14. Silly Girl

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Azrael was less accepting of me than Ryin was. Thus, for our first trip back to Shade, I rode behind Cardan on Kiethe while Ryin and Azrael led the way. Instead of crossing at Silver Lake, we went further north. We landed atop a large cliff overlooking a valley filled with grassy fields and bordered by cliffs and trees. When Ryin dismounted and sat on the edge with his legs hanging over the edge, Cardan and I soon joined him.

"What are we doing here?" I asked.

Instead of answering, he put a finger to his lips and motioned for me to watch. Resigning myself to a lesson, I let my eyes wander over the open grass. After almost ten minutes had passed, my eyes locked on movement near the trees. The deer were skittish as they looked over the open space, and only a few members of the herd braved the open space. Minutes dragged as they stood with ears erect, refusing to move except for the need to breathe. At last, whatever tension they carried seemed to fade and they finally proceeded to enter the tall grass. At least eight others followed in their wake and they began the greedy process of gorging themselves.

Watching deer was not like watching Desert Eagles. There were no breathtaking dives, harsh spins, or piercing calls to keep me awake and anxious. Instead, the slow, steady movements of the creatures caused a calm to wash over me. It took all of my concentration not to lean my head on Ryin or Cardan's shoulders and drift to sleep.

What happened next caused me to jerk so violently that both men had to restrain me before I accidentally threw myself off the cliff.

It happened in an instant. One minute, the deer were shuffling away in perfect oblivion, and the next, the lion had started its deadly stalk through the grass. In a single, fluid explosion of deadly grace, it launched itself at one of the doe-eyed creatures.

The deer began to vanish. Some bounded towards the trees. Others shifted shape. All of a sudden, the valley was full of rabbits, mice, a fox, a badger, and even other cat-like creatures in search of escape. The lion was undeterred as it gained on the one creature still frozen in a deer form. When the fatal pounce came, the lion was at its mercy. Transforming in a blink, a giant bear stood where once a quaking deer had been. Once the lion was near, the bear drew back one of its giant paws and threw all of its weight into the collision with the flying cat.

I could hear the bones cracking as the cat crashed against the valley floor. A shimmer of muscle seemed to wash over the creature, but it wasn't fast enough. Before it could shapeshift, the bear reared up and brought both forepaws down on the lion's skull. Then it feasted.

My stomach turned and my eyes squeezed shut. What only took moments felt like an hour seared into my memory. After several deep breaths, I made a point to look at my companions and murmured, "The shapeshifters are cannibals."

Cardan nodded. "Now you see why we do not trust them."

"It is impossible to know which creatures are genuine and which are not in this land," Ryin continued.

"That is because we become whatever we wish. We are not illusionists that merely mimic reality. We transform into it."

All three of us were on our feet at once, whipping around to find a woman with flowing locks of dark hair draped over her naked flesh. An amused smile pulled at her lips, but it was the fangs that nestled against her bottom lip that caused me to glance at my comrades nervously. She was between us and the Gryphons, and a ledge with at least a two hundred foot drop was at our backs.

"Be calm, younglings. No harm will come to you," she said, her voice drawing out each 's' sound. For a moment, I thought a forked tongue flickered past her teeth.

My instincts told me to leap onto Kiethe and fly away as far and as fast as we could. Yet, my purpose here was to make an ally of at least one of these creatures. This was an opportunity I could not pass up.

Taking a step forward, I announced, "I am Tallie, an emissary from Valhoal. Word has reached us that the Blood Dragon has been seen above your skies. I have been sent to investigate, and provide aid if I am able."

The woman drifted forward, her head bobbing around as she studied me. When she was close enough, I noticed that she had slitted pupils like a serpent. "You have heard of the Blood Dragon in a nation that was not even thought of when the war came. How extraordinary."

"To see a dragon after the war has ended is extraordinary. I should think the whole of Maeror knows by now."

A slight hiss escaped her. "Silly girl. The war is not over. Not until the Blood Dragon is appeased."

"And we would like to help. We have Riders dispatched all over the Forest. If we find what it seeks, we will be happy to trade that information for some assurances."

"Such as?"

"Such as protection from the wrath of dragons who have never before caused harm to the Forest."

"Your offer is much appreciated, silly girl. Your terms will be presented to the Blood Dragon."

"You have contact with it, then?"

"No, silly girl. But there is nothing that can be said that she cannot hear."

My eyebrows rose quickly. "The Blood Dragon is female?"

A low, sibilant laugh left her. "Could you think of a creature better suited to vengeance than a female? Go now. Find what she seeks ... if you can. Return here when you have an answer."

Without waiting for a response, the woman transformed and a small, brilliant green serpent slithered away between the rocks. In a heartbeat, the three of us lunged toward Azrael and Kiethe. We were in the air within moments, each beast racing back toward the safety of the trees.

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