A series of caves sat one next to the other, carved by millennia of rushing water from the slowly eroding limestone and sandstone wall on the edge of the forest enclave. The waterfall in the center of the caves cascaded into a pool, surrounded by ferns and moss. Within each cave resided a shapeshifter, their eyes aglow in the darkness.
Flash entered the clearing, stopping before the pool. His Archaeopteryx talisman swayed and spun, catching the light from the water and the moon above.
“What brings you to us, Seeker?” a growl from one of the caves.
“I bring news of a Warrior,” Flash replied, his tail twitching nervously.
Iara sat in her nest of cycad fronds and dried ferns. She gazed at the cool evening sky, its expanse limitless. She liked the in-between time, the time before absolute darkness and the time just after the sun slipped beneath the horizon. The stillness and the silence thrilled her down to her marrow, made her bright green eyes dilate in wonder.
She felt her heart thudding against her ribs as she breathed easily. She shifted her position a little, the sound of snapping and cracking from the cycad fronds beneath her abnormally loud. She froze for a moment, instinct consuming her. A flock of small pterosaurs erupted from a nearby gingko tree and swirled upward into the sky like a living cloud of dust in the sunshine.
Iara held her breath. She gazed skyward, anticipating its arrival.
The first star of evening shone in the rapidly darkening sky. Iara’s moist breath came in wisps from her fluttering nostrils. A choir of crickets and beetles began buzzing and singing. Mammals scurried furtively in the undergrowth, wary of Iara’s every breath on the night air. Iara’s nicitating membrane swept for a millisecond over her eyes, which glowed to make up for the change in the amount of light available to them. She continued to stare at the night sky, her feathers fluttering in the cool breeze that night brings. More stars appeared as if from the void.
Iara drooped her head. She yawned, her jaw dropping to her chest. She shook her head and neck afterward. She blinked.
She was about to drift off into a delicious sleep when a pair of green eyes, illuminated by eyeshine, winked in and out of the darkness. A lithe form approached, her pawpads silent against the forest floor litter.
Iara reluctantly opened one eye to the dazzling sunlight of mid-day. She spent the past few days trying to drown out the raucous calls of male avians in the lek site. Within her was a growing awareness that she did not want to join her brood siblings in the festivities...she was compelled to stay in her nest instead.
A cool cross breeze lifted her plumage, making her instinctively shake and fluff herself. The heat of the day was especially intense, and the sky was duller than usual. The air carried with it particles of ash, wafted from a distant fire or possibly from a fire-river-mountain.
Iara slowly rose from her nest of cycads and dried fern fronds. Bits of the fern fiddleheads stuck to her scale covered legs, and she fluffed herself again, shaking them one at a time. The prickling sensation of blood flow to her toes made her grunt grumpily.
Iara tried looking for her mentor several days ago, but gave up the search when his scent trail led her to his hideaway den. She tried to enter, but a pair of ochre and green eyes glinted in the darkness, as if to say, Stay away.
She stepped out of her nest, thirst driving her to leave. She found the creek that ran toward Flash’s den, connecting with the river that fed into a series of shallow lakes in the forest. She drank, tilting her head back with each swallow of water.
Iara finished drinking and was about to turn back to her nest when a shadow swept over her. She looked up, tilting her head to the left, sending an irritated glance skyward.
The preparations for the Lek were underway. Iara could hear the avians’ calls, the breaking of trees and the endless pawing of the earth…and none of it interested her. She began to dread it. She confined herself to her nest day and night, hoping no avian could detect the fear in her scent.
One evening, Flash startled Iara in her nest. “Follow me,” he growled, his eye shine an eerie green.
Iara reluctantly followed her mentor as he easily crept into the forest, his velvet pawpads silencing his movement. She ducked large gingko and evergreen boughs, nearly tripping over rotting logs. She splashed into a large puddle, the sudden noise startling them both.
“Be quiet!” Flash rumbled angrily.
“Sorry!” Iara leapt onto dry ground, shaking her feet.
The unlikely duo continued wandering into the forest. Finally, Flash stopped. Iara nearly stumbled into him, then skittered back, her wings outstretched for balance.
“We are here.” Flash gave a heavy breath, a chuff chuff. A hollowed out cycad trunk hanging by the den’s entrance was transformed into a torch. He took it in his teeth and waved his head for Iara to enter.
The days and nights blurred. The fledgling continued her exercises with the other avians, her failures with them all the more painful. The alphas whispered together late in the night, wondering if the littlest fledgling really would surprise them all to become a Warrior, as her hatching had predicted.
The fledgling in question began her fasting ritual. It was only a few more weeks before the Initiation Ceremony, and she had to fast to be rid of the toxins in her blood. She had to bleed clean, the others warned her, or else her scar would not heal in the proper shape, ruining her future.
In the meantime, she lost the last of her downy hatchling coat. She used it to line her nest as the days grew shorter and colder. Her adult plumage was a subtle mahogany, turning red in the sunshine and black in the darkness. Her bright green eyes stood in marked contrast to her feathers, making her a unique avian beauty to behold, for most females had dull brown or yellow eyes to match their dull plumes.
The moon began its final phase, turning from a nearly full orb into a darkened mass. It was then that the Initiation Ceremony began.