On the second day of his wandering, Asa found tracks in the soft dirt. They were not the tracks of a man, but of a giant beast. There were deep gouges where talons had scraped the ground. Spots of red dotted the soil between each awkwardly-placed print, as if the creature had been stumbling.
Asa followed the tracks.
For a long time, he saw, heard, and smelled nothing beyond the trees and dirt. Then something roared.
He turned and saw a dragon leaning heavily against a tree, chest heaving. It raised its gray head, and Asa recognized insanity in its eyes. Its muzzle was speckled with blood; its sides were thin and scales dull. This was a dragon that had been in the Other Space.
Asa crouched a couple meters away, watching it quietly.
“Go away,” the dragon rasped. It shaped the human words with difficulty; the sounds tumbled from its maw, graceless and breathy.
“You didn’t exist a moment ago,” Asa said.
It said nothing, only watched him with anger in its eyes.
“You’re not from here,” Asa said. “How long have you been drinking the water and eating the food? There’s magic in this land, and once it gets inside you, it never comes out.” The dragon still said nothing, so Asa continued. “It’s terrible, isn’t it? I don’t want to disappear anymore, even though I like the feeling a lot better than existing. It hollows you out.”
“What do you want?” the dragon asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen a dragon before. What’s your name?” Silence was its response, so he kept talking. “I’m Asa. I mostly didn’t exist because my parents didn’t want me, so they locked me away. I escaped.” He beamed. Escaping had been good; he was still pleased with himself for that.
Silence, the sound of a heartbeat in the Other Space. Asa just looked at the dragon, and it looked back at him.
“I’m not going to hurt you or anything,” Asa said.
“I tried—” The dragon’s voice broke. “I tried to fly.”
“Did you disappear by accident?”
Asa closed his eyes. He could imagine soaring, vast wings spread wide, and then vanishing in the next moment. When the dragon reappeared, it would have fallen long and hard, wind tearing feathers from its wings and scales from its bulk before it could right itself in the air. Asa, too, would have walked after that.
“We should be friends,” Asa said. He scooted closer to the dragon until the distance between them was no longer than his arm.
“Because we can help each other. I want to get out of here, and you keep disappearing by accident. So carry me out. If I’m within sensing distance of you, you can’t disappear at all, and flying would be the fastest way for me to leave here.”
The dragon raised its head so it was towering above Asa. If its gray scales were shining, if its horns were clean and white, if there wasn’t blood in its mouth and fear in its eyes, it would have been terrifying to behold. As it was, Asa saw only a tired creature that needed help.
“How can I trust you, little boy?” Its voice rumbled in its chest.
“We’re the same. We’re both gray and empty and wanting to be whole again.”
Another long silence. Asa counted the seconds in his head.
“My name is Vas. I was not always gray.”
“What color were you?”
“The color of rusted iron.”
“Does this mean we’re friends?”
“We’ll be friends if I like you,” Vas said. “For now, I will fly with you. If I dislike you, I will drop you as soon as we leave this forsaken place. If I like you, you may stay with me for as long as you wish. If I am at risk of disappearing in my own lands as well, it would do to have a friend. These are my terms. Do you find them acceptable?”
“Yes,” Asa breathed.
The dragon seemed to regain some strength. He righted himself and spread his wings wide.
“We must leave at once,” he said. “The journey is long and my home is calling me. Climb on my back, little boy.”
Asa did. He gripped one of Vas’s long spines in his hands. Vas’s scales were smooth beneath his legs.
“Where is your home?” Asa asked.
“With the Faylore Flight,” Vas growled. With that, he began to run, wings pumping to get their combined weight off the ground. Asa held on tightly.
They rose above the trees. The cold wind buffeted Asa, tugging at his clothes and hair and skin, and it was uncomfortable. But for the first time, Asa was glad to be alive.