Neville dusted himself off. He took his time about it. His aviator’s suit was probably ruined beyond repair but one liked to keep up certain appearances.
He picked his way over the new hill, limping just a little. He picked up one of his exposed photographic plates and studied it for a while. The glass was badly cracked but it showed a sort of blur that looked vaguely like a giant bat. Not really enough to convince Muldoon, he was afraid. He picked up another one that showed a very clear view of the Jenny’s tail planes and his own thumb. He tossed it away in resignation and heard it crash on the rocks below him.
The rocks seemed displeased by his littering. They shifted under his feet, a miniature rockfall cascading past him, nearly knocking him down.
The dragon, believe it or not, was still alive. Neville could tell because it roared in frustration just then, and the whole hill shifted as it tried to break out of its rocky prison. The pile of rubble shook and scatterings of pebbles rolled off of its sides, bouncing and skittering until they landed in the water.
Neville half jumped, half fell off the pile and landed on firmer ground beyond. Then he started—though just a little, a debonair man about town like himself didn’t jump in surprise—as he saw the dragon’s head poking out of the debris.
Its single eye was larger than his head, even with his padded helmet on. Its mouth was crusted with mud. When it roared, whole gallons of spittle flew past him, streamers of wet floating on the wind of its voice.
Neville took his pocket square out and wiped a bit off the lapel of his flying coat. “No need to shout,” he told it. “I’ll help you if I can. Assuming you don’t try to kill me in the process.”
The dragon roared again, but without its previous gusto. Neville imagined there might even be a note of contrition in its bellowing.
He studied the thing’s head with the eye of a connoisseur of all things draconian. There was something a bit off about it, actually. Well, beyond the fact that it was a cyclopean (in both senses) beast with too many legs and wings. Its translucent skin was rather unlike that of any animal he could name, and it crackled with eldritch energies.
“You’re not from around here,” Neville suggested. It shouted something he imagined might be assent. “You come from some place with a darker sun, don’t you? That must be why you always fly at night. Someone summoned you here, didn’t they? Conjured you up from some distant dimension.”
Which was really rather hurtling toward a conclusion rather than just jumping, but Neville had always had a bit of a fanciful imagination. It was hardly his worst quality.
The dragon’s mouth moved sluggishly, great folds of skin curling in on themselves. Neville studied that mouth from closer up than might be prudent. Which turned out to be just fine, as it quickly became clear to him that the dragon lacked teeth of any kind. Whatever food it ate, it must slurp up, or at the very worst gum.
“Not a meat-eater. Fascinating. No need to hunt for animal prey, then. And those men you dropped from such a great height—you certainly didn’t kill them with your stinger. It would have shown on the bodies if you did. You never killed any of them, did you? Just picked them up and then dropped them again, after they were already dead.”
The dragon roared in enthusiastic agreement. Probably.
“You’re no harm to anyone, are you? Except biplanes. Here. Let me get some of these rocks off of you,” Neville said. He began moving some of the more intermediate-sized pieces of debris, tossing them away into the dark, but the dragon roared in pain and he stopped almost before he’d begun. “Oh, dear. I don’t want to hurt you any more. Do you think if I—”
He stopped because when he looked into that massive eye he could see that some of its light had dimmed. The crackling light that clung to its skin was dwindling as well.
“No,” Neville said. “No. I refuse to accept that.”
Because it was quite clear to him what that fading light meant. And he very much wanted it to mean something else.
“There are so few like us in this world,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “The lonely and the strange. Less of us all the time. It isn’t fair. It just isn’t fair!”
He put his bandaged hands on its massive eye, and leaned down until his forehead touched the faceted, chitinous orb.
“It isn’t fair,” he said again.
The dragon’s tongue rolled out of its mouth and slapped a few times against his foot. Then it fell back and lay still.
The spiky energy of the thing sparkled away to nothing. When it was gone, the dragon’s flesh began to fade away as well. Soon it was no more than a hazy mist and the rocks on its back collapsed, falling inward, filling up the space where it had been. Perhaps it was simply returning to its home plane. Perhaps it could make itself immaterial at will, and thought it could escape the rock pile that way.
Perhaps the collapse of the arch and the weight of all that debris was just too much for it, after all.
Neville knew he would never see its like again.
It was long gone when Reggie came rushing up the shore, almost bounding on all fours like a wolf. “Boss,” he called. “Boss! You’re alive!”
“Yes,” Neville said. He straightened himself up and put his best face on. By which it is meant that he presented Reggie with his usual aplomb, not that he had spare faces in his pockets or anything. “A bit banged up, but nothing I can’t fix with some glue and plaster. I’m glad to see you’re also well.”
Reggie shook his head. “When you fell out… I guess I didn’t know what happened. I landed the Jenny the first flat place I could find and had to come looking for you on foot. Let me get you home. The Jenny’ll still fly, if I take it easy on her.”
“Home? Hmm, quite,” Neville said. “To change. And then I need to pay someone a visit.”