With every flap of Anastasia’s wings, the dragon carried the calf further across the sky. Soon, the duo reached an odd clearing within the Valley.
Ero was startled to see no ghosts roaming about.
When he asked about this, Anastasia said, “Ghosts don’t like dragon fire. They stay away from us as much as they can.”
The calf drew in a breath of fresh air, savoring his freedom once again. He noticed that Anastasia had a certain smell, too. It was subtle and made him think of ash and phoenixes.
Before long, Ana landed in the clearing where two dragons, both as large as elephants, were basking in the sun. The “clearing” was larger than it seemed; it stretched out like an arm and disappeared around the bend. A river cut through the land, and the burble of water was music to the calf’s ears.
“Go eat and drink,” Ana told him, much like an older sibling would.
To Ero’s delight, the grass was lush and abundant, soaked through with warm sunlight. The running water nearby promised a delicious drink.
Still, Ero didn’t want to be too far from Anastasia. Even as he bent down to chew the grass, he glanced up from time to time to check that ze was still there.
The two elephant-sized dragons were light blue, while Anastasia was amber-red. The bigger of the blue dragons chortled. “Good job. I doubt this one wants to leave you, though.”
Anastasia rolled zir eyes. “We’ll be fine.”
Ze stared at the two other dragons as if expecting a confrontation. Ero tensed. He wanted to help Ana, but he knew that he’d be useless against a dragon, let alone two.
The larger blue dragon, Demiel, grunted and signaled with his head for them all to follow. The smaller blue dragon was Demiel’s younger brother, Lance. The latter shot Anastasia and Ero a scornful look, before stomping off with Demiel.
Anastasia replied with a low growl, “We only just landed and the child still needs to feed. Leave us.”
Ero padded a little closer to Ana. But it was odd that ze had called him a child when ze couldn’t be that much older than him.
Demiel snorted, and to Ero’s amazement, the blue dragon began to shift, and so did Lance. Before long, the dragons had transformed into two young men in their 20s.
Lance smirked. “Ana, just shift back into your human form. It’s easy. Or are you afraid to let your new friend see your human self?”
Ana looked like ze’d be happy to fry him right now. Ero thought the blue dragons were too bold. Why did they shift to human form while Ana was still a dragon?
Regardless, Ana restrained zirself and scoffed, releasing a puff of smoke into the air. “I can shift later. Just leave me alone.”
Lance shook his head, while Demiel remarked, “Your attitude will bring you trouble, Ana.” He looked gleeful at the prospect.
But the red dragon just glared at him and said nothing.
At long last, the dragon boys trotted off, turned around the river bend, and disappeared.
As soon as they were out of sight, Ero lifted his head and asked, “What was that all about? Why do you have to get into your human morph? And why don’t you want to?”
Anastasia frowned, but at least didn’t seem angry at Ero. “Inside the Valve, we’re required to enter only in human form, like how soldiers and bodyguards have to leave their weapons outside before entering a fancy home.”
Ero said, “Why don’t you want to shift to human form, then?”
Anastasia gave him a displeased look. “I like being a dragon more. Isn’t that enough of a reason?”
The calf thought for a while. He glanced down at his feet, and glanced up again. Ero lowered his voice, though it was unlikely anyone was close enough to eavesdrop. “Ana, maybe we can fly away. You’re a powerful dragon, right? And you’re small enough to fit almost anywhere. Why do you have to stick to your dragon kin if they force you to shift into human form against your will?”
The dragon’s shocked expression was quite a sight. Anastasia looked away at the river, zir eyes tracing the meandering water. Then ze said, “Okay.”
It was Ero’s turn to be shocked. “What?”
Ana repeated in a gruff voice, “I said okay, let’s go. I don’t need them. And they have plenty of other dragons to help in their rescue missions.”
The calf was still stunned that the dragon had accepted his crazy proposition. He had only suggested the idea in the heat of the moment, out of sympathy for Anastasia. He didn’t think ze would take him seriously — unless the dragon was joking with him?
Ero asked in a cautious voice, “But aren’t you devoted to the cause of rescuing prisoners like me from the ghosts?”
Anastasia stared off into the distance. “I used to be passionate about this cause. But lately, some…things happened that were very upsetting. To be honest, after saving you, I was planning to resign and leave the Valley.” The dragon lowered zir gaze and added in a whisper, “Besides, sometimes dragons are even worse than ghosts.”
Ero’s breath hitched at that. “What do you mean?” It wasn’t like he had never heard of dragons destroying villages and causing mayhem. But since Ana had saved him, he assumed they were the good kind of dragons.
The red dragon fluttered zir wings a bit, looking conflicted. “I don’t want to answer that question right now.” Zir gaze hardened slightly. “If you still want to leave, we should go before the other dragons get suspicious and come to grab us.” Ze huffed and more tendrils of smoke came out of zir mouth.
Ero glanced around. “Okay.” He added, “I hope we won’t be followed, but I’m coming with you, yes.” The calf climbed onto Ana’s back again. With a flap of zir powerful wings, ze took to the air once more.
They were way up in the clouds before Ero asked, “Can we go to my barn? I want to see my parents.”
Anastasia snorted. “That’s too risky. The other dragons will know to track us there.” Ze was silent for a moment. “I hope you don’t regret flying away. I may not be–very fond of my fellow dragons, but they wouldn’t have hurt you.”
Perhaps the dragon should have clarified that before their lift-off. But Ero was gleeful too, as Ana’s late revelation implied that the dragon wanted him to come along, right?
Though Ero did miss his parents, he didn’t want to say goodbye to Anastasia, either. With the dragon, he felt like they could have fun and exciting adventures together. And Ana made him feel safe.
He mumbled, “Then where should we go?”
Anastasia’s voice vibrated with barely concealed mirth. “That’s a surprise.”
Before the calf could reply, the dragon dived down at a blinding pace.
Ero screamed all the way until they landed.
They had broken through a thick canopy of trees, and plopped down onto the soil and leaves below.
In a light tone, the dragon said, “It’s okay, little calf. We’ll be safe here.”
The calf-shifter scowled as he shuffled through the crunchy leaves on the ground. “I’m not that little. Not much littler than you, anyway.”
The dragon was still amused. “How old are you, then?”
“Eleven,” Ero said.
Anastasia laughed. “I’m fifteen. You really are little.”
The calf made a face. “I’m old enough.” He trotted around as he examined their surroundings. They were in a dense forest, with the sunlight filtering through the leaves. At least there was plenty of grass to eat, and from the trickling he could hear, there was a stream close by to drink from, too.
And then it struck him. “Um, Ana, what would you eat?” He was suddenly afraid that Ana might see him as food, even if he clung to the belief that a dragon who saved his life wouldn’t kill him afterwards.
Anastasia gave him a cool look. “I can hunt. Even without fire. I’m not about to burn this forest to the ground, you know?”
Ero thought quickly. “This is part of our escape plan, right?” he asked. “Not only would the thick trees cover us, the other dragons would also avoid using fire, because they don’t want to destroy the forest?” Not that it was unheard of for dragons to raze a whole forest into nonexistence.
The red dragon let out a frustrated puff. “If they’re really desperate, they won’t have any qualms. But yes, normally they wouldn’t wipe out an entire habitat and ecosystem like that. They realized that even dragons could benefit from wildlife that’s alive and well.” Ze sounded sardonic.
“But won’t anyone miss you?” Ero pressed.
Anastasia narrowed zir eyes. “Let’s not talk about this.”
The dragon continued to be frustratingly tight lipped, no matter how much he badgered zir.
At last, the dragon said, “Stay here. I’m going to go hunting.” Ze had found a large cluster of bushes the calf could hide in, though Ero honestly didn’t want to be confined anywhere, not after his ordeal with the ghosts’ dark cage.
Anastasia felt a jab of guilt for leaving the calf unprotected, but it had been a while since ze had fed. No, ze wouldn’t go so far as to eat the innocent calf, but ze didn’t want to chance it.
The dragon perched on a high branch of a tree, and scanned the forest floor below.
Just then, a brown hare climbed out of its warren to feed on the grass. Ana’s eyes widened with anticipation.
In a moment, the hare spotted the dragon. It froze, clearly not understanding what it was seeing. But by the time it realized it should get back into its warren, it was too late.
Ana swooped faster than an arrow, and took the hare.
The hare was plump and juicy, though not Ana’s favorite thing to eat. But food was food. Ze took pride in zir speed and agility, too. How many other dragons could boast of being small enough to fly through a forest, but also swift enough to catch prey with ease?
When Anastasia flew back to the thicket, ze was relieved to find that Ero was still there. But he was scowling.
“What now?” Ana asked. Ze was more patient now that ze had finally eaten.
The calf said, “While you were off hunting and feasting, look what happened!” He dug briskly at the damp soil, until a glass bottle full of milk appeared.
The milk looked like it was still fresh. And the bottle glinted obscenely against the natural landscape of the forest.
Ana was stunned, and then angry. “What is the meaning of this?” Though ze had zir suspicions.
Ero looked down at the bottle, muttering, “Someone–they looked human but could easily be a shifter in disguise–came to me. They shushed me, saying I might come to harm if I made a sound. Then they placed this bottle of milk in front of me, saying that you, Anastasia, would understand what this means.” Ero wrinkled his nose. “Just because I’m the son of a cow, doesn’t make it funny to give me a milk bottle.”
Ana huffed. “And you think I was pranking you with this human?”
Ero frowned. “No, but…” He shook his head, and the fury in his eyes faded into sadness. “Are we being followed? I already agreed not to go home.” He looked like he was about to cry.
Ana nudged his head gently with zir muzzle. “Don’t let them bring you down. We’ll get through this. I promise.”
But despite the dragon’s reassuring words, Ana eyed the bottle of milk as distressing memories flooded into zir mind.
No, ze couldn’t tell the calf yet. He was still too young.