire beginning to crackle. The pair huddled around it, holding their hands as close to the fire as they dared in an attempt to warm themselves.

Eat,” Iden said, fishing a paper package from his bag and tossing it to her. “You’ll need your strength if we’re going to face the dragon tomorrow. Just be mindful, we’ll need to save enough for the return trip.”

That’s optimistic,” she chuckled, unwrapping her parcel and taking a bite of the salted meat within.

At least there’s an ample supply of fresh snow up here, we can melt it to refill the canteen. I’ll set the tent up beside the fire, though I doubt that I’ll be able to drive the stakes into this rock. We may have to make do with the sleeping bag alone.”

She nodded, chewing laboriously.

I wanted to discuss our tactics,” Iden continued, “for when we challenge the dragon tomorrow. I would have you wait outside until I am done. Do not set foot in its den until I give the all-clear, or you might be caught in the battle. I can protect myself from its fiery breath and its rending claws with my shield, and my armor, but I cannot safeguard you as well.”

About that,” she began, Iden sensing an argument brewing. “If you anger the dragon before I have a chance to present it with my offering, do you not think that it will reject it? If a party of two visited your home, and one of them attempted to murder you, would you then accept a gift from his companion?”

I see no reason to think that the dragon will accept your gift, regardless of its mood,” he replied as he stoked the fire. “It’s a wild animal, you might as well try to gain the favor of a bear by offering it a pot of honey.”

You don’t know that,” she grumbled, tugging her golden vase a little closer to her.

It had crossed my mind to tear that jar from your hands and to cast it off the mountain once we reached the peak,” he admitted, “if only to put an end to your foolishness. It might have upset you, but without your offering, you would have no reason to put yourself at risk.”

You brute!” she gasped, her green eyes flashing with indignation. She clutched her vase in her arms as if to shield it from him, her lower lip beginning to tremble as she scowled at him. “You think me so naive, but you have no idea what you’re doing. You know no more about dragons than I do, and yet you presume to make decisions in my stead, as if you had some sort of authority over me. Well hear this, Hedge Knight. You have no idea what you’re walking into, and tomorrow you’ll be proven wrong. Then we’ll see who’s being foolish.”

Clearly, I decided against that course of action,” he replied. “But I still want you to wait, and if I should be slain by the beast, then go back down the mountain. Listen to reason, don’t try to bargain with the thing.”

How about this?” Isabelle continued, still glaring at him from across the campfire. “I shall go in first, and you shall accompany me as my loyal guardsman. I will present my gift to the dragon, and if it should refuse, then you can have your way with the thing.”

And if it decides to fill the entire cave with fire at the first sight of you?”

Then I shall burden you no longer,” she snapped.

I’m only trying to keep you safe,” he grumbled, “it would tarnish my victory to see you reduced to a pile of ash.”

She was a stubborn girl, fighting about it was pointless, and he was starting to regret bringing it up at all. He might have to take more drastic measures tomorrow, but he’d cross that bridge when he came to it.

When they were done eating, Iden attempted to erect the tent. As he had suspected, the rocky ground was too hard to pierce with a tent peg, he would have needed a hammer to make any headway. Instead, they laid the fabric of the tent out to act as a little extra insulation, and then set the sleeping bag down on top of it. Isabelle was still sulking, and so they drifted off to sleep in silence.

CHAPTER 3: LAIR OF THE BEAST

Watch out!” Iden shouted, his boot dislodging a rock. It rolled down the steep incline towards Isabelle, picking up more loose stones as it went, until it had formed a kind of miniature rockslide. She dodged out of its path, taking cover behind a nearby boulder, the stones clattering against it as they cascaded down the mountainside.

Careful where you step!” she yelled back, peeking out to glare at him.

They were really far up now. Iden had seldom seen the clouds from above, they created what looked like a snow-white ocean below him that extended all the way to the horizon. The mountainside seemed to vanish into the fog, as if the peak was all that existed now. He could make out a few far-off mountains jutting above the clouds like snowy islands, but they were far away, hazy and indistinct. Above him, the sky was such a deep blue that it was bordering on black. A clear, azure sky was usually joined by the warmth of a summer’s day, but the heavens were as cold as ice water up here. The wind howled, strong enough to buffet him in his suit of armor, creeping through the joints as though he had been submerged in a frozen lake.

It has to be close,” he said as Isabelle climbed up to meet him. He reached down to offer her his hand, the girl reacting as though she intended to refuse it for a moment before taking it. He guided her up, the both of them taking a moment to rest on a relatively flat outcrop. “The highest point is in sight,” he continued, glancing up at the craggy peak. “The dragon’s lair must be below that, a cave that winds deeper inside the mountain, presumably.”

So what, are we going to circle the peak until we find it?” Isabelle asked. “I can’t feel my fingers, I fear that if I spend much longer up here, I will freeze in place like a statue.”

Something tells me that we’ll not have to search for very long,” Iden replied, pointing above them. “Look!”

She followed his gaze, turning to see the mouth of a cave. It looked like a giant had bored out a cavernous hole in the sheer rock face with an appropriately sized auger, leaving a deep tunnel that was sheathed in dark shadow. As they climbed up towards it, Iden noted that it was tall and wide enough that a stagecoach could have passed through it unhindered, or a dragon of the same scale that the old shepherd had described…

They wasted no time, hurrying inside to escape the cold, the wind making an eerie wailing sound as it rushed down the winding passage. The walls and ceiling of the cave were rough and uneven, and their footsteps echoed like they were standing inside a grand cathedral. There was moisture everywhere, every surface seeming to glisten such that it almost seemed to have been sculpted from wet clay. There were mineral deposits that had dripped from the roof, creating long, drooping stalactites that resembled icicles. The longer ones were broken away, evidence of the dragon’s passing perhaps. The floor was lined with snow that had seeped inside, along with a few loose stones here and there.

It’s so dark,” Isabelle murmured, “as black as pitch. How will we see once we’re down there? I don’t want to get lost...”

I came prepared,” Iden replied, struggling to take off his pack. He knelt to fish inside it, and then withdrew a wooden stick. It was a makeshift torch, one end wrapped tightly with a bundle of cloth. Next, he pulled out a vial of oil that he had wrapped in rags to prevent it from breaking during his journey. He upended it over the fabric, soaking it with the flammable substance. He struck his trusty pieces of flint together, and after a couple of attempts, he succeeded in creating a spark. The torch flared to life, burning brightly, and he raised it above his head to illuminate their path. The shadows were driven back by the wavering light, and before them, the tunnel wound its way deep into the mountain.

Would you do me a favor and carry my pack and torch?” he asked, hefting his heavy tower shield in one hand. “That way, I can be at the ready should the beast surprise us. I can’t say how keen its senses are, but I doubt very much that we will happen upon it before it notices that we’re here.”

I suppose so,” she replied, taking his torch from him and stooping to lift his pack. It was heavy, but she didn’t seem to struggle with it, despite her small stature. She was a farmhand through and through. Iden closed his visor, and lifted his pike, angling it forward as they began their journey deeper into the bowels of the mountain.

It wasn’t long before they came across evidence of the beast. Iden stopped, prodding at the ground with the haft of his pike.

Look,” he began, “see where the dragon’s claws have scored the very rock beneath our feet? It must have passed through here many times.”

Will your armor withstand a talon that can score stone?” Isabelle asked.

We’ll find out soon enough...”

They proceeded on, making their way along the winding tunnel. Iden felt like he was exploring a giant rabbit warren hewn from stone, the slight incline in the passageway informing him that they were descending. This couldn’t be a comfortable abode for a creature the size of a dragon. There must be a chamber in the belly of the mountain, large enough for the thing to stretch out, and spacious enough for it to store its hoard of gold...

Oh!” Isabelle exclaimed, Iden stopping and raising his shield.

What is it? Do you see something?” he asked. Visibility was not as good as it could have been with his protective visor lowered.

There’s something shiny here,” she continued, stooping to pick something up. “It’s a gold coin! I only spotted it because it was reflecting the torchlight.” He heard a clinking sound as she dropped it into her vase for safekeeping. “I can have this one, right?”

I don’t think that parting with one coin is going to bankrupt me,” Iden muttered, “just stay behind me.”

If you insist...” The passageway finally began to widen as they ventured onward, and as they rounded a bend in the rock tunnel, the cave opened up into a vast chamber. It was just as Iden had predicted. The ceiling extended perhaps fifty feet above their heads, great, stout columns of slimy rock seeming to hold it aloft like pillars. The ground was surprisingly level save for a few scattered stalagmites, fledgling monoliths that reached towards the roof of the cave like bony fingers rising from the grave.

And there, in the center of it all, was the dragon’s treasure horde. If one were to somehow lift an entire bank vault, upending its contents onto the floor like someone pouring a drink from a jug, the result might look something akin to this. It was piled in a vast heap, two or even three times as high as a man was tall, spilling out around the surrounding columns of rock almost like a liquid. The sparkling, glittering mass was made up of what must be millions of gold and silver pieces, and there were even more extravagant treasures within the pile. Iden could make out bejeweled goblets that sported beautiful gemstones, rubies and emeralds glinting under the flickering light of the torch. There were crowns and tiaras, scabbards encrusted with precious stones, riches beyond imagining.

The dragon hadn’t merely collected these trinkets in the same way that a bird might steal baubles to line its nest, the beast had been decorating its lair. Iden could see a shining suit of gilded armor that looked as though it might once have belonged to a high ranking Paladin, it was standing upright against one of the pillars, a long spear of impressive craftsmanship at its side. There was a heraldic banner sporting the colors of a house that he did not recognize, tattered and decaying, but held aloft by a golden pole that had been driven into the rock like a stake.

Like a moth drawn by the light of a candle, Iden was transfixed for a moment, taking a couple of faltering steps towards the heap. Everywhere that he looked there was something new to entice him, from scattered coins to chalices forged from solid gold. How had the dragon accrued such wealth? How many merchant caravans must it have raided, how many keeps must it have plundered?

What do you think?” Isabelle whispered, holding the torch aloft. “Is it everything that you imagined?”

And more,” he muttered, his breath misting as it escaped the vents in his helmet. “The dragon does not seem to be here, it might be out hunting for food. Perhaps we can stage some kind of ambush, and...hey, what are you doing?”

Isabelle marched past him, approaching the pile, and he watched as she placed her golden vase gingerly upon it. She drove it a little deeper into the mass of coins so that it would stand upright, a few of them rolling across the floor as they escaped.

There, everything in its place,” she said as she stood back to appraise it.

Don’t you need to present your offering to the dragon?” Iden asked, confused. “Or will it pick up your scent and know you that way?”

She spun around to face him, her auburn hair and her long skirt fanning outwards with the motion, a broad smile on her face. Suddenly, there was a flash of light as a torch flared to life on the far wall of the cavern. It burned with an intense, blue heat that slowly faded into a warmer yellow, more of them following behind it. Before his eyes, a ring made up of dozens of them ignited one by one, as if an invisible person was walking between them and lighting them with a candle. They illuminated the whole cave, casting even more light on the treasure horde, but his gaze was firmly fixed on Isabelle.

I warned you that the real fool would be revealed once we reached the dragon’s lair,” she giggled, her voice echoing off the rock walls. As he watched, her eyes began to change. The vibrant green that he had so admired shifted in hue until it was a shining amber, her round pupils becoming the vertical slits of a serpent. They seemed to glow beneath her brow, radiating an infernal heat, like balls of molten metal plucked from a forge.

Dark smoke billowed from the corners of her mouth as her laughter became riotous, her teeth no longer flat, but pointed like the fangs of a wolf. Her clothing caught fire, the flames engulfing the fabric as quickly as it had the torches, and in a moment the girl was sheathed in the roaring blaze. Her shawl was reduced to charred fragments, carried away by a gust of wind that made the torch that she was holding flicker, the burning remnants of her blouse and her long skirt falling away from her slim frame to expose the porcelain skin that lay beneath.

Even in his fear and confusion, he could not keep his eyes from wandering. Isabelle was just as perfectly sculpted as he had imagined, her hourglass hips tapering into a slim waist, her flat belly lined with two rows of subtle muscle. Her breasts were firm and pert, wobbling softly with her cackling, full enough to make for an admirable handful. Her thighs were as smooth as glass, and between them was a tuft of hair as red as that of her head.

There was something growing across her flawless skin, however. It began at the tips of her fingers and toes, her flesh taking on an unhealthy, purple pallor. Her skin began to crack, hardening into iridescent, blue scales. They sprouted from her body, spreading rapidly until they covered her forelimbs, talons like black hooks growing from her fingers. From beneath her long hair emerged four gnarled horns, twisting and spiraling, her delicate features elongating into a snout.

There was an audible thud as a long, thick tail dropped to the ground behind her, growing ever longer as he watched. It was coated in the same shining scales in shades of blue and green, long, striped spines rising up from it like colorful knitting needles. Her body too was ballooning in scale, her stature now far greater than it had been only moments before. Eight feet, nine feet, the slight girl was now towering over him like a monster as he took refuge behind his shield.

A pair of great, leathery wings unfurled from her back like those of a gargoyle, their flapping making the torches sputter. Her face was already that of a dragon, and the last vestiges of her smooth skin were soon replaced with a mosaic of beige-colored scales along the underside of her tail and her stomach, her breasts vanishing into a barrel chest. She dropped to all fours, her wicked claws sparking on the rock, her muscles expanding to support her new frame. Her reptilian maw opened to reveal rows of sharp teeth as long as his index finger, slaver drooping from her scaly lips as she pulled them back in a snarl, black smoke pouring from her nostrils like the snorting of an angry bull.

Standing before him was a dragon that must have been nearly thirty feet long from nose to tail, the crest of sharp spines that ran down her back shaking to make a menacing racket that approximated the rattle of a venomous snake. The powerful legs that held her body aloft rippled with muscle beneath her shining hide, as thick around as the pillars of rock that surrounded her, her tail as girthy as a tree trunk. It dragged across the floor, sending a few errant coins scattering, her scales shifting in hue from sapphire to emerald depending on how they caught the light.

What will you do now, Hedge Knight?” she rumbled. Her voice was so deep that he felt it rattle his teeth, penetrating him down to the bone, the deep contralto somehow still maintaining its feminine quality despite the bestial maw that was producing it. She watched him with her fiery eyes, a head as large as his torso suspended on a weaving, serpentine neck.

Isabelle had...no, there had never been an Isabelle. This dragon, this beast had been his companion the entire way, making a mockery of him. She had eaten his food, he had let her ride his horse, he had slept in the same tent as her.

What is this?” he demanded, aiming his pike at her from behind his shield. “Some kind of dark magic?”

I was under the impression that you didn’t believe in magic,” she crooned, raising a forelimb and examining her talons in the same way that a human woman might check her fingernails for dirt. “You believe only what your eyes tell you. So what say you now, buckethead? What do your eyes see?”

My enemy,” he replied, trying to put on a stoic front despite the trembling in his hands. He angled his long pike over the top of his tower shield, ensuring that his entire body was obscured, at least as much as it could be when seen from such a high angle. He had been prepared for this, he had trained for this scenario. That Isabelle had tricked him didn’t change his strategy, there was a still a dragon standing before him.

So you still mean to slay me?” she asked, those burning eyes scrutinizing him from beneath her scaly brow. “You would plant your spear into the heart of a young, naive farm girl?”

You are no farm girl,” he snarled.

Oh, but I am,” she replied with a toothy grin. “Not moments ago, I was Isabelle. I was so youthful and radiant, did you think that I had not noticed the way that your eyes traced my figure when you thought that I wasn’t paying attention? Why should my transformation change that?”

You’re a monster,” Iden spat, “you’ve been terrorizing the people of the village down in the valley.” “Terrorizing?” the great beast gasped, feigning outrage. “So I ate a few sheep, what of it? Dragons need to feed too, you know. I paid the shepherd for his trouble, he won’t be going hungry on my account.”

I came here to bring down a dragon, and that’s what I mean to do,” Iden continued. “I can’t leave this cave empty-handed, I’ve staked everything on this venture.”

Then it’s the gold that you crave?” she said, a tongue as long as his arm escaping her jaws to wet her scaly lips. She glanced behind her, her massive head pivoting on her sinewy neck, watching the mountain of riches shimmer in the torchlight. “Mesmerizing, isn’t it? Look at the way it catches the light, every individual coin glittering like a field of stars. What use has a dragon for wealth, you might ask? I do not live in a castle, I do not wear extravagant clothes, I do not entertain guests with revelry and excess. I have no need of guards, servants, or standing armies. Gold is my weakness, the chink in my armor. It holds a strange power over me, I lust for it, and perhaps you do too?”

I share no such obsession, wealth is merely a means to an end.”

Are you sure about that?” she asked, amusement twisting her reptilian features into a smile. “I saw how my collection transfixed you. For a moment, you forgot all about your task. You were on edge all the way down the tunnel, but when you caught sight of my hoard, you dropped your guard.”

Enough of your games, dragon,” he shot back. “You know all too well why I’m here, I told you as much while you shared the warmth my campfire, and ate of my food.”

A fun diversion,” she chuckled, “I get so terribly bored sometimes. I was out searching for additions to my collection, and I happened upon that lovely vase. I like to wander in human form from time to time, perusing markets and shops for trinkets. I don’t mind parting with coin for an item of greater merit. On the way back to my cave, I stumbled upon you while your horse was drinking from the stream. It is fortunate that you weren’t a brigand. Had you tried to rob me, or ravish me, well...” She bared her fangs, each one as sharp as a butcher’s knife, catching the light like pearls. “You would have discovered my true nature far sooner.”

Iden didn’t reply, glaring at her through the slats in his visor. She rolled her eyes, loosing a sigh that was chased by a plume of black smoke.

How woefully trite. I really thought that you might be different from the others, Iden. There are less dangerous ways to test your mettle, you know.”

Have at you!” he bellowed, taking a step forward.

Very well,” the dragon conceded, “have it your way then...”

She reared back on her powerful hind legs, towering over him, as tall as a church steeple. Her chest inflated as she sucked in a gulp of air, and then she spewed it back out as a column of roiling fire. The flames engulfed him, and he took refuge behind his shield, the heat of it searing him even from within his armor. It just kept coming, the fire splashing against the rock floor, his shield beginning to glow red like an iron in a forge. He endured it, sweat starting to pour from his body as the very air around him seemed to cook. He held his breath, knowing that the heat would char his lungs from within.

She finally relented, and he peered up over his shield, watching as twin columns of smoke billowed from her nostrils.

You were right about the shield,” she said, “I would have to melt the very rock beneath our feet to slag steel. But can it withstand a strike from my claws?”

He had barely enough time to recover before she lunged at him, his tower shield ringing like a bell as she struck it. He braced himself, but she was too strong, and he was thrown to the ground. It was like taking a hit from a war hammer the size of an anvil, or a cannonball swung on a chain. His armor clattered as he rolled away from her, and his shield was thrown from his arm, the impact dazing him. When he was able to recover enough to struggle to a knee, his armor still uncomfortably hot from her fiery breath, he spied his shield resting on the cave floor a good ten feet away. It had been scored by her talons, leaving three deep furrows in the metal.

He lunged for it, but his armor made him slow, and the dragon swung her tail like a whip. It knocked the legs out from under him, sending him toppling end over end, and once again he found himself on the cave floor.

Will you yield?” she asked. Iden didn’t reply, he scrambled to his feet again, and lunged for his shield. He heaved as he lifted it off the ground, taking up position behind it, angling his pike towards her. “Still undeterred?” she added, flexing her massive wings. “So be it.”

Iden loosed a war cry as he charged towards her, his pike resting atop his shield, and he threw all of his weight into a strike. He drove his weapon towards her chest like a javelin, lunging with all of his strength, aiming the bladed tip at her heart.

She batted the weapon away before it made contact with a casual wave of her scaly hand, throwing him off balance. He recovered, going in for a second strike, and once again she deflected his spear with alarming ease. Her winding tail crept up on him, tripping him, sending him crashing to the ground in a clattering heap.

You’re far too heavy,” she muttered, watching him lean his weight on the haft of his weapon as he climbed to his feet. “That armor is doing you no favors.”

She wasn’t wrong, he was growing exhausted, and he hadn’t even landed a hit on her yet. He had been expecting to face an animal of no greater intellect than a bear or a lion, but her mind was as keen as his own. Perhaps even moreso…

Iden cast his shield aside, gripping his pike with two hands, and charged in. If he could get close, he might be able to mitigate the advantage of her long reach. She swung one of her massive, clawed hands at him, and he heard the air whistle above his head as he ducked under the deadly blow. He stabbed at her belly with the sharp spearhead of his pike, but it glanced off her scales. They were as hard as iron. He swung the weapon in a cutting motion, the steel sparking against her hide.

He was lifted off his feet by her tail, the thick trunk of it hitting his midsection and throwing him across the cave. He came down on one of the stalagmites, his armored back slamming into the growing pillar of rock, and it shattered into pieces. The wind had been knocked out of him, and he slid to the cave floor, gasping for breath. The helmet was stifling him, obscuring his vision, and so he flung it off. As it rolled across the ground, he shook out his mane of long, dark hair, his sweat glistening in the torchlight.

Isabelle, or rather the dragon, watched him with a smile on her face as he angled his spear in her direction again.

You’re so handsome when you’re angry, you know,” she chuckled. “I was almost tempted to indulge you back in the tent. What might you have done if my slim, dainty fingers had crawled down to unfasten your belt? How might a nubile farm girl have expressed her gratitude?”

Shut up,” he growled, taking up an aggressive posture as he advanced on her.

What stamina,” she added. “You just keep coming, don’t you?”

Iden bellowed as he charged at her, sidestepping a downward strike from her tail that hit the rock floor with enough force to crack it, shaking the ground. She was inhumanly swift, but her sheer size meant that maneuvering her massive frame took time. She telegraphed her attacks, winding up in a way that was necessary for a beast of her sheer mass.

She raised a clawed hand into the air, intending to bring it down on him like a boot crushing an insect. Iden saw it coming without his obscuring visor, and rather than dodge it, he took a knee. He drove the haft of his pike into the floor, and it caught on the uneven surface, the tip pointing straight upwards. It pierced her scaly palm, the momentum of her own blow driving it deep into her flesh, dark blood gushing from the wound.

The dragon opened her mouth in a roar of pain, a cloud of smoke escaping from her throat along with it, and she pulled back in alarm. The pike had run her through, he could see the glinting tip of the weapon as it protruded from the other side of her hand. It was no mortal blow, it was scarcely larger than a nail from her perspective, but the hurt and the surprise gave her pause.

He watched as she brought her hand up to her face, gripping the thin haft with the thumb and forefinger. He didn’t know whether they were feet or hands. She obviously walked on them with a four-legged, bestial gait, and yet they seemed as dexterous as those of a human.

She pulled the pike out, her fingers trembling, and then she snapped it in half like it was nothing more than a toothpick. She turned her glowing eyes towards him as she dropped back down to all fours, her scaly brow furrowing, her lips pulling back in a snarl.

Why are humans always so eager to throw away their lives?” she hissed. “Just because you only live sixty or seventy years, you think it has no worth?”

Iden drew his sword from its scabbard, brandishing the blade as he waited for her next move. Without the pike, he’d have no way of reaching her heart, but he wasn’t done yet. He had known that this might happen, and he had faced death enough times that it no longer filled him with dread. He would give her one hell of a fight before she ended him.

The dragon turned her massive body sideways, her head swiveling to track him on her serpentine neck, and she raised her long tail off the floor as she prepared to swing it. The way that her scales refracted the light from the torches might have been beautiful under different circumstances. There must have been thousands of them, interlocking like armored plates, each one shifting in hue from blue to green depending on what angle it was viewed from. When she moved, it created mesmerizing waves of color that flowed up and down her length, almost like the wings of a butterfly. Her bulging muscles rippled beneath her hide, strong enough to propel that massive body around with surprising ease and agility.

She pulled her tail back, and then rolled her wide hips, putting her entire body into the blow. The appendage whistled as it cut through the air, and Iden had scarcely enough time to roll under it. She had been aiming for his head, and he heard it crack like a whip as it passed over him, passing by so fast that it was little more than a blue blur. It slammed into one of the many stone columns, cleaving through it as if it were no more sturdy than baked clay. With its support removed, the section above where she had smashed through it cracked and crumbled, breaking away from the ceiling and coming crashing down like a felled tree. Iden threw his arms over his head as it fell not five feet away from him, shaking the ground, showering him with fragments of broken rock that ricocheted off his armor like stones cast from a sling. The monumental column broke into pieces, dust billowing as the beast prepared another attack.

She sucked in a great lungful of air, then spewed flames in his direction, shooting a jet of roiling fire from her gaping maw. The inferno spread out in a carpet, rolling over the cave floor, rushing around the columns and stalagmites like a flood of water. The sound was terrible, half the blood-curdling roar of a giant beast, and half the whoosh of flame that filled men with a primal and instinctual fear.

Iden flung himself behind the fallen pillar, and not a second later, the wall of fire impacted the stone. Licking flames rose above the wall of rock, and he put his back to it, feeling the wave of heat wash over him as the very air burned. Black smoke billowed, rising to the domed ceiling where it clung like acrid storm clouds. Now was his chance. He sprang to his feet as best as he could manage in his heavy armor, using the cover of the smoke to change position, diving behind an intact column.

The dragon relented, more dark smoke rising from her open jaws and shooting from her nostrils like there was a coal furnace in her belly. Like a snake rearing up to strike, she raised her head on her flexible neck, turning it this way and that as she searched for him.

You think you can hide from me?” she hissed, the quills that ran down her spine rattling menacingly. “I can hear the frenzied beating of your heart, I can smell your fear.”

He heard the rumbling of her footsteps as she approached his column, and she rose up on her hind legs, leaning her weight on it. Her claws dug into its surface high above him as she wrapped her forelimbs around it, raining dust and crumbling fragments. When Iden looked up, he saw her head snake around the pillar of rock on her winding neck, her glowing eyes peering down at him as smog poured from her nostrils.

She struck like a cobra, her jaws opening to expose rows of serrated teeth, her maw wide enough that it could have swallowed him whole. He could see a fiery glow in the back of her throat, as though there was a furnace burning beyond the limits of her pink flesh.

Iden swung at her with his sword, and this time, the dragon realized that he could leverage her own momentum and weight to drive his blade deeper. She pulled back as his weapon flashed, baring her pearly teeth in a snarl. He couldn’t hope to kill her with the tiny blade, but nobody enjoyed the prospect of being stabbed in the eye or in the mouth, dragon or otherwise.

You really mean to fight to the death?” she asked, her booming voice shaking his bones. “What are you trying to prove, and to who? There’s nobody else here besides the two of us. If you should fall in battle, who will know about it? Who will tell your story?”

She leaned more of her weight on the pillar, and Iden heard it begin to crack, breaking away where it joined to the roof of the cave. He scrambled out of harm’s way as she fell forwards, bringing the titanic column down with her, and it shattered on the ground like a glass dropped from a table. He felt like a mouse scurrying away from a cat, his armor clanking as he ran out of range of her swiping talons.

Just cut your losses and leave,” she continued, “flee while you still have your life.”

And live out the rest of my days as a pauper?” he shot back, skidding to a halt and turning to face her with his sword at the ready. “No, I have but one chance to make something of myself, it’s all or nothing.”

She thundered towards him with the speed and force of an encroaching avalanche rolling down a mountainside, her jaws opening like a giant bear trap ready to snap shut on him, and he swung his sword to meet her. It was a feint, however. Rather than closing her jaws around his body, she snatched him up in her hand, so large that she could encompass him entirely. Iden bellowed in pain and surprise as she squeezed him, his steel breastplate creaking as it began to dent inwards. She had left his arms free, and so he inverted his sword so that the blade was pointing down, and began to jab at her massive fingers. The scales here were just as thick as those on the rest of her body, and his weapon did not penetrate, his steel sparking against her tough hide.

His legs dangled as she raised him high off the ground, putting them face to face.

I could burn you to a crisp, encase you in molten slag” she threatened. “Or I could swallow you whole, armor and all. Yield. I will not give you another chance.”

Iden raised his sword and threw it like a javelin, aiming for her eye. It missed, bouncing harmlessly off her brow, landing on the cave floor far below.

If you will not see reason, then so be it...”

She held him precariously over her open jaws, Iden closing his eyes and screwing up his face as he prepared for the killing bite.

But it never came.

The next thing that he knew, Iden was standing on the ground, and he opened his eyes to see the dragon’s clawed hand withdrawing. He looked up at her in confusion, she was making no move to attack him. She was just sitting there like a giant dog, her tail trailing across the floor, her massive wings folded neatly across her back.

I surrender,” she said.

Y-you surrender?” Iden repeated, confusion and disbelief muddling his thoughts. She nodded her head, an oddly human gesture coming from such a gigantic creature.

I yield, my treasure is yours.”

Why?” Iden asked, narrowing his eyes at her suspiciously. He didn’t know whether to feel elation, fear, or bemusement. “You could have killed me with a single bite, why give in now?”

Do you still wish to claim my head?” she asked, ignoring his question. “Is my hoard enough to satisfy your lust for wealth, or should I lay my neck at your feet so that you might hack at it with your tiny sword?”

Was she serious? Was this some kind of elaborate ploy? She had outwitted him before, he didn’t trust her as far as he could throw her, but she was no longer trying to eat him. If she had wanted to kill him, it would have been all too easy. Even while armed, he had been next to powerless against her might.

It’s...mine?” he asked, chancing a look at the mountain of shimmering coins in disbelief.

All of it,” she confirmed with a shrug of her broad shoulders.

This isn’t some kind of trick? Why would you part with your collection so freely?”

You have my word, it’s no trick. All of my gold is yours to take.”

Iden turned and walked towards the pile, glancing over his shoulder to keep an eye on the dragon, ensuring that she didn’t suddenly pounce on him once his back was turned. He waded into the mass of coins until it was deep enough to reach his thighs, reaching down and cupping his gauntleted hands, filling them with gold like he was drinking from a stream. He gazed at the shining treasure, letting it fall back to the heap, spotting a few errant gemstones as they caught the light.

It’s...it’s really mine?” he repeated, still unable to accept the course of events that had transpired. He had half a mind to believe that she had indeed eaten him whole and that this was some kind of afterlife.

Truly,” the dragon said, lying down on her belly. She crossed her forelimbs neatly as she watched him with her glowing eyes, the tip of her tail whipping back and forth idly like that of a cat. “We dragons are bound by a magical curse to honor the bravery of true warriors. You were ready to die for your cause, and I was not. Ergo, the day is yours.”

Iden climbed a little higher, his feet sinking into the mass of coins, almost like he was wading through a bog. Each footstep created a small cascade that fell down the heap behind him, there was just so much of it.

He spied a bejeweled crown, perhaps the property of some long-dead monarch, and he lifted it from the hoard to plant it atop his head. Giddy with excitement, he raised a scepter that had been forged from solid gold, inlaid with ornate decorations of silver and platinum. He draped jewel-encrusted pendants and fine necklaces about his shoulders, filling his pockets with diamond rings and handfuls of coins, losing himself in a kind of greedy frenzy. He found an antique vase and filled it with gold, pouring the coins over his head as he began to laugh riotously.

Iden fell to his knees, then rolled onto his back, waving his arms and legs like a boy making snow-angels in a drift. He threw handfuls of coins and glittering gemstones into the air, letting them rain down on him, bouncing off his scorched and dented armor. He was still in disbelief. Not moments ago he had faced the jaws of death, and now he had everything that his heart desired. His laughter was that of triumph, of victory, but also of relief. Did it matter why the beast had spared him?

You look like you’re enjoying yourself,” the dragon said, Iden finally getting himself back under control. He sat up, the crown still resting atop his mop of dark hair, the mass of jewelry that was hanging about his neck clattering against his breastplate.

Should I not be?” he replied breathlessly, “this is the highest achievement that I can aspire to. I will never have to subsist on jerked meat again, I’ll never have to make camp in a forest during a rainstorm because I have no gold with which to pay an innkeeper. I can buy a mansion and live out the rest of my days in luxury, I’ll never again have to risk life and limb for coin.” He filled an ornate goblet with gold and gave her a mock toast. “To the dragon, may her riches serve me well!”

He fell back to the heap again, his laughter echoing throughout the cave.

So tell me,” she said, a smirk curling her lips. “How do you intend to carry your newfound wealth back down the mountain?”

What?” Iden asked, pausing his chuckling to peer at her.

There must be a hundred tons of gold here, not to mention the other, more unwieldy items. Suits of gilded armor for men and horses alike, swords and scepters, I believe there’s a solid gold throne buried in there somewhere. How do you intend to get it all back down the mountainside? Perhaps you could hire a fleet of carriages, but there’s no path leading to the peak. Maybe you could pay an army of laborers who were stout enough to make the climb, but once word spread of a dragon’s hoard that was guarded by a lone hedge knight, who else might come to claim it?”

Iden’s blood ran cold, his wide smile faltering.

You could fill your pockets and load your pack, take all that you could carry back down the mountain. But how does one spend a jewel-encrusted crown? How does a traveler divide a golden scepter into parts of appropriate value to pay for room and board at an inn, to buy a horse, or to pay for a meal? With such immense wealth overflowing from your pockets, who could you trust? What carriage driver wouldn’t lash his reins and disappear into the night with enough riches to set him up for life? What bodyguard wouldn’t slay his master in his sleep, what innkeeper wouldn’t conspire to rob his guest? Greed is a powerful motivator, Iden. It changes people, makes them consider courses of action that under normal circumstances, they would never even entertain. Cheating, theft, murder. For wealth such as this, it’s all on the table.”

Now it was her turn to laugh, her resonating voice shaking the ground.

You never planned this far ahead, did you? Claim the dragon’s hoard, that was the only thought on your mind, and somehow everything would work out. You thought that you could solve any problem by simply throwing money at it, didn’t you? But how will you transport this wealth? Where will you store it? Who can you trust?” She rolled onto her back, waving her four legs in the air as her mocking cackling echoed off the domed ceiling. “You have more gold than you ever dreamed, and yet you have no way to spend it!”

There’s no magical curse, is there?” Iden grumbled.

Of course not, you fool! I just wanted to see the look on your face when you figured it out. Now we have no more cause to fight. You cannot defeat me, and even if you could, you cannot claim my treasure. We are at an impasse, so take my advice, and just go home.”

I have no home to go to!” Iden snapped, leaping to his feet and skidding down the pile. He marched towards the dragon, who cocked her head at him in surprise, her fiery eyes wide. He stopped not a foot from her long snout, pointing an accusing finger at her to punctuate his statement. “I’m a mercenary, I go where the fight is, and my only home is the tiny tent in my backpack. I have nowhere to go back to, and now I have no money left! I staked everything on this venture, I told you as much. I spent the last of my coin buying that horse and paying the innkeeper down in the village. That’s it, I was either to win my fortune here or die trying.”

Why not just take another job?” she asked, her hot breath blowing the strands of his long hair. “Surely there’s plenty of work for experienced killers such as yourself?”

And how long can I keep that up?” he asked, turning to face away from her. He pulled the crown from his head and threw it back into the hoard, watching as it rolled down the slope and came to a rest on the cave floor. “I’m not as young as I once was, I have more scars than I can count. This lifestyle takes its toll, and one of these days, I’m going to face off against someone who’s faster and stronger than I am. This bounty, this treasure...it was to be my escape. Now what am I supposed to do?”

It was never going to work,” she replied, her tone a little more sympathetic now. “Even if you could slay me, you would never have been able to keep the treasure. It takes a dragon to safeguard riches like these, or a stone keep with a legion of loyal guards.”

I wish that you had just eaten me,” he grumbled, “at least that way I could have died on my own terms...”

Oh, you’re so dramatic,” the dragon sighed. “Fine, you can stay here for a time, at least until you decide on what you want to do. I suppose I’m partially to blame for indulging you. I could have tried harder to turn you away before you reached the peak, but I get so bored up here, so lonely. Having someone to talk to is a rare treat for the likes of me.”

I can stay here? With...you?” he asked, turning to look up at her. “What are you talking about?”

He was still wary of her, not a few minutes ago she had been breathing fire at him and chasing him around the cave. But now she seemed almost docile, her harsh, reptilian features somehow softer and more appealing.

You fed me, gave me shelter, let me ride your horse. I suppose I owe you the same, if nothing more. Unless you’re still afraid of me?”

I was never afraid of you,” he insisted, the dragon’s scaly lips curling into a smirk. She reached down and brandished a long, curved talon, as large as a butcher’s meat hook. She tapped it against his breastplate, ringing the dented metal.

First thing’s first, if you’re going to be staying in my cave, then you’re going to need a bath. I don’t mean to be rude, but a dragon’s sense of smell is many times more sensitive than that of a human, and I don’t think it would be unreasonable to assume that you’ve not had a change of clothes in days.”

You have a bath in here?” he wondered, the dragon keeping things moving along so quickly that he didn’t really have the time to properly consider her proposition.

In a sense,” she replied, nodding her head towards the back of the cave. He turned to look and saw more torches flare to life, their flickering light illuminating another passageway that curved out of view. “Down there, off you go.”

She gave him a nudge with her snout, making him stumble, and he set off walking. He skirted around the pile of treasure, looking back to see the dragon watching him, her eyes glowing in the gloom. He reached the mouth of the tunnel, he hadn’t even noticed it before, it had been hidden in shadow. It was lined with torches that lit his way, the same as those that ringed the main chamber, attached to the walls with iron braces. They seemed to be magical in nature, she was able to light them at a whim. Just like when her clothing had burned away, and how she was able to spew flames from her throat, she seemed to have an innate control over fire.

The passageway was tall and wide enough to let the dragon pass, made from the same moist, slimy rock that he had seen elsewhere in the cave. Was there really a bath in here? Perhaps she meant that there was a well or an underground spring. It might even be the source of the stream that flowed down the mountain.

He entered the tunnel, following the torches as his footsteps echoed on the uneven floor. What was he doing? Was he really going to take up her offer, live with her in this cave until he worked out what he was going to do next? A sudden wave of confusion made him reel, he had no idea what was going on now. His purpose had been so clear over the last few weeks, his goal so stark in his mind. Reach the mountain, climb the mountain, slay the dragon. It couldn’t have been simpler. But now, that same dragon was showing him kindness. She had pretended to be a farm girl, then she had tried to kill him, and now she was repaying the somewhat reluctant generosity that he had shown her during their ascent.

Was that really her goal, or was this yet another ruse? Did she want him to leave, or didn’t she? If he kept letting his mind run in circles, he’d go crazy. Better to just wait a while and see what she did next.

CHAPTER 4: CREATURE COMFORTS

Iden emerged into another large chamber, albeit somewhat smaller than the first, more torches springing to life as if they had sensed his arrival. As he had suspected, there was an underground spring here. The cave floor tapered into a large basin that was full of clear, blue water. It looked big and deep enough that the dragon should be able to at least partially submerge her massive frame in the pool. There were more columns here, the bulbous flowstone glistening with moisture, masses of stalactites drooping from the uneven ceiling above.

Iden glanced behind him, ensuring that the dragon wasn’t spying on him, then he began to remove his armor. It was always a rather difficult prospect without help, but he eventually succeeded in getting it all off. He stripped off his gambeson and stepped out of his leggings, taking another quick look over his shoulder before removing his underwear.

The floor beneath his feet was so frigid that it almost had him hopping on the spot, but what else had he expected from a mountain cave? He inched closer to the edge of the pool, dipping a toe in, then withdrew it immediately. It was as cold as ice, how did she expect him to bathe in this?

The sound of footsteps echoed in the tunnel behind him, and Iden spun around, covering his loins with his cupped hands as he saw Isabelle standing there. She had reverted back to her human form, her smoldering eyes replaced with the familiar green, her patterned spines giving way to auburn hair. She was wearing a billowy, white blouse that exposed her shoulders, cut low enough to put her cleavage on display. She wore a black corset over the top of it that helped to push up her bust, the laces pulled taut to accentuate her hourglass figure, a flowing gown trailing on the ground behind her.

This wasn’t the attire of a farm girl, she looked more like the wife of an influential Lord, or some kind of expensive courtesan. He understood now what she had meant when she had told him that she had no need of expensive clothes. She seemed to be able to conjure whatever garments suited her. The tattered shawl and the patched skirt that she had worn had merely been part of the illusion.

Her eyes played up and down his naked body, drinking in the contours of his muscles, tracing the faded scars that peppered his tanned skin. She made no attempt to disguise her curiosity. For some reason, he felt a warmth growing in his cheeks. He was no stranger to the female gaze, it wasn’t uncommon for his partners to lie in bed beside him after a romp, playing their fingers up and down his torso as they admired his impressive physique. Something about the way that Isabelle was looking at him made him feel oddly embarrassed, however. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he was naked and shivering, while she was clothed and perfectly at ease.

I thought that you might want a little help,” she said, giving him a knowing smile as she strode past him. She approached the edge of the pool, her long gown dragging behind her, then she knelt to dip a finger into the water. Almost immediately, the surface of the spring began to bubble, clouds of steam rising from its disturbed surface. She was boiling it, more of her magic no doubt.

This should be more to your liking,” she said as she rose to her feet, turning to face him again. Iden was still stood there with his hands between his legs, hunching over a little, trying not to look as awkward as he felt. She let her eyes linger on him again, enjoying his discomfort, and then she took a seat on a nearby rock. It seemed that she intended to watch.

Can I get some privacy?” he asked, hobbling over to the pool and dipping his foot in. It was balmy now, she had heated the entire spring in a matter of seconds.

Not if you want to get clean,” she replied. She crossed her legs, letting her gown ride up a little, exposing her thighs in a way that might have seemed unintentional if Iden hadn’t known better. He wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but he didn’t have much of a choice, and so he waded into the spring. The rocks beneath his feet were smooth, and there wasn’t much debris, the warm water rising to his waist. Fortunately, the dim lighting and the rising steam gave him enough cover that he felt comfortable enough to move his hands from his groin.

Catch,” Isabelle said, tossing an object at Iden. He caught it in his hands, seeing that it was a block of soap. He sniffed it experimentally, noting that it smelled of lavender. She must have recovered it from a trading caravan, or perhaps the entourage of some rich and influential woman, soap was a rare commodity.

Do you know how to use it?” she asked.

I’ve never spent my money on fancy soaps before, but yeah, I get the idea. You just wet it and rub it on your body, right?”

Rub it between your hands until it creates a lather,” she explained, “then spread it on your skin. It will help to wash off all the grime, and it should make you smell a little more appealing.”

He chuckled at the absurdity of the situation as he began to spread the foam about his chest and under his arms. A mercenary bathing like royalty, whatever next? Was she going to cut his hair, and clean his fingernails?

How do you like it?” she said, resting her head in her hand as she watched him.

Well, I’m starting to smell like a perfumed princess, but it feels pretty good to get clean. I’m more accustomed to bathing in lakes and rivers, if I have the time at all.”

I noticed,” she chuckled.

He washed his stubbly face, and then threw his mop of wet hair back, running his fingers through it. As he spread the slippery lather across his stomach, he was acutely aware of Isabelle’s green eyes following his hands. She was downright lecherous, it made him feel like he had been tricked into putting on a show for her. Was this just another one of her games? Why would a dragon be attracted to a mortal man, anyway? Would her preferences not include razor teeth, tough scales, and leathery wings?

Let me know if you need to me wash your back,” she added, covering her mouth with her hand to stifle a laugh. “I must admit, you’re quite the specimen. I thought that all your talk of womanizing might have been bluster, but I can see how the average girl might fall head over heels for a man like you. You’re taller than most, broad-shouldered, with an impressive physique thanks to your...rather taxing choice of profession. Long, dark hair, rugged features, enough scars to show that you know how to handle yourself. I’ll bet that when you ride into town, the local girls just salivate over you, don’t they?”

It sounded like a compliment, but somehow her assessment made Iden feel self-conscious. He was usually the one examining women, judging them by their assets, scanning a tavern in search of the prettiest girls to bed before he had to move on to his next job. She was right, of course. He was accustomed to women folding at a mere glance, their fantasies so often revolved around dark, handsome men with an air of danger about them riding into town to sweep them off their feet.

But now, it was Isabelle who was playing that role. Despite her subdued appearance, he knew her to be far larger and far stronger than any human could ever hope to be, she radiated a supreme confidence that he almost found intimidating.

So...is Isabelle your real name?” he asked, dodging her question.

Real enough,” she replied. “Dragons have many names, and humans would stand no hope of pronouncing them.”

Why did you choose Isabelle? Have you used that identity before?”

Not really,” she said with a shrug of her shoulders. “There was no grand scheme, it was simply the first name that came to mind. It’s a pretty name, though, wouldn’t you say?”

I suppose so,” Iden muttered, leaning down to spread the lather between his legs. He could feel her eyes on him as he finished washing, and once he was done, he lay down and let himself sink a little deeper into the water. It was so warm and pleasant, the spring was just the right temperature, all of the aches and bruises that he had sustained during his short bout with the dragon seeming to melt away. He let his mane of black hair float around his head, and closed his eyes, drifting on the calm surface. It got deeper towards the center, and so he stayed close to the edge.

When he opened them again, Isabelle was standing beside the pool. He rose to a standing position with a start, covering himself up.

Relax,” she chuckled, reaching out a hand. “I just want my soap back. It’s expensive, you know. If you leave it in the water, it’ll dissolve.”

He fished it out of the pool and handed it to her, Isabelle placing it on the rock floor.

How’s the water?” she continued. “I might join you, it’s been a while since I bathed in human form.”

I’d prefer that you didn’t,” he grumbled.

Iden,” she began, her voice laced with mock concern. “Whatever has come over you? You couldn’t take your eyes off me when you thought that I was a simple farm girl, you’d sneak a look at me every chance that you got, but now you seem almost afraid of me. I gave Isabelle all of the right features, wouldn’t you say?”

He tried to ignore her as she leaned forward, letting her plump, pert breasts hang within her loose blouse. They were so tantalizingly close to spilling out of the lacy fabric, with nothing to restrain them, her cleavage cast into deep shadow by the flickering torchlight. Her long, red locks fell about her bare shoulders, the leather of her tight corset creaking as she moved.

She’s as real as she needs to be, I can assure you of that. What do you think of my handiwork?” she asked as she brushed aside her hair to expose more of her chest. “As a man, and a mortal at that, I’m interested in your opinion. Is her bust full and shapely enough for your liking? Are her legs not long and slender? I made her thighs strong, her rump firm and shapely. Her belly is muscled by a lifetime of labor, or at least, an imagined one. Then there are the things that you can’t see. Her skin is as soft as fine silk, her flesh yielding. Will you not sample it, and give me your opinion?”

What exactly do you expect of me?” Iden replied, hoping that she might write off the flush in his cheeks as a result of the steam. “Do you mean to seduce me? If so, state your intentions openly.”

He was not one to turn down the advances of a comely woman under normal circumstances. In fact, women were his vice, his weakness. But this was a dragon. He had seen her as she truly was, near thirty feet long, and covered in armored scales. Even in her human form, he was wary of her. The memories of her sharp claws, her fiery breath, and her flashing teeth were still fresh in his mind.

Isabelle rolled her eyes and loosed a sigh, sitting down on the rock beside the pool in a decidedly unladylike manner.

Is a little company, a little conversation too much to ask?” she grumbled. “Do you know how long it has been since I was able to have a conversation with someone who knew of my true nature?”

Iden was a little taken aback by her sudden change in demeanor, and he shook his head.

Tell me, how many dragons do you see flying around these days? How often are we spoken of?”

Rarely, if ever,” he replied.

I haven’t laid eyes on another dragon in more than two hundred years,” she lamented, crossing her arms over her knees as she stared vacantly into the water. “There used to be thousands of us, back when the world was brimming with magic. Once it began to wane, the mortals started to hunt us. At first, it was for our magical properties, to take possession of our horns and scales so that they might cast spells or brew potions. Then, it was out of greed, for the wealth that we hoarded. Finally, fear motivated them. Over the generations, they forgot that we were intelligent, emotional creatures, and they began to see us as little more than feral animals to be slaughtered.” “You speak of a world brimming with magic,” Iden wondered, “what do you mean by that?”

You were born too late to have known of it,” she replied, keeping her green eyes fixed on the pool. “There was a time when magical beasts roamed the land freely, when Elves inhabited the woodlands, and when dragons soared across the skies. There were merfolk in the lakes, centaurs on the plains, and mortals lived alongside all manner of beings that have since faded into myth in the world of men. Your lives are fleeting. Over the generations, history is lost, and the truth fades into legend.”

What happened to them all?” Iden asked, transfixed by her tale now. “If there was so much magic in the world, where did it all go?”

The Elves were driven from their forest homes, the dragons were slain, and mortals fabricated new Gods to replace the old. Now, rather than communing with nature spirits, men worship false Gods in elaborate cathedrals. Paladins roam the land exacting their brand of justice upon whatever their leaders deem unholy, and what vestiges of the forgotten world that remain are chased away. Every magical creature that dies takes a little of the world’s magic with them, and now there is all but none.”

I...had no idea about any of this,” Iden muttered, not really knowing what to say. So her motivation was loneliness, she had lived in isolation for who knows how long, longer than he had been alive. The only way that she could find company was to put on a mask, in a sense, pretending to be someone that she was not in order to have fleeting encounters with humans. He felt like he should attempt to console her somehow, but he didn’t know what to do, and so he just stood there in the water.

You’re the first person in an age that has seen me in my true form, and has lived to tell of it,” she continued. “Will you not grant me the pleasure of your company, at least until you decide what to do next?”

I thought you wanted me to leave?” he asked, “you seemed rather insistent when you were chasing me around the cave. But now, you want me to stay?” “We were at odds before, but now we’re not,” she explained. “And you have nowhere else to go. You showed me hospitality, I will return the favor.”

Alright,” Iden replied, if only to calm her down. “It’s not like I have any other options right now.”

Good,” she said, seemingly satisfied. “Now, if you’re done washing, I’ll fetch you some clothes.”

What’s wrong with mine?” he asked.

Besides the fact that they’re filthy? You can’t spend all of your time in a gambeson, you might as well wear your battle armor all day. I’ll get you something clean to wear, and then you can wash your outfit later.”

Okay,” he said with a shrug. “Do you have anything that will fit me? I’m bigger than most.”

I think I can manage,” Isabelle chuckled, rising to her feet and gesturing for him to follow her. “Out you come.”

Do you have a towel for me?”

You won’t need one,” she replied with a wink.

Iden emerged from the water reluctantly, hunching over and covering his loins with his cupped hands again. The dragon never missed an opportunity to ogle him, making no attempt to disguise her peeking. The water was making him shiny, accentuating his muscles, and he began to shiver again as he left the warmth of the pool. Isabelle waved her hand, and he felt a sudden heat. It was as though he had just stepped out into the summer sun, the moisture on his skin evaporating in a puff of steam.

D-don’t burn me!” he stammered, Isabelle cackling at him.

Relax, you big baby. I’m just drying you off. You really are scared of magic, aren’t you?”

I’m not scared of it,” he grumbled, “but I’ve seen you set a tower shield glowing like a hot iron with naught but your breath. Is it not reasonable to be wary of it?”

You’ll just have to trust me,” she replied with a smirk.

You’ll forgive me if I don’t find you especially trustworthy...”

Keep still,” she added, looking him up and down. “This might frighten you.”

He braced himself, wondering what she meant, and then his eyes were drawn to a wavering light beneath him. There were flames licking at his bare feet, sprouting from the rock itself. His first instinct was to leap clear, but he suppressed it, noting that there was no heat. How could fire be cold? He shut his eyes tightly as they crept up his body, engulfing him in a roaring inferno, like he was being burned alive on a pyre. It was such an alien sensation, to be able to touch flames without being scorched, it almost felt like soft fabric was caressing his skin.

He felt a tightness about him, as if something was constricting his chest. When he dared to open his eyes again, he found that he was clad in a set of fine clothes. There was a tunic made from crimson silk, the neck cut low, the fabric almost uncomfortably tight about his chest and upper arms. There was also a pair of black leggings that clung to his figure, similarly restrictive abound his rump, and he resisted the urge to reach down and adjust his groin. There were a pair of soft-soled shoes on his feet, and a leather belt about his waist, it had all appeared from thin air.

Now you’re looking a lot more presentable,” Isabelle said, Iden scowling at her.

How did...you’ve dressed me like some kind of...pompous Lord. This tunic is so tight that I can barely breathe!”

Trust me, it suits you just fine,” she chuckled. “Now off you go, back to the main chamber. After you, of course...”

She followed behind him as he set off up the tunnel, his flat-soled shoes slipping on the moist stone. He felt her eyes on his back, and he looked over his shoulder to see her grinning at him. His trousers were so tight that they almost creaked, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what she was admiring...

Alright, you’ve dressed me like a prince, and you have me smelling like flowers. What’s next, are you going to braid my hair?”

No, I quite like it the way it is,” she replied as they emerged into the main chamber. The pile of gold drew Iden’s gaze once again, his heart skipping as it shone in the torchlight. It cast its shimmering reflection on the domed ceiling above, almost like a pool of water reflecting the sun. There was so much wealth here, and yet he couldn’t spend a single coin, it was maddening. The gold had an almost magnetic power over him, excitement welling in his belly, joined by an odd urgency that commanded him to fill his pockets and run. Isabelle almost seemed to sense it in him, taking him by the arm and steering him away from the mesmerizing sight.

The gold isn’t going anywhere,” she said, “we have more pressing matters to attend to. When was the last time you ate? You must be famished after our...disagreement earlier.”

Disagreement?” he replied with a cynical chuckle. “But yes, I could eat. My pack is still around here somewhere, I have plenty of meat and bread left. I should save some for the trip back down the mountain, though. Come to think of it, I had better start rationing it. With no money, I don’t know when my next meal might come.”

I’ll feed you,” she insisted, keeping a tight hold on his arm even as he tried to pull it away from her. She had a grip like iron, she was far stronger in this form than she had initially let on. She led him over to a long table that was made from rich mahogany, the wood varnished to a brilliant sheen. The legs were shaped to resemble the paws of lions, adorned with ornate carvings. Where in the world had she come across this? He had a hard time imagining a dragon sailing through the air on its bat-like wings with a dining table clasped in its talons. It wasn’t just gold and jewels that she collected then, it was items of great value, whatever those might be.

Oh, you need a chair to sit on,” she realized.

I’ll be fine, really,” Iden replied. “I eat most of my meals out in the wilds, I only have the opportunity to eat a table when I stay at an inn, which isn’t all that often.” “Nonsense, you’re my guest! Wait here for just a moment, I’ll be right back.”

He watched as she hurried over to the hoard of gold, and then his blood ran cold as she began to transform again. The strands of her auburn hair seemed to clump together until they formed a mass of patterned spines, changing in hue from red to blue, her face elongating into a snout as twisted horns sprouted from her head. Her long tail grew from beneath her gown like a giant snake emerging from beneath a curtain, her great wings unfurling. She inflated in size as the signature scales spread across her pale skin to form an armored layer, her legs thickening and widening as they bulged with muscle, her clothes straining against her body. The garments burst into flames as they tore apart, turning to ash and seeming to dissipate into the air. In mere seconds, Iden was standing in the presence of the enormous dragon once more, her sturdy limbs and her stout tail as thick around as the trunk of an old oak tree.

She plunged her claws into the pile and began to dig, shoveling aside great handfuls of treasure, the sound reminding Iden of a waterfall. It was like watching an enormous dog trying to dig up a field mouse. She finally found what she was looking for, unearthing a great, golden throne from deep within her stash. She gripped it in her jaws, lifting it with ease despite its obvious weight. The dragon marched over to him, her thunderous footsteps shaking the ground, Iden unable to stop himself from recoiling as she neared.

There was another thud as she dropped the throne into place beside the table, the dragon watching him expectantly with her burning eyes.

There we go,” she said, her resonating voice shaking his bones. “I knew it was buried in there somewhere.”

Do I want to know where you got this?” Iden asked, eyeing the throne somewhat warily. It was beautifully crafted, he couldn’t tell if it was forged from solid gold or not, but it seemed heavy enough for that to be the case. There were two ornate armrests carved to resemble the wings of an eagle, the backrest adorned with the rays of a sun. The throne was surrounded by intricate reliefs and statues, two carvings of women clad in flowing robes standing atop pillars to either side of it, lions resting at the occupant’s feet. The seat itself was cushioned by a pair of plush pillows, made from red silk and likely stuffed with down.

I plundered my share of keeps back in the day,” she replied. “Don’t worry, the man was a despot.”

If you say so...”

She switched so casually between her human form and that of a giant dragon, it was routine to her, but he couldn’t get used to the sight. He walked over to the throne and sat down on it as she watched him expectantly, shifting his weight to get comfortable.

Is it to your liking?” she asked.

I mean...it’s a throne,” he replied, “you can’t get much more lavish than this.”

That seemed to please her, and she turned to lumber away from him, her long tail dragging on the ground behind her.

How does roast beef sound?”

You have roast beef here?” he asked, his hunger temporarily overpowering his apprehension. “Don’t tell me that there’s a kitchen hidden away in one your side tunnels?”

Not quite,” she chuckled. “Wait here, I’ll only be a moment.”

There was indeed another hidden tunnel that led out of the chamber, more torches bursting into flames as she neared, illuminating a winding passage that snaked out of sight. She vanished, and then reappeared a minute later, an entire cow clutched in her jaws. The dragon thundered back over to him, opening her mouth, and depositing the carcass beside the table.

Iden recoiled as it slapped down on the stone floor of the cave, its body shaking with the impact. Its black and white hide was covered in claw marks, its tongue lolling from its mouth as its glassy eyes stared vacantly. There was no kitchen down that passage, she must be using it store her meat. The kill still looked fresh, and its hide was somewhat damp. Perhaps she packed them with snow to stop them from spoiling.

A whole cow?” he asked in disbelief, looking up to see her licking the blood from her lips. “Where did you get this?”

From a nearby farm. Relax, I paid the man, he won’t miss it.”

I don’t think you quite appreciate that stealing is still stealing if you take something without permission, regardless of whether you pay for it after the fact.”

Then should I starve instead? It’s not as if he’d do business with a dragon. In the old days, I could purchase a hundred head of cattle if I wished, the herders were more than happy to treat with me. We dragons were admired and respected before we were hunted.”

She reached down with one of her sharp claws, beginning to butcher the animal before his eyes. She split open its round body, slicing through the pink meat, its juices congealing on the floor. When her grisly task was complete, she slapped a huge sirloin steak down on the table. More cuts followed, until there was a stack of beef that must have been a foot high. It was more meat than Iden had ever seen in his life. Cuts like this sold for a pretty penny, the lower classes of society rarely got to enjoy such delicacies. The herder did not eat the cattle that he raised, of course.

How do you like it?” Isabelle asked, “rare or well-done?”

Well-done,” he replied. It was easy enough to guess what was coming next.

She reached down and speared one of the steaks with her claw, raising it high above the table, opening her mouth as if she intended to swallow it. Instead, a jet of flame erupted from her throat, charring the meat as she turned it over like she was rotating a spit over a campfire. The flames must have been intense indeed, because it didn’t take long for her to finish, setting the roast beef on the table in front of him.

For the life of me, I can’t recall how much mortals usually eat in one sitting,” she said as his eyes played over the meal. The meat was cooked to perfection, steam rising from its crispy exterior, the smell alone making his stomach gurgle. “Let me know if you need more. Oh, I almost forgot...”

She made her way to her pile once more, slowly shrinking as she went. Her tail sucked back up into her body, her wings shriveling as they folded across her back, the horns on her head receding. The rough, iridescent scales were replaced by smooth skin, her crest of sharp spines taking on the appearance of her long hair. She was nude for a moment, Iden taking the opportunity to admire the long dimple that ran down her back, and the perfect peach shape of her rump. Her clothes appeared in another rush of flame, the same outfit that she had worn earlier, with a long gown and a billowy blouse that left little to the imagination. He watched as her corset was birthed from the fires, tightening of its own accord, accentuating her wide hips.

She leaned down and plucked something from her hoard, then strode back to the table, placing the items before him with a metallic clatter. It was cutlery, a knife and a fork cast from shining silver, the handles made from what looked like mother of pearl.

Thank you,” he said, turning them over in his hands as he examined them. She had spoken of hospitality, and she hadn’t been kidding. He was clad in fine clothes, sitting on a throne, about to eat a meal fit for a king with a set of cutlery that was probably worth more than he earned from an average job. Iden was finally starting to feel a little more at ease, and Isabelle seemed to sense it, beaming as he cut into the beef.

It bled juices as he lifted a slice to his mouth, finding it perfectly succulent. He began to eat more greedily, his hunger getting the better of him. Iden was by no means a starving pauper, but to be able to eat his fill of high-quality meat was a rare opportunity, and he wanted to make the most of it.

How is it?” Isabelle asked, leaning on the table as she watched him. She gave him another admirable view down her loose-fitting blouse, pressing her breasts together with her upper arms, probably not by accident.

It’s great,” he mumbled over a mouthful of beef, wiping the juice from his lips with the back of his hand. “This is all real, right? It’s not going to vanish from my belly later on?”

It’s real” she chuckled, “not everything is magic.”

I’ve been thinking about the gold,” he said, taking another bite. Isabelle’s expression darkened, her brow furrowing as he continued. “Were you lying when you said that it all belonged to me?”

I wouldn’t call it lying, exactly,” she replied. “I wanted to make a point, and I wanted to resolve the conflict. Now that you know you can’t claim the gold, we’re no longer trying to kill each other, right? Wouldn’t you say that I was successful?”

I thought as much,” he grumbled. “I was trying to think of roundabout ways that I might get the gold down the mountain, conceal it somehow, but I doubted that you’d really let me take it. I wanted to ask, why have you collected all of this treasure? If you can’t spend the coin, and you have no use for things like dining tables and thrones, then what’s it all for?”

We dragons can be...how do I put this?” she wondered, fidgeting uncomfortably as if she was hesitating to reveal an embarrassing truth. “We have been described as greedy. Some of us can have a bit of an ego. Before you judge us, try to understand how we see the world, what it feels like to be a dragon. We’re so much larger and stronger than anything that we might encounter, we are living wells of magical energy. A dragon can raze a keep, or bring down an army under its own power. We’re born with the ability to fly. Some of us see ourselves as being...above humanity, both in a literal and a philosophical sense. Humans are these tiny, scurrying creatures with fleeting lifespans, they scarcely have the time to accrue any knowledge or wisdom before they’re gone.”

Why do I get the feeling that this is a preemptive apology?” Iden asked, spearing another piece of roast beef with his gilded fork. “I don’t know anything about dragons, I’ve never met one before you, remember? You don’t have to make excuses for people that I’ve never met.”

Some dragons chose to rule over mortals in the old days, they were wiser, more powerful. They saw themselves as being more worthy, deserving of...worship. I don’t condone what they did, some even took slaves and concubines, but at the heart of all dragons is that same yearning. We covet things of great value, whatever they might be. Wealth, territory, political power. It’s not confined to simple treasure, but that’s one way that the need expresses itself. Dragons surround themselves with finery, with great works of art, with priceless relics.”

She gazed at her pile longingly, almost wistfully, Iden cocking his head at her.

So you like gold most of all?” he asked.

Oh yes!” she replied enthusiastically. “Well, not just gold. I like to own things of great value, and different people value different things. Some dragons prefer more historical pieces. I knew dragons who would have traded away a fortune in gold to possess the sword that slew a famous king, or the journal of a world-renowned poet. Others craved influence, control, they wanted to shape history with their own claws. I like beautiful things, rare things. I like to look at them, to own them, it brings me a kind of satisfaction.”

I can kind of understand that,” Iden said with a shrug. “Plenty of humans collect art or hoard wealth. There are despots who crave power, and who will do anything to expand their reach. I’ve probably fought for more than a few over the years.”

Another factor,” she continued, “is just that there’s not a lot for us to do. If you’ve been alive for seven hundred years, everything seems to blur together. Kingdoms rise and fall, seasons come and go, it grows harder and harder to become invested in the outside world. The one constant is your collection, it’s something that you can always work on, always expand. That’s one of the things that I like about you,” she added, smiling at him as he paused his chewing to raise an eyebrow at her.

Me?”

Yes. You’re something new, something different.”

I’m about as conventional as they come,” he said, swallowing his mouthful of meat. “Go to any war camp, and you’d find dozens like me.”

No, you’re stranger than you know, Iden. Do you know how many hunters and fortune seekers have tried to kill me? How often I’ve had to uproot myself, moving from place to place because of the constant harassment? Do you know how rare it is for a mortal to see me as I truly am, and for it to not end in his death? So many men would have taken Isabelle by force on the road, a beautiful, naive girl traveling alone. They would have tried to rob her, defile her, but you didn’t.”

Were you testing me?” he asked, “trying to find out if I was worth eating or not?”

I didn’t really plan for it to happen that way,” she admitted, “but...perhaps a little. Fate seemed to bring us together, I wanted to see if you were someone who might provide me with some company, a good man.”

A good man,” he chuckled. “Is not defiling women on the road all it takes to be considered a good man these days? I’m not a good man, I’ve done bad things, hurt a lot of people.”

You kill for money,” she said with a nod of her head, “but that doesn’t make you evil. You wouldn’t do it if you had a choice, and isn’t that what all of this has been about? You trying to find an out, as you put it?”

I just don’t want you seeing things in me that aren’t there,” he said, “you don’t really know me.”

I know you better than you might think,” she replied. “I know that the man who helped Isabelle scale the mountain was kind, considerate, generous. You even wanted to throw her vase off the peak in order to protect her, despite the risk of upsetting her.”

It’s not like you gave me a choice.”

But you did have a choice. The fact that you didn’t see one proves my point.”

Okay, so I’m secretly a Saint,” Iden said as he spread his arms in a gesture of exasperation. “What’s it to you? What exactly are you hoping to get out of me?”

She didn’t reply, she just gave him a smile, leaning on the table again and letting her auburn hair fall about her shoulders.

Would you like more meat?” she asked, noting that he had finished his steak.

No, thank you,” he replied as he set his cutlery down on the table. “What I’d like now is a place to sleep, today has been...trying.”

You did climb a mountain, and then fight a dragon,” Isabelle replied with a smirk.

Is there somewhere that I can set up my tent? I don’t think I can drive the stakes into this cave floor, unless you have some kind of gilded hammer in that pile somewhere.”

Nonsense, you’re my guest!” she exclaimed. “I won’t have you sleeping in a tiny tent.”

Don’t tell me, you have a Lord’s bed lying around here somewhere?”

Not, exactly...but I think I can come up with something. Wait here for a moment.”

CHAPTER 5: STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

Iden watched as Isabelle went back and forth, creating a pile of fabric that she had sourced from all over her cave. It was comprised of silken curtains, canopies from lavish beds, and elaborately embroidered drapes. There were billowing dresses, extravagant tunics, and gowns made from the finest satin that must have once been part of some wealthy woman’s wardrobe. Instead of blankets, she had assembled piles of fur coats and warm capes. These fineries alone were probably worth more than the price on her head, and here she was using them in lieu of a common sleeping bag. It looked like the most expensive rat’s nest that had ever been assembled, perhaps ten feet by ten feet, deep and plush enough that he couldn’t even feel the cold and the hardness of the floor beneath it.

Will this do?” she asked, watching as he ran his fingers through one of the fluffy animal pelts. It might be bear or maybe wolf, he wasn’t quite sure, but it was the softest thing that he had ever felt.

I’ll say,” he muttered. “Are we going to brush our teeth with fine wine, and maybe burn some mahogany furniture for warmth, too?”

You want a fire? I can take care of that,” she announced. She cupped her hands in front of her mouth like she was blowing on them to warm them in cold weather, and Iden saw a light appear. It shined through her skin, giving it a red hue, the outlines of her veins visible. She opened her fingers to show him a dancing flame that was resting in her palm, like a candle, but with no wick or fuel source in sight. It was more magic, cold fire.

She placed it on the ground beside the makeshift bed, where it continued to burn, even as it rested on the moist rock. It grew and spread until it reached the size of a roaring campfire. Despite the fact that it hadn’t hurt Isabelle, he could feel the heat that was coming off it, driving away the pervasive cold of the cave.

That wasn’t quite what I meant,” Iden said, watching the flames dance. “But it’ll do.”

He slipped off his ridiculous shoes and sat down, sliding beneath the layers of silky fur, quickly warming as they trapped his body heat. The pile of gowns and curtains cushioned him, it was far more comfortable than he had anticipated.

Iden felt so out of place here, wearing these clothes, sleeping amongst this mass of expensive fabrics. The mound of treasure still caught the light from the torches, and he gazed up at the ceiling, watching the shimmering reflection. One by one, the torches faded, casting the cave into darkness save for the magical campfire that Isabelle had conjured. Only now did he realized how sore he was, his body bruised and aching. The climb had been trying, the battle with the dragon even moreso. As he began to close his eyes, he felt shuffling, opening them to see Isabelle sneaking into the makeshift bed beside him.

Uh...what are you doing?” he asked, and she paused with the fluffy pelts half-covering her.

I’m going to sleep.”

With me?” he asked.

Why not? We’ve slept together until now, right?”

Yes, but that was because we had no other choice. You would have...well, you led me to believe that you would have frozen solid if you had not been able to share my tent. But now we’re in your cave, there’s no need to share. How do you usually sleep?”

Well, I’m usually in my...natural form, and I sleep atop my pile.” It wasn’t hard to imagine the great beast coiled around the mountain of treasure like a giant serpent. “But now, I’m in my human form, so...”

Alright,” he grumbled, “I suppose we have more room that we did in my sleeping bag.”

She lay down beside him, throwing the furry blankets over them, draping an arm about his broad chest. She stroked the soft silk of his fancy tunic with her slim fingers, seeming to enjoy the way that it clung to his figure. It was of her design, after all, he wasn’t wearing it by accident.

What are you doing?” he mumbled, looking over to see her green eyes peering back at him in the gloom. She shuffled closer, and he could feel the softness of her bust through her blouse as it pressed up against him.

Come on, Iden,” she whispered. “Don’t play coy. I saw the way that you looked at me during our journey up the mountain, the way that your eyes lingered on my...assets. This form is young, vigorous, beautiful. I made it so, I designed Isabelle to be pleasing, enticing...”

Her fingers roamed lower, sliding against the slick fabric of his shirt, tracing the contours of his muscled stomach. Iden considered pushing her hand away, but he felt a twinge in his loins, his body responding to her despite himself. He had been on the road for so many weeks without sight nor sound of a woman, and his need was great. Women had always been his weakness. When it came to the fairer sex, he had about as much ability to resist their charms as a drunk could resist a hearty draw from a pitcher of ale.

You wanted Isabelle, I could feel it,” she continued. “But you were too much of a gentleman to act on your desires. You don’t have to hide your feelings anymore, you can set them loose. The more unrestrained, the better...”

She paused above his belt as if waiting for his permission to slide lower, batting her long lashes at him expectantly. Gods, she looked so radiant in the light of the fire. Her skin was as white as snow, her cheeks tinted pink, her lips full and rosy. Her green eyes shone like the emeralds that she hoarded in her prized collection, her mane of long hair the color of autumn leaves.

Do dragons...like humans?” he mumbled. “Shouldn’t you seek out a man with rough scales, and a long tail, who can breathe fire?”

It’s been generations since I’ve seen another dragon,” she replied, averting her gaze as she was temporarily lost in thought. “Can you imagine what that’s like? To go hundreds of years without so much as speaking to another of your own kind?”

He could indeed. Iden had only gone a few weeks without enjoying the company of a woman, and he was already chomping at the bit, but it seemed a rather uncouth thing to admit in the moment.

It must have made you very lonely,” he said, and she nodded her head. “But did you not seek the company of other humans?”

I did, on occasion, but...it’s all a farce. All that I can manage are a few fleeting encounters here and there, I can never stay in one place for too long, I can never develop a real relationship with someone. When a certain amount of time has passed, they inevitably start asking questions that I can’t answer. Where do you live, who are your parents, what’s your profession. They can never know who I truly am. I grew tired of playing those games, it was always the same, every interaction arriving at the same conclusion.”

Why not take human form permanently, and live out your life amongst the mortals?” Iden asked. “It’s not as though strangers never move from place to place, there are always new arrivals in towns and cities, people seeking to leave their old identity behind. You wouldn’t have to explain anything.”

It would be a life of theater,” she replied. “I do not hide my draconic form out of shame, but out of necessity, because I will be hunted if I reveal it. I could not give up my true identity, not to mention leaving my collection unguarded,” she added with a glance at her hoard. “Perhaps I could pose as a newcomer to a quiet mountain village, such as the one deep in the valley, but it would surely arouse suspicion in such tightly-knit communities. I must also eat enough to sustain a dragon, regardless of my appearance. A beautiful young woman who appeared at the same time that a dragon began to terrorize the countryside? I’d be lucky not to be burned as a witch. Although I have to admit, seeing the faces of the villagers when the flames of their pyre had no effect on me would almost make it worth the trouble.”

She pushed her face into the nape of his neck, nuzzling as her hand made slow circles on his stomach.

Are you going to make me beg, Iden? Does my true nature intimidate you so? You don’t have to be afraid of me, we could do it the way that you’re no doubt accustomed to. It wouldn’t be theater for me to play the role of a young woman, enraptured by your strength and masculinity, admiring your physicality as you mount me. My desire for you is real, even if this body that I have conjured is not. It’s been so long since I felt the touch of a man...”

She planted a lingering kiss on his neck, Iden’s heart pounding in his ears. He would never admit it, but he was indeed afraid of her. He had seen what she truly was, thirty feet of scales and fire, possessed of magical powers far beyond his comprehension. And yet the form that she had chosen was so pleasing, so alluring, crafted for the purpose of enticing him just as a sword was forged to cut.

His resolve broke, and he reached down a hand to run his fingers through her auburn hair, stroking her warm cheek. Isabelle loosed a satisfied chuckle, her groping becoming less restrained, her slender fingers wandering across his broad chest. She tested the firmness of his muscles, then slid higher, his stubbly face scratching her palm as she returned the gesture.

I knew that you’d come around,” she whispered, “there’s no need to hold anything back now.”

She snapped her fingers, and Iden was momentarily alarmed by a rush of flame, the silk tunic that she had crafted for him burning away like a sheet of paper to leave him exposed. Of course, his very clothes were a product of her magic. Did that mean that she could have undressed him any time that she wished?

Isabelle slid a wandering hand down to his stomach, savoring the feeling of his iron muscles tensing beneath her palm, her covetous eyes playing across his body. He felt her trace a more recent scar, a line of pink flesh that had knitted across his belly where a foe had tried to gut him. Years out in the sun had given him a dark tan that contrasted against her own pale white. He should have noticed that, no farmhand could have kept such perfect skin while working out in the sun, there wasn’t so much as a freckle on her.

You’re so stout,” she muttered, making no attempt to conceal how much she was enjoying exploring him. “You’ve lived a life of violence, a life where brute strength has kept you in one piece, every bout leaving its mark on your skin.”

She leaned a little closer, planting a kiss on his chest, letting her soft lips linger.

As hard as stone, what a specimen you make, Iden...”

He flinched as he felt the warmth of her tongue, Isabelle seeming to sample his skin, one of her hands hooking around a bicep that was almost the size of her head.

Your taste, your scent,” she whispered. Her voice cracked on the last word, as if it was all too much for her. “How I’ve pined for the warmth of a man...how I’ve longed to quench this thirst...”

She grew more aggressive, Iden bucking from the pile of gowns and curtains as she cupped his growing erection in her hand through the fabric of his tight pants.

But let’s take our time,” she added, almost as though she was trying to persuade herself rather than him. “I want to savor this, I want to make the most of every second.”

Iden felt a familiar fire rising in his belly, and this time, it had nothing to do with her magic. His fear melted away, his uncertainty fading. She was only a woman, a dragon in a woman’s form perhaps, but he knew what to do with women.

He turned onto his side, dwarfing her slight frame, casting Isabelle into shadow as he put his back to the campfire. She peered up at him with an almost gleeful expression on her face, her anticipation palpable, wetting her lips as he cupped her face in his palm. Women liked his hands. They were large and rough, calloused by years of gripping leather hilts, and steel hafts. Her eyelids fluttered as he stroked her rosy cheek again, and then he brought her closer, leaning down to press his lips against hers.

She sighed through their locked lips, wasting no time on pleasantries as her tongue found his own, entwining in a passionate kiss. She tasted wonderful, it was almost like biting into a ripe fruit, her skillful flurries and strokes making his head spin. Isabelle was no stranger to a lover’s embrace, it was rare to meet a woman who could match pace with him, who he didn’t need to lead around like a dog on a leash. She was so greedy, rapacious, quickly abandoning any pretense of modesty or restraint.

Isabelle seemed to sag into him, pressing her lithe figure up against his torso, her fingernails digging into his chest as she teased him with her artful tongue. He could feel the softness of her breasts squashing up against him through the silken fabric of her blouse, one of her thighs rising to brush against his loins, and he let his free hand roam down to her shoulder.

Her skin was smoother and softer than even the lavish satin that they were lying upon, so warm in the cool air, and he couldn’t help but stroke her. Her blouse exposed her neck and shoulders, and so that was where he roamed, inching closer to her bust as he met her bawdy embrace.

Don’t hold back,” she panted, breaking off their kiss for a moment to peer up at him with her emerald eyes. “You can be rough, there’s no chance of you hurting me. Tear off my clothes, if it pleases you.”

He slid a hand beneath the billowy fabric of her blouse, gripping it in his fist, the sound of the material ripping echoing through the cave as he tore it to ribbons. He took the two halves of her leather corset in his hands, straining to tear it open, the laces that secured it snapping. Isabelle giggled excitedly, shrugging her shoulders to help him along as he pulled her ruined top away, exposing more of her perfect skin. His hands slid down the curve of her back as he bundled her up in his arms, tugging her closer, Isabelle having to crane her neck to maintain their sordid kiss.

He rolled her over onto her back, Isabelle giggling as he threw her small frame around with ease, parting her thighs in invitation. Her pert breasts swayed with the motion, wobbling enticingly as they settled into their new position, Iden kneeling over her as his erection strained against the tight fabric of his pants.

You’re so aggressive, Iden,” she chuckled. He was almost annoyed by how flippant she was, like the whole thing was a joke. “Do you treat all of the girls this way, or is it just me?”

He silenced her teasing with a kiss to her slender neck, pinching her skin between his teeth in a mock bite, feeling her spine rise off the bed as it arched towards him. She seemed to enjoy the rougher treatment, and so he continued, nibbling and kissing as he moved down towards her clavicle. He felt her fingers delve into his long hair, taking handfuls as his lips crept towards her bust.

Her flesh spilled between his fingers as he took one of her breasts in his hand, kneading it greedily, feeling the hardness of her erect nipple pressing into his palm. It was a perfect handful, his digits sinking up to the first joint in her fat, as soft and as malleable as freshly baked dough. She mewled contentedly as he squeezed, Iden delighting in the way that it yielded, only to spring back to its original shape when he relented.

Despite her lithe figure, her breasts were abundant, their heft giving them a teardrop shape that set his senses aflame. Her every subtle movement and tremor made them ripple like the calm surface of a lake that had been disturbed by a pebble, quivering as she rolled her hips reflexively. Isabelle clamped her thighs around him as he set upon the second, her grip surprisingly strong, the sensation of her shapely body writhing beneath his own encouraging him further.

He brought one of her hard nipples to his lips, sucking it into his mouth and playing his tongue across it, keeping up his mauling all the while. She had told him that he stood no chance of hurting her, and he believed it, he was shaping her bosom like it was wet clay. She had been flaunting her assets all day, putting them on display in her loose-fitting blouse. Now he finally had his hands on them, and he was taking full advantage, it was almost a form of retribution.

You brute,” she giggled, “taking advantage of a defenseless woman...”

Iden didn’t want her laughing and cracking wise, he wanted her drenched in sweat, the only sounds leaving her lips the moans of carnal bliss. He decided to really put the moves on her, pinning her beneath his weight, pressing his erection between her legs as he gently chewed on her nipple. He could feel her warmth, her wetness, even through the barrier of his pants and her flowing gown. She was so ready for him, she was practically pulsing.

Bite me a little harder,” she muttered. He did as she asked, pinching her nipple between his lips and teeth, lashing it with his tongue. She pushed into him again, her spine rising from the silken sheets in a beautiful arch, Iden sliding a hand beneath her so that he might trace the deep dimple that ran down her back. Her skin was so impossibly smooth, like glass, or varnished wood. Could any mortal woman achieve this kind of perfection, or was it all a result of her magic?

His hand slid past her tattered blouse, sneaking below her gown and taking a handful of her rump, Isabelle loosing a delighted yelp as he dug his fingers into her springy muscle. Her rear was so soft and full that it rivaled her bust, but beneath the layer of cushiony fat was the brawn that she had boasted of, taut and firm in the most alluring of ways. She flexed as he kneaded, her thighs tightening around his waist like she was turning a thumbscrew. It reminded him of the female mercenaries that he had been fortunate enough to woo, strong and fierce. They had known what they wanted, and they hadn’t been afraid to take it.

His lips left her nipple, wandering down her torso, pausing to plant a kiss by her navel. Her flat stomach was dimpled by two rows of subtle abdominal muscles, shifting beneath her skin as he passed them by. Even if he knew that it was just an illusion, her body was still that of a farm hand, toned and shaped by a lifetime of labor that had left her hard in all of the right places. His stubble seemed to tickle her, and she chuckled giddily again. Isabelle’s hands were above her head now, her fingers clawing at the sheets as he lifted her off the makeshift bed, supporting her weight with a single arm beneath her pillowy rump. Her burnished thighs brushed his cheeks, the backs of her knees resting across his shoulders, her feet dangling behind her back as he held her almost upside-down.

You’re more generous than I had imagined,” she said, her voice dripping with anticipation. “Quite the gentleman indeed...”

Ladies first,” he muttered, Isabelle chuckling lasciviously as he brought her closer. Her womanhood was just as idealized as the rest of her, her lips puffy and inviting, glistening flesh the color of a blushing cheek peeking out from between them. It was enough to set his mouth watering, and he watched as a solitary bead of her excitement escaped to roll down her cheek like a tear.

Iden rested his free hand on her belly as he dove in, parting her labia, and grazing her vulva with his tongue. He felt a tremor pass through her as he explored her folds and creases, like the petals of a rose coated in morning dew, her flavor driving him wild. She tasted just like a kiss, with a hint of copper, and not much else. There was the familiar musk of a woman, but also the flowery fragrance of perfumes and soaps, setting his head spinning. Was this what well-to-do women smelled like, or was this more of her magic? He even surprised himself with his enthusiasm, lapping at her slippery, fever-hot sex as she writhed in his grasp.

Don’t stop,” she muttered, her eyes losing their focus as she lay back on the sheets. “Go a little slower though...that’s right, with the flat of your tongue. Oh, Iden, you’re a natural.”

He mouthed and licked, the blend of his saliva and her syrupy juices making their contact wonderfully slippery, strands of it linking their lips when he pulled away. He planted sucking kisses on her inner thighs and on her smooth mound, watching her opening twitch at his every touch. She was so receptive, so sensitive, her muscled belly tensing beneath his palm.

She lurched as he found her clitoris, circling the bud of flesh with his tongue, pressing his lips around it and drawing it out from beneath its protective hood. He painted it slowly, doting on her, treating this part of her anatomy like it was made of glass in contrast to his usual roughness. He was pleased to hear a comely whine escape her lips, and she brought one of her hands to her mouth, biting down on her fist as he teased her with his slow and deliberate stroking. She was practically dripping now, her loins swollen and needy, he could feel the heat that she radiated on his lips.

He had to take a moment to collect himself, his heart was pounding in his chest, and his member was straining uncomfortably against the tight fabric of his leggings. He had been so reluctant, so wary of her, but now he could only ask himself why he had denied her advances for so long. Dragon or not, she was the most beautiful woman that he had ever laid eyes on. Her body was a playground of delicate flesh and sturdy muscle, her skin softer than satin, her scent and her taste bewitching him.

What’s the matter?” she asked, peering up at him as her green eyes reflected the glow of the campfire. “Not having second thoughts, I hope?”

He didn’t reply. Instead, he let her fall to the pile of sheets below, the meat of her thighs and bust shaking with the impact. Her surprised expression quickly morphed into one of anticipation as he took her wide hips in his calloused hands, positioning her as he knelt between her parted legs. He took a moment to slide a hand up her thigh, massaging it, watching his fingertips sink into its velvety surface like melting butter.

You don’t beat around the bush, do you?” Isabelle purred as he took in the curves of her prone figure from beneath his curtain of black hair. “I must say, Iden, I find you so very...exciting when you’re in this state of mind. You’ve become so gruff and assertive, no wonder the small-town girls that you like to court fall head over heels for you.” Her expression turned sly, and he could have sworn that her green eyes took on a more fiery hue, if only for a second. “But I must warn you, I will not be so easy to satisfy. Hold nothing back, I want everything that you can give me, as hard and as vigorous as you can give it.”

I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised,” he replied. Isabelle merely smirked at him, reaching up to run a hand across his broad chest, biting her lower lip as she felt the pounding of his heart beneath her palm.

You won’t be needing those any longer,” she said, pointing at his leggings. There was a burst of flame as they disintegrated into ashes, leaving him nude, the magical fire no longer a surprise to him. His member was finally freed from its prison, Isabelle’s eyes wandering down to examine it, the way that her lips curled into a smile telling him that she approved of what she saw. Iden was appropriately endowed for his stature, his manhood thick and vascular, throbbing in the air as she reached out to brush it with her fingers.

He flinched, baring his teeth as she weighed it in her hand, her digits scarcely able to meet around his girth. This was another tool in his arsenal when it came to courtship, his partners were never disappointed once he got them into bed. Isabelle was one of few women who had probably seen bigger. For all he knew, a male dragon’s manhood might be as long as his leg.

She guided him closer, pressing his glans between her lips, the warmth and wetness sending a shiver through his body. How he had longed for this during his weeks on the road, sleeping on the cold earth in a tent, the frigid air creeping into his sleeping bag as he tried to conjure memories of past encounters.

Isabelle had given him her invitation, and just as she had requested, he intended to hold nothing back. He gripped her hips and pushed forward, her eyes widening as she felt his manhood splay her open, her fingers digging into the sheets to either side of her as the head of his cock broke through.

He was greeted by a tunnel of sodden, twitching flesh that closed around him like an angry fist, her tightness making him curse under his breath. She had a small frame, and her passage was suitably narrow, her muscles massaging him in waves from beyond the limits of her silken walls. The exquisite folds and bumps of her insides were slick with a sheen of her slippery excitement, without which he doubted that their coupling would have been possible at all. Gods, she was as tight as a virgin. She was gripping him so fervently, as though her wringing muscles were trying to drag him deeper.

He inched a little further, and rather than pull away from him as some women did during the first moments of their lovemaking, he felt her thighs tighten around his waist. She crossed her legs behind his back, pulling him into her, her eyes flashing with a kind of fierce desire.

Her spine arched again as he bottomed out inside her, Isabelle able to take him to the hilt, her loins conforming to his every vein and contour like a velvet glove. He could feel every contraction, every subtle movement of her hips, every flex of her muscles. She could feel each throb of blood that pulsed through his member in turn, his organ jumping and pulsing inside of her, her eyelids fluttering with every beat of his heart.

The warmth of a man,” she mumbled, her eyes seeming to lose their focus as she stared drunkenly at the domed ceiling above them. “How I’ve missed this feeling of...fullness...” Iden could scarcely stop himself from moving, and he began to rock his hips into her, his pace slow and heavy. Some women just lay there and took it, hardly participating at all, but Isabelle was refreshingly lively. She pushed back against him, rising to meet his thrusts, driving him harder and deeper. Her abdominal muscles moved beautifully beneath her skin as she twisted and gyrated, thrusting as though she was trying to scratch a maddening itch deep inside her, her breasts wobbling with the motion. He let one his hands roam up from its place on her hips, tracing the hourglass curve of her waist, stopping just beneath her chest.

They both began to breathe harder, a sheen of fresh sweat making their skin glisten in the firelight, their shared pleasure mounting along with their tempo. The impact of their bodies slamming together was wonderful, she could take him all the way to the base, so perfectly suited to him. The sensation of his member parting her deepest reaches had an intoxicating quality, flesh like damp satin gliding up and down his length, always in motion as it squeezed and shifted around him. He could feel every imperfection, every fold and crease of her depths, his nerves sparking like a smith’s hammer hitting a hot iron. Her loins almost seemed to suck on him, drawing on his shaft like a hungry mouth when he tried to pull back, as if her very body couldn’t stand the thought of them being apart.

His hands slid against her damp skin, beads of her sudor catching the light, sparkling to give the impression that her writhing form had been dusted with tiny diamonds. His own sweat poured from him, making his mop of hair damp. It wasn’t just their coupling that was heating up, the campfire beside the makeshift bed seemed to sputter every time that he drove his manhood into her yielding walls, growing hotter as her ecstasy grew more intense. Iden was glad of the cool air now, it was the only thing stopping him from overheating.

Harder,” she snarled, that fiery hue returning to her green eyes. Her thighs tightened around his waist, squeezing him almost uncomfortably, muscles as hard as iron tensing beneath her supple layer of fat. He did his best to oblige, snarling as he planted a hand against the sheets beside her head, the impact making her jump and giggle. He changed his angle so that he might reach even deeper, his fingers digging into her hip as he put all of his strength into his thrusts.

They were rutting like beasts now, fucking in earnest, all pretense of gentle lovemaking forgotten. There was nothing cautious or exploratory about it, they were both experienced lovers, and they knew what they wanted.

Harder, you brute,” Isabelle hissed through gritted teeth. “Pull my hair.”

His fingers delved into her auburn locks, and he took a cruel handful, tugging at her scalp as he pressed her deep into the sheets. He felt her grip him more tightly, her loins narrowing around his buried member, his eyes widening and his mouth opening in a silent gasp. She was so strong, so vigorous, he would never have imagined that such a dainty girl would like it this way.

You really can take it,” he panted, his disbelief making her giggle mischievously.

Did you think me a liar?”

No, but...this is amazing,” he stammered. “You’re amazing.”

I fear that we’re well beyond flattery,” she chuckled, reaching up a hand to caress his stubbly cheek. “Now stop playing nice, and treat me like you would one of your barmaids. I’m no Queen, I may have riches, but I hold no titles. I want to feel this...really feel it.”

As you command, my lady,” he laughed. She gave him a playful punch to the bicep, smirking at him. He responded by leaning more of his weight into her, coming down like a sledgehammer, her entire body seeming to quake. He forced a lusty moan of pleasure from her lips, the sound driving him on, Isabelle starting to lose herself in the pleasure.

He pulled her hair, and she yelped in excitement, her fingernails clawing at his chest to leave red welts. Iden drew closer, pressing his body tight against hers, supporting his weight with a forearm. He was so much taller than her, her red cheeks brushing against his chest as they moved together, their combined sweat making everything wonderfully slippery. She seemed to enjoy his new proximity, wrapping her arms around him as best she could manage, her hands sliding up and down his back as she planted eager kisses on his neck. She was clawing at him like a little cat, but he enjoyed the sting of it, and her nails couldn’t do him much harm.

She bit him gently, and he gave her red hair another tug, feeling her quiver beneath him. This was exactly how Iden wanted her. She was red-faced, drenched in sweat, mewling with every powerful thrust. Nothing excited him more than seeing a woman completely overcome, feeling her grip him with an almost desperate fervor, all hesitation and doubt replaced with animal lust.

There was a flare of pain as she raked her nails down his spine, the sudden sensation giving him pause for a moment. He considered saying something about it, but he didn’t want to spoil the moment. Showing fragility in the heat of their rutting wouldn’t do him any favors. He focused on the euphoria that was washing over him instead, his muscles burning with the exertion as he drove her into the silken bed.

Kiss me,” she demanded, reaching behind his head and pulling him closer with surprising strength. They locked lips, Iden not missing a beat as he kept up his pounding. Her tongue sought out his own, and they wrestled, the little moans and gasps that she let slip driving him wild. Her organ was so strong, her slick, smooth muscle roiling in his mouth. She tickled his palate, bulging his inner cheeks, her roving tongue coiling around his like a snake. Was it just his imagination, or did it somehow feel...longer? She was doing things that didn’t seem possible, but it felt so good that he didn’t question it.

Her embrace was so deep and unrestrained, her practiced strokes sending pleasant shivers down his spine, their wet smacking audible even over the sounds of their panting breath. She gripped his hair, her sharp nails pricking his scalp, her steely thighs dragging him into her to increase their pace. She seemed to want even more than he could give her, her thirst was unquenchable.

They broke off their lurid kiss, and he felt her lips on his neck again, her tongue raking his skin as she sampled his sweat. She buried her face in his shoulder, and he flinched as he felt her bite, her teeth pricking him. Again, her nails left burning trails across his back, and it hurt enough to jolt him out of his fugue.

Iden,” she moaned, his member flexing inside of her as he heard her sultry plea. “I want you on your back...”

He didn’t even have time to protest. With her legs secured firmly around his waist, she grappled him like a wrestler, inhumanly strong for her diminutive stature. She threw him off-balance, rolling him over onto the sheets next to her, Isabelle keeping him locked inside her as she moved. Before he even knew what was happening, he was staring up at her, her red hair falling about her face as her chest rose and fell rapidly. Her breasts hung enticingly, seeming somehow fuller and heavier than they had been moments ago, swaying as they settled. She took his wrists in her tiny hands, pinning them to the bed with enough force that he couldn’t lift them.

What are you doing?” he laughed, more amused than alarmed. It was hard to feel any emotion other than contentment when one was hilted inside a beautiful, eager woman.

You’re so accustomed to setting the pace,” she whispered, his heart skipping as her lips pulled back to reveal a set of teeth that more resembled pearly fangs. “Your partners love to be overpowered, they swoon over your chiseled muscles, the mere fact that they have to crane their necks to look you in the eye makes them wet. How would you fare if the tables were turned, I wonder? Will you indulge my curiosity?”

Her face was cast into shadow by her long fringe of hair, but beneath it, he could make out her eyes as they glowed like hot coals. The green had been replaced with a fiery amber, her pupils taking on the vertical slits of a reptile.

He hadn’t been imagining things, Isabelle was...changing. Her nails had hurt so much because they had been replaced with black claws, the skin on her fingers cracking, becoming a blue mosaic of tough scales. He watched as it spread up her arm like a scaly rash, stopping just shy of her elbows. Her hands felt larger now, the fingers thicker, her palms padded and soft. The tips of her ears were pointed, taking on a blueish hue, and her stature must have increased by a solid foot since they had gotten into bed together.

From beneath her hair, the beginnings of two gnarled horns were visible, and her previously subtle abdominal muscles had gained enough definition that they cast their own shadows on her flat stomach. They bulged from beneath her wet skin, flexing as she shifted her now considerable weight, her thighs becoming similarly thick and strong. He felt something cool and heavy slap against his leg, and while he couldn’t see it, he had to assume that she was sprouting a tail.

Iden should have been afraid, he should have thrown her off him. But by the Gods, her body was a work of art, her loins wringing him like a farmhand milking a cow as she straddled him. He couldn’t bring himself to do it, his cock was making the decisions now, as it so often did when it came to the fairer sex.

She began to rock back and forth, stirring him around inside her, clamping down on him with her steely thighs to keep him locked in place. Iden was a strong man, that went without saying, but she was so powerful that she had him completely immobilized. Her strength was disproportionate to her size. Even with her sudden growth, she was still shorter than he was, the width of her arms not even close to his.

He had been with women who wanted to be on top, of course, there was nothing unusual about that. But he had never met one who could overpower him in this way, even the strongest women were still smaller and weaker than him.

Isabelle began to rise and fall on his shaft, lifting herself off him, before letting her considerable weight carry her back down again. She drove him into the sheets, her breasts bouncing with the motion, the strands of her long hair blown by her panting breath as they fell over her face. She was driving him so deep, the hot, slimy flesh of her reaches clinging to him like a second skin. The muscles that flexed and squeezed beyond them grew ever tighter, massaging him as they rolled up and down his length, as though there was a phantom hand reaching beyond the barrier of her flesh to milk him.

Iden was in a daze, his initial shock at being flipped over and mounted had dulled, a pleasant fog falling over his mind as her rutting sent waves of pleasure flooding through his body. Maybe it wasn’t so bad to let someone else take the lead for once…

He felt something curling around his legs, smooth, dry scales brushing against his skin. It was such an alien sensation, a jolt of fear disturbing his peace. It was her tail, slithering around his limbs in a lazy spiral like it was preparing to constrict him. The blue scales that coated her body were rough and rigid, almost like armor plating, but the mosaic of small scales on her beige-colored underside were almost flush enough to be mistaken for skin. The appendage was surprisingly chubby and hefty, as thick around as one of her thighs. He couldn’t see how long it was from his position, but it was already large enough to encompass his legs almost completely in a cocoon of soft meat.

She tensed suddenly, muscles that felt as hard as tempered steel rising up from beneath the cushion of fat, pressing his legs tightly together. Isabelle didn’t apply enough pressure to hurt him, although he got the sense that her tail could have crushed his bones to dust if she had desired it. Instead, she kept him still, binding him so that he couldn’t move. Now his arms were pinned, her weight was pressing down on his hips, and his legs were completely immobilized.

Uh...is there a reason that you-”

His question was cut off as she came down especially hard on him, driving a grunt from his throat, her pace relentless. It felt like his hips were starting to bruise under her merciless hammering, but the familiar ache and urgency of a climax was already looming. He usually lasted much longer than this, they couldn’t have been going at it for more than ten minutes. Under normal circumstances, he would simply slow the pace, or switch positions so that he might have time to cool off. But now he had no control over the speed or the severity of their lovemaking. Isabelle could wring his orgasm out of him by sheer force if she wanted to. With his limbs bound, he would have no way to stop her.

How do you like it?” she whispered, her face still obscured beneath her long hair. “How does it feel to be on the receiving end of such treatment? You don’t have to answer if your pride won’t allow it, I can tell exactly what you’re feeling from the way that your cheeks are flushed pink, the way that your manhood is jumping inside me. Oh Iden...you’re so cute when you’re flustered.”

Her words only made him blush more, his face burning as she chuckled wryly. People didn’t refer to him as cute, there was nothing cute about a mercenary whose skin was a patchwork of faded scars, whose sheer stature struck fear into his opponents on the field of battle.

His train of thought was shattered as she began to gyrate her wide hips, making a lazy circle that drove his member into her pillowy walls in new and exciting ways. He couldn’t take much more of this treatment, he was sliding towards a quick and confusing orgasm. Why did he feel this way? Why did he have butterflies in his stomach, why did her thrusting seem to drain the strength from his body? He felt so relaxed, despite his uncertainty.

Iden bucked, trying to rise off the sheets in an attempt to seek out more stimulation, but Isabelle did not allow it. She was too heavy to lift, his frustration making him writhe beneath her. She seemed to enjoy that, her glowing eyes playing over his body, admiring his muscles as they flexed beneath his skin, his sweat making him shine in the ever-intensifying firelight.

I love it when you struggle,” she cooed, her thighs clenching around him. “You move so beautifully, you’re hitting me in all the right places. Gods, it’s been too long since I’ve been able to enjoy a man in this way...” “You have to slow down,” he panted, his facade of control slipping as he felt his exposed glans grind against her luxuriant flesh. He could hardly focus his eyes, his mind ceding control to his base urges. “I can’t keep this up for much longer.”

Nonsense,” she chuckled, delighting in his pleading. “You’re as strong as they come, and you’ve never explored your limits, have you? Aren’t you curious to see how far I can take you? What peaks of ecstasy you might reach? I can do things that a mortal woman couldn’t even conceive of.”

She never gave him an opportunity to reply, leaning down closer to him, her long hair tickling his skin. Her puffy lips found his neck, mouthing and kissing, sending appreciative shivers sliding down his spine like icy fingers. Her breasts were larger now, somehow heavier. They had been perfect handfuls at first, but now they looked as if they would overflow from his palms, their weight resting on his as they sagged across his chest.

He flinched as he felt her teeth prick his neck, Isabelle biting him gently, teasing him with her sharp fangs.

Oh!” she giggled, “did you like that? Is your neck sensitive?”

Her tongue dragged across his throat, velvet-soft and twice the length of a human’s now, leaving a warm smear of saliva in its wake. She planted sucking kisses, burying her face in the nape of his neck, nibbling and pinching. He didn’t know why, but something about having her bite him there made him feel oddly...vulnerable. Her teeth were so sharp, she was so dangerous, he just had to trust that she wouldn’t tear into his jugular like a ravenous wolf. It wasn’t a bad feeling, far from it. It made him feel like he was melting into a puddle, confusing his senses.

Isabelle sat up, Iden’s eyes drawn to the swaying of her ample breasts, droplets of sweat catching the light as they slid slowly down her toned midriff. They quivered with every labored breath that she took, as big as cantaloupes now. She pinned his arms above his head with one hand, now large enough to encompass both of his wrists, bringing the second to her boobs. She cupped one, weighing it, letting its fat spill between her fingers. She showed no signs of discomfort despite her rough scales and her pointed talons, the blue of her reptilian hide contrasting with the porcelain of her human skin. She pressed a pink nipple between her thumb and forefinger, shuddering contentedly at the sensation.

You can’t tear your gaze from my chest, can you?” she asked with a grin that revealed her sharp fangs. “Do they really hypnotize you so?”

Before his eyes, her bust began to grow. Her breasts became heavier, their weight pressing them together more tightly, as though someone was slowly filling two sacks with grain. They became less firm as they expanded in size, changing shape, growing rounder and fuller as they slumped from her chest. This new change was accompanied by more scales, these ones of the beige variety. They sprouted from her skin in proximity to her chest, spreading across her clavicle and down between her boobs in a kind of T shape, tapering off just above her six-pack. It seemed that any increase in her size went hand in hand with the appearance of more draconic features. In naught but a few moments, her breasts were nearly as large as his head, Isabelle seeming unconcerned by their new weight.

She lifted one of them, Iden watching as her flesh cascaded over her hand like melting wax, her fingers sinking up to the knuckle. They were downright bountiful, the largest that he had ever seen on a woman, every slight movement making them wobble.

How about now?” she chuckled, batting her long lashes as she felt him throb inside of her. She let her breast fall, the heavy globe of fat bouncing softly, then she brought her free hand down to his face.

Her claws were sharp, like black hooks, but she kept them clear of his skin as she cradled his cheek. The same rough, blue scales were present on the back of her hand, trailing up her forearm, but her palm was far softer than he would have guessed. Just like the underside of her tail, it was smooth and silky, made up of a mosaic of almost imperceptibly small scales. Her hand was weirdly chubby, padded with doughy flesh, giving her an inhumanly soft touch. As a dragon, she walked on all fours, and so perhaps it was cushioned for that purpose.

Iden flinched as her fingers wandered downwards, Isabelle pressing the talon on her index finger against his throat. She drew a trail down to his chest, her touch as light as a feather. It made him freeze up like a statue, he was afraid to even breathe lest her claw puncture his skin.

That’s right,” she cooed, giving him a little shake of her hips as if to reward him for his obedience. “Trust in me, let me show you what your body can really do...”

He shivered as she dragged her claws across his chest, leaving stinging welts, but never drawing blood. The sensation excited him, seeming to amplify his senses, Isabelle wetting her lips with her pointed tongue as she felt him writhe between her thighs.

For all of your strength, you can’t move a muscle,” she whispered. She dragged her tongue up his neck, pausing to chew his ear between her pointed fangs. He bucked, squirming as the lurid sounds of her nibbling and licking filled his head, but she was right. As much as he strained, as much as his muscles bulged, he had no hope of breaking free. “Relax, and let me have you. You’ll enjoy it, trust me...”

He had always been the strongest, the largest, ever since he was a child. At age fifteen, he had already been six feet tall, dwarfing the other boys. At age eighteen, he’d had enough strength to beat any of his peers in an arm wrestling contest or a fist fight. By twenty, he was already taking coin for protection and guard work. Yet now, all of that had been robbed from him, none of it meant anything to the dragon.

She began to move again, rocking slowly back and forth, rather than rising up and down. She teased him with sudden, staccato thrusts, before sinking back into a lazy rhythm that kept him perpetually on the edge. It was like she was dancing on top of him, her exaggerated breasts shaking with her movements, her abdominal muscles shifting beneath her skin. She kept a tight hold on him all the while, his frustration at not being able to break free somehow making him all the more excited. Did he enjoy being bound like this?

Isabelle took his face in her soft hand, angling it towards her so that she could watch his every expression. She threw her head back, whipping her hair out of her face, and Iden was finally able to get a good look at her. She didn’t look too different from the way that she had before her sudden transformation, save for a patch of blue scales that had grown across her forehead and down the bridge of her nose. Her eyes were yellow and fiery, her ears pointed and tinted blue.

He couldn’t help but nuzzle her doughy palm as she moved atop him, he was losing himself in the pleasure, he couldn’t think straight anymore. Every time that he tried to concentrate on something, his thoughts slipped through his fingers like grains of sand. She had found a delightfully slow and punishing tempo that kept taking him to the brink of orgasm, without ever quite sending him over that precipice.

No woman had ever made him feel this way before. The pleasure was duller than what he was accustomed to, coming not in harsh bursts, but radiating through him in euphoric waves. It wasn’t concentrated solely in his loins, his entire body felt like the head of a penis, it was completely different from how sex usually felt for him.

Isabelle slipped a thumb into his mouth, and he dodged her sharp claw with his tongue, his draconic partner seeming to enjoy the sensation. He gave in, sucking it obediently, noting the variance of texture between the different types of scale. She looked down her nose at him in a way that was somehow more covetous than condescending, radiating a kind of supreme confidence that made his belly flutter when her glowing eyes met his. She had him completely bewitched, he felt as if his very heartbeat was tied to her rhythm.

I could keep you trapped like this for as long as I pleased,” she said, biting her lip in her sharp teeth at the prospect. “But that might be a little cruel for your first time.”

First time? He had been with dozens of women, why was she treating him like some kind of virgin, as though this was his first experience of lovemaking? She noticed his frown, covering her mouth with her hand as she laughed at him.

You’re adorable when you get angry,” she cooed, “just look at your red face. Alright, let’s finish up, and then I’ll set you loose.”

She said it so casually, tightening her hold on him, her grip almost becoming painful. She let all of her weight rest on him, crushing him against the sheets, her hand squeezing his wrists together as her tail flexed around his legs. He gritted his teeth as she closed her fingers around his neck, letting her hand rest there, rather than applying pressure to choke him. The threat alone gave him that oddly alluring feeling of vulnerability again, knowing that she could hurt him, but trusting that she wouldn’t.

She began to breathe more heavily as her pace increased, pushing him towards a crescendo, every thrust sending points of colorful light dancing before his eyes. He felt like his brain was being fried in his skull, the cave around them seeming to fade away until all that he could focus on was Isabelle. She was radiant, her smooth skin dripping with sweat, her iridescent scales shifting hue in the firelight as she moved. The soft meat of her breasts rippled, her abs flexing beneath her glistening skin, her mane of auburn hair falling about her shoulders like a red waterfall.

Iden gasped as his orgasm welled, it was another brand new sensation that took him by surprise. He was used to dictating the pace, going faster and harder as his climax drew nearer, finishing at the perfect moment. But now, it was Isabelle who was in control. It was so strange to have to fight back his pleasure, to have someone else impose ecstasy upon him, to make him come.

Just...lie back...and enjoy it,” she panted, noticing his renewed struggling. She leaned down closer, her face little more than an inch from his own, watching him intently as she pushed him higher and higher. Embarrassed, he turned away from her, but he soon felt her padded fingers on his red cheeks as she forced him to look her in the eye. It all became too much for him, his muscles seizing up as the beginnings of an orgasm surged through him.

Isabelle grinned as she felt him buck beneath her, apparently surprised by his vigor, having to tighten her hold on him and readjust her position lest he succeed in escaping her control. The campfire beside their makeshift bed flared into a roaring blaze, almost as if a jet of fire was shooting from the cave floor, the orange flames taking on a blueish hue as they grew hotter.

A throb of pleasure wracked his body, intense enough to make his head spin, his member flexing inside her as her pulsating walls drew out his emission with their cruel massage. She stopped moving as she felt the thick ropes of his seed splash against her tender reaches, bubbling up inside her, filling every wrinkle and crevice with their warmth. Her thighs threatened to squeeze the life out of him as her eyelids fluttered, her sharp teeth bared, a plume of dark smoke rising from her nostrils as she exhaled a comely sigh. She began to tremble, joining him in his bliss, the surging flames starting to sputter and waver along with her. Her loins grew ever tighter, her maddening contractions coming stronger and faster, the walls of muscle not affording Iden a moment of respite.

Wave after wave of pleasure crashed over him, every muscle in his body tingling, aching with the effort. He was exhausted in the most satisfying of ways, his consciousness ebbing as he relaxed into the damp sheets, only to be jolted back awake as a fresh spasm made him its plaything. Isabelle gasped and crooned as her velvety passage wrung him like a wet towel, intent on extracting everything that she could get from him, their heaving bodies joined as they bucked and wrestled in the light of the fire.

When it was finally over, they collapsed together onto their nest of fabric, panting and squirming as the fading embers of their shared climax tickled them with aftershocks. Isabelle still hadn’t released him, she kept her thighs and her tail tightly wrapped around him, hugging him against her body. Their sweat and fluids mingled, making their touch slippery and wet, her breasts squashing up against his chest as she clung to him almost desperately.

She finally released his hands, her iron grip leaving red welts on his wrists, almost as if he had been wearing manacles. She wrapped her arms around him, pricking him with her sharp talons, and he felt compelled to return the gesture. His hands wandered up and down the curve of her spine, her skin slick with perspiration, as silky-soft as ever. His fingers roamed down to take a handful of her plump rear, and they brushed the base of her tail. It sprouted from her body just above her rump, where her spine ended, some of the rough scales trailing a short distance up her back. He gave it an experimental prod, finding that it was just as chubby as it had initially felt, almost like a portly woman’s thigh.

Iden shivered as he felt her lips press against his own, that tapered, winding tongue pushing its way into his mouth. It just kept coming, her slimy, undulating coils piling into his head. It was like satin that had been soaked in honey, more jolts of pleasure disturbing his afterglow as she stroked his inner cheeks, glancing the back of his throat with her invasive kiss.

I knew you wouldn’t disappoint me, Iden,” she chuckled as she drew back to let him catch his breath. “You’re strong enough to keep up with me, resilient enough that I don’t have to hold back, at least not very much. I’ve not felt like this since...I don’t even remember.” She pushed her face into his long hair, breathing in his scent, nuzzling contentedly. “What’s the matter?” she giggled, “have I robbed you of your quick wit? Poor Iden, so overcome with pleasure that he can barely speak...”

It will take more than that to overwhelm me,” he grumbled, not willing to admit defeat even as he trembled in her embrace.

That sounds like a challenge,” she cooed, leaning in to plant a kiss on his cheek. “You try to put on such a gruff facade, but I know that deep down, you’re kind and sensitive. I’ve shown you my true form, have I not? So why not show me yours? There’s nothing to be afraid of...”

I am not sensitive,” he insisted, scowling at her as she laughed at his reaction. She finally uncoiled her tail from his legs, sensation returning to them, pins and needles tickling his toes. She let the odd appendage flop over his hip, heavy and limp, while she draped an arm about his neck and pulled him close.

Are you warm enough?” she asked, “would you like more furs?”

I’m...fine,” he mumbled. The heat from the fire, and from their bodies, was enough to stave off the cold. Sharing a bed with a woman was not unusual for him, although he was normally gone by morning, but something about this felt more...intimate.

Put your arms around me,” she whispered, shuffling closer to him. He did as she asked, Isabelle exhaling a long sigh as she nestled in his embrace. “I’ve spent far too many cold nights alone, you have no idea how soothing it is to share a bed with a warm body after so long. To feel the beating of their heart, to have your breathing sync with theirs, until its hypnotic rhythm lulls you to sleep. It makes me wonder how I could ever do without it. We’re not made to be alone, Iden. Not humans, and not dragons. How strange that we should seek comfort in one another when fate has made our peoples enemies.”

He was too exhausted to formulate any kind of intelligent reply, but he soon found that she was right, his eyelids growing heavier as he listened to her steady breathing. It felt good to lie here with her like this, and he wasn’t quite sure why. The sex was over and done with. At this point, he usually lost interest in whoever happened to be warming his bed that night, but something about this was different.

He fell asleep, his questions going unanswered.

CHAPTER 6: WARRIOR POET

Iden awoke the following morning with Isabelle’s arm still draped across his chest, her long tail trailing over his thighs. It was heavy enough that he’d have trouble lifting it, limp save for a subtle twitching at its tapered tip, reminding him of the way that a sleeping dog’s ear might flick while it was dreaming. She was clinging to him so tightly, her head resting on his shoulder, her bosom engulfing his upper arm. Her chest rose and fell softly, her breath tickling his neck and blowing the strands of her red hair.

They were glued together by stale sweat, and other, more sordid fluids. The fire had petered out at some point during the night, probably when Isabelle had fallen asleep, and the cold had crept in. He wanted to get up and take a dip in the spring, but he’d have to wake Isabelle to do it. Perhaps she was a heavy sleeper, only one way to find out...

He shrugged his shoulder and let her head slide down onto the silken sheets, moving her arm from his chest, going as slow as he could manage so as not to wake her. Once his upper body was free, he sat up, Isabelle stirring and murmuring as he pushed his hands beneath her fat tail.

The blue scales weren’t quite as rough as they looked. They felt like the pebbles at the bottom of a stream bed, bumpy when taken together, but smooth individually. They were so pretty, their hue changing from blue to green depending on how they caught the light, almost like jewels in their own right. Iden couldn’t help but run his hand across the appendage, stroking it, feeling its bumpy-yet-smooth texture beneath his palm.

The underside was nearly indistinguishable from skin, and when he tried to lift it, his fingers sank knuckle-deep into its layer of cushiony fat. It wasn’t too heavy for him to move, but it took some effort. How was the damned thing so heavy? There was something oddly alluring about it that he couldn’t quite place, it really did feel like a thick, elongated thigh in a way…

What are you doing?” he heard Isabelle ask, his cheeks already starting to flush as he turned to see her looking up at him. She rubbed her eyes as she yawned widely, still somewhat groggy, but smirking at him all the same. It was just a tail, why did Iden feel like he had been caught doing something that he shouldn’t?

I was just about to take a dip in the pool,” he stammered, “I need to freshen up.”

So do I,” she chuckled, pulling the furs about herself to preserve her modesty. “You seem fascinated with my tail. Humans don’t have them, I suppose. I’m curious, what do you make of it?”

I...don’t know,” he muttered, wondering what she expected him to say. Did dragons compliment one another’s tails? Was the length, the girth, or perhaps the color a source of pride? The appendage escaped his grasp suddenly, the tip rising to give him a gentle tap on the nose, as dexterous as a finger. It behaved more like a tentacle than a tail, she had such fine control over it.

Come on,” she said, stretching her arms above her head. “I suppose that you’ll be wanting me to warm the water for you, and after how much you exerted yourself last night, a little breakfast might be in order. What say you to another shank of roast beef?”

Ah yes, last night. The memories came flooding back to him, sordid images flashing in his mind. He could recall every sensation, every taste and scent, the feeling of her powerful body moving atop his own as she rode him into the sheets. It had felt like a dream, but he knew that it had been real. Iden had bedded a dragon. Was that something to brag about, or a secret that he should take to his grave? He wasn’t quite sure. She had shaken the foundations of his world, opened his eyes to new and unexplored pleasures, taken him in a way that he hadn’t known a man could be taken.

Enough, he thought to himself, his brow furrowing. No more of this stammering and blushing, no more letting this woman lead him around by the nose. He wasn’t some fresh-faced boy who had just tasted his first kiss, he’d had as many women as hot meals, and Isabelle was no different. She might be far stronger than he was, she might possess magical powers that awed and frightened him, but she was still just a woman. He had to assert himself, he had to get back on the horse, so to speak.

You seemed rather taken with me,” he replied, “don’t forget who was on their back first. When I began my climb up the mountain, I was expecting to slay a dragon, not take one to bed.”

Well, it looks like someone has regained enough of his faculties to crack wise,” she said as she gave him a wry smile. “Although I found your tongue better suited to other activities...”

Iden stood, putting his back to her and stretching, feeling her eyes on his back. He searched for his clothes, intending to get dressed, but then recalled how they had burst into flames.

Uh...could I trouble you for something to wear?” he asked, looking back over his shoulder to see her biting her lip at him. She shook her head, barely suppressing a laugh.

Go wait for me by the pool, I’ll be there shortly. When we’ve had a wash, I’ll make us some new clothes.” He set off, the cave floor frigid against his bare feet. “And remember, Iden,” she called after him. “Your clothes only exist as long as I will it, so keep your wits about you. If I should grow hungry for you again, there will be nothing standing between us, least of all your trousers.”

***

The water bubbled as Isabelle dipped a toe into the spring, steam rising to the cave ceiling, Iden wasting no time as he dove in to escape the chill air of the cave. He submerged his head, shaking out his hair like a wet dog as he rose to take a breath. In the time that it had taken her to make her way down the snaking tunnel, she had reverted to an entirely human form. Her tail, her horns, and her other draconic features had all receded. She was nude, as there was no reason to conjure new clothes before she was done bathing, and he was a little disappointed to see that her enormous bust had returned to a more modest size. She was still a very fetching woman of course, and he found it hard to take his eyes off her as she stepped gracefully into the water to join him.

She sank up to her neck in the hot pool, letting her mop of auburn hair float on its surface as she relaxed, loosing a contented sigh. After a moment, she tossed him the bar of soap, Iden snatching it out of the air. He didn’t need instructions this time, and he set about cleaning himself, spreading the fragrant lather across his torso as she watched him out of the corner of her eye. It was unusual for him to have two baths in a month, never mind two in the space of so many days.

So have you decided what you’re going to do yet?” she asked, Iden pausing as he washed his underarms.

No,” he replied, resuming his work. “I’ve not had time to give it much thought.”

I’ll say, I’ve kept you rather busy,” she said with a smile. “You can stay here as long as you’d like, take your time. I must say that I...rather enjoyed your company last night. I was hoping that you shared the sentiment.”

Aye,” he muttered, pretending to be too busy with his washing to pay her much mind. He didn’t want to admit how good it had felt, she had enough leverage over him already, but he didn’t want to risk insulting her either. “It was certainly interesting, you’re more of a handful than I expected.”

Iden, are you making puns now?” she cooed. “Perhaps you need more time to recover your wits, I fear that I might have dulled your silver tongue through overuse.”

He couldn’t help but chuckle at that, and she grinned at him, splashing him with water. She had a certain glow about her this morning, her playfulness was infectious. She had said that she hadn’t been with a man for years, or maybe longer, if he recalled correctly. He felt relieved himself, satisfied, despite a few aches and bruises that had joined his growing collection. He wasn’t sure what kind of libido dragons had, but if they were anything like humans, then her contentment might be many times greater than his own. Iden would probably be foaming at the mouth if he had to go longer than a couple of months without female company.

Isabelle was skirting around the issue, but she clearly wanted him to stay longer. He had shelter, free food, and a willing host. Why should he refuse her invitation? Something nagged at him, however, a voice that kept reminding him that he had come here with a mission. Iden was a man of action, and when he set his mind on something, he didn’t stop until he accomplished his goal. Humoring the dragon was just treading water, delaying the inevitable. He had to figure out a way to get his hands on her gold, or at least to leave the cave in possession of something that would make this venture even remotely worthwhile.

I don’t exactly have anywhere else to go right now,” he said. His reply seemed to please her, and she went back to lazing in the water. Iden finished washing, and then noticed that she had floated closer to him, extending her hand for the soap. He gave it back to her, and she slunk around behind him. She was submerged up to the bridge of her nose like a crocodile lurking by the bank of a river, her long hair floating in her wake, her green eyes peering at him gleefully as he watched her curiously. She rose out of the pool, and he felt her hands on his shoulders.

I’ll do your back,” she said, beginning to spread the foamy lather.

I don’t need you to do my...” Iden’s complaint petered out as he felt her soft hands slide across his skin, her slim fingers following the dimples that his muscles carved into his body. It was so relaxing, and he felt himself sag, sinking into the water a little deeper as she drove her thumbs into the base of his neck.

I’m happy to have someone to pamper for once,” she said, massaging him as she moved further down his spine. She seemed to be able to locate every knot, and every ache, making slow circles with her fingers as she applied gentle pressure. The soap made her touch slick, almost like they were coated in oil. Nobody had ever done this for him before, it felt amazing. “I’m surrounded by riches, but I have precious little to spend it on.”

Iden flinched, a wonderful wave of pleasure spreading up through him as she found a knot at the base of his spine, working it out with the heel of her hand.

Where did you learn how to do this?” Iden sighed, having to concentrate so that his legs didn’t give out from under him.

I’ve accumulated a fair bit of knowledge in my time,” she chuckled, amused by his strong reaction. “You should take better care of yourself, you know. You’ve built up all of this muscle, your body is...impressive, but you don’t take proper care of it. Look at all these knots, you’re putting far too much strain on your back, you’ll have problems with it later in life. Maybe be a little more careful when you’re lifting cannonballs and swinging war hammers.”

Most sellswords don’t live long enough to see the consequences of their lifestyle,” he replied, leaning back into her dexterous hands. “I could get used to this, though...”

You mortals are all alike,” she muttered. “What does it matter if you cause problems in the future, as long as you get what you want right now? You won’t be around to see the negative results of your actions anyway, it will be someone else’s problem! It’s because of that attitude that there’s no more magic in the world, you humans can barely see an inch in front of your noses.”

I’ve survived beyond thirty,” Iden replied. “In my profession, that’s borrowed time. My strength, my health, it’s all going to get worse from here. Old age will make me slow and weak enough that my job kills me long before my declining health does. Most people rarely live beyond sixty anyway.”

So the next thirty years of your life have no value?”

I didn’t say that,” he said, shivering as her questing fingers located another knot and began to rub it. “That’s why I’m here, after all, to find a way out before some eager twenty-year-old skewers me. I want to live to a ripe old age, surrounded by an army of children, but I’m in the wrong line of work.”

I’ll say,” she muttered, Iden feeling her fingertips trace one of his more impressive scars. “These wounds...some of them came so close to killing you. There’s one here that must have missed your spine by scarcely an inch. If it had found its mark, you’d have lost the use of your legs.”

Oh, that big one?” he asked. “Yeah, someone tried to run me through from behind with a baselard during a melee. If he had been using anything with a longer blade, he might have gotten deeper into my armor. More proof that a gambeson is always needed, chain and plate won’t do the job alone. Don’t worry, I gave him more than a scar for his trouble.” “What were you fighting over?” Isabelle asked.

I scarcely recall. Something to do with a border dispute between two kingdoms I think. I remember that we won.”

And what happens when you lose? You can’t have been on the winning side of every war that you’ve ever fought.”

Most have been successful,” he said, feeling her brush the curtain of his wet hair aside so that she could access more of his back. “I’m rather good at picking a winner, I have a lot of experience. If I can tell that someone’s cause is futile, or that they have a good chance of failing, then I don’t offer them my services.”

Is there enough work for you to be so picky?”

Oh yes,” he laughed. “Mercenaries are like morticians, they never have to roam far to find work.”

Isabelle finished up, leaving Iden with a kind of sweet ache that permeated his muscles. Maybe when he found his fortune, he’d have to hire someone to do that for him more often. He certainly felt better than he had in a while.

Let’s dry off, and then I’ll make you something to eat,” Isabelle said. He followed her out of the pool, feeling the same puff of heat as the day before as she evaporated the moisture from his skin with her magic. In a rush of swirling flames, the same outfits that they had worn earlier reappeared, Iden’s tunic and leggings so tight that they could have been tailored to fit him. Isabelle wore her loose blouse and her long gown again, her leather corset tightening around her waist before his eyes, as though invisible hands were pulling the laces taut. This was all becoming so routine to him, the previously amazing magic seeming almost mundane now.

Come,” she said, a smile brightening her face as she set off up the tunnel. “I’ll cook something for you.”

***

Iden chewed on a hunk of meat as he looked out over the pile of gold, seated in his throne at the mahogany table once again. His meal was perfectly seared, just the way that he liked it, crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside. Isabelle was standing across from him, just watching him eat with a smile on her face. Entertaining guests was a novelty to her, she seemed to enjoy it a great deal.

Aren’t you going to join me?” he asked. “Don’t think I’ve seen you eat a thing since we arrived in the cave.”

Dragons don’t have to eat often,” she replied. “But when we do, we eat a lot.”

I see,” he said, cutting off another piece with his gilded knife. “That’s why you swoop down and take half a flock of sheep at a time?”

That’s right. In my true form, I weight about eight tons. It takes a lot of meat to keep me fed.”

Eight tons?” Iden marveled, “I don’t even have a frame of reference for that.”

It’s about as much as...ten or eleven cows,” she replied.

How do you figure that?” he asked, gesturing at her with his fork.

Well, the average adult cow weighs around seven hundred and fifty kilograms, and I weigh a little over eight tons. One ton is a thousand kilograms, which means that it takes ten point six cows to match my weight. Ten point seven if you want to round up.”

How can you have point six of a cow?” Iden asked, frowning across the table at her.

Sorry,” she chuckled, “sometimes I forget that not all humans are highly educated. It’s just math. Point six is sixty percent. If you cut a cow into ten pieces, then six of those pieces together would have a value of point six cows.”

Schooling is for the sons of Lords and Barons, not for the likes of me,” Iden said as he took another wet bite. “I can count high enough to conduct business, and that’s about it.”

As you know, we dragons are exceptionally long-lived. Only the very young haven’t studied mathematics, history, and literacy. The rest of us have a lot of empty hours to fill, and study is a good way to pass the time. Many of us spent decades or even centuries as teachers and scholars. In the old days, mortals would make pilgrimages to our caves to hear our sermons, and to study in our libraries. In later times, some disguised themselves as humans and founded schools, finding solace in passing on their knowledge.”

I can read a fair bit,” Iden said proudly. “I can even sign my name on contracts and the like. Employers often like your word in writing if enough coin is changing hands.”

Only a fair bit?” she asked, cocking her head at him. She wasn’t mocking him, her expression was soft, sympathetic.

Well, yeah,” he grumbled as he turned his eyes to his meal. “It’s not like I have a lot of time to read novels and scripture.”

I could teach you, if you wanted,” she said with a shrug of her shoulders that made her bosom bounce attractively in her loose-fitting blouse. “I have a collection of rare and expensive books. It’s not quite a library, but it’s packed with ancient tomes. I’d relish the opportunity to teach again.”

What’s in them?” he asked.

All kinds of things,” she replied enthusiastically. “Tales of adventure and romance, historical records from the old world, poetry and verse, magic spells and incantations. It would be a joy to introduce someone new to them. I take it that you’ve never read a poem?”

Can’t say that I have. What’s the appeal?”

Of a poem?” she laughed. “Poems are like...emotions put to paper. The poet composes a verse, a little like a song, but not quite the same. The form is highly artistic, he uses his intimate knowledge of language and cadence to express his thoughts and ideas. It should be compelling, evocative, imaginative. To think that some people might live out their entire lives never having heard one...”

Sounds a bit fancy for me,” he replied, and she shook her head at him.

Iden, don’t sell yourself short. Just because you chose a certain line of work, that doesn’t mean that you’re incapable of learning or of understanding the arts and sciences. There have been great warrior poets, you know.”

Warrior poets?” he asked, pausing his chewing to look up at her.

Oh, did that catch your attention?” Isabelle asked with a smirk. “There were plenty of scholars and writers who were also knights or soldiers. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, you know. The idea that men who take up the sword can’t be emotional and creative people is a rather modern one.”

So what kinds of things did these warrior poets write about?”

The glory and horror of combat, the value of life, finding beauty in unexpected places.”

That kind of thing might go a little over my head,” Iden muttered, taking another bite.

You’ll never know if you don’t try,” Isabelle replied. “Maybe I’ll find you an old book of poems from one of antiquity’s famous explorers, and read you some excerpts from their writings.”

Once Iden had finished his meal, Isabelle took his hand, guiding him out of his seat.

I’ll show you where the books are,” she said, “come.”

They walked around the pile of treasure, Iden turning his head to admire the glittering heap. While he might have gotten used to the magic, he never seemed to grow accustomed to the sight of the hoard. It was always just sitting there, out in the open, seemingly unprotected. His urge was almost like hunger, his greed compelling him to fill his pockets just as a gurgling stomach compelled him to eat.

Are you still drawn to it?” she asked, noticing his distraction. “Still trying to figure out a way to claim it, perhaps?” Her tone was friendly, but it masked her true concern. She had gone to such lengths to end their conflict, and she was no doubt worried that he might try to rekindle it. Isabelle was right, he hadn’t yet given up, but he wasn’t about to let her know that.

It takes strength to claim a treasure such as this,” she added, “but it takes far more strength to turn one’s back on it. Once you accept that you cannot possess this wealth, then it will lose the power that it holds over you. How does a drunk regain control over his life, if not by first setting down his bottle?”

You compare my desire for wealth to a drunk’s lust for liquor?” Iden chuckled. “The drunk has no control over his actions, there’s no goal that can be achieved through drink. My goal is to better my situation, my lust for gold is a calculated one.”

If you say so,” she replied with a shrug. “But we dragons are well versed when it comes to the power of greed, you would do well to heed my advice. Ah, here we are.”

They had reached the far wall of the main cavern, and yet more torches burst into flames, illuminating a row of wooden bookshelves. They had clearly been sourced from elsewhere, they hadn’t been made for this cave. They sat awkwardly on the uneven floor, leaning against the curved wall behind him. Their shelves were packed with books and loose manuscripts, scrolls overflowing from between the dusty tomes. There were three bookshelves in all, taller than a man, each one with six shelves.

Don’t think I’ve ever seen this many books in one place before,” Iden said, walking up and down the row as he appraised them. Isabelle watched him with a smile on her face. She was so eager to share her passion with him, it was endearing in a way.

This isn’t exactly the best place to store them,” she added, “this cave is rather damp. How I wish that I could hire laborers to build me a museum or a library as we did in the old days. I’d be happy to part with some gold if it would ensure the safekeeping of greater treasures.”

So these are worth money?” Iden asked, turning to look back at her.

Oh yes, some of them a great deal of money. One would have to find the right buyer, of course. It would have to be someone educated, an expert in ancient history and literature, most likely someone who already had his own collection. But to the right man, some of these books could be worth a fortune. They are all unique, many written by hand, there are none like them in the world.”

She walked up to one of the shelves, brushing her fingers against the spines of the books, searching for something specific. She made her way down the line, stopping when she found what she was looking for, pulling it out along with a puff of dust. It was a truly massive tome, about the size of a buckler, its leather binding a faded crimson in color. After brushing the cover off with her hand, she turned to show Iden the title, the letters embossed in gold.

Read it out to me,” she demanded.

The...life and works of...Gerard de Mercier,” he said, Isabelle nodding her head approvingly. “Who’s that?”

Gerard de Mercier was a poet and songwriter, but he also fought in several wars that took place a couple of hundred years before you were born. Those kingdoms no longer exist, but his works endure in the yellowed pages of this book. As a career warrior, I thought that you might like to hear some of his prose. Shall I read some aloud to you?”

Alright,” Iden said with a shrug. She led him back over to their bed beside the pile and had him sit on the sheets, while she perched a little higher up the golden slope. When he asked her why, she told him that it was a tradition for teachers and scholars to deliver their sermons from atop a podium or an elevated platform. She opened the book at its first page and began to read.

CHAPTER 7: THE JOURNEY

Iden listened to her read for what might have been hours, quickly losing track of time. The tales of this de Mercier person were amazing, even if his poetry was a little flowery for Iden’s tastes. He had lived a long and fruitful life, exploring foreign lands, and fighting for noble causes rather than for coin. He was well-to-do, the heir to a noble house, and so putting food on his table was of little concern.

Iden had to admit that he envied the man. Not for his devotion to justice, or for his skill with a quill, but for his ability to do whatever he pleased with his time without having to worry about food or lodging. De Mercier’s age was a prosperous one, far moreso than modern times. He spoke of extravagant gardens hanging from the battlements of castles, vines blooming with flowers winding their way along the stonework, forests of trees that blossomed with colorful petals. The climes were warmer back then, more suited to growing grapes, and so there were rows of carefully tended vineyards carpeting the fields for miles around the estates and manors. Wine and revelry were the order of the day, rather than beers made from the hardy wheat and barley that now occupied the farmland.

When he had inquired about the change in climate, Isabelle had explained how it mirrored the decline in magic. The world became sicker with each drop of the divine that left it, its soils yielding fewer nutrients, its winters growing longer and colder. Such changes happened over generations, imperceptible to mortals, but it was far more apparent to a dragon.

Somehow, it made Iden wistful, nostalgic for a time period that he had never known. Did those same keeps still stand, or like their builders, had they been lost to the ages? He had come across ruins in his travels, the crumbling remnants of watchtowers and walls out in the wilderness, seemingly far from anything worth defending. He had always written those off as casualties of war, rather than of age.

Was that really how he died?” Iden asked as Isabelle closed the book on the final chapter.

It was,” she replied. “A solitary arrow struck him in the thigh, and the wound became gangrenous. Not a week later, he died in his bed. Had he been able to see a healer or a dragon, then they might have been able to cleanse the rot from his blood, but alas, such magic was a lost art by that point in time. It’s not a very fitting end for a man who lived such a heroic and illustrious life, is it?”

It does put a bit of a damper on the story,” Iden admitted.

De Mercier is a fine example of a man who was at once fierce, and sensitive,” Isabelle continued. “He took up the sword and fought his fellow man, but he also appreciated the arts, and he sought to expand his knowledge. After hearing the story of his life, would you say that he was not brave, that his artistic pursuits diminished him in any way?”

Iden thought for a moment, scratching his stubbly chin pensively.

I would not,” he finally replied.

And so now you see that brains and brawn are not at odds, that even a brutish man can stop to smell a rose, or write a sonnet to express his love for a woman?”

I suppose,” Iden admitted, a little more reluctantly this time. Isabelle laughed at his reaction, hopping deftly from her perch on the mountain of treasure and landing beside him on the sheets.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to make you write me a song. But if you wanted to learn about history or the arts, then I would be pleased to teach you. If you’d like to learn to read, or even to write better, then just let me know. I could even instruct you in calligraphy if you wanted,” she added.

She shuffled a little closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder. It was late, Iden realized. Even without a sun by which to tell the time, he was starting to feel the onset of fatigue. Were he and Isabelle to share a bed once again? Would she subject him to another night of passion? He didn’t know whether the prospect frightened or excited him.

You’re so tense tonight,” she said, moving around behind him. “Let me help you relax before bed...”

Before he had time to comment, there was a flash of cold fire, the tunic that he had been wearing vanishing into a cloud of ash to leave him nude from the waist up. Isabelle wasted no time, and he felt her hands on his shoulders, beginning to rub and knead. He leaned back into her, her touch soothing him. She had noted his reaction to her massage in the pool, and she was exploiting his weakness.

Try to relax,” she whispered, her warm breath tickling his ear. She brushed his curtain of long hair out of the way, running her fingers down his spine. “I want you to feel at ease here, I want you to be comfortable around me. There’s nothing to fear...”

She seemed to sense his apprehension, but it wasn’t Isabelle that he was afraid of, not exactly. It was more the promise of her violent lovemaking that made his heart race.

That feels good,” he muttered, all of the tension draining from his body as she kneaded with her deft little hands. They felt so soft, her fingers thick and padded, her pointed nails pricking him. Wait…

Iden opened his eyes and looked down to see a long, tapered tail snaking its way along the sheets by his feet. It seemed even larger and thicker this time, and it was still growing. The bumpy, blue scales grew larger and rougher, sharp points sprouting from their midst to become the patterned quills that she boasted in her draconic form. She pressed closer to him, and Iden felt her bust squash up against his back through the silky fabric of her blouse, her thighs cushioning him to either side like the armrests of a chair. They too were expanding in size, thickening as they emerged from beneath her gown. They grew until they must have been as long as his torso, and almost as thick, tall enough to raise his arms from their resting position as they lay atop them.

The larger they became, the deeper Iden began to sink into their sheath of fat, making him feel as though he was shrinking in her lap. Beneath it, her firm muscles bulged, but there was an inch or more of what felt like down pillows sheathed in satin. On their outer surface, the skin cracked and took on a blue hue, becoming the hard scales that he was now so accustomed to seeing. On their inner surface, however, they took on the appearance of her beige underbelly. He couldn’t be sure, but to him, it felt even smoother and softer than skin.

He was pressed deeper and deeper, even the weight of his arms was enough that they sank into her yielding flesh, the meat of her thighs seeming to spill around his waist like molten metal filling a mold. Her tail was similarly round and padded, packed with enough fat that it wobbled when it moved. The sharp quills had not taken on the impressive length that they had when Isabelle was in her true form, they were shorter and finer, more like bristles.

There was the sound of tearing fabric. Apparently, Isabelle had not seen fit to let the magical flames consume her own clothes, preferring to let her expanding body tear them apart instead. Iden felt her breasts spill out of her shredded blouse, resting against his back, already larger than his own head. As her stature increased, her bosom slid up his back, until its considerable weight came to rest across his broad shoulders.

They continued to engorge, like a pair of gigantic waterskins slowly being filled with fluid, sagging down his chest and cushioning his face. The skin that covered her breasts was like that of her inner thighs, inhumanly silky as it brushed against his cheeks, covered in fine scales like the tiles in a mosaic. Their weight increased along with their abundance, giving even Iden pause for thought. His sturdy back was in no danger of buckling, not yet, but their heft made him feel as though he was carrying a milkmaid’s yoke. By the time her growth ceased, each of her boobs was as voluminous as the pack that he had lugged up the mountain.

Iden tried to look back at her, but found that the mounds of flesh to either side of his head obscured his view. When he craned his neck to look up, however, he saw Isabelle peering back at him.

Her transformation had proceeded much further this time. Looking back at him was a face somewhere between that of a human and a dragon, with a dull snout, completely covered in scales now. There was none of her human skin left in sight, it was all the delicate beige and the rough blue. Her four gnarled horns were larger, and they were nestled amidst the patterned quills that had taken the place of her hair. Her sharp teeth were covered by scaly lips, her nostrils flaring as they exhaled a puff of dark smoke.

She must be nine feet tall at least now, her neck long and slender, her fat tail adding another six or seven feet to her overall length. Iden felt an impulse to flee, but she wrapped her long arms around him, her hands now large enough to encompass his head entirely. She pulled him tight against her body, Iden finding himself almost completely enveloped by flesh and scales. Her tail coiled around the both of them possessively, her snout coming down to nuzzle his hair.

I have other ways to relax you,” she said, her voice so much more powerful than usual. It was lower, gruffer, but it still had the feminine inflections that so reminded him of the young woman that he had first met in the foothills.

Isabelle pressed her claws against his bare chest, Iden arching his spine as she dragged them slowly down towards his belly, leaving red trails in her wake. The talons were even longer now, but she was just as careful with them, only ever applying enough pressure to tickle him. He felt her warm breath blowing his hair as one of her fingers roamed close to his belt.

She hooked the black claw into the fabric of his leggings, tearing it open, splitting the fine material with the ease of a knife through paper to free his erection. His member bobbed in the air, at full mast, the sight of it surprising even himself. Why was he so excited by this? Hard scales, sharp teeth, hooked claws. He should be terrified right now, but her body was so soft and inviting, feminine in all of the most alluring ways.

She reached down and pressed the tip of her finger against his glans, her digits almost as thick as his shaft, a pulse of pleasure making him swell. He couldn’t believe how soft it was, squishy and padded, reminding him of a gambeson.

Now lie back, and let me soothe you,” she whispered. She closed her fist around his length, burying it entirely, letting it throb against her palm. She waited for Iden to grow impatient, watching him with a smile as he began to fidget, his resolve crumbling as her warmth permeated him. He finally thrust, bucking into her fist in search of stimulation, Isabelle taking that as evidence of his willingness.

She began to stroke, her pace torturously slow, running her scaly fingers up and down his shaft. Her scales were as smooth as glass, the gentle pressure that she applied sinking him deep into her fleshy padding. Iden gripped her forearm with one hand, as if holding on for dear life, her limb so thick that he couldn’t get his fingers around it.

Isabelle wasn’t trying to bring him to completion, her stroking motion was too leisurely. She was merely teasing him, seeming to delight in the way that he squirmed in her grasp, unable to stop himself from trying to fuck her hand.

He shivered as something slimy and warm brushed his neck, realizing that it was her tongue. It was even longer than it had been before, leaving a smear of her saliva as she licked. She caught his ear between her puffy lips, nibbling it with her sharp teeth, the contrast between the two extremes making his head spin. It reminded him of the dripping maw of a beast, with jagged fangs designed to tear flesh, strands of saliva escaping to dribble down his neck. Yet at the same time, he felt the soft, gentle lips of a woman. They were impossibly full, so much larger than those of a human, covered in the same delicate scales as her palm. He felt a primal fear as those wicked teeth neared his neck, her hot breath washing over him, a deep rumbling in her throat resonating within him like the growl of a monster. Instead of a killing bite, she planted a sucking kiss that made his member bounce in her grasp. He didn’t know what to think, what to feel.

I’m sorry to have robbed you of your moment,” she whispered, pausing to nibble at his ear again. “I know that you like to be on top, you like to be in control, you love to awe your lover with your sheer physicality. But I love how you react when I take the lead, how flustered you become, your every shiver tempting me further. As a dragon, I can sense things that you humans cannot. I can hear the quickening of your pulse, I can feel the blood rushing through your veins, I can smell the arousal leaking from your very pores. Oh, how it excites me...”

Her grip on his member tightened, Iden gritting his teeth as the pressure sank him deeper into her fleshy palm. It was like fucking a silk pillow, her scaly skin was dry, but so flush that there was almost no friction.

Dragons can see heat, you know,” she continued. “It’s a wavelength of light, one that’s invisible to humans. A warm glow seems to radiate from your body, your cheeks are burning, your member is bleeding heat into my hand like I’m holding an ingot of molten iron. If only you could see what I see, it’s beautiful...”

W-why do you go on about such things?” he muttered, his voice faltering as she gave him a gentle squeeze. She laughed at his question, as if the answer should be self-evident.

Is the act of lovemaking synonymous with rutting to you?” she asked, pausing her pumping to circle the tip of his manhood with her thumb. “Have you never taken the time to appreciate the artistry of it? Not all encounters need be fast and brutal, the two participants racing to the finish like galloping horses. The lightest of touches can be as pleasurable as the sternest of thrusts, a gentle kiss can be as arousing as the most depraved and wanton acts. Tenderness, intimacy, the burning desire to give pleasure as well as to receive it. These are things that can bring one to new heights.”

She resumed her stroking again, Iden sinking into her pillowy bust. He wasn’t accustomed to foreplay taking this long. Even when he went down on a woman, it was more to get her ready than for the joy of it, merely a prelude to the main event. He couldn’t remember the last time that someone had given him a handjob, it was such a mundane act, pedestrian. And yet the feeling of her soft fingers gliding up and down his erection had him so aroused that he could scarcely keep himself under control.

Let’s take things slow this time,” she whispered, Iden shuddering as he felt the tip of her slimy tongue probe his ear. “I won’t allow you to climax, not until I give you permission. I’ll bring you to the very brink, and then I’ll back off again, over and over. I’ll keep you trapped in the state of wonderful bliss that precedes the release of orgasm for longer than you ever thought possible, and when your delicious agony comes to an end, you’ll experience a pleasure far greater than any that you’ve felt before.”

What do you expect of me?” he grumbled, her sordid whispering making his head spin. “What’s the goal of this game?”

There’s no trick,” she replied with a chuckle, “I merely want you to enjoy it. Is the idea that one can revel in giving pleasure without the expectation of receiving anything in return so foreign to you? You’re so focused on reaching the finish line that you don’t stop to appreciate the path that leads you there. I’m going to teach you to revel in that journey...”

What could Iden say to that? He couldn’t refuse her. If even half of what she promised was true, then he didn’t want to pass up the opportunity, but why had she chosen this new form? Was it simply to give her even more power over him, or for some other purpose? She hadn’t had any problems wresting the reins from him during their first encounter, after all. What was her interest in him, if not simply as an outlet for her frustrations, or as a salve for her loneliness?

Show me,” he mumbled, and he felt her grip on him tighten.

She began to pump faster, the pleasure robbing Iden of his faculties, and he leaned into her inviting body like he was sitting in a living armchair. He pushed his face into one of her breasts, feeling it deform around his cheeks, softer than any pillow that he had ever encountered at the inns that he frequented. There was a subtle smokey scent about her that made him think of burning wood, almost like the oak or cherry that was burned in a smokehouse to cure and flavor the meat.

Her stroking was so relaxing, it was almost enough to lull him to sleep, but the sparks of pleasure kept jolting him back to his senses. Isabelle was an artist with her hands, alternating her grip and speed so that he could never grow entirely accustomed to the sensation, making him writhe in her lap. She nibbled and licked at his ear all the while, pinching his neck in her teeth, her free hand roaming up and down his torso as she drew shapes on his skin with her claws. She whispered to him, little of it coherent to him in his fugue state, but what he could pick out was sordid and shameless.

She kept it up for what must have been minutes, until Iden felt the familiar pressure of an orgasm welling. Pleasure rolled over him like a tide crashing against the rocks, tied to the deft movements of her soft hand, each more powerful than the last. How could such a simple act make him feel this way? It was almost like being drunk, he couldn’t concentrate, every throb of sensation scattering his thoughts to the wind.

Are you...casting some kind of spell on me?” he asked, his voice wavering in time with her stroking.

No,” she laughed, the motion making her bosom wobble around his head. “At least not a magical one...”

She delivered an especially cruel thrust, Iden’s spine arching, his hips pushing into her silky fist. She let him fuck her hand for a few moments, watching with a satisfied smile as he tried to glean the stimulation that would send him over the edge. His climax was so close that he could taste it, and yet Isabelle’s grip was loosening, the pleasure beginning to fade.

Iden loosed a dissatisfied sigh and sank back into her embrace, the sound of her seductive chuckling emanating from somewhere above his head.

I did warn you of my intentions,” she purred, letting one of her hands rest on his belly. It was tantalizingly close to his loins, his member throbbing in the air, aching and needy. “Stop fixating on your climax, and take a moment to enjoy how you feel right now. Do you feel that sweet ache permeating your muscles? The euphoria?”

I feel...dizzy, drunk,” he muttered. She dragged her claws across his chest again, and this time his senses were heightened, the dull sting of her talons sending a burst of pleasure coursing through him like a bolt of lightning. He was so much more aware of his own body now, as though his nerves had escaped the barrier of his skin, even the air itself seeming to stimulate his swollen erection.

After letting him stew for a few moments longer, he felt her hands closing around his wrists like a pair of padded handcuffs. He tried to move them, but she was far too strong, planting them firmly atop her thighs.

What are you doing now?” he asked, his heart starting to race with anticipation again. She was so unpredictable, he never knew what she might do next.

I noticed that you were admiring my tail this morning,” she replied, leaning in to give his ear a gentle bite. “I didn’t realize that it was a source of attraction for mortals.”

I-it’s not,” Iden insisted, his cheeks flushing. “I was just curious.”

He remembered what she had said about her ability to see heat. Not only could see his face reddening, but she could sense the warmth that he put out. There was no hiding his feelings from her.

Her tail caught his eye as it slithered towards him, its tapered tip winding along the sheets like the head of a snake, an instinctual pang of fear distracting him from his embarrassment. She was doing it on purpose, he could hear her stifled giggling.

The long tail rose up between his thighs, rearing back like a cobra preparing to strike, its beige underside facing him. It was tall enough to be at eye-level to him, not that it had any eyes. There was still a significant length trailing up and to his left where it connected to Isabelle’s rump, vanishing behind her and out of sight. It grew steadily girthier as it neared her body, so thick around near the base that he could only just have gotten his arms around it.

The appendage brushed against his thigh as it drew closer, sending a shiver crawling up his spine, the pointed tip poising above his member as if waiting for some kind of signal.

Are you sure?” Isabelle cooed, watching his manhood beat like a second heart. She maneuvered the tapered end closer, as delicate and as precise as a finger, wetting it with the bead of excitement that was leaking from his swollen member. The tail made lazy, teasing circles, stroking his glans with its silky underside. The sharp bristles and the rough scales were kept mercifully clear of anything sensitive.

It began to slowly wind around his shaft like a blue anaconda encircling its prey, piling its plump, chubby coils on top of him until he was entirely buried. It was surprisingly heavy, sinking him deeper into Isabelle’s lap, the smooth underbelly just as soft and as inviting as her hand had been.

Iden had to stifle a yelp as he felt the brawn beneath the layer of buttery flesh harden, squeezing him in a vice grip. Every roll moved independently of the rest, squirming and slithering, as if his length had been buried in a sheath of liquid muscle. When they released him from their tight grasp, they seemed to wobble in place, just as her breasts did.

How do you like it?” Isabelle whispered, knowing the answer but wanting to hear it from his own lips. “Does it feel good?”

As if you needed to ask,” Iden grumbled, struggling to get a hold of himself. “Of course it feels good...” “Communication is important,” she chuckled, giving him another squeeze. He lurched reflexively, but her hold on him was tight enough to stop him from wriggling free, her hands so large that they almost entirely encompassed his forearms between the wrist and elbow. “Tell me if I’m being too rough,” she added, “my tail is very strong.”

Iden recalled how the appendage had smashed through a rock pillar like it was no more sturdy than a sapling. She wasn’t quite that large yet, but he could feel the strength that radiated from her. She could probably have crushed a man’s life out of him with nothing more than an errant twitch. Was it even safe to have this thing so tightly wrapped around his most intimate anatomy? Probably not, but he wasn’t about to tell her to back off.

She began to move, sliding her tail up and down his shaft, the coils serving as soft ribs. They spiraled around him all the while, creating another dimension of sensation, tightening and loosening seemingly at random. It was so much more complex than the simple stroking of a hand, her scales flush enough that they glided against his skin, the pressure sinking him into her fat layer. All that he could see from the outside was a pile of bumpy, iridescent scales and sharp, jutting quills. It looked so lethal, but it made him feel like he was floating on a puffy cloud.

Would you like to release inside my coils?” Isabelle asked, her lurid suggestion rousing him from his trance. “Do you think that your emission might seep between them?”

Keep squeezing, and we can find out,” Iden snarled.

Ever the warrior,” she chuckled, amused by his defiance. “I wonder how long it will take us to drain all of that energy?”

She released his arms, reaching up to hook a finger beneath his chin, angling his head up so that she could see his face. She peered down at him from on high, his head still nestled comfortably between her breasts, her reptilian eyes shining as though they were reflecting a roaring fire that only they could see. She drew closer on her long, flexible neck, her head already rivaling that of a horse in size. Her dull snout bumped against his nose, her scales cool against his skin, the dragon exhaling a cloud of dark smoke that stung his eyes and made them water.

Her lips were so large and full, reminding him of a slice of ripe fruit, parting to reveal her rows of intimidating teeth. He would have expected a dragon’s breath to smell of carrion, or something equally unpleasant, but all that he could pick up was the same smokey scent. A strand of her saliva escaped her maw to drip to his cheek, warm and wet, and he watched with wide eyes as her tongue wound out of her mouth.

Iden had thought that her tongue had been monstrous before, but now it was even larger. It was almost as long as his forearm, and nearly as wide, narrowing into a point at its tip. It glistened in the torchlight, slick and wet. The more draconic she became, the more bestial her mannerisms, and Iden thanked his stars that her demeanor did not change in the same way.

Do you mean to kiss me with...that?” he asked, his heart hammering in his chest as he watched a rope of her drool sag from her lips. She was like a wolf poised to feast on its kill, all pearly fangs, and slavering jaws. But behind her eyes was a hunger of a different kind.

Rather than reply, she simply pressed her lips against his, holding his chin between her thumb and forefinger as if there was any possibility that he might attempt to pull away. They were so large and fleshy, completely unsuited to embracing someone of his stature, but she made the best of it regardless. She mouthed and kissed, teasing him with titillating licks and placating strokes from her limber organ, even the merest tip of its dizzying length large enough that she could reach the back of his throat.

She was voracious, feeding him more of her length as she gauged his human limitations, her hand sliding down to rest around his neck. She licked the roof of his mouth with the flat of her tongue, using the pointed tip to tickle and stroke, her fleshy coils filling his cheeks and bulging them outwards. In the same manner that her tail was wrapped around his member, she cocooned his tongue in a prison of slimy, swirling flesh. Her bubbling saliva escaped from their joined lips, dribbling down his burning cheeks, his eyes losing their focus as she subjected him to her bawdy attentions.

She broke off with a wet smack, her tongue winding back into her mouth, Iden taking in a gasping breath as the glistening rope of drool that linked their lips broke. Isabelle left him dizzy and wanting, the kiss had dragged on so long that he was almost out of breath. Before he had a chance to recover, the squeezing of her tail intensified, her appendage undulating around his buried member.

He felt like a ship at sea, and Isabelle was the ocean, buffeting him with her crashing waves. She kept him so off-kilter that he could never get his bearings, all that he could do was cling to her like a sailor to the rigging, lest he be thrown from the deck and into the churning maelstrom.

I can feel you getting closer,” Isabelle cooed, “the way that you flex and jump in my grasp. You’re aching right now, aren’t you? It almost hurts, but not quite. I can see the heat radiating from you, feel the blood pumping, making you swollen and sore. You’re so ready...”

They watched together as the rolls of her tail tightened and flexed, Iden’s body contorting with every subtle movement, Isabelle’s glowing eyes switching between the mound of coils and his red face as if trying to gauge how close he was to climaxing. Would she let it come this time, or would she deny him his relief once more?

Her pace quickened, Iden able to do little more than sink into her body as the sensations grew more intense, points of light floating in his vision like motes of dust. His fingers clawed at the rough, blue scales on her upper thighs, and he pushed his face into one of her breasts as though it might somehow block out the stimulation.

Look at you writhe,” she murmured, her voice laden with arousal. He wasn’t even sure that she was addressing him directly, she was merely talking to herself, almost as overcome by the sight of his pleasure as he was by the sensation. His body was drenched in sweat, his skin shining in the torchlight, his muscles gaining definition as he struggled in her lap. When women admired his physique, it was usually in awe of his masculinity, his physicality as Isabelle referred to it. But now, he could feel her covetous eyes drinking in every contour of his squirming body, lingering on him, appreciating him in an entirely different way. She was like a cat starved of the hunt, toying with a mouse, prolonging the chase rather than delivering the killing bite.

Iden felt another orgasm welling, the tormenting ache taking on a more satisfying, blissful quality as her tail continued to wring him. The muscles in his lower abdomen tensed, his toes curling, his back rising from the soft paunch of Isabelle’s belly where it had been resting. He opened his mouth to loose a cry, but instead sucked in a sharp breath, feeling the folds of his draconic lover’s tail tighten around the base of his manhood. It felt like someone was squeezing it tightly between their thumb and forefinger, swiftly cutting off his rising climax, a stab of discomfort replacing the swells of pleasure.

He cursed, sagging back into her embrace, Isabelle wrapping an arm around him and hugging him closer. Her breasts spilled over his shoulders in an avalanche of quivering flesh, his head buried in the depths of her warm cleavage. As her tail slowly uncoiled from his erection, she began to run her fingers through his hair, stroking him almost apologetically. His annoyance at being denied a second time quickly evaporated, pleasant chills sliding down his spine as her sharp claws pricked his scalp.

G-Gods,” he muttered, all of his discomfort suddenly forgotten. “That feels...really good...”

Do you like that?” she chuckled. “You’re not usually so vocal.”

It took him a moment to be conscious of having said anything at all, Isabelle laughing again as he began to frown, embarrassed at having let the comment slip out.

It’s alright to enjoy affection,” she said, combing his hair with her talons. Perhaps it was the euphoria that resulted from his state of heightened arousal, but just having her stroke him in that way made him feel like he would melt into a puddle. “It doesn’t make me think less of you. Showing vulnerability is a sign of strength, of confidence, not an indication of weakness. What a cruel society that teaches its men not to express their emotions, that they will be somehow demeaned by sharing their true feelings. What is there to be gained by abstaining from some of the simplest pleasures of life?”

A warrior should be stoic,” Iden replied, shivering involuntarily at her soothing touch. It was so hard to make his case in this compromising position. “There’s no room for sentimentality in my line of work.”

And what of our friend de Mercier? Did you not pay attention to his tale? He could be as unmovable as a mountain on the battlefield, yet sensitive and introspective in his private life. He knew when to show strength, and when to let his emotions flow freely. There is a time to be stoic, Iden, but it is not while in the company of a lover.”

Trust me,” he said, laughing cynically. “None of the women that I’ve bedded would have been pleased to see any vulnerability from me. They expected strength, vigor, and I gave it to them in spades.”

Then they were not your lovers,” Isabelle replied. “Did any of your previous conquests make you feel as you do now?”

No,” he mumbled. “What exactly are you...”

His voice tapered off as she massaged his scalp again.

Are you enjoying it?” she whispered seductively. “Do you better appreciate the pleasures of taking things slow, of prolonging the excitement rather than rushing headlong towards a climax? We could keep this going for hours if you desired it, you know. From sunset to sunrise. You’d only grow more sensitive, more intoxicated, your body becoming more and more receptive with each passing moment until...”

His heart hammered as he waited for the conclusion, but much like his orgasm, it never came. Instead, she smiled at him, her gaze lurid and intense. With a start, Iden realized that he was letting her play him like a fiddle again. Her resonating voice was so captivating, her touch so distracting. Just like during their first encounter, she had turned the tables on him so easily. His pride commanded him to take action.

Iden rose up from his reclining position, Isabelle releasing him from her grasp, seemingly surprised by his change in demeanor. She watched him curiously as he knelt between her parted thighs, then turned to face her, her head cocked like a curious dog.

Now he could get a good look at her in this new form, somewhere between the familiar figure of a woman, and the strange features of a dragon. The blue scales had indeed blanketed her whole body, save for what would become her underbelly was she to complete her transformation. The off-brown scales covered her neck below the jaw, her chest, and her belly. The mosaic ran along her inner thighs, and down her long tail. He had expected her to be more serpentine in appearance, but she had not lost the wide hips and the pinched waist that he found so alluring. Now they were even wider, even fuller, the hourglass figure that Isabelle had sported in her human form even more exaggerated.

Her thighs were as thick around as her torso had once been, her hips wider than the span of his shoulders. She was far more muscular now, she would have to be in order to move the weight of her new body around, and yet she had expanded in other ways too.

She had filled out, not only her breasts growing plump and heavy, but everywhere else that her fat collected. He could see the way that the round cheeks of her rump spread across the sheets where she sat, a subtle belly overhanging her waistline to give her a softness that lit a fire in him. She was an avatar of fertility, a Goddess, and her draconic features did nothing to detract from that.

Iden straddled her chubby tail, so thick around that it made an admirable seat, feeling Isabelle’s muscles tense beneath him. He planted his hands on her thighs, feeling them sink into her flesh, and he pushed them apart as the dragoness watched from what felt like miles away.

Between her legs was nestled a pair of thick, swollen lips, coated in the same scaly skin that was present on her belly and thighs. She was drooling, strands of her clear, glistening excitement leaking from her loins like nectar from a flower. He glanced up at her face, not needing to communicate his intentions. She couldn’t blush through those armored scales, but her expression betrayed her desire, twin plumes of smoke rising from her nostrils as she sighed.

Is this an act of reciprocation, or one of rebellion?” she asked. She brought a hand to her mouth, chewing idly on one of her sharp claws, her eyelids drooping as Iden leaned down between her legs. “Either way, I hope that you’ll take your time. Savor me, little warrior...” Iden parted her lips with his fingers, revealing the delicate, pink flesh within. Her labia were already slippery, thick and fleshy, her mound so invitingly smooth. Her vulva dripped, the sheen of anticipation that soaked it shining in the dim light of the cave. Her anatomy was scarcely different from that of her human form, save for its size, all of her features taking on exaggerated proportions. There were still folds of what looked like pleated satin, her firm bud engorged and needy, her opening seeming to twitch in invitation.

Instead of diving right in, he took a moment to admire her thighs. He slid a hand from her knee to her hip, enjoying the way that his fingers created an indent in her yielding flesh. She was so large and strong, yet she trembled just as a normal woman would, her silken scales no less sensitive than human skin.

Her size still amazed him. When one imagined a nine-foot-tall person, they generally didn’t picture what was necessary to hold that person aloft. Isabelle was no beanstalk, her thighs were as thick around as tree trunks, packed with muscle that dimpled her fat. There was more strength in her core than Iden could muster in his entire body, and there were no doubt bulging abs lurking beneath her plump stomach. Her flared hips were wide enough that she could have strapped a forty-pound cannonball about her belly and carried it without breaking stride.

He pressed his lips against the mosaic of her reptilian hide, mouthing and kissing her inner thigh, his tongue able to pick out the texture of her skin more easily than his fingers. He crawled slowly up towards her sex, feeling her long tail twitch and shift along with her legs. She gasped when he delivered a gentle bite where her leg joined to her hip, the sudden motion making her hanging breasts wobble.

He poised over her lips, swollen and needy, his warm breath enough to make her shiver. There was a feminine scent beneath her smoky odor that urged him onward, musky and intoxicating, his mouth beginning to water despite himself.

Isabelle struggled to keep herself from bucking against his face as he dragged his tongue between her labia, tracing the delicate folds of her sex, fever-hot and slick with her nectar. There was so much of it, it had the consistency of syrup, and it clung to his chin in a sagging web as he roamed up towards her engorged clitoris. Due to her new stature, it was about the size of a marble, Iden giving it a tentative lick. Its surface was smooth and firm, Isabelle lurching at his touch, her clawed fingers piercing the sheets beneath her. The tremor made all of the soft parts of massive body shake, a sigh escaping her lips along with a plume of black smoke that rose lazily towards the domed ceiling.

Iden gave her a satisfied smile. Now it was her turn to appreciate the journey, as she had put it. He resumed his lapping, painting her loins with his tongue, tracing every detail of her vulva as he roamed from top to bottom. He paused to plant sucking kisses on her thighs and mound, keeping her on edge, his pace slow and doting. She seemed to enjoy it when he probed her winking opening, sliding his tongue inside her, feeling the pillowy walls of her insides narrow around him as if trying to pluck it from his head. He could feel her muscles undulating beyond her silken walls, coated in a slimy layer of her viscous juices. He intentionally skirted her sweet spot, avoiding her swollen clitoris until she could take it no longer, her wide hips bumping against his face in encouragement.

He finally relented, pressing his lips around her bud, sucking it into his mouth and out from beneath its hood of scaly skin. She loosed a rumbling growl as he swirled his tongue around it, pinching it gently between his lips, applying more pressure as he dragged the flat of his tongue across its rounded surface. Isabelle was overcome, one of her hands rushing down to delve into his hair, pressing him deeper into her loins as he polished her protrusion.

Her juices escaped his lips and dangled from his chin in strands, sticking to his face, Isabelle growing more excited the longer he kept it up. He was far too aroused to care, too engrossed in what he was doing, the warm slime linking his lips to hers in thick ropes that drooped to the sheets below. She leaned back, almost prone on their makeshift bed, her fluids leaking between her cheeks and pooling on the base of her fat tail.

Somehow, he felt a burning desire to please her. Whether it was because of the haze of arousal that was hanging over his brain, or because he was starting to enjoy Isabelle’s company a little more than he’d like to admit, he wasn’t quite sure. All he knew was that she tasted wonderful, that her every twitch and gasp was gratifying in a way that he had seldom experienced before.

Isabelle began to grind her hips against his face, as if lost in a trance, Iden matching pace with her as she thrust her sopping loins against his tongue. He stood no chance of getting his arms around her thick thighs, and so he took handfuls of her soft flesh wherever he could, feeling it fill his palms like putty. He sank his fingers into her belly, taking hold of the subtle roll of fat that overhung her waistline, finding purchase lest she throw him off her with her increasingly impassioned writhing.

His other hand snuck beneath her rump, weighing one of her cheeks, finding it as warm and as soft as freshly baked dough. Her flesh spilled over his hand, engulfing it completely, Iden feeling taut muscle beneath it. Isabelle tightened her grip on his long hair, pulling it, stinging his scalp as she tried to drag him closer. He didn’t mind the sensation, it was rather pleasant, and he upped his tempo in response.

Iden teased her with flurries of licks, and slow, tormenting kisses. She was feverishly warm, so much so that he could feel her heat on his lips when he pulled away to catch his breath. He watched her entrance twitch for a moment, a blob of her fluid seeping from the hole, and then he filled it with a pair of fingers. Immediately, he felt her passage clamp down on him like a pair of blacksmith’s tongs, undulating in waves that sought to drag his digits deeper inside her. She loosed another rumbling growl, smoke billowing from her snout as she exhaled, her sharp teeth bared in what Iden knew to be a display of appreciation rather than intimidation.

Her tail wriggled beneath him as if it was trying to escape, and he tightened his grip on it, holding it between his legs like he was trying to stay in the saddle of a spooked horse. It was like straddling a giant, powerful snake, her appendage strong enough to lift him off the ground. Her thighs closed around him like the walls of a canyon, pressing him tightly between them, her fat providing enough cushion that she didn’t pop his head like a ripe cherry.

He began to move his fingers inside her, pressing them into her flesh, stroking her from within as her muscles fought against him. She was squeezing his digits together so intensely that it almost hurt, the suction that it created drawing on him like a mouth, his skin already soaked in her slippery essence. He couldn’t tell if the texture of her tunnel was any different than that of her human form, but it was certainly stronger, her contractions coming hard and fast.

Iden dragged his tongue up her vulva, feeling her tighten around his fingers as it glanced her clitoris, the massive mounds of her breasts shaking as she took in a sharp breath. He sealed his lips around it, battering it with licks, circling the nub of swollen flesh as she exhaled another cloud of acrid smoke.

She was close, he could feel it in the way that she was clenching around him. Her long spine rose off the ground, the tip of her tail lashing back and forth behind him, her claws tearing into the luxurious fabrics that made up the bed and shredding them like paper.

One final stroke pushed her over the edge, her muscles seizing, every soft part of her body quivering with the effort as she began to quake. Iden was alarmed to see her exhale a jet of a flame from her mouth, temporarily lighting up the dim cave.

Fluid splashed his face as it was forced from her loins by her violent spasming, Iden struggling to withdraw his fingers for fear that she would crush them, trying and failing to wipe away the goo that clung to his lips as she writhed on the bed. Her tail curled into a spiral, her clawed toes digging into the sheets, her body contorting beautifully as Iden knelt between her thighs and watched her ride out the wracking pangs of her ecstasy.

Slowly, gradually, she seemed to sink back into the bed. There were a few errant tremors, aftershocks making her buck into the air fruitlessly, and then she lay still. Her ample chest rose and fell softly, one of her hands sneaking down to rub her dripping loins with a padded finger, her muscles relaxing as she eased out the last shudders of her orgasm. Iden stopped just short of asking her if she was okay, he had never seen someone shoot fire when they climaxed before.

So much for taking things slow,” she muttered, a trail of smoke leaking from her jaws like the tobacco fumes from a pipe. It was oddly apt, like the wisps of smoke that still rose from the smoldering ruins of a house the morning after it had burned down. She propped herself up on her elbows, swaying drunkenly, her glowing eyes unfocused. She reached down and scooped a glob of her come from his cheek, watching it dangle from her claw, her tongue leaving her mouth to wet her scaly lips lasciviously.

Iden felt her tail begin to creep around him, trapping his arms at sides before he had a chance to react, long and thick enough that it could encompass him entirely from his chest to his belly. It squeezed the breath out of his lungs, Iden gasping as she effortlessly pulled him to his feet. What remained of his shredded leggings fell away to leave him nude, Isabelle rising to her knees and shuffling closer to him. Even while kneeling, she was at head height to him, her snout drawing closer to press into the nape of his neck.

She opened her mouth, her soft lips brushing his skin, and Iden felt her teeth press into his neck. An involuntary shiver passed through him, his legs going weak, his member still at full mast. He couldn’t believe that it had taken such a short amount of time for Isabelle to completely change his reaction to having a beast’s slavering jaws pressing against his vulnerable throat.

That quick tongue of yours has gotten you into trouble once again,” she cooed, giving him another squeeze as if to illustrate her point. “It looks like you’ll have to be restrained if my lesson in...restraint...is to continue.”

She sat on the extravagant nest in front of him, bringing her head down on her flexible neck so that her lips were level with his erection. Iden got a good view of her four gnarled horns and the sharp bristles that had replaced her hair in the process. They began just above her brow, covering the top of her skull and trailing down her spine in a neat row.

He felt her warm breath on his glans, Isabelle glancing up at him with her fiery eyes. She pursed her lips and blew a smoke ring, Iden watching it as it made its way down his shaft, dissipating when it reached his belly. It wasn’t exactly the most erotic form of foreplay, perhaps it was more of a dragon thing, but the implication had his member bobbing in the air. He remembered her tongue, how impossibly long and flexible it was. What would it feel like to have it coiled around his length?

She opened her jaws, her rows of white teeth flashing, as sharp as knives. Her saliva dripped from her scaly lips, her hands gripping his thighs. His instinct was to recoil, but she had him tightly bound, suspending him high enough that he had to stand on his toes. His apprehension was soon replaced by a surge of pleasure, however. Her tongue slithered out of her mouth, brushing the tip of his erection, like wet silk as it grazed his sensitive flesh.

He rolled his head back, her merest touch enough to make him tremble in his current state. The long organ wound its way around his shaft, slick and wet, coating him in a sheen of bubbling drool. It was so incredibly dexterous, she could probably have tied it onto a bow if she had wanted to. It crept slowly along his length until it had encompassed him entirely, the tapered tip sneaking down to lap at his balls. Even then, she had length to spare, her burning eyes gazing up at him as he looked down over the blue coils of her tail.

It felt like he was hilted inside a warm, sopping vagina, but Isabelle had far more control over her tongue than any mortal woman had over her loins. She began to squeeze and stroke, spiraling it around his length, the layer of slippery saliva making it glide against his skin. Her tail had been one thing, soft and chubby, swirling about his length as it alternated its tightness and speed to keep him on his toes. But this was even more intense, the feeling of her hot, wet muscle enclosing him making his knees go weak. It was a good job that she was holding him aloft, or he might have fallen over.

He had been worried about her sharp teeth, but as she leaned closer, he felt her lips purse around his exposed glans. They were so full and soft, sealing around the head of his cock, her scales as flush as varnished wood. She was very careful, keeping her fangs clear. She began to suck gently, applying pressure, even as her winding tongue kept up its maddening stroking. Its tip drew shapes on his balls, making him buck and flinch, his shaft swelling in her grasp. He had been hard for so long, his member was aching, sore. The soothing caress of her satin flesh was like a healing balm.

Her stroking and squeezing intensified, Isabelle upping her pace, her organ squirming around him like some kind of giant eel. Strands of her saliva broke to fall to the floor below, a drooping web of it hanging from her jaw. It almost looked like melting glass, viscous and glistening. Iden wanted to reach down and grip her horns for purchase, but even if she hadn’t been restraining him, it would have been a bad idea. Her quills looked sharp enough to pierce his flesh easily, it was probably safer to keep clear of them.

She drew on his tender glans with her puffy lips, her tongue glazing his shaft with warm slime, the tightness of its grip on him alternating at random. She squeezed tightly to send a jolt of ecstasy crawling up his spine, and then loosened her hold on him again, moving the thick coils of her tongue up and down his cock like he was being stroked by a hand.

His every nerve was aflame with pleasure, turning his brain to soup, there was too much stimulation for him to keep track of. His focus bounced from one sensation to the next, each one new and stark, Iden never knowing what would come next. It was rapturous, he felt like everything below his waist was melting, everything muddling together to make him squirm and thrust impotently. Another orgasm was looming, this one so promising to be so powerful, so intense that he was almost afraid of it. He didn’t know if he could stand it, what it would do him. Isabelle had been so adamant that he shouldn’t restrain his emotions, and yet he didn’t know if he wanted her to see him in the throes of ecstasy, completely exposed and vulnerable.

A groan escaped his lips as he felt her tongue withdraw, sucking back up into her mouth, her lips curling into a wry smile as she denied him his third orgasm in a row. He was going to lose his mind at this rate. He hadn’t really considered the implication when she had told him that she could keep this going from sundown to sunset, but now the prospect was all too real.

Don’t fret,” she said, sensing that his frustration was reaching its zenith. “I have just one more thing that I want to show you...”

She lifted her breasts from beneath, large enough that even in her scaly hands, they sagged over her palms like balls of melting wax. There was just so much flesh, wobbling and shaking as they moved, Isabelle pressing them tightly together to create cleavage deep enough that he could have thrust his arm inside it up to the shoulder. They were covered in the fine, beige scales, the rougher blue ones just barely creeping around their extremities to either side. A pair of pink nipples protruded between the scales, firm and erect.

She brought them towards him, sliding his member between them, the thick layer of saliva that still clung to his shaft making her contact slippery. She squeezed them more tightly, their sheer weight pressing down on him, her skin as soft as satin. As she pushed his pulsing member deeper inside the reaches of her warm bosom, her breasts pressed up against his hips, molding around them due to their exaggerated size. He could feel her hard nipples pressing into his skin, Isabelle beginning to slowly rock her shoulders back and forth.

She didn’t have to move very much, her assets had so much mass that her slow rocking motion was enough to buffet him, the twin globes of flesh behaving almost like a liquid. Their weight would press up against him, and then they would return to their original position, almost like a pail of water that was being swung back and forth. Isabelle struggled to keep them suspended, wrapping an arm below them, and one above. She sandwiched them together as they made a seemingly intentional effort to escape her grasp, her forearms sinking deep into the wobbling flesh, so soft that there was almost no resistance.

She allowed him to thrust freely now, Iden’s instincts getting the better of him, his belly clapping against her breasts and sending ripples through them as he pushed into her cleavage. Their heft made them so tight, her scaly skin pressing all around him, like two giant cushions. He had done this with other women, and even with the most endowed, he could always see the tip of his member poking up between their boobs. But now, his erection had vanished entirely, all that he could see were the two scaly mounds as they quivered with his rutting.

Isabelle sensed that he was rubbing off the lubrication, and so she opened her jaws, pausing to let a mouthful of her saliva slide past her lips. The glob of drool landed wetly on her chest, Iden following it with his eyes as it vanished into her bust, its warmth soon finding his member. There was so much of it, thick and bubbly, making the depths of her bosom feel as hot and as slimy as her loins had been. She licked her lips with her tongue, glancing up at him and batting her lashes seductively.

Go as fast as you please,” she whispered, “let it all out...”

Was she finally going to let him finish? As frustrated as he was, he couldn’t deny the truth of what she had told him. He had never felt anything like this before, swells of pleasure were rising up through his entire body, his extremities tingling as though he had slept on them wrong. Everything seemed to be syncing up. The beating of his heart, his staggered breathing, the thrusting of his hips as they slammed into the soft pillows of Isabelle’s bust. It was like a symphony where all of the instruments had been playing out of step with one another, clashing and discordant, finally coming together to compliment each other perfectly as they matched tempo to produce beautiful music.

As he thrust, he sank deeper and deeper into her cleavage, until his entire lower body was almost completely encompassed by her breasts. They didn’t quite meet behind him, but they had slowly crept around his hips, spilling down his thighs. Eventually, Isabelle abandoned her attempts to handle her bosom, wrapping her arms around him instead. She pulled him tight, using her leverage to increase his pace.

Caught in the loops of her tail, and Isabelle’s tight hug, he could scarcely move. The smoldering embers of his arousal were igniting now, rising up inside him like a churning, roaring inferno. His cheeks burned hot, his member throbbing between her boobs, his skin dripping with sweat as his endurance was pushed to its limits. His muscles trembled, darkness creeping at the corners of his vision, his fingers and toes clenching of their own accord.

Everything had built up to this, each orgasm that she had denied him had only compounded the next, and now he was finally teetering over the precipice. It was outside of his control, he couldn’t decide when he wanted the exquisite torment to end, Isabelle would draw it out of him as she pleased. It was such an odd feeling, to not be in control of one’s own body, and yet he felt so good that he feared he might never return to a normal state of mind again. If someone had told him that making love could feel like this, he would have laughed at them. He had thought himself so skilled in the ways of carnality, but this was something completely different, more like an opium high than mere sex.

He was roused from his stupor as Isabelle placed a gentle bite on his neck, easily able to reach it due to her stature, even while keeping his pulsing member encased in her bosom. She bit a little harder than she had before, not enough to make him bleed, but enough to leave red indents on his skin. There was something primal about having her draconic fangs pressing into his jugular, the vein pulsing against them, her wet tongue emerging to lash at his throat. He made an unbecoming sound that he had never heard himself make before, Isabelle chuckling to herself as she crawled her lips higher.

Are you getting close?” she cooed, pausing to brush her lips against his ear as she whispered to him. “Your moans are so sweet...”

Her salacious whispering sent him over the edge, his heart seeming to falter, the sweet ache that had been building up inside him throughout the night taking on an unbearable quality. He gritted his teeth, but failed to stifle a pained groan, Isabelle watching gleefully as his body began to convulse. She tightened the bonds of her chubby tail, keeping him still as he bucked and rocked, thrusting desperately into her cleavage and making her breasts shake in the process.

He pumped rope after rope of his emission into her bosom, his animal lust unable to differentiate it from a fertile womb, his seed joining her warm saliva as it glued her breasts together. Every time that Iden thought himself spent, another swell of bliss rose up inside him, so acute that it bordered on painful. His muscles spasmed, his spine arching, stars dancing before his eyes as his wracked body gave her everything that it could.

His prolonged arousal had compounded every sensation, his soreness, his burning need taking him higher than he had ever been before. Instead of a short, intense climax that was confined entirely to his loins, the ecstasy spread throughout his entire body like a debilitating poison being carried by his blood. Every fresh surge of sensation was more powerful than the last, making his head spin, the brief moment of respite before the next rapturous throb of pleasure affording him just enough time to appreciate his situation before sending him reeling once again.

He could feel Isabelle’s heaving bosom filling with his fluids, the thick, pearly globs creating a warm pocket around his member. It began to slide out of her cleavage, a combination of his essence and her drool running down her scaly torso, glistening strands of it drooping from her bust and waving back and forth with his thrusting.

Iden tried to double over as another lightning bolt of pleasure tore through him, his every nerve bound to the same unrelenting rhythm, but her spiraling tail still kept him tightly bound. He had given up trying to stifle his moans now, his hair hanging over his face in a dark curtain as he sagged forwards in the clutches of her coils, drenched in fresh sweat. He groaned, his eyelids fluttering as he gave her one last wad of his semen, the muscles in his abdomen burning from the effort. It felt like she had pulled a length of knotted rope out of him through his manhood, she had drained him completely, he couldn’t believe how much she had managed to wring out of him.

As soon as the harsh pleasure began to retreat, a euphoria unlike any that he had felt before fell over him like a warm blanket. It was as though a fever had overcome him, leaving him aching and delirious, and yet he felt such wonderful relief. He closed his eyes, unable to suppress a wide smile, Isabelle watching him with a satisfied grin as he faded in and out of awareness. Time had lost all meaning, the world around him melting away until all that remained were Isabelle’s glowing eyes.

She slowly pulled away, Iden flinching as an aftershock teased his still rigid erection, his eyes opening for a moment to watch as she released her bosom from her grasp. She let her breasts fall, gravity taking hold of them, the heavy mounds of flesh bouncing as they settled. Between them was a sordid mess, strings of his emission linking her boobs as they splayed apart under their own weight, more of the unspeakable fluid sloughing down her torso and making its way between her meaty thighs. She seemed almost as surprised by the quantity as he was, her eyes darting first to his seed, then back up to his face.

So virile,” she chuckled, reaching down to run a clawed finger through the trail of cooling fluid. It clung to her talon with the consistency of honey, linked to her scales by a long strand that broke as she pulled away. “What say you now? Will you take things slow next time, or are you still a seeker of instant gratification?”

Iden didn’t reply, he could only laugh drunkenly, his post-coital bliss dulling his wits. She lowered him gently to the bed, the fat rolls of her tail uncoiling from around him. She lay him on the silken sheets beside her, Iden sinking his fingers into the luxurious fabric, somehow even softer and more pleasant than it had been before.

He rolled onto his back, still breathing hard, his skin damp with perspiration. Isabelle came crashing down beside him, her weight enough to shake the ground beneath him, lying on her side and propping herself up on an elbow as she reached across to plant a hand on his stomach. He shivered, another wave of pleasure washing over him. He was so sensitive that her merest touch excited him in this exhausted state. She slid it up to his chest, seemingly amused by his sudor, her touch slippery.

Mortals sweat,” she muttered, admiring his figure with her reptilian eyes. “It never ceases to entice me.” She brought her snout closer to him on her flexible neck, dragging her tongue across his throat, tasting the salt on his skin as his still swollen member bobbed in the air. “I can taste things that you aren’t even aware of, secretions that inspire lust, and affection. They bleed from your pores when you’re excited, soaking your bodies when you make love. They make you taste...delightful...”

You’re not going to eat me, I hope,” Iden chuckled weakly. “Was all of this effort for the sole purpose of seasoning me?”

She laughed at that, Iden’s eyes drawn to her bust. Gravity was mashing her breasts together as she lounged on her side, the lower one spreading out under its own weight, while the upper one compressed it from above. His eyes traced the low dip of her pinched waist, rising up into the curve of her wide hips, the meat of her thighs at the mercy of gravity just as her bosom was. Her long tail trailed off into the distance, its tip so far away that the darkness of the cave swallowed it up.

You’re quite safe,” she replied, sliding her hand up to cup his cheek. He couldn’t help but push his face into her soft palm, the dragoness stroking him with her thumb. “Mortal meat tastes rather bad, and their hygiene usually leaves something to be desired.”

He laughed, not certain whether she was joking or not.

Come closer,” she said, hooking a hand around his back and dragging him towards her. Her claws pricked his skin, but even that was an oddly pleasant sensation. He felt her fingers delve into his hair as she pressed his face between her breasts, large enough that they spilled over his shoulders too. He was about to protest, expecting to find the mess that he had left in her cleavage, but all that he encountered were dry scales. Perhaps it was her magic. He didn’t question it, breathing in a lungful of her smoky scent, letting her bust engulf him. The breast below served as an admirable pillow, far softer than even the most expensive goose feather stuffing. If one were to pluck the wings of an angel and use them to fill a velvet cushion, it wouldn’t have been half as opulent as this.

The second boob pressed down on him from above, quickly smothering him, Iden having to rise from her cleavage to take a breath like a whale breaching for air. He wrapped his arms around her as best he could, able to do little more than drape one about her torso, his fingertips scarcely able to reach her spine. In turn, she cradled him in her arms, enveloping him in her warm body like a living sleeping bag.

Iden felt all of his worries melt away. There was something about this that felt so natural, so right, his heart fluttering as her clawed fingers found his scalp and began to comb his hair. Lovemaking, not just fucking, that was the distinction. Not only had he never felt this good before, but nobody had ever treated him this way either. Isabelle exuded compassion and tenderness in ways that he would never have ascribed to a scaly, armored killing machine. For all of her teeth and horns, despite the fact that she could melt steel with her breath, he knew that she would never lay so much as a claw on him. Not now.

His own thoughts were becoming muddled, his motivations clouded. What was he doing here? What was he doing with Isabelle? He had scaled the mountain to seek out his fortune, to claim a prize, why was he letting himself be distracted? He had one goal, one mission, everything else was irrelevant.

Yet another part of him yearned for this, not just the carnal delights, but the warmth that followed. The affection, the closeness, the feeling of being wanted for something more than just his sword arm or his cock. Could this be a treasure of greater worth than mere gold? Could he just stay here? What would become of him? What of his aspirations of owning land, of begetting a horde of children to carry on his legacy?

You seem distracted,” Isabelle whispered, planting a kiss on his forehead with her scaly lips. “What troubles you?”

He considered sharing his doubts with her for a moment. She was wise, long-lived, no doubt learned enough to advise. But something made him bite his tongue, and he buried his face in her bosom lest his red cheeks betray his lie.

Nothing,” he replied, squeezing her more tightly. “I’m just...I’ve never felt this way before.”

That at least was the truth.

You can be so loving and tender when you want to be, Iden,” she said as she nuzzled his head. “I knew when you showed me kindness during our ascent, that there was a gentleness to you, that there was a good man beneath all of those scars. You just needed someone to show you how to set that man free.”

You don’t really know me,” he muttered, “you don’t know what I’ve done.”

I’ll have you know that I’m an excellent judge of character,” she said, shifting her weight to get more comfortable. He felt her tail rise up to encircle him possessively, as though she was creating a perimeter around him. “I’ve lived long enough, and I’ve known enough people to develop an intuition surrounding such things. As I’ve been trying to impress upon you, a man can at once be strong, and sensitive. Violent, and gentle. Nature has endowed you with a strong arm, and an iron will, your choice of profession was almost inevitable in these tumultuous times. But your past only defines you as long as you let it. You can choose to be something else, if that’s what you want.”

Would you...rub my head again?” he asked, hiding his burning face from her. Isabelle didn’t laugh at him, she didn’t have a witty remark prepared. She simply smiled, running her fingers through his hair, Iden letting himself melt into her inviting body as his fatigue caught up with him.

CHAPTER 8: CHOICES

The shepherd stumbled out of the tavern, closing the heavy wooden door behind him, his feet slipping in the ever-present mud. The village was overcast by dark clouds, an eerie mist clinging to the ground like a carpet. He flipped up his tattered hood to shield himself from the light drizzle, setting off home, his path lit by the yellow glow from the dirty windows of the adjacent buildings. As he stepped gingerly around a particularly deep puddle, he heard something behind him. He turned to look, squinting, his eyes unable to pierce the darkness and the fog.

As he watched, several dark shapes came into focus. It was a procession of horses, stamping their hooves in the wet dirt, their snorting accompanied by the clanking of their armored riders. He recognized them as Paladins immediately, their snow-white armor gilded with gold trim, a pair of golden eagle’s wings adorning their helmets. They were clad in full suits of plate, armored from their heads to their toes, wearing white surcoats over the top of their garniture that were decorated with the symbols of their order. They wielded long spears that had small, fluttering standards tied to the haft near their glinting tips, large tower shields strapped across their backs. They had short swords, too, along with numerous pouches and satchels that might contain any manner of things. They looked like they were marching to war.

They ignored the drunken shepherd, passing him one by one, and he counted six riders in all. He called after them, the one taking up the rear halting his horse, steering it around to look back.

Are you here to slay the beast?” the shepherd asked.

What do you know of the dragon?” the Paladin called back, his voice somewhat muffled by his ornate helmet.

T’was I who first laid eyes on it,” the shepherd replied, trying not to sway too conspicuously lest it make his story any less credible. “T’was I who brought it to the magistrate’s attention.”

The Paladin signaled to his comrades, and they stopped, looking back at him as he turned his horse around. The shepherd had to crane his neck to peer up at the knight as his steed trotted up beside him, the animal snorting as its rider pulled back on the reins to halt it.

You’ve seen the dragon?” the Paladin asked, his expression indiscernible through the narrow slot in his winged helmet. Up close, the shepherd could make out the golden inscriptions on his armor, the decorative trim comprised of flowing prayers and incantations. Even the steel plates that made up his gauntlets were gilded, the calligraphic passages wrapping around his fingers.

Aye, I sighted the creature up in the foothills, where it swooped down and ate half a flock of my sheep before my very eyes. Never seen anything like it in my life, must have been fifty feet long, as heavy as a whole herd of cattle. Its footsteps shook the very ground beneath my feet. I saw it vomit a plume of flame that charred my poor sheep until their bones were blackened.”

We were told that the dragon resides on a mountain peak that overlooks this village,” the Paladin continued, “is this true?”

Aye, you can’t miss it,” the shepherd said as he pointed in the vague direction of the peak. “I watched the beast soar down from the mountaintop on its great wings, and that was where it returned once its foul deed was done. A mercenary came by a few days ago, had his mind set on claiming the bounty on its head, but I’ve seen no sight of the man since. If you ask me, the dragon bested him.”

The Paladin Order will be taking charge of this situation,” the knight replied sternly. “Dragons are not something to be trifled with by the unprepared, they are possessed of powerful magic, so it is written in the holy scriptures. Our archivists alone possess the necessary knowledge to bring one down. If you should come across any more fortune seekers who are headed this way, turn them back. Without the magical artifacts and arcane techniques required to pacify a dragon, they will surely perish at its hands.”

Aye, Sir, I’ll do as you ask.”

With that, the Paladin turned about and lashed his reins, catching up with his procession.

May the Gods be with you!” the shepherd called after them.

***

Iden chewed into a hunk of roasted meat, its juices dripping onto the mahogany dining table. He had awoken beside Isabelle on their nest of extravagant sheets, sore and satisfied from their romp the night before. After a quick dip in the pool to wash off the residue, she had cooked him an admirable breakfast, if roasting a cut of beef using the fiery breath of a dragon could be considered cooking. She was leaning on the table now, watching him as he ate. She had reverted back to her human form once again and was now fully clothed, perhaps assuming that he found it more pleasing.

Iden would never admit it to her, but he had found her smooth scales and her chubby tail more than a little alluring. At first, he had thought himself attracted to her human features in spite of the draconic ones that had begun to crop up, ignoring them as he focused his attention on her more familiar assets. Yet over time, he was starting to find things to appreciate about her more exotic traits. The silkiness of the scales on her smooth underbelly, the softness of her hands, the agility of her oversized tongue. Just thinking about it made blood begin to rush to his loins.

I still haven’t seen you eat anything yet,” he mumbled over a mouthful of beef. “How long do you usually go without food?”

I was considering going out in search of a meal today, actually,” she replied. “It’s been about a week since I last ate my fill. I have a store of meat in the cave that I pack with snow so that it keeps, but that’s more for emergencies. I prefer my kills fresh.”

Oh, you’ll be leaving?”

Only for a short time,” she said with a nod. “I think I can trust you with the gold for a few hours while I fly out in search of something to eat, now that you know there’s no hope of claiming it, and now that we have more of an...understanding.”

She sauntered over to him, leaning down to run her slim fingers through his hair, Iden pausing his chewing as his face began to redden. She giggled at his expression, her girlish voice contrasting with the deeper contralto of her dragon form.

I’ll be back before nightfall, try not to get into any trouble.”

He watched her as she walked across the cavern, heading for the towering pile of treasure. Her clothes burned away to leave her nude, Iden’s gaze drawn to her shapely rump, her hips swaying with every step. At the base of her spine, blue discoloration appeared, her tail sprouting from her body to trail behind her on the stone floor. It thickened and grew, more of her iridescent scales spreading across her body, her skin cracking to form the hard plates. By the time her leathery wings were emerging from her back like a pair of shriveled arms, she had reached the pile, her slight frame expanding to take on the stature of her true form.

Nine feet, she had taken on the appearance that he had become so intimately acquainted with the night before. Fifteen feet, the base of her tail was now as thick around as her torso had once been, her posture changing as she began to lean forward. Twenty feet, she had dropped to all fours, her feminine figure morphing into a new, less familiar one. Her great wings unfurled, the quills that ran down her spine extending to their natural length, like a forest of sharp knitting needles. Her hide thickened as layers of bony scutes formed along her back, her great horns now as long as his arm, her powerful legs swelling with muscle to support her new weight.

She reached her final size, around eight tons, twenty-five feet and change. Iden was no less intimidated by her appearance, as normal as it was becoming to see her shapeshifting. She was so tall that he wouldn’t even have reached her hip, her head alone was as large as he was. She radiated an animal strength that made him wary of even getting close to her, lest he be accidentally crushed underfoot, or dashed by her swinging tail. He could see the brawn beneath her scaly skin rippling when she moved, the copious fat that filled out her enormous frame shaking with each impact.

The illusion of grace and power was somewhat marred as he watched her flop down onto her pile, rolling in it like a giant dog playing in the grass. Her serpentine body wound back and forth, her wings splayed out wide, her four limbs waving in the air. The pile of gold began to collapse on the near-side, like an avalanche cascading down the face of a mountain, unearthing more treasures as it went. After a few moments of this, she righted herself, the cave floor trembling as she landed back on her feet. Iden saw that there were coins lodged between her colorful scales in places, glinting in the torchlight, a fortune’s worth clinging to her like burrs to a sheep. She shook herself, dislodging some of the looser ones, sending a shower of them clattering to the ground where they bounced and rolled away.

She noticed him looking, her scaly lips pulling back to expose her teeth in a gigantic smile.

I pay for my meals,” she explained, Iden remembering how the shepherd that he had encountered back in the inn had told of how gold had rained from the dragon’s body. She set off up the winding passage that led to the mouth of the cave, Iden watching the tip of her long tail vanish out of sight, leaving a few solitary gold pieces in her wake.

He took his time finishing off his meal, waiting a good half hour to be sure that his companion was long-gone. When he was certain that she wasn’t going to come walking back down the tunnel, he rose from the gilded throne, setting his silver cutlery down on the table. It was time to set his plan into motion.

Iden recovered his pile of discarded clothes and armor, stripping off the magical garments that Isabelle had created for him with considerable difficulty due to their tightness. He pulled on his gambeson and leggings, struggling for a few minutes to strap on his breastplate. It didn’t take long for him to be reminded of how inconvenient it was without a second pair of hands. He wondered briefly if Isabelle could sense that he was undressing, if she would have a way to know what he was about to do through some magical means. It didn’t matter, he was already committed.

He finished tightening the belts on his armor, now realizing that it was considerably less comfortable than the silken outfit that Isabelle had conjured, as much as he had complained about the form-fitting garments. He retrieved his short sword, returning it to its scabbard on his belt. His pike was broken, and his tower shield would be of little use to him now, better to just leave it behind lest it slow him down.

After ensuring that he still had some food left for the journey, and that his sleeping bag and tent were still intact, he slung his pack over his back. He turned to face the pile of gold and treasure, more riches than even a hundred men could have spent in their lifetimes. That all too familiar lust burned in his belly, greed demanding that he fill his pack with bejeweled scepters and silver goblets, his eyes drawn to the glittering hoard like moths to a flame. Just one ornate crown, just one handful of rubies…

No, he tore his eyes away from the mound, focusing them on something else. He marched around the circumference of the pile, kicking coins out of his path like they were no more valuable than pebbles. The bookshelves were his new target. Isabelle had said it herself, to the right buyer, these ancient tomes were worth a fortune in their own right. A fortune enough to set Iden free from the life of a sellsword? He couldn’t be sure, but what other options did he have? She was right about him not being able to transport the gold, even if he could claim it. There would be a target on his back, he could trust nobody, he would be robbed or murdered before he could spend a solitary penny.

But who would slit his throat in his sleep over musty old books? Who would rob him for what would look like worthless paper to the uninitiated? Only collectors and archivists would know the true value of his take, any brigands or innkeepers that he might meet would be wholly ignorant.

He perused the shelves, his open pack clutched in one hand, not knowing which ones to take. Some were surely more valuable than others, but how would he know? He could scarcely even read. As his eyes scanned their dusty spines, he spotted one that he recognized. It was the book that Isabelle had read aloud to him, the life and works of de Mercier, the warrior poet. Had she not said that this book was unique?

Iden pulled it from the shelf, dropping it into his pack, pulling more from their shelves at random. He couldn’t carry them all, only enough to fill the remaining space in his bag, so he’d just have to hope that it would be enough. He couldn’t spend books, of course. He would need to travel to one of the major cities where libraries and Paladin archives could be found, and he would need coin to spend along the way. Once he was done with the books, he would take a couple of pocketfuls of gold, enough to pay his way without drawing too much unwanted attention to himself.

His heart raced as he piled the tomes into his rucksack, each one accompanied by a cloud of dust. He didn’t want to be anywhere near here when Isabelle returned and realized his betrayal. With any luck, he’d be long gone, and she would have no way of finding him.

An odd sensation came over him, almost like a wave of nausea. Memories of Isabelle’s smiling face as she read to him from atop her pile flashed before his eyes, the scent of her auburn hair, the feeling of her clawed fingers massaging his scalp.

Iden shook his head, banishing the intrusive thoughts, turning his attention back to his thievery. He needed these books far more than Isabelle did. She had more treasure than she could ever make use of, simply for the pleasure of having it. She wouldn’t go hungry, she wouldn’t be destitute if he took just a minute share for himself. Iden would be sleeping in a drafty tent in the woods, he’d be eating stale bread and rancid meat, he would almost certainly die with his guts spilled on a battlefield if he didn’t do this.

Yet still, that pit remained in his stomach, an ache, as though someone had just punched him in the belly. Why was this making him feel so damned...bad? He was a warrior by profession, he had killed scores of adversaries over the years, no doubt leaving grieving widows and orphaned children in his wake. So why did this feel so much worse?

He tried to ignore his conscience, throwing a couple more books into the bag, drawing it closed and slinging it over his back. As he made his way towards the exit, he knelt to grab a few handfuls of coins, stuffing his pockets and filling some of the empty pouches on his belt. He had to fight the desire to take even more, the gold really did have an almost supernatural power over him.

His boots echoed as he made his way up the winding passage that led out of the cavern, following the gold that had fallen from Isabelle’s massive body like a trail of breadcrumbs. As he neared the mouth of the cave, he began to feel the cold wind on his face, carrying the scent of fresh air with it. It howled as it whipped down the passage, tugging at his clothes, already starting to chill him to the bone.

The bright sun made him shield his eyes as he emerged onto the snow-covered mountainside, his vision slowly adjusting as he tried to blink the bleariness away. It had been days since he had seen sunlight or a blue sky. The mountain range below him was sheathed in clouds, a few solitary, snowy peaks rising up through the puffy blanket here and there. Iden took in a deep breath, preparing himself for the climb down. He turned to look down the tunnel one last time, swallowing as if it might somehow dislodge the lead weight that had settled in his stomach.

His mind made up, he began to make his way down the rocky slope.

***

The rolling foothills extended into the distance, fog hanging low over the valley, the shadow of the mountain looming at Iden’s back as he marched. The naked rock and freezing snow had been replaced with purple thistles, hardy grasses, and boulders coated in clinging moss and lichen. He was still exposed to the elements, there were no forests in sight yet, but the worst of his climb was now behind him. He had reached the foot of the mountain in good time, the sun was only just starting to dip towards the horizon. Isabelle must have returned to her cave by now, but if that was the case, then she hadn’t come looking for him. Her magic didn’t make her omniscient, after all. It might take her some time to figure out where he had gone, or what he had taken.

He should feel elated for having pulled off his heist, yet he couldn’t shake that lingering feeling of guilt. Iden tried to ignore it, lowering his pack and fishing for his tent. The ground here was soft enough that he shouldn’t have any great difficulty driving in the pegs. If Isabelle should come searching for him, then she might have a hard time seeing it from the air. It was relatively well camouflaged, and it wouldn’t stand out against the terrain. Hiding from highwaymen and brigands who might rob him while he slept was just as important as concealing his sleeping spot from airborne dragons.

He had to remove a few of the books to access his gear, stacking them gingerly on a nearby rock. They didn’t look too fragile, but they were certainly very old. The last thing he needed was for one them of them to fly open, disgorging its yellowed pages across the landscape like fallen leaves on the wind. As he withdrew another tome, his eyes were drawn to the calligraphic text that adorned its leather cover. His heart skipped a beat as he read off the title, it was The Life and Works of Gerard de Mercier again. He stared at it for a moment, feeling worse and worse the longer he held it, then he set it upon the pile with the title facing down so that he wouldn’t have to look at it.

Pull it together,” he grumbled to himself, turning his attention back to his bag. He was just tired from the climb, that was all. He would feel better once he got a good night’s sleep. He’d wake up the next morning refreshed, and then once he was eating a hot meal at the inn down in the village, he could put this business with the dragon behind him. He’d be a hundred miles away from the mountain in short order, and then he could just forget about it. Gods, it wasn’t as if he had killed anybody...

Iden set up his tent, the wind whipping at it violently, then placed his sleeping bag inside. He returned the books to his pack, then began to shed his armor, crawling through the flap and closing it behind him. It did little to shut out the frigid gale, cold air creeping in under the breaks between the pegs where the tent was being lifted from the ground. Iden shuffled into his bag and wrapped it around himself tightly, his teeth chattering. It was best not to start a fire, it would certainly give him away to the dragon if she came searching for him.

It was impossible to keep his mind off the silken bed that Isabelle had fashioned from luxurious drapes and fancy gowns back in her cave, all of that wealth just thrown into a heap so that they might sleep together comfortably. He missed its softness, and what’s more, he missed the warmth of her body beside him. The way that she held him close, her smoky scent, the feeling of her fingers combing his hair as she whispered to him...

Never mind. When he sold the books, he could buy all of the willing wenches that he wanted. They’d be throwing themselves at him, they’d do anything that he asked. He could share his king-sized bed with a different woman every night if he so desired, he could build his own harem.

Yet the promise of carnal delights did not sate the feeling of loneliness that was growing within him. It felt like there was a hole in his chest, empty and gaping, like he had left some crucial part of himself up on the mountain. He tossed and turned in his sleeping bag, trying to take his mind off it, sleep eluding him as his mind ran in circles.

He was jolted back to alertness by the unmistakable sound of hooves and clanking armor rising above the howling wind. A surge of adrenaline made him sit up straight, his heart starting to pump faster, the instincts of a career soldier informing him that enemy horsemen might be nearing. There was no time to don his armor, and so he grabbed his holstered sword from its resting place beside his sleeping bag, holding it in his hand as he shuffled towards the flap and emerged into the cool evening air.

Standing around his tent was a circle of mounted knights, their horses snorting, stamping their hooves in the scrubby grass. These were Paladins, there was no mistaking their gilded, white armor and their winged helmets. Iden turned to face each one of them in turn, six in all, keeping his sword at the ready without drawing it from its scabbard. He had no chance of taking on half a dozen mounted knights, but the Paladins were not brigands, quite the contrary. They ranged from insufferable do-gooders who stuck their noses in affairs that didn’t concern them, to dangerous zealots who might strike a man down for using the name of one of the Gods in vain. While they didn’t pose an immediate threat, they were not to be trusted…

State your business, Sirs,” Iden demanded. He was angry at being surrounded like this, but it was wise to show a little respect. There was nothing to be gained by offending a Paladin.

You are the mercenary that the shepherd spoke of,” one of them said, his helmet giving his voice a tinny quality. “We expected to find your blackened bones in the dragon’s lair.”

The shepherd?” Iden asked, relaxing somewhat. “I know the man of whom you speak, he’s a drunk that frequents the inn down in the village, I met him when I arrived in the valley. He spoke to you of the dragon?”

Indeed,” the knight replied. “He told of a mercenary who sought to claim the bounty that the magistrate had placed on the beast’s head. I am surprised to find you alive.”

Well, I’m flattered that the Paladins would concern themselves with the welfare of a sellsword,” Iden muttered. “Ever the defenders of the downtrodden, you lot. But I’m afraid that I don’t require your assistance.”

We concern ourselves not with your safety, but with the dragon’s reign of terror,” the stranger replied tersely. “We march on the mountain with the intent to slay it. How is it that a simple hedge knight has climbed the dragon’s mountain and lived to tell of it? Don’t tell me that you slew the thing single-handed?”

He thought for a moment, trying to come up with a story that the knights would believe. They were sworn to a life of celibacy, and they didn’t take kindly to fornication at the best of times, never mind with a dragon. If they even had laws that governed such subjects, the penalty would not be lenient. Did they really mean to kill Isabelle? Good fucking luck. Based on what Iden had seen during his fight with her, it would take a whole army to bring her down. These toy soldiers stood no chance.

I never made it to the peak,” Iden replied. “I had every intention of facing the dragon and claiming the bounty, but I caught sight of the thing one day, and turned straight back around. It’s forty feet long at least, covered in scales as tough as steel, and it breathes fire that can melt stone. I doubt that any mortal weapon can harm it. If you want my advice, it’s better to turn back and leave the creature be.”

You made a sound decision,” the Paladin replied, “the likes of you would have no hope of prevailing against a dragon. The Paladins have tools and strategies for subduing magical beasts, passed down to us through the order’s ancient archives. Our forebears dealt with such creatures in ages past, and we are well equipped to do the same.”

How’s that?” Iden asked, a hint of worry creeping into his voice. He had thought himself prepared to fight the dragon too, but Isabelle had spoken of her kind being hunted in the past, and he had no way to be sure that these Paladins didn’t have some kind of weapon that could hurt her. If anyone would have access to such things, it would probably be them. Their order was centuries old, and their archivists hoarded ancient secrets like Isabelle hoarded gold.

Dragons are possessed of supernatural powers,” another of the knights explained, Iden turning to face him. Having to raise his head to speak to the faceless figures while they were perched atop their horses was a little unnerving. “It is good that you came to your senses, sellsword. Had you attempted to pierce its hide with your blade, you would have found it quite impenetrable. A dragon must first be incapacitated through magical means in order to neutralize its great strength and to deny it its fiery breath. Only then can it be destroyed.”

There is only one weapon that can prevail against its thick armor,” the Paladin to his left added, “a spear whose tip was forged from the horn of a fellow dragon.”

And you have such a weapon in your possession?” Iden asked incredulously. His own pike had pierced Isabelle’s hand, but only while using her strength and weight as leverage. Her hide had been quite impenetrable under his own power.

Indeed we do,” the lead Paladin said, taking his horse by the reins and steering it towards the mountain. “Make your way back down to the village, Mercenary, and stay out of trouble. The Gods don’t look upon your profession favorably at the best of times. It would not behoove you to fall afoul of the law.”

Iden suppressed his desire to talk back, watching as they began to make their way up the slope. Who did they think they were, telling him to keep his nose clean? Easy for them to say, their armor was as pristine as fresh linen, they didn’t have to eat week-old bread for dinner tonight.

As he watched their horses tackle the slope, he wondered if what they had said was true. Dragons were not invulnerable. According to Isabelle, her people had been hunted almost to extinction by ancient humans. Did the Paladins really have the means to bring her down?

It didn’t really matter. He didn’t think it very likely, and even so, what could he do against a whole group of mounted Paladins? Iden was an accomplished fighter, but only a fool would take those odds. No, most likely Isabelle would make a meal of them as she almost had Iden. He had his bag full of loot, he was home free, better to just cut his losses and get out of here as the Paladin had suggested.

Iden returned to his tent, setting his sword down and climbing into his sleeping bag, the lead weight in his belly only growing heavier.

***

Iden awoke the next morning feeling decidedly less refreshed than he had anticipated. He rubbed his eyes groggily, rising to a sitting position, his head brushing the top of his tiny tent. For a brief, blissful moment, he forgot where he was and what he had been doing. The realization came flooding back to him, that familiar weight settling in the pit of his stomach once again. He had stayed up late into the night, sleep eluding him, thoughts of Isabelle roiling in his head.

Intent on shaking off the strange cloud of dread and guilt that was hanging over him, he shuffled out of his tent, sitting by his pack and fishing inside it for one of his paper parcels. He withdrew one, unwrapping it and pulling off a piece of stale bread with considerable difficulty. It was as hard as a rock, and he chewed it dispassionately. Reasoning that the meat might have fared a little better, he opened another parcel, recoiling as the smell reached his nose. Frustrated, he hurled the package of spoiled meat into the grass, cursing under his breath as he took another labored bite of his bread.

How he missed Isabelle’s perfectly cooked beef, he’d trade a whole pocketful of gold for just a morsel of it right now. The exterior had been so crispy and brown, the juices locked inside, pouring from the tender meat with every bite…

His stomach growled, and he gave up on the bread, tossing it back into his bag. He’d buy a real meal down in the village, something expensive from the inn, that would sate his hunger. He wasn’t more than half a day’s walk away now.

As Iden donned his armor, he noticed the hoof prints in the soil around his test, remembering his encounter with the Paladins the night before. They’d probably be halfway up the mountain by now, though they might face even more difficulty than he had due to their full sets of plate armor. He turned to glance at the mountain’s face, wondering where Isabelle was now, and what she was doing. Had she discovered his theft? Would she be meeting the Paladins soon? Hopefully, his betrayal and the subsequent Paladin attack didn’t turn her off interacting with humans altogether…

What an ugly word, betrayal. Was that really the best way to describe what he had done? Why did it make him feel like he had swallowed a lump of iron?

Too bad, the world was harsh, and life was unfair. All that mattered was survival. Still, the image of Isabelle’s face when she discovered that he had made off with her treasures haunted him. She had taken such a liking to him, he had earned her trust, and then…

Enough of this,” he muttered to himself, kneeling to pack up his tent and sleeping bag. He rolled them up into bundles of fabric, then attempted to stuff them into his bag, realizing that the stolen books were in the way. Grumbling under his breath, he began to remove them one by one, stacking them on a nearby rock. One of them slipped out of his gauntleted hand, and he leaned down to retrieve it, the red leather binding giving it away as The Life and Works of Gerard de Mercier once again.

A kind of irrational anger welled up inside him, and he had to stop himself from tossing the book just as he had the spoiled meat.

I need you more than she does,” Iden muttered, “what the hell do you want from me? Should I climb back up the mountain, fight off six horsemen single-handedly, and then doom myself to a life of poverty and a violent death? All to satisfy some misplaced sense of honor or loyalty? What the hell is wrong with me?” he added, running his hand over his face. “I’m having an argument with a damned book...”

His eyes were drawn to the mountain again with a magnetic power, and he looked up at the snowy peak, sheathed in layers of white cloud. What was it that Isabelle had been trying to drill into him during their brief time together? That he had a choice, he could decide what kind of person he wanted to be. So what did he want to be? Did he want to remain a callous, emotionally detached mercenary, self-serving and greedy? Or did he want to be like de Mercier, strong when the situation called for it, but sensitive too? Did he want to keep telling himself that his conscience was clean because he took measures to avoid taking jobs from tyrants and slavers, or did he want to put his money on the table, and fight for a real cause? Isabelle was in danger, what if the Paladins made good on their promise to slay her? She didn’t deserve that...he couldn’t stand the thought of her coming to harm.

Gods damn it all,” he grumbled under his breath, packing his gear away and turning back towards the mountain. “If I could just learn to keep my cock in my pants, then I wouldn’t end up in these situations...”

CHAPTER 9: FOUL BEAST

The Paladins struggled up the rocky crags, the weight of their armor and their heavy shields making their progress all the more difficult. They had tied the horses up at the base of the mountain, the climb would have only resulted in broken legs, and it had taken them almost a whole day to reach the peak. The terrain here was all jutting rocks and knee-deep snow. Perilously high falls and slippery surfaces had resulted in more than one accident, but none of their number had been injured thus far.

The Knight Commander was leading the way, leaning his weight on his spear, using the haft to probe for footholds in the snow as he navigated the hazardous mountainside. He had five Lieutenants in tow, hand-picked by their superiors for the task at hand. They were sterling fighters, their combat prowess matched only by their loyalty to the Order, their faith as strong as their sword arms.

They had risen above the cloud layer now, the sky above them a deeper azure than the Commander had ever seen before, the air growing thinner with every step.

Have you sighted the cave yet, my Lord?” one of the Paladins asked. He was trailing a short distance behind the leader of their party, the whistling wind tearing at his surcoat.

It has to be here somewhere, Lieutenant” the Commander replied. “The reports have led us true so far, this peak is where the beast makes its perch.”

Commander!” another of the Lieutenants shouted from the rear. “To your right, I see a cave!”

The Commander squinted through the narrow slot in his visor, spotting the telltale shadow of a cave mouth nestled amidst the rocks. He waved his men forward, the standard that was tied around the tip of his spear fluttering in the wind.

Good eye, soldier! Keep your wits about you, according to the archivists, the dragon will be lurking somewhere deep inside the mountain.”

They climbed their way up onto the rocky outcrop, two of the Lieutenants helping up a straggler, the Paladins readying their weapons as they inched closer to the cave. The shadowy tunnel wound deep into the rock, its curving walls preventing them from seeing what lay at the end.

Ready the artifacts,” the Commander ordered, raising his tower shield lest the dragon burst out at them from the darkness.

The Archivists had entrusted the team of Paladins with several ancient relics that would help them defeat the dragon. Chief among them was the long pike that one of the Lieutenants carried across his back, its haft forged from an unknown alloy using techniques that had been lost to time, the metal decorated with ornate banding patterns and mottling. The tip was carved from dragon horn, shaped into a deadly point that would be used to spear the creature’s heart, delivering the killing blow once it was subdued. The weapon was priceless, and there were few like it, but its true value lay in its ability to pierce the armored scales of a dragon.

Next were the tools that would deny the dragon its brute strength and its fiery breath. The Archivists had produced another relic of the ancient world from the depths of the Order’s vaults, a net woven from the silk of a long-extinct breed of gigantic spider. It had to be handled with extreme caution, as it would stick to any living thing with a bond that was impossible to break through conventional means, the strands themselves too durable to cut through with even the sharpest of blades. Once it had entangled its victim, the fine mesh would begin to constrict around it, growing tighter the more the prey struggled.

The final weapon in their arsenal was the most unassuming, a simple leather-bound book. Instead of ink, its pages were marked with the blood of a frost giant, a mythical creature that was said to have inhabited the frozen North in ages long past. The spells and incantations within carried its power, the faded text imbuing the reader with the ability to command the elemental forces of snow and ice. This, they would use to silence the dragon’s pyromancy long enough that the final blow could be dealt.

Hand me the pike,” the Commander ordered. One of the Lieutenants retrieved it from the back of his companion, passing it to his superior. The Commander weighed it in his hand, finding it to be incredibly light despite its great length, impeccably balanced. There were no living smiths who could produce weapons like these.

Lieutenant Gregory,” he continued, “are you certain that you can perform the incantation that will silence the dragon’s breath?”

One of the Paladins opened the clasp on a leather holster that was sewn to his belt, withdrawing the ancient tome from its protective carrying case. He opened the cover and leafed through the yellowed pages, the wind making them flutter.

The Archivists have instructed me well, my Lord,” he replied. “I am confident that I can perform the spell.”

Very well. Prepare the net.”

Two more of the Paladins produced crossbows, gripping the stocks firmly between their thighs as they began to crank the levers that would wind the strings back, the limbs creaking as they bent under the pressure. When they were ready to be fired, the two men armed them with bolts. They looked like training arrows, their tips dull and weighted, rather than sharpened to a point. These arrows were not intended to pierce the hide of their adversary, but rather to carry the net over it. He watched as a third knight knelt and removed his pack, fishing out a carefully sealed parcel about the size of a dinner plate. He unwrapped it gingerly, revealing what looked like a bundle of fine silk, beads of glittering moisture clinging to the thin strands.

He lifted up the spider silk net, taking great care to only touch the loops at the corners that were intended to attach to the bolts. One would have expected the howling wind to blow the net into the bearer’s face, but somehow it remained untouched by the elements, hanging in the air with an ethereal quality. The Lieutenants wielding the crossbows took up position to either side of him, and he attached the corners of the net to their bolts, the trap now ready to be sprung.

Follow behind me,” the Commander said, making his way deeper into the cave. “Gregory, keep your spellbook at the ready and be swift with your incantation. You must not allow the dragon to use its breath. Alder, Rowen, strike true. If you should miss the beast, then we will not get a second chance. Loose your bolts at the first opportunity that presents itself, even a moment of hesitation could leave one of us dead. Once the dragon has been entangled, I shall close in and strike at its heart.”

Chances are, the dragon is already inside its cave,” a knight to the Commander’s right added. He produced a torch and lit it with two pieces of flint, holding it aloft to light their way in the darkness. “If we should happen upon an empty lair, then we can lie in wait, and prepare an ambush for its return. Either way, we should maintain the element of surprise.”

Dragons are said to be wily creatures,” the Commander said, rounding the first corner of the winding passage as his men marched behind him. The walls here looked like they were made from melted rock, the stalactites that clung to the ceiling broken off in places, as though something large had passed through. There was scoring on the stone that looked suspiciously like giant claws marks. “They are not the dumb beasts that some might assume, so keep your wits about you. Expect trickery, deception, we don’t know exactly what we might encounter down here...”

As they continued on, following the tunnel as it snaked deep into the mountain, there was the sound of metal on metal. One of the Paladins paused to examine the ground, the Commander glancing back at him.

Look, Knight Commander,” he exclaimed as he knelt to pick up a coin. “There are gold pieces strewn about the floor.”

The dragon surely came through here,” another said with a nod, “we’re on the right track.”

Don’t stop for gold,” the Commander muttered, ushering them onward. “Your reward will be the satisfaction of serving the Gods. The beast’s hoard is destined for the Order’s treasury, not your pockets.”

There was muted laughter as they pressed onward, their footsteps echoing in the empty tunnel. It was nigh impossible to move silently while wearing armor. The Commander hoped that they would arrive to a deserted cave, so that they could plan an ambush as his brother knight had suggested, giving them more chance to take the creature unawares.

As they rounded the last bend, the Commander stopped in his tracks, his eyes wide. He heard gasps from his Paladins, one of them muffling an exclamation.

Have your eyes ever beheld such a thing?” Alder asked, his awe leaving him breathless. Before them was a cavern the scale of a cathedral, held up by rock pillars as thick around as the trunk of a sturdy oak, lit only by a ring of flickering torches that adorned the cave wall. The cave was impressive enough, but that wasn’t the sight that had everyone so captivated.

In the center of the room was a mountain of treasure, so large that the glittering coins that made up its mass seemed no bigger than grains of sand. Bejeweled crowns and scepters glittered, precious stones reflecting the wavering firelight, riches beyond imagining just sitting out in the open. Even the Commander found himself bewitched for a moment, but his mind soon turned to his holy purpose, and he steeled his heart against the wondrous sight.

Stay alert,” he whispered, inching forward with the dragonhorn pike resting atop his shield. “Do not allow yourselves to become distracted.”

They entered the cavern proper, turning their heads this way and that, searching for any sign of the dragon. It was surely too large to hide itself, even in such an expansive cave. The shepherd that they had met down in the village and the mercenary in the foothills had given slightly different size estimates, but there was nothing approaching forty feet in here…

After a good few minutes of searching, they finally felt safe enough to let their guard down, the Commander lowering his shield and removing his stifling helmet. The Paladin that had been holding the torch set it down on the floor, the cavern was lit well enough already.

It seems clear,” he said, turning to appraise his surroundings one more time. “Rowen, Alden, I want you positioned near the cavern’s entrance. Aim your net right across the mouth. Gregory, behind the pillar over there, try not to draw its attention lest it attempt to interrupt your spellcasting. The rest of you, on me. It falls upon us to distract it until our comrades can do their jobs.”

Commander!” Rowen shouted, pointing behind him. The Commander spun around, turning to see a short, slight woman standing on the rock beside the pile of treasure. She had auburn hair, her clothing tattered, her feet bare and caked with dirt. She looked haggard, her green eyes sunken in their sockets. Where had she come from? It was as though she had just appeared from the darkness. A hidden side tunnel, perhaps?

It’s just a girl?” Alden asked, taking a step forwards. The Commander waved him back, bringing up his shield as the woman stared at him.

What are you doing here, girl?” the Commander asked suspiciously.

The wyrm took me captive,” she replied, “have you come to rescue me? Will you take me back to my parents down in the village?” A tear rolled down her cheek, and she took a step closer to the captain, her arms outstretched. “Oh, thank you, Paladins. Thank you!”

The Knight Commander met her with his pike, the pointed tip pressing up against her throat.

Commander!” Gregory exclaimed, “what are you doing?”

Begin your incantation, Lieutenant Gregory,” he replied. “We have ourselves a dragon.”

The young girl’s face split into a wide grin, exposing rows of sharp teeth that looked far too large for her head, her green eyes taking on an amber hue as her pupils contracted into reptilian slits. There was a rush of flame that sent the Commander staggering backwards, the tattered garments that she had been wearing evaporating into a cloud of ash to leave her naked. Her pale skin was already cracking, taking on an unhealthy, blue tinge. It transformed into rough scales before his eyes, the dragon growing by inches with every second that passed. A long, heavy tail slapped on the ground, a pair of bat-like wings unfurling from her shoulders, her face elongating as long horns sprouted from her flowing hair.

Attack!” the Commander yelled, lunging at the beast with his pike. Even in her half-polymorphed state, she was agile enough to dodge his strike, perhaps sensing the material that it was wrought from. She swung her tail, already a good eight feet long, slamming it into his shield with the force of a war hammer. The blow sent him reeling, but he stood fast, two of his brothers rushing in to help.

They took up position at his flanks and began to jab at her with their spears, and these she didn’t even care to avoid, letting their steel tips glance off her tough hide. She expanded, growing thicker and heavier, dropping to all fours as her neck elongated to take on the appearance of a giant snake. This was what had been described to them, a beast of thirty feet at least. Her shimmering scales overlapped to create an impenetrable barrier, black fumes billowing from her nostrils like smoke from a furnace, the sharp quills that ran down her spine rattling in a threat display.

She reared back on her hind legs, filling her lungs, her barrel chest inflating.

Take cover!” the Commander shouted, “it means to burn us!”

The dragon belched a stream of roaring flames, expanding before her in a cone, splashing against the rock floor almost like a liquid. The Paladins took refuge behind their shields, the heat of it making the steel glow red-hot, cooking the very air around them. It was like standing in a pyre, the Commander could feel his armor heating up, sweat pouring from his skin as black smog choked the air.

The beast finally relented, dark fumes pouring from her open jaws, pearly teeth as long as daggers on display. She stared right at the Commander with her blazing eyes, like a pair of hot coals, fierce and intense. It was as the Archivists had warned, there was intelligence behind those reptilian eyes, awareness. They had tried to set a trap for the creature without ever realizing that the trap had already been sprung.

He chanced a glance over his shoulder, seeing that Gregory had taken cover behind a pillar, leafing through his spellbook as he no doubt spoke the incantations beneath his winged helmet. Alden and Rowen were still near the entrance to the cavern, their weapons aimed. He would have to give the crossbowmen a clear shot. If that net caught one of the Paladins instead of the dragon, then the fight would be over.

The beast charged at them, her footsteps shaking the ground, swinging her clawed forelimb at the brother who was standing to the Commander’s left. The man was lifted clear off his feet, the blow leaving deep grooves in his shield, sending him clattering to the ground a few feet away.

She opened her slavering jaws, bring them down towards the Commander, who blocked the bite with his tower shield. The dragon’s great mouth closed around it, the serrated, backwards-curving teeth hooking around the top and bottom. The metal creaked as the pressure began to bend it, its hot breath washing over him, its winding tongue lashing at the metal. The monster tore it from his arm, shaking it like a dog with a bone, throwing it across the room where it bounced off the far wall as though it weighed no more than a toy.

Thanking the Gods that his adversary had not fractured his arm into a dozen pieces, the Commander struck back, his dragonhorn pike jabbing his assailant in the shoulder. It pierced the layers of blue-green scales just above where the forelimb joined the body, dark blood seeping from the wound, the dragon recoiling with a reptilian hiss of pain.

How is it?” the Commander yelled over the thunderclap of its massive feet. “I’ll wager that nobody has shed your blood in eons!”

The dragon narrowed her fiery eyes at him, her lips pulling back in an eerily human smile, a tongue as long as his arm escaping to wet a pair of scaly lips.

You aren’t the first mortal to make an attempt on my life this week, Paladin.” Her voice was a deep, booming contralto, oddly feminine. “Nor will you fare any better than he did. Leave now, or be destroyed.”

It speaks?” one of the Lieutenants whispered, disbelieving.

Of course I speak, you fool,” the dragon spat as she turned her massive head in the Lieutenant’s direction. “Ignorant, scurrying things, will you never leave me in peace?”

The Paladin Order has condemned you to die, foul beast,” the Commander shot back. “Your very existence is an affront to the Gods. No more will you terrorize the people of this valley!”

Your Gods are an affront,” she snarled, rearing up on her hind legs. She inhaled a great gulp of air, preparing to vomit flame once more. Just then, Gregory leapt out from behind the refuge of his pillar, shouting the final words of his incantation as he pointed his gauntleted hand at the dragon. There was a flash of blue light that made the Commander avert his eyes for a moment, and when he dared to look again, the dragon was falling back to her four-legged posture. Her eyes were wide, confused. Her mouth was agape, her chest heaving like a cat that was trying to cough up a fur ball. She raised a forelimb to claw at her neck, the smoke that poured from her nostrils taking on a different quality, more like steam than coal fire. The burning torches that ringed the cave petered out abruptly, plunging them into darkness, save for the single torch that the Paladins had brought with them. They must have been magical in origin.

Rather than flames, from the dragon’s mouth came a jet of water, a slurry of what looked like partially melted ice. The great creature gagged and coughed, turning her furious eyes back towards the Commander.

What...did you do?” she sputtered. “Frost magic? How..?”

Now!” the Knight Commander shouted, turning towards the Paladin to his left and leaping at him. He knocked his companion to the ground, the dragon watching them with confusion, before noticing the two crossbowmen that were aiming their weapons at her from across the cavern. They fired in unison, the gossamer net dragged through the air by the two bolts, falling over the beast like a curtain.

It clung to her wings with its sticky coating, entangling them, large enough to cover her head and most of her tail in a shimmering layer. She began to struggle, hissing like an angry snake and spewing boiling steam as she rampaged across the cavern, her powerful tail knocking over one of the stone columns and sending it toppling to the ground with a tremendous crash.

The spider silk was already constricting, growing tighter the more she tried to fight it. It trapped her wings against her back, forcing her to bend her neck towards her belly, her four flailing limbs becoming tangled. She crashed to the ground, her own momentum carrying her headlong into her pile of treasure, sending a tidal wave of coins scattering across the room. Curled up into a seizing ball, she lay still, her long body partially resting atop her hoard. She glared at them with her glowing eyes, her head upside-down relative to the ground, growling like a giant wolf as a slurry of melting ice poured from her jaws.

The Commander began to walk towards her, his companions helping the fallen Paladin to his feet. He took off his helmet, holding it under his arm as he approached, the dragon’s fiery eyes meeting his. The net had worked perfectly, she was completely immobilized, hopelessly tangled in strands that were tougher than any alloy that humankind could produce. She struggled again as he neared her, sending more coins tumbling from the pile, only the last foot of her tail free of her bonds.

Spiderfolk silk,” she hissed, “I would not have believed that any still existed...”

The creature was curled up, almost in a fetal position due to the tight net, its forelimbs covering its smooth underbelly.

Expose your heart to me, dragon,” the Commander barked as he aimed his pike like a javelin. “Don’t make me stick you like a boar, we need not drag this out any longer than we have to.”

And what do you hope to achieve by this?” she hissed, the boiling water that spewed from her mouth pooling on the rock below. “Will you use my horns to forge more weapons, my scales to make wards, my blood for pyromancy? Or is it simply greed that motivates you?”

The dragons are written of in the holy scriptures,” he replied. “They were tyrants and despots, wielding their power to topple kingdoms, and to enslave men. You’re a creature of greed, covetous and deceptive. The Gods will not suffer your kind to live.”

Half-truths and hearsay,” the dragon rumbled, her voice dripping with venom. “Very well then, spear me with that severed horn. Kill another piece of your history, fumble blindly in the dark as you descend further and further into ignorance.”

The Commander was startled as a few of the torches that lined the walls flared to life again, their flames sputtering and weak.

Do not delay, my Lord!” Gregory called to him from across the cave. “The spell cannot stifle the beast’s magic for more than a few minutes longer!”

I’d say a prayer for your soul, dragon,” the Commander said solemnly as he gripped the haft of his pike. “If I thought that you had one...”

Stop!”

The Commander and his Paladins spun around, what little light that was cast by the torches illuminating an armored figure who was standing at the entrance to the cavern. His garniture was made from dull steel, pocked with marks and scratches, the components fitting him poorly. It was munition armor, dirty and worn through years of use. It must be the hedge knight that they had encountered in the foothills, but what was he doing here?

CHAPTER 10: HEART OF GOLD

Stop!” Iden shouted, the Paladins turning to look back at him. He had arrived just in time, one of the knights was pointing some kind of ornate spear at Isabelle, her massive body entangled in a shimmering net that looked as if it was woven from fine silk. They hadn’t been exaggerating their capabilities, they had defeated the dragon handily. Her burning eyes met his, but it was hard to gauge what she was feeling.

There were two knights with crossbows standing near the entrance to the cavern, and they dropped their weapons, their gauntleted hands moving to the swords on their hips. Another Paladin was standing to one side with a book, and there were two more wielding tower shields and spears. The last one had removed his helmet, the same one who was pointing the strange looking pike at Isabelle’s underbelly. He must be their leader.

State your business,” the one without the helmet demanded, his companions bristling. He had brown hair that was cropped short for convenience, a strong jaw, and a pair of piercing, blue eyes. His skin was tanned and leathery, and he had a prominent scar on his cheek. His shining armor fit him like a glove, and he carried himself with more confidence than his companions. Iden’s instincts warned him that the knight was a seasoned warrior, not merely the son of some rich Lord who had been promoted beyond his station.

I have business with that dragon,” Iden replied, one hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword as he gestured towards Isabelle with the other. “I’ll thank you to leave it be.”

The Paladins looked to their leader, confused, the man turning around to face the intruder. The twisted point of his pike left Isabelle’s underbelly, and he planted the haft against the ground, looking Iden up and down disdainfully.

If you seek to claim the bounty, Hedge Knight, then you’ve arrived too late. This creature’s carcass is the property of the Paladin Order, and its hoard is bound for our treasury.”

Yeah...” Iden muttered, sucking in a breath through his teeth as though he was about to deliver some bad news. He too had elected to go without a helmet. With so many adversaries, he needed all of the situational awareness that he could get. “That’s going to be a problem. This dragon is not what it appears to be, it’s a person, as intelligent as you or I. Moreso than I, in fact. It...she, isn’t some kind of rampaging, wild animal. That was my assumption, too. She showed me mercy and compassion, those are not the traits of an evil creature. Whatever reasons that you might have for killing her, they’re not justified.”

Dragons deceive,” the Paladin replied sternly. “They change their shape to go unnoticed, to spy and to evade the righteous. They might take the form of a lost child to gain your sympathy, only to turn on you in your moment of vulnerability. They lie and manipulate, spreading corruption wherever they go, bending mortal men to their will. If this wretched creature showed you mercy, then it was merely a means to an end, they have no compassion for those who they see as being beneath them.”

And how do you know that?” Iden shot back, “have you ever had a conversation with a dragon?”

Because it is written in the archives, and in the scriptures,” he explained. “The Order’s historical records go back hundreds of years, our information comes from the firsthand accounts of those who suffered under the heel of these beasts centuries ago. You are playing a dangerous game, sellsword. It is not wise to come between a Paladin and his holy purpose. Leave now, and you shall be spared.”

If I were you, I’d just be on my way and write this one off as a loss,” Iden said as he gripped the hilt of his sword more tightly. “I don’t want this to come to blows.”

Kill this vulture,” the Paladin muttered, waving his hand dismissively. “I have no patience for this, we have important work to do.”

The two knights who were posted by the entrance to the cave unsheathed their swords, Iden responding in kind, gripping the hilt with both hands as they squared off. He’d sell his own mother for a buckler right about now, but the only shield that he had brought on his expedition was the tower shield, and it wouldn’t serve any purpose in a fight like this. He had hoped that he might be able to avoid a confrontation if he could convince the Paladins of Isabelle’s innocence, but they might as well be deaf. Trying to dissuade a Paladin from their appointed task was like talking to a wall, though a wall was more liable to change its mind…

He took up a defensive posture, his eyes darting between the two helmeted figures as they began to close in on him, their heavy armor clanking with each step. They were aggressive, overconfident, no doubt certain they would prevail against this lowly mercenary in his dented garniture. His armor was inferior to theirs, both in terms of quality and coverage. They were clad in burnished steel from head to toe, but while it gave them formidable resilience, it also made them heavy and limited their range of motion.

Contrary to what some might believe, duels between swordsmen were not lengthy affairs. It often took a mere handful of moves to bring down an opponent, accomplished in a few blinks of an eye. What Iden lacked in armor, he would make up for with his decades of experience, experience that he could already tell that his enemies lacked.

Iden gripped the blade of his sword with one gauntleted hand, shortening the effective length of his weapon, a technique known as half-swording. It would give him more leverage, and it would allow him to deliver stronger and more accurate thrusts to the less heavily armored areas of his foes. Cutting and cleaving were virtually useless when facing off against an assailant who was wearing full plate armor.

The knight to his left raised his sword above his head as high as his heavy pauldron would allow, swinging it down towards Iden’s shoulder. Iden weathered the blow, his chainmail glove preventing the strike from driving the edge of his own blade into his palm, throwing the Paladin off-balance as he deflected it. Before the knight had a chance to steady himself, Iden maneuvered the point of his sword, his two-handed grip giving him exceptional control. He threw all of his strength into a thrust, the sharp edge slipping into the joint in the Paladin’s armor between the helmet and the breastplate, the mail beneath providing little protection against the tapered blade.

The Paladin loosed a pained gurgle, dropping his weapon and falling to his knees, spurts of crimson blood staining his white breastplate as he made a futile attempt to stem the bleeding. The other Paladins watched in stunned silence, the expression on their leader’s face changing from one of disdain, to one of concern.

The second knight loosed a war cry and charged at Iden, set on avenging his fallen brother, but he was easily side-stepped. His momentum carried him a few steps further than he had likely intended, and when he wheeled around to face his opponent, Iden was already upon him. He swung his sword like an axe, gripping the blade with both hands, striking the Paladin’s helmet with the pommel. The blow rang it like a bell, knocking the knight off-kilter, and the first strike was followed by a second that was just as vicious.

The knight swung his sword at Iden’s belly, but it was easily parried, leaving him wide-open. Iden stepped in, punching the Paladin with his armored fist, his neck snapping back. A helmet was of little use if the head inside of it was being rattled around like a pair of dice in a cup.

Dazed, the knight began to lose his balance, Iden helping him along with a savage kick to the chest that knocked him onto his back. Before he could struggle to his feet, Iden aimed the point of his sword at the slot in his visor, gripping the crossguard for leverage with one hand as he pushed the blade through it. The knight ceased his struggling abruptly, Iden planting a boot on his chest as he strained to withdraw his sword.

Murderer!” the leader of the Paladins bellowed, waving back the three who remained as he stepped forward. He brandished the long pike with the gnarled point, gesturing with it, Iden meeting his furious gaze. “You dare to defy the will of the Gods? You dare to rob these righteous men of their victory? They overcame a dragon today in service of their order, only to be slain by a brigand!”

I told you to fuck off!” Iden shouted back, his voice echoing through the cave. “I’ll kill the lot of you if I have to.”

He was startled as a few of the torches that ringed the cavern came to life, casting more flickering light on the scene.

My Lord!” the Paladin who had the leather-bound tome clasped in his hands called out. “The spell is wearing off, we have precious little time before the dragon regains its magic!”

So that was it, the Paladins had somehow interfered with Isabelle’s magic. That was why she hadn’t simply barbecued the intruders like a choice cut of meat, and why so many of the torches were now dim.

I’ll deal with this scoundrel myself,” the Lord said, handing off his odd pike to one of his companions and drawing his sword from its scabbard.

Just leave,” Iden growled, “I’ll even let you recover your dead. I’ve killed many a Lord in my time, this won’t end well for you.”

It was somewhat of a bluff. The younger Paladins had been inexperienced and overconfident, but this one was different. Iden could see it in the way that he carried himself, the way that he handled his sword, the way that he moved in his suit of armor. It was one thing to face off against an idiot in a fancy raiment that had never suffered so much as a scuff, but quite another to fight an experienced warrior who knew how to move and fight. If they were closely matched when it came to their sword fighting skills, then it might well be the quality of their armor that decided the outcome, and the Paladin had Iden hopelessly outmatched in that regard.

Those were good men,” the knight snarled, the two beginning to circle one another. “Their souls will meet on the shores of Paradise, but yours...yours will be damned, and I will be the one who damns it.”

It’s no fault of mine that you won’t listen to reason,” Iden snapped. “You call me a murderer, but you’re trying to kill an innocent person who has done you no wrong.”

That dragon may have lived a hundred human lifetimes,” the Paladin replied. “You have no idea what deeds it has done, nor what evil it might do in the future.”

So you’re willing to murder people based on what they might do?” Iden asked.

Even if a fox had not eaten any chickens that I knew of, I would not lead it to a hen house.”

The knight surprised him, lunging with the tip of his short sword, aiming for his throat. Iden reacted just in time, parrying the blow, the Paladin scarcely flinching. It had been a probing strike, his enemy was testing his defenses, his reflexes.

I underestimated you once, sellsword, and it cost me the lives of two of my men. I will not make that same mistake again.”

He took advantage of Iden’s uncertainty, charging at him, throwing his weight into a powerful elbow strike. Iden blocked it, but the Paladin followed it up with a swift pommel strike to his unarmored face, collapsing his nose. The two men grappled for a moment, their armor clashing, too close together to make effective use of their swords.

The knight threw Iden back, the two of them squaring off again, the blood from his nose staining both of their breastplates. It wasn’t the first time that Iden had broken it, and he fought through the pain, purple bruises already spreading beneath his eyes. He had to take the initiative. If the knight kept him on the defensive, then he would have no chance of winning. What he wouldn’t have given for any other weapon than a sword right now. War hammers, maces, spears. Almost anything was better than a sword when it came to fighting someone wearing armor, but both he and the Paladin had come equipped to fight dragons, not their fellow man.

He stepped forward, gripping the Paladin’s blade in his hand, pulling it up and away from him as he drove his own sword towards his unarmored underarm. The knight responded in kind, gripping Iden’s blade just above the crossguard and forcing it down, bringing his knee up towards his groin. His codpiece mercifully absorbed the impact, but the strike was still enough to send him reeling. The Paladin took advantage to deliver another swift punch to his face, Iden dodging out of range, taking up a defensive stance. There was no such thing as honor in a fight for one’s life, even amongst the Paladins.

Iden had to take control of the encounter, he wasn’t as young as he once was, and he would tire before long. He charged in, locking the knight in a sword fight, their steel flashing as they parried and riposted. They danced back and forth, exchanging blows, each trying to disarm the other. Again it devolved into a brawl as the two men closed, grappling with their weapons, knees and elbows impacting metal. Iden was hit in the chest with his adversary’s pommel, the impact winding him even through the armor. The Paladin tried to trip him, but Iden recovered, gripping his blade in the half-swording stance and attempting to drive the point towards his throat.

His opponent deflected the sword with his own and then leaned in to punch Iden in the face with his gauntleted fist. Iden stumbled back, dazed, trying to blink away the bleariness in his eyes as his ruined nose began to gush blood again. He moved back, the knight keeping the pressure on him, Iden scarcely able to keep up. Iden gripped his sword by the blade with both hands, swinging the weapon like a hammer, aiming for the Paladin’s exposed head. Again it was deflected, the knight very nearly succeeding in disarming him.

There was just no way through that damned armor. Unlike his own, there were no breaks in it besides for the throat and the underarms, and the Paladin was skilled enough to keep those protected. He couldn’t even stab the man in the foot, he was wearing sabatons.

They were both distracted as more of the torches that ringed the room burst into flames, the Paladin with the book of spells looking around nervously.

My Lord!” he began, their leader cutting him off impatiently.

I know, Gregory, I know! I’ve almost finished with this cur. Robert, take the damned spear and finish off the dragon in my stead, we’re out of time.”

Iden looked past the Paladin frantically as the one who he had referred to as Robert moved towards Isabelle. It was the knight that he had passed the strange pike to before engaging Iden. He remembered what the Paladin had told him down in the foothills, that there was only one weapon capable of piercing a dragon’s hide, a pike with a tip made from dragonhorn.

Iden felt a new surge of adrenaline course through his veins, a kind of panic overtaking him. He too was out of time, he had to finish this right now, or both he and Isabelle would meet their end in this cavern. He lunged, beating the Paladin with his sword with a series of vicious overhead blows. It did little damage, but it forced the knight to retreat, putting him on the defensive.

Iden!” he heard Isabelle call out to him, her voice strained as though it too was fighting against the gossamer net. There was an odd gurgling quality to her booming speech, almost like her mouth was full of water. “This is all that I can do!”

As he began to wonder what she meant, an orange glow caught his eye. He looked down at the blade of his sword, the steel burning steadily brighter, as though it had just been pulled from the fires of a forge. It burst into flames, startling him so much that he almost dropped it, globs of molten metal dripping to the floor below. It was so hot that he had to hold it at arm’s length, but fortunately, the hilt was not heating up in the same way that the blade was. He wasn’t going to be half-swording with this thing.

It was Isabelle’s magic. Just as she had lit the torches, she had used her power over fire to enchant his blade.

The Paladin eyed it warily, keeping his gaze fixed on Iden as he called to his comrade.

Gregory, do something about this!”

The knight leafed through his book of spells frantically, his eyes scanning the pages, his expression increasingly panicked.

What incantation?” he yelled back. “I don’t...the archivists didn’t...I only know the spell for silencing the dragon!”

Then cast it again! The bloody thing has almost regained its full strength!”

Iden wasn’t about to wait around for them to cast more of their spells, wielding his flaming sword as he lunged at the Paladin Commander. The knight blocked his blade but was showered with globs of molten metal, bonding with his armor as they cooled. None of it landed on his face, but it gave Iden an idea. He whipped his sword, spraying the Paladin with more burning flecks of metal, and he raised his arms to protect his eyes.

Iden darted in, slashing at his breastplate experimentally. His suspicions were confirmed, the intense heat of his blade rending the immaculate steel, leaving a blackened tear in its wake. It was going straight through, Isabelle had given him the tool that he needed to gain the upper hand.

He gave the Paladin no time to adapt, driving the burning blade straight through his thigh, the cuisse armor providing no more protection than tanned leather. Iden smelled burning flesh, the knight bellowing as he dropped to one knee, smoke rising from the wound. Iden withdrew his sword, noting that there wasn’t a drop of blood. The intense heat had cauterized it.

The knight tried to rise to his feet, but faltered, falling back to the ground.

Yield!” Iden demanded, raising his sword as he prepared to deliver a killing blow. “Tell your men to stand down right now!”

Slay the dragon before it’s too late!” the Paladin shouted. “Carry out the mission!”

Iden drove his blade into the kneeling knight’s neck, burying it up to the hilt, the flaming sword passing through flesh and bone like butter. The Paladin’s eyes lost their focus, a wisp of smoke rising from his mouth as his jaw hung agape, dead so quickly that he scarcely had time to react. Iden withdrew the sword, the Commander’s body slumping to the ground at his feet.

The three remaining Paladins had been transfixed by the fight, but now the one who was wielding the pike turned and made for Isabelle, intent on carrying out his Commander’s final order. Iden raced to intercept him, but he felt like he was in a nightmare, running in slow motion as he watched the knight raise the weapon like a javelin.

Isabelle opened her mouth, her head upside-down relative to the floor, boiling water pouring between her long fangs. She spewed a plume of steam, unable to even turn her head in the direction of her assailant. The Paladin drove the pointed tip of his weapon at her chest, but her forelimb was in the way, the tight mesh trapping it tight against her body. She roared in pain as it penetrated her scales, drawing crimson blood, the knight pulling back for a second attempt.

The steam that billowed from her maw took on a darker hue, the last of the water evaporating, a fiery glow illuminating her iridescent scales and reflecting off the pile of gold that she was sprawled on top of. Whatever magic the Paladins had employed had worn off, and Isabelle vomited a cloud of flames, the fire licking across her own body as she was engulfed in the blaze. A wall of black fumes obscured her, Iden skidding to a halt as he felt the heat of it on his face, even from halfway across the chamber.

Robert retreated, the flames too hot to brave, staggering away from her as he took refuge behind his tower shield. The thundering of her footsteps told Iden that she had escaped her bonds before he had even seen her, the great beast emerging from the flames, flapping her wings and waving her horned head back and forth as she threw off the last vestiges of the silvery net. Fragments of it burned as they wafted through the air, floating like embers from a campfire.

She turned her glowing, reptilian eyes towards Robert, the knight’s helmet emerging to peek over his shield. Iden expected him to turn tail, but instead, he raised his dragonhorn pike and charged at her.

Isabelle showed him no mercy, filling her lungs, and then thrusting her head towards him on her flexible neck. Her jaws opened wide, the fiery glow in the reaches of her throat becoming a spreading cone of flame. The knight was engulfed, his scream drowned out by the roar of the blaze, Iden able to make out his dark silhouette against the orange glare as he slowly sank to the ground. When the flames subsided, and the smoke cleared, all that was left was a suit of armor lying on the cave floor. Smoke rose from its every joint as the body inside of it cooked, the steel glowing a dull orange.

Two Paladins remained, the nearest one throwing down his spear and raising his hands in surrender. Gregory, the one with the spellbook, emerged from his hiding place behind one of the stone pillars. He drew his sword from its scabbard and threw it to the ground with a clatter, dropping his tome and following suit as he raised his hands.

Iden glanced at Isabelle, wondering if she might simply continue her rampage despite their surrender. Instead, she merely glared at them, twin plumes of smoke rising from her nostrils.

Leave,” Iden demanded, gesturing to the tunnel that led out of the cavern with his flaming sword. “And don’t come back.”

The two remaining Paladins didn’t need to be told twice, hurrying to the exit, one of them pausing briefly at the mouth of the tunnel to look back before scurrying up the dingy passageway.

Iden exhaled, letting his sword fall to the floor, the blade still so hot that it bent on contact with the rock. He touched his fingers against his face experimentally, wincing as a flare of pain shot through his nose. He turned to face Isabelle, seeing that she had returned to her human form. She was clad in a less provocative outfit, having foregone the loose blouse and the leather corset of her usual attire.

You came back,” she said, her tone neutral. It was hard for Iden to gauge whether she was relieved, or still angry with him.

Thought I’d give the whole redemption thing a go,” he replied, standing there stupidly with his face covered in blood. “I brought your books back. I’m...sorry that I took them.”

What changed your mind?” she asked. “You could have been long gone by now, I wasn’t expecting to see you again.”

I made it down to the foothills, where I met the Paladins. They told me that they were coming to kill you, and I suppose that I was right to assume that they might succeed. But besides that, I just felt...bad. The further away from you I got, the worse it became.”

Well-adjusted people would call that a conscience,” she said, failing to suppress a smirk. “I suppose I should be thanking you. If you hadn’t come to my rescue, I would certainly have been killed. Those Paladins knew exactly what they were doing.”

It wasn’t just my conscience,” he said, Isabelle watching him curiously with her green eyes. “I felt like I had left something behind up here, a part of myself. I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed your company until it was too late.”

He began to walk over to the bookshelves, Isabelle following behind him silently. He knelt, and opened his pack, returning the dusty tomes to their respective places. He handed the last one to Isabelle, who turned it over to examine the red leather cover.

De Mercier,” she muttered, clutching it against her breast protectively.

I might never be a warrior poet,” Iden began, “but it’s like you said. I can choose what kind of person I want to be, and I don’t want to be the kind of person who steals from his friends, who betrays people’s trust. Whatever money I might have gotten for these books wouldn’t be worth the harm that it would do to you, and to me...”

He slung his pack over his back and rose to his feet, Isabelle keeping her eyes on him as she cradled her book like it was a lost child.

I suppose I’ll be going now,” he muttered, turning his gaze to the ground. “I hate to ask you this, I really do, but may I keep a pocketful of gold? It’s not out of any greed, just enough to see me to my next job. Without it, I fear that I might starve.”

I...suppose so,” Isabelle replied hesitantly, “let’s call it a bodyguard’s wage. I’d be dead without you, after all. But before you go...”

She returned her book to its shelf, then turned and headed towards her pile. She rummaged for a minute or two, returning with a roll of cotton bandages. She had not conjured this fabric, it was as real as he was.

Oh, Iden,” she mumbled as she reached up to grip his face in her hand. She turned it to the left, then to the right, examining his broken nose and the bruises that had spread around his eyes. “You’re a mess. I’ll do what I can, come with me.”

***

Iden followed Isabelle down one of the snaking passages, arriving at the spring where they had so often bathed together. She had him sit beside the pool, where she filled a jug with the clear water, pouring it over his face to wash away the drying blood. He didn’t protest, gritting his teeth as she gripped his crooked nose. She snapped the cartilage back into place, a wave of pain making him recoil. She tore off two pieces of cotton, stuffing them into his nostrils to stem the fresh bleeding, and then wrapped a length of the bandage around his face.

I have something that might help with the pain,” she began, but Iden shook his head.

I’ve had worse, my nose has been broken more times than I can count.”

You fought well,” she said, staring into the shimmering pool. “You killed those two Paladins without taking so much as a scratch, but you knew that you couldn’t win, didn’t you? Without my magic, you wouldn’t have stood a chance against their commander, and you’re experienced enough to have known that. In fact, you must have planned to meet all six of them head-on, it was a stroke of luck that you only had to fight two at once. What were you thinking?”

That you didn’t deserve to die,” he replied, shrugging his armored shoulders. “I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I hadn’t at least tried to help. My own life isn’t worth much these days.”

Even though you had a rucksack full of loot, you climbed all the way back up here, and started a fight that you couldn’t possibly have expected to win, just for my sake?”

Isabelle...you’re the only person who’s ever valued me for anything other than my sword arm, the only one who has ever believed that I could be more than just a killer for hire. Before I met you, I didn’t even know that there was anything more to aspire to. I suppose I felt as though...if I let you die, then everything that you saw in me would die with you.”

Iden...” Isabelle began, but her voice trailed off.

I figure we’re probably square now,” he said, rising to his feet. Isabelle looked back at him as he readjusted his pack, touching his fingers against his bandages. “I should get going, I’d like to make it down from the peak while there’s still some light left. I don’t fancy tackling all those loose rocks and snowdrifts in the dark.”

You’re leaving?” Isabelle asked, her expression still neutral.

I’ll have to seek my fortune elsewhere. You should leave too,” he added solemnly. “The Paladins will send a whole army to avenge their fallen brothers. Go somewhere remote, somewhere that you won’t be troubled by the likes of us mortals.”

He began to walk up the tunnel that led into the main cavern, but soon heard the sound of bare feet on rock echoing through the passage. He felt Isabelle’s hand on his pauldron, and he looked back over his shoulder to see her standing behind him.

Please don’t leave,” she said, the plea coming across more urgent than she had perhaps intended. “I don’t want you to go.”

But I lied to you, I stole from you,” he replied as he turned to face her. She peered up at him with her green eyes, her lower lip trembling, a head shorter than him in her human form. “I betrayed you.”

You made bad decisions, yes, but you corrected them. You hurt me, but you made amends. You made the decision to be better than you are, Iden. You’re every bit the man that de Mercier was.”

He opened his mouth to reply, but he was silenced by her kiss, Isabelle standing on her toes and hooking her slim fingers around the collar of his breastplate to reach him. It was soothing, affectionate, the strokes of her tongue slow and measured. When she pulled away, there was a smile on her face, and tears in her eyes.

You taste of blood,” she chuckled. “Won’t you stay here, with me? You’ve been so concerned with finding your fortune that you’ve been blind to what is right before your eyes. You can’t see the forest for the trees.”

What do you mean?” he asked.

You spoke of wanting to leave the life of a sellsword behind you, of siring an army of children. You said that your quest for riches was merely a means to an end. Iden,” she continued, clutching her arm meekly as she stared at her feet. “When I appeared to you as Isabelle, I will admit that my intentions were frivolous. I was bored, lonely, and you were a welcome diversion. But I saw something more in you, a kindness, a gentleness that I hoped to coax out of you in time. When you stole my books and fled, I thought that I had failed, that you were not the man that I had thought you to be.”

Now her gaze rose to meet his again, the emerald-green of her irises reflecting the wavering light of the torches that lined the stone walls.

Yet that act was the greatest test of your character. When faced with the choice of taking the path of least resistance, or of acting selflessly, you chose the latter.”

She placed a hand on his stubbly cheek, her skin smooth and soft against his.

I haven’t seen another dragon for so long that I can scarcely remember what they’re like,” she continued, a hint of bitterness creeping into her voice. “And yet I yearn for companionship as any woman does. I pine for a family of my own, something that I thought might no longer be possible for me. What mortal man would have me, knowing what I truly am? Iden...if I’m being presumptuous, if I’m letting my imagination run wild, then tell me now. Spare me from this terrible uncertainty.”

We...can do that?” he asked, his eyes wide. “A human and a dragon can...”

Yes, though not in this form,” she replied hastily. “I would not have attempted to entrap you.”

Where would we live?” he asked, “here?”

We could have the estate that you spoke of, enough land that no one would bother us, our children would want for nothing. If you were with me, then we could pass as a retired sellsword and his young wife. Through you, I could simply buy my meals as I did in the old days, we could even purchase grazing land so that we might raise our own livestock. As I once told you, I’m happy to part with my gold if it means obtaining something of greater value, and what could have more value than our happiness?”

Even if you hadn’t a single coin to your name, and there wasn’t a hope of our union bearing fruit, how could I ever refuse you?” Iden replied.

Tears rolled down her cheeks as he wrapped his arms around her, hugging her against his breastplate. He nestled his bandaged face in her flowing, auburn hair, lamenting that he couldn’t breathe in her wonderful scent. After a few moments, he realized how uncomfortable his armor must be, releasing her from his grasp to see her beaming up at him with rosy cheeks.

So...what do we do now?” he asked, Isabelle wiping her eyes on her sleeve.

It will take some time for the Paladins to return with word of their defeat, and more time still before the Order can assemble a force to seek revenge. We have a little while yet before we have to start moving, so let’s relax for a few days. Once you’ve regained your strength, we can decide what to do next. I’m afraid that when it comes to real estate, you probably have more experience than I do.”

You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little...dumbfounded,” he replied. “Two minutes ago I had nothing, I was at rock bottom. Now I have everything that I ever wanted, and a few things that I never would have imagined.”

Let’s get you out of that armor and into something a little more comfortable,” she said. “And you’ll be hungry after your bout, I’ll get you something to eat.”

Don’t worry about that,” he chuckled, “let’s just take it easy for a little while. We’ve both been through a lot over the last few hours. Maybe we should take a dip in the spring?”

That...sounds like a good idea,” Isabelle sighed. “Sorry, my mind is racing.”

Come help me remove my armor,” Iden said. “A little time in the water will clear both of our heads.”

***

Iden lounged in the warm water, one arm resting on the rocky shore, the other wrapped around Isabelle as she lay her head on his shoulder. The surface began to bubble again, more steam rising towards the stalactites that clung to the domed ceiling above them, Isabelle heating it whenever the temperature began to drop too much.

The warmth soothed his aching muscles, his body was covered in bruises from his fight, and he had to be careful to keep his bandaged face from getting wet. Isabelle’s long hair floated beside him, her smooth skin pressed up against his, one of her small hands resting on his thigh.

He had expected the both of them to gush about their future together, to fantasize about what might come, to make more apologies for past mistakes. Instead, they had simply enjoyed each other’s company for a while, peaceful and quiet.

Do you mind if I polymorph?” Isabelle asked, Iden opening his eyes to look down at her. “I should see to my wounds.”

O-of course,” he mumbled, “I had no idea that there was anything wrong.”

She left his side, wading deeper into the pool until she was floating in the center. Iden watched as she began to change, the sight routine to him now, her pale skin cracking into blue scales. She grew, horns and wings sprouting, her long tail emerging from beneath the water to float on the surface. As she grew heavier, her displacement made the water level rise, so large now that her body created waves that lapped gently against Iden’s chest when she moved.

Before long, Isabelle had returned to her true length. As he had suspected, the pool was just large and deep enough that she could submerge her massive frame. Only the sharp quills that ran down her back and her folded wings were above the surface, her head rising up like a sea serpent on her flexible neck.

Now he could better see her injuries. There was a deep cut on her right shoulder, and one on her left forelimb where the dragonhorn pike had penetrated her scales. Iden had thought her impervious to damage, at least where human strength was concerned, and so it was a little jarring to see her injured. Dark blood began to seep from the wounds, fogging the water around her.

Are you alright?” he asked. She was large, but the quantity of blood that was entering the pool was still alarming.

The wounds are superficial,” she replied, craning her long neck to examine them more closely.

Is there something I can do? Do you...need anything?”

Unless you’re hiding a healer who specializes in dragons in your pack, I don’t think there’s anything that you can do. I must cauterize these, please don’t be alarmed. It will hurt, and I may...vocalize.”

Iden braced himself as she pursed her lips over the cut on her shoulder, a bright jet of flame shooting from her mouth, filling the wound briefly before dissipating into a wisp of smoke. Isabelle growled, a sound so deep and powerful that it made the surface of the water ripple, the scent of charred flesh reaching Iden’s nose. She repeated the process with the cut on her forelimb, then sank deeper into the water, letting it soothe the burns. It seemed that she was fireproof on the outside, but not on the inside.

So what happens to those wounds when you become human again?” he asked. “Do you still feel them?”

My mortal form is created and destroyed as I please, it is a magical construct, but my true form must be given time to heal. It would be wise to remain in this state for a short while, at least until the flesh begins to knit. Dragons heal rather slowly compared to humans, our metabolisms are sluggish.”

Metabolisms?” Iden wondered.

We are long-lived, we eat infrequently, our hearts beat only twenty or thirty times per minute. All aspects of our lives run slower than those of a mortal. I trust that you won’t mind too much if I remain this way, if only for a time.”

Why should I mind?” he chuckled.

Well...I designed Isabelle to draw the male gaze, to be appealing, sensual. I would not expect you to find anything appealing about a dragon,” she said, smoke billowing from her snout as she relaxed with her head partially submerged. “Mortal women are soft, fleshy, dainty. They have curves and bumps, soft hair, and their skin is smooth.”

But you weren’t always that way when we made love,” Iden said, wading a little closer to her in the pool. She was so large that she resembled a scaly island, her reptilian eyes tracking him as he drew nearer. “Last time, you changed your form so much that I couldn’t tell what was dragon, and what was human.”

You did like that, didn’t you?” she chuckled.

Maybe it’s just because it’s all new to me, but there’s something to be said for scales, and for claws. You can do things that no mortal woman can. Your tongue, your tail, I mean...” He started to blush, Isabelle curling her scaly lips into a smile. She couldn’t see his cheeks turning red beneath his bandage, but she could sense the heat. “Can I touch you?”

Of course,” she purred, “I won’t bite.”

Iden swam a little closer, his feet leaving the smooth rock as he entered the deepest point of the pool, approaching her flank. He reached out a hand, stroking her rough hide. He had touched her scales before, of course. Even in her half-transformed state, the blue ones had been large and rough, but now they were even bigger. Each of the armored, overlapping plates was almost as large as his hand, shaped vaguely like a backwards-facing arrowhead with a subtle ridge that ran down the center. They were like jewels, shifting hues from blue to green depending on how they caught the light. They were so hard, but oddly flexible, there was some give when he pressed down on them.

He moved his hand lower, reaching her beige underside, submerged beneath the water. These were just as flush and as fine as they had been when they had last made love, and he felt blood rushing to his loins as he remembered the feeling of her inner thighs and her scaly mound on his lips and tongue.

She was just so impossibly massive, rising up before him like a sheer wall, only the steady expansion and contraction of her chest serving as proof that she hadn’t been carved from solid stone. It was overwhelming in a way, her size and strength dwarfed him. She was more like a force of nature than a living thing.

When I told you that I couldn’t conceive a child as Isabelle, I hope that you understood the implication,” she said. He looked up to see her head rise from the water, her flexible neck maneuvering it closer, her glowing eyes peering at him expectantly as water dripped from her lower jaw.

I hadn’t thought that far ahead,” he replied, swallowing conspicuously as she exposed her sharp fangs in a smirk. “Do you mean to say that we have to...as you are now? Is that even...how would we...can we fit together?”

We can,” she replied simply.

Do I at least get to be on top?”

She laughed, the motion making waves in the pool.

I appreciate your candor, Iden, but let’s recuperate a little before we attempt anything quite so...acrobatic.”

He turned to put his back to her, resting his head on her scaly flank, letting himself float in the water. She seemed pleased that he was so at ease around her, and he had a sneaking suspicion that she had been changing her form during their romantic encounters in order to slowly acclimate him to the idea of making love to her as she truly was. He couldn’t say that her attempts had not succeeded.

CHAPTER 11: DRAGON RIDER

Iden dragged the body up the tunnel, the pristine armor that it was still wearing clanking as it scraped against the rock. He felt the chill wind against his face, the air becoming cooler and fresher, the light of the sun bathing him as he reached the mouth of the cave. He pulled the dead Paladin out onto the outcrop, the wind whipping his hair, and placed his foot on its breastplate.

Guess I should...say a few words,” he mumbled. “I didn’t know you, and you didn’t know me. Can’t say that I’m too sorry about what happened, on account of you trying to murder me and all, but I hope you’ll find peace in the afterlife. I feel like there’s a lesson to be learned in all this. Maybe something to do with tolerance, or perhaps with taking advantage of numerical superiority. I wanted to leave you guys in the cave so that your friends could find you and give you a proper burial once we’re gone, but...you’re starting to smell, so...off you go.”

Iden rolled the body off the outcrop, where it tumbled down the snowy mountainside, settling in a heap with the three others. They were already being covered in a dusting of snow, they would probably be buried before tomorrow.

He brushed himself off and retreated back into the cave, arriving at the main chamber to see Isabelle sitting beside her pile like a giant dog begging for a treat, clasping something daintily between her giant claws.

Alright, the last of the Paladins is...gone,” he said. “What have you got there?”

This is a rare book indeed!” she said excitedly, her spiky quills rattling with what might have been an expression of glee. “It’s difficult to determine its exact age, but it was penned sometime during the late magical period, which puts it at around four hundred years old. It’s a book of spells, written in the blood of a frost giant. I’d recognize that smell anywhere, even after all these years. The magic in the blood imbues the reader with a limited form of the creature’s power.”

That’s how they were able to snuff out your magic?”

Cryomancy, yes,” she replied with a nod. “They used it to quell the flames in my belly for a time. I’m amazed that such an artifact survived all these years, what else do the Paladins have stashed deep in their vaults?”

What about this thing?” Iden asked, stooping to retrieve the odd pike. It was surprisingly light, impeccably balanced, the hilt made from a decorative alloy that he didn’t recognize.

Dragonhorn,” she said solemnly. “One of the only things sharp enough to pierce a dragon’s scales. It was sourced from one of my fallen kin. Imagine someone murdering a relative of yours, and then sharpening their femur with the intent to kill you with it, and that’s about how seeing a dragonhorn weapon makes me feel. We should consider ourselves lucky that they didn’t have dragonhide armor, it would have served as much more effective fireproofing.”

Want me to toss it?” Iden asked.

No,” she said with a shake of her head. “I would prefer that the Paladins never recover it. Just place it in the pile with the other weapons.”

He walked over to the mound of treasure and placed the pike atop it. The neat pile had been somewhat scattered during the fight, there were coins spread throughout the entire cave. Returning them to their rightful place was going to be a real chore.

So how are you going to move all of this stuff?” Iden asked, appraising the mound of treasure. “You said so yourself, there’s no way to get this much treasure down the mountain.”

Contrary to what you might assume, this cave is not my first lair,” she replied as she looked up from her book. “I’ve moved my hoard several times over the centuries. No matter how remote my choice of abode, mortal farms and settlements always seem to encroach upon it sooner or later. It’s not an easy process, and it requires locating a suitable destination first, but it can be done.”

So you’ll need to find another mountain with a large enough cave? Then what?”

Then I’ll box everything up in wooden crates, and make several trips back and forth. We dragons are stout creatures, we can carry a great deal of weight on the wing.”

If she could carry a cow, then it wasn’t hard to imagine her transporting its weight in loot. Even then, it was probably an arduous process. It was impossible to estimate how many tons of gold was actually in the cave, or how many trips would be required.

He stooped to investigate the weapon pile. They had stripped the Paladins of everything but their armor. As nice as it would have been to get his hands on a full set that wasn’t covered in dents and scratches, walking around in what was essentially a Paladin’s uniform was a bad idea. It might fool the uninitiated, but if he happened upon any real Paladins, they would see through his disguise immediately. The only way that one of their brothers would have parted with their armor was if he had killed them, and they would respond in kind.

What he could keep, however, was one of the short swords. They were distinctive in their design, but as long as he kept it sheathed, it shouldn’t draw any attention. His own sword had been slagged by Isabelle’s magic, the blade remaining bent and misshapen after it had cooled. He lifted one of the swords, the shining steel glinting under the torchlight, the hilt decorated with a carving of an eagle’s head. For self-professed keepers of the peace, their gear certainly was extravagant. In Iden’s opinion, most of their coin would be better spent feeding the poor, rather than gilding their armor. He picked up the scabbard too, securing it about his waist. This one was nicer than his, and it had no special Paladin markings on it that might give him away.

Be a dear and put this on the shelf with the others, would you?” Isabelle asked. She brought her long tail up and used the tapered end to manipulate the spellbook, taking advantage of the appendage’s immense reach to pass it to him. He took it, wary of her sharp quills, and made his way over to the shelves where he placed it with the rest.

Looks like you came out on top in the end,” he said, stepping back to appraise her collection. “You’re up two artifacts, and they’re down four Paladins.”

I suppose that’s one way of looking at things,” she replied. “Well, this is unusual...”

Iden turned to see her digging through her pile of coins, sending great handfuls cascading down its slope. She hooked her claws around something, dragging it free and toppling it onto the cave floor. It took him a moment to realize what he was looking at. In order to escape the magical net that had bound her, Isabelle had bathed herself in flames. Her tough scales were impervious to her fiery breath, while the webbing had burned away, but she had been lying atop her treasure pile at the time. Her breath had apparently been hot enough to melt a clump of the gold coins together, resulting in what almost looked like a lumpy, golden tree trunk in both appearance and size.

The melting point of gold is far lower than that of steel,” she muttered, pawing at the strange sculpture. “I suppose I’ll have to smelt this into something else.”

It’s getting pretty late,” Iden said, stretching his arms above his head and yawning widely. “We should probably sleep fairly soon, but all this slaying of Paladins and then dragging them around has me rather hungry.”

We should both eat,” she replied with a nod of her massive head. “I’ll need the energy if I’m going to heal my wounds, and the Paladins surprised me before I could partake of the meal that I brought back after my hunt.”

What did you catch?” Iden asked.

Well...perhaps buying without express permission would be a better word for it than hunting,” she chuckled. “I brought back a couple of cows, their carcasses are packed with snow in my...pantry. I’ll go fetch them.”

She dropped to a four-legged posture, walking across the cavern in the direction of one of the side tunnels. Her footsteps made the ground shake beneath Iden’s feet, and he watched her as she passed him, her gait reminding him of a giant horse. His head scarcely reached her shoulder, and she had so much sheer mass that it was more fitting to compare her to a building than any living thing that Iden had ever seen. The immense muscles that held her body aloft rippled and flexed just beneath the surface of her shining hide, the fat deposits on her soft underbelly and thick tail quivering with every step, and he found himself transfixed once again by the jewel-like quality of her scales.

He never quite got used to how large she was, even if her transformations were now routine. It was so much easier to get his head around a nine-foot humanoid, rather than a thirty-foot beast that had almost nothing in common with the human form, and yet Iden found her far from displeasing. There was a certain grace to her movements that made it hard to look away from her. Despite the strength that she radiated, every twitch of her tail was moderated, every step of her padded feet measured. If he were to scatter the ground with chicken eggs, he doubted that she would break a single one.

She vanished into the tunnel, reappearing a couple of minutes later with two carcasses. They looked like dairy cows, not unlike the one that she had butchered for him previously, their white hides patterned with black splotches. She had one of them clutched in her jaws, and the other was clasped against her chest with one of her forelimbs.

She hobbled into the room with a three-legged gait, releasing the livestock, letting them fall to the cave floor. They wobbled with the thunderous impact, and Iden could have sworn that he heard their bones breaking. She carried them with such ease that it was easy to forget how much they weighed.

He took up his seat at the mahogany table, shifting his weight to get comfortable in the comically elaborate throne as she butchered one of the animals for him. She sliced its flank open, using the claw on her index finger like a butcher’s knife, carving him off a choice cut. She speared it on her talon, then cooked it with her breath, searing it to perfection in only a few seconds. She placed it before him with a wet slap, Iden wasting no time as he dug into it.

This is the first time that I’ve seen you eat anything,” he mused, pausing to fork another piece of roasted beef into his mouth. “Do you cook yours?”

Of course,” she replied, “I’m not a savage.”

Isabelle hooked her curved claws deep into the second cow, dragging it clear of the table, Iden watching curiously as she took a deep breath. She opened her mouth wide, shooting a jet of flame from her throat, the heat of it searing the fur from the cow’s hide in the blink of an eye. The flames splashed against the rock around it, its flesh becoming charred, the skin crisping. She gave it a second, shorter blast, then stopped to appraise her cooking as it smoked. The sight reminded Iden of a pig that had been cooked over a spit, but far larger. He had seen them prepared that way once or twice during his stays at war camps, where they had been eaten communally by the soldiers.

Iden had expected her to cut the carcass into smaller pieces with her serrated teeth, but he was surprised to see her open her jaws wide, scooping the cow’s massive rump into her mouth as though she was picking it up with a shovel. Her head was almost as long as Iden was tall, but even that was not large enough for her to get it all into her mouth at once. As he watched, her maw widened, almost as if her lower jaw was separating into two halves. Her teeth sank into its seared flesh, her jaws working to drag it deeper into her throat, the upper and lower sections moving independently of one another. When the cow was about halfway into her mouth, she raised her head off the ground, her snout pointing at the ceiling as she used her meal’s weight to help take it deeper.

The muscles in her long neck began to drag it down, he could see them flexing in waves. The cow was fatter than her neck was thick, and he could make out its outline as it traveled down her gullet, soon only its head and forelegs protruding from her maw. It was like watching a snake devour a mouse, or a duck eating a morsel of bread, but on a frighteningly large scale. When she was finally able to close her jaws, the only evidence of the cow was the bulge in her long neck, the muscles still working beneath her scales. Eventually, that too vanished. It wasn’t hard for Iden to imagine a stomach large enough to accommodate the animal residing somewhere inside that massive body.

She glanced over at him, and he realized that he had frozen with a forkful of meat suspended an inch from his mouth.

That was, uh...unexpected,” he said as she bared her teeth in a grin.

Trust me, mortals do plenty of things that we dragons find distasteful.”

Iden returned to his meal, trying not to think of the fact that he had been very close to suffering the same fate as that cow during their first meeting. Or at least, the first time that he had met Isabelle in her true form.

She lay down beside his table like an oversized cat, her forelegs crossed neatly as she watched him eat, the tip of her long tail waving back and forth idly. Iden realized that he could hear her breathing, her lungs alone must be as large as he was.

So, where are you going to sleep?” he asked, gesturing to the pile of curtains and gowns with his fork. “You’re a little too big to fit in the bed now.”

Perhaps I’ll sleep...’around’ the bed,” she replied, glancing at her pile. “I usually sleep curled up around my treasure. It brings me a kind of peace to feel my valuables against my scales, like I’ve created a protective wall around them.”

You won’t roll over and crush me in your sleep or anything, will you?”

You’ll be quite safe,” she replied with a chuckle.

I have to say,” Iden added as he finished up the last of his beef, “you cook a great steak.”

That’s an attractive trait in mortal pairings, isn’t it?” she asked. “The female is expected to cook, to maintain a home. Feathering the nest, they call it.”

That’s the way of things,” Iden replied, rising to his feet and setting his cutlery down. “Is it different for your people?”

Not terribly,” she said, standing and walking beside him as he made his way over to the pile of sheets. She walked slowly, matching pace with his comparatively tiny legs, her head facing him on its flexible neck. “Romance between dragons can endure lengths of time that see mountains rise, and civilizations fall, or it can be as fleeting an encounter as those that you once boasted of. In either case, the task of rearing children usually falls on the female. A dragon will lay a clutch of anywhere between six and a dozen leathery eggs, each one roughly the size of a melon. She is then tasked with keeping them warm, and eventually with feeding the hatchlings.”

Would you sit on the eggs like a chicken?” Iden asked.

Heavens, no. The eggs must be kept at a steady temperature, and the best way to achieve that is by setting fire to the nest, keeping it toasty while they develop.”

Sitting on eggs to keep them warm surprises you, but setting their nest on fire is routine?” Iden chuckled as he sat down on the pile of luxurious fabrics. “Wait...a dozen eggs?”

You’re wondering what will happen after we consummate our union,” she replied with a toothy grin. The pile of fine fabrics that had served as their bed was situated at the foot of the treasure horde, Isabelle planting the trunk of her massive body beside it to his left. Her long tail coiled around beneath him, so long that it rose up on his right, her long neck and her head completing the circle. He found himself nestled within a wall of scales, surrounded by Isabelle on all sides. She let her head rest on the sheets to his right, taking up as much space as her human form’s entire body would have. It was her way of sleeping together in spite of their massive difference in size.

It had crossed my mind,” he admitted, hooking his fingers behind his head and lying back nonchalantly. “If what you say is true, that humans and dragons can...bear fruit, then what will our offspring look like? What will they...be?”

Worry not, Iden,” Isabelle replied. Her head was so near now that he could reach out and touch her scaly cheek, her eyes as large as his fist. They were stunning up close, like fire opals polished smooth, an ethereal glow emanating from somewhere beyond her reptilian pupils. She had eyelashes, he realized, although her eyelids were covered in fine scales. “Not only would our children be healthy, but they would also be stronger and longer-lived than any human before them. Their dragon’s blood would imbue them with magical abilities not dissimilar from my own. I promised you an army of children, did I not? Six, or maybe even twelve in one fell swoop should fulfill that promise.”

But...what would they look like?” he asked. “Would they be dragons or humans?”

A little of both. Their kind has been conceived before, in ages long past, though they were rare even then. They appeared as stout men of mortal form, their fingers clawed, their hides covered in tough scales. They were not unlike how I appeared to you last we made love, but that is their natural state, not a result of a partial polymorph.”

And will they be able to change their shape, as you do?”

So that they might mingle amongst the mortals without fear of persecution, you mean? Yes, and so too shall they have mastery over flame, they need never fear its heat.”

At least we won’t have to worry about them burning themselves on the stove,” Iden mumbled.

Your children would have the potential to be great warriors, able to best even the most renowned mortals in combat, their natural attributes making them almost impervious to harm. They would also make admirable scholars, their longevity allowing them to travel the world, to record history as it happens. Their intellect and their magic would make them as demigods. A mortal could not ask for more in his offspring, no parent could be made prouder.”

But a dragon could ask for more,” Iden said, his eyes turning to the sheets. “Are you sure that you want to go through with this? I don’t feel like I’m bringing very much to the table here.”

Oh, but you are,” she replied with a smile. “If I am the last of my kind as I suspect, then my only chance to bear children is through you. The circumstances of our meeting were unique, there may not be a second mortal man who has cause to cross paths with me, and fewer still kind-hearted enough that they might come to see me as more than just a monster to be destroyed. If I am not alone, then there are so few of us left that I might well spend the rest of my life searching in vain, suffering from a terrible loneliness all the while. Without you, Iden, none of this would be possible.”

He looked up to see one of her massive wings extending, the leathery skin covering him like a canopy, sealing him within her scaly prison. The membrane was so thin as to be almost transparent, letting pass a little light from the torches beyond, illuminating a network of veins that spread out like the branches of a tree.

Perhaps it has escaped your attention,” she added, “but it is not gold that I guard tonight.”

Are you saying that I’m your treasure?” Iden asked, cocking an eyebrow at her.

If you want to be blunt about it,” she chuckled. “Your prose will need some work yet if you mean to claim the mantle of warrior poet.”

My aspirations might have shifted somewhat,” he replied. “I’m thinking of something more along the lines of proud father of an army of children. The poetry can wait.”

Isabelle laughed, her hot breath blowing the sheets by his feet. She watched him with her smoldering eyes, their glow illuminating her face in the gloom.

You sound eager to get started, Iden, perhaps it would be unwise to keep you waiting any longer...”

He flinched as he was engulfed in flames, his racing heart slowing as his mind caught up with his reflexes, reminding him that her fire wouldn’t harm him. His clothing burned away to leave him nude, Iden all the more aware of where her eyes were looking due to the light that they cast. She played them over his naked body as he lay on the silken sheets beside her head, her massive tongue wetting her lips.

N-now?” he stammered, “I don’t know if-”

Don’t be afraid,” she purred, the low tones of her voice seeming to resonate within his very bones. She lifted her head from the sheets, hovering over him, her long neck snaking out of sight such was its length. “I’ll be ever so gentle, I’ll treat you like you’re made of glass. You find my true form pleasing, isn’t that right? This needn’t be a rushed affair, we could take our time, enjoy one another. If that’s what you want, of course.”

I can’t even imagine how this is going to work,” he chuckled nervously, “so take the lead.”

You’re willingly handing the reins to me?” she asked, her sharp teeth flashing as she smiled down at him. “I never thought I’d hear you ask that of me so...plainly...” She opened her jaws as Iden watched, her long, winding tongue sliding past her lips. It was easily as long as the span of his arm, flat and wide, with a tapered tip. The pink flesh glistened with a thick layer of saliva, making its smooth surface almost reflective. Sagging strands dripped from her mouth, escaping between her pearly teeth, her hot breath washing over him.

He felt it flop against his belly, surprisingly heavy and warm, its texture akin to satin that had been drenched in honey. Her saliva was so viscous, leaving a slimy smear on his skin as she dragged it lower, the muscles in his belly tensing reflexively when it passed over them.

Her silken flesh brushed the tip of his glans as her organ roamed lower, and Iden realized that he was hard despite the proximity of her razor teeth and the threat of her fiery breath. The last time that he had looked down that maw, she had been ready to swallow him whole. How their opinion of one another had changed since that fateful day.

She began to paint his shaft with her tongue, batting at his member more clumsily than he was used to. Her thick organ dragged across his inner thighs, soaking his groin in her bubbling slaver, matting his pubic hair as her dexterous muscle flopped about. Their difference in stature was now such that she was having a hard time gripping him and coiling around his shaft in the way that she had before, but Iden wasn’t complaining. It almost felt like someone was dragging a warm, slimy towel over his lower body.

Her lips were now too large to purse around his glans, and so she brushed them against his erection instead. They were as soft as pillows, lined with the same fine scales that were present on her underbelly. She pressed them against his thighs and his stomach as she kept up her licking, kissing him, her oversized lips linked to his skin by strands of her warm saliva. There was so much of it, clinging to him with an almost jelly-like consistency. He was momentarily alarmed to feel her teeth brush his skin, but they were smooth and unexpectedly dull, not at all as sharp as knives as he had assumed. There was no way that they would pose any danger to him unless she applied a great deal of pressure.

Iden lay back, surprised by how good it felt, flinching as the flat of her winding tongue dragged from his balls to the tip of his member. He reached down, his hands finding the end of her snout. She had incredible strength, even the subtle movements of her head so powerful than they could have knocked him over easily. The blue scales here were smaller than those on her back and flanks, closer to the size of small pebbles, creating a pleasant texture beneath his palms. He could feel the muscles beneath her hide moving as she breathed, her nostrils blowing warm air across his chest, each one large enough that he could have fit his fist inside it.

She began to lap slowly, dragging her tongue from the base of his member to the tip, pressing his erection against his stomach as she licked. Her rhythm was slow, her tongue wide enough that it completely covered his shaft, spilling over onto his stomach to tickle him with every glance. He wasn’t sure what to do with his hands, letting them rest on her nose as her massive head rose and fell with the motion. Rather than the flurries of licks that he was accustomed to, this was more like one, continuous sensation. Her tongue was as long as his outstretched arm, and so the process of her dragging the slippery organ up his shaft took a good few seconds, its velvety surface setting every nerve alight as it scoured him.

She succeeded in gripping his member finally, folding her tongue around it like the fat coils of a snake, piling one on top of the other. It reminded him of when she had gripped his cock in her wonderfully smooth and chubby tail, her tongue was almost as large as it had been. But now, instead of cool scales, he felt feverishly hot flesh. She was able to encompass him effortlessly, Iden looking down to see the heavy coils moving as they tightened and flexed, her control over the muscle incredible. He could feel every twitch, every spasm as it slithered around him, the layer of drool that coated it gluing it to his skin and making her contact slick. She made no attempt to stem the flow of saliva, letting it droop from her lips in a sagging web, raining down on his lower body as she poised there above him. It wasn’t that she was drooling profusely, no moreso than a human in the same situation at least, but her size meant that there was so much more of it.

Her glowing eyes rose to meet his, a pang of pleasure coursing through him at her merest glance. Her gaze was so intense, almost predatory, her reptilian pupils dilating into larger circles like the eyes of a cat in the darkness.

Her tongue was larger and clumsier than that of her prior forms, but something about its weight and strength made up for that, its silky surface gliding against his shaft as she licked him from every angle at once. In many ways, it felt like was buried to the hilt in a warm vagina, but she had far more control over her tongue than any woman did over her loins, Iden’s toes curling as her damp flesh slid against his skin in maddening spirals. Much like her tail, she alternated the speed and pressure, Iden never knowing what to expect next. It was captivating, he couldn’t focus on anything else, his fingers digging into her snout as she stroked.

Iden felt her tongue unwind from his member to leave it bobbing in the air, dripping with her saliva, her scaly lips planting kisses on his torso as she roamed higher. She reached his face, looking down her long muzzle at him as though she expected them to embrace, quickly realizing that they were far too mismatched.

They chuckled in unison, Iden reaching up to run his hand along the underside of her jaw, as there was no cheek within reach. The skin beneath it was loose and leathery, small, horn-like structures tickling his palm.

Yeah, I don’t think that will work,” he said, the lingering euphoria from her licking still sending jolts of pleasure coursing through him as he lay beneath her on the sheets.

Naysayer,” she chuckled, parting her lips. Her tongue wound its way towards him, brushing against his red cheek to leave a slippery trail, poising in front of his mouth as though she expected him to meet her kiss. Her organ was too thick to have any hope of fitting. His eyes tracked a rope of her clear, glistening slaver as it broke away and fell to his chest, Isabelle’s glowing eyes full of anticipation as she peered down at him.

Iden opened his mouth, the dragon maneuvering the very tip of her tapered tongue inside, where it met his own. If they had been mismatched before, the difference was now comical, but her gentle licks and flurries were no less measured and gentle. Her embrace was slow, doting, the barest tip of her tongue enough to fill him to capacity. Iden did his best to return her affections, her saliva dribbling down his cheeks, the metallic taste of her flesh tingling his taste buds. He reeled as she licked the roof of his mouth, sliding against his inner cheeks, pressing his tongue flat. She was a little too large for the finesse that she had displayed previously, there was no hope of her coiling her tongue around his in a spiral again, or of her deftly drawing shapes on his palate.

Instead, the excitement came from the sense of strength, of power. She could have lifted him with that thing, she could have forced its length down his throat and split him apart, but she didn’t. She was indeed treating him like he was made of glass, all of that brute strength restrained for his benefit, her movements so slight that they were little more than twitches from her perspective.

The warm breath from her nostrils blew his hair as she breathed, that smoky, pleasant scent filling his lungs. She smelled like the cherry wood that was sometimes burned to flavor meat, there wasn’t a hint of carrion on her breath despite her recent meal.

When she drew back to let him catch his breath, their tongues were joined by a thick rope of her saliva, large enough that smaller droplets traveled along its length to rain to his chest. It broke in short order, Iden finding himself covered in it, warm and slick. He tried to wipe the goo away, finding himself with a handful of bubbly fluid, abandoning his efforts and resigning himself to his sticky fate.

Isabelle seemed amused by his reaction, her deep, resonating laughter making him shake. She glanced down at his member, watching it throb for a moment, as tall and as rigid as Iden had ever seen it. If someone had told him a week ago that he’d be as hard as a rock for a thirty-foot reptile, he would probably have knocked them out for the implication alone, yet here he was.

He watched as Isabelle’s hovering head moved lower, and she began to circle his cock with her tongue, his fingers digging into the sheets as she teased him. This time, rather than attempting to wrap the slimy muscle around it, she curved the flat surface of her organ into a U-shape. It was so large that it could almost completely cover him, Iden’s senses yet again assaulted by a fresh wave of unfamiliar sensations.

He couldn’t help himself, reaching down and attempting to grip the edges of her tongue in his hands, finding her flesh so wet and slippery that he could scarcely find purchase. He dug his fingers into it, and Isabelle didn’t complain. There was no chance of him hurting her, it seemed, he didn’t have anywhere near enough strength to cause her even mild discomfort.

Iden held her tongue in his hands, grinding his member into the subtle groove that ran down the middle, her saliva acting as an admirable lubricant. Now that he was able to set his own pace, he held nothing back, thrusting into her slippery muscle as he wrapped it around his shaft like a sodden blanket. The corners of Isabelle’s mouth curled into a smile as she watched him with her smoldering eyes, the drool from her open maw sloughing onto his thighs and dampening the fabric below.

When she sensed that his pleasure was reaching its peak, she tore her tongue from his grasp, using it to press his member against his belly again. She applied a great deal of pressure on top of her tongue’s already considerable weight, sliding its satin surface against his balls and shaft as if easing out his emission.

Iden couldn’t hold on, reaching down to grip the end of her snout as an orgasm rocked him, overwhelming him so suddenly that it caught him off guard. His eyes widened, and he tried to stifle a whine, his member pulsing against her tongue as his ejaculate mingled with her drool. He could feel its fresh warmth on his stomach as she continued her stroking, the sensation of her slick flesh against his balls making his head spin, the pressure of her massive organ milking him as she lapped.

She kept it up for a minute longer to ensure that every drop had been wrung from him, before pulling back her monstrous tongue, its absence leaving him cold. Iden could scarcely even see his emission, the cloudy fluid diluted by her far more copious drool that pooled on his belly.

I have to admit,” she purred, licking her lips as she watched him pant on the bed. “I was worried that you might have second thoughts once the moment arrived, but I see now that you’re every bit as adventurous as I had hoped.”

Iden lay there for a few moments longer, basking in his afterglow, staring up at the massive wing that covered them. The light from the flickering torches in the cave beyond bled through the thin membrane, and he traced the intricate network of her veins with his eyes, stretched between what resembled long and spindly fingers.

He grabbed a handful of the silken sheets, beginning to clean himself, but Isabelle’s booming voice interrupted him.

I’m afraid that might be a tad premature, assuming that you’ll indulge me, of course.”

She shifted her massive body, rolling onto her side relative to him, exposing her soft underbelly. Iden watched as she lifted one of her hind legs, her clawed toes flexing in the air, exposing what lay between them.

Nestled between her stout thighs were a pair of plump, pink lips, the rosy flesh contrasting sharply with the beige color of her scales. Iden shuffled towards the left side of the bed, where her midsection rose up in front of him like a sheer wall, expanding and contracting gently with her breathing. While she was lying on her side, his kneeling position put her loins at about head height to him, and he planted his hands against the smooth scales above and below it as he leaned in to get a closer look. The first thing that stood out to him was her size. Her vulva was perhaps nine or ten inches from top to bottom, the width of her splayed lips half that. He reached out tentatively, opening the thick folds of her labia with his fingers, feeling her massive frame shiver at his touch. He could make out her entrance, a hole perhaps a little smaller than his fist.

Just how endowed were male dragons? Was she even going to feel anything? He felt like it might be more effective to stick his arm in there up to the elbow…

Besides for that, her anatomy was not unfamiliar. There were the same delicate folds that one would expect to find on an everyday woman, everything was where it was supposed to be, and she was already leaking a trail of clear fluid as her opening twitched expectantly. Iden traced her pleated flesh with his fingers, finding it hot and slimy, pulling his hand away to watch as strands of her juices clung to his fingertips. He understood what she had meant by premature now, this might get a little messy.

He jumped as he felt Isabelle’s breath on his cheek, glancing to his left to see her snout hovering beside him. Her long, flexible neck meant that she could maneuver her head between her own thighs, her reptilian eyes watching him eagerly.

It may be a little...larger than what you’re accustomed to,” she whispered, lowering her voice now that her lips were so close to his ear. “But the same principles apply.”

The unspoken request was easy to parse, and he leaned forward under Isabelle’s watchful eye, planting a kiss on her oversized vulva. Her taste was immediately familiar, her womanly scent too, identical to her prior forms. In a way, it set him at ease, and his next kiss was more sensual. He began to mouth and lick, exploring the creases of her loins with his tongue, employing his fingers at the same time. He stroked her with his digits, running them lightly across her tender flesh, its texture as exquisite as the silken fabrics that he was kneeling on. Her body shivered, the muscles in her passage clenching, making her entrance wink.

As her excitement mounted, more of her syrupy, slimy fluids began to seep from her loins. Just like with her saliva, her size meant that there was comparatively more than there had been with her smaller forms, Iden finding that it was already wetting his face and coating his hands in a slippery glaze.

Isabelle observed him all the while, her scaly eyelids fluttering with every peck and lick, her breathing growing less regular. He saw her sharp teeth emerge to bite her lower lip, sucking it into her mouth, an oddly human gesture coming from such an inhuman creature. It was so strange to be going down on what appeared from his perspective to be a wall of scales, only to have her react to it from slightly behind and to his left. His brain was playing tricks on him, insisting that it was a second person. With only the fiery glow from her eyes, and what torchlight penetrated her wing from above, her neck vanished into the gloom long before he could make out where it joined to the trunk of her body.

Yes,” she whispered in his ear, making him shiver. Her resonating voice was so low and sultry, felt as much as it was heard, dripping with desire just as her loins were. “Keep licking, use the flat of your tongue. Kiss me, kiss me like you want me...like that...”

He slipped a couple of fingers inside of her as he ran his tongue across her sex, feeling the bumpy, ribbed texture of her passage, the muscles spasming as he teased her. She was far looser than she had been in her prior forms, which was to be expected, but he was surprised to feel the pillowy walls pressing around him from all sides. Her grip on his fingers wasn’t tight, but she had a grip, and that alone filled him with anticipation.

He slipped in a third finger, then a fourth, stroking her with his digits. There was plenty of room to move around in there, and he was able to curl his fingers against her sopping tunnel with ease, her eyes widening as the unfamiliar sensation washed over her.

That...feels nice,” she muttered, the clawed toes on her padded feet curling. Her talons were larger than even those of a bear, shaped more like those of a bird of prey, no doubt capable of snatching a sheep from a field in much the same way that an eagle could snatch a fish from a lake.

Now Iden could make out her clitoris, a round, shiny button of flesh about the size of a coin. In her excitement, it had engorged, swollen and tender as it protruded beneath a protective hood of skin. He slid his tongue closer, Isabelle’s great body tensing as he neared it, her breath catching in her throat as he glanced it. He began to lap at it, making slow circles on its smooth surface, her heartbeat making it throb against his tongue. She shivered and crooned, visibly struggling to stop her long frame from withing and pushing him away, her taloned toes clenching.

Iden pursed his lips around the protrusion, drawing on it gently, painting it with all the finesse of an artist’s brush. He wondered if its larger size made it more sensitive. It was certainly a possibility, judging by how strongly she was reacting to his attentions.

Oh...Iden,” Isabelle moaned as she brushed her snout against his cheek, nuzzling him as he kept up the pace. Her breath blew his hair, her soft lips pressing against the nape of his neck as best they could, able to encompass everything between his shoulder and his ear. He felt her tongue drag across his skin, hot and slimy, the dull points of her teeth pressing against him.

It was certainly a strange experience to have your lover muttering in your ear and mouthing at your neck as you were going down on her. She was so impossibly vast, and yet she was dancing with every stroke of his tongue just the same as any five-foot girl would. It made him feel oddly powerful.

Isabelle maneuvered her head over to his right side, Iden pausing his ardent licking to glance at her, wondering what she was up to.

Don’t stop,” she purred, “I want to join in...”

He watched as her tongue parted her lips, his cheeks reddening as he realized what she intended to do with it. Iden withdrew his fingers from her passage, along with a handful of her slime, a strand almost as thick as his wrist drooping from his hand and stretching obscenely as he pulled away. As he wiped it off on the sheets below, Isabelle’s sinuous organ wormed its way inside her, its pink color the same as that of her flushed womanhood. His heart quickened, his member bouncing in his lap as he watched it delve deeper, inch by inch, until its entire length was buried in her passage.

Isabelle moaned into her own loins, her puffy lips meeting her swollen labia in a sordid embrace, a tremor rolling from her snout to her tail as a jolt of pleasure rocked her. Her scaly cheek, if the side of her snout could be described as such, brushed against his own. She was unable to speak now, her tongue was occupied with other tasks, and so Iden focused his attention on her tender clitoris.

He lay his hands against the smooth, cool scales of her underbelly, mouthing at the protruding bud of flesh devotedly. He drew shapes on its shiny surface, sucking on it gently, scouring it with the flat of his tongue. Isabelle, meanwhile, had filled her own passage to capacity. A blend of her juices and her saliva escaped around her organ as it roiled and spiraled inside her, her pace growing ever more frantic and unrefined as her pleasure mounted. It was easy for Iden to imagine the way that it was pressing against her deepest and most sensitive reaches, curling and thrashing to hit the right spots at just the right time…

He could sense that she was getting close, the heat that her body put out was intense, her breath now coming in uneven bursts. Her massive frame shook and heaved, the light that made it through the membrane of her bat-like wing wavering as the limb flexed, Iden becoming somewhat alarmed. Would she crush him in the throes of her climax? Perhaps he had better retreat to a safe distance…

Isabelle grunted something that sounded suspiciously like don’t stop when she felt him start to slack off, and so he renewed his efforts, doting on her sensitive clitoris as though his life depended on pleasing her. She loosed an adorable yelp that was completely unbecoming of such a fearsome beast, withdrawing her tongue so quickly that Iden was splashed with a rope of her fluids, muscles in her thighs that were as large as his torso tensing as their combined efforts sent her plunging over the precipice.

Now Iden saw fit to shuffle clear, Isabelle’s claws digging deep furrows in the rock, her wings twitching in the air. Her long tail curled and uncurled rhythmically, much in the same way that it had when she had been a mere nine feet tall, the sound of it scraping along the floor echoing through the cave. He watched in awe as the slabs of muscle that lurked just beneath her scaly hide tensed and bunched, raw, brute strength on display that could bend steel and shatter stone.

Iden could almost see the waves of pleasure as they coursed down her long spine, her back arching, her tail curving into the air before slapping back down onto the rock below. Despite the throes of her ecstasy, she remained in place, resting on her side as she endured each stab of ecstasy.

After a few more moments, her body seemed to sag, her muscles relaxing as she lay her massive head on the sheets beside him. Her eyelids fluttered, black smoke pouring from her nostrils, the flames within her perhaps reflecting those of her passion. At this point, Iden would have spooned with his partner, but that was rather difficult in his present situation. Instead, he reached over and stroked her head as one might a pet, not knowing if she could even feel the caress of his fingers through her leathery hide.

How long has it been since I’ve felt such bliss as my true self?” she wondered aloud, exhaling a satisfied sigh.

Is it better as a human, or as a dragon?” Iden asked.

They both have their merits,” she replied, one of her eyes opening to bathe him in its fiery glow. “I’ve not been with a man of any kind in my dragon form since...I can scarcely remember.”

I assumed that we’d get straight to the point, so to speak” Iden began. “But we seem to have gotten rather...distracted.”

You’re priming me as you would a woman of your own kind,” she chuckled, watching his face begin to redden. “It’s flattering that you concern yourself with pleasuring me, despite our differences.”

Why should I treat you any differently?” he asked, and she exposed her sharp teeth in a smile.

This is why I value your company, Iden, and why I think that you will make a good sire for my brood. You will teach them strength, but also kindness, humility. They will be powerful, perhaps dangerously so. It is of the utmost importance that they learn to respect life, to feel empathy towards others, lest they become tyrannical and cruel.”

One of the Paladins spoke of tyrannical dragons,” Iden said, “and you mentioned that some of them sought to rule over humanity in the old days. You said that they saw themselves as being stronger and more intelligent than humans, more deserving of the mantle.”

Does it bother you?” she asked, watching him curiously with her reptilian eyes.

I just want to know what I’m getting into. Will our children have...dark inclinations? Will they naturally gravitate towards that kind of behavior?”

Goodness, no,” Isabelle chuckled. “Dragons are no different from humans, we are a product of our environment, of our experiences. We are, however, exceptionally powerful creatures. We possess strength enough to take on an army, our innate magical powers allow us to do things that mortals can only dream of, and our longevity results in us accruing several lifetime’s worth of wisdom and experience. For those reasons, we must show great restraint when dealing with mortals. An errant flick of the tail could kill you, just as grasping a butterfly too tightly will damage its wings.”

So we’ll get them some puppies,” Iden replied with a shrug.

P-puppies?” Isabelle stammered, the eye that was facing him widening in surprise.

Puppies are small, fragile, not unlike how dragons perceive humans to be. Pets are great for teaching children to be responsible. They’ll have to feed them, clean up after them, play with them. It should teach them to be gentle with things that are smaller and weaker than they are, show them how to restrain their great strength.”

That’s...a good idea, actually,” Isabelle muttered. “See? My faith in your fathering abilities was well-founded.”

I have always had a strong desire to procreate, I’ll give you that.”

Isabelle laughed, her tone sultry.

Rub my scales again, would you?”

He nodded, reaching out and running a hand along her snout, roaming up to the top of her heavy skull where her sharp quills sprouted. He let his fingers wander up one of her gnarled horns, finding it dry and bumpy, ribbed like that of a ram.

Can you feel that?” he asked.

Yes,” she murmured, her eyes closing as she enjoyed his stroking. “We have sensation in our horns, not dissimilar from a tooth, in fact.”

Iden moved over to her quills, prodding one with his finger experimentally, avoiding their wicked points. They were surprisingly light, leading him to suspect that they might be hollow. They felt like dry reeds, although more rigid, Isabelle opening an eye to peer at him.

I asked you to rub my scales, not to poke my quills.”

This is the first time that I’ve really been able to get a look at you up close like this,” he said, moving down to her ear. It was pointed, shaped like a knife, covered in the same blue scales that were present on her snout. As soon as his fingertips brushed it, a shiver passed along her winding body, her eyes snapping open in alarm. Iden took it as a sign of encouragement, taking her ear in his hand, so large that it rivaled a dirk in size. It was flexible, made of cartilage like that of a human, and he began to make a slow massaging motion with his thumb. Isabelle’s eyelids drooped, and he heard her exhale, her clawed feet scratching against the stone floor as her toes curled.

Do you like that?” he chuckled.

Nobody has ever...yes...”

I suppose that with those huge talons, your people can’t do this kind of thing, you’d cut each other up.”

Few male dragons have ever gotten this close to me, fewer mortals still. This kind of intimacy is...uncommon for us.”

Maybe we should make it more common.”

I would like that,” she chuckled, exhaling a plume of dark smoke from her nostrils as he moved up to the tip of her pointed ear.

They lay together in silence for a while, Iden half-massaging and half-exploring her scaly head, Isabelle growing so relaxed and so quiet that he thought his stroking might have lulled her to sleep. When he pulled his hand away, intending to get some rest himself, her eye snapped open again.

I think that’s enough relaxing,” she said, smirking at him as her head rose from its resting place on the sheets beside him. She brushed her nose against his face, nuzzling softly, her hot breath blowing the dark strands of his hair. “There will be no children to coddle unless we make them, you know.”

Iden didn’t need to be asked twice. He stood up, amused that he had to walk a good few feet to reach her body, her head following him as he went as though it was hovering in the air beside him. He reached her scaly torso, running his hand along her silky underside, feeling her shiver at his touch. He walked along her prone body, running his fingers down her chest and across her belly, a gesture that would have taken seconds with a human partner requiring him to walk.

He arrived between her parted thighs, each one nearly as long as he was tall, so thick that his fingers wouldn’t have met was he to wrap his arms around them. Her loins were already swollen in anticipation, drooling clear fluid, still flushed and ready from their previous encounter. If he hadn’t been hard already, the feeling of Isabelle’s lips pressing against his hip would have gotten him there, the dragoness kissing him as she nudged him closer.

Don’t tease me,” she whispered, “I’ve waited centuries already.”

As he took his pulsing member in his hand, angling it towards her opening, he realized that he was a little too low to reach comfortably. Isabelle’s head floated in to his left, her eyes darting between his erection and her loins, the gears in her head turning as she tried to figure out what they should do next. She came to a decision, her massive frame shifting, Iden taking a couple of steps back in mild alarm. She angled her hips downwards slightly, making up the distance, supporting her weight with one of her forelimbs.

Now that he was just about level with her, Iden pressed closer, brushing his member against her vulva. Her heat was almost alarming, she was so excited, her flowing juices making her burning flesh slick and sticky. He had an audience, Isabelle was watching over his shoulder, he could feel her breath on his neck as she waited for him to make his move.

He felt a twinge of apprehension. Was she even going to feel this? She was huge, and despite Iden being rather well-endowed, he wasn’t sure how much enjoyment she was really going to glean from this coupling. It had a higher purpose, of course, this was no frivolous act. Yet still, he felt oddly self-conscious as he pressed his glans against her entrance.

Iden was soon distracted by a searing pulse of pleasure as her wet, silken flesh wrapped around the head of his cock in greeting, closing on him almost like a fist. He couldn’t help but thrust deeper, feeling the textured, bumpy walls of her passage encompass him. They were satin-soft, her pillowy insides lined with what felt like small, fleshy nodules that ran up and down his length like a hundred tiny fingers. Her tunnel was ribbed, he could feel the ring-shaped bumps of muscle as they rolled over him, squeezing him tightly.

Despite her sheer size, she was so muscular that she was able to grip him firmly enough to make up for their difference in stature. He couldn’t recall how it compared to her prior forms, if she was tighter or looser than she had been before. To be frank, he didn’t care. There were so many new sensations assaulting him, pleasures that he had never felt before making his head spin. Her insides were just as strange and as inhuman as her outer appearance.

He began to move, slowly at first, his pace increasing as his resolve started to crumble. Those maddening nubs of flesh grazed him with every thrust, scouring up his length on the way out, and sliding back down on the way in. They were just firm enough that he could feel them, but they were soft enough that they didn’t really provide any resistance or create any discomfort. Her rings of muscle dizzied him with their squeezing, wringing him in sharp spasms, like lips that were pursing tightly around his shaft.

How does it feel?” she whispered, Iden glancing over his shoulder to meet her sultry gaze.

G-good,” he mumbled, too taken with her to formulate an intelligent reply.

You’re joining the ranks of the few mortals who have mated with a dragon,” she said, letting her puffy lips brush his ear. “Either by choice or by obligation. To say that it was rare in ages past would be an understatement, and if I am indeed the last of my kind, then it may never happen again. Savor me, Iden. Through you, my lineage continues...”

Her tongue emerged to probe his ear, licking at his neck, her sharp teeth pressing into his skin as she nibbled at his shoulder affectionately. She seemed to be enjoying herself, at least as far as he could tell. Her massive frame rocked slowly, her movements subtle enough that she helped him drive himself deeper, rather than simply sending him toppling to the floor. The quills that ran down her spine rattled occasionally, making a hissing sound when his member parted her fleshy walls. The sound had been so intimidating before, but now it was taking on a new meaning.

Iden dug his fingers into her soft underbelly, finding it malleable enough that he could take handfuls of it, almost like a paunchy belly or a round rump. Her fat was delicate and yielding, his fingers sinking deep into her flesh, vanishing up to the knuckle. The mosaic of fine scales was somehow smoother than skin, more inviting, to the point that he couldn’t bring himself to pull his hands away from her.

His belly slapped against her scaly underside, the pace of her rhythmic contractions increasing along with the tempo of his thrusting, the wall of fat that rose up in front of him rippling with every impact. He dug his fingers into her flesh, gripping it for purchase, Isabelle delving her snout into his hair as she watched him enter her.

The pressure was intense, the muscles beyond her fleshy walls sucking him deeper, the teasing barbs digging into his shaft as her passage clung to him like a second skin, its every contraction drawing on him with all the vigor of a greedy mouth. The copious fluids that leaked from her orifice dripped down his thighs, coating his member in a sheen of her warm juices, making him so slippery that even her seizing muscles could not maintain their hold on him for too long.

The ribs caught his glans on the way in and out, conforming to every contour of his length, as though they were trying to make a plaster mold of his member. Every time that one of them scoured his sensitive head, his eyes lost their focus, his knees going weak as it dragged across his exposed tip like a pair of sucking lips.

It was nothing like what he was used to, there was so much texture, so many conflicting sensations that his mind could scarcely keep track of them. The wet, cushiony flesh, the wicked barbs, the rings of muscle that tensed around him in a furious rhythm. It began to make him feel like he was drunk, his body swaying as she pushed back against him, her subtle thrusting growing more noticeable as she began to reciprocate more ardently.

Her hips were wider than he was tall, one of her massive legs suspended in the air somewhere high above his head, the other resting on the ground beneath him and to his left. Her clawed toes flexed, the sound of her fat tail slapping on the stone floor reaching his ears, the wing that still covered him like a veiny ceiling flexing and fluttering.

Deeper,” she moaned, her breath tickling his ear. She was watching their coupling intently, the fiery glow from her eyes cast on her loins, making her dripping vulva glisten beautifully as it caught the dim light. Iden shivered as he felt her heavy, damp tongue flop against his shoulder, sliding up his neck and leaving a trail of warm saliva in its wake. The exertion was making him sweat now, and he remembered how she had told him that she found the taste irresistible, the dragon able to sense lustful secretions that a human was not conscious of.

You taste so good when you’re making love,” she muttered. “I won’t give you a moment of respite, exhaust yourself, give me everything that you have...”

Iden was in no mood to take a break, the feeling of her insides moving around his member was intoxicating, he couldn’t have pulled out of her if he had wanted to. Tingling pleasure was spreading through his body, a warmth that went beyond that of simple friction growing within him. It was as though she was kindling a fire within his very body, blowing on the smoldering embers like a pair of bellows, fanning the growing flames as they threatened to consume him utterly.

He lurched as he felt something cool press against his rear. He turned his head, looking back over his shoulder to see that it was the tip of her long tail, its cushiony underside resting against his rump as though she was cupping his cheeks with a wandering hand. She began to apply pressure, pushing him harder and deeper, thrusting him into her with more strength than he could have mustered on his own.

Her scaly snout brushed against his cheek, her eyes now turned to his face, drinking in his every wince and grimace as the depths of her seething loins seemed to tighten around him in a lurid embrace. Iden was no longer setting the pace, he was at the dragon’s mercy, bound to her whims like a puppet to its strings. He felt foolish for having assumed that it might be any different, he was like a field mouse compared to her immense size and strength.

I trust that you won’t mind if I help you along a little?” she asked. “We dragons are accustomed to encounters that are somewhat more...violent in nature.”

Iden could do little more than lean against her soft belly as she increased their tempo, his fingers digging into her velvety flesh, her massive body as immovable as a mountain. It was refreshing to not have to worry about his partner’s wellbeing, to be able to use all of his strength with abandon. Not only did she enjoy it, she mandated it, she was always thirsty for more.

He wondered idly what two dragons having sex would look like. On its own, a single dragon had the strength to shatter rock like it was chalk, what would two of them abandoning all pretense of restraint look like? Did dragons cause earthquakes and flatten trees when they fucked?

It was becoming too much for Iden, he could feel an orgasm scratching at the door, the dull pleasure taking on a more urgent quality as her sodden flesh roiled around him. Her heat seemed to permeate his body to the core, reaching deep inside of him, spreading through his nervous system like a fever. He could feel his conscious mind receding, supplanted by an animal lust that drove him on, their rutting taking on a more desperate and frenzied quality.

Iden reached to his left and located the swollen bump of her clitoris with his fingers, wetting them with her excitement as he began to stroke. He darted his fingertips lightly across its tender surface, almost as though he was tickling her, her reaction powerful and immediate. Isabelle tightened around him, gripping him with enough force that it might have been painful had the exquisite, satin flesh of her loins not cushioned him. It felt like someone was turning a thumbscrew through a few inches of delicate, quivering meat, the growing pressure making him arch his spine.

The enticing barbs that lined her insides became even more apparent, the harsh throbs of pleasure that they subjected him to growing stronger, stark and raw in his addled mind as they raked up and down his length. Her contractions were coming thick and fast now, her powerful muscles bearing down on him in wracking waves, her ribbed passage milking him with merciless intent.

I can feel your heart beating inside me,” she murmured, her words jolting Iden out of his trance. She raked his throat with her tongue again, its warmth and its silken texture making his head spin. “I’m so close. Don’t falter, my love.”

He gritted his teeth against the pleasure, doing his utmost to stave off the climax that was threatening to rend his sanity, her passage undulating around him as she too neared her peak. Muscles that were many times larger than his own body flexed and bulged beneath her iridescent hide, making her chubby underbelly quiver, her shivers of delight making the rock floor shake beneath them. It felt dangerous to be where he was, her body practically leaning on him, Iden trusting Isabelle to lose control and flatten him into a pancake. All it would take was one slip, one lapse, and yet he had no desire to flee for cover.

With one final thrust, Iden lost all semblance of control, pleasure overwhelming him like a dam breaking. The muscles in his legs and belly began to cramp, his fingers digging into her paunchy underside as he erupted inside of her. He shuddered as the gelatinous ropes of his emission splashed against her reaches, hot and thick, Isabelle’s eyes widening and her jaws opening in surprise as she felt him flood her. Her long spine arched, her tail curling, her neck lifting her head into the air as she loosed a pained growl that shook Iden’s bones and echoed through the cavern. Her walls gripped him with renewed ferocity, rippling as she joined him in his bliss, sucking and squeezing with such force that it made him see stars. Her loins drew more of his essence from him with their ruthless kneading, his eyes rolling back into his head, every wad of his semen that pumped into her spasming passage accompanied by a fresh jolt of ecstasy.

His mind seemed to fade, all reason leaving him, his hips moving of their own volition as he fucked his seed deeper into her roiling tunnel. Each pulse of ecstasy was more intense than the last, the brief moments of lucidity that he was afforded between them giving him just enough time to anticipate the next before it sent him reeling.

Isabelle was faring no better, her massive body shaking with his every thrust, her lustrous scales shining in the dim glow of the torches as her sinewy form writhed on the rock. The muscles in her most intimate depths wrung him relentlessly, swallowing up every drop that he could give her, carrying it deeper into her womanhood as though she was drinking from him.

Their carnal pleasure reduced them to a pair of panting, heaving beasts, their bodies twitching in tandem as they rode out the final spasms of their shared climax. Iden found himself soaked in her fluids, ropes of her juices clinging to his stomach when he pulled away from her, rolling down his thighs in obscene globs and mingling with his sudor. He could scarcely stand, clinging to Isabelle’s underbelly as though he might collapse if he let go, panting into the delicate mosaic of fine scales as he tried to catch his breath.

Isabelle’s lips suddenly sprang at him from his right, her head darting towards him on her flexible neck, her oversized tongue clumsily forcing its way into his mouth. He did his best to meet her desperate kiss, all finesse and restraint forgotten, the dragon embracing him with a wanton passion that sent aftershocks shooting down his spine like questing fingers. The pointed tip of her slimy organ wormed its way deeper, bulging his cheeks, his own tongue lashing at the invader as her saliva dripped down his chin. She pulled away with a smack, her reptilian eyes unfocused, Iden gasping as a stray tremor made her sex contract around his still buried erection.

He pulled out of her, the two of them watching as a blend of their fluids sloughed from her twitching opening, Isabelle inhaling sharply as the friction teased her still sensitive loins. Her massive body seemed to deflate, her muscles finally relaxing, her head coming to rest on the pile of silken fabric. Iden let himself fall back, joining her on the makeshift bed. He was drenched in who knows what, sticky and sore, utterly satisfied.

They lay there for a while, recovering their strength, enjoying the fading embers of their afterglow. When Iden had regained enough of his faculties, he rolled over onto his side, finding that Isabelle was watching him with her glowing eyes.

How did I do?” he asked, Isabelle giving him a toothy grin.

An admirable effort for someone of your stature. We should probably repeat the process a few more times, just to make sure.”

Oh yeah,” he replied, returning her smile. “All in the name of being thorough, of course.”

She pressed closer, pushing her massive head into his arms as best she could manage. It was as close to spooning as they were going to get until Isabelle was able to return to her human form. He ran his hands across her scaly snout, stroking her ears, feeling her warm breath on his skin. He was covered in various bodily fluids, but she didn’t seem to mind, her long frame curling up tighter as though she was trying to shield him from the outside world.

He reflected on the events of the last few days as he lay beside her, looking up at the canopy of her massive wing. He had come searching for riches, for a way out of a lifestyle that was certainly going to kill him sooner rather than later, and he had found them. Just not in the form that he had expected.

CHAPTER 12: FEATHERING THE NEST

Iden rode along the white path, his horse’s hooves crunching the gravel underfoot, a mob of baying hounds following behind him. The tall, carefully-tended cypress trees that lined either side of the road cast their shadows as the rays of the setting sun bathed them, the sky painted in beautiful shades of pink and orange. There was a crossbow slung across his back, and he carried a trio of fat, fluffy rabbits over his shoulder.

The terrain here was relatively flat, the rolling fields broken up by hedgerows and patches of dense forest that made for excellent hunting. That had become Iden’s passion in recent months, chasing down deer and rabbits on the estate. There was so much land that he could ride for hours before reaching the limits of the property. It was about fifteen hundred acres if memory served. There was also a sizable lake that made for great fishing on warmer days when it was too hot to go gallivanting around in the woods.

At the far end of the long road lay the manor, its walls rising high into the air, creeping ivy clinging to the weather-beaten stonework. It was a blocky building, with wide windows on the upper floor, the roof lined with crenellations that were more for decorative purposes than for actual defense. There was a large main hall with two smaller wings, the gardens that surrounded it full of flowers and shrubs. Isabelle liked to take walks through the grounds, admiring the blossoming trees and plants. It was a far cry from the windswept peaks and the dank caverns of her previous abodes.

Purchasing a manor had been a surprisingly simple affair. Finding a Lord who was in financial trouble had been trivial, the man had been all too happy to abandon his obligations in exchange for a large sum of gold that would see his debts repaid.

Living in a manor had turned out to be a little more complicated than Iden had initially assumed, however. The building and its lands were only one part of the equation. About a hundred people lived and worked on the estate, described as serfs or villein, farming the fields and maintaining the property. They were not exactly servants, but rather they paid rent to their Lord, and they had obligations relating to labor and upkeep. They had their own quaint houses, their own fields that they were responsible for, their own livestock and crops. There was even a blacksmith, a mill, and a chapel. Iden had inherited a small town as much as his own private property, and as their Lord, he had obligations towards his dependents.

Having no need of the pittance that they would accrue from renting out the land, Iden and Isabelle had decided to declare the inhabitants free peasants. They would no longer pay rent, but they would continue their duties as usual, domestic work included. After all, two people could not maintain the house and the extensive demesne on their own, even if they had the necessary knowledge and experience. Iden was a career soldier, he hadn’t the faintest idea of how to raise cattle, or how to till a field. Isabelle was a dragon, she was no more versed in maintaining a home than he was in pruning a rose bush, and so the peasants were of great help to them.

The presence of the tenants did complicate things somewhat. Flying in the crates of treasure had to be done in the dead of night, lest the inhabitants catch a glimpse of a dragon, but the massive manor afforded them enough privacy that they didn’t have to worry too much about keeping up appearances once inside its walls. The housekeepers respected their wishes when they asked for certain areas of the estate to be off-limits, namely the extensive basement and the underground treasury where Isabelle had taken up residence. She had filled the woefully barren vaults with her hoard, while her more conventional treasures had been spread throughout the manor’s many rooms. There was a real library where she could store her books, while her suits of decorative armor and her ornate weapons were displayed within the previously empty halls. It was like the whole manor was her lair, and she seemed to revel in the opportunity to show off her collection.

Even if the peasants happened to stumble across something that they shouldn’t, Iden doubted whether anything would come of it. He and Isabelle were very well liked, and their wards were unlikely to find another landowner who would afford them the same freedoms and respect. Iden had no desire to lord over them, so to speak. Until very recently, his life had been spent in a similar social class, he had lived through many of the same struggles that they had.

He rode into the manor’s courtyard, returning his horse to its stable, and the dogs to their kennels. As he made his way up to the main door, his haul of rabbits clutched in his hand, Isabelle opened it. She was clad in a fine gown, looking the part of a Lady, an excited expression on her face.

Iden!” she exclaimed, “you’re just in time! Come, come!”

Before he could ask her what was happening, she took him by the hand, dragging him into the hallway. She hurried him through the main hall, the ceiling high above them adorned with chandeliers, the walls decorated with murals and paintings that were left over from the previous owner. There was a large dining table that occupied the center of the room, the chairs ornately carved, some of Isabelle’s suits of gilded armor lining the walls. Their feet echoed on the checkerboard floor as she dragged him along, entering the West wing and turning towards the stone steps that led down into the cellars.

She paused to unbolt a heavy wooden door, leading Iden into a dimly lit room with an arched stone ceiling, empty wine racks stacked against the walls. At the far end of the room was a fireplace, the hearth brimming with what looked like a pyre made from dry wood and plant matter, flickering flames licking at the dusty stonework.

It’s time!” Isabelle whispered, practically bouncing on the spot. Iden crept closer, shielding himself from the heat, glancing into the fire to see the clutch of nine eggs. They were more elongated than he had initially assumed, not really the same shape as a chicken egg, their shells leathery and flexible rather than rigid. They had been incubating in the fire ever since Isabelle had laid them a few weeks prior. She had kept them warm with her breath, tending the fire diligently while they waited for the eggs to hatch. Apparently, the time had come.

Iden saw movement coming from one of the eggs, the shell shifting, like someone moving beneath a blanket. It didn’t crack. Instead, it tented upwards. A tiny claw poked through the hole, which was followed by a hand, Iden’s heart starting to race as he saw blue scales reflecting the glow of the flames. As excited as he was, he was also a little apprehensive. What were their children going to look like?

Should we help them?” Iden asked.

No. They must be strong enough to escape the shell on their own if they are to survive,” Isabelle replied, crouching beside him to watch the baby as it struggled against its bonds. A second tiny, clawed hand emerged to tear the shell like paper, and then a head broke free. Iden’s heart swelled as he saw the features of an infant, its tuft of dark hair damp with fluid from the egg, a pair of almost imperceptibly small horns sprouting from its forehead. It had no snout, and its skin was clear, just like his own. Its eyes were still closed, and so he couldn’t be sure of their color, or the shape of the pupils. Much like one of Isabelle’s semi-transformed states, the blue scales were limited to its extremities, the same iridescent blues and greens that were present on its mother.

Iden fought the impulse to pull the infant from the hearth. He had to remind himself that it was only partially human, the flames were of no more danger to it than water was dangerous to a duck. The baby rolled out of its egg, lying on its back and jerking its limbs like a newborn that had just left the womb, a stubby tail waving back and forth. It opened its mouth and sucked in a breath, starting to cry, its little brow furrowing as its cheeks began to redden.

Only now did Isabelle see fit to lean in and pick the infant up, cradling it in her arms. There was a flash of flame as she conjured a soft blanket, swaddling the baby, bundling it up as she rocked it back and forth. The crying soon abated, the baby apparently tired from its ordeal.

It’s a girl,” she whispered, a warm smile brightening her face as she glanced up at Iden. “The first of our brood. Come, say hello to her.”

Iden inched closer, leaning in to get a look at the baby. With her body wrapped in the blanket, the only sign that she wasn’t entirely human were the stubby horns on her head.

She’s perfect,” he said, “I was expecting them to look...more like you.”

How flattering,” Isabelle giggled. “She has your hair, look.”

And your scales.”

Here, hold her,” Isabelle said as she foisted the sleeping baby into his hands. He dropped his rabbits, taking the child from her as she moved back to the fireplace. “The next one is coming!”

Iden couldn’t believe how light the baby was, she weighed almost nothing, her little head so small that it could rest in his calloused palm. He was almost afraid of holding her, she looked so fragile, as if he might break her by handling her in the wrong way. She yawned, exposing a mouth full of sharp teeth that were already developed. Dragons did not produce milk as far as he knew, the infants might come out of the egg ready for meat.

An odd sensation overcame him as he looked down at her, a kind of euphoria, butterflies swarming in his belly. He had only just met this tiny person, and yet he was already certain that he loved her, that he would do anything to protect her. Had he and Isabelle really created this little creature together? He felt oddly proud of himself, as though he had just completed a great work of art.

The baby slipped an arm out of her blanket, gripping his finger in her tiny hand. She was surprisingly strong for her size, her claws pricking his skin like those of a kitten. He looked over to see Isabelle pulling another baby from the hearth, as though it was being birthed from the flames. She swaddled it much like the first, passing it to Iden.

Are they all coming?” he asked, growing somewhat alarmed. “Should I go fetch a basket or something?”

You’re the one who wanted an army of children,” she said, giving him a smirk.

At this rate, we’re going to have to build a barracks.”

Don’t make me laugh,” she giggled, “you’ll wake them!”

She repeated the procedure with the third baby, Iden noting that she had gone as far as choosing different colors of fabric for each one.

Is that one a boy, or a girl?” Iden asked.

Two girls and a boy so far,” she replied, “you already have your heir. None of the other eggs are moving, these must be the strongest of the brood. The rest will emerge when they’re ready.”

What are we going to name them all?” he wondered. “Have you thought about it at all?”

Not really,” she admitted, “it always struck me as strange to name a baby the moment that it comes into the world. A name should be influenced by one’s personality, one’s temperament, don’t you agree?”

There are some who believe that the name influences the personality,” Iden said, glancing down at one of the babies. Much like the first, this one had a little tuft of hair and a pair of stunted horns on its otherwise bald head, its eyes tightly closed.

Perhaps we should conduct an experiment,” Isabelle said, rocking one of the babies in her arms. This one was rowdier than the first two, Iden could see its little limbs moving beneath its blanket as it struggled. “You can name four of them, and I’ll name the other five.”

Why do you get to name five?” Iden asked, feigning indignation.

We could decide who gets to name the fifth one with a contest of strength if you’d like,” she replied with a mischievous grin.

Four is a good, round number,” Iden replied hastily. “What do you think the maids will say? Will we have to keep them down here? The entire estate will want to come and take a look at them once word spreads that we’ve had children, the housekeepers will want to play with them. Can we trust them?”

That is something that I have been thinking about,” she replied, her tone becoming more serious. “Amongst my collection is a spellbook that was written in the blood of a Fey, creatures renowned for their illusory magic. Until such a time as I can instruct our children in polymorphing, it will prevent any of the peasants that live on our grounds from discovering their true nature. The spells will have to be performed regularly, but it should suffice.”

That’s a relief,” Iden sighed. “We’ve got a good thing going here, the last thing that I want is for us to get run out by a mob now that we have...nine mouths to feed.”

She walked over to him and kissed his cheek.

We earned a lot of goodwill when we decided to let the tenants live here without paying rent. I’m not sure that they would run us out of our home, even if they caught a glimpse of a horn or a tail. The priest who tends to the chapel, on the other hand, I’m not so sure about.”

Did I ever thank you?” Iden asked.

For what?” Isabelle replied, cocking her head at him curiously.

For all of this. An estate, enough wealth that I don’t have to risk my neck every day, three healthy children and counting. This is everything that I ever wanted, more than anyone but a madman could hope for.”

I don’t think so,” she replied. “But if you hadn’t come to claim my head, then I’d still be living in a dingy cave, sitting on a pile of treasure that I had absolutely no use for.”

You’re the only person who ever saw me as more than just a sword for hire, the only person who ever believed that I could be better than I am,” he added as he stood there with the two infants clutched in his arms.

I didn’t better you,” Isabelle chuckled, “you chose to better yourself. You made a decision to do the right thing, to obey your conscience, to aspire to greater ideals. That was all you, and everything that you have now is a result of that one choice, that one moment of clarity. That’s all life really is,” she continued, gazing down at the rowdy baby as it struggled against its blanket. “A series of choices, a handful of moments is all that defines who you are. This child may have centuries of life ahead of her, but her defining moments may come down to a few scant seconds.”

Iden glanced down at his newly hatched children, wondering what their lives might be like. They had the best possible start in life, as much opportunity as a person could get, and their education would be world-class with Isabelle as their tutor. If she could impart some of her wisdom, and if he could teach them restraint and humility, then he had no doubt that they would grow up to do great things.

Maybe I’m getting a bit ahead of myself,” Iden began, “but this doesn’t quite constitute an army yet. We almost have a conroi, we should probably work our way up to a battalion next.”

Ever the womanizer,” Isabelle said, giving him a suggestive look. “If I didn’t know better, I might suspect that you had taken a liking to my true form.”

It has its merits,” he replied with a knowing smile. “Now, tell me which book you need to start casting the spells, and I’ll go fetch it for you. Being showered with attention by the scullery maids is all part of becoming a mother, you know.”

Alright, but we may want to wait a few hours before we venture back upstairs. It will be hard enough explaining how I birthed nonuplets like a damned litter of kittens without having them appear two or three at a time.”

Iden handed her the two babies, careful not to disturb them. She took one in her arm, and a long, blue tail emerged from beneath her gown to cradle the last one.

It’s the only book with silver lettering on the spine,” she said, “you can’t miss it. And Iden?”

He paused at the foot of the stone steps, turning to look back at her.

Fatherhood suits you well.”

-THE END-