The things we do for friends.
VHEN COULDN’T FIND Rhiddyl. After the exams were over, his dragon friend had fled the offices and vanished into thin air. One might be mistaken for thinking a twenty-five foot dragon would be hard to conceal in the middle of a city, but Vhen had swiftly been proved wrong.
The first day after the exams he’d spent mostly sleeping, the second he’d hung around with the rest of his friends, each of them hoping Rhiddyl was doing all right. She had been excessively nervous before the written exam, but everyone had assured her that she would do fine. Having finally sat down himself and suffered through it, Vhen knew she would excel. They all would. The exam was ridiculously easy. He was almost insulted by the lack of difficulty in the questions. Mostly, though, Vhen was relieved. The selection school was over. Soon the real Rider training would begin. For the first time in longer than he cared to think, Vhen was excited, and he wanted to share that excitement with Rhiddyl.
When she still didn’t show up on the third day after the exams, Vhen became concerned. When he shared his worries with his friends, he soon became alarmed. No one knew where she was staying and a quick check of the city revealed that no one they knew had ever seen her in the streets, except when she was with her friends. After two more days of searching, Vhen concluded his dragon wasn’t sleeping in the city, which left only an entire mountain range to search.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t mention this to the captain?” Keiva had asked, the voice of reason as always. “You said he knows what she is. Maybe he knows where she is too.”
Except Vhen didn’t want to get anyone else involved. Rhiddyl was his friend; he wanted to find her and check that all was well. Getting the Riders involved would make it seem more serious, more like a reprimand. He didn’t want Rhiddyl to get in trouble, nor did he want to appear uncaring. After all, they’d spent seven months in the city and this was the first time Vhen had thought to check where the dragon was staying. However, he was forced to reconsider his feelings after he’d strapped some camping gear onto his back, hitched a flight with a couple of goat-herders and set off up the nearest of Zvenera’s neighbouring mountains. After searching the wilds alone for three days, he had to admit two difficult things.
One, he still hadn’t found Rhiddyl and had no idea how he was going to.
Two, he was hopelessly lost.
“You used to be clever, Nevhen,” he grumbled to himself as he edged sideways down a scrub-infested slope, attempting to reach the stream gurgling through a gully at the bottom. “You used to be regarded as the brightest light Seinan University was blessed to receive. You were going to study law.”
Instead he’d thrown it all over to write inflammatory pamphlets in a childish bid to gain his mother’s attention, perhaps even a smidgen of her approval. Look where that had landed him. He’d had a lot of time to think over the last three days as he stumbled from one near-disaster – an incident with a snake – to the next – almost rolling off a precipitous drop while sleeping. Amongst all that thinking, he’d also taken a long, hard and actually rather horrible look at himself.
He still didn’t believe in the gods that ruled his mother and his country’s entire lives – and likely never would without absolute proof – but that didn’t mean he had to be obnoxious about it. Most people in the Overworld probably didn’t believe in the gods either, not deep down, not if they really thought about it. Most people were too busy going about their everyday lives and trying to survive to waste much time thinking about the other end of their rote prayers and festival devotions. Most people just enjoyed the feasts and the pomp and ceremony of it all. It gave them something fun to aim for amongst the drudgery of living.
Who was he to take that away from them? Who was he to do or say anything to any of them? He was a spoilt brat, raised in a position of privilege with too much time on his hands and a deep-seated need to please his impossible-to-please mother. He’d spent his whole life doing that with no sign of success, which was why he’d stopped believing in the gods in the first place. Because surely no god alive could ignore a devotion as strong as Vhen’s had been to his mother.
Yet they had. She had. She’d sent him away.
And now here he was, wandering blindly around the wilds of the Storm Peaks, trying to get himself killed.
That would show her.
No. This wasn’t about his mother. Vhen’s life was not about her anymore. He was aiming for something different. Something good. Something new. Something that had nothing to do with family or gods and definitely not his mother. He had friends now, real friends, and a purpose.
He just wasn’t sure he could remember much about either of them now, he thought, slipping over in the mud and cursing as he scraped his hands and leg on the rough scree. His tumble was curtailed with an undignified yelp as he fell into the stream.
At least he’d finally found the water.
Bleeding, filthy, ridiculously hungry and utterly defeated, Vhen flopped face first into the flow with a weary laugh. Maybe he would just lie here until the autumn rains washed him away.
His lungs were starting to burn and an absent part of Vhen’s mind was wondering if he really was going to keep lying there, when something hard clamped around his middle. His stomach lurched as he was unceremoniously hauled from the water, choking on the shocked watery lungful he’d just inhaled.
“That was dignified,” Rhiddyl informed him, sounding amused as she dumped him on the bank – thankfully next to a pile of brambles instead of directly on top of it. “I particularly liked the shriek at the end.”
“I yelped,” Vhen corrected, sneezing water out of his nose. “I do not shriek.”
“It was a shriek,” Guto corrected, from his seat on Rhiddyl’s back, Keiva and Tenzi giggling behind him.
Oh, excellent, she’d brought company. Nice to see they’d found each other while he was out here being worried and putting his life at risk.
“What were you trying to do anyway?” Keiva asked, as Rhiddyl lifted Vhen onto his feet. “We’ve been watching you all morning, but we couldn’t quite work it out.”
Feeling surly and unappreciated, Vhen let his legs collapse and slumped back onto the ground. He was tired, he had blisters on his feet, his skin was horribly dry from all the sun and he was absolutely starving. He was in no mood to amuse his friends, especially when they’d clearly been amusing themselves at his expense.
“That’s the last time I try to find any of you.”
“Oh, don’t be like that, Vhen,” Tenzi cried. “We were really worried about you. When Rhiddyl came down to the city this morning and said she hadn’t seen you, we feared you were dead in a ditch somewhere.”
No, only almost drowned in one.
He grunted, unappeased, but didn’t protest when Rhiddyl picked him up again.
“I know what you need,” the dragon fluted, opening her wings and leaping into the air.
The three on her back whooped with delight, while Vhen grabbed hold of Rhiddyl’s silver-bright claws and tried to get his stomach out of his throat.
It wasn’t the first time he’d flown by dragon, but usually he took the comfortable backseat. Dangling like a toy from Rhiddyl’s claws was somewhat less exciting – or perhaps it was just a little too exciting for Vhen to bear.
He might have yelped – not shrieked, never shrieked – a few times, but Rhiddyl was kind enough not to mention it.
Thankfully they weren’t long in the air, so Vhen didn’t have time to actually throw up all over his dangling feet and the whirling hillside. It was barely more than a short hop before they touched down in some blooming heather. Bees buzzed lazily to and fro, too drunk on delicious nectar to mind the arrival of the giant dragon. Vhen fell to his knees again, wondering if anyone would notice if he kissed the ground. Perhaps he would just lie down on the soft heather instead, waiting for the sun to dry his clothes and the world to stop spinning.
“Leave him,” Rhiddyl advised, once the others had slid off her back and she’d resumed her much more familiar human shape. “He’ll move fast enough once the food’s ready.”
The magical f-word had Vhen raising his head. “You have food?” Laughing, Rhiddyl and the others walked away through a track in the heather, leaving Vhen to scramble after them.
~ Next Chapter ~
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