In which Vhen receives a shock (or two).
AFTER A MORNING spent milling around the plaza, sitting outside coffee houses and chatting with the locals, Vhen had made up his mind. Part of him resisted this course, because it had been his father’s suggestion, but although he was stubborn, mule-headed and often contrary in his behaviour, Vhen tried not to be stupid. He might argue, drag his heels and baulk instinctively whenever someone tried to order him about, but three months was a long time to spend inside his own head, and he hoped he was smart enough to see sense despite the source.
Since he valued reason above everything, he knew his father’s idea was sound. It was the right choice for Vhen at this moment in time, so he finished his cup of coffee, offered his pastry to a passing errand girl and eventually set out for the south-west spoke of the city, following the directions of a pretty orange seller.
The sun was still a hand’s width or so above the edge of the crater, so Vhen felt little need to rush as he ambled along the straight road, heading for the arching bridge. The spoke was refreshingly empty and he dawdled, pausing at the top and taking his chance to peer over the edge at the abyss below. It was dark and jagged, the growing afternoon shadows and naturally dark rock showing nothing but emptiness. It made Vhen shiver, but in a good way. He liked darkness, he liked emptiness. It was rational and reasonable. He liked reasonable things.
Footsteps rattled down the street, coming fast. Someone was late.
Smirking, Vhen pushed away from the rail, turning to see what all the fuss was about.
Wham! The runner slammed into him, knocking him flying.
He hit the ground hard enough to punch the wind out of him, but he recovered swiftly enough to turn and give the idiot a piece of his mind for not looking where they were going.
The runner reeled backwards, right towards the far rail. Vhen’s anger vanished and he called out a warning. Too late. The stranger hit the edge of the bridge in a splintering of wood – and dropped straight out of sight.
“No!” Vhen threw himself across the spoke, hitting the ground and staring through the gap the runner had made.
His stomach lurched as he saw their pale form tumbling, tumbling, falling down, down, down to their death.
Oh gods, he thought, praying for the first time in his unbelieving life. For the first time ever he wished he was wrong, wished there truly were great deities out there somewhere in the mists of the world, magical and capable enough of reaching out a giant hand and sweeping the poor unfortunate up and away from their death.
For the first time he understood the comfort of religion.
And the despair. Why couldn’t they be real? Why couldn’t they save this person? Why couldn’t they -?
A burst of bright blue-white lightning seared his eyes and Vhen flinched. Something vast and furious bubbled up from the darkness, snarling with rage. Vhen fell onto his back and stared at the sky in disbelief.
Was this… Maegla?
Did the Storm Goddess really exist?
Had She reached out of the misty god-ether and performed a miracle right before his blasphemous eyes?
A dragon soared across the sky, a mix of dark and pale blue, with washes of bright lightning.
A dragon! Vhen hadn’t believed in them either!
The dragon tilted its head, spotted him on the bridge and dived.
Vhen curled into a ball, huddled against the bridge boards, regretting his short life of non-belief and dreading what might come next.
The dragon landed with surprising lightness, tiny bolts of lightning scorching the boards around their clawed feet.
A fluty voice irritably demanded, “Have you seen my bag? It did not fall over the edge with me and, since I am already late, I do not have time to hunt for it.”
Vhen slowly uncurled from his crouch and found the dragon looking at him, tapping an impatient silver claw against the boards. Her Mistrunan was perfect; fortunately so was his.
“Well?” It – she? The voice sounded indignantly female – demanded.
“Er…” Vhen looked around and spotted a bag dangling precariously from the broken railing. “Is that it?”
The dragon huffed. “Thank the Family. Excuse me.” A long shadow and far too many scales stretched over Vhen’s head as the dragon plucked the pack from the railing. The enormous creature looked up at the sky and whistled shrilly. “Oh no! The sun’s almost gone.”
It was Vhen’s turn to look up in consternation. “What? No! It can’t be that late.”
He scrambled to his feet, even as the dragon leapt back into the sky, the downdraft of her wings bending him almost double. He ran down the far side of the bridge, marvelling at the incredible creature swooping up the crater ahead of him, heading for the tower at the very top.
Once more Vhen found himself doubting his very eyes as the dragon landed before the tower and shifted into a much smaller, human-shaped form. He almost stumbled to his knees when the dragon-person ran a hand over their hair, swung their bag onto their back and opened the tower door.
Reminded that he needed to hurry through that door himself before the office closed for the night, Vhen shut his gaping mouth and ran up the steep steps, puffing and blowing and wishing he’d spent the last three months training instead of sulking.
~ Next Chapter ~
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