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WITH THAT, THE DRAGON returned to his cabin

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WITH THAT, THE DRAGON returned to his cabin. Ravenna spent the remainder of the day submerged within the forest. She found a spot beneath a shaded tree and sat down, her back against its trunk. Shards of ice stretched out across the mixture of grass and dead leaves around her. It crawled up the trunk, toward the branches that swayed overhead.

As she sat there, his words replayed over within her mind. "You're about as observant as you are stupid," he'd said with that haughty smirk. "There is nothing else I can do with you until you become more observant."

Her blood boiled. The spikes around her sharpened.

Her gaze flickered around and absorbed her surroundings. Tree leaves danced in the slight afternoon breeze. Sunlight barely poked through the canopy of branches overhead. The lack of light, packed with the movement around her, made the forest feel much larger, much more frightening. Shadows crept within its depths, their movements maintaining a pace that matched time itself. The quieter she sat, the more the wildlife stirred into existence around her. A fawn nibbled on the grass several trees away, its mother not far behind. Several birds hopped from branch to branch, chatting incoherently with each other. Rumbles drifted into earshot from a nearby bear. A hawk screamed overhead and several bushes rustled as a rabbit dashed through them.

She felt observant enough. Despite the sheer amount of details that a forest held, she'd been able to identify most of them. At least the subjects that immediately surrounded her.

Then something tickled the skin of her forearm. She glanced down. Her heart leapt in terror. Spikes erupted from the masses of ice around her, immediately piercing the fuzzy caterpillar. Her heart raced inside her chest as she wrenched her arm away from the ice and stood. Remnants of the bug clung desperately to her sleeve and she wildly shook her arm.

Her pulse calmed as she put some distance between her and the now deceased bug. Despite her abilities, the disgusting creepy-crawlies still got to her.

A deep frown settled on her face as she walked. The caterpillar had proven her worst fears; she just wasn't as observant as she thought she was. It pained her to think that the dragon could possibly be right.

As she neared the cabin, Ravenna hesitated. She could just barely make out the silhouette of the dragon through the window. He stood in front of it, most likely hunched over the table trying to create some sort of potion.

Part of her didn't want to face him. At all. She just knew what would happen the moment she walked through that door. The second that she admitted that he was right, he'd reward her with another cocky smirk and a few remarks about her lack of intelligence. Which of course would just serve to irritate her further. Any angrier, and the ice that pierced the ground around her feet might do some serious damage.

But she needed to face him. Despite her anger toward him, the blasted dragon had actually taught her something of value if she ever wanted to fight.

A small fire flickered in the hearth as she entered the room. It cast a warm glow across the walls and the scent of cinnamon wafted through the room. As she shut the door behind her, she glanced toward the dragon. His back remained turned toward her. He moved around in front of his table, his hands preparing ingredients for a spell. The perfect image of ease. She took a deep breath and tried to cool her annoyance. Her ice remained rooted around her feet. She moved further into the cabin, toward the chair she'd claimed.

The dragon continued to ignore her.

Her jaw clenched. She tore her gaze away from him, focused on the rest of the room. An idea entered her head as her gaze found the bookshelf. She pursed her lips and hesitated, glancing warily back toward the dragon. When investigating it earlier, he hadn't been very happy. She took small steps toward it. Her ice faded away, drawn back toward her feet and vanishing against her skin.

Surely there had to be some tricks or spells to strengthen her observational skills.

She examined the individual spines of the books and realized that she could hardly read any of them. Most of the writing was constructed by oddly shaped symbols. Her shoulders slumped in defeat and she stepped back.

"You won't find what you're looking for here." The dragon's murmur carried across the expanse of the room, making her spine tingle. "There is a small village just past the forest. You'll need to go there."

"Most villages only have mediocre bookshops," she mused. Her expression twisted with confusion. "I would be expected to pay and I can't afford that."

He glanced back at her from over his shoulder, an eyebrow arched. "No one said that you had to pay."

Ravenna's eyes widened. Her gaze drifted toward her small coin purse, half hidden within her cloak. The most that she was used to stealing were small coins. Not a book. Or two.

He watched her react for a few seconds. Then his shoulders lifted with a slight shrug. "Then you must find another way to obtain the books."

Her nose curled. "How far away is this village?"

"About half a day's walk."

She frowned and gazed out the window. Darkness crept along the corners of the sky –or at least the parts that were visible through the trees. She knew that if she left now, it would be nighttime before she reached the village. Her stomach twisted with knots as she remembered the last time she traveled through a village at night. Her hands lifted and she gazed at her fingertips. Each village was different. Perhaps the Imperial soldiers that protected this one wouldn't feel quite so entitled, or at least wouldn't approach her.

She moved toward her discarded cloak and scooped it off the floor. Now that she considered the notion, the dark might actually work in her favor. Her first idea had been to steal the books in broad daylight, surrounded by a cluster of other people like she was used to. Yet that idea troubled her, as she had no way of knowing how busy or popular the bookstore was. And should the bookstore be void of distractions, her slight hand would be caught immediately. Which meant she'd have a much better chance if she snuck into the store during the night.

As she fastened the cloak around her shoulders, she watched the daylight fade through the window. "I will return soon," she told the dragon awkwardly as she pushed the door open.

"I wish you luck," he said earnestly. His eyes met her and another wry smirk toyed at his lips. "Though I feel I should warn you. Not all problems can be solved by a spell."

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