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.
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.