Anastasia and Revi trudged through the strange farmland. Phaeton, the ice unicorn, sneered at them from a distance.
When Phaeton was out of earshot, Revi asked, “Ana, are you sure about this? The stakes are high here.”
Anastasia shot him a disdainful look. “Aren’t you in league with Phaeton? Why are you bringing up doubts about his scheme now?”
The gold dragon shifter gave Ana a bland smile. “Who says I’m in league with him?”
Ana peered up at Revi with a frown. Their footsteps made splashing sounds on the muddy field, though their shoes remained miraculously clean. “Stop trying to confuse and bewilder me,” ze snapped.
The other dragon shifter bunched up his shoulders, his eyes far-off. “I’m truly not trying to bewilder you, and I am sorry I got you into this.”
The red dragon shifter stiffened. Ze cast wary eyes over Revi’s much taller form. “What do you mean?” Ana asked.
Revi looked everywhere but at Ana. His shoe scuffed the edge of a furrow. “Sometimes, we have to make sacrifices and do what we must, even if it hurts.”
Anastasia stopped walking. “What are you playing at? Be direct with me. Don’t dodge around like Lance did.”
A sign of real anger came into Revi’s face. “Don’t compare me with dragons like Lance.”
Ana was undaunted, folded zir arms, and waited.
Revi sighed, and drooped his head. “I don’t want to get into it right now, okay? I just want to help you with this task first. This magical landscape isn’t the best place to have a long tête-à-tête.”
The red dragon shifter stared at him with suspicion, but agreed that this was not the best place to get into a deep talk, especially not with the ice unicorn watching them. It was odd too how Revi had asked if Ana was sure about this mission a moment ago, but now he was determined to help zir with the task…
But for now, ze said, “You know this is all nonsense, right? Royal intuition to find the vial to cure the poison?” But zir voice shook a little at the thought of how close ze could be to the solution.
Revi looked back at Ana with a surprising intensity. He cleared his throat. “I know this is hard for you to believe, but Phaeton is right. You do have royal blood in your veins, even though you’re adopted. And this streak of royalty, no matter how slim, will guide you toward the correct vial.”
“That sounds like sheer superstition,” Ana said vehemently.
Revi knitted his brows. “This is no superstition. I’ve investigated this phenomenon in depth for years. But since I have no royal blood, I could only recruit you to do it.”
Anastasia’s ears perked up at that, and zir hackles rose. If only ze could shift back to dragon right now and slash at him. “Are you saying I’m the pawn to help you get what you want?”
Revi frowned. “You’re not a pawn. I just want to help you and do the best for our kingdom.” At his feet, the vials glinted with enigma in their cages.
Anastasia shook zir head, feeling angry but also sad. “I’m not sure what kind of delusion you’ve put yourself under, and I’m still not sure what you really want — ”
“Ana,” Revi said, raising his hands in an appeasing gesture. His voice was half poignant, half remonstrating. “Why do you have so little trust in me? Aren’t we friends, at least?”
“More like civil,” Ana snapped back. Once again, ze resisted the itch to morph back to dragon form.
Without realizing it, Ana and Revi had recommenced their walking on the muddy trail. And then all of a sudden, Ana felt it.
It was a flash of recognition. Warm and cold frissons ran through Anastasia’s body. Somewhere in zir mind’s eye, ze spied a glowing form in a sandstorm.
Ze broke out of the trance, and stared at the vial that stood out from the rest. There wasn’t anything visibly different about it, but ze still felt an odd sense of familiarity, home, and nostalgia. Reflexively, Ana reached for it.
Only for Revi to block zir hand. “Wait,” he said sharply. “It could burn you. Let me take it.” He reached for the vial.
Ana slapped his hand away and hissed. “What do you think you’re doing? Is this a trick?”
The gold dragon shifter pressed his lips together and shook his head. “No. You have royal blood, so you will be drawn to the vial, but touching it can also corrode you and tear you apart. So please, let me.”
It was beyond frustrating to be kept in the dark about so many things, to have to put blind faith in Revi, whom Ana did not fully trust. Yet, if it was indeed so dire to touch the vial, even brave Ana was hesitant to try.
Ze bit zir tongue while Revi grabbed the vial. He sighed with relief when he held, then cradled it, in his hands. Ana, meanwhile, felt a leaden dread, apprehension, and fury.
Ze didn’t know where all these negative emotions came from, though ze certainly was annoyed by Revi’s intrusion. Ana was exasperated by the whole situation, and that ze had to stay in human form all this time.
Wet splashing sounded beside them, and there stood Phaeton. The ice unicorn looked remarkably pleased with himself, and his mane and eyes sparkled with menace. “Excellent work, master.” The unicorn was looking at Revi.
Ero the calf-shifter and his cousin, Mildred, broke into Revi’s mansion. Or, more precisely, one of Revi’s guards was concerned about his master’s welfare, and opened the door to let them find him.
Ero supposed that he and Mildred must look quite harmless too, being mere bovine shifters. Mildred suggested that it might be a trap.
“Not that we should give up on this mission,” she added quickly before Ero could protest.
And so the two of them searched through “Master Revi’s” glorious halls. It was all so opulent, rivalling even the splendour of the palace.
Mildred snorted while examining a gold-framed, body-length mirror on the wall. “Some people are so rich that they spend it on useless ornaments, don’t they? And he must be quite vain, too.” But she did check out her own reflection in the mirror.
The calf-shifter glanced about the lavish marble floors, and up at the diamond chandelier. The chandelier seemed even more ostentatious than the one in his guest room at Queen Freya’s.
Everything was beautiful here to the point of nausea. Ero thought about how his home barn was much warmer and more comfortable, with the straw and hay. Except the dragons had already wrecked their farmland and poisoned the grass.
Mildred tapped him on the arm. “Hey, I know this is upsetting, but I’m not sure this is the right place to look.” They were marching through the halls on the third floor already, with nothing more interesting than the rooms of jewels, velvet, and luxury.
The calf shifter shook off her hand and huffed; he placed his hands on his hips, and surveyed the place once again. “Fine. Let’s go back downstairs.”
His cousin rolled her eyes, but shuffled with him back down the winding staircase. Ero had the sudden thought that the bannister was like a pony’s mane, with wavy rivulets and a silky strong force. Somehow, that image gave him an ominous feeling, and he quickly let go of the bannister. Mildred didn’t seem to notice anything, however.
As soon as they reached the ground floor, Ero immediately sensed that something was wrong. A faint, oily smell slid into his nostrils.
He sniffed to locate where the smell was coming from, and charged towards Revi’s bathroom. Mildred called out after him as she followed.
At first, the calf-shifter thought the door was locked, but when he kicked it, the door swung open with ease.
Now, the oily stench was so intense, it made his head swim and his vision blur. Then he turned his gaze towards the bathtub.
Mildred screamed and yanked Ero out of the bathroom. He protested but her grip was too strong. She ran with him until they were out of Revi’s mansion.
In the bathtub, Ero had seen the rotting corpse of a red dragon.