Iara’s body lay prone on the ground for what felt like an eternity. She was surrounded by soft moss, slick algae, ferns and calcite rich soil. She shuddered in a sudden breath, her neck jerking spasmodically, her eyes flickering open despite the lack of light around her.
She struggled to sit up, dizzy and weak from the fall and landing. Her plumage was fully raised, her emerald eyeshine aglow in the darkness of the new world around her. She was vaguely reminded of her hatching, a seed of subconscious memory that made her skin crawl.
Iara dozed next to Atum-Bennu and Tawaret. The bright orb of moonlight cast shadows between the trees.
A musky odor startled Iara from her sleep. Her emerald eyes flashed a brilliant green in the darkness, searching for the source of the scent.
Flash growled furiously, his body tensed. Before Iara could turn to fend him off, he pounced, knocking her into the ground roughly. Atum-Bennu and Tawaret were too deep in sleep to notice the commotion.
“You have won half the battle!” Flash snarled quietly, his weight pinning her to the earth. “Now you need to take me on to finish what I started!”
Iara placed her clawed feet against her previous Guardian’s crushing belly, and gave a rough shove upward as hard as she could. “This is my path to take!” Iara hissed in challenge.
Flash pressed down, his muzzle inches from her open, hissing maw filled with recurved, sharp teeth. Iara’s pupils were constricting and dilating in turns, her killing claw twitching spasmodically, her feathers fully raised. “It takes but one blow to your jugular to take you out, wretched avian,” he snarled savagely. “I’ve waited years to do this, to have your blood spill and to have you leave me forever.”
Iara awoke as soon as the sun rose. She wandered the trails toward her hideaway, the tranquil pool where she had met Flash long ago. The morning air was heavy with mist, the trail obscured by gingko leaves and pine needles.
She nearly tripped over the branch in her path.
The branch was smoothed out and hollow at each end, grooved with claw marks. It appeared well worn, as if left to sit in the sun and be washed by the rain over hundreds of years. Iara tilted her head to inspect it, taking in its scent. The bark was unfamiliar. She hesitated.
She looked up, aware of his presence.
Thick and metallic, the scent of fresh blood clung to her muzzle and body. She jerked her head and neck, tearing apart muscle and skin. Protofeathers drifted to the forest floor as she ate, ravenous.
The Lek had ended. Iara was hungry enough to hunt, aided by her new nestmates at times. Today, she was hunting alone. Atum-Bennu often reminded her hunting alone was a fool’s errand, but Iara was obstinate.
The youngling was an easy catch, a reptilian nightmare of scales and protofeathers that hissed at her before she punctured its jugular with her terrible claws.
Bloodied and sated, Iara sat, snorting excess droplets from her nostrils in the sunlight of midday.
She noticed something odd on the ground by her feet.
It was a trail of footprints, but whose she did not recognize. These feet left odd marks—where only three or four toes should be, there were five. And instead of joining to the rest of the foot, they were separated. She tilted her head to the side, puzzled.
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.