(Warning, contains dragon vore)
An arrow struck the gap in the stone brick wall, narrowly missing the one it was intended to impale.
Septen moved back, crouched behind the large wooden support in the castle's entryway, reaching for an arrow of his own.
It seemed that others interested in retrieving the artifact said to be kept in this place had already done him the favor of incapacitating one another, if a little too thoroughly.
"Atlas, anytime you're ready!" Septen called out.
He had hired a guide to lead him here and fight alongside him; for this particular situation, the crow had gone in search of a vantage point to snipe out the team who had Septen pinned down.
Atlas was still nowhere to be seen. That either meant he had run off or still wasn't at a good spot yet.
Or, he was just impeccable at hiding.
The archers looked up, at hearing the creak of metal.
This was a new design of weapon; only a few like it had been made so far. How Atlas got his hand on one was beyond anyone.
The conical field hat he had picked up somewhere in his travels hid his eyes from the pack of dogs below as he turned the crank, causing the weapon's drum to spin. It was up to speed before anybody could react, and he pulled back the lever, releasing a deafening screech along with a barrage of weaponized fireworks down from the horizontal supports.
The pack below scattered, diving behind the stone pillars at the top of the staircase as sparks flew; the carpet probably would have been ignited had it not been covered in snow that came in through the shattered stained-glass windows.
Atlas popped the drum off, reaching behind him for another one, clicking it into place.
One of the dogs peered out from behind cover, nocking an arrow and taking aim at the crow. Before he could let the arrow go, however, another arrow planted itself in his bow arm, throwing his aim off causing him to drop the weapon entirely.
Septen advanced slowly and deliberately, readying another arrow. A counterattack was made, an enemy arrow speeding towards him, but the wolf's reflexes were sharply-trained; he sidestepped it, and it just barely grazed his leather armor.
More arrows would have been fired, except for the second storm of multicolored fire showering the dog pack and forcing them to seek cover once more.
When the smoke cleared, they found themselves quickly taken out; the crow had leaped down and proved himself as useful with a shovel as an unorthodox weapon as he had with the fireworks-gun. While he took left, Septen took right, using his bow to melee and bringing it around to deliver sharp cracks to the heads of his enemies, knocking them unconscious.
"Great work, Atlas," the wolf said, hanging the bow over his shoulder.
The crow nodded, but said nothing. He hadn't really been much for words for any of the four days it took to hike up here.
"These ones should be out for a while," Septen continued. "Gives us time to explore this place and find that chamber."
Needing no further talk, Atlas nodded in the direction of the large doorway leading onto a bridge section that would take them deeper inside, and hurried that way.
Septen stayed close; his long, quick strides carrying him more than well enough to keep up with the agile guide.
There were no windows in the long passage; just several torch sconces that had long since lost their flame.
Septen looked straight ahead at the light at the end of the tunnel. Word of the artifact said to be hidden here had spread quickly. It was said to be a relic that would bring prosperity to whatever nation gained control of it.
Odd, considering the nation that once encompassed these now-frozen outlands met with such cruel treatment from nature.
But the treasure drew the attention of many, and had even got Septen enlisted by a duke to retrieve it for him, so wether it did what it was supposed to, or even existed, was not something the wolf had time to sit down and ponder, since there could still be others here with their eyes set on it.
The wolf and the crow continued on, stepping into a larger room; it sprawled out like a dance floor, with several staircases leading up onto circular platforms going higher and higher, leading off into other rooms.
A search of each would not be necessary though; one of the doors at the far end of the room was open slightly, and the wolf's sharp eyes picked it out easily. Somebody had been careless.
The wolf and his guide hurried to the door, finding that it lead on a ramp downwards, and around a corner to the left.
A few more bends brought them around to see that another door on the right would have lead them to the same place; intersecting in a T-shape with another passageway leading lower.
An iron gate appeared to have been ripped off of its hinges at some point; it didn't look recent, though. A long bridge lead out into an underground area; light peeked in through a few holes here and there at the top of the cave, but for the most part, it was hard to see anything.
As the stepped onto the bridge, they could hear rasping breaths coming from beside them.
Atlas and Septen stopped by another wolf, huddled into a ball and shaking.
Septen crouched; right now this person seemed too weak to pose a threat.
"It's up ahead..." the quaking figure said. "But it's guarded. You don't want to go in there..."
With that, they fell into a long string of rushed muttering. It would have been pointless to ask what was guarding the artifact; at this point it didn't seem like getting an answer was possible.
Atlas lead the way, stepping around gaps in the stone bridge, and Septen did the same, not that he needed the spaces marked out for him; even in the low lighting, it wasn't hard for him to see what was just ten feet away from him.
Another gate waited ahead at the end of the passage, also taken off of its hinges. Septen looked to Atlas, and they both shrugged, making their way forward.
It was dark in the room ahead, but a shattered skylight let in a patch of light in the middle of the room.
Atlas raised his fireworks gun, looking around shiftily for any sign of a guardian while Septed readied an arrow and stared intently into the darkness, also watching for movement.
They strafed around the light patch, trying not to be seen. Looking at the dropped mace on the floor, it appeared that the wolf back outside this chamber had made the mistake of stepping into the light.
But the guardian didn't need the light.
Several quick footsteps echoed in to chamber as something slinked around its perimeter. Septen held the bow up, getting nervous.
And then suddenly, Atlas began to crank the gun frantically, letting out that deafening screech along with multicolored lights and smoke. Septen looked at where he was shooting, and made out a huge shape that was moving towards them quickly. Amber eyes stared both of them down, and they backed up.
As they backed into the light from the wide shaft above, the guardian drew nearer; icy scales covered its body, making a sound like pouring rain as they shifted. Finlike extensions fanned out on the sides of its reptilian head. This wasn't the guardian Septen or Atlas had been expecting.
This was a dragon.
The drum ran dry and the incendiary shots ceased, and Atlas's hand left the crank, fear filling his eyes. Not that his attack did anything though. Had he realized that, this kind of fear probably would have set in much more quickly.
Dropping the cannon, he turned and bolted for the exit.
Septen felt a chill in his spine; his guide had abandoned him, and the dragon circled around to block the wolf's escape.
He drew back on his bow letting the arrow fly. It sparked as it came into contact with the scales between the dragon's eyes, but it was deflected easily. These scales fit together more like plate armor than anything, but several smaller scales could be seen in the gaps, but that didn't matter; he had a feeling his arrows couldn't pierce there either.
He kept eye contact with the dragon, but that proved to be a mistake. The golden coloration grew more intense, and inky black patterns began to spiral out from the jagged slit pupils. Septen fumbled for another arrow, but his fingers were numb now, and he felt tired and cold. It felt like his blood was freezing.
He dropped to his knees, his head thudding against the floor as his body went limp, and he lost consciousness.
"Hey. Are you still in there?"
Septen's eyelids parted slowly at the sound of a feminine voice. He sat up slowly, rubbing his head; it was still a little sore from impact earlier. He looked around; he appeared to be at the edge of the large chamber he had passed out in.
Any feeling of grogginess vanished instantly as he noticed the dragon in front of him. He looked around for his bow and arrows, but they were nowhere to be found; his daggers had been taken as well.
"Relax. I'm not going to hurt you."
The wolf froze as he realized the voice was coming from the dragon. She smirked a little as he went tense, but didn't move for him. Instead, she set herself down, posed like a cat, although it would have to be a cat with a very long neck. And wings. Wings were another thing cats most commonly didn't have.
"Why am I alive?" Septen asked.
"Well, you were born, weren't you?" the dragoness said, tilting her head to the side.
"...I mean why haven't you killed me?"
"What would the point be?"
Septen was quiet at that time.
"To guard the artifact, right?" the scaled creature suggested.
"I'd think so."
"I'll let you in on a little secret. There isn't one."
"But what about... everything?" Septen asked, now even more confused.
"The legends and all; it was all my doing. Just the first thing off the top of my head. And I put it into the heads of the last remnants of the kingdom that once stood here, before they left to escape the cold."
"But you're... you're a dragon. I'd think word of you would get out just as quickly as word of an artifact."
"Not if nobody remembered me. I work with the mind; I'm sure you saw that other wolf. I didn't even touch him, but I planted a paralyzing fear in his head, and he believes he's had a terrible battle. He's probably staggering down the road right now to get away from here, but it'll wear off and he won't remember anything about me."
"Exactly. I apologize for scaring off your guide, by the way. He probably won't remember any of this either."
"I didn't think he'd stand and fight even if you didn't mess with his mind. He seemed pretty panicked."
The dragoness chuckled. "I think so too. Couldn't have him going blabbing, though."
While trying to appear calm, a sense of anxiety was gradually building up inside Septen.
"So... why haven't you done the same to me?"
"That would defeat the purpose of everything I've done here. I've lived a long, long time; I've even been worshipped a couple of times. But that's not what I'm after right now."
The dragon crawled forward a little, brushing against Septen with her snout.
"Being a legendary beast does have its downsides. Just to get a little company, I have to go to such lengths as this."
"That's all you wanted? Company?"
"Yes. And it's hard to find the right person; most of the people who find me, they're all the same. No kindness in their hearts, just that hunter's mentality that would be very detrimental to my physical well-being if I didn't turn them around and send them off."
"So, why did you pick me? I could have been like that, too."
Another chuckle. "Telepathic assertion isn't all I can do. Sometimes touching isn't what's needed; sometimes all I want to do is look. And looking at your mind, I think I know enough about you now to know you're what I've been wanting."
The wolf didn't like the thought of having all his thoughts read, but it was fairly harmless, considering other things this dragon might have in store.
"You could have been a little less forceful about selecting me though... the blood chilling probably wasn't necessary."
"It was. It would be unfair to control you completely, and that wouldn't be actual company; it would be me talking to myself. And as for the option of no control, I don't think you would have went along with everything if I just marched right out here offering a hug."
"Yeah... I guess you make a point."
"And..." the dragoness began, "you won't tell anyone about me, will you? From what I understand, in this day and age, my kind isn't really welcomed by most people."
"I can keep a secret," Septen said with a nod.
The scaly head nuzzled him a little; unlike a reptile's it was surprisingly warm.
"Do you have a name?" the wolf asked.
"I've been going by Glacier, for a while now."
"Well, it's good to make your acquaintance," Septen said, taking a gamble and stroking the top of Glacier's muzzle gently. She seemed to enjoy it.
"I guess you've already learned my name, right?"
"Well, Septen, you don't seem quite.. adjusted to me yet."
"How do you mean?" the wolf asked.
"You've eased up a little, but you're still anxious."
Septen wanted to try to hide any sign that he was afraid, but there really wasn't anything he could to. He was an open book wether he wanted to be or not.
"I know something we could do that would help you to trust me."
"And what would that be?"
"Let me just say everything will be alright. To answer any prominent questions you might ask, it won't hurt, you won't die, and I'm going to enjoy every second of it."
Septen found himself pressed against the cold wall as Glacier pushed into him with her snout. He found himself staring into her eyes again, but rather than a coldness in his veins, he felt a growing, tingling warmth. However, it still robbed him of his ability to move very quickly.
"Glacier, what are y--" the wolf stopped as his question was answered with an action.
The lips of the dragoness parted, showing off her transparent icicle-like teeth, and the wide maw beyond them.
"Relax. Everything's alright," Glacier said soothingly, and then she opened wide, curling her flexible tongue around behind Septen.
"Glacier, let me go!" Septen demanded, trying to struggle, but all he really managed to do was twitch frantically.
He got no answer at first, as the dragon's mouth was busy taking him in, but she backed off a little, eyeing him playfully.
"Everything's alright. I already said you'd be fine," she assured the wolf.
"Somehow I don't think getting eaten qualifies as 'fine'," Septen protested, trying to back up against the wall again.
Glacier nodded. "Understandable. But that's why I'm doing it. So you'll see for yourself that it's okay. After all," she continued, moving in close again, "I need more than just company. I need a friend. And friends share a sense of trust, don't they?"
"You've got a weird way of making friends..."
Glacier chuckled a bit. "I suppose it is a bit unorthodox. But if it works, it works, right? Are you ready?"
"Ah. Well, we can't take all night, so..."
Glacier grinned, and then opened up again.
This time, Septen didn't even bother trying to resist. What could he do, anyway? The dragon seemed to listen to him, to an extent, but she seemed fairly determined to swallow him whole.
Glacier's tongue wrapped around her prey a few times, drawing him in once more.
It wasn't quite fear that was welling up inside Septen by now; any trace of that had already passed by.
Right now, it was just sort of an anxious feeling. He really couldn't do anything to save himself, but saving himself would have been counterproductive. For some reason, he felt Glacier was being honest when she said he'd be alright.
The dragoness tilted back, and moved into more of an upright position, allowing gravity to assist her in taking the wolf in. The aforementioned wolf felt a sudden rise in his stomach as he was tipped forward so as to be facing straight down; like the feeling of being tipped in a chair, although the situation was a lot different than that.
The supple tongue loosened around him, allowing him to slide past the coiling muscle, and into the fleshy pit that awaited him. Glacier's jugular muscles contracted, squeezing Septen's upper body gently and pulling him down on a somewhat slow ride down her gullet.
It almost invoked a feeling of claustrophobia, but it felt so nice at the same time; Septen, though mostly armored, could still feel feel it on his head and around the open spaces on the back of his armor, and once he got used to it, it actually helped to keep him calm.
After a few more seconds, Septen found himself brought out through the valve into the dragon's stomach. He glided limply across the slick, soft surface, and the whole chamber resonated with the sound of purring as Glacier settled herself down again, curling up and nuzzling her belly.
"So, how is it?" She asked.
"I'm not really sure how to describe it... but I think I like it," Septen responded.
He found that by now he was able to move again, and he tried to sit up, though the fact that the environment was so squishy made it a little hard to do so.
He was still fighting off a nervous nagging in his head, but by now it was easier. There was no acid in here; there was hardly any fluid, save for what coated the walls.
It was actually very roomy in the chamber, and there seemed to still be some limited visibility, but it was hard to tell where the light source was. It was as if the walls all radiated with an extremely gentle glow.
"I'm very glad to hear that," said a voice next to Septen.
The wolf turned, jumping at seeing someone else there; also a wolf in armor, but this one was female, blue-furred, and amber-eyed.
"...Glacier?" Septen emanated, confused again.
She nodded. "I can project myself however I like; I figure my company would be easier to appreciate if it seemed like I was in here with you too, right? This body you're looking at is a figment of my imagination, put into yours, but..." She raised a hand, setting it on Septen's shoulder. "It feels real enough, doesn't it?"
The silver-furred wolf placed a hand on Glacier's projection's hand; it was indistinguishable from reality.
"Yeah, it does." He offered her a smile, and she smiled back.
Septen yawned a little, shifting to get comfortable as Glacier's projection moved from a kneeling position into a crouching one. She seemed to know how to balance well in the environment, but that was probably natural; it was her own body, after all, and she knew what it was like because Septen knew what it was like.
"Getting tired?" the wolf girl asked, tilting her head similarly to how she had done as a dragon earlier.
"Yeah, now that the shock's over," Septen said, laughing a bit.
"I figured. You're half-asleep already; that's why you can feel me."
Before Septen could react, Glacier's projection pounced, landing on Septen lightly, and putting her arms around him, nuzzling him a little.
She really was happy to have him with her.
The traveler smiled, stroking the projection's fur with one hand, and the stomach walls with another. She purred a little more, but this time it was heard from the canine version of herself. A bit strange, but Septen couldn't help but find it cute.
"I haven't looked into your personal life yet; I'd rather hear it from you willingly. Will you tell me a little about yourself when we wake up?" Glacier asked, yawning.
"Of course," Septen replied.
After that, he didn't get a response; apparently Glacier could fall asleep very quickly. She was an odd creature; different from what Septen had been told about dragons, but he was glad about that.
There was no artifact here, that much was true.
But in that room, Septen still found a kind of treasure to cherish; something an old talisman or a mountain of gold simply couldn't compare to.
He found someone to keep happy, and she, oddly enough, given what her methods were, was able to make him feel happy as well.
He had found a friend.
Septen looked out on the road, back at the snowy mountain.
It had been some time since he had visited it.
There were still plenty of things that the world had to offer, that Septen went out to seek.
But even then, he never really had to leave Glacier.
Her projection followed him wherever he went; a guardian undetectable to anyone she didn't want to be seen by. But she could keep Septen safe no matter where he was; through him, she could still telepathically influence others, coaxing them gently, sometimes not so gently, to leave her friend alone.
But even though Septen had a variant of Glacier's presence with him, he made it a point to return to that place again every so often, to receive her warm embrace again.
And she was always so eager to provide it, when she could.
His own guardian angel.