Anastasia gasped in bewilderment.
In Revi’s bathroom, there used to be a bathtub. But the scalding hot water seemed to have melted away the tub’s material. In its place was a huge, rectangular hole, with steps leading down into the darkness.
Ana frowned. Zir eyesight was much worse in human form, and ze wanted to shift back to dragon. But Revi placed a hand on zir arm.
He whispered, “I know the temptation is great to morph back into your most comfortable form. But believe me, it’s better to be human — or seem human — for this expedition.” He paused. “After you.” The gold dragon shifter extended a palm towards the steps.
Anastasia glared down at Revi’s restraining hand, though ze could shift anyway and he would be helpless to do anything about it. But ze snapped instead, “You can go first.”
Revi smiled. “I offered to go last to watch your back in case anyone or anything attacks from behind. I will go first as you wish, and you can protect us from any sneak attacks.” And with that, the man climbed into the former tub and trod down the stairs with an annoying confidence.
Ana hesitated at the top of the stairs for a moment. Ze glanced around, and hoped none of Revi’s servants, or anyone else, would march in behind them later.
The passageway down below had a pungent scent, and for once, it was a blessing that Ana was in human form. The stench would have been intolerable if ze was in dragon form with a keener sense of smell.
Eventually, the pitch darkness was pierced open by the light in the distance. They entered a lit hallway that looked absolutely ordinary, except for the odd sense of emptiness.
Regardless, Revi appeared unfazed. Ana wondered how often he came down here, assuming there was a way to recover the bathtub every time, via magic or other means.
They soon arrived at the end of the hallway, where there was another door. It was small enough that even Ana’s petite dragon form would have to squeeze to get through. But ze doubted that was the reason Revi urged zir not to shift.
When Revi shut the door behind them, the pungent smell in the air abruptly vanished. Chilly vapours surrounded them instead. As a dragon shifter, Ana didn’t catch cold easily, but ze still wasn’t fond of the lowered temperature.
And then all of a sudden, Anastasia saw the source of the chilled air.
There was a statue of ice, in the shape of a unicorn.
Anastasia was startled when the statue moved, and even more so when it laughed.
The ice unicorn’s voice was melodic, but it sent shivers down Ana’s spine. And not just because the creature was a block of cold solid.
Revi glanced back expectantly at Ana, as if he were showing off a prize to zir and wanted praise. The gold dragon shifter said, “Anastasia, this is Phaeton.”
Phaeton interrupted, “What a cute thing you are, Ana, probably even more so in your dragon form.” He shot Ana an ambiguous smile. “I hear you’re looking for something from me?”
Anastasia was about to say that ze had never even heard of him. In fact, ze had never met an ice unicorn before today, though ze had heard tales about them.
But ze straightened up zir back, and said in as confident a tone as ze could manage, “Do you know what poison it is that my mothers and grandmother are suffering from? And if so, do you know where to find the cure?”
The ice unicorn exchanged a glance with Revi. Phaeton replied, his crystal eyes sparkling, “Do you want the poison, or do you want the cure?”
Ana furrowed zir brows. “That’s an odd question to ask.”
The ice unicorn was unrelenting and pressed, with a frosty smile, “Poison or cure?”
Ze hesitated for just a moment before saying, “Cure.”
The ice unicorn burst out laughing at zir response, and even Revi smiled.
“What’s so funny?” Ana couldn’t help but ask with impatience and unease.
“Nothing. But you young dragons are so adorable. Especially if you’re royalty.” The ice unicorn rolled his eyes. “You see things with so little subtlety and finesse, like everything is black and white to you.”
This sounded so like what Lance had told Ana yesterday, that ze quickly lost zir temper. “That’s enough of these aimless critiques. Can you tell me what the poison — the cure is?”
The ice unicorn sighed, and his mane rippled like it was flowing in the breeze. What he said next caught Ana by surprise. “Do you trust me? We’ve only just met, but if you ride on my back, I can take you to the place you need to go to find the cure.”
Anastasia glanced at the glacial perfect smoothness of the unicorn’s back.
The unicorn smirked and stretched himself to his full height. “My body may be slippery, but you won’t fall, I’ll make sure of it. But you can only ride me in human form. I don’t like the feel of rough dragon scales on my skin.”
Anastasia glanced at Revi, who looked so out of place with his fine, resplendent clothes in this shoddy cold room. “What about you?” Ana asked the gold dragon shifter.
Phaeton answered instead, with a toss of his head, “He can come with us if you like. Otherwise, you and I can go alone.” The unicorn whickered. “Surely you don’t need a dragon friend to babysit you?”
Ana hissed and felt so tempted to just shift to dragon and leave. But ze restrained zirself. “You are a stranger to me,” the red dragon shifter began. “I don’t want a babysitter, but I do want a witness.” Ze managed to say all of this without losing zir cool.
Phaeton looked peevish, and his smile grew sharp as an icicle. “So you want me to carry two dragons on my back?”
“Two dragon shifters in human form,” Ana corrected. Phaeton was so fickle. Earlier, the unicorn didn’t care either way, but now, Phaeton was grumbling about taking Revi with them.
Anastasia didn’t see the gold dragon shifter as a friend, but ze trusted that Revi wouldn’t want zir to be hurt. Having him present could be a good deterrent to the ice unicorn, should he try anything devious.
Revi looked thoughtful, while Phaeton snorted with discontent, his nostrils flaring.
Ana quipped, “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. Revi could fly behind us.”
The gold dragon shifter raised an eyebrow at zir proposal, while Phaeton snarled, with his icy teeth bared. “I doubt that even a dragon can fly fast enough for this, not to mention that dragons would be too big.”
“Even for my dragon form?” Ana assumed that the ice unicorn had at least heard of zir small size as a dragon.
Phaeton sniffed and flicked his tail dismissively. “You are an odd one, Ana. No one else your age is quite so small. Most teenage dragons would be the size of a small house, at least. One wonders whether you truly drank all that cow-shifter milk.”
Before Ana could retort, Revi cleared his throat and cut in, “That’s not important, Phaeton. But aren’t there other ways I can accompany you two on your journey?”
The ice unicorn shot him a distasteful look. “Not in this case.”
The three of them were silent for a moment, and Ana keenly felt the waves of chilliness leaping off of the ice unicorn’s back. Then ze said, “What kind of place are we headed? And will two dragon shifters in human form be too heavy?”
Phaeton shot zir a nasty look, so ill-befitting the elegant appearance of a unicorn. “Are you implying that I’m weak?”
Ana shook zir head blithely. “No, but I’ve never encountered an ice unicorn before you, so I don’t know what weight may be too much and literally crack your spine.”
The ice unicorn looked positively sour now. “I may be a creature made of ice, but that doesn’t make me fragile — ”
Revi stepped in and said, “I’m sure ze wasn’t implying anything of the like. But I just want to know if there’s any way I can accompany Anastasia on this expedition.” He folded his arms in a way that somehow looked composed rather than defensive.
There was more sullenness and silence from Phaeton. At long last, he said, “Okay, you can both ride on my back.” He hissed. “But no kicking my flanks or yanking at my mane. I’m not some common stable horse.”
Ana thought Phaeton was quite far from a common stable horse, and much less agreeable, too.
The coldness seeped up Ana’s legs when ze climbed onto the unicorn. Revi sat right behind zir, thankfully without grabbing zir shoulders or waist, at least not yet. Ana clung onto the unicorn’s neck.
The unicorn didn’t complain, for once. “Hang on tight,” he whispered.
A portal opened up in front of them like a cave made of water, except you couldn’t see through it. The unicorn bounded into the water cave with a great splash.