21. Vulnerability

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This time, Azrael was happy to have me on his back. Whatever protectiveness Ryin felt over me, his partner also shared in. Thus, when we landed on the edge of Silver Lake at dusk, he was slow to fold his wings and allow us to dismount. When we tried to make our way into the village, he also tried to follow. Clearly he did not appreciate being left in Cardan's care.

By the time the two Gryphons and our friend were settled, the last sliver of daylight was fading over the treetops. With a few deep breaths, Ryin and I began to wade into the deep shadows of the village.

It was eerily silent as we traversed the empty streets. Then, all of a sudden, it wasn't.

Screams and shrieks erupted throughout the dozens of houses. Agonizing cries echoed into the air and wails of despair filled the night. It sounded as though Death moved amongst each house, slaughtering all in residence.

Before Ryin and I could turn and run for it, the streets became crowded with people. They were pouring out of doorways and clambering out of windows onto the street. Their every movement was stiff and they rubbed at portions of their bodies while grimacing. One little boy trudged through a doorway, his long hair hanging over his face while he scrubbed at the tears left on his cheeks.

My mouth fell open as more people than I could have imagined kept walking out of the same houses. It did not give me a sense of satisfaction to know that I had been right. Just the opposite. One look at the sallow-skinned people that stumbled around in the cool night air without a stitch of clothing on made me feel as weary as they looked.

"You came."

I turned to find the same leonine woman as earlier. Though I could not imagine how I knew it was the same woman. She had not the same body as earlier in the day. Nor the same full hair and curves. Instead, she was slight, thin, and had large, round eyes with narrow, slitted pupils.

"What is happening here?" I asked right as another set of screams rent the air apart.

"You see us in the night. Without the light, we are returned to our birthright," she mused, looking upon the creatures that filed past her toward the center of the village. "To bed or breed, we must be of the form born to us. Thus, as the moons rise and the sun wanes, we give ourselves over to the most painful form."

"This is what you look like prior to shapeshifting?"

She nodded. "We resent the necessity, but we have yet to find a means of avoiding such a transition."

There was something in the way that she said it... "Yet?"

When she smiled, her fangs barely seemed to fit in her mouth. "Come. See us in our glory."

Ryin and I fell into the trudging crowd beside her. The closer we got to the village center, however, the less despondent they seemed. Rather, they stood taller, rubbed at their joints less, and flashed long-fanged grins more than once. As we grew closer, we found that torches had been lit along the main streets and the sound of large drums reverberated off the stone.

Then the crowd parted so that the members could join a heavy throng around the edges of the open courtyard. In the center were the large, hulking masses of five male shapeshifters as they pounded on the drums in their own wild rhythm. In a ring around the drummers was a pit filled with fire; the heat of which did not seem to impede the comfort of the males. Outside of this ring, the shapeshifters began to dance.

In this single moment, they all looked identical. The same jaunt, pale bodies reflected the firelight, while their eyes gleamed in the shadows. Vertical pupils were as reptilian as the thin fangs that sometimes did not fit in their mouths. Dark hair hung in lank curtains around their faces, which was often pushed back by long fingers with wicked claws for nails.

They appeared nothing short of lethal. Yet, this form seemed the most docile of the many they wore. These was the shapeshifters in their base role, and they reeked of vulnerability.

"Are we what you expected?" asked our escort.

I shook my head. "How did you come to be like this?"

Staring out over her brethren, she said, "We are the result of the Dragons' desire to give your kind some of their magick. They thought it would be easiest to breed it into you. They were wrong."

In my head I heard again the tales of dragons asking for women as bribes to leave villages in peace. Young, pretty virgins to sate their dread appetite. Whole temples were built for them, with sacrifices left on an altar in the courtyard. An entire religion existed to appease them, and all the while, they were trying to make us more like them. It had a certain irony.

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