Out of loyalty, Esti first healed Marcus, marveling at how different the body of a dragon was from all the humans she'd healed for years. He was determined not to shift back to his human form until he was certain Firebreath wouldn't harm Esti and he noticed Rose hadn't dropped the protective shield surrounding her. He also noticed Esti hadn't asked why and that when she moved to heal Firebreath, she chose to place her hands on his head, as she'd down with him, but rather on the very furthest tip of a ruined wing.
Marcus had never witnessed anyone being healed before, and although he tried to focus on whether or not Firebreath was waking up anytime soon, he couldn't help but watch as the puncture wounds around the larger dragon's neck slowly stopped bleeding, then closed up completely. The torn wings came together, the green of Esti's magic appearing in the open spaces, pulling torn flesh together and willing new skin to grown where needed. Even Firebreath's burned left eye was healed and although Marcus was entirely in awe of Esti's skill, he couldn't help wishing that maybe she hadn't done quite so thorough of a job.
Especially when Firebreath opened his eyes, breathing fire, smoke billowing from his nostrils. "What in the name of the Gods was that for?" His eyes settled on Esti for a moment, before Marcus blocked him.
"The curse is gone, you fool!" Rose shouted even as she wrapped another wrapped another defensive shield around Esti arching her voice over Marcus.
Firebreath raised his head so that his eyes were just visible over the black spikes that trailed down the back of Marcus' neck. "Yes, yes," the gigantic dragon shook his head as if the fact that the curse was gone didn't mean anything, smoke fanning out before him. "But why did you nearly kill me in the process? You call me a fool! I was sleeping and yet you attacked me!" He raised his tail high, then slammed it down behind him in anger, turning his gaze to Marcus. "And you!" He nearly growled, sparks of flame escaping with the smoke, "You let this happen!"
"Let what happen? You are cured! It worked!" Never before had Esti heard dragons yell, and listening to Marcus and Firebreath, she wished she would never hear it again. It sounded like a cross between an avalanche and a roar, with barely understandable and very throaty words thrown in.
"And you're lucky that it did, you young fool," Firebreath's tail struck the ground behind him again. "You are guarding the only living unicorn in existence, so you decide the best thing to do was to attack a dragon twice your size and place her in considerable danger? When she cured your curse, did she take away half your brain as well or were you born this stupid?" The only answer was a furious snort from Marcus, accompanied by yet more smoke and Esti held back a cough. "Lucky for you bunch of fools, I will join you and make sure you don't place the unicorn in such danger again."
"I'm right here, you know…" Esti muttered. She knew the red dragon was probably right. It would have been a better idea to get him while he was sleeping, rather than to depend on Marcus and Rose being able to hold him down but he shoulders ached from where Rose's talons had dug in and blood soaked through her shirt. Her back ached and after a full night's ride followed by the sheer terror she'd felt when Firebreath's eyes had settled on her the first time.
"So you are." Firebreath took a step forward, nearly colliding with Marcus. "Move, boy. I won't kill her now." As if to prove that his intentions were peaceful, the dragon shifted into his human form while Rose and Esti watched, wide eyed. The pop of joints and audible crunch of bones shifting positions was enough to make them shiver as Firebreath changed from a thirty foot long plus tail dragon to a just over six foot tall man. His skin was pale, nearly as pale as Esti's and she found that slightly ironic. She'd always thought dragons, especially fire dragons, would be dark skinned like Rose who's skin shone like copper or like Marcus, who's skin was dark like the color of charred wood.
Firebreath in human form was lean, but muscular as if every part of his body was expected to be at it's absolute best, regardless of the fact that he could transform into a dragon large enough to crush a building with one swipe. Hair the color of flame was tied in a long tail down his back, freckles dotted his entire body and he wore loose fitting black pants only, leaving his chest and feet bare. He walked under Marcus's chin towards Esti and Rose and behind him, and Marcus himself shifted into his own human form. "What is your name, little one?" Firebreath asked when he stood before the two women.
"I am Healer Esti," she answered without pause, her body habitually leaning forward in a bow before she blushed and straightened, forcing her eyes to meet his. Firebreath had an aura of formality around him and it seemed she couldn't resist reacting to with her own trained formality and Esti worried he would find her foolish. To her surprise, the dragon bowed in return so she continued, reaching a hand out to Rose who still stood on her right. "This is my good friend Rose, who as you saw is a Phoenix. She is the one who saved me from the attack on the Sacred Forest seventeen years ago and I owe her my life."
"Then I owe her my freedom." Firebreath said, and bowed once again to Rose, who returned the motion. "I remember you, Rose, from the attack. Your courage was truly inspiring and it is an honor to meet you." He paused, a smile that could almost pass for a smirk gleaming in his eyes. "And it was an honor to have my eye burned out by you. I'm glad Esti turned out to be such a gifted healer." He winked, using the eye Rose had attacked.
"And," Esti continued, gesturing to Marcus, who had since crossed the burnt clearing to stand on her left, his arms crossed and stance wide as if at any moment he expected Firebreath to attack. "this is Marcus. We only met…was it only two days ago? He was part of the attack on Rabindra and was mortally wounded, but as he fell, he shifted into his human form before blacking out. I was called to heal him and discovered the curse, destroyed it and healed him. When he woke up, he told us the truth about the dragon attacks, the wizard of Carey, and the curse of the dragons. He has honorably decided to use his first taste of freedom in years to help Rose and I locate more dragons to cure."
Esti could see that Firebreath knew just how hard she was trying to present him in the best light given the older dragon's obvious displeasure in the way they had gone about curing him. She could also tell he knew she was trying to soothe her new friend's ego while at the same time making sure Marcus knew she considered him a valuable friend and ally. Both dragons bowed to each other, although Esti couldn't help noticing that neither ever took their eyes off each other.
There was a moment of silence between the four immortals, and Esti knew both Rose and Marcus were uncomfortable with Firebreath and she understood why. For years, she and Rose had worked as a pair, their thoughts and actions flowing seamlessly, and only very rarely had they quarreled. Each understood the other's weaknesses and their strengths. When it came to healing, no human could top Esti, and both women knew it, although Rose was more likely to declare it that she liked. Esti knew she was the better for gaining people's trust, likely because it was a required skill among healers that she practiced daily whether she wanted to or not. Although a mother with a sick child would come to her for help, that same mother would not allow her to lay a hand on the child until she first earned their trust.
But Esti was also frequently naive, and had a difficult time telling a lie of convenience from the truth. Rose, however, was significantly less trusting and searched everyone around her with a critical eye. Her magic was also significantly stronger and developed and it showed. Rose created nearly every shield because she did it faster and hers were stronger. She could call ropes of magic down to bind someone just as Taegan had on Samuel before he was cured of the incendiamentem curse. Rose created cleaning charms, water charms, focus charms, glitter charms, and countless others for added profit when times were tough at the healing house, and while Esti could do the same in theory, she found herself fumbling through the easiest charms and any shield she created could be easily pierced, often by non-magical items.
While Marcus was a new addition, Esti knew exactly why he had so easily become a part of their group. Like the two women, he knew his strengths and his weaknesses. He had an amazing memory, which he had put to serious work while creating the map of dragon territories with Rayn, complete with descriptions of each dragon, their cave, and their fighting style. But perhaps the biggest difference between Marcus and Firebreath, although both new additions, experienced and knowledgeable, was that Marcus was content to remain simply aware of Rose and Esti's weaknesses and do his best to fill in the gaps, while Firebreath focused on them.
It was uncomfortable, to be sure, but although she didn't like it, Esti recognized it as necessary. Firebreath had been right. He was asleep when they'd attacked him, and although it was three against one, they were still very lucky to have come out of it alive. She should have worked a charm to bind him into a deeper sleep while Rose tied him down with rope, but her own magic wasn't strong enough and Rose wouldn't be able to both at once. To risk it all one a sleeping charm or magical ropes was foolish, so they'd been forced to go with a surprise attack.
Esti bowed again at Firebreath before speaking, deciding it was best to remain formal with the dragon. He seemed to respond best to that. "We would be most grateful for your help and hope you will join us as we continue on towards the other dragons," she said, once she was sure she had his attention. Esti felt both Rose and Marcus stiffen on either side of her, but she ignored them, as did Firebreath. "You are right," she continued, "the surprise attack on you was foolish and extremely dangerous, but I ask that you don't blame Rose or Marcus. Instead, blame me."
"No," Rose started, but Esti cut her off with a look.
"It's true, sir." She said, meeting Firebreath's eyes again. On her left, Marcus shifted uncomfortably. Something didn't feel right, but here, with a unicorn and phoenix to his right, another dragon before him, and surrounded by the smells of Firebreath's cave, he couldn't tell exactly what it was that was bothering him. Instead, he tried to focus on Esti, forcing himself to watch her deep brown eyes as she talked. "We decided on that plan mainly because of me. I have spent my whole life focusing only on my healing magic, and must admit my shields, charms, and other magics are very undeveloped. Many spells that I should be a master of, I have never even tried.
"However," she hurried, interrupting Firebreath before he even had a chance to speak, although he had clearly intended to respond. "I hope you would be willing to suggest spells that I should know so that I may work on them before we set off again, and then through the journey to the next dragon. I trust you will be honest with me about my skills, and the skills that I lack, so that when we meet the next dragon," she paused, then turned to Marcus. "Who is the next one?"
"Firelilly," he said, watching Firebreath for a response to his mate's name.
"Yes, Firelilly," Esti continued, but Marcus was no longer listening. The feeling of what could only be described as wrongness continued to grow, and like an itch under the shoulder blade, it refused to be ignored. He stole a glance at Rose to see if she felt it too, but the Phoenix still stood tall and regal, seemingly unbothered by the cave or anything else around her. Marcus tried to shake the feeling again, but couldn't, and found himself itching to shift into his dragon form once again.
Suddenly, Firebreath did just that causing Esti to jump back, immediately surrounded by another shield of fire by Rose, who then shifted into phoenix form, a growl escaping her. Marcus shifted too, careful not to crush Esti, who was too confused to react. "Get in the cave," Firebreath said in as much of a whisper as was possible for a thirty foot dragon. Esti did not move and he said it again, louder, the smoke causing her to cough. Marcus growled and Rose screeched, but neither attacked. Firebreath had turned away, and although he clearly expected a fight, he didn't seem to expect it from them. "Shift back to human, Rose, and hide in my cave with the unicorn," he grumbled, still trying to keep his voice low. "Marcus, with me. There are others on their way and we must not let them harm her."