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Like in many places, wintertime in Rancho Duna is not only a time for celebration, but also a time of quiet contemplation and preparation for the coming year. Since many people – especially the young, have long vacations to take advantage of, humans who have recently reached adulthood very often use their time off to engage in therianthropy.

Therianthropy, as it is called, is when an adult human uses a specialized phylactery to augment themselves with bestial attributes. This process – performed under careful supervision at a therianthropy center, usually takes a few months to complete, so the beginning of the year is the most popular time for therianthropy.

Encouraged by many of his peers, and as a winter solstice gift from his immediate family, Chase was one individual among a large group of young adults who preferred to follow tradition and transform at the beginning of the year. Like his peers, the elders at the therianthropy center guided him in the process of selecting his therian form.

Once his crystalline phylactery was constructed, it was fashioned into an temporary amulet. He wore the amulet for all two months of his transformation, and was fortunate enough to not require ethereal adjustment during his stay at the center. By the final week of his stay, the phylactery fully disappeared – absorbing into him and giving him his final form as a therian frog.

Even weeks later, however, Chase still finds himself engrossed by his ranine appearance – gazing for quite some time in his bedroom mirror before he is startled by a voice from down the hall.

“It took me quite a while to get used to it at your age” his mother says. “Just take some time to enjoy yourself and try to relax.” Chase’s serpentine mother puts a gentle hand on his shoulder and says, “Your friends are waiting for you out front when you’re ready.”

“I told you he’d end up being a frog” Preston says playfully.

“Etherium can be really unpredictable though” Lucien says from the driver’s seat of his motor carriage. “You knew about your hare form for a long time, but I was genuinely shocked when my red fox fur started to come in at the center.”

Preston nods before turning around from the front passenger seat and says, “Were there a lot of people at the therianthropy center this year?”

“There were, but each of us got a lot of personal attention” Chase replies.

“A little birdy told me you were really popular at the center” Lucien says with a smirk. “Did you fancy anyone in particular?”

“There were a lot of new faces. It was kind of a lot” Chase says with a gentle sigh.

“That’s perfectly alright, Chase” Preston says consolingly. “I’m sure you’ll have plenty of more time to mingle at the equinox festival.”

“That’s right” Lucien says. “Before the ritual at Wellspring later tonight, there’s gonna be a lot of activities around Rancho Duna. Preston and I picked the perfect place today.”

“Where are we going?” Chase inquires.

“You’re just about to find out” Lucien replies.

Lucien rounds the corner in his car as the rumble of fiery etherium pulls the group of young men towards their destination. Beckoning them beyond the parking lot are the distant sounds of the many patrons attending the spring carnival – many of them young men and women looking for good, flavorful food and a little excitement to accompany the beautiful vernal climate.

Feeling a little nervous, Chase follows Lucien and Preston from close behind as the three of them purchase their tickets and enter the festival grounds. In contrast to the solemn atmosphere of Wellspring and the quiet Lotus bookstore Chase spent many weekends at in high school, the energy of carnival is both frenetic and enticing.

Chase looks down at his ticket, and notices a quote on the back that says, ‘We are our masks.’

“I see you found the quote” Lucien says with a wry grin.

“What does it mean?” Chase says with mild frustration.

“That’s what you’re here to find out” Lucien replies sagely.

In the time that follows their first arrival, the group of three therian men enjoy the various activities the carnival provides them – everything from tantalizing food stands to exciting rides and the classic festival games that meander through the sunlit carnival square. As midday wanes, Chase becomes confident enough to wander off on his own – giving Preston and Lucien some couple time as well.

Venturing off to a quieter part of the festival, Chase finds an unassuming stand run by a stoic, older female gecko preparing tea.

“Would you like to try some young man?” she says to Chase.

Chase hesitates for a moment, but her kindly nature draws him closer.

“Sure” Chase replies plainly. “I’ll buy some of your sweets to go with it.”

The sagely gecko nods gently and quietly pours him a cup.

Chase gobbles up a few sweets from her stand and enjoys some well-needed quiet – as he steadies his nerves for a while. When Chase finishes drinking his tea, he gently places the teacup in front of the older woman. She softly gazes into the cup, looks back up at Chase and says, “You will see a unfamiliar mask whose wearer speaks in tones you nonetheless recognize. Listen before you look young man.”

“Okay. I will” Chase replies solemnly – not entirely certain about her advice.

After spending some more time walking around, Chase finds himself having more hunger than a few treats can abate, so he makes his way to the main food area – deciding on some grilled meats for a price he’s satisfied with. Shortly after he finishes his meal, he notices a young woman at the end of the table. She’s an eel therian with muted brown skin and a long finned tail wearing comfortable, casual clothing in light colors.

Chase notices that she has been looking at him for some time. The young woman turns to him and says, “I saw you at the center a few weeks ago. Do you remember me?”

Chase takes a moment, and remembers the gecko crone’s cryptic words. Thinking about her voice, Chase remembers the face of a quiet human teen before her transformation began. Unlike the green phylactery in his amulet, hers had a deep amber crystal.

“Valerie?” Chase says aloud.

“Yes, that’s me!” Valerie replies. “I’m glad to have seen you again.”

“Me too” Chase says with a smile.

“You were very kind to me and a lot of other folks when I first arrived at the center, and that gave me a lot of encouragement until the end of my transformation” Valerie replies. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome” Chase says happily.

“So I was wondering… What do you think the quote on the back of our carnival tickets means?” Valerie inquires – looking intently at Chase.

“We look at the world behind the mask of our youth before we come of age, but when we become therians, our hidden natures are revealed” Chase replies.

“I don’t think everything is revealed though” Valerie says softly.

“How so?” Chase asks.

“How about you take a walk with me and find out” Valerie says with a smile.

“Sound good to me” Chase replies eagerly.